10 Most Colorful Military Leaders in History

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Most of us know someone who is a bit different, who is more flashy or showy than the average person. Our most colorful personalities today are usually drawn toward sports, entertainment, and other creative endeavors, but that hasn’t always been the case. Throughout history, some of our most colorful figures have been our military leaders. This should not be surprising, since we have often tended to romanticize those who fight our wars. Here are 10 military figures who were somewhat unorthodox, a little bit different, but more often than not very effective.

 

10. Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc was an inspirational figure for the French in the Hundred Years War.
A young French girl named Joan of Arc became convinced she had been called upon by God to intervene in the Hundred Years War. Although it is unclear how much actual fighting or tactical planning she did, she was present at many key battles in which the French prevailed. Joan of Arc’s very presence on the battlefield, not as a camp follower or prostitute, was highly unusual, as was her male dress that sometimes included armor. After the English charged her at age 18 with heresy, she stunned court observers with her keen intellect. It wasn’t enough to save her, however, and she was burned at the stake, leaving behind a short but brilliant legacy.

 

9. Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia did not like the fame that came with his military heroics.
Perhaps Rudyard Kipling had someone like T.E. Lawrence in mind when he said only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. Thomas Edward Lawrence traveled to the Middle East while in college and developed a lifelong affinity for the Arab culture and language. He volunteered for service when World War I broke out but was denied for being too short. Undeterred, he joined British intelligence, and his Arabic skills landed him in Egypt, where he began working with divided Arabian tribes against the Ottoman Empire. He was treated as an outcast and accused of going native when he began favoring Bedouin dress. His exploits as an Englishman leading the Arabs to strategic victories made him a celebrity following the war, but Lawrence was indifferent to the fame. He joined first the British Air Force, then the tank corps, and again the air force under assumed names in a bid to escape the publicity. Lawrence of Arabia died in a motorcycle accident in 1935 at the age of 45.

 

8. Spartacus

The Romans needed tens of thousands of soldiers to put down a slave rebellion led by Spartacus.

A depiction of Spartacus’ death.

For anyone who has seen Kirk Douglas’ lead role in the popular 1960 film Spartacus, it might seem hard to separate fact from fiction. Spartacus really did rise out of slavery to lead a slave revolt against the Roman Empire, and it took tens of thousands of Roman soldiers to stop the rebellion. Spartacus possessed tremendous leadership skills and charisma, and was incredibly bold. Spartacus’ forces were eventually routed, but his body was never found, only adding to his mystique.

 

7. Vlad the Impaler

Vlad the Impaler lived up to his nickname, impaling thousands of victims.
In Romania, Count Dracula is a national hero … or at least the Romanians love the medieval prince who inspired Bram Stoker’s account of the most famous vampire in literary history. Vlad’s father was known as Dracul (or dragon), making little Vlad son of Dracul, or Dracula. Vlad started down his brutal path to avenge his murdered father and brother. Not content to simply seek out his enemies on a battlefield in 15th century Romania, he invited a group of nobles to an elaborate feast and then had them all impaled on stakes. The survivors were marched to exhaustion then ordered to build Castle Dracula. In all, Vlad may have executed as many as 100,000 people, many by impaling, which struck fear into enemies and friends alike.

 

6. J.E.B. Stuart

J.E.B. Stuart's style of dress made him a target on the battlefield.
James Ewell Brown Stuart was a proud Virginian who to many embodied the nobility of the old South he held dear. When the Civil War broke out, he cast his lot with the Confederacy. With his red-lined gray cape, yellow sash, and an ostrich feather in his hat, Stuart cut a dashing, if somewhat jaunty figure on the battlefield. Unfortunately he also made a juicy target for the enemy and Stuart was shot and killed by a Union soldier at the Battle of Yellow Tavern in 1864.

