By Alan Axelrod
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2006 Alan Axelrod,
All rights reserved.
To the Army Born
George Smith Patton Jr. was born to the army, born on November 11, 1885, at Lake Vineyard, his family's home outside of Los Angeles. He was named after both his father, George William Patton (who changed his middle name to Smith to honor both his father and his stepfather, George Hugh Smith), and after his grandfather, George Smith Patton. Grandfather graduated from Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in 1852 (having been a student of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson) and rose to command the 22nd Virginia Infantry in the Civil War. Wounded, then captured during the Shenandoah campaign, he was exchanged, only to be killed on September 19, 1864, at the Third Battle of Winchester. Similarly, Grandfather's brother, Waller Tazewell Patton, was wounded at Second Bull Run, and then fell in Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. George William — the Patton children called him Papa — was a Virginian who attended VMI, just as his father had. In his senior year, during the 1876 national centennial, George William led the cadets in a parade at Philadelphia as top-ranked first captain. It was the very first southern military formation to march in the North after the Civil War. Papa did not pursue a military career, but left Virginia and became a lawyer in California, where he became district attorney of Los Angeles County before giving it all up to manage the estate and vineyard of his wife's family.
George Smith Patton Jr. learned well the names of his ancestors, together with those of many cousins who had held command rank in the army of the Confederacy, and, before them, Great-Great Grandfather Robert Patton, who settled in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1771. Robert Patton married Anne Gordon Mercer, daughter of Hugh Mercer who had fought at Culloden in his native Scotland. Mercer immigrated to America and fought in the French and Indian War and finally, as a close comrade of General George Washington, in the American Revolution, he fell at the Battle of Princeton.
Young George was selective in his ancestor worship. Enthralled by the martial glory of his father's ancestors, he paid little attention to the family of his mother, Ruth Wilson Patton. Great-Grandfather David Wilson had been a major in the American Revolution, a Tennessee pioneer, and, later, speaker of the Tennessee territorial assembly; grandfather Benjamin Davis Wilson worked in Mississippi and New Mexico as a trapper, Indian trader, and storekeeper before moving to southern California, where he bought a ranch and made money in the hide and tallow trade. He married a Mexican woman of Spanish descent and became the alcalde (justice of the peace) for San Bernardino, called universally and with affectionate respect Don Benito. Later moving to Los Angeles, he lived on a small vineyard and, operating from what would one day be the site of Union Station, became a prosperous merchant, saloon keeper, hotelier, and minor real estate tycoon. Widowed in 1849, Don Benito married his housekeeper, Margaret Hereford (after her husband died); it was she who gave birth to George's mother. Wilson ultimately achieved great local prominence, becoming the first mayor of Los Angeles and acquiring a ranch of 14,000 acres, encompassing what is now Pasadena, South Pasadena, San Marino, Alhambra, and San Gabriel. He transformed his home, Lake Vineyard, into the biggest producer of wine and brandy in California.
A pioneer, politician, and magnate, Don Benito nevertheless failed to cast over his grandson the same spell as the military paternal forebears. Worse, when Don Benito died, his son-in-law and business partner, James de Barth Shorb, who lived in sumptuous style, mismanaged the winery through a period of drought and frosts, running the business into serious debt. Determined to come to the rescue of the enterprise, George's Papa gave up his law practice and moved the family to Lake Vineyard. George idolized his father, and he resented how the winery and myriad other business affairs attendant on Shorb's financial train wreck monopolized his time.
One of the activities Mr. Patton had less time for was reading to his son. Those who knew Patton as an adult could not help but observe that he was an avid reader. Yet, as a child, his difficulties in learning to read were such that his father continued reading aloud to him well beyond the age when most parents have stopped. (That he learned not only to read but to love reading is a testament to the strength of his will and determination.) Favorites of father and son were the novels of Sir Walter Scott, which nurtured the youngster's growing sense of romance and chivalry, as well as an appreciation for his Scots heritage; the Iliad and Odyssey, classic evocations of heroic ideals; the tragedies of Shakespeare; the stories and verse of Rudyard Kipling; and the Old Testament. Unbidden, George memorized long passages from the books his papa read to him.
Anyone who spent much time with "the Boy," as his father fondly called him, realized he was highly intelligent. However, his family — and no one more than George himself — was baffled and frustrated by his struggle with reading and writing. Today his learning disability would be readily diagnosed as dyslexia, a common disorder characterized by a difficulty in recognizing and comprehending written words. In young Patton's day, the problem would have branded the boy as "slow." Determined to avoid that stigma, his parents hired tutors to school him at home until he was eleven years old. By that time, they decided he was ready for a good private school and enrolled him in Stephen Cutter Clark's School for Boys in Pasadena. From the beginning, his favorite subject was history. He immersed himself in the stories of the leaders of ancient times, particularly the great captains, including Scipio Africanus, Hannibal, and Caesar. Moving into the more modern era, his favorites included Joan of Arc and Napoleon Bonaparte. To the schoolboy, figures such as these joined seamlessly with the heroes nearer to his own time, including Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. John Singleton Mosby, the famed "Gray Ghost" of the Confederacy, had become a lawyer for the Southern Pacific Railroad and from time to time, during Patton's boyhood, visited the family, regaling a rapt George with stories of his daring cavalry raids.
