General George B McClellan:
George B McClellan, 1861
George Brinton McClellan (1826 – 1885) was an American soldier, civil engineer, railroad executive, and politician. A graduate of West Point, McClellan served with distinction during the Mexican–American War, and later left the Army to work in railroads until the outbreak of the American Civil War. Early in the war, McClellan was appointed to the rank of major general and played an important role in raising a well-trained and organized army, which would become the Army of the Potomac. He also served a brief period (November 1861 to March 1862) as general-in-chief of the Union Army.
McClellan was efficient in planning and preparations but was reluctant to use his forces. A better organiser than a fighter, he always had an excuse for not engaging the enemy. These included being outnumbered (he wasn’t), that he needed more troops (he didn’t) and that it wasn’t a good time, place or season for a battle (it was). Lincoln became so exasperated at McClellan’s reluctance to engage that he sent McClellan a telegram that read "If General McClellan does not want to use the Army, I would like to borrow it for a time, provided I could see how it could be made to do something."
Eventually fired by Lincoln for too many foul ups, he ran for President against Lincoln in 1864 but was defeated. He resigned from the army and thereafter worked in state politics, serving as governor of New Jersey.
Pyrrhus of Epirus:
A Pyrrhic victory is a victory that comes at such a huge cost that it might as well be a loss.
The name comes from King Pyrrhus of Epirus, a Greek king who waged battles against the Romans. In 280 BC he invaded Italy with 25,000 men and 20 war elephants, the first the Romans had seen. Pyrrhius was successful in battles at Heraclea and Asculum. Although Pyrrhus saw himself as another Alexander the Great, those two battles took 7,500 of his most elite troops and many officers. The Romans had suffered greater casualties but had major reserves to replace fallen soldiers. Pyrrhus did not. Failure to deal the enemy a deathblow sent morale plummeting amongst his men. According to the ancient historian Plutarch, Pyrrhus headed back to Greece, muttering “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.”
Field Marshall Douglas Haig:
Field Marshal Douglas Haig (1861 – 1928) commanded the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western Front from late 1915 until the end of the war.
The Commander of British forces in France during the disastrous Battle of the Somme in 1916, Haig oversaw the greatest single day loss of British lives in history: on the morning of July 1, 1916, 60,000 troops—20% of the entire British fighting force engaged—was killed or wounded in an offensive that failed to gain a single one of its objectives. Haig wrote in his diary the next day “…the total casualties … cannot be considered severe in view of the numbers engaged, and the length of front attacked.” Haig continued the offensive for another four months until winter brought it to an end. He nonetheless mounted another offensive, this time at Ypres. This time it cost 250,000 casualties
According to Churchill, Haig “wore down alike the manhood and the guns of the British army almost to destruction.” Of the final assault at Passchendaele, British military historian J.F.C. Fuller, wrote, “To persist…in this tactically impossible battle was an inexcusable piece of pigheadedness on the part of Haig.”
Today such a debacle would be questioned and possible be grounds for demotion. Haig however continued to oversee the British forces for the rest of the war and was promoted to Field Marshall.
General George Custer:
Custer in 1865
In civilian clothes, 1876
No look at military failures would be complete if it did not include General George Armstrong Custer (1839 – 1876).
Custer served with distinction during the American Civil War, reaching the rank of brigadier general at age 23, the youngest in the Union army. When the war finished he reverted to the permanent rank of captain. In 1867 he was commissioned a lieutenant colonel and assigned to the Seventh Cavalry Regiment based at Fort Riley, Kansas.
In 1876, under command of General Terry, Custer led the Seventh Cavalry as one of three forces in a campaign against Sitting Bull’s alliance of Sioux and Cheyenne in Montana. When Custer’s scouts reported spotting smoke from cooking fires and other signs of Indians in the valley of the Little Bighorn, Custer ignored Terry’s orders and attacked before infantry and other support arrived. This was despite Custer’s scouts having warned that he was facing superior numbers, up to 2,500 as against Custer’s 647. To make matters worse, Custer split his command into three, sending Benteen’s battalion to scout a ridge to the left and sending Reno’s battalion up the valley of the Little Bighorn to attack the Indian encampment. With the remainder of the regiment, Custer continued along high ground on the right side of the valley. In the battle that followed, Custer and his men, greatly outnumbered, were slain. Reno and Benteen managed to escape to a defensive position and it has been suggested that their failure to come to Custer’s assistance contributed to the massacre. The Battle of the Little Big Horn has come to be known since that day as ‘Custer’s Last Stand’.
The final toll:
Custer was killed, as were two of his brothers, a nephew, and a brother-in-law. The total U.S. casualty count included 268 dead and 55 severely wounded (six died later from their injuries), including four Crow Indian scouts and two Pawnee Indian scouts.