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Genius at Leipzig? A Study of Napoleon’s Leadership Skills as Judged By Clausewitz

Genius at Leipzig? A Study of Napoleon’s Leadership Skills as Judged By Clausewitz

By Morgan T. Deane

The writings of Karl Von Clausewitz continue to provide historians with judging criteria for matters of war.  In particular, Clausewitz’s material concerning military genius provides excellent material that one can test in a case study.  An examination of Napoleon’s conduct at The battle of Leipzig using the criteria established by Clausewitz allows us to determine if the general could be classified as a genius.  After studying the descriptions laid down by Clausewitz and then studying the decisions and actions of Napoleon in the events surrounding the conflict at Leipzig, Napoleon as a general would qualify for the title of “genius.”

Since Napoleon lost the battle of Leipzig, was forced to give up control of Germany , and finally required to abdicate a year later, the term genius may seem like an overstatement, but it was his political failings that robbed the battlefield commander of his reputation. If Napoleon would have won the battle of Leipzig he would have been called a battlefield genius.  So if his decisions that led to victory would qualify for genius, why would the same decisions disqualify him after a defeat?  Historians that examine the final result might disqualify him or use lines like “flash of genius” to describe his campaigns.[1]    Yet when historians say they see a flash of genius, they are acknowledging the genius of Napoleon’s plans but allow the final result to color their analysis. Clausewitz suggests that chance is uncontrollable, but that the quality of the decisions made in response to chance is what determines genius.[2]  In short, Napoleon ranks as a genius from his actions before, during, and after the battle of Leipzig; and not because of his win loss ratio, or subsequent vanquishing.

Clausewitz gives several criteria for genius.  He describes courage as the first requirement.[3]  This refers to personal courage as well as the courage to accept responsibility.  Napoleon rarely had to brave enemy fire, yet he did struggle with the weight of moving, defending and defeating entire armies; Napoleon also had to defend the revolution that he personified and maneuver adroitly within the constantly evolving political situations.  So Napoleon did not face normal tests of courage, but faced struggles that perhaps no man since Oliver Cromwell had to contend with.

This leads to one of Napoleon’s disadvantages.   His ambition was such that “having a Napoleon complex” has entered the everyday lexicon.  While his ambition motivated himself and his troops; it also may have resulted in what Clausewitz calls an “unbalance”.  This unbalance darkens the mind and prevents the commander from having the inner light (Coup de’ oeil) or “discriminating judgment” and determination necessary for military genius.[4]  This results in an interesting paradox, as Napoleon’s ambition resulted in amazing maneuvers and offensive victories, yet this same ambition multiplied his enemies, negated chances for peace and prevented him from overall victory.

During the campaigns of 1813 Napoleon continually taxed his means.  His army was the same size as earlier ones but of decidedly inferior quality. [5]   His raising an army from the broken remnants of the Russian campaign is noteworthy for his determination and resolve. But then he maneuvered those armies with corps commanders that lacked the ability to operate independently.  He devised a “master plan” that focused on a terrain objective instead of opposing army.  His operations against Berlin robbed him of the mass needed for a decisive victory, but he needed to break apart the Sixth Coalition that was rapidly gaining strength.  He vacillated on whether to abandon Dresden because he needed to ensure the continued support of the Saxon King.  And then left a garrison there when it was needed for Leipzig, but he probably assumed that the defensive positions there would allow him another Dresden type victory.

Yet these objections are only raised in response to his finally losing.  During 1813 Napoleon accumulated a list of battle field victories while his subordinates lost.  Even at Leipzig Napoleon faced an enemy almost twice his size,[6] fought them to a standstill while surrounded, and only retired after running short of ammunition. The majority of troops captured during that battle resulted from a scared NCO destroying the main bridge before the retreat was complete.  The point being that Napoleon had the mental determination and physical stamina to follow his plan to victory.  The blame for having to fight in the first place instead of accepting mediation is Napoleon’s.  But having the courage to follow his plan in the face of opposition is determination that demands merit.

