Bonaparte at Gettysburg

This posting has been kicking around in the back of my mind for over a year, and (for reasons that will become clear) it has been difficult to pull together.

I recently discovered the New York Historical Society’s podcasts on the civil war, and have been working my way through all of them. In the past, my interest in the civil war has never been that great; like WWI and WWII I mostly ignored it as a badly-run mess, generally lacking in brilliance or glory. That’s painting it with a very broad brush, indeed, I know. The podcast is a mix of different views and has had some really interesting speakers – up until I ran into what I can only describe as a “Robert E. Lee hagiography” by Michael Korda. [nyh] I’d heard that such things existed as part of the “lost cause” argument but I had never been slammed so hard in the face by one. Korda actually refers to Lee as a “warrior saint” – things like that. It was all good fun but it made me re-think my desire to re-visit the battle of Gettysburg.

Gettysburg is a couple hours’ drive from my front porch; I’ve been there once and didn’t like it much. The town is crawling with re-enactors and propaganda that simultaneously says “this was a horrible great battle” and “it was awkwardly self-inflicted.” There are still a lot of apple orchards in the area, and one year I attended a lovely apple harvest festival involving a lot of rum and fresh cider. Gettysburg is surprisingly small, which reminded me a lot of the battle field at Waterloo – the military action was constrained by the troops’ inability to maneuver past eachother. Like at Waterloo, there were geographical features that became nodes around which the battle was fought: a lot of dying was done over places that ought to have been insignificant and bypassed in a battle of maneuver.

I’ve re-fought Gettysburgh dozens, maybe hundreds, of times. When I was in 7th grade (I think it was) one of my fathers’ colleagues introduced me to wargaming, the afternoon he sat his sons and myself down with Avalon Hill’s board-game version of the battle. I was fascinated and immediately hooked and I’ve been a strategy gamer ever since. Professor Forster wasn’t trying to do that – he was trying to illustrate something important about how battles evolve, which is one of the main and best conceits of Avalon Hill’s game: the units are scheduled to arrive on the game-board at more or less the same time and place as the historical units did.

Here we see the opening of the battle: Heth’s rebels falling back from their attempt to move on Harrisburg (to the North) encounters Early and Devin’s troops staking out Gettysburg

My original thought, a year+ ago, was to walk through the evolution of the actual battle, and deconstruct it to show that Lee was hardly a military genius. But, as I tried to frame that discussion into a narrative, I realized that as soon as you throw a counter-factual into a battle, the whole battle may change.

At the time when Heth’s troops moved toward Gettysburg, Lee’s army of Nothern Virginia was making a northward hooking maneuver around Washington, DC, masking its move by staying on the other side of a steep ridge and allowing his cavalry to screen off Meade’s main force, which was along the Potomac river. Depending on how you want to analyze it, Lee was trying to threaten Baltimore, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and northern Washington – forcing the union to try to cover all its bases and allowing him to strike where he thought they were weakest. Another view of what was going on was that Lee’s force had been living off the land (i.e.: looting food and supplies from the locals) which meant that they were leaving a vast swath of depleted farms behind them – they didn’t have a supply line and had to keep moving into new territory because if they hunkered down they would immediately be besieged and lose the entire force. Both views are probably accurate: the south was going to lose a war of attrition and Lee had to make dramatic moves because if he stood still he was going to be picked to pieces.

At the opening stages of Gettysburg, Lee’s forces were comparable in size to the union forces in the area. The lost cause narrative depends on the simultaneous argument that:

  • Southern troops were worth much more than a comparable weight of union troops because of southern morale and skill at arms
  • Lee was often outnumbered and did remarkably well with numerically inferior forces

Well, was Lee a military genius or were the southern troops simply better? Rather obviously, they weren’t – at Gettysburg Lee managed to lose pretty conclusively in spite of his alleged genius and the alleged superiority of his forces. [Forces: Army of the Potomac ~100,000, Army of Northern Virginia ~70,000] The hagiographies of Lee describe him as incredibly brave and composed on the battlefield, but I read it as most likely that he was old and tired and had decided he didn’t care if he survived the experience.