 

5. The Red Baron

The Red Baron had 80 confirmed kills as a pilot in World War I.
One of the most enduring images from World War I is the photo of a handsome daredevil pilot with goggles and a flowing silk scarf. Baron Manfred Von Richthofen began the war in the German cavalry, but later became a pilot, and the rest is history: 80 confirmed kills and a standing as arguably the greatest fighter pilot in history. As Richthofen’s success grew, so did his ego. To help draw attention, he painted his plane bright red. He certainly got the attention of the British, who dubbed him the Red Baron and put a bounty on his head. After much success as a fighter pilot and squadron leader, he was killed in action in April 1918. Adding to his legend, after he was fatally wounded while in the air, he made one final perfect landing before dying.

 

4. Shaka Zulu

Shaka Zulu helped unite the Zulu people of South Africa.

Only known drawing of Shaka Zulu, 1824.

Sometimes great leaders exhibit such a force of will it leaves a long-lasting stamp on a nation or people. Shaka Zulu of the Zulu tribe of southern Africa was such a man. A muscular and fierce warrior, Shaka imbued his people with a spirit that made conquest of neighboring tribes the new imperative, uniting tribes that had been warring for centuries into a single nation. As the Europeans raced to control parts of Africa in the 19th century, he had a series of contacts with Europeans, but did his best to keep what he considered inferior cultures at bay. As a polarizing figure, Shaka had as many enemies as allies and after surviving several assassination attempts he was finally killed in 1828 by members of his own family.

 

3. George Custer

George Custer was known as much for his appearance as his military skills.
You’ve certainly heard about the incident known as Custer’s Last Stand, so we’ll skip the details of the debacle that ended George Armstrong Custer’s life. Here’s what you may not know about this colorful character. At age 23, Custer became one of the youngest generals in American history when he was temporarily promoted to brigadier general during the Civil War. There, he exhibited his characteristic bravery. Where other leaders of his rank stayed in the rear to avoid danger, Custer would lead the charge into combat. Yet Custer is not remembered for his service in the Civil War, but for his flamboyant yellow locks, buckskin jacket and oversized hat that complimented his brash personality. Custer loved publicity, and openly courted reporters. Some historians believe Custer’s brashness led him to divide his force at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, resulting in disaster.

 

2. Alcibiades

Alcibiades changed his allegiance several times.

The death of Alcibiades.

The Peloponnesian War between the Greek states of Athens and Sparta in the 5th century B.C. produced plenty of warriors, including an Athenian named Alcibiades. He made enemies among the Athenian elite and was wrongfully accused of desecrating statues of the god Hermes. While he was away fighting, he was convicted of the trumped-up charges, so he decided to join forces with the Spartans, where he helped plan several defeats of the Athenians in battle. Later, when he made enemies in Sparta, he moved on to Persia, before returning to Athens once again. Alcibiades was ambitious, cunning and controversial. In Dr. Hervey Cleckley’s seminal 1948 book on psychiatry, The Mask of Sanity, Cleckley says Alcibiades’ impulsive, reckless and irresponsible behaviors were signs that he was a psychopath, and that ultimately his self-indulgence led to his failure. Psychopath or not, Alcibiades is remembered 2,500 years later, while most of his contemporaries have been forgotten. The 19th century painting of his death that depicts Alcibiades trying to fight off his assassin with a sword while being clutched by a beautiful woman seems to underline his status as a larger-than-life figure.

 

1. George Patton

Gen. George Patton was a larger-than-life figure.

Gen. George Patton during a 1945 victory parade in Los Angeles.

Gen. George Patton defines the term “colorful.” Although a devout Christian, he believed in reincarnation. He wrote poetry, wore a pair of ivory-handled revolvers and was legendary for his profanity and infamous temper. He considered himself to be playing the part of a great military leader as much as actually being one and these competing roles may have led him to excesses. He was punished by Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower for striking a distraught soldier and was forced to apologize to the entire division. Patton is probably best known for his daring armored push over snow-covered mountains to rescue an infantry unit that had been surrounded by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. Gen. Patton was spared the vagaries of the post-World War II world when he died from injuries suffered in a traffic accident shortly after the war. This complicated man will be remembered by many simply as “Old Blood and Guts.”

Written by

Mike Phelps earned a B.A. in history from the University of Connecticut and an M.A. in military history from Norwich University. He published a book about the War on Terror called A Short History of the Long War.

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