Although there is a difference between determination and obstinacy,  Napoleon had great stamina and strength to follow through on his plans and overcome “the machine”,[7] Clausewitz points out that a commander must “refuse to change…unless forced by clear conviction”. [8] This forces us to examine what plans Napoleon had in 1813 and what, if any, clear convictions forced themselves upon the general.  We should see in what ways Napoleon held to his inner light, and in what ways his plans changed according to the clear convictions forced upon him.

Finally we will look at Napoleon’s use of terrain.  As the concluding element of Clausewitz’s definition, the terrain that Napoleon used from a tactical to strategic sense indicate a vital skill that a military genius must possess.  In his formulation of the master plan, and his use to rivers as a screen Napoleon excelled on the strategic level.  On the tactical level, Napoleon at Dresden, Bautzen, and Leipzig made excellent of terrain.  In the matter of human terrain, Napoleon misjudged even his father in law (The King of Austria), and continued to misjudge the capabilities of his corps commanders, and his soldiers.

Before we proceed in examining the Clausewitzean traits of Napoleon we should examine the unique selection of the battle of Leipzig.  There are far more spectacular battles such as Jena and Austerlitz; far more studied battles such as of Borodino and Waterloo; and far more famous campaigns like the Russian and Spanish campaigns.  Yet choosing the battle of Leipzig and the 1813 German Campaign reminds the reader of General Robert. E. Lee during 1864.  Napoleon and Lee had both been dealt a fatal blow a year earlier in Russia and Gettysburg.  Those fatal blows have only been recognized after the fact in historian’s analysis.  The year immediately following saw both generals maneuvering for a decisive battle but falling short of the complete victory they needed.  Thus Napoleon had to operate with a “machine” of lesser caliber during his 1813 campaigns, allowing us to focus more on his judgment and decisions against the foil of defeat and increasing disaster.  Plus, Napoleon’s campaigns and the battle of Leipzig featured the most “moving parts” of any of his campaigns, allowing students a greater scope and amount of decisions from Napoleon to analyze.

Since “war is the realm of danger…courage is the [general’s] first requirement.” [9] According to Clausewitz this courage came in two kinds.  First was the courage to face personal danger and the courage to accept responsibility.  As a commanding general, Napoleon rarely had to withstand enemy fire.  Yet at times during the 1813 Campaign Napoleon had to personally rally his army.[10]  At the battle of Lutzen, Napoleon personally rallied a faltering corps critical to his tactical plan.[11]  Then later, Napoleon again rushed to reorganize and rally a shattered defensive position east of Dresden.[12] 

Napoleon’s possession of the second kind of courage is less clear.  He did take responsibility of not only France ’s main army but of political control as well.  Yet he was accountable to no one, and thus had little to fear from failure.  Napoleon probably had something to fear from the victorious leaders that opposed him, yet it appears that Clausewitz is referring to a civilian audit of the military general.  Thus unlike General Lee, Napoleon had no Prime Minister or President assessing or balancing his performance.

The lack of checks against Napoleon turned his ambition into a mixed quality.  Clausewitz describes ambition as a positive motive, and Napoleon’s long list of battlefield victories attest to that. Even with a largely raw force Napoleon racked up wins at Bautzen, Lutzen, and Dresden.  His presence animated the soldiers wherever he went.[13] His presence was such a motivator for the soldiers and corps commanders that the allies instituted the Trachtenberg plan of avoiding battle with “the ogre” and only engaging his subordinate commanders acting independently. [14] In one instance, Napoleon rushed to rally one of his subordinates, only to have the Prussian General Blucher quickly retreat after sensing the obvious and renewed spirit of an army he was previously routing.  And, the fact that Napoleon even had another Grand Army testifies to his strength of determination and ability to overcome obstacles.   A man of lesser ambition (and strength) would and could not reconstitute the army so quickly after a Russian sized disaster.

Nevertheless, one has to wonder if the French equivalent of the Las Vegas adage: “quit while you’re ahead” ever occurred to Napoleon. To continue the phrasing, Napoleon’s ambition forced him to “double down” after the Russian disaster.  Napoleon could have sought a negotiated peace that would have allowed him ample time to consolidate his gains and retrain his army (particularly the cavalry).  Instead Napoleon’s ambition, normally a quality that spurred him to succeed, forced him to fight with decidedly inferior soldiers against increasing numerical superiority of the enemy. Although Napoleon faced difficult odds against previous coalitions, only hindsight knowledge of the impending disaster and abdication could have forced Napoleon to change course without a clear conviction to do so. (And that is assuming he could have restrained himself long enough for peace)

The talk of conviction and judgment lead to one of the most essential qualities of genius that Clausewitz calls “coup de oeil”.  He describes it as “an intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of inner light which leads to truth”.[15]  Possession of coup de’ oeil allows a commander to “[quickly] recognize truth that that mind would ordinarily miss or would perceive only after long study and reflection.”[16]  For Napoleon, we must examine if he made decisions quickly and held to the “true” principles that he used in his strategy and tactics. We must also examine his ability to react to the unexpected.  Clausewitz calls this quality “presence of mind”.[17]

First, Napoleon recognized his center of gravity was the army.  He became Emperor due to his battlefield victories, and kept power due to the same.  His battle field victories resulted from the text book application of Jominian principles such as offensive, mass, and maneuver.  Strategically he focused his efforts on annihilating the largest opposing army through rapid movement and swift but unexpected concentration of force upon contact.  This melded into his tactical principles, since Napoleon’s beloved maneuver consisted of marching an army rapidly to arrive on the flank of an already tactically engaged army.[18] Tactically, he usually kept the bulk of his artillery and Old Guard on standby in order to rapidly mass and take advantage of enemy mistakes. [19]

Even with a reduction of cavalry scouts, Napoleon managed to continue his execution of his “truth.”  The early spring of 1813 saw him rebuild his center of gravity with a furious determination.[20]  His early victories at Lutzen and Bautzen represent his continuation of past truth.  Only his handicapped cavalry force and failure of corps commanders prevented another Jena or Austerlitz.  Historians have heavily criticized Napoleon’s acceptance of the truce after his victories.[21] Yet he accepted the truce to reorganize his center of gravity battered by battle, supply problems, and fatigue.[22]

At Dresden he again defeated the allies.  He retracted his supply lines to operate interiorly and at Leipzig he tried to economize his force into a defensive and counter-attack victory.  With the accumulation of victories and increasing use of the strategic defensive to economize his forces, Napoleon seemed to adapt to his limited means.

But at the same time he struggled combining his dual role as statesmen and general.  While Clausewitz did counsel a general to be cognizant of political matters, Napoleon attempted to use his army for too many political purposes.  These political considerations hampered Napoleon’s ability to make quick judgments, and cast doubt on his possession of coup de’ oeil.  His attempts at capturing Berlin reflect what historian David Chandler called the “master plan”.[23]   Napoleon sought a drive across northern Germany to capture Berlin.  This would presumably separate the Prussian contingent from the allied army.  Napoleon would then defeat that separated force and relieve a garrison of veteran troops at Danzig.  While the general was never able to put that plan in motion, Napoleon continued to detach segments of his army for operations in the North.  Each of these was defeated and helped to negate the impact of Napoleon’s victories.