Listening to the podcast about how great Lee was, I kept trying to square his alleged brilliance with leading his entire army into a trap of his own devising. Then, there were two aspects of Gettysburg that started me thinking “What would Napoleon Bonaparte have done?” Bonaparte was extremely used to fighting inferior numbers against much larger forces and winning, and he understood logistics and supply better than pretty much anyone since Caesar which is why his failure in Russia was so shocking. As I said, I’ve replayed Gettsyburg many times and I started wondering if I could possibly walk through the battle, using the Avalon Hill game, and try to give a sense of what it might have gone like, had Napoleon Bonaparte and a few of his officers been commanding Lee’s forces.

I started to drift in and out of sleep, then, and my brain began serving up tidbits.

The grand battery had been hammering the union troops since the sun came up. When they heard the snaredrums beating the pas de charge and the cavalry came out of the smoke, they broke and ran before they could even see the serried lines of infantry marching toward them with their bayoneted rifles still on their shoulders.

“Great victory Sire!” – Napoleon at Austerlitz

The technological differences between civil war weaponry and Napoleonics was great, but the tactics with which the battle was fought would have been immediately familiar to Napoleon. Alexander or Caesar would have needed a few weeks to study the new way of war, but Napoleon and his marshals would have been able to drop into command of Lee’s army and immediately begin deploying it effectively. And, I think, vastly more effectively than Lee. That’s where I started to have a problem with the entire idea of attempting a Napoleonic re-fight of Gettysburg: unless Napoleon was having one of his epic “off days” he simply could not have fought Gettysburg as badly as Lee did. Even if he was having an “off day” his subordinates included the finest commanders of the time – basically every military genius in Europe except Wellington worked for Napoleon. If we were talking about “Marshal Davout at Gettysburg” the entire battle would be a footnote in history, reading, “Davout smashed some union forces attempting to screen the main avenue of attack against Washington once Bonaparte had cut around the Potomac.”

Marbot clattered into the presence of The Emperor, “Sire! My chasseurs are driving them before us like a flock of geese!” Ney grinned tiredly while Napoleon stared moodily into the fire, saying nothing. After a long pause, he nodded, “Good.” He walked over to the map and locked eyes with Ney, then made a few flicking motions at the paper, directing Ney to move his corps to widen the wedge in the union forces. “Tell Davout to march them into the swamp at Anacostia. I will cross into the city with my Guard.” Marbot saluted, whirled and jammed his hat on as he left, followed by Ney.

Lee’s supply situation was not critical; it constrained his maneuvers somewhat compared to the union forces, who were sitting on their own supply trains at the time. What was critical was Lee’s inexplicable incompetence in terms of battlefield awareness. During the Napoleonic wars, as well as the US Civil war, battlefield awareness and communication was of paramount importance. Napoleon had what amounted to a general order for his subordinates to “march toward the sound of the guns.” When his commanders heard a great fight brewing, they knew to orient on it and their tactical genius was largely a matter of figuring out what was happening quickly, deciding where they fit in, and doing the right thing. That would be immediately familiar to a civil war commander – after all, they learned to operate that way thanks to the history of the Napoleonic wars! Since there weren’t battlefield radios and telegraph was a relatively new thing [*] a Civil war army depended, like a Napoleonic one, on its cavalry scouts.

As Gettysburg was preparing to happen, union forces encountered Lee’s cavalry screen on the Shenandoah and there was a small battle that resulted in the rebels being driven away. These were the cavalry of the famous Jeb Stuart, whose military acumen – so far as I can tell – consisted mostly of being white, having a great beard and looking good. Napoleon also had a few of those sort of commanders in his cavalry, but he left the important scouting and goose-driving to consummate professionals like Marbot, Desaix, Lannes, and Lasalle. [You may notice I left Murat off that list] the job of light cavalry was to maintain contact with hostile forces, report their size and movements, and collect chickens and wine or stronger alcohol whenever they encountered it. Stuart, who I believe is unjustly famous, managed to chase off after some union supply units (good loot!) and basically stopped doing his job right before the big battle at Gettysburg.

The tall bearskin busbies of Napoleon’s guard loomed out of the mist veiling the potomac, and the rolling snare drums and screaming flutes blared out The First Consul’s Victory at Marengo March to set the time. Light cavalry were patrolling the area like an upset anthill, but the formed-up intensity of the grenadiers of the guard was what held everyone’s eye.