Beginning in childhood, the past, in the form of vivid ghosts of heroism and ageless models of command, was always present for Patton. The historical figures of whom he read were superimposed upon his own experience. Lifelong, he devoured libraries of history, especially the history of ancient conquest, general military history, and the memoirs of celebrated generals. Prior to flying into Normandy to assume command of the Third Army a month after D-Day, he "read The Norman Conquest by Freeman, paying particular attention to the roads William the Conqueror used in his operations in Normandy and Brittany." When he proposed crossing the Seine at Melun, it was entirely natural for him to toss off the observation that the "Melun crossing is the same as that used by Labienus with his Tenth Legion about 55 B.C." His absorption in military history was more than intellectual or even professional, for he made no secret of his belief in reincarnation. In 1943, before the Allies stepped off from North Africa to invade Sicily, British general Sir Harold Alexander admiringly observed, "You know, George, you would have made a great marshal for Napoleon if you had lived in the 19th century." Patton replied dryly: "But I did." He was never embarrassed to confess his belief in reincarnation, his conviction that he had marched with Napoleon or with Bohemia's John the Blind against the Turks in the fourteenth century, or even that, as a Roman legionnaire, "Perhaps I stabbed our Savior / In His sacred helpless side."
The past, for Patton, was not all in books or even in lives earlier lived. It was his very birthright. After he had proposed to Beatrice during Christmas of 1908, he wrote a letter to her father, Frederick Ayer, justifying his choice of career. Patton admitted that there was no rational reason for embarking on a life so financially unrewarding as that of an officer in the U.S. Army, but, he explained, "I only feel it inside. It is as natural for me to be a soldier as it is to breathe and would be as hard to give up all thought of it as it would to stop breathing."
The very first childhood game he remembered playing was "soldiers," with his sister Anne, called Nita, assuming the rank of major "while I claimed to be a private which I thought was superior," Patton recalled. Their father joined in, snapping a salute to brother and sister each morning and asking "how the private and major were." Not much later, George came to understand that "private" was superior to nothing, and he began referring to himself as "Georgie S. Patton, Jr., Lieutenant General."
Out of doors in the golden California sunshine, George learned to ride early. While Papa happily fashioned wooden swords for his son and taught him how to build forts, he could not keep up with the boy's energy, drive, and endless craving for exercise and endless activity.
Family heritage, the reading of heroic tales and military history, love of horses, boundless energy, and exuberant play — these were the elements of George Patton's boyhood, and the adult Patton would never leave them far behind. There is no evidence that he ever seriously thought about becoming anything other than a soldier. More to the point, all the evidence reveals an early and ever-growing desire to be a leader, a commander, a winner of great glory and universal recognition. During the six years he spent at Clark's School for Boys, he strove to excel despite his dyslexia, which earned him the ridicule of fellow students whenever he stumbled over words he read aloud or wrote on the blackboard. It must have been painful for him, but he was never discouraged. Raised on the romance of his Scots and Confederate ancestors, people beaten but unbowed, he saw defeat as a challenge to win next time or to triumph in the end. Later, as a mature commander, he would inscribe, using all uppercase letters, in one of his field notebooks: "YOU ARE NOT BEATEN UNTIL YOU ADMIT IT. HENCE DON'T." In any event, no matter what happened to him, his adoring father and mother never allowed him to feel defeated.
But for the limitations of dyslexia, George Smith Patton Jr. was, as he himself later recalled, "the happiest boy in the world," and the idyll was made complete by summers spent on Catalina Island, which the sons of B. D. Wilson's business partner Phineas Banning had purchased in 1892 to turn into an upscale vacation resort. There is where the Pattons had a summer place, and it was there, in 1902, that 17-year-old George met Beatrice Banning Ayer, privileged daughter of a Boston industrialist named Frederick Ayer and his second wife, Ellen Barrows Banning, niece of Phineas Banning. Beatrice had arrived in California with her parents to visit the Bannings. George was smitten. In some ways, it was an instance of the attraction of opposites. George was tall, muscular, and rough, whereas 16-year-old Beatrice was small, slender, and graceful. Yet, in other ways, they were perfectly matched: the only thing she loved more than sailing was horseback riding, which she did fiercely and fearlessly, despite a nearsightedness so severe that she could barely see where she was going.
