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The Fighting Pattons
By Brian M. Sobel
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 Brian M. Sobel
All rights reserved.
Born of Distinction
The Patton sons were all either killed, wounded, or otherwise affected by the Civil War.
— Ruth Ellen Patton Totten
It is said that a Patton has fought in nearly every conflict in America's history; yet the first Patton, one Robert Patton, was not a military man but a tobacco exporter from South Carolina, whose name first turns up on a deed in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1771. It has been established with considerable certainty that the name was an alias: the young man who called himself Robert Patton, then a popular last name in Scotland, was actually a wanted criminal in the old country. Like so many immigrants of those times, he had set out for America to leave his past behind. From such humble beginnings the family over the next two hundred years would make an indelible mark on the American landscape.
The Patton name has inspired countless literary endeavors, including many books and articles, published especially over the last fifty years. The story of Patton has been chronicled on television and in major motion pictures, including Patton, starring the award-winning actor George C. Scott. The name has been brought into the collective consciousness of America and much of the world through the power of Hollywood, with its impact across borders and languages.
An epic major motion picture that wins numerous awards will be seen by hundreds of millions of people around the globe, but it is the story being told that captures the imagination. The Patton saga is just such a story. The leading character is bigger than life, certainly as enhanced by the motion picture screen, which conveys the power and majesty of a persona of inspiring quality, crushing the enemies of freedom and democracy.
While the story of one general and hero is a central part of Patton history, it is not the only one. Importantly and significantly, there is more. The full story involves a son who also became a general, who participated in two of our most controversial wars, Korea and Vietnam. The fact is, the complete Patton military story ends not with General George S. Patton, Jr., but with his son, a general who fought in wars where the enemy was elusive as were the solutions to the problems facing America in the post-World War II era. Telling the story of Major General George S. Patton requires, however, not only recognizing the career of his father, the famous field commander of World War II, but going back to the beginning, to set the scene.
America during the Colonial period was a place where new ideas flourished, where strangers and newcomers banded together to form communities; the young country was flexing its new-found power and allegiance to itself instead of the old country. With just such a backdrop Robert Patton established himself in the Fredericksburg area, ingratiating himself with the local citizens while running a tobacco business. Interestingly, whereas many men of his day fought in the Revolutionary War, Patton did not volunteer, preferring to remain friendly with both the British and Americans alike. During the war, however, Patton killed a British officer in a tavern altercation and was forced to keep a low profile for the remainder of the conflict.
Robert Patton was, if nothing else, a resourceful soul, undaunted by circumstance, who in the late 1770s would marry the daughter of General Hugh Mercer, a close friend of George Washington. The union produced six children; one in particular, John Mercer Patton, went on to a distinguished career, including service in the United States Congress and as the acting governor of Virginia. He and his wife, Peggy French Williams, had twelve children, nine of whom, eight boys and one girl, lived to adulthood.
Seven sons of John and Peggy Mercer Patton would eventually join the Confederacy. The Civil War not only pitted the South against the North in America's greatest tragedy but drew into its wide net members of nearly every family, particularly in the South. The Pattons were no exception, feeling honor-bound to fight, and doing so with a high degree of dedication and bravery. Whether viewed from a Northern or Southern perspective, it was an especially cruel conflict, setting brother against brother and producing horrific and deadly battlefield technology. The famed "minie ball," as an example, designed in 1849 by C. E. Minié, a French Army captain, accounted for 90 percent of the casualties; another 8 percent were caused by increasingly powerful and accurate artillery.
The Civil War, in which the Pattons played a significant role, was especially hard on the family. Ruth Ellen once said, "The Patton sons were all either killed, wounded, or otherwise affected by the Civil War." In addition to splitting families, the war split the military. By 1861, it is reported, 820 graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point were serving in the armies of both the North and South, though more than 75 percent remained loyal to the Northern cause.
The Pattons, as Virginians and loyal to the South, fought on familiar ground. Virginia evolved as the leading theater of the Civil War; battles, engagements, and campaigns in Virginia exceeded those of any other state, including Tennessee. By war's end just under one-third of all military actions had occurred in Virginia, and extant reports from the field — including specific indications of their movements in battle by generals "Stonewall" Jackson and R. S. Ewell, among others — mention the Pattons in locations throughout the state.
One particular Patton, the fourth child of John and Peggy, was given the name George Smith; he was the first in a line of Pattons with the same first name. Born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in June 1833, he would eventually attend the Virginia Military Institute, where he graduated in 1852. After VMI, Patton set up a law practice and later formed a volunteer militia company, the Kanawha Riflemen, in which he assumed the rank of captain. This company became Company H of the 22nd Virginia Infantry when it was activated in late April 1861. When the entire regiment was sworn into the Confederate service, Patton became a lieutenant colonel and was ordered to report to Brigadier General Henry Wise, a past Virginia governor and now commander of the Army of the Kanawha.