The southern force structure allowed something like Stuart dropping off the grid the all-important day before a major battle – because every day may be “the day before a major battle” you don’t go haring off and lose contact with the enemy, and you don’t stop scouting ahead of your line of march. I can’t hypothesize how Gettysburg might have gone under Napoleon because the leading elements would have had scouts out and his strategic awareness would have been much higher. Another issue is that Lee allowed his forces to commit to the battle at Gettysburg in the form of little piece-packets dribbling in over the course of three days. I’ve don’t know how much you’ve read about the battles of the Napoleonic wars, but believe me – Napoleon simply didn’t fight that way. That’s why I realized it’s impossible to ask “how would Napoleon have fought Gettysburg?” because, either there would have been no battle at all, or the union would have run full up against a grand battery of artillery behind a huge light cavalry screen, and disciplined masses of infantry ready to orient themselves for the key moment in the battle, to crush and smash anything before them, leaving the cavalry to cut up what remains. Napoleon’s warfare approach was to assemble his forces into a mass that he could drop like Thor’s hammer when and where he willed it to land. Little packets of troops was for chumps.

Napoleonic warfare was about the art of combined arms – a sort of “rock, paper, scissors” of relentless logic. If you encountered enemy infantry in the open, you’d send cavalry at their flank. If they managed to get into a square formation before the cavalry blew them to pieces, then you call the cavalry back and send the skirmishers up until the artillery arrives to harrow the poor bastards in the square with cannon balls. If they break, the cavalry cut them to pieces. If they stand, the artillery slaughters them. They can’t maneuver because it’s more or less impossible to march a square. What hit me, as I started thinking about this, is that the Civil war battles have combined arms, but use them mostly incompetently. The reason that Napoleon won so many battles was because of brilliant use of combined arms, and the French army simply knew that they had to move faster than the other guys. It’s way outside of the scope of this posting, but if you want a better understanding of what I mean, study how Austerlitz was fought, and contemplate what would have happened to the union forces at Gettysburg had been on the receiving end of that sort of treatment. Lee, the great holy warrior genius, couldn’t manage a fraction of the organizational, logistical, and communications prowess of Napoleon. And, at that point, I suppose I could stop.

Reviewing all this stuff made me remember why I didn’t take the Civil war very seriously. It simply made no sense. It’s a truism of military historians to say something like, “they were using Napoleonic tactics with modern weapons, so it was a pointless slaughter.” But that’s not true! They were using childish, incompetent tactics, having formed blocks of troops running all over the place, with a general lack of combined arms – the salient characteristic of the Napoleonic wars – so it was a pointless slaughter.” Military historians have spilled a great deal of ink over Pickett’s charge at the end of the battle – whether it would have worked or not had it been done sooner, or harder, or whatever – but either side using Napoleonic war tactics would have fought that very differently indeed. In fact, there was a fairly similar moment at Waterloo, when Marshal Ney took the French cavalry into repeated charges against British infantry in square – forgetting for the moment in his despair that you simply don’t do that unless you want to be a statistic. Generous military historians say that Ney was probably suffering from PTSD from the Russia campaign and that he was a mere shadow of his former self. Whatever they say, most of us would argue that Ney lost the battle when he threw the French cavalry away; it was a foregone conclusion from then. [**] The same applies to Pickett’s charge, and the rest is history. People who re-fight Waterloo using cardboard counters on paper maps, as I have, do not launch Drouet D’Erlon’s corps straight up the hill in column, nor do they fail to deploy the French grand battery where it would decimate the charge of the Scot’s Greys (which was a brilliant sacrifice-move to stop D’Erlon’s mistake) That’s why I remember Gettysburg as a great big “WTF?” and rapidly consign Lee to nonentity status.

Marbot swirled past a dejected-looking fellow with a glorious beard wearing confederate grays. He did not even slow down. As he mounted up, and tsk’d Lisette into a trot, he yelled over his shoulder to his Lieutenant, “who was that fellow? He looked like he had just been yelled at by The Emperor!”
“Yes, that was Stuart, the man you replaced.”
“Ha!” Marbot did not look back. Lisette covered ground like a swallow, as she always did.

