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The Indecisiveness of Battles and National Political Goals
The Indecisiveness of Battles and National Political Goals 
by Lonny Grout

The Austrian military philosopher Carl Von Clausewitz stated that war was "the extension of policy by other means." If this is true, then battles were the way in which nations attempted to enforce their policies upon other nations within those wars. However, battles often do not have the results in which were intended. This will be shown in examining three separate famous battles of the 19th century. Often nations believed that a war could be decided by one great victory that will cause the enemy to bend to any terms. This often is not the case, as even many of the greatest victories in history did not yield the results that were intended, or hoped for. Battles are often indecisive as a means of accomplishing national political goals.

The first battle to be explored, Austerlitz, is the battle that many historians considered Napoleon's masterpiece. Napoleon himself considered this his masterpiece. There is no doubt that Austerlitz was a great victory for Napoleon, both strategically and tactically. However, Napoleon still did not achieve everything he thought he would with the victory. In order to understand this, it is imperative to know about the situation under which the battle was fought.

The Battle of Austerlitz was fought on December 2, 1805 in the present day Czech Republic. Austerlitz is also known as the battle of three emperors as it pitted the emperors of France, Austria and Russia against one another. Russia and Austria joined with Great Britain to form the third Coalition against Napoleon in 1805. The Austrian Emperor was Francis I (not present on the battlefield). The commander of the Austrian and Russian Forces was Czar Alexander I, as the allied force was 70% Russian.[1]

Napoleon clearly had the more professional Army compared to the Russians. Aristocrats still held positions of high rank in the Russian Army, and beatings were a common way of instilling discipline in Russian troops. Lower level Russian officers were poorly trained, and the Russian army had difficulty performing complex maneuvers in battle. The one good thing the Russian Army had going for it was it had good artillery and very well trained artillery men. [2] The Austrian army had made reforms, but not very many compared to the French. Austrian troops were still lacking in leadership. Austrian cavalry were considered among the best in the world; however the detachment of many cavalry units amongst various infantry units precluded any mass of power, and would not be much of an impact on Austerlitz. [3] The Russian and Austrian Armies still primarily used the 18th century model. Napoleon, on the other hand had previously made many reforms to modernize his army, which was his first of many steps for setting himself up for success at Austerlitz.

The number of troops was fairly even for the battle. Napoleon had approximately 67,000 troops compared to Alexander's approximately 73,000 troops of combined Austrian and Russian forces. The French numbers do not include the numbers from the III Corps, which were not in the battle from the beginning. This was approximately another 7,000 men. [4]

Prior to meeting at Austerlitz, the French army under Napoleon had won a victory against the Austrians at Ulm in September of 1805 and took Vienna in November. Russian reinforcements came too late to save the Austrians, but the ambitious young Czar Alexander I was determined to defeat Napoleon to obtain glory for himself. [5] Napoleon needed a victory, because despite the success at Ulm, the French-Spanish fleet was defeated soon after. The only way to capitalize on his past success was to defeat the Russian-Austrian army in a decisive victory and crush the third coalition. [6] This was Napoleon's goal at Austerlitz: to achieve such a complete and decisive victory that it would put an end to any and all opposition.

The next thing that Napoleon had done to assure his success was that he picked the ground the battle was to take place on. It was November 21st that Napoleon chose the ground that would become the battle of Austerlitz. He supposedly said something to the effect of, "Study this ground well, it will be a field of battle." No one knows for certain as historians disagree to the exact words. [7] Strategically, the location itself had no value, other than Napoleon liked the ground. It was the Pratzen Plateau that he liked the most. It offered only a difference in elevation of 350 feet, from the valley below. It was nearly 1000 feet at its highest point. The north end of the Plateau, however, had a sharp drop, and the south end had several lakes, making it difficult to access from the sides. To the north of the plateau was a plain, which Napoleon thought was perfect for cavalry, as elsewhere their movement would be restricted. To the west was the Golbach River, which Napoleon planned to use as a natural barrier. [8]

On the morning of the battle, December 2, 1805, Napoleon once again spoke to his troops: "Soldiers! We must end this battle with a thunderclap that will confound the arrogance of our enemies." [9]

The Allied troops adopted a plan to attack Napoleon's Right Flank which they noticed was lightly protected. They put most of their troops into four columns to hit Napoleon's right flank, leaving few troops to protect their other flank. The Russian Imperial Guard was left in reserve. [10]

Napoleon had left a trap for the Austrian and Russian forces that confronted him. His plan was to make his right flank appear weak. Napoleon had given the illusion of being in a weakened state for several days. When the enemy attacked on that flank, they would expose their right flank, and Napoleon would attack from that side. Napoleon also figured that the allies would use so many troops in their attack that they would weaken their center. [11]

When the battle began Napoleon could barely contain his glee when he noticed that his foe had fallen for the bait and was attacking his flank as he wished. His calculated risk had paid off and everything would go right for Napoleon's forces after that. It was at 8:00 AM that the allied forces attacked the French. The allies poured several forces against the French right attacking the village of Telnitz. The French forces were initially thrown out of the town; however, this is when Davout's III Corps showed up. Napoleon had ordered Davout, one of his must capable commanders, to make a forced march from Vienna to join the battle and reinforce the weak Southern (right) flank where Napoleon had counted on the bulk of the allied attack to be. Davout's Corps of about 7,000 men made the march of approximately 70 miles (110 km) in 48 hours. Davout's troops were successful in throwing the allies out of Telnitz, and the French were able to check further allied attempts with artillery. [12]

The Allied answer was to continue to keep pouring the bulk of Russian forces against the French right flank. Meanwhile, the Allied Austrian troops attacked the left flank. The allied commanders did not realize that they were walking into a trap. They most likely thought that Napoleon was attempting to reinforce his weak flank. The allies committed their in a slow and piecemeal manner. The deployments were poorly timed, and seemed to be poorly planned. [13]

At 08:45 AM, Napoleon judged that the allied center was now sufficiently weak and after shortly conferring with General Soult, who would lead the attack, he ordered an attack directly on the enemy's center on the Pratzen Heights. "One sharp blow and the war is over," [14] he stated, showing his optimism and showing very much what he expected to the result of this decisive victory would be.

As his men advanced up the heights, they were initially concealed from view by low lying fog. Eventually the fog was lifted by the rising of the sun, which only encouraged the French forces to move quicker. [15] Napoleon accomplished one of the key elements of warfare, as the Russian troops and commanders were genuinely surprised to see so many French troops coming up the slopes at them. The allied troops thought they were on the offensive, and were not expecting an attack of any magnitude. The Russian troops and some inexperienced Austrian troops very nobly held their ground at the initial onslaught of experienced French troops. They even repelled the first wave. The fighting became very fierce, and bayonets were used. After approximately one hour, the French did succeed in driving the Russians and Austrians off the Pratzen Heights. [16] This attack was the key to Napoleon's plan and he did not want to leave it up to chance. He utilized some his best troops, 16,000 men of Soult's IV Corps.

The battle was now going greatly in the favor of the French. The Russian's had no choice but to deploy their reserve, the Imperial Guard under Grande Duke Constantine, Alexander's brother. Constantine counter-attacked in a hard stroke, and had some small initial success, forcing the loss of the only French standard in the battle. Napoleon countered by committing his own heavy cavalry, and when a division of the I Corps on the French left flank also attacked, the Russians were driven black. Artillery was finally loosed on the Russian troops, and they finally broke, with the French pursuing. [17] The center was now broken through and Napoleon had accomplished breaking the allied army in half.

The northern part of the battlefield was also receiving heavy fighting at this point. The Russians were achieving some success until Napoleon deployed elements of his reserve force, V Corps against the combined Russian cavalry and infantry force. The Russian commander was an experienced general, Bagration, who put up a long a fierce fight. However, without any support or reinforcements, he was finally forced from the field when the entire V Corps was committed under Lannes. In this part of the battlefield, the French did not pursue their foe. [18]

Napoleon could now focus his attention to the southern part of the battlefield where he initially laid his trap. There was heavy fighting there over not only Telnitz, but also over the castle of Sokolnitz. Eventually the French achieved a breakthrough here as well, and the allies retreated. One of the greatest credits to the allies that day was the O'Reilly Light Cavalry which were used to cover the allied retreat. This light cavalry unit was able to defeat five of six French cavalry regiments that were thrown at them before they were forced to retreat as well. [19] This act showed that although the French had better troops overall, there were good troops that belonged to the allies.

