Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Fox Conner: The Adirondacker ‘Who Made Eisenhower’

Fox Connor on HorseA little-known forest retreat called Brandreth Park has several unimpressive dwellings and sparse communication with the outside world. Yet back in the dark days of World War II generals Eisenhower, Marshal, Patton and others in the American military headquarters of England and Europe felt it necessary to keep their lines of communication open and flowing with one of its residents, Major General Fox Conner, U.S Army, Retired.

It’s safe to say that most Americans have never heard of Brandreth Park or of this soldier who never served in WWII but who nonetheless contributed to the victory over Germany. Those who do remember Conner, consider him “the man who made Eisenhower”.

Brandreth Park was established in 1851 by Benjamin Brandreth an English immigrant and self-proclaimed “doctor” who concocted a recipe of vegetable laxative pill that supposedly cured every malady known to mankind. Brandreth was, if anything, an advertising genius and he made a fortune selling his “Brandreth Universal Pills” with advertising schemes that we now call celebrity or customer testimonials and product placement.  There is, for instance, mention of his pills in Herman Mellville’s Moby Dick and an ad for Brandreth’s Pills, called “Sixty Voices from Army of Potomac” stated that the pills “protect from the arrows of disease, usually as fatal to Soldiers as the bullets of the foe.” His factory, based in Ossining, NY, made millions of these pills and he made a fortune.

Some of the money went to purchase a huge tract of land in Township 39 in Hamilton County, consisting of 26,000 acres for which he paid 15 cents an acre. There are several lakes and large ponds on the property and the largest is the 890-acre Lake Brandreth around which some of the current day houses and cabins are still clustered, owned by nearly 100 of his descendants. One of the original owners was Benjamin Brandreth’s son Franklin who passed down some of this land to his daughter Virginia when she married a young Army lieutenant and West Point graduate named Fox Conner.

Conner was born in 1874 in the backwoods town of Slate Springs, Mississippi and but for the fact that his maternal uncle, Fuller Fox, worked on the political campaigns of a US Senator with the improbable name of Hernando de Soto Money, Conner would have most likely settled and died there. Fortuitously, Conner’s uncle prevailed on the Senator to choose his nephew for a vacancy at the Military Academy at West Point and the young Mississippian was appointed to the entering class of 1894. Connor was a graduate of the class of 1898 and sent to Cuba, in 1899 as part of the American occupation force following Spain’s defeat.

Lieutenant Conner was assigned to administrative duties with General Fitzhugh Lee’s headquarters in Havana. There he chanced to meet Virginia Brandreth. By all accounts she was vivacious and strong-willed and she persuaded her father to let her travel to the site of the island’s capital city to visit her maternal uncle, Captain Herbert Slocum who was there on occupation duty with his wife. Thus chaperoned, a long start and stop courtship ensued and subsequently Fox and Virginia were married at her father’s house, “Cliff Cottage,” overlooking the Hudson River in Ossining, NY.

Conner’s military career spanned some forty-four years and slowly but steadily he rose from second lieutenant to major general. After Cuba his next overseas assignment was in France in 1911 as a liaison with the French Army’s 22nd Field Artillery based in Versailles. There in the company of Virginia and their three children he spent a year getting acquainted with all things French and as it happened, he was on staff duty in Washington, DC when the United States entered World War I in April 1917.

At this time, he was called upon to escort a delegation of French officers who had come to the War Department to work out some of the military details of the alliance that had recently been negotiated between the US and France. Shortly after, General John (Black Jack) Pershing recruited Conner to be on the staff he was putting together for development of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) then anticipated to number 500,000 men. In November of 1917, as operations chief for Pershing and with the rank of Colonel, Conner oversaw the creation of America’s First World War Army and its deployment in the decisive battles of that war.

Lieutenant Colonel George C. Marshall led operations of the First Infantry Division and would later become Conner’s assistant at AEF Headquarters. The following year, when the First U.S. Army began its major offensive in September 1918, Pershing, with the divisions Conner had designed, attacked at the St. Mihiel salient, which Conner had identified as the Germans’ weak point.

Later, in October 1918 as a Brigadier General, Conner accompanied Pershing to Allied Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch’s headquarters to discuss their recommendations to their respective governments concerning Germany’s request for an armistice. Pershing and Conner believed that agreeing to an armistice under the favorable military situation of the allies and accepting the principle of a negotiated peace rather than a dictated peace, the allies would lose the chance actually to secure world peace on terms that would insure its permanence.  It was their view that, “complete victory can only be obtained by continuing the war until we force unconditional surrender from Germany.” However, they did not win that battle of words. Conner quickly became convinced that the “politicians” had thrown away the victory and that someday the whole job would have to be done again. Indeed, most historians today believe that it was the humiliating and harsh terms of the 1918 Treaty of Versailles that contributed to the start of World War II.

John Pershing, Fox Conner, George Marshall(1)After World War I, Conner, Marshall, and Pershing came home aboard the Leviathan for a triumphal parade on Broadway in New York City. Later, the three headed off for a ten-day respite of hunting and fishing in the Adirondacks at Brandreth Park.  Following this illustrious gathering in the fall of 1919 Conner went off to visit his friend George Patton at Camp Meade in Maryland. There, Patton made a point of introducing Conner to Dwight Eisenhower, whom Conner quickly realized was destined for greater things.