That’s the summary: Lee didn’t use his battlefield intelligence well, because he didn’t have any – and his choice to make important maneuvers against an unknown force structure led him to throw his army into a meat-grinder in little chunks. That was a fairly typical Civil war battle, really – there were lots of meat-grinders and a great deal of incompetent maneuvering.

General Desaix, commander of Napoleon’s Chasseurs, interrogating a local before the battle of Wagram – Painting by Meissonier [Desaix is the guy in the black coat; the glorious red and gold suited fellow is one of the Chasseurs a Cheval of the Imperial Guard. Probably Bessieres. The guys on the horses are 2nd Chasseurs of the guard] Intelligence (and collecting wine and chickens) was the job of the light cavalary and Napoleon’s were hands down the best at both.

I’ll end with one final plea for Lee’s warrior-sainthood. When Kusunoki Masahige realized that he had doomed his entire clan by supporting the failed military takeover by Emperor Go-Daigo, he led his troops into what he knew was going to be a losing battle, anyway. Before he left, he prayed at a local temple, and carved a poem into the door with an arrowhead, where it is still readable today. [The Kusunoki were famous archers] Was this foolhardiness, or military glory? When the Kusunoki clan fell and was wiped out to a man, it was considered an act of bravery and fealty, not a pointless slaughter. I think we can say the same for Pickett’s men, who ought to have realized they were being led into history as one of the great pointless-but-glorious events in the history of toxic masculinity. We shouldn’t revere Lee for his competence or bravery – it was cowardice that made him take one last throw of the dice at his men’s expense. He was already in over his head, losing a battle that he should have won.

------ divider ------

Obligatory Julius Caesar caveat: we have mostly Caesar’s word for how awesome Caesar was. Salt liberally. Even if you put a ton of salt on Caesar, he was still awesome. Caesar was like that.

[* One of Napoleon’s great innovations was a heliograph network that allowed dramatically faster communications within France. It wasn’t quite as good as telegraphs eventually became but I think Napoleon’s battlefield communications were definitely superior to Lee’s.]

[** The French throwing their cavalry away at resolutely standing British soldiers is, after all, a grand military tradition.]


  1. says

    Given how much humanity glorifies mass murder and suicide, it is surprising that humans still haven’t died out. People like Caesar, Alexander, or Napoleon were just mass murderers. There’s nothing glorious about killing people.

    I tend to collect stories of draft dodgers. Whether these men tried to avoid draft due to unwillingness to kill other people or whether they simply wanted to stay alive themselves and lead a comfortable life, ultimately they didn’t kill anybody despite external circumstances that demanded them to become murderers. I see that as a great accomplishment.

  2. komarov says

    Robert E. Lee Napoleon Bonaparte hagiography”

    *ahem* And while I’m not being serious, maybe you could go campaigning to have those somewhat contentious confederate statues replaced by bronze Bonapartes, with inscriptions among the lines of “He’d have done better”. This should be completely uncontroversial, because 1) the statues are remembering the civil war with due credit to the South and 2) they’re not making heroes of confederate losers/scumbags/traitors/slavedrivers/insultofchoicehere. That should make both sides of the confederate monument argument happy, no? The same treatment also works for Union monuments and, judging by your modest appraisal of the man, any other war monument one might come across.

    Again: *ahem* and not entirely serious. Not entirely at all.

    P.S.: Oooh, let’s put a Bonaparte on Lincoln’s marble throne. Could be very popular. Nobody in the US likes Lincoln, do they?

  3. Ketil Tveiten says

    I’d always read Lee’s successes and the Confederacy’s early doing-well-in-the-war as “the Union generals were garbage until Grant and Sherman showed up” rather than any sign of actual talent or ability.

    Also, to counter the somewhat hagiographical tone here, it’s not like Nappy didn’t make some major cock-ups of his own (Egypt, Spain, and Russia are the top hits), and he had (like Caesar, probably) a great talent for taking credit for things he only tangentially participated in and bigging up his accomplishments when he could get away with it.