The decision to focus on a political capital seems to negate Napoleon’s concept of center of gravity.  His moves against Berlin seem especially confusing since a few years earlier he did capture Berlin.[24]    There are several explanations for Napoleon’s apostasy from the light beside the ones given in his master plan.  Historian Michael Leggiere argues vigorously that Napoleon’s move against Berlin was an irrational hatred stemming from several motives.[25]  First Bernadotte, the general protecting Berlin, was a Frenchmen who had recently entered the service of the Prussian.  Napoleon was angry that a man who enjoyed his patronage should then be so disloyal to him.  The value of loyalty to Napoleon and the bitterness with which he would respond to betrayal gains traction when one looks at the incompetent but loyal corps commanders (like Ney) that Napoleon continued to rely upon due to their “dog like” devotion to him.[26]

A second reason stems from the first in that Napoleon was bitter that a man that he allowed to keep his crown should turn against him.  Leggaire goes on to point out a long list of reasons why Napoleon would hate the Prussians including the general’s opinion that German soldiers were no more than “rabble.”[27]  A third reason for Napoleons insistence on capturing Berlin seem far more plausible than Leggiare’s list and add to the generals ability of coup de’ oeil.

One of Napoleon’s maneuvers consisted of what historian Kristopher Teters called “strategic penetration.”[28]  This featured Napoleon’s forces making a rapid breakthrough against the enemy’s defensive position, then seizing a key terrain feature deep in enemy territory and forcing the enemy army to fight your penetrating force under less than ideal circumstances. If you combine this maneuver with Napoleon’s insistence that winning a battle allows secondary matters to handle themselves, you have a solid rationale for attacking Berlin.[29]   Napoleon envisioned a rapid breakthrough and capture of Berlin.  This would invite further chaos in the south by testing the resolve of the Prussian forces and add to the allies’ already Byzantine decision making process.  Napoleon saw only one thing: “the enemy’s main body.  I try to crush it confident that secondary matters will then settle themselves.” [30] The defeat of the main army before Berlin would allow “secondary matters” to fall into place for both the Grand Army in southern Germany and the force now occupying the capital of a key enemy.

Unfortunately for Napoleon the leaders of the expedition against Berlin were incapable of Napoleonic maneuver.   This will receive further attention when we cover Clausewitz’s concept of obstinacy and determination.  In this matter it again shows the intuitive nature of Napoleon’s genius.  It would be as though a great jazz musician had to lecture about swing music.  Well most musicians would say that swing music must be felt and internalized through experience.[31]  For Napoleon his genius was an “unconscious and instinctive” action.[32]  Something that is extremely difficult to teach.  Historian Russell Weigley stated it simply when he said that Napoleon’s brilliance prevented him from training subordinates.[33]  Thus Napoleon acted within his principles by sending an attempted strategic penetration against northern Germany and Berlin.  However, his genius in decision making, in seeing the light, made it difficult for less capable commanders to follow and execute his plan.

His attempt at strategic penetration did subtract needed mass and combat power from his army.  Yet this relies on the benefit of hindsight in order to cast aspersions upon Napoleon.  The general had numbers comparable to previous victories in 1813, and numbers roughly equivalent to some of his greatest victories.   At Dresden he had the benefit of central position, another one of his favorite strategic maneuvers.[34]  This allowed Napoleon sufficient economy of force to hold the enemy in their attack against Dresden, while he maneuvered his reserve of artillery and Old Guard for his standard tactical maneuver of a double envelopment on the wings.

Thus Napoleon’s decision making stayed consistent with his principles.  One has to wonder how much worse the criticism of historians would be if Napoleon had abandoned his principles and still lost.  As it stands, Napoleon faced a greater number and better trained foes than Caesar or Alexander the Great and still produced as many victories as those greats.  He did so by adhering to his strategic and tactical principles that had brought his success previously, and limited success in 1813.

His victory at Dresden but defeat in the North allowed the allies to start flanking his position.  Napoleon’s consolidation around Leipzig shortened his tenuous supply line, a smart decision considering his circumstances and recent history in Russia . But his decision to leave a garrison in Dresden calls into question his ability to separate the military from the political.

