Category Archives: 18th Century

The Battle of the Nations – 16-19 October, 1813

The October, 1813 Battle of the Nations in Leipzig was arguably as important as the 1814 Battle of Waterloo.  In English language historiography of the Napoleonic Wars it is often downplayed or only briefly mentioned however.  This is mainly because no English speaking armies fought in the battle.  The lions share of the fighting at Leipzig was done by Austrian and Russian armies and thus the English speaking world tries to ignore this decisive battle in which almost 50,000 men died.

The Battlefield at Leipzig
The Battlefield at Leipzig

After Napoleons’ defeat in the Russian Campaign of 1812 and the concurrent French defeat in the Peninsular Campaign the Allied nations of Europe joined together once again in the Sixth Coalition.
Napoleon was not quite defeated though. Between May and August he defeated coalition forces in three separate major battles at Lützen, Bautzen, and in front of Dresden.

Following their spring and summer defeats the Allies then held to their originally agreed upon strategy of avoiding battle with Napoleon himself but accepting battle with his marshals if the situation seemed favorable. The Allies inflicted defeats on the French at Großbeeren, Kulm, Katzbach, and Dennewitz. These defeats led Napoleon to consolidate his army in and around Leipzig in early October, 1813. The Allied armies followed him and converged there and forced a battle in mid-October.

As the allied armies grew closer to Leipzig Napoleon knew he was being encircled but planned to use his interior position to avert defeat and achieve local superiority. This plan eventually failed in the face of the massively superior numbers the Allies could bring to bear.
The allied armies approached from the north, west, and south with the only possible avenue of escape for Napoleon being to the east and away from France.

Army Positions on the first day
Army Positions on the first day

On the first day, 16 October, 1813, there were several areas of contact between the French and Allies .  Most notably in the areas of Mockern, Wiedentzsch, Lindenau, Connewitz, & Wachau.  The fighting was difficult but the French managed to essentially stay in position and the day ended in a bloody stalemate.

Day 2 saw only two minor actions. One between the Polish and Russians and between the Prussian and French Cavalry.  14,000 French troops arrived to bolster Napoleon.  However, two entire new armies, a Russian and the Swedes consisting of 145,000 troops arrived in the Allied Camp.

The third day of the battle
The third day of the battle

The third day was the culminating day of the battle as Napoleon was essentially encircled.  The fiercest fight of the entire battle was at Probstheida between the Russians and Prussians and French. The French successfully held off the attackers but at the cost of crippling casualties.  There was additional fighting at Paunsdorf and Schonefeld where the Swedes and Prussians attacked and defeated French forces defending these villages. The Saxons and Württembergers defected to the Allies during this action.  At the end of the day the French had held in the south but been pushed back in the north east.  Napoleon knew he was beaten.

During the night of 18-19 October Napoleon began withdrawing his army to the west across the Elster. The Allies were unaware until 0700 on the 19th and Marshal Oudinot put up a fierce rear-guard action in the streets of Leipzig.  The retreat went well until a corporal who inevitably did not get the word blew the only bridge over the Elster up while it was still crowded with French troops and the rear guard was still fighting in Leipzig itself. Blowing the bridge caused a panic a rout of the troops trapped east of the river.  Poniatowski, the only Foreign born Marshal drowned trying to cross the river.

The Battle of Leipizig was the bloodiest battle of the Napoleonic Wars both in terms of total losses and in losses as a percentage of troops engaged.

French Casualties
Not Counting the defection of the Saxon and Württemberg armies the French suffered roughly 80,000 casualties.  44,000 were killed and wounded and a further 36,000 were captured.  19.5% of Napoleons force was killed or wounded while total casualties approached 36% of the army he started the battle with.

Allied Casualties
Total Allied casualties were approximately 54,000 dead, wounded, or missing; 14% of their total force.

In the wake of his defeat Napoleon abandoned Germany altogether and retreated to France to prepare his defenses for the defense of la Patrie that he knew was coming in 1814.  The Allies did not pursue Napoleon after Leipzig as their armies were exhausted after 4 days of brutal fighting and the end of the campaign season was fast approaching.  After Leipzig the Confederation of the Rhine fell apart and French Armies would not occupy German soil again for any appreciable length of time until 1918 when occupation troops entered the Rhineland in the wake of World War I.

The Evolution of Warfare and the Crimea

“History” is a problematic concept because it is very much tied to a specific culture. History departments derive from the medieval university culture of Europe and we have to accept that most people, at most of the time, have lived without any notion of it.

Perception is a key to understanding this phenomena: in the history of warfare, violent confrontations have in large part been endemic. Two parties confront each other and display a show of brutal force and often the conflict is resolved symbolically by a single dual or one side is hidden behind a fortification, while tribute is discussed.

A perfect example of endemic warfare would be the 18th and 19th century Irish culture of “Shillelagh Law” where various “factions” or gangs would assemble to finish an argument with the most primitive of weapons: a wooden cudgel made of oak or blackthorn.

This phenomena was best described in the works of William Carleton, and can be seen portrayed in the Hollywood film “Gangs of New York.”

Two sides proclaim their beef, off fly the hats and bloodshed commences until at least one of the ring leaders falls, and then the crowds disperse.

The shared perception of both sides is that there was an argument, the argument should be settled with satisfaction. Satisfaction can be satiated often with little to no bloodshed.

Even in duals, we can read that very often men came to an arrangement before lead was discharged. President Andrew Jackson often feuded on behalf of his slandered wife, whereas Lincoln’s dual ended before lead was to fly.