    Also, I haven’t heard, seen or read anything that convinces me that Alexander was that great a general (probably a good leader, but he didn’t do much actual generalling); rather the Macedonian way of fighting was a good counter to the Persian way of fighting. I’d be happy to be corrected there, of course.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    from Otto Eisenschiml, The Hidden Face of the Civil War:

    The second and more serious of Lee’s weaknesses was his strange aversion to maps. He lost opportunity after opportunity through lack of correct road information, yet he never seemed able to overcome this failing.

    Lee’s disregard of maps is as hard to excuse as it is to understand. He was a trained engineer and had distinguished himself in the Mexican war by gathering important topographical information. The only mitigating circumstance, if it can be so considered, is that in the neglect of maps he did not stand alone. From the beginning of the war it had appeared highly probable that the Peninsula and the environs of Richmond would become battlegrounds; yet no one noted the lack of maps or took measures to correct the deficiency. While Johnston was commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, Davis asked him on what line he would retreat fro Manassas, should retreat become necessary. Johnston replied that he was “ignorant of the topography of the country in his rear.” Davis acknowledged that he was equally ignorant, and unable to give advice as to the selection of a new position for the army. Both men appeared satisfied to let it go at that.

    A short time later, when the Union army was already within sight of Richmond, Davis wrote to his wife that “though . . our army had retreated from Yorktown up to the Chickahominy .. . we had no maps of the country in which we were operating; our generals were ignorant of the roads, and their guides knew little more than the way from their homes to Richmond.”

    What about Lee? When the Seven Days battle began, he had been in charge of the Virginia troops for over a year, and during much of this time had resided in Richmond; nevertheless, he had not even ordered a topographical survey of its suburban territory. During all the weeks while McClellan was creeping up the Peninsula, he did nothing to procure reliable maps and guides, or even collate whatever little information was on hand. …

    The same Lee who rarely went into battle without the most careful preparations, sent more than two thirds of his forces into the battle of Gaines’s Mill under generals who, in lieu of maps, had been furnished with a few lines drawn childishly and haphazardly on a piece of paper. General Taylor still was enraged when he commented on this state of affairs fifteen years later: ” . . . from Cold Harbor to Malvern Hill inclusive, . . . the Confederate commanders knew no more about the topography of the country than they did about Central Africa. . . . a day’s march [from] Richmond, . . . yet we were without maps. …” General Daniel Harvey Hill seconded Taylor in few but stinging words: “The maps furnished the division commanders were worthless.” [6 more pages of examples of Lee/CSA terrain-intel failures; italics & spaced ellipses (. . .) Eisenschiml’s; short ellipses (…) mine)]

  5. lochaber says

    I kinda feel like this lionization of Lee and Jackson is just another way to justify and glorify the South, and excuse slave ownership, much how people try and claim the Confederate flag is about “Heritage”

    There’s a lot of people really invested in minimizing the horrors of slavery in the U.S.

    Not a scholar or anything, but the few things I did read about the U.S. Civil War made pretty much every battle sound like a clusterfuck of incompetence and half-assery

  6. Reginald Selkirk says

    Say what you want about Caesar; neither Bonaparte nor Lee has a salad named after him.*

    * Yes, I know, it was a different Caesar. Have a laugh before you go into pedantic mode.

  7. jrkrideau says

    @ 4 Pierce R. Butler
    I am going from memory of an article or two several years ago but IIRC the US in the 1860s just did not have anything like British ordnance survey maps.

    It may not have been so much that Lee, or Union generals for that matter, ignored maps, they just may not have existed at the detailed level that allowed for decent troop movement decisions.

    The description that Marcus gives of the Confederate army looting its way North reminds me of the Thirty Years War when at least half or more of the troop movements seemed more concerned with finding food than fighting the enemy.

  8. jrkrideau says

    @ 6 Reginald Selkirk
    There is Chicken Marengo for Napoleon. Not the same thing but still….

  9. cartomancer says

    Ketil Tveiten. #3

    Alexander is one of those figures about whom it is very difficult to find the truth of the matter on just about anything. Our sources for his life were written centuries later – the earliest (Diodorus) writing at least 200 years after Alexander, and the most complete (Arrian and Plutarch) over 400 years later. By which time he was shrouded in so much myth, and his legacy was so important to later military cultures in such specific ways, that it is difficult to disentangle later accretions. Add to this that the original primary sources those writers we do have used (mainly Ptolemy, Onesicritus and Callisthenes) were heavily partisan in their own ways, and Alexander recedes even further into myth.

