Napoleon: A Great Captain

By James R. Arnold

The world has witnessed many great generals whose dazzling displays of leadership changed the course of history. There have been only three Great Captains, men whose combination of inspiring leadership and consummate tactical and strategic skills elevates them above all others: Alexander, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon. During his own time, and for more than one hundred years after, men related military theory and practice to Napoleon’s concepts of warfare and measured ideas and performance against his standards.

In 1796, Napoleon was twenty-six years old, unknown, and unproven when he assumed command of the Army of Italy. His subordinates were extremely skeptical about the capacity of a jumped-up Corsican boy general. His army was a near-starving rabble that included numerous mutinous units. Lacking a reputation, power, or largess, he relied upon force of personality and intellect to convince his principle subordinates and his army to follow his directives. On his first day of command, Napoleon met with three divisional generals. He questioned them in detail about their forces, laid out his campaign plans, announced that on the morrow he would hold an inspection, and the following day attack. At this first encounter he convinced his subordinates to obey.

He issued a proclamation to his troops: “Soldiers! You are hungry and naked; the government owes you much but can give you nothing.” It continued by praising their “patience and courage” and pledged to lead them to fertile plains where they would find “honor, glory and riches.” Napoleon concluded by challenging the army to display the required “courage” and “endurance.” [Proclamation, March 27, 1796 in: Bonaparte, Napoléon. Correspondance de Napoléon 1re. Paris: Henri Plon, 1858, I:109.] Napoleon’s words inspired the army. Seventeen days and two victories later he had conquered Lombardy and taken the next step towards joining the ranks of history’s Great Captains. Long afterward, Napoleon explained that a general’s “most important talent is to know the mind of the soldier and gain his confidence.”[Chaptal, Jean-Antoine. Mes souvenirs de Napoléon. Paris: E. Plon, Nourit et Cie, 1893. 296.]

Napoleon believed that in military encounters morale factors outweighed physical factors by a factor of three. He backed up this belief with a deep study of human motivation. Although he did utter his well-known aphorism, “men are led by baubles”, he appreciated that bravery could not be bought. His goal was to convince his soldiers that their conduct, his rule, and France’s future were all one. To solidify this union, he created a decoration that superseded all others. This was the Légion d’honneur, known as the Cross. Anyone who displayed exemplary service to France could earn the Cross. It was not a mere bauble but rather a symbol of equality, a measure of merit rather than a function of birth or wealth. On countless battlefields, officers competed to earn the coveted Cross. Napoleon encouraged such rivalry because he thought it produced an officer’s best effort. More than any contemporary general, he also understood the rank and file. He was a master of the theater of leadership. Whereas most of his avowedly class conscious foes distanced themselves from the common soldier, Napoleon circulated among them, chatting with easy familiarity, proffering rewards, remembering faces of those he had met before. He extended his reach by keeping a mobile printing press at Imperial headquarters. Its bulletins emphasized that the emperor shared his soldiers’ burdens by eating the same food, sleeping amidst them on battle’s eve, feeling the same heat and cold, the same rain and snow. Thus, the emperor, known to the rank and file as the ‘little corporal’, reinforced the impression that he was one of them. The egalitarian familiarity between Napoleon and his men was unique and goes a long way to explaining why his army achieved prodigies of valor.

Moreover, he intuitively appreciated what modern psychological research discovered regarding the power of the offensive: namely, that morale factors multiplied physical power when a soldier was on the advance and reduced power when a soldier was retreating. Napoleon perceived that the power of the offensive extended beyond a morale impact on individual soldiers; it affected entire national war machines. Therefore, Napoleon sought, through his war strategy, to impose his will by forcing his enemy to respond to his maneuvers. This was most apparent with his favorite strategic maneuver, la manoeuvre sur les derrières (the advance of envelopment). Napoleon’s faith in the offensive was such that over his entire career he only truly fought on the defensive three times; Leipzig in 1813 and La Rothière and Arcis in 1814. He resorted to the defensive on these occasions only after the dismal failure of his initial attack.

