Napoleonic Arithmetic
by
Professor Ernest Butner (Irish)

       When discussing battles it is important to analyze maneuver and action based on many elements. I will try to explain these elements as proposed by Frederick, Napoleon, Jomini, Clausewitz, and Foch. Also when applying Napoleonic Arithmetic it is extremely important to infuse those elements that were known at the time of the action. Looking back on history the arm chair general has the ability to scrutinize with 20/20 vision--something the commanders of the past did not have at their disposal. In many cases poor maps were used with little knowledge of roads or topography.
       This may seem like an excursion into the field of mathematics, but actually it is a maneuver into the art of war. Basically the elements that I will be working with may have been developed in the time of Ghengis Khan, Alexander, or Caesar. They are principles that were important through out time and have been important throughout the 19th and 20th century in regard to the successful prosecution of war.
       I will use Gettysburg as an example in this equation. First place yourself in a position of the Army of Northern Virginia General staff. I know there was no such entity, but for this exercise it works better if you can envision being in the war room with Generals Lee, Longstreet, Stuart, Hill, and Ewell.

Barometer of the situation:

What was the perceived character of the Army of the Potomac, the North in general, the politicians in Washington when General Lee began devising his plan for the invasion of the North?

What was the overall talent or skill level of the Army of Northern Virginia compared to the Army of the Potomac (perception)?

What is the main interest of the North in June of 1863. What is the North trying to get accomplished at this same time (politically & militarily)?

What is the public opinion both North and South?

What is the morale of your troops? What is the perceived morale of the Northern troops?

How can you manipulate the above perceptions to make a favorable united front when moving North?

Basic Principles of maneuver (Extremely Important):

There must be a clear method of detaching troops to:

Discover the enemy. Explain how this is going to happen and what orders are going to be needed. Do you have a contingency plan in case the method you are using doesn't work?

Ascertain your enemy's strength. Explain how this is going to happen, and necessary contingency plans.

Immobilize your enemy. Once you have discovered your enemy, and have a clear understanding of his strength, how are you going to prevent him from moving with celerity to your position?

Cover and protect. How are you going to screen your army while concentrating your forces? At the same time, how are you going to disperse your enemy and prevent his concentration?

       Lee understood these principles very well. How did he answer each of these questions? Did he answer them correctly? Explain. (Does this sound like a test?)
       I don't pretend to be an expert in the Battle of Gettysburg so the following statement may not mean much to the expert on this battle. It is merely a question based on what happens when the above questions are not accurately answered or achieved before an action commences.
       Did not the Battle of Gettysburg commence because the entire Army of Northern Virginia was advancing in a Reconnaissance in Force, because the cavalry was not in contact with Lee?
       Lee was nailed down to a battle line of his enemy's choosing and called upon to fight without sufficient information of either enemy disposition or the battlefield. This is what generally occurs when the above maneuvering principles are not adhered to.
       We like to fix blame in situations such as these so lets try to blame. Who was to blame for not having a contingency plan? Who was to blame for not providing proper screening? Who was to blame for not finding the enemy and immobilizing him? Who was to blame for not preventing the enemy from concentrating?
       I would assume that these questions were answered sometime during the first day at Gettysburg. Compare these questions with what questions come to mind on the first day of Second Manassas, or Chancellorsville.
       A battle is a dramatic action which has its beginning, its middle, and its end. The battle order of the opposing armies and their preliminary maneuvers until they come to grips form the exposition. We have already covered the questions that need answers in regard to the exposition.
       The counter maneuvers of the army which has been attacked constitute the dramatic complication. They lead in turn to new measures and bring about the crisis, and from this results the outcome or denouement. Lets analyze these components.

1. At the beginning of a campaign, much thought should be given to whether an offensive or defensive strategy is to be adopted. However, once the offensive has started it must be sustained to the last extremity, for retreats are always disastrous. They cost more lives and material than the bloodiest battles, with this additional difference, that in a battle the enemy loses approximately as much as you, while in a retreat you lose and he does not. (It would appear that Lee's army was invading with two thoughts in mind: 1. Maneuvering to good ground and invite the Army of the Potomac to attack them on ground of their own choosing. This is a basic principle of warfare as illustrated by the principles of maneuver. 2. Once the action is commenced there can be no turning back because retreats prove to be more disastrous than actual combat as illustrated in this component. Obviously there are other thoughts on this and you, the reader can bring these to the forefront).

