Key Point: Patton was one of the best American generals. Here is how he was able to overcome many challenges, including dyslexia.
General George S. Patton, Jr., was one of the most flamboyant and controversial figures of World War II. His career was also one of the most thoroughly documented of any of the war’s great commanders. Historians have had a treasury of material at their disposal as Patton was a prolific writer, kept personal diaries, and saved virtually every scrap of paper he ever handled. Additionally, his family and heirs have gone to great lengths to preserve the artifacts of his existence. Even with such voluminous, detailed, and often extremely personal material available on Patton, it was not until the 1980s that historians began to form a clear picture of the hidden elements that made up the man.
“A Genius of War”
Historians will inevitably examine the past through the lens of their own time; likewise, historical figures present themselves to their contemporaries according to the knowledge and prejudices of their epoch. Patton, who was always concerned about shaping his public image according to his own lights, did not care to call attention to his dyslexia; nor did those who wrote about his swashbuckling exploits as a tank commander in the aftermath of World War II care to investigate the subject, despite such red flags as the frequent symptomatic idiosyncrasies in his spelling and punctuation. Given the state of medical science in the 1940s and the postwar era, Patton could not have been aware that he may have also suffered from an affliction known today as attention deficit disorder (ADD), which afflicts many dyslexics; nor could historians have identified the condition until recently. Even the importance of Patton’s early family life, which led him to valorize war and model himself as the heir of his heroic Confederate ancestors, was neglected until recently.
Martin Blumenson brought the general’s dyslexia to attention in his 1985 biography Patton: The Man Behind the Legend. Historian Carlo D’Este enlarged upon Blumenson’s pathfinding work in his 1995 study Patton: A Genius for War, painting more clearly a picture of an oddly functioning Patton family that had shaped Patton’s entire life and ultimately enabled him to overcome, or a least deal with, his dyslexia and embark on a storied military career.
In trying to understand Patton’s career, we cannot afford to discount those aspects of his life that had long been hidden behind his martial bluster. Patton’s dyslexia and perhaps ADD, his immediate forebears, his unusual upbringing, and his early socialization developed the young Patton into what D’Este called “a genius for war.”
Evidence of Patton’s Conditions
The fact that Patton had dyslexia is supported by his family and documented by both Blumenson and D’Este. That Patton also had ADD will probably remain a matter of conjecture and speculation, although in his public life he exhibited many of the disorder’s behavioral symptoms: his flexibility and willingness to shift strategy, such as the quick deal he cut in Casablanca permitting the formerly Vichy forces to continue governing Morocco under Allied auspices in November 1942; his tirelessness when in pursuit of a tangible goal, as when he took command of the moribund II Corps in Tunisia in February 1943 and rapidly transformed it into a formidable fighting force; his boredom with mundane tasks, expressed in a 1916 letter during the garrisoning of the Mexican town of Dublan when he wrote his father, “We are all rapidly going crazy from lack of occupation and there is no help in sight”; and his startling ability to visualize and make ideas concrete.
Other ADD symptoms include poor impulse control, extreme mood swings in response to events, and short excessive tempers, all of which Patton displayed as a commanding officer, sometimes notoriously, as with his infamous slapping incidents during World War II in which he was accused of abusing enlisted men. The frustrations experienced by a person dealing with either dyslexia or ADD can be overwhelming and can often lead to serious self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy, bouts of uncontrollable anger, and emotional hypersensitivity.
Dyslexia, which is often characterized by difficulty reading and by the transposition of letters or numbers, is considered to be a learning disorder. Having dyslexia, however, does not mean that a person lacks intelligence. Quite the contrary, many dyslexics are extremely intelligent and struggle mightily with the symptoms of the disorder. The dyslexic often has a different or unique mind-set, is often gifted and productive, but learns and perceives in a way different from others.
Both dyslexia and ADD have a genetic component. They are hereditary and run in families. In this light, perhaps George Patton’s genealogy is more important that even he imagined.