Shining competence was a key to Napoleon’s leadership. As a youth, Napoleon’s mathematical prowess led him to join the most scientific of the three military arms, the artillery. The French artillery of this time was undergoing major technical reform. Napoleon’s intellect and energy well matched the dynamic drive to modernize. Having achieved a technical mastery of artillery, he came under the tutelage of Baron du Teil who encouraged him to broaden his military knowledge. Napoleon responded, proving himself an avid reader and apt pupil. He approached military history in analytical fashion. Step by step he collected strategic and grand tactical concepts and unified them into a whole. He was not an original military theorist. Rather, he took existing concepts and improved them. He labored tirelessly to build a solid foundation of knowledge for his chosen career. Intelligent men followed Napoleon because they recognized the power of his brain.

Among modern minds, Napoleon’s towering intellect has overshadowed that fact that he also abundantly possessed the soldiery virtues of endurance and bravery. No leader in recorded history worked harder in a more focused way. Twenty hour days were routine. He famously asserted, “I was born and made for work. I have recognized the limits of my eye-sight and of my legs, but never the limits of my working power.” [Las Cases, Emmanuel. Memoirs of the life, exile, and conversations of the Emperor Napoleon. (London: Henry Colburn, 1836), 6: 359.] He dictated orders while being shaved, conducted interviews while bathing, plotted strategy while attending the opera. His carnets, the notebooks stuffed with statistical data about every Imperial and enemy unit, were his favorite reading material.

He was an able, daring horseman who rode farther and harder than any contemporary ruler and most soldiers. January 1809 found him in Spain. He responded to news of Austrian war preparations by galloping back to Paris, reaching with one hand to whip his companion’s horse so that they could make better time. He completed the 700-mile journey in an astounding six days. In 1812, he covered nearly 1,300 miles of winter road in thirteen days, arriving in Paris at midnight and putting in a full day’s work beginning before daybreak. At moments of supreme crisis, Napoleon worked at a tremendous pitch. During the final planning of the Danube crossing in 1809 through the second day at Wagram, he spent 60 of 72 hours on horseback. Over a three-day period at Bautzen in 1813, he slept only a handful of hours, famously dozing beneath his thundering artillery. He rose upon hearing the combat beginning in a new sector and announced: “Ney has made his maneuver, the battle is won.” [Nicolas Planat de la Faye, Vie de Planat de la Faye (Paris: Paul Ollendorff, 1895), 141.] With his peerless sense of battlefield timing, he then committed his reserves.

Until the American Civil War had demonstrated the impact of accurate shoulder firearms, the catalog of martial leadership included willingness to expose oneself to enemy fire. Napoleon did not shy for such exposure. During the course of his career, he had some nineteen horses shot beneath him. Throughout it all he exhibited exemplary sang-froid.

More extraordinary, he possessed what he called ‘2 a.m. courage’, by which he meant the morale courage to make a decision and live with its consequences, even while knowing that he possessed imperfect information. He prepared himself for those critical choices by rigorous application to intelligence gathering and analysis. But he understood that the path to perfection had to be simple. So, he reduced the principles of the military art to three: concentration of strength, activity, and a firm resolve to perish gloriously. He ignored all secondary issues to focus on the main chance. No contemporary possessed his battlefield coup d’oeil.

A final testament to Napoleon’s supreme martial skills comes from the facts of his downfall. His penultimate defeat in 1814 followed almost a decade of costly attrition against a variety of hostile coalitions, yet still required the unified action of all Europe’s great powers to topple the colossus. He had served as commander in chief and political leader to carve a European empire not seen since Roman times. His legions paraded through Vienna, Berlin, Rome, Madrid, and Moscow. He established legal, social, educational, and administrative institutions that persist to this day. He was a Great Captain.