The Allied army was now in a complete rout as panic set in and they fled the battlefield in all possible directions. This is when one of the most infamous acts by Napoleon occurred. The Russians that retreated to the south did so over the top of frozen ponds. Napoleon directed his artillery to fire not at the men, but at the ice, causing it to break and sending several men to cold watery graves. Austerlitz may be regarded as Napoleon's greatest triumph, but this act if often considered as one of Napoleon's cruelest acts of war. [20] This act of Napoleon's showed that despite the fact he already had the victory, he wanted to assure that it was a great and decisive victory. He wanted to leave no doubt in the hearts of his enemies.

There was no doubt that a decisive victory was exactly what Napoleon had thought that he had achieved that day. He wrote the following to Josephine after the battle:

Yesterday, after several days' maneuvering, I fought a decisive battle. I routed the allied army under the personal command of the Emperors of Russia and Germany. The strength of their army was 80,000 Russians and 30,000 Austrians. I took nearly 40,000 of them prisoner, including 20 or so Russian Generals, 40 flags, 100 guns, and all the standards of the Russian Imperial Guard. The whole army covered itself in glory. The enemy had left 12 or 15,000 men on the field of battle. I don't even know my loses yet, but estimate them at 8 or 900 killed, and twice as many wounded…the two emperors are in a pretty bad position. [21]

Napoleon did exaggerate a bit about the numbers in re-telling his great triumph. Although the exact numbers are unknown, the ally casualties were approximately 27,000 out of 73,000 (not 110,000); which amounted to about 37%. The French casualties were approximately 9,000 out of 67,000 which amounted to approximately 13%. The French also captured approximately 180 guns and 50 standards. [22] This was still a very decisive victory despite any exaggerations by Napoleon.

It was not just Napoleon who thought that it was a great victory. His opponent, Tsar Alexander I succeeded the victory to Napoleon by stating, "We are babies in the hands of giants." [23] Perhaps this is the only thing he could say after suffering such a terrible defeat. Yet, in saying this, Alexander was likely implying that it would take great effort to beat Napoleon.

The results of the strategic victory occurred almost immediately as a truce was signed with Austria on 4 December, and a peace treaty was signed 22 days later. Austria agreed to recognize French territory, pay 40 million Francs in war indemnities, and Venice was given to the Kingdom of Italy. Austria was effectively taken out of the war. The third coalition was ended. Despite all of this, the victory did not have the total strategic impact that Napoleon thought it should. In 1806, Prussia would declare war on France as they felt that France was challenging their power as the main influence in central Europe. Napoleon had believed that the blow at Austerlitz would achieve a complete end to the war. Instead the ultimate impact would to be another enemy out of a major European nation. [24] Even worse, it would cause there to be another coalition against France. Despite this obviously great victory, the results were still not what Napoleon thought (or hoped) they would produce.

The next example is a battle taken from the War of 1812. Since it was not much of a battle, there will not be as much to say about it as there was with Austerlitz. The War of 1812 was started by alleged suppressing of American sailors into British service. It is also possible, as some historians seemed to believe, that the United States saw a possible window to move against the British while they were still busy with Napoleon in Europe.

With the fall of Napoleon in 1814, the British were able to commit more resources to the war with the United States. In actuality, the once offensive campaign of the United States became more of a defensive campaign for survival. In August the British were able to land 4,000 men near Washington. On August 22, 1814, Royal Marines and Sailors attacked an American Gunboat Flotilla, destroying it within a day. On 24 August, part of a British force numbering 2,600 easily defeated 6,000 militia, sailors and regulars at Blandensburg in a very short battle. [25] Among those in retreat was the president, James Madison. Meanwhile, the president's wife, Dolley (or Dolly), saved as many national artifacts as she could from the presidential mansion. While the British continued there march on to Washington, the commandant of the Washington Naval Yard set to burning its extensive facilities, as well as one frigate and a sloop, as to not fall into enemy hands. Others blew up a fort at Greenleaf's Point. [26]

