Blood, Guts & Propaganda: 4 Overrated Military Commanders
Blood, Guts & Propaganda: 4 Overrated Military Commanders

Blood, Guts & Propaganda: 4 Overrated Military Commanders

Patrick Lynch - December 18, 2016

Blood, Guts & Propaganda: 4 Overrated Military Commanders
Huffington Post

3 – Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon is probably one of the most divisive figures in world history. Those who support the idea of the ‘great’ Napoleon would point to his multiple successful campaigns. Those who believe he is overrated can reference the high casualty rates he suffered throughout his military career. Certainly, the Corsican-born, self-proclaimed Emperor of the French, is one of the most celebrated and controversial figures of all time.

He enjoyed a string of impressive successes until his ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812. As future dictators were to discover, attacking Russia was a case of biting off more than he could chew and he suffered defeat after enormous casualties on both sides. After being exiled to Elba by his enemies in 1814, Napoleon escaped and raised yet another army. At the end of the One Hundred Days, he endured his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815.

Right up until 1812, the French army fought like a well-oiled machine during the Napoleonic Wars. He utilized conscription and created the efficient Grand Army, and the relatively short supply trains he used enabled the French to move much faster than other armies of the age. Perhaps his biggest mistake was ‘overreaching’ by attempting to invade Russia. It has to be said that the Russians enticed him into the invasion by violating the Continental System.

Napoleon used revolutionary tactics and was unquestionably a great leader of men, but it could be argued that he doesn’t deserve his place in the pantheon of all-time legendary military commanders. While the Grand Army’s ‘living off the land’ tactic worked well in central Europe, it was useless when invading Russia. It was also ineffective in Spain during the six-year Peninsular War due to the less fertile lands. The angry Spanish used guerilla-style tactics to ensure the French were not able to send small foraging parties.

In contrast, Wellington’s army established better relations with the Spanish and even paid for the food. His army moved at an almost glacial rate in comparison to the French but was better fed and rewarded with decent intelligence reports from the locals. In the end, the allies were able to push the French out of Spain.

Over the entire course of the Napoleonic Wars, some five million soldiers and sailors died. Regarding proportion of men at arms, this was a higher rate than WWI and WWII! The invasion of Russia was, of course, a costly mistake; Napoleon admitted as much later in his life. The campaign failed for a number of reasons; disease, the awful weather, faulty logistics, and ill-discipline.

The aforementioned ‘living off the land’ tactic failed Napoleon in Russia. He wanted his army to march up to 20 miles a day; his supply trains would go no faster than 12 miles. Napoleon invaded Russia with 600,000 men, 50,000 horses and wagons with enough supplies to last 30 days. He foolishly believed he could win the war within 20 days by forcing the Russians to fight a major battle. As the French marched further into Russia, the lack of available supplies to live off became evident. The Russians adopted a scorched earth policy, and it took three months to reach Moscow. Within five months, only 100,000 tired and hungry men remained; defeat was inevitable.

Napoleon’s career had a profound impact on world history. He dissolved the Holy Roman Empire, reduced the number of German states to 50 from 300 and sold the territory of Louisiana to America. He enjoyed great victories but also suffered disastrous defeats. As a result, notions that he is an all-time great military commander are probably wide of the mark.

Blood, Guts & Propaganda: 4 Overrated Military Commanders
YouTube (Lee in the Post-War Years)

4 – Robert E. Lee

Robert Edward Lee was one of the most prominent generals of the American Civil War. He led the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia from 1862 until 1865. Lee spent 32 years in the U.S. Army until he fought with the South in 1861 and made a name for himself during the Mexican-American War. Lee was also involved in the infamous event at Harper’s Ferry in 1859 when he helped suppress John Brown and his followers as they seized control of the federal arsenal in Lee’s home state of Virginia.

Let’s be clear; Lee was unquestionably a good general, but over the course of time, he seems to have been painted as some God of War. In reality, he probably wasn’t even the best Confederate general as some historians bestow that honor on Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson or James Longstreet. He had some excellent wins during the Civil War; standout victories include the Second Manassas, Chancellorsville, and Fredericksburg.

Lee was an aggressive general, and this tendency helped him pull off some stunning triumphs. At Chancellorsville, he defeated a Union army with superior numbers. After this win, Lee convinced the civilian leaders of the Confederacy to plan a Northern invasion to gain an outright military victory. This was a huge gamble since the South was struggling against the larger Northern forces and Vicksburg was under siege at that time. You could understand Lee’s desire to win the war outright, but in reality, a containment strategy would probably have served the South well at that point.

Gettysburg was a disaster for the South. On day one of the battle, the Union General John Buford retreated to the high ground overlooking the town in what was to prove a decisive move. Lee ordered his exhausted troops to try and take the high ground, but they were sent back by the enemy. Even if they had been successful, it is debatable whether they could have held it. On the third and final day of the battle, Lee ordered the infamous Pickett’s Charge which was a complete failure and practically ended the fight. Gettysburg was a blow from which the South would never recover.

To be fair to Lee, he was often outnumbered by 2-to-1 or even 3-to-1 and the victories he achieved were often remarkable. However, perhaps he didn’t fully understand the nature of war. He focused on offensive strategies that used up resources his army simply didn’t have. The losses he suffered were unsustainable and in the end, his gambler’s nature backfired.