“Awarding of battlefield commissions to NCOs for leadership under fire is common in wartime, rare is the commanding general, admiral or field marshal who began his military career among the rank-and-file.”
THE U.S. MILITARY CALLS THEM “mustangs” – ordinary soldiers who’ve risen from the ranks of the enlisted to join the officer corps. Seen as something of a left-handed complement, the very term suggests that unlike those born and bred for positions of leadership, grunts that come up from the barracks hall somehow lack the poise and pedigree of typical officers — they’re rough around the edges, kind of like wild horses. And while the awarding of battlefield commissions to NCOs for exceptional leadership under fire is commonplace in wartime, rare is the commanding general, admiral or field marshal who began his military career among the rank-and-file. Yet some of the most famous figures in military history did just that. Consider these:
The ‘Grand Old Man of the Army’
Winfield Scott was America’s highest-ranking general and the commander of all federal troops at the outbreak of the Civil War. Known as “Old Fuss and Feathers” by subordinates, the portly 74-year-old hero of the Mexican War and one-time Whig party presidential hopeful started out at 21 as a corporal in his state’s militia way back in 1807. Yet, within seven years of joining up, Scott rose to brigadier and led troops against the British in the final year of the War of 1812. Elderly, infirm and unable to even mount a horse in 1861, Scott recognized his unfitness for the job and stepped down, but not before offering command of Union army to fellow Virginian Robert E. Lee. The noted West Pointer politely refused the promotion and returned home to fight for the rebellion.
America’s ‘Boy General’
Galusha Pennypacker shot up through the ranks even faster than Winfield Scott. In fact, the Valley Forge-native still holds the record for being the youngest general in the history of the U.S. Army. After joining the 9th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment in 1861, the 16-year-old quartermaster’s clerk earned a captain’s commission for his organizational acumen. He later fought as a 19-year old major at Cold Harbor and then as a colonel at the Siege of Petersburg. After being wounded while leading an assault at the Second Battle of Fort Fisher in early 1865, Pennypacker, 20, was awarded the Medal of Honor and raised to brigadier general – an unheard of achievement that made him a national sensation. He retired from the military in 1883 and died in Philadelphia in 1916 at the age of 72.
The Devil Forrest
The upwardly mobile were hardly limited to the Union army during the Civil War – some Confederate generals also started out in the ranks. Case in point: The controversial Rebel commander Nathan Bedford Forrest began his military career as a 40-year-old Tennessee cavalry volunteer and private. Shortly after enlisting, Forrest used the proceeds from his own sizable slave-trade fortune to outfit his own elite regiment of which he was given a commission as a lieutenant colonel. He ended the war as a three-star general and was later instrumental in the formation of the Klu Klux Klan.
The South’s Fighting Irishman
And let’s not forget Confederate general Patrick Cleburne. A native of County Cork and a Trinity College med school washout, he joined British army in 1846 at the age of 18. After leaving the 41st Regiment of Foot as a lance corporal, Cleburne moved to the United States and settled in Arkansas where he became a pharmacist and newspaper magnate. When war broke out between North and South, the prosperous 33-year-old volunteered as a private for a local regiment. He was promptly elected captain by his comrades and from there advanced to major general. Cleburne was killed in action at the Battle of Franklin on Nov. 30, 1864.
Upon his retirement in 1915 as a brigadier general in the U.S. Army quartermaster corps, John Lincoln Clem, 64, was the last veteran of the Civil War to have serve in the United States military. The Ohio-native started his life in uniform a half century earlier as a 12-year-old drummer boy in the 22nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry. And while Clem was officially too young for the army, the men of the regiment kicked in a portion of their monthly pay to provide the young musician a salary until he was old enough to enlist. After fighting at Shiloh and Chickamauga, Clem achieved national fame when his story appeared in the pages of Harper’s Weekly. He was soon formally inducted and promoted to sergeant – making him the youngest NCO in American history. Clem was wounded twice in battle and captured in 1864. After the war, he completed high school, was commissioned a first lieutenant and moved up the chain of command from there. He died in 1937 at the age of 85.
