By JOEL McNEECE
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower referred to Major Gen. Fox Conner as a man to whom he owed “an incalculable debt.” Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing said Conner was the most indispensable man in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).
Conner’s influence on the professional development of some of America’s greatest military leaders, such as Eisenhower, George Patton, Jr., and George Catlett Marshall, secured his spot as arguably the greatest mentor in U.S. military history.
Conner’s distinguished military career is chronicled in a new biography by West Point professor and U.S. Army Major Edward Cox entitled “Grey Eminence.”
Cox said as he studied journals and read biographies on some of the great generals in U.S. history, Conner’s name kept coming up. That led him to 10 years of study on Conner culminated by the publishing of “Grey Eminence.”
Cox said the biography briefly delves into Conner’s upbringing in Slate Springs, but focuses more intently on the time period after he arrived at West Point and the remarkable career which followed.
“The son of a Civil War sharpshooter who lost his sight at the Battle of Atlanta, Conner grew up listening to war stories and had dreamed of attending West Point since he was eight years old,” Cox wrote.
A story by Russ Stayanoff entitled “Major General Fox Conner: Soldier, Mentor, Enigma” characterized Conner’s upbringing as follows:
“At the time of his birth, he was the third generation of the Conner family who had come with the first settlers of what is now Calhoun County. Road systems were not established as the Conner clan arrived in the 1830′s, but flat boats and keel boats still navigated Calhoun County’s two rivers bringing in supplies and shipping out cotton bales from all parts of this rural Mississippi county. Born to Robert Conner and Nannie Fox in Slate Springs on Nov. 2, 1874, Conner was educated in the poorest of the public schools of rural Calhoun County. The school system was unremarkable for producing any more than future gin-mill employees and barely literate farmers and Conner had no intention of following a mule down a furrow for the rest of his life.”
Conner graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in April 1898. Cox said Mississippi had the largest percentage of cadets of any state in Conner’s class. He couldn’t explain why. Conner was fluent in French, German and Spanish and became the Army’s foremost authority on artillery doctrine.
“He was the foremost artilleryman in the U.S. Army,” Cox said. “That’s what drew him to Pershing.”
Conner ultimately served as chief of operations for the AEF in France on Gen. Pershing’s staff during World War I.
Lieutenant Colonel George C. Marshall was among the officers working for Conner and was among his first notable mentorships.
Conner is best known for his mentorship of Dwight Eisenhower. George Patton, Jr., a close friend of Conner’s, introduced the two.
Cox said Conner actually knew Patton much longer and the two “remained good friends all of their lives.”
“They would go on fishing trips together,” Cox said. “They were very close.”
Conner brought Eisenhower to Panama where he was commanding the 20th Infantry Brigade. It was there Conner mentored Eisenhower in military history and tactics.
Eisenhower considered Conner to be “the greatest soldier he ever knew.”
“In sheer ability and character, he was the outstanding soldier of my time,” Eisenhower said.
Cox said one of the things that surprised him about Conner’s career was that after his first 20 years, he elected to remain in the military for another 20.
“He was very successful and could have gone and done anything,” Cox said. “Instead he chose to stay in the Army and serve his country.”
The book is currently available on Amazon and other online sources, including Cox’s website – foxconner.com.
About the author: Major Edward Cox, U.S. Army, is an assistant professor of American Politics, Public Policy and Strategy in the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy.
He has served as a tank company executive officer in Kosovo and as the headquarters company commander for the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division in Iraq, as well as in other command and staff positions.
Major Cox holds a bachelor’s degree in American politics from the U.S. Military Academy and master’s degrees in public administration and international relations from Syracuse University.