First, lets define tactics. When talking tactics, I am speaking specifically about a General’s battlefield strategy and unit movements. I will turn to strategy in a later post and in that context I will compare decisions made from a larger ‘ten thousand foot’ view.
Now on to battlefield tactics.
George Washington’s tactical failures at the beginning of the war have been well documented. He was under political pressure to win quick victories and end the war quickly–and that he almost did. Washington had aggressive tendencies that needed to be reined in by his staff. His tactics tended to be excessively complex as they often called for a series of coordinated movements that placed too much emphasis on impeccable timing and the hope that the enemy would behave as expected.
The enemy of course, did not behave as expected. General Howe crushed Washinton’s forces early and often. He famously outflanked Washington at Brooklyn heights and at Brandywine. When Howe wasn’t outflanking Washington, he was overwhelming the Patriots with superior troops, training and equipment. At the early point in the war, even if Washington had maneuvered his forces to gain tactical advantages, it was doubtful his army could of maintained this advantage. The Patriot troops were simply too unorganized and undisciplined.
Tactics are not solely about executing an initial plan however. A true measure of ones tactual abilities takes place when everything goes to shit. The brutal blows of defeat actually exposed Washington’s talents. He learned quickly that in order to survive his troops must retreat in orderly fashion. He turned to slight of hand in order to fool the enemy into thinking his army was larger than it actually was and that it was stationed some place where it wasn’t. He even had to break some rules of 18th century warfare along the way. When things didn’t go as planed, Washington’s brilliance showed through. Very few men of this era could of kept his forces in tact if presented with the same setbacks and overwhelming odds.
Washington’s victory at Trenton and Princeton, while an act of desperation, were well executed surprise attacks. As the war progress, American troops gained the proper training at Valley Forge and were properly equipped (thanks to France). Washington was able to battle the British on more level terms and did so with more success. Most importantly, he learned as the war progressed and avoided repeating mistakes. By contrast, his rival American Generals did not. Washington solidified his power thanks primarily to tactical failings of Horatio Gates and Charles Lee (although an argument could be made that it was Washington’s failure to properly communicate his plan that set Lee up for failure).
It is perhaps not fair to remove George Washington’s tactical abilities from other aspects that made him a great general. Washington was no tactical genius, but neither was he incompetent as others have claimed. It must be reiterated that tactics alone do not win battles. Leadership, training, officers, and strategic planning also come into play. And when you’ve come to realize that no amount of tactics will defeat a superior enemy, wisdom is perhaps the greatest virtue that any General can take to the battlefield. Washington had no shortage of that.
Without question, Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power on the back of his tactical genius. Early in the Italian campaigns, Napoleon ran laps around both his enemies and rivals. Napoleon’s genius derived from the proper understanding and deployment of canon. He was trained as an artillery officer, and he used cannon in groupings called ‘grand batteries’. In addition to cannon deployment, his tactics also involved the cunning and decisive movement of infantry and calvary. These ingredients mixed together to form a powerful concoction in early 19th century warfare. The speed of his troops, the deadliness of his cannons and the flanking charges of his calvary overwhelmed armies and nations.
Napoleons greatest victory came at Austerlicht. The Third Coalition came to a speedy end after the Austrians and Russians were fooled into thinking Napoleon was exposed and vulnerable to attack. The elaborate trap even required a bit of acting from the future French Emperor to pull it off. In the future, no one would ever be fooled into thinking Napoleon was unprepared or at a disadvantage.
Napoleon certainly was not tactually invincible (Waterloo being of course a famous and rare example of this). It must also be noted that Bonaparte also had the advantage of superior troops, equipment and training during early part of his career. His opponents were sometimes decades behind. Toward the end of his career, Napoleon suffered from an agonizing indecisiveness, and this combined with his enemies narrowing the gap of training and equipment made the battles a much more even affair. But the man still won. He almost always won. Opponents found ways to avoid him on the battlefield. In fact, this was perhaps his biggest tactical disadvantage: he couldn’t clone himself.
With nations and countless armies stacked against him, Napoleon managed to cement his position as one of the world’s greatest tacticians. Very few came close. The British may celebrate a solitary victory over him, but only after some luck and a great deal of losses. Wellington was an average General. There. I said it.
Another thing to consider here is the scale of the theatre of war. While the largest battle of the Revolutionary War totaled around 25,000 men, a typical Napoleonic battle was well over 200,000 men and its largest over 600,000! (Battle of Leipzig). So comparing the tactics of these two men will never be a science. Its like comparing the tactics of a tennis match vs a football game. Both men should always be judged within this context.
Nevertheless, Twistification will crown a winner here:
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