When retreating towards Leipzig Napoleon vacillated on whether to hold onto Dresden.[35] Dresden was the Saxon capital and one of the few remaining German allies.   Napoleonic principles would dictate the massing of all available soldiers for a defeat of the allies’ main army.  After the victory for Napoleon could then reclaim control of Dresden and Saxony.  Instead, he kept one of his more capable lieutenants in Dresden and tried to fight his style of battle at Leipzig one corps short.  In making this decision he waffled several times.  It seemed even Napoleon had doubts concerning the wisdom of holding Dresden, but as historian John Gallaher said, “Napoleon the politician got the better of Napoleon the statesmen.” [36]

At the battle of Leipzig his tactical decisions spur further questions.  Napoleon chose to fight at Leipzig and speedily gathered his forces into a ring around the city (except the Dresden garrison).  This would be one of the few purely defensive battles that Napoleon waged. [37] The controller of Leipzig could operate on interior lines while opposing armies had to march through rough terrain and on separate routes in order to attack the city.  Napoleon’s discriminating judgment quickly grasped the advantage that holding the city of Leipzig held.  As at Dresden a short time before, he thought he would use his inferior numbers to hold his superior position.  And then use the benefit of interior lines to shift for a massive counter attack against the wing of the allied army.  With this plan in mind, Napoleon could have assumed that the economy of force gained from holding Leipzig more than compensated for the garrison in Dresden.

Two decisions during the battle need examining as well. First why did Napoleon not retreat after the first day?  His counter attack only had moderate success and Napoleon knew that the allies were receiving far more reinforcements than him.  The Dresden example provides some clues, since Napoleon fought the allies to a draw on day one of that battle as well.  Then Napoleon received smaller reinforcements than the allies and won a moderate victory the next day.  With this in mind, it seemed Napoleon was again operating according to the principles that had granted him victory earlier.

In the battle of Leipzig however, the allies would receive such vast numbers of reinforcements compared to Napoleon that any counter attack would be extremely difficult and have little chance of success. Plus, his tactical position was less promising and maneuverable at Leipzig than at Dresden.  The latter had the armies opposing each other in roughly parallel semi circles.  The former had Napoleon almost surrounded with only the bridge to the west and some swampy land to the south west remaining open for maneuvers.  [38]

If Napoleon was going to use that bridge as an escape route, why did he delay construction of new bridges for so long?  Napoleon either had too much confidence in his genius to help him succeed, or too much confidence in the discipline of his soldiers.  Confidence in either was misplaced, and cost Napoleon 20,000 prisoners when the bridge was blown prematurely.  The best explanation seems to be Napoleon’s wish for the allies “to hang themselves” with the extra rope that came with their advantage.[39]  Despite the lack of maneuverability, Napoleon had secured victory at Dresden with inferior numbers and interior position.  Early in his career Napoleon fought in Italy with inferior numbers against the piecemeal advance of enemy forces.  The first day of Leipzig featured uncoordinated and sometimes unsupported attacks by the allies that Napoleon could have seized upon.  With a fresh corps as reinforcements and the evidence of the first day suggesting an uncoordinated attack, Napoleon had reason beyond obstinacy and ambition to continue the fight.

Thus Napoleon continued to make quick and discerning decisions throughout the 1813 campaign.  He re-organized his center of gravity through his strength effort.  Napoleon sought a strategy of winning decisive battle; he seemingly contradicted himself by focusing on political objectives due to bitter feelings.   The attempts to take Berlin possibly represented a continuation of Napoleon’s strategic penetration, designed in this case to help his subordinates battle the enemy army on favorable grounds.  The decision to hold Dresden resulted in missing mass for the battle of Leipzig and represented the statesmen overpowering the general in Napoleon. His choice of Leipzig for a defensive stand represents an excellent and quick adaption to an overwhelming situation.  His decision to fight after the first day, and reluctance to secure additionally retreat routes suggest sluggishness in planning for the future or accepting what was then a moderate tactical defeat.  Over all, Napoleon continued to act with conviction in following the truths he had established to victory.  The rising numbers of enemy caused Napoleon to adapt his plan at times, as in Berlin, keeping Dresden, and fighting defensively at Leipzig; yet Napoleon continued to seek the destruction of the enemy’s army and made his decisions accordingly.

