Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Napoleonic War vs Civil War

Lately I’ve been reading a bunch of Napoleonic War-era stuff. Mostly Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series but also adding in non-fiction books to flesh out campaigns and personalities that interest me.

We often hear of the Civil War being fought with Napoleonic influences and in some cases I do agree, mostly I don’t. In reading though lately there are some things from that era that seem to have disappeared in the roughly 50 years between the wars. Not sure if this is an American versus European thing or if its just a change in warfare over time.

For example I have read accounts of the dead being burned after a battle. Apparently the ground would be too hard for burial trenches and so the dead would be stripped of belongings, including most of their clothes when wanted/needed, piled together and burned. And this was done for both sides, not something that you just did to your enemies but also to your own side. This seems truly strange to me and it might be a cultural difference but I feel pretty confident that this was not done in the Civil War, at least not intentionally.

The extent of looting also seems out of place in the Civil War. I realize that soldiers always have looted the dead, and probably always will. But in the Napoleonic era it there seems to be quasi-sanctioned looting against civilians, and we’re not talking about stealing the chickens from a farmer. If there was a siege, especially if the attackers suffered much, the town was going to be sacked. At Badajoz it took 72 hours to get the army back under control. Cornwell has a line in one novel about how the army stole what could be carried and raped what couldn’t be stolen. Obviously not 100% true but gives a flavor of what the fighting was like. At Vitoria the loot was immense, in modern terms it could have been about £100 million. And this loot did not go straight into the British coffers, although technically forbidden the common soldiers kept some of the loot themselves.

Also it seems that post-war everyone studied the campaigns of Napoleon but it appears to me that Civil War officers would have been better served by studying Wellington. Strategically they both seem to be very good at their craft but tactically I think Wellington was his superior, something that was proven on the only battlefield they faced each other directly, Waterloo. Napoleon used a column formation to attack instead of lines as we are familiar with from the Civil War. Wellington used lines. The key to breaking the column is as simple as pouring as much firepower into the column as possible. The column formation means that only a small percentage of it can fire at the defenders, the front rank and the men along the sides. But if you can put a ton of firepower into that column and make it halt then you’ll win. The British army was apparently one of the better trained armies in how fast they could fire their muskets. The other European nations were not as fast and the column attacks defeated them time after time. But eventually the British got a toehold in Spain-Portugal and proved their might against the columns.

Reading about the Peninsular War has made me want to visit Portugal and Spain, and perhaps some day I will. I’d also love to see Waterloo but am disappointed that the terrain has been much changed, mostly to build a monument. I did have the good fortune to visit London many years ago and went through Wellington’s house. I would definitely do so again now that I know more about the man.


Chris Evans said...

I really like studying the Napoleonic Wars in addition to the Civil War. My interest in them were first fired when I got to see a huge Napoleonic exhibit in Memphis, TN in 1993. They had all kinds of great artifacts: Napoleon's throne, carriage, tent, paintings of his battles, David's painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps. It was great.

Wellington ,I believe, was Ulysses S. Grant's favorite General. It was funny that Grant couldn't stand Napoleon at all ,as a person, but thought he was a military genius. H

I love the line Wellington used when he saw the Lion Mound had disfigured part of the battlefield at Waterloo, "My God, they have destroyed my battlefield."

A film I recommend seeking out on the Napoleonic wars is the 1970 film 'Waterloo'. Rod Steiger plays Napoleon and Christopher Plummer plays Wellington. It is one of my favorites. They are both tremendous playing their characters.


Nick said...

I definitely can see a connection between Wellington and Grant. They both have their setbacks but overcome them to achieve ultimate victory over the commander generally believed to be the best. Plus the way Wellington conducted his operations smacked me so often as "this is how Grant would have handled that"

Anonymous said...

For Napoleon history buffs, a must museum visit is Les Invalides in Paris, France. My wife and I spent a few hours there this spring and I wish I could have spent days there. It was not too crowded and covered all wars France was in. Well worth the admission cost.