Napoleon and the Operational Art of War--part deux

     Tactically, Napoleon developed an innovative battle plan to best utilize his superiority in combined arms warfare, particularly his artillery and cavalry, to provide maximum flexibility in developing the battle to his advantage.  Once the enemy forces deployed on the battlefield, Napoleon quickly began to probe for weak spots on his opponent’s flanks, forcing his enemies to deploy reserves and thin their overall lines.  At the critical moment, Napoleon’s tactical genius would appear as he committed his artillery and reserves to break his opponent’s line at the critical spot on the battlefield and send his cavalry into the pursuit of a demoralized and defeated opponent.  Napoleon was particularly relentless in the pursuit, understanding that his enemy must not be allowed time to regroup and reform for another battle.  Because of the nature of weaponry used during the Napoleonic era, battle tended to be very close quarters and the shock impact of a heavy cavalry charge or the appearance of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard was often enough to send an enemy army fleeing from the battlefield.

     All of these innovations were driven by the salient feature of Napoleonic warfare—the “decisive battle.”  This era of warfare was the last in which a single battle was able to largely decide the strategic outcome of a campaign.  Napoleon’s victories at Austerlitz and Jena-Auerstadt decisively destroyed his opponent’s armies and largely allowed Napoleon to dictate the terms of the ensuing peace.  However, later in the Napoleonic era as other European armies adapted many France’s tactical and operational innovations, the relative advantages Napoleon enjoyed became greatly diminished.  As a result, the French were never able to duplicate the overwhelming victories of 1805-1808.

    The influence of Napoleon’s art of war can be seen in how most American Civil War generals attempted to maneuver their armies to achieve the decisive battle.  Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862 offers several remarkable traits of Napoleonic thinking adapted to the unique geography, forces, and strategic circumstances facing his army as it was forced to fight against Union superior numbers.  The most significant operational challenge Jackson faced was the several qualitative and quantitative advantages of the Union forces arrayed against him.  Not only were his troops outnumbered strategically, but in most cases tactically as well.  In addition Jackson faced immense logistical difficulties as he tried to keep his troops equipped with capture Union stores.  However, despite, or perhaps because of his logistical woes, Jackson’s troops were capable of enduring immense hardships, giving them the ability to be more mobile than their opponents and develop the ability to appear at nearly every point in the Shenandoah as they became known as “Jackson’s foot cavalry.”

  The major change on the Civil War battlefield was the evolution of Napoleon’s brand of combined arms warfare.  The geography of the Shenandoah Valley and most of the Civil War’s Eastern Theater was not conducive to the sort of sweeping cavalry charges of Napoleonic combat.  In addition, infantry weapons had become more lethal with the development of the rifled musket and Miniè ball.  This new firepower also affected the role of artillery on the battlefield.  A Civil War army could not use artillery in the same type of direct fire manner employed in the era of smooth-bore muskets.  Stonewall Jackson’s army would fight primarily infantry battles against his Union opponents with artillery and cavalry relegated to supporting roles.

    This type of infantry-centric combat would be an enduring feature of Civil War battles and the era of decisive battles had clearly faded by 1862.
The nature of armies and warfare had changed significantly since 1815.  Napoleon’s development of the division and corps structure had ironically made a decisive battle, the ultimate achievement of any general, more unlikely in the Civil War.  The newly organized armies were both more resilient and more exhausted after a major battle, neither likely to completely disintegrate or to melt away but to stumble wearily off the battlefield too spent to either pursue or be pursued.  The new lethality of infantry weapons precluded the mass cavalry charge of a beaten army, so most armies survived to fight another day from the battlefields Stonewall Jackson commanded in 1862-1863.  The roles of cavalry and artillery had changed by 1862.  Cavalry was used primarily as a screening and reconnaissance force and artillery was now used as more of a distant direct fire weapon.

    Stonewall Jackson utilized his limited cavalry and artillery as best he could, but his actual tactical employment of infantry often left much to be desired, particularly early in the 1862 Valley Campaign.  One of the major problems was his command style, which different markedly from Napoleon’s.  Jackson did not share his operational or tactical thinking with his subordinate commanders, and the small size of his army did not permit a widely dispersed march in the style of Napoleon’s corps.  This need to keep his plans internalized did not serve Jackson well once battle was joined and he depended on his division commanders to carry out his ‘operational intent’ in a rapidly changing tactical situation.  In addition, Jackson did not manage the battlefield situation well, and missed major opportunities to inflict a more serious blow to his opponent at McDowell and Port Republic due to his command style and lack of quality subordinates.

    By the time of the Chancellorsville campaign, Jackson had learned valuable lessons and became General Robert E. Lee’s most trusted corps commander.  Jackson’s flanking maneuver of May 2, 1863 against the Union XI Corps across the front of a vastly larger army is truly a Napoleonic masterpiece and probably the greatest flank attack of the entire war.  The Army of Northern Virginia was probably at the zenith of their operational skill and only a daring Confederate command team would consider such a high-risk maneuver.  Terrain certainly favored Jackson’s corps as it marched across the Union front to achieve complete surprise against the Union right flank.  The implementation of a decisive blow at precisely the right point on the battlefield achieved a rout that nearly rolled up a good portion of the Union Army except for the intervention of nightfall and Jackson’s tragic shooting by his own pickets.

    Napoleon’s operational and tactical influences survived the 19th century and can still be seen today.  The basic division-corps-army structure made famous by the Grande Armeé has been used by every military force of the 19th and 20th century.  In addition, Napoleon’s concepts of the indirect approach, turning movement and attacking his enemy’s lines of communications and lines of supply can be seen in most of the military doctrines and campaigns of the last 200 years.  Finally, Napoleon’s tactical maneuvers of probing his opponents flanks, the decisive attack of the enemy’s center of gravity, and the pursuit of a defeated opponent from the battlefield are still as sound today as they were in 1805. 

    Napoleon’s one significant shortfall, which no doubt influenced Clausewitz and his writing of On War, was the inability to completely translate operational success into strategic victory and political peace.  Europe was in a nearly constant state of war from 1792-1815 and the inability of Napoleon to make lasting peace with his neighbors ensued his eventual downfall in what became a war of attrition against the great powers of Europe.  Likewise, even Stonewall Jackson’s brilliant battlefield successes in 1862-1863 were unable to produce strategic victory as Union forces relentlessly rebuilt after major defeats.  The experience of Napoleon and Stonewall Jackson show that, absent a sound strategic plan to produce an achievable political victory, operational and tactical ability ultimately produce very little beyond battlefield triumphs.

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