Growing up in Lake Vineyard
Patton was born on November 11, 1885, in San Gabriel, California, near Los Angeles, to doting parents from a financially comfortable background. His father spent several terms as district attorney of Los Angeles and ran unsuccessful campaigns for other public offices, including one as a Democratic candidate for Congress. In 1885, the year of George’s birth, he gave up the practice of law to take over the affairs of his deceased father-in-law’s business empire in an attempt to save it from the mismanagement of another relative. By 1899, the business was in foreclosure and new owner retianed the elder Patton as manager for many years. Despite all difficulties, no effort was spared by Patton’s father in providing a “proper” and, indeed, aristocratic upbringing for his children.
During George’s youth, the Patton family lived both in Los Angeles and at Lake Vineyard, the estate of his late grandfather, Benjamin “Don Benito” Wilson, an early American pioneer in California before the territory became part of the United States.
Blumenson credits Don Benito with some of the genetic makeup of the future general, including looks, driv, and tenacity. D’Este’s work reveals Don Benito as an extremely eccentric and physically rugged individualist. His exploits included lassoing and killing grizzly bears, surviving the poison-tipped arrow of an American Indian, and delivering the heads of rebellious Indians in a wicker basket to California’s governor. Patton would replicate that feat when he presented General Pershing with the bodies of three of Pancho Villa’s men during the Punitive Expedition of 1916. Like his ancestor, George Patton enjoyed and displayed a zest for combat, which contrasted sharply with his more low-key superior in World War II, General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Don Benito was a man of frightful temper who did not suffer fools and finally gave up carrying a gun lest he do something rash. There is more than just a suggestion that George S. Patton, Jr., owed a great deal genetically to Don Benito.
His environment shaped the young Patton as much as his heredity. The atmosphere of his childhood included the continual repetition of family lore that glorified participation in lost causes such as the Confederacy and the struggle for Scottish independence among his more distant forebears and emphasized the Pattons’ ties to the Southern planter aristocracy. There was also an ongoing exposure to the great military leaders of history and literature, of whom George learned while being read to by his family from Walter Scott, Rudyard Kipling, Homer, and other authors. In addition, a parade of famous martial figures visited his home as guests of his parents.
The building blocks of the general’s personality were laid out in Lake Vineyard, a place of open spaces, horses, and outdoor action.An expert horseman at an early age, George established himself as an accident-prone risk taker in his riding and childhood war games. He remained a magnet for accidents through his military career, from a tent fire that singed his face during the 1916 Mexican Expedition to auto accidents in the waning months of World War II. Patton’s military proclivity became evident at an early age. His father carved him a wooden sword, and the boy played continually with his sister and an abundance of cousins and friends who visited the Vineyard estate. Patton once said, “I must be the happiest boy in the world.”
One of the more eccentric fixtures in the Patton household was George’s Aunt Nannie. When Ruth Wilson married the boy’s father, George Patton II, her sister, Annie, was devastated. Annie had fallen deeply in love with George II. Her sanity not quite intact and her love unrequited, Aunt Nannie, as she was known, nevertheless attached herself to the newly married couple and never left them. D’Este tells us that she shared everything in their marriage except the bed.
While his parents doted on George, Aunt Nannie was obsessed with him. She became a surrogate mother who shamelessly spoiled him. Nannie was the uncontested, often tyrannical ruler of the Patton household, often trying the Pattons’ patience with her refusal to allow George to be punished.
While George’s father amused him by reading the Iliad and the Odyssey, Aunt Nannie, having decided that George was “delicate,” began reading aloud to him classics such as Plutarch’s Lives and The March of Xenophon and stories about Alexander the Great and Napoleon. D’Este asserts that it was Nannie who deeply influenced his early education. George was a willing participant who listened attentively and absorbed deeply. The most influential work Nannie presented to George was the Bible, which she read him three or four hours a day. Jesus emerged from her exegesis as the quintessential example of human courage.