Major General Fox Conner
November 2, 1874 – October 13, 1951
A Brief Biography
by Lieutenant General Sidney B. Berry, U. S. Army (Ret.)
Generally unknown to the American public, knowledgeable Army professionals such as John J. Pershing, George C. Marshall, George S. Patton, Jr. and Dwight D. Eisenhower judged Fox Conner to be one of the most able officers in the Army and revered the man and his work.
Fox Conner's service, contributions and significant accomplishments fall into three major areas: (1) as Chief, Plans and Operations staff officer for the American Expeditionary Forces during and following WW I; (2) as one of the Army's senior officers appointed to a number of responsible positions during the period between the two World Wars; and (3) as model, mentor and teacher of a select group of younger Army officers who rose to the highest positions of leadership during World War II, most notably Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Fox Conner was once described by Dwight D. Eisenhower as “the ablest man I ever knew”. That is quite a compliment for any man, but especially for one born and raised in Calhoun County, Mississippi.
Born in Slate Spring, Mississippi on November 2, 1874, he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1894 upon the recommendation of Senator H. D. Money. Soon after Conner graduated from West Point and after the action of the Cuban Campaign had subsided, he served in the occupation forces there in 1899.
Through the next ten to fifteen years Conner advanced through the ranks becoming a “serious soldier and a technically proficient artillerist”. His performance led to his recommendation for the Army General Staff in Washington and included teaching at the War College and service with the Third Division, responsible for artillery tactical doctrine. During this time, Fox Conner was one of several officers selected to examine the history of the preparedness of the United States.
When the United States declared war against the central powers on April 6, 1917, Conner was serving with the Inspector-General's Department(5). In his capacity as an inspector of field artillery fire, Conner, along with several other officers, was charged by General Pershing to recommend the exact place to fight the enemy, but increasing concerns forced Pershing to revise his staff structures which led to Fox Conner's appointment as a member of the Operations Section mapping the strategy for the employment of an American force in its own sector of the Allied Front, being one of the most difficult questions of the early American involvement.
Conner was soon appointed chief of operations. “As Chief of G-3, which had to do with strategy and tactics and all battle action, his was the problem of how to hit the enemy harder than he hit you with more cost to him than to you.” Most of Pershing's higher staff officers were graduates of Fort Leavenworth's Staff College, and “they showed a common passion for precision planning, clear orders, simple movements and care of the troops”. Fox Conner was the genius of operations for the AEF.
Conner pulled together a team of skilled and brilliant technicians—one of them was Lieutenant Colonel George Marshall.
Conner was a demanding chief whose meticulous attention to the planning of AEF operations set high standards for all the American staffs. In one form or another, nearly every American action of the war came under Conner's view and influence. Even after the war it was his responsibility to write the AEF's after-action report in which he discussed the structure of future army divisions, and indeed, the future shape of the army itself.
For services rendered during the war, General Conner was awarded the distinguished Service Medal with citation as follows:
For exceptionally meritorious and distinguished service as assistant chief of staff in charge of operating sections, he has shown a masterful conception of the tactical situations, which have confronted the American forces in Europe.
He also received the French Croix-de-Guerre.
From 1921 to 1925 General Conner commanded a brigade in Panama which consisted of little more than keeping up a network of jungle trails for the use of troops and pack animals, this period had a profound effect on one young officer by the name of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower and Conner developed a teacher-student relationship.
Realizing that Eisenhower had little interest in military history, Conner invited him to use his personal library, first selecting two or three historical novels for him and later suggesting books on the military history of those periods. Conner would then ask Eisenhower probing questions on his readings, forcing the younger man to think about what he was reading.
Two comments from Eisenhower's autobiography indicate his admiration for Fox Conner and the esteem in which Eisenhower held Conner:
– my tour of duty was one of the most interesting and constructive of my life. The main reason was the presence of one man, our brigade commander, General Fox Conner—a tall easygoing Mississippian—practical—down to earth—as open and honest as any man I have known – equally at home in the company of the most important people and with any of the men in the regiment. General Conner was a natural leader and something of a philosopher—he had an extraordinary
library, especially in military affairs—The range and curiosity of his mind was not limited to military affairs. He quoted Shakespeare at length, and he could relate his works to wars under discussion.
It is clear now that life with General Conner was a sort of graduate school in military affairs and the humanities, leavened by the comments and discourses of a man who was experienced in his knowledge of men and their conduct. I can never adequately express my gratitude to this one gentleman, for it took years before I fully realized the value of what he had led me through. And then General Conner was gone. But in a lifetime of association with great and good men, he
is the one more or less invisible figure to whom I owe an incalculable debt.
Conner's subsequent career was not quite as dramatic. He returned to Washington in 1925 and served as the deputy chief of staff. The battles during these years were over the budget. General Conner held command in Hawaii and in 1933 when President Roosevelt instituted the civilian corps, he assigned Conner the task of mobilizing approximately 24,000 young men and World War veterans for the 125 Civilian Corps companies in the six New England States.
Conner retired from active service in 1938 after serving his country for forty-four years.
“Conner was a “good soldier” in more ways than one. From the beginning of his career, he had disappointment and bore them to the end. When his dissatisfactions overtook him, he would turn to his own pursuits of language and the literature of war, particularly military history. In a branch he did not choose, Conner became a tactical and technical expert in great demand. His intelligence and drive marked him for staff eventually, and he was never able to escape from it to command troops in wartime. He had a significant influence over the National Defense Act of 1920 by formulating Pershing's own position on the future of the Army. His greatest contribution, however, may have been his influence over the young Eisenhower. Conner was a fiercely loyal subordinate, a superb if stern and demanding teacher and a meticulous planner; and while Fox Conner is generally unknown to the public, Army professionals such as Pershing, Marshall, Patton, Eisenhower and others revered Conner and his work.”
Major general Fox Conner died October 13, 1951 at the age of 77 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard