Napoleon vs. Washington: Tactics


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

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.

Napoleon Bonaparte

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:

Napoleon vs. Washington: Context

Extraordinary circumstances bring to light extraordinary people. Napoleon Bonaparte and George Washington came to power in a period of profound change in western civilization.

Both men were born into relatively modest families. Napoleon was born the second of eight children of a minor italian (Corsican) noble family. Washington was the first born of a wealthy Virginian gentry of ‘middle rank’ class.  Both of these men aspired to break their way through the ridged class structure of the 18th century by means of military achievement and by doing so they changed the world.

Lets briefly consider the circumstances in which these two men rose to prominence and changed history:

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon came to power on the heals of one of the most profound and turbulent events in the western world. The French Revolution and its subsequent reign of terror left in its wake a terrified people and a weak central government besieged by enemies both internal and external. It was in this circumstance that the young Corsican, who had proven his worth in battles of northern Italy, stepped in to save a failing French government from insurrection with a ‘whiff of grapeshot‘.

Napoleon waged a spectacular war against the old world superpowers. He repeatedly defended France against nations that feared a man who gained power on the heels of a violent revolution that ended with a king with no head. If France achieved prosperity through revolution and dictatorship, what does that mean for Europe’s monarchies?  Napoleon was surrounded by unrelenting enemies with seemingly limitless resources who were determined no to unseat this upstart from power matter how long it took.

George Washington

As a young man, Washington almost singlehandedly launched the world’s first global war. It was Washington’s actions in the backwoods of the Ohio country that sparked the French Indian war (or the 7 years war as it was known in Europe). The conclusion of the French Indian war brought about taxes from England, and with these taxes rebellion took hold in the colonies.

Washington was chosen to lead patchwork of merchant colonies against the world’s premiere superpower. He was voted to power by a ad hoc collection of state representatives that were desperate for someone –ANYONE with experience–to take over an army of militia against the British camped in Boston. Washington had three things going for him: He was well recognized from his exploits (and un-exploits) in the French Indian war, he towered over his contemporaries at 6’2″, and he was a Virginian.

So it is with this rough online that we begin to compare the two men: Napoleon Bonaparte emerged from the French Revolution to achieve spectacular victories against coalitions of old world superpowers.  George Washington fought against the worlds primary superpower in his home country with an army that was no more than a militia funded by loose coalition of thirteen rebellious colonies.

Both these men achieved greatness. But who was the greatest of all? 

Next Up: Tactics

Napoleon vs Washington: Introduction

In June of last year, Spike TV’s Deadliest Warrior squared off George Washington vs. Napoleon Bonaparte. For those of you who don’t follow the show, Deadliest Warrior pits warriors from different time periods by comparing their technologies, skillets, strategies, tactics & techniques. They then stuff this data into some sort of super computer which runs scenarios and spits out a ‘winner’ aka: the Deadliest Warrior. Insert re-enactors and weapons demonstrations and you have a hypothetical show that the Hypothetical Channel…er I mean History Channel…would be jealous of.

I thought the episode was fun. The weapons demonstrations were pseudo competitions between American and French rifles, sabers and cannons. The cannon demonstrations were especially fun to watch. Watching 6lb and 8lb pounders wipe out the fleshy demonstration dummies was a real eye opener. Cannons were really the ultimate weapon of the age.

The show briefly touches on strategy and tactics, but they didn’t really dig deep (it is Spike TV after all).  In particular, I thought they unfairly stuck to the stereotype (and long lasting British propaganda) of Napoleon as a power hungry megalomaniac who thirsted for war and bloodshed.

The Deadliest Warrior wrapped the episode up by edging George Washington over Napoleon Bonaparte by the narrowest margin in the shows history. The episode was capped by a somewhat tacky reenactment of our first President running his sword through Napoleon. I guess as an American I am supposed to get a slight visceral thrill when that happened. Another opportunity to stick it to the frogs and their greatest figure in history I guess.

But as silly as this exercise was, it did plant into my head to put together a Twistification comparison of Washington and Napoleon. I’ll pull from some 50+ hours of David Markham’s fine Napoleon podcast as well as a few books including The Reign of Napoleon Bonaparte by Robert Asprey and Napoleon’s Road to Glory by David Markham. Admittedly my sources on Napoleon slant heavily toward the apologetic. Markam is very enthusiastic toward the positives of Napoleon’s impact on history and I find his enthusiasm infectious.

So what am I comparing? What title does this winner get? Right now I am leaning toward ‘Who is the Greatest’?

I’ll start the contest with the historical context of Napoleon’s and Washington’s lives. I feel it is important to lead with this information because there is no real way to judge the characteristics of these men until we come to terms with the similarities and differences in their circumstances.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Historical Context
  3. Tactics
  4. Strategy
  5. Leadership
  6. Politics
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