At a single time and a single place, a culture of science arose. Symbolic, shared rituals had become meaningless, and exactness was the only sign of certitude.

This culmination was in Western Europe.  Carl von Clausewitz wrote the tome on scientific warfare. In this warfare, the enemy was to be pressed until absolute triumph was achieved. The commanders were to rationally calculate their chances as would an accountant, tallying up the score after every battle.

The 21st century has witnessed a resurgence in endemic warfare. We now fight, not for a brutal display of pride, but utilize a different method: an invocation of the goddess of “fairness” and “tolerance.”

One of the proclaimed reasons for the last few wars America has fought was for “women’s rights,” and the right to cast a ballot. On the other hand, the metric of capital accumulation is also ever present: we don’t go to war if it hurts business.  Many European countries do not want to damage their business deals with Russia at this time.

Russian history is difficult to understand because it lacks a cohesive understanding of itself without violent displays of aggression.

In Russia, nothing is original or organic.

The Slavic Messianic idea that Russia believes in is an import from 18th century Polish Messianism.

Slavophilia is difficult to believe in for an outside observer because Kievan Rus was founded by Norsemen, and the tribes that settled under it were mostly Finns, and a few Slavs.

Many of the leaders of Russia’s past came from Tatar stock, and there are many “mongolisms” in Russian culture, such as oriental bureaucratic despotism and the belief in a divine, strong leader.

What Russia has maintained is a firm belief in the nation-state, while Western nations only see an endemic worldview of transfers of money. The man with the pot of gold is the “big chief” and others are supposed to bow to their wisdom.

This is an ancient invocation of a superstitious notion, and our belief in endemic (economic) warfare will not suffice to bring down a nation-state which believes it has a destiny to expand unto infinity.

It is true that Russia and Ukraine are ruled by money and by oligarchy, but Russian people believe in the nation-state.

This self-perception in and of itself is the Bear’s main power at this point in time.

Even if the oligarchs compare each others powers by the size of their yacht fleet, as long as Putin achieves deference for aggressive tactics from his people, we will be facing trouble.

Book Review: The Great Degeneration by Niall Ferguson

If there is one book in the realm of history or political science any informed person needs to read this year then Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die is it. In this short book Ferguson goes right to the heart of why the West seems to be in decline and analyzes in short, incisive prose why that is so and perhaps what can be done to reverse it. The book itself is only 147 pages of text divided into an introduction, four topical chapters and a conclusion. There are twenty pages of notes but no bibliography or index, which is unusual for one of Dr. Ferguson’s books.

The whole thrust of this book is that it is the degeneration of civil, that is to say private, institutions, the failure of the Rule of Law, the distortion of economies by social engineering, and the breakdown of trust in civil society that are at the heart of why the West is in decline.  The bright spot is that the decline is not terminal, or at least not yet, it can still be reversed.

I got the impression while reading this book that I was reading a modern day Juvenal or Vegetius lamenting the degradation of the Roman world.  I only hope that this time the West gets it right and our children and grandchildren are not subject to another Dark Age as the West throws away the fruits of its culture.

I highly recommend this book both to people who agree and disagree with the central points.  If nothing else this book provides a starting point for a conversation about where society is and where it is going or should be going.  Once again, Dr. Ferguson has a produced a highly relevant and readable book that should make everyone think.

Book Review: Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776 by Richard R. Beeman

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776 by Richard Beeman is the tale of the First and Second Continental Congresses from the opening of the First until the Declaration of Independence in July, 1776. It was serendipitous that I received this book from the publisher when I did because the events leading to and surrounding the Declaration of Independence have recently become an area of interest of mine.

The book is 418 pages of text separated into 25 chapters with two appendices, and index, and extensive notes. The prose is clear, well written, and even entertaining at times. The narrative covers the events in the first two Continental Congresses from the first meeting to the Declaration of Independence and a little beyond. This is not meant to be the story of the revolution and military events are only mentioned in the context of how they impacted the deliberations of the Congress. This is the story of how the English colonies went from being loyal subjects of the crown to 56 of the most prominent men in America signing a document sundering that relationship forever.

Before reading this book I had what I hope was an average understanding of the issues surrounding the months and years leading up to the Declaration of Independence. After reading this volume I had a much clearer understanding of not only the issues that cause the break between the colonies and England but also the different tensions between the colonies themselves. Too often the history of the drive for independence presents the colonies as a monolithic bloc, which as Dr. Beeman makes clear was anything but the case. Independence was not the goal of the majority of delegates to the First Continental Congress and it was only a combination of colonial reasonableness and British intransigence and insensitivity to colonial aspirations that led to the ultimate break.

It is fascinating to read of the maneuvering that went on in the Congress and how it was not until the last minute that it was clear that Independence would happen. Another interesting aspect is pricking the inflated bubble surrounding the role John Adams played in the Congress and the realization that Thomas Jefferson may have written the Declaration of Independence but he was a late comer to the Congress itself. Perhaps the most interesting appreciation one gains from reading this book is realizing the reluctance with which most colonists took the ultimate step of declaring Independence.

This is an outstanding work that I highly recommend to anyone who wants to truly understand how and why America got to revolting against the authority of the English crown. In fact, this book should be required reading in every college survey course on American History as it presents a clear and well explained rationale for Independence. It is also suitable for 11th or 12th grade high school students. This is an outstanding book that should become an instant classic and needs to be on the bookshelf of anyone who fancies themselves knowledgeable about the Revolutionary Period.