    You can, pretty much, write a history of Alexander that takes any perspective. Robin Lane Fox, for instance, thinks that Arrian’s account of the Battle of the Granicus River is actually a piece of blatant lying to boost Alexander’s reputation. Arrian tells the tale by having Alexander’s old mentor Parmenio present a cautious plan to hold back on one side of the river and sneak across by night, which Alexander then discards as cowardly and leads a glorious full frontal charge through the water that takes the shocked Persians by surprise. Lane-Fox thinks that the plan laid out the night before was what actually happened, and the battle was a messy and drawn-out affair because of it, but Arrian is following Callisthenes, whose task it was to flatter Alexander and diminish the role of his advisors – particularly Parmenio, who was his father’s appointee, an alternative focus for the loyalty of his Macedonian troops, and whose son Philotas would later be involved in a coup, necessitating Parmenio’s assassination.

    Since we’ve never really found the site of the Granicus battle (and it is unlikely we ever will), there is little archaeology we can use to tell one way or the other. It might be true, it might not. That’s pretty much the key problem with Alexander studies – it is difficult to make much headway beyond noting the stories told and acknowledging that we are undoubtedly in the dark on most of the specifics.

  10. says

    Not a scholar or anything, but the few things I did read about the U.S. Civil War made pretty much every battle sound like a clusterfuck of incompetence and half-assery

    I could have just said something like that, but then this would have been a really short posting. ;)

  11. says

    Reginald Selkirk@#6:
    Say what you want about Caesar; neither Bonaparte nor Lee has a salad named after him.*

    My high school Latin class put on a sketch at school fair, in which a pair of gladiators offered “Hail!” to Caesar’s Salad Dressing, reciting a recipe involving olive oil, balsamic vinegar, etc, then they killed eachother. It was literally sophomoric so I thought it was pretty funny.

  12. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#4:
    from Otto Eisenschiml, The Hidden Face of the Civil War:

    That’s really fascinating stuff. Especially when you realize that both the North and the South had ample opportunity to do some reconnaissance and map-making before everything went sideways.

    I compare that to Napoleon’s map-rooms at the Musee Des Invalides – exactingly constructed scale models that allowed a commander to study the significance of the terrain. Napoleonic cavalry scouts were also aware that they should report back anything that represented an interesting change at any particular spot where there were enemy (i.e.: there’s artillery over there!) Civil war commanders appeared to locate enemy artillery by marching around and watching for the smoke puffs, or something like that. [I compare that to young Marbot’s making a name for himself by swimming across the Rhine at night and scouting the enemy thoroughly, then swimming back and giving a detailed report.

    I’d buy that book but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t bear to finish a book on the Civil war, but thanks for that thought-provoking extract.

  13. says

    The description that Marcus gives of the Confederate army looting its way North reminds me of the Thirty Years War when at least half or more of the troop movements seemed more concerned with finding food than fighting the enemy.

    “Living off the land” is one of the oldest strategies in warfare, but it depends on there being a fairly short war. When I say “one of the oldest” I mean that literally – Sun Tzu points out that fighting on someone else’s land is a great idea because it does double damage: 1, there’s war and 2, you destroy their agriculture.

    As you say, the Thirty Years’ war was the worst case of European-on-European bloodshed (what’s so superior about those white Europeans, again?) Proportionally the states that came to make up Germany suffered worse in the Thirty Years’ war than WWI or WWII. The nihilism and desperation of the time is well captured in The Last Valley, starring the omnipresent Michael Caine. It’s one of the darkest movies I’ve seen. Own goal, christians!

  14. says

    Ketil Tveiten@#3:
    I’d always read Lee’s successes and the Confederacy’s early doing-well-in-the-war as “the Union generals were garbage until Grant and Sherman showed up” rather than any sign of actual talent or ability.

    Yes, that’s a succinct summary of the situation. I’d say that by the time Grant and Sherman showed up, the South had already thrown its best into the meat-grinder and they ought to have realized that even fairly uninspired leadership from the North would win the war of attrition they had set up.