In following the light of coup de’ oeil a general can become obstinate.  Clausewitz taught that one must not only see the light, but that person must possess the determination follow that light.[40]  And according to Clausewitz there exists a fine line between a noble and persistent determination and stubborn obstinacy.  His drawing the line between the two consisted of “[sticking] to ones first opinion…and refuse to change unless forced by a clear conviction.”[41]  After examining what clear convictions presented themselves to Napoleon, we can determine if he was simply determined and lost, or obstinate and lost.

In raising an army during the spring of 1813 one has to wonder if the disaster of 1812 was not a motivation to seek peace.  The actions of Napoleon in raising the army confirm to what historian Peter Paret described as Napoleon’s negotiating style.[42]  War was an instrument of policy, so there could be no policy without a grand army to carry it out.  Even after the allies forced him to abdicate the throne, Napoleon sought to raise an army and carry out his will. Napoleon ignored the 1812 verdict, or was simply extraordinarily determined and only the conviction of exile would force him into peace.  Either option suggests that Napoleon “instinctively objected” to peace.[43]

In reconstituting the army Napoleon had an obvious deficiency in cavalry.[44]   This deficiency prevented moderate victories from becoming decisive ones at Lutzen, Bautzen and even Dresden.  The lack of cavalry to protect his supply line, and the resulting deprivation among his soldiers may have been the clear conviction that forced Napoleon to accept a truce.  As covered earlier, peace for Napoleon was rare and in this case it was a literal chance to reload.  His lack of cavalry also explains why Napoleon tried to limit his operations in terrain that favored infantry tactics.  The rough terrain around Dresden and the rivers and swamps around Leipzig represent a skilled general adapting his plan and applying his coup de’ oeil to the convictions impressed upon him.  His lack of cavalry spurred Napoleon to restrain himself somewhat in his operational goals.  When the allies’ center of gravity lay in the mountains of Bavaria; Napoleon opted for an active defense based in Dresden.  This combined with the increasingly clear intent of the Trachtenberg plan led Napoleon to change his operations according to the convictions he received from the enemy.

Strategically, Napoleon sought to more fully implement the magazine approach that characterized pre-Napoleonic warfare.   His tenuous supply lines may have contributed to his wanting to hold the valuable goods stockpiled at Dresden.  Napoleon may have been impressed or suitably frustrated by the Trachtenberg Plan of avoiding battle with Napoleon; that may have prevented him from maneuvering to engage the main allied army into Bohemia and away from Dresden.  The tempo of operations and better reconnaissance of the allies allowed them to increasingly dictate when, where, and to which general they gave battle.

Something that Napoleon failed to recognize, or choose to ignore out of necessity was his generals incompetence in independent command.  At the battles presided by Napoleon, they continually acted with trepidation and failed to appreciate his plans.  At Lutzen, Bautzen, and Dresden decisive victories were partially turned into marginal victories by the inability of corps commanders to exploit their success.  For example, at one battle Ney failed to turn the strategic battle into a route by his halting nature and inability to capture the roads leading away from the town.  At Leipzig, the insistence on following orders despite the changing battle field situation allowed the French to abandon a decisive defensive position north of the city and turned Napoleon’s counter attack into a stand still.

Outside of Napoleon’s command things were even worse.  His forces dedicated to capturing Berlin made one blunder after another, their defeats galvanized German opposition to Napoleon and instead of drawing away the enemy, the blundering subordinates allowed the Germans to repulse them, turn their flank, and push them all the way to Leipzig.  The victory at Dresden was negated by the triple defeats of Napoleon’s corps commanders.  Instead of restoring the Ogre’s power, these defeats negated anything one genius could accomplish.  The 1813 disasters seemed to culminate in the premature destruction of the escape route from Leipzig, as a scared NCO demolished the bridge before the rear guard could exit.