After that Catalina summer, when Beatrice had returned to Boston, the two began writing one another, and, come Christmas, Beatrice sent George a tiepin. "Please believe me when I say that it was the very thing I most wanted," Patton wrote in a letter of January 10, 1903, "and that when I first wore it and looked into a glass to see if it was in straight, I involuntarily raised my hat." Before meeting Beatrice, George had shown little interest in girls. Clearly, new he was growing up. Not only did he have a girlfriend, who, eight years later, he would marry, but, by the fall of 1902, he was ready to tell his parents that he had definitely decided on his life's work. He would become an officer in the United States Army.
From the moment his son made the decision, Papa embarked on a tireless campaign to obtain for him an appointment to West Point. On September 29, he wrote to Senator Thomas R. Bard, who had the power to recommend the boy for a cadet slot. He then set about appealing to his many prominent and influential friends to prevail upon Senator Bard on his boy's behalf. Despite all of the campaigning, the best that could be elicited from Bard was a promise that he would allow George to compete with other young men in an examination, which would determine his choice of nominee.
Mr. Patton loved his son, but he was a realist. On spelling alone, George would likely fail the exam. To cover all bases, he looked into the University of Arizona, where the corps of cadets was commanded by his cousin, and at ROTC programs at Princeton and Cornell. He also looked into securing for his son another year of pre-college education at the Morristown Preparatory School in New Jersey. And then there was VMI — his alma mater and that of his father and two uncles. The faculty was populated by Patton friends and relatives, and it occurred to him that the Virginia Military Institute would perhaps be the ideal place for George to gain a year of training, education, and maturity before he applied for entrance to West Point "by certificate," which would allow him to bypass the entrance examination.
Bombarded by Mr. Patton's letters, Senator Bard never said no, but he did not say yes, either. In June, Princeton accepted George (despite his having failed the plane geometry portion of the entrance examination), but Mr. Patton decided to enroll his son at VMI. If Bard suddenly called him in for the examination, he could always return to California in the spring.
The trip to Virginia that September, to his ancestral and spiritual home, as well as the far-off focus of his boyish imaginings, was George's very first journey outside of California. Two dozen years later, Patton recalled: "Just before I went away to the V.M.I. I was walking with Uncle Glassell Patton and told him that I feared that I might be cowardly. He told me that no Patton could be a coward." Characteristically, George confided this exchange to his father, who obligingly interpreted his uncle's words for him. "While ages of gentility might make a man of [your] breeding reluctant to engage in a fist fight," he told his son, "the same breeding made him perfectly willing to face death from weapons with a smile." That hardly ended Patton's inner debate over issues of courage. He would question himself, and even doubt himself, on the subject for his entire life. Yet, almost hopefully, some 24 years later, he wrote of Papa's explanation: "I think that this is true."
Cadet, Soldier, Athlete, Swordsman
As a soldier, George S. Patton Jr. would live and fight in many climes and countries, but his most dramatic journey came in 1903 and took him from the sharp brown hills of southern California to the lush, green, low, and rolling folds of the Blue Ridge that formed the backdrop to the Virginia Military Institute's campus of crenellated gothic buildings outside of Lexington, Virginia. Later in life, Patton would recall how "Papa and Mama took me east to enter the V.M.I. ... Papa went with me to report. The First Captain, Ragland, was in the room on the left of the salley port which had been Papa's when he was Sergeant Major." So there it was, in this strange, new place: the presence of the past. Papa (VMI, 1877) and his father (VMI, 1852) before him had been cadets here, as had great-uncles John Mercer Patton Jr. (VMI 1846) and Waller Tazewell Patton (VMI 1855). George signed the enrollment papers, and Ragland looked toward Papa: "'Of course you realize Mr. Patton that now your son is a cadet he cannot leave the grounds.' Papa said 'Of course.' I never felt lower in my life."
As far as the faculty and cadets of VMI were concerned, that was precisely the feeling appropriate to a first-year cadet. They were called rats. But George had an additional disadvantage. His dyslexia caused him to stumble over a handwritten "no hazing pledge" all incoming cadets were required to read aloud in an assembly. As usual, he kept no secret from his Papa, who wrote on September 27, 1903: "I do not see how you are going to over-come this difficulty, except by practicing reading all kinds of writing." And the words that follow could have been written by General Patton himself. "Do not give up," Papa wrote, "but when you start to read any thing keep at it till you work it out." He continued, helpfully and practically, by pointing out that "hazing" had been misspelled as "hazeing" in his son's letter. "The verb is 'to haze' and you should remember the general rule — to drop the final 'e' before 'ing.'" There was never anything pompous or empty in what Papa told his son, but always a mixture of warm encouragement and practical advice. This was at the root of Patton's own command style. A stern and intimidating presence, Patton nevertheless celebrated the high performance of subordinates and, when he corrected them, he did so with concrete criticism and practical advice. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Patton by Alan Axelrod. Copyright © 2006 Alan Axelrod,. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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