    I think the South believed that they were ubermenschen and were going to have a short victorious war. Not to go too far afield, I’ll dangle the notion that the Southern attitude was a demonstration of why racism is a bad idea: it makes you stupid and you really come to believe you are superior. Welcome to your reality check, Southerners!

    I realize that my commentary probably sounds pretty hagiographic of Napoleon, although I’d like to note that I pointed out more of his screw-ups than his successes. I probably should have emphasized that Austerlitz was a tremendous victory because the enemy fielded an uncoordinated and poorly cooperating coalition, with command/control problems that made them unable to react quickly. Against Napoleon, that was a recipe for désastre flambé.

    At no point will you catch me saying hagiographic things about what a great person Napoleon was: he was a surly, erratic, grumpy, imperious (well, obviously) warmonger who was somewhere between a psychopath and a sociopath. He was like a very very competent Donald Trump who surrounded himself with a cadre of equally competent near-geniuses who lacked ambition and were willing to follow him. That’s hardly a “warrior saint” like they call Lee.

    I’ll cop to being a fan of Marbot, but that’s because I read his memoirs at an impressionable age, and he always (according to everything I’ve read about him) was a total straight-arrow who lived a life of excellence. He wouldn’t call himself a warrior saint, though. In fact one of the things I found so endearing about Marbot’s memoirs was his self-deprecating dry wit. He doesn’t make himself sound like a hero; he was heroic and so he didn’t have to. It’s also worth noting that at the time when Marbot wrote his memoirs there were plenty of other survivors of the war who would have called him out and honorably attempted to murder him if he lied or exaggerated about anything that he claimed happened. It says something that he retired, an old grump, much respected by everyone he dealt with.

    Also, to counter the somewhat hagiographical tone here, it’s not like Nappy didn’t make some major cock-ups of his own (Egypt, Spain, and Russia are the top hits), and he had (like Caesar, probably) a great talent for taking credit for things he only tangentially participated in and bigging up his accomplishments when he could get away with it.

    Caesar and Bonaparte made mistakes and Bonaparte’s mistakes were greater than Caesars, unless you count that part about ignoring a rebellion that was fomenting right under his nose (or, ignoring soothsayers who yell “beware the ides of March!”). When I was a teenager I found a lovely book by Charles Fair entitled From the Jaws of Victory which is an analysis of military incompetence. He does a truly impressive hatchet-job dissecting Napoleon’s reputation. [wc] I wish Spike Milligan wrote a book about Napoleon (perhaps: “Bonaparte, and my part in his downfall.”)

  15. says

    Andreas Avester@#1:
    Given how much humanity glorifies mass murder and suicide, it is surprising that humans still haven’t died out. People like Caesar, Alexander, or Napoleon were just mass murderers. There’s nothing glorious about killing people.

    That’s true.

    Most of humans’ political leaders are sociopaths or psychopaths. It’s remarkable that we allow them even the slightest whiff of power.

  16. dangerousbeans says

    Fucking off to loot a supply train the eve of a major battle strikes me as serious military acumen. Last thing you want is to be where the actual fight is

  17. John Morales says

    TLDR: Bonaparte was a genuine military genious, Lee was only reputedly so.


  18. Pierce R. Butler says

    jrkrideau @ # 7: … the Thirty Years War when at least half or more of the troop movements seemed more concerned with finding food than fighting the enemy.

    In which context it bears noting that the Southerners attacked the Gettysburg area in the first place due to reports of a nearby warehouse full of boots, as their own forces by that time mostly wore rags or went barefoot.

    Marcus Ranum @ # 12: I’d buy that book but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t bear to finish a book on the Civil war…

    Eisenschiml presents himself as a contrarian gadfly, dedicated to mythbusting; I don’t know enough about the CW to assess his accuracy, but enjoyed the iconoclasm. I find the historiography of that episode frustratingly contradictory (the Union’s naval blockade had little effect/the blockade made all the difference, etc): I can’t think of any other war, except the very recent/current ones, with so much disagreement.

    One Eisenschiml point that I’ve never seen elsewhere makes a lot of sense: the Confederates would have done much better to have kept their capital (and associated armament works, etc) at its original location in Alabama, rather than the highly more vulnerable Richmond. Apparently they had to make that transfer to persuade the Virginians to join the secession, though now a Confederacy without Virginian leadership seems almost unimaginable.