The British entered the Capital unopposed. Expecting at least some resistance, they were not quite sure what to do once they were there. They set fire to the White House, Capitol, Treasury, and War Office, as well as various military facilities. Meanwhile, another British force was moving towards Fort Washington. Expecting a fight, they were surprised when the defenders blew up the fort and retreated. The British then took Alexandria on 28 August capturing 21 vessels, as well as other goods, in the process. Without much else to do, the British raiding party left. [27] There was merely no tactical or strategic advantage of holding the Capitol, as that would only take manpower. All that the British could do was to destroy as much as possible

After the attack on Washington, Madison assured Americans that the government was operating normally. As president, Madison believed it essential to calm public apprehensions; as a southerner, he believed it was essential to prevent relocation of the capital. This was also necessary because there was talk of relocating the capital, as many states made such proposals. Before the opening of a special session of Congress scheduled for mid-September 1814, he announced that meeting places and "other requisite apartments" for the Senate and House of Representatives had been prepared. In his annual message, delivered three days later, he informed the public that the British attack had "interrupted for a moment only the ordinary public business" of the United States' government. [28]

It is difficult to determine what the British sought to gain by the capturing of the Capital. A country's capital is often considered a valuable target in a military campaign, as it is normally disruptive to not only the war effort, but to the entire political structure of that country. At very least it should have had a great psychological impact on the people of that country. For the fledgling United States, there was still little to disrupt in this nature, as it just moved elsewhere. As for the psychological effect, it seemed that the biggest worry was political entities within the country attempting to get the capital moved to a place to serve there own best interest. Again, it is uncertain what the British intended, but the capture and destruction of a capital had to be expected to bring about greater results than it did.

The last example to be explored is a battle that has often been considered a "draw" by most historians. The Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day of fighting in American history, was a battle of high sacrifices, with neither side achieving anything that could be considered a decisive victory.

In early September, 1862, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee had defeated the Federals under General John Pope at Second Manassas. The Federals retreated and Lee, not wanting to lose the initiative, made the decision to cross the Potomac and invade northern territory. [29] Lee's intent was made clear when he stated the following to General Jackson: "When I left Richmond I told the president that I would, if possible, relieve Virginia of the pressure of these two armies." [30] The other army which Lee spoke of was General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac which had retreated back to Washington after threatening Richmond in the unsuccessful Peninsula Campaign. In an effort to not lose the initiative, Lee had the goal of drawing the federals away from Richmond, and hopefully out into the open where he could destroy that army. In deciding on how to best capitalize on his success at Second Manassas, Lee considered and quickly dismissed an attack on Washington. So, Lee entered into Maryland with approximately 50,000 troops, tired, many sick from eating green corn, hungry, and many shoeless. [31]

In answering the threat, Lincoln once again called on McClellan to lead the Army of the Potomac. McClellan was not Lincoln's first choice, but as Lee had thought, the Federals could not ignore that the Confederates were in their territory. Despite the opposition to McClellan, Lincoln had stated, "If he can't fight himself, he excels in making others ready to fight." [32] McClellan moved out with approximately 88,000 troops, that, although were in better physical shape than the Confederate troops, they were in a in a demoralized state from their recent defeat. [33] McClellan had arrogance that was fitting of many generals throughout history as he stated, "I have been called upon to save the country." [34] Lee was somewhat surprised to find out that it was McClellan who was coming after him, as he thought that it would be Pope.

As McClellan moved out against Lee he had a considerable bit of luck as some of his troops found a Confederate order, Special Order 191, which would become known to history as the lost order. McClellan could hardly contain his glee when he was given it. The lost order had the disposition of all of Lee's units, and most importantly showed that Stonewall Jackson's troops were at Harper's Ferry. McClellan had every reason to believe that the document was genuine. To one of his General's he stated, "Here is a paper with which if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee I will be willing to go home." [35] To Lincoln he wrote that he had the plans of the enemy and was confident of success. Lincoln responded, "Destroy the rebel army if possible." [36] It is important to note that the instructions from both presidents to their generals included the phrase "if possible" which indicated that neither wanted to put everything on the line at this point.