2. The army must feed themselves on war at the expense of the enemy territory. (One of the oldest axioms of war. Make your enemy supply your army).

3. It should not be believed that a march of three or four days in the wrong direction can be corrected by a counter march. As a rule, this is to make two mistakes instead of one. (When the prime elements/principles of maneuver as listed above were not adhered to, how does this component work)?

4. The art of war consists, with a numerically inferior army, in always having larger forces than the enemy at the point which is to be attacked or defended. (When the prime elements/principles of maneuver as listed above are not adhered to, how does a commander know how to invoke this all important component? This may be the most important component of waging a successful battle. However, in order to employ it, the maneuvering elements/principles must be complied with).

5. Military science consists in first calculating all the possibilities accurately and then in making an almost mathematically exact allowance for accident. It is on this point that one must make no mistake; a decimal more or less may alter everything. Now, this apportioning of knowledge and accident can take place only in the head of a genius, for without it there can be no creation-and surely the greatest improvisation of the human mind is that which gives existence to the nonexistent. Accidents thus always remains a mystery to mediocre minds and becomes reality for superior men. (When maneuvering men, whether it is on the football field or in great battles, leaders must understand that accidents will happen. Slow responses to orders happen invariably. Jackson was slow at Seven Days. He was slow at Second Manassas. Did it mean he was a poor commander? Longstreet was slow at Gettysburg? Does that mean he was a poor commander? Ewell did not take the hills over looking Gettysburg? Did he know how strong of an enemy force faced him? Did he understand the nature of the position? Who should have provided this information? Was Lee a better general for issuing an order to attack against the center of the Federal Line at Gettysburg on the third day when he didn't know what numbers faced him there? What contingencies were made at the Army of Northern Virginia Headquarters to provide for accidents in the elements/principles of maneuver?)

6. War consists of nothing but accidents and that a commander, though he must always adjust himself to general principles, should never overlook anything that might enable him to exploit these accidents. It is the characteristic of genius. (Again I am no expert in the Battle of Gettysburg, but I would assume that many accidents took place during the battle on both sides. How were these accidents exploited?)

7. The issue of a battle is the result of a single instant, a single thought. The adversaries come into each other's presence with various combinations; they mingle; they fight for a length of time; the decisive moment appears; a psychological spark makes the decision; and a few reserve troops are enough to carry it out. (The Federal Army won the Battle of Gettysburg. What was the decisive moment where victory was achieved? Trick Question??? Think about it.)

8. Sometimes a single battle decides everything, and sometimes, too, the slightest circumstance decides the issue of a battle. (Similar to question #7. Can you think of a slight circumstance that may have decided the issue of the Battle of Gettysburg)?

       The Battle of Gettysburg is an interesting battle to research. Most Civil War buffs begin their appreciation of the war by studying this battle. Most discussion of the battle comes down to who to blame? Forgive me for editorializing here, but I would think it more proper to analyze what happened at Gettysburg from a more scholarly premise. I think there is enough blame to go around for nearly every major figure in the Army of Northern Virginia, after all it was a team effort.
       Having been a combat soldier it would have and did annoy me to no end when I found out that my commanders did not appreciate the value of the Principles of maneuver as outlined above. To fight a major battle without proper knowledge of the enemy is inexcusable. Ascertaining a few of the facts and achieving a few goals in regard to the principle of maneuver and fighting a major battle is contemptible when the possible destruction of an army is possible. Not achieving any of the goals in regard to the principle of maneuver, and fighting a major battle is outrageous.
       I would never lower myself to making an accusation toward General Lee or Meade in their abilities to wage war. For their training they did quite well. They, as well as all of their colleagues who had been trained at West Point were tutored in the science of engineering, not warfare. Their skills in warfare came from their experiences in Mexico where they were junior officers. Their on the job training at First Manassas, Peninsula, Second Manassas, Antietam etc. had separated the milk from the cream. It was the very nature of warfare in the 19th century that maneuvering was slow. Even the best generals were slow at times. The generals who fought at Gettysburg were mostly pretty good commanders and all were survivors.
       There were many battles fought during the Civil War where the principles of maneuver were never achieved nor was any attempt made to achieve, and this may explain the heavy casualties incurred. The inability to make allowances for accidents claimed many a good man's career at the command level. It has also claimed many a good man's reputation in history as well. As always just an old man's opinion.
Source: From the papers of the late Dr. Ernest Butner

This Page last updated 02/03/02

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