Ney of France
Talk about humble beginnings – Napoleon’s most beloved marshal, Michel Ney, was the son of an ordinary barrel maker. Nicknamed “the Bravest of the Brave”, Ney rose from the ranks as a trooper in the French hussars to eventually lead France’s Grande Armée (and he did it in less than 17 years). A bona fide war hero — he was wounded in battle, captured, released, decorated and later promoted to general. Also known as Ginger for his flowing red hair, Ney was famous for riding to Napoleon’s rescue at the Battle of Eylau and for taking on the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsula War. Although eventually earning the title of duke, Ney won the undying respect of even the lowliest foot soldiers when he personally shouldered a musket and fought in the rear-guard during the disastrous winter retreat from Moscow in 1812. In fact, Ney gained the reputation for being the last Frenchman to leave Russian soil. Captured after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the marshal was eventually tried by the new French regime for treason, found guilty and condemned to death by firing squad. Some believe Ney escaped the executioners’ bullets and fled to the United States where he lived out his years as a schoolteacher.
Sir William Robertson
In spite of its rigid class structure, Victorian England had its share of generals that came up from the ranks. Consider Sir William Robertson, who at the age of 17 joined the Queen’s Lancers as a regular trooper. He earned an officers commission in the 3rd Dragoon Guards 11 years later in 1888. After serving in the Second Boer War as a major, Robertson was appointed head of the army’s Staff College at Camberly. During the First World War, Robertson was made head of the Imperial General Staff. As Britain’s top general, he frequently butted heads with Downing Street over the strategy of the war and was forced out in 1918. In peacetime, he was awarded the rank of field marshal. Robertson died in 1933 at 73.
One of Robertson’s contemporaries, Hector MacDonald, enlisted in the Gordon Highlanders as a teenaged private in 1870. Over the next 33 years, he rose through the ranks while fighting in Britain’s various wars of empire. In 1903 while posted to Ceylon as a major general, MacDonald’s army career abruptly ended after lewd allegations surfaced involving sexual misconduct with teenaged boys. The ensuing flap so scandalized English society that King Edward VII reportedly counselled the disgraced 50-year-old commander to shoot himself. MacDonald dutifully complied.
The Right Stuff
One of the United States’ most famous fighter pilots, Chuck Yeager, started off in 1941 as a lowly aircraft mechanic with the U.S. Army Air Corps. In 1942, he enrolled in flight training and within two years was flying P-51 Mustangs over Europe. In 1944, the 21-year-old West Virginian rocketed to prominence after downing five Messerschmitt Bf-109s in a single dogfight. After the war, Yeager became a test pilot, famously breaking the sound barrier in the experimental Bell X-1. He later commanded an assortment of air force squadrons and was briefly posted to Vietnam. In 1969, Yeager made brigadier general. He retired in 1975.
America’s Top Soldiers
At least two chairmen of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff were originally army ground pounders. John William Vessey, Jr., who earned his fourth general’s star in 1976 and became America’s top soldier in 1982, was commissioned in the field at Anzio during World War Two. Then there was Polish born John Shalikashvili who headed up the U.S. military between 1993 and 1997 and also served as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander. The son of a Nazi collaborator, young John, 16, arrived in the United States in 1952. Six years later he enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army. He won the Bronze Star for heroism in Vietnam and later commanded NATO forces in West Germany. He was the first foreign-born CJCS in American history. Shalikashvili died of a stroke in 2011. He was 75.
Low grades kept a 20-year-old Tommy Franks from getting through university in 1965, so the future CINC joined the army instead. Within a year, the private from Midland, Texas had been tapped for officer training. After serving as a junior artillery officer in Vietnam, Franks earned a degree in business admin from the University of Texas, Arlington and advanced from there. By 2001, he was heading up the U.S. Central Command and leading U.S. forces into Afghanistan and later Iraq. Despite the speedy U.S. victory over Saddam’s army, Franks became a lighting rod for critics of American strategy in Iraq during the early days of the occupation. He retired from the military in 2003.