That meeting would blossom into a life-long personal and professional relationship and in 1922, when Connor went to command the 20th Infantry Brigade in defense of the Panama Canal Zone, he managed to get Eisenhower appointed as his executive officer. There, Conner mentored his junior officer on leadership, military history and the lessons of the Great War and most importantly in how to lead a coalition army in war. Under Conner Eisenhower undertook the serious study of military history for the first time, grappling with problems faced by the great commanders of the past.

Looking back on his Panama sojourn with Conner, Eisenhower considered it, “one of the most satisfying experiences of my life.” Later Connor also wrangled an Eisenhower’s appointment the Army Staff College then located on the banks of the Potomac River on Greenleaf’s Point (now Buzzard Point) in downtown Washington, DC. Perhaps Conner lasting contribution to history was convincing Eisenhower to stay in the Army after the latter’s bad experience as an aide to imperious Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines. They did not get along and their descriptions of each other were not complimentary. MacArthur would later refer to Eisenhower as his “clerk” and when Eisenhower was asked if he knew MacArthur he reportedly said. “I ought to. I studied dramatics under him for seven years!”

After Panama, Fox Conner served two years in Washington, D.C., as army assistant chief of staff for supply and then as deputy chief of staff, the second highest position in the Army. In the 1930s, Conner ran the Civilian Conservation Corps camps throughout New England until his retirement in 1938.

In the fall of 1941, after his retirement from the Army, Conner was hunting at Brandreth Lake when he was invited to Pine Camp (now Fort Drum) near Watertown to observe some armored maneuvers. At the conclusion the officer in charge asked for his critique of the exercise to which Conner replied, “Too much blitz, too little krieg.” It has become the standard for things that are showy but have little substance. While this remark did not endear him to some in the military, there were many others who greatly respected his counsel and advice.

Fox ConnorChief among these officers were his closest protégés, Eisenhower, Marshal and Patton to whom its said he never offered unsolicited advice, but simply responded to their letters. According to Brandreth family lore this correspondence was delivered back and forth by armed military couriers who would arrive at the Brandreth Train station and drive seven miles along the former rail bed of the Mac-a-Mac Logging Company to Conner’s place and then wait for the response. After the war, Conner burned these letters, although many from Eisenhower to Connor have survived and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt Conner’s advisory role in World War II.

In a July 4, 1942 letter Eisenhower says “More and more my thoughts turn back to you and to the days when I was able to serve under your leadership and wise counsel. I cannot tell you how much I would appreciate at this moment an opportunity for an hour’s discussion with you about the problems that constantly beset me.” This letter then goes on to discuss the Chiefs of Services in various operations. Ike was addressing important matters that had to be solved. Conner responds from Brandreth on July 20th by saying, “Organization is largely a matter of the problems to be solved. I think the A.E.F. [American Expeditionary Force in WWI] organization was well suited to the problems we faced” and then goes on to say, “yours are somewhat different and so you will doubtless need to change things.” However, the most important piece of advice of this letter comes later when Conner tells Ike “ the first thing to do is to determine the immediate task.” According to Conner “the thing to do first of all is to relieve the pressure on [the] Russians. When that is done, the fate of the paperhanger is sealed.”

Later on August 31, 1942, Ike wrote another letter to Conner. In it he agreed with Conner’s earlier contention that the greatest problem confronting the Allies was to keep Russia in the war, which would weaken Hitler on the Western Front. Many of America’s top military officers like Marshall and Secretary of War Simpson had long pushed for a cross channel operation against France, rather than the British focus of landings in North Africa. However, it’s safe to say that Conner’s advice to divert Germany’s forces from the eastern front helped keep the Russians in the war and forced Hitler to fight on two fronts, a major factor in his defeat.

While most of the correspondence between Conner and his protégés has largely disappeared, it is the judgment of military historians that Fox Conner was arguably the most influential officer in the United States Army between World War I and World War II. In any event, there can be no doubt that Brandreth Park’s isolation provided Conner with atmosphere conducive for formulating advice about the conduct of the war. Eisenhower’s career was propelled steadily upward through a combination of factors: his intense ambition, his considerable abilities, and the friendship of a very special mentor, General Fox Conner.

After a long illness he died in Washington DC on October 13, 1951 and although some accounts say he is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, he also has a grave marker at Brandreth family plot at Dale Cemetery in Ossining, NY next to his wife Virginia.

What is lesser known, is that his cremated remains were scattered over Lake Brandreth, a place that he loved and in many ways reminded him of the piney woods of Calhoun County Mississippi where he was born and raised.

Photos: Above and below, Fox Conner; and middle, John Pershing, Fox Connor, and George Marshall.

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Miguel Hernandez is the editor of the Ossining Historical Society’s newsletter, The Ossining Historical Register and serves on the Village of Ossining’s Historic Preservation Commission and the board of the Westchester County Historical Society.

He previously served as “Command Historian” of the New York Guard and has an MA in American Military History.

3 Responses

  1. Fox Conner says:

    Thank you for writing this article.

    To this day his great grandchildren and great great grandchildren enjoy the house on Brandreth Lake. And his great great great grandson will be going up there the first time this summer.


  2. Ann Parrish says:

    A readable, informative article about an important relationship!

  3. Norman MacDonald says:

    General Conner will be inducted into the Ft. Levenworth Hall of Fame on May 8th. Many members of his family will be in attendance.

    Norm MacDonald, Former Brandreth Park President and Unofficial Family Historian