  19. dangerousbeans says


    I find the historiography of that episode frustratingly contradictory

    It seems to me as an external observer that the central disagreement that lead to the American civil war hasn’t really been resolved, maybe that’s what leads to the contradictory historiography? People won’t agree on a narrative because a lot of them still disagree about what lead to the war. It looks a bit like the time between WW1 and WW2 (sorry).
    (if this is anything other than me making up BS then there should be other conflicts with similar contradictory historiography. i don’t know any, i don’t know much about this sort of stuff anyway, but the Troubles in Ireland and maybe the Cold War strike me as possibilities)

  20. John Morales says

    [dangerousbeans: lead → led — past tense, not present. Also, plenty of civil wars, historically]

  21. Pierce R. Butler says

    dangerousbeans @ # 19: … the central disagreement that lead to the American civil war hasn’t really been resolved…

    You got that part right!

    … maybe that’s what leads to the contradictory historiography?

    Here, I dunno. Immediately after the war (or possibly I should say “cease-fire”), southern colleges and universities imposed an iron rule of teaching and writing only the “Lost Cause” whitewashed version of history, and for the sake of national unity (read: Democratic Party) northern academics & intellectuals generally played along. Every library and most bookstores have shelves of Civil War tomes, but almost all involve military maneuvers and personalities; in the more liberal areas you might find studies of life under slavery, women’s roles, etc – but the politics of the civil war still go mostly unreported.

  22. lorn says

    I don’t disagree. There is a lot to what you say but I think you underestimate the effects of the Minie-ball and how it changed pretty much everything. In Napoleon’s day the main infantry weapon was still the bayonet. Their muskets tended to be long to function as a pike. The English square is a modified phalanx.

    Some of this was by choice. Contrary to some voices Napoleon had access to rifles and chose to stick to smooth-bores simply because they were cheaper and had a faster rate of fire. With the Minie-ball you could get the rate of fire of a smooth-bore and the accuracy and range increase of a rifle.

    Trained troops in the Napoleonic period were expected to fire three aimed shots per minute. The standard was to hit a man-sized target at 100 yards. No mean feat given that your bullet literally rattled down the bore and was not stabilized in flight. Effectiveness dropped off dramatically after 100 yards.

    With Minie-balls, and improved manufacturing, an average soldier was said to reliably hit man-sized targets at 500 yards (~450m). Trained marksmen were recorded as reliably hitting the target at over 1000 yards ( ~900m).

    This changes everything. Quick and easy engagement and disengagement is impossible. The Napoleonic tactic of rushing the enemy and giving it to them with the bayonet is nearly useless. You can’t simply wait a couple of hundred yards away in the open and stay even relatively immune to fire from infantry units. Effectively, if you can see them you can inflict significant casualties upon them. And they you.

    Scouting forces can’t stay on horseback and observe safely without use of some sort of optics.

    It also means that outside the smaller and rarer Parrot type rifled cannons smaller horse drawn artillery didn’t have a huge range advantage against infantry. Sharpshooters were often tasked with, and were successful at, eliminating cannon crews.

    This all translates into a huge advantage for defense, particularly if the unit can even minimally entrench. Throughout the Civil War, the Union forces were at a disadvantage and lost repeatedly because they were attacking. Lee lost Gettysburg because he assumed the Union forces were thin enough for the attackers to win, just this once. He was almost right.

    In a study of the terrain around Gettysburg it has been convincingly shown that the vast majority of Union forces couldn’t be observed by any Confederate units. He went in blind. It isn’t entirely unlikely that he wouldn’t have been better informed if his scouts had been doing their jobs. The undulating terrain means any observation had to be done up close. Maximum LOS is the distance between ridge lines.

    I don’t know as how Napoleon could have done much better. Look at the paintings. Commanders observing from a thousand yards away secure in the knowledge that they are safe. Sometimes you can see units waiting at a safe distance but close enough to rush in and turn the battle. The battles are tightly constrained affairs considering the numbers involved. Artillery is used to destroy units at range knowing they are largely safe from infantry weapons.

    Tactics from the Napoleonic era were used in the US Civil War simply because they hadn’t thought through an alternative.

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