Napoleon seemed aware of these shortcomings.  His insistence on fighting a climactic battle at Leipzig could have resulted from a chance to finally fight the allied center of gravity on terrain of his choosing, where his subordinates could be properly motivated and led.  Perhaps his continued reliance on unskilled generals was the result of the limits of one man, and not a stubborn refusal to acknowledge reality.  Napoleon needed to split the allies, defeat an army, and secure political allies.  Against forces that would soon be totaling 1 million, he needed to delegate assignments.  Thus he continued to require a great amount of activity from his Marshalls, but realized he may not expect much.  And it may have contributed to his decision to gather his forces under his command for a fight at Leipzig.

The flanking of his position from the North and the advancement of the main armies presented a clear conviction to retract his front.  Some scholars thought this denoted a “bankruptcy of strategic thought,”[45]    but this move solved many of Napoleon’s problems and was the best response to the realities presented to him.  With long supply lines under attack and increasing numerical inferiority Napoleon contracted the front that he had to defend thereby increasing his mass, shortened the length and danger of his supply system increasing his combat power, kept an important supply and political point ( Dresden), and concentrated his remaining forces in a city well suited for defensive operations.  Upon victory over the enemies assembling at Leipzig, Napoleon would extend his front back to Dresden, gaining the cities’ supplies and political clout. He could also cow the German partisans and maybe even force his German satellites into mustering additional troops for his army.  Contrary to historian Russell Weigley’s assertion, Napoleons retreat to Leipzig was an excellent decision based on his deteriorating situation that still presented him with chance to achieve his political, strategic and tactical goals.

Tactically Napoleon continued to act with vigor and coup de’ oeil absent any clear conviction.  General Marmont, holding an advantageous section of terrain was ordered to release of his divisions for Napoleon’s planned counter attack south of the city.  Napoleon gave the order based on the internal map in his head, one formed by the notion that the Prussian soldiers had not arrived en masse. Even though “he could actually see [the army’s] campfires” in the distance, Marmont retreated anyway. [46] The resulting disarray from making a hasty defense in less favorable terrain, to the unnecessary toggling of commanders from the north to help with the attack south only to be called back to prevent the collapse of north resulted in needless losses.

Yet it seemed the fault lay with the subordinate generals that could or would not inform Napoleon about the strength of Prussian forces in there sector, or did not have the tactical initiative to modify Napoleon’s wishes to their situation. Yet Napoleon was holding to “his first opinion” absent a clear conviction.[47]  That first opinion was wrong, since Blucher had arrived with his soldiers far earlier than Napoleon expected, but this study is examining the principles of Clausewitz applied to Napoleon, not the hindsight prescience of arm chair generals.   In this case, despite its effects, Napoleon acted according to his principles absent a clear conviction otherwise.

Napoleon had a similar defensive victory at Dresden a few months previous.  The arrival of an additional corps for the second day’s battle mirrored the arrival of forces at Dresden.  Plus, Napoleon held an even stronger defensive position than at Dresden, and envisioned an easier counter attack than the double envelopment before.  The arrival of an additional 140,000 men for the allies may not have presented enough conviction for Napoleon to retreat.  He may have assumed the other Prussian army would again move slowly (which they did), and that the allies would again attack in disjointed fashion (which they did until the third day).  Thus Napoleon had good reason to suspect that he could gain from another day of battle by holding off slow and disarrayed attacks while he counters them with his massed artillery.  With this in mind, he did not need to build escape routes when he still had a reasonable (according to Napoleon) chance of success.   After defending his positions against incredible numbers for a second day, his ammunition ran low and the even the “rabble” under Bernadotte would be ready to attack. With those clear convictions Napoleon acted accordingly and with the necessary rapidity of judgment.   If the bridge out of Leipzig had not been destroyed prematurely, some would have ranked his retreat as the most skilled operation of his career.[48] 

