“The most valuable qualification in an officer is common sense; contrary to general belief, it is the rarest element found in mankind.” — Major General Fox Conner (1874-1951)
He would have been less than ten years old, I think. In a 1930s interview, eighty-two year old former slave Ike Woodward remembered as a child it was his job to lead blind Bob Conner around. Conner had been blinded in a Civil War battle. Woodward’s master, also named Ike Woodward, had sold the services of his young slave to the Conner family. In his his interview for the Works Progress Administration, Woodward would go on to remark that Master Conner was the papa of Mr. Fox Conner, a big man now in the army. That statement led me to ask: who was Fox Conner? An impressive figure it turns out.
Conner would make his way from rural Mississippi to West Point and embark upon a stellar career in the military, serving in the Spanish American War, Pancho Villa Expedition and World War I. He earned military awards from the Purple Heart to the French Croix de Guerre. It was during World War I that he was selected by General Pershing to be a member of his operations section where one of Conner’s subordinates was George C. Marshall. A far-seeing strategist, he opposed the Treaty of Versailles seeing within it the seeds of a new world war with Germany.
During World War I Conner would become reacquainted with and develop an enduring friendship with an officer by the name of George S. Patton. Back in the States, in the early 1920s, Conner and his wife were the honored guests of a dinner party hosted by the Pattons. Invited to this dinner was a young officer named Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom Patton thought Conner should meet. According to one biographer, Russ Stayanoff, “In Eisenhower, Conner saw a likable, eager young officer available for the “next one;” an officer that he could groom. Conner undoubtedly needed an executive officer with whom he could get along, and Eisenhower fit the bill. The fruits of that February luncheon became apparent when Conner telephoned Ike later in the same week and asked him if he would like the assignment as his executive officer in Panama.”
Today Conner is especially remembered for his mentoring of Eisenhower. As Executive Officer for Conner at Camp Gaillard in Panama, Eisenhower received an unparalleled education in military affairs that would be instrumental in his later success at the Command and General Staff School. Conner was a student of history. Whether personally with Eisenhower or through his later lectures at the Army War College, Conner influenced a generation of future leaders. He was a proponent of coalition building and the use of diplomacy in concert with strong leadership to bring about victory. His three axioms or principles of war for a democracy still discussed today: Never fight unless you have to; Never fight alone; and Never fight for long.
Thanks to the internet there appears to be an increasing amount of information available to the general public about Conner, as well as more detailed analyses of his teachings still relevant in this modern age. A biography was published in 2011 about him and a new book more recently published in 2016. In much of the discourse about Conner that I saw there is reference to him being the son of a blind Confederate soldier. The only way I learned the little that I have of this man and of his enduring legacy was to read the remembrances of the slave “lent out” to help guide his father. Ike Woodward would work at the Conner place until the day Ike’s brother rode in by horseback and scooped him up, conveying that they were now free.
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