Patton fought courageously. He was wounded in 1862 but returned to the war, to be killed in the third battle of Winchester, often called the battle of Opequon, in September 1864. "At the time Patton was killed in action, his commission as a general in the Confederate Army was in the mail," said Ruth Ellen. It was the second death of a son in the war for the Pattons, who had lost Colonel Waller Tazewell Patton nearly a year before. Today in the Confederate portion of a cemetery in Winchester, Virginia — a town that changed hands seventy-two times during the war — is a statue dedicated on June 6,1879, "in memory of the 398 Virginia soldiers lying in the cemetery who fell in defense of Constitutional Liberty and sovereignty of their state from 1861-1865 A.D."
Nearby is the simple grave of the Patton brothers, lying among friends and fellow soldiers. The tombstone reads, "In Christ alone perfectly content." Regarding Colonel W. Tazewell Patton, 7th Virginia Regiment, it speaks of a Patton "who fell mortally wounded in the charge of Pickett's division at Gettysburg on the 3rd of July, 1863 in the 29th year of his age"; under Colonel George S. Patton, 22nd Virginia Regiment, it recalls one "who gave his life in Command of his brigade in defense of Winchester on the 19th of September, 1864 in the 32nd year of his age."
The story of Colonel George S. Patton and his life and death was to have great bearing on the future, not only because he and his first cousin George Hugh Smith were bom within a week of each other, but also because the two men were devoted friends, both fought for the Confederacy, and both fell in love with a woman named Susan Thornton Glassell. She would marry George Patton, and together they would have four children. In her grief at the death of her husband and concern about the future of the South (for she had no interest in Reconstruction), she left for California with her children to live with her brother, a lawyer, Andrew Glassell.
In California, Susan Glassell Patton diligently went about creating a new life, founding a small private school. Meanwhile, George Hugh Smith, who had been captured and held as a prisoner of war by Northern forces, was released and traveled first to Mexico and then later to California looking for work, but also, and more importantly, for Susan Glassell Patton. Smith found her and, after spending time with her, decided to propose marriage. She accepted, and they were married in 1870. Ruth Ellen reported that Smith was beloved by her children and that her eldest son, George William Patton, even changed his name to George Smith Patton.
As George Smith Patton grew under the tutelage of Susan Glassell Patton Smith and George Hugh Smith, he developed a keen interest in attending VMI, which he finally decided to do. Graduating in 1877, he returned to California within a year and became an attorney and later the Los Angeles District Attorney. Patton also worked in political circles and was considered to be a star of the Democratic Party. Eventually, in 1884, he would meet and marry Ruth Wilson, daughter of Benjamin Davis Wilson, a truly remarkable man of his time, a pioneer, trapper, trader, adventurer and Indian fighter. The union of Ruth, one of Wilson's two daughters, and George produced a son whom they named George S. Patton, Jr. It was this Patton who would go on to fame and glory in World War II.
While the Patton side of the family looked upon themselves as aristocratic Virginians and traced their heritage to George Washington — or "Cousin George," as they called him — the Wilsons reflected the times in California. They drew their eminence from Benjamin Wilson's early presence in southern California, where he helped establish the orange industry, planted the first great vineyards, and was twice elected to the state legislature. Mount Wilson, where the famous observatory now stands, is named after Benjamin Wilson.
The interesting convergence of these two remarkable families produced a military genius and an American folk hero in George S. Patton, Jr. The fighting general would capture the imagination of millions over a span of decades, for he was a man of contrasting qualities. Although tough and quick to anger, he was also thoughtful and sentimental. A man of enormous ambition, he believed that he was fated to be a leader of men in war and worked hard to fulfill that goal. Americans would come to know Patton as a complex and compelling figure.
George Patton's early years were spent in southern California, an area which at the time contained expansive ranches and allowed the young man ample space to ride and pursue his love for horses. At eleven years of age he entered a private school in Pasadena, and at eighteen followed the examples of his grandfather and father and attended VMI. Patton was at VMI for a year before winning an appointment to West Point through a competitive examination held by Senator T. G. Bard of California. He arrived at West Point in June 1904 and immediately established himself as an intensely serious individual. As one historian later wrote, "He had studied military history and West Point customs so thoroughly that he knew them better than most upper classmen. He was hazed unmercifully for it. At the end of his first year he received one of the first setbacks to his military career. He had failed in math and had to repeat his first year again, and as one contemporary would later say, 'with most of the indignities inflicted on lowly plebes.'" Patton's intensity at West Point left some thinking he was cocky; nonetheless, he aggressively sought rank and honors. His habits of discipline and work ethic would continue throughout his life.