With this great amount of information, McClellan proceeded to move slower than he should have, but with more vigor than normal. Lee did note that McClellan was moving with uncommon speed and started to bring his forces back together. McClellan had move quickly enough to tip off his intent, but slowly enough to completely squander his advantage. The Confederates fought delaying actions at South Mountain in order to buy more time to retrieve all their forces, most notably, Jackson from Harper's Ferry. McClellan misunderstood the action at South Mountain and thought he was attacking a portion of Lee's main force. When the Confederates broke from the delaying action, McClellan thought that he had Lee in retreat. [37]

On September 17, 1862, Lee decided to turn and stand his ground on one side of Antietam Creek, and McClellan did attack him. McClellan's original battle plan was sound, but he did not stick with it. McClellan's plan was to hit Lee's left side first, and then his right side immediately after. He hit Lee's left as planned, but because of initial success thought that there was no reason to attack the right. Because Lee was only being attacked on one side, he was able to reinforce with troops elsewhere on the battlefield. McClellan then finally ordered Burnside to attack on the right side. The combination of the order being given late, Burnside being slow to move once he got the order, and resistance by the Confederates at what would become known as Burnside's Bridge, would result in Burnside's troops being in action too late to affect the battle. Burnside did finally crush Lee's right and broke the Confederate line; however this is when Stonewall Jackson's Corps arrived after a forced march from Harper's Ferry. If an attack on the right had taken place earlier it would have disrupted Lee's ability to concentrate his forces in space. In addition McClellan had held back 20,000 troops thinking that Lee was somehow mounting a counter-attack. [38]

The fighting was very fierce, especially on the Confederate left where troops were continually poured in on both sides. As darkness overtook the field, the bloodiest single day in American history had ended. The result was 24,000 casualties on the field, of which13,000 wore grey. There were 27,000 casualties including the actions at South Mountain and Harper's Ferry. [39] After careful consideration, Lee decided to stay on the field despite the sad condition of his army, fully expecting the attack to resume in the morning, and even considered a counter-attack at one point! McClellan did not attack (and neither did Lee). There was much criticism of McClellan for what many considered a missed opportunity for a decisive victory at Antietam. However, the historian Joseph L. Harsh gave an exceptional accounting of both commanders in that battle. He contended that neither commander should be criticized to harshly; as they were working with what information they knew at the time and, "how they interpreted his responsibility as commander of the major army of his nation. Lee believed he was compelled to take unreasonable risks. McClellan believed he was prohibited from doing so. Each may have been correct." [40]

The result of the battle was a tactical draw for each. There was a strategic impact for the Union. Lincoln felt that five days after Antietam he could issue the Emancipation Proclamation. This transformed the war into one for freedom. The end result was ending the possibility of any foreign intervention on behalf of Confederacy. Of course others would also argue a Union victory because McClellan did meet the objective of stopping Lee's Army, which did return to Confederate territory. However many historians cannot get over what seemed like a great missed opportunity on McClellan's part. It was apparent that McClellan considered it a great victory on his part, but Lincoln differed greatly. He was expecting the destruction of the Confederate army. Lee also did not get what he had expected either. He had drawn the armies away (for a time) from Richmond, but he failed to carry any initiative he had achieved in earlier successes into enemy territory.

Another historian, Paddy Griffith, made the estimate that only 20% of Civil War battles, 27% of Napoleonic War battles and 8% of World War I battles on the European Western Front were "outstandingly decisive victories". [41] Even with the low percentage of decisive victories, the examples of Austerlitz and Washington 1814 show that not even decisive victories gained the results that nations expected from them. There are some exceptions to this, and one that comes to mind is Yorktown. However, these types of battles are the exception and not the rule. Battles are often indecisive as a means of accomplishing national political goals. As such, nations should weigh the decision to use military force as an effective means more carefully.

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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Copyright © 2008 Lonny Grout

Written by Lonny L. Grout. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Lonny L. Grout at:
llgrout@yahoo.com.

About the author:
Lonny Grout has a BA in history from Excelsior College, and is pursuing a Masters of Military Studies in Land Warfare from AMU. He is an intelligence analyst on active duty in the National Guard (AGR), and has 19 years of military service. He was editor in chief in the 90s of a local periodical, The Eclectic Review, and has written articles for history and intelligence journals. Tours he has served include Bosnia and Iraq. He is a recipient of the MICA Knowlton Award for excellence in Military Intelligence, and was inducted as an Outstanding Young American (OYA 1999 edition). In addition to studying military history, he enjoys writing and fishing. He lives on a small farm in Idaho with his wife, Laura, and six children.

Published online: 08/06/2008.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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