Patton's enjoyment of athletics, perhaps born of a love for riding horses and the gallantry of men on horseback in war, extended to fondness for football and acclaim as a swordsman and polo player. He was also an expert shot with a rifle, excelled at track, and in his third year at West Point broke the record he had set the previous year in the 220 low hurdles.
Upon graduation from West Point in 1909, Patton selected the cavalry branch in which to begin his Army career. A few months later he proposed to and married Beatrice Ayer, whose Boston family was immensely wealthy and well known. The wedding on May 26,1910, was a well-covered event in the Boston newspapers and was attended by family and friends from near and far, including California. Their union, blending Brahmin upbringing and military tradition, produced two daughters and a son. Beatrice, born in 1911, would later marry a career Army officer, John K. Waters. Ruth Ellen, born in 1915, like her sister married a career Army officer, James W. Totten. George S. Patton, born in 1923, would be the youngest of the clan.
Patton began his Army service at Fort Sheridan near Chicago, arriving for duty in September 1910. Just three years later the young officer, in what would prove to be just one more chapter in his storied career, was selected for the 1912 Olympic team, which competed in Stockholm, Sweden. Patton finished fifth in the Modern Pentathlon, while one of his teammates, the legendary Jim Thorpe, won not only the pentathlon but the decathlon as well.
In 1915 George S. Patton, Jr., was transferred to the 8th Cavalry, located at Fort Bliss, Texas, near the Mexican border. Relations between the United States and Mexico were growing increasingly strained, and bandit chieftains were raiding north of the border. Although American troops were stationed there to assist with the border problem, Fort Bliss also served as a training area for those who would eventually be part of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in Europe. In March 1916 the Mexican Pancho Villa and his men raided Columbus, New Mexico, forcing the American government to take action. In responseto the attack on Columbus General John J. "Blackjack" Pershing was ordered to organize a punitive expedition into Mexico to capture Villa. Patton quickly persuaded Pershing that he should go along and rode with the cavalry column pursuing the Mexican bandit. Patton performed well in the operation. It was also a great opportunity to study and learn from Pershing's leadership style.
Later, when Pershing assumed command of the American Expeditionary Force and went to France, Patton hooked up again with the legendary general, sailing to Europe with Pershing and a contingent of headquarters troops, leaving on May 28, 1917. Upon arrival in Europe, American troops, with Patton playing a role, moved quickly to establish the groundwork needed to direct the expanding troop deployment. Starting in a staff position was anathema for any aspiring field commander, and Patton longed for a move to the field and a combat assignment. As his orders were being readied for command of an infantry battalion, Patton pursued a new interest in the use of tanks. He attended the French tank school, because he was becoming enamored with the newly emerging fighting vehicle and American tank forces had little armored strength. He also spent many hours as an American observer with the British tank forces.
Patton, excited by the possibilities and advantages of tank warfare, was soon given an assignment with a newly formed U.S. Tank Corps and even became the first officer assigned to it. Patton, portending the future, mastered the skill of running and maintaining tanks and started to develop doctrine on battle employment of armor. He became the AEF's recognized tank expert and, again providing a glimpse of the future as the man who would become synonymous with the tank, also formed an American tank school, where he taught and trained tankers for the AEF. His leadership qualities showed in the excellent performance of his troops.
Patton was always innovating, trying new techniques and inventing. An illustrative aside concerns a visit to the French cavalry school at Saumer, after representing the Army and the United States in the Olympics of 1912. At Saumer, Patton took lessons from the instructor of fencing. When he returned to Fort Myer, Virginia, Patton designed a saber, known as the Patton sword, which was later adopted by the U.S. cavalry.
The end of World War I inevitably brought changes in the Army. The infantry, for example, absorbed the Tank Corps, which was then summarily disbanded. Patton, however, believing that tanks would play a major role in any future war, secured a promise from the Army that he would be able to rejoin his beloved tank outfits if they were ever reassembled.
As a major Patton was transferred to Fort Myer, commanding the 3rd Squadron, 3rd Cavalry. While in Virginia Patton was once again able to spend time riding horses in shows, hunting, and pursuing his love of polo. He trained and rode by the hour, and in 1922 he was manager of the Army polo team that won the American Open Championship.
Excerpted from The Fighting Pattons by Brian M. Sobel. Copyright © 2013 Brian M. Sobel. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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