But the bridge was destroyed prematurely.  This brings the final conviction that Napoleon failed to see.  His genius and ambition had always animated “the machine” that was his army. [49] They marched faster and fought harder for the Emperor, the revolution, and France .  Yet the mistakes from top to bottom: his corps commanders lethargic execution and stupefying interpretation or blind obedience to orders, the effects of casualties upon the Old Guard, the green conscripts lacking discipline and resolve, the inexperienced and scared NCOs, the paucity of cavalry, the diminishing quality and number of artillery, any single combination a genius such as Napoleon could overcome.  And he did throughout his career.  Yet Napoleon failed to gain a conviction from the clear evidence presented him in 1813 that the instrument of his policy, the army, was no longer sharp enough to perform the operations needed.

The Grand army of 1813 had the same numbers as before due to impressive determination of Napoleon.  The lack of cavalry prevented early battles from becoming decisive routs.  The same deficiency imperiled Napoleon’s supply lines.  The inferior quality of troops handicapped the previously unparralled operational capability now suffered from desertions, defections, and low moral.  Napoleon could not march as far, or as fast as he previously could.  His corps commanders could not lead as they used too, and from top to bottom “the machine” simply started to fail.  If the eye witness accounts of Napoleon at Leipzig are reliable, his slouches and sighs in rare moments of pause argue that Napoleon carried the weight of the world on his soldiers from having to lead his army to victory through sheer will power.[50] 

This weight surely must have been felt, and Napoleon’s defensive actions from Leipzig on suggest that the conviction affected him. Yet an offensive defensive, and a fighting withdraw to the borders of France suggest an insufficient readjustment and refusal to fundamentally change in the face of impending defeat.  It is as though Napoleon the politician remained the same, but Napoleon the general was willing to adapt to the situation.  Yet Clausewitz makes clear that a general must be enough of a statesman to know the means available to obtain the desired political results.[51]   But, to borrow a phrase, Napoleon the statesman was writing checks that Napoleon the general could not cash.  In that sense, only Napoleon the general could be considered determined and not obstinate, according to Clausewitz.

Finally we will look at Napoleon’s use of terrain.  As the concluding element of Clausewitz’s definition, the terrain that Napoleon used from a tactical to strategic sense indicate a vital skill that a military genius must possess.  Clausewitz described this skill as resulting from the imagination, a quality normally not prized in productive or war making society. [52]   Yet this skill effected the minute detail of a tactical engagement all the up to the grand strategy of Napoleon in deciding which enemy to strike, such as Berlin in the northern plains of Germany or Bavaria in its southern highlands.  In Napoleon’s “Master Plan” aimed at capturing Berlin he planned to use the mountains on his southern flank as a screening agent in his operations.  His maneuvers in the south consisted of using the rivers as defensive barriers and supply routes for his army.[53]  Tactically, he adopted a strong defensive position at Dresden and Leipzig.  He used the hilly terrain around Bautzen to conceal his breakthrough forces.[54]  And at Leipzig, he again used a prominent hill to mass his artillery to force a blow in the enemy’s line.[55]  At every moment he seemed to carry a map that eye witnesses say mattered “more than life” to Napoleon.[56]

Napoleon was a dunce in judging human terrain however.  Napoleon misjudged even his father in law the King of Austria.  He had suspicions about maneuvering near the Austrian border but failed to foresee his father’s entrance into the war.[57]   He misjudged the capability of his soldiers, and failed to prevent the defection of the Saxon troops at the battle of Leipzig.

Yet even the best use of terrain could not compensate for unheeded confirmations of war.  Napoleon had great physical courage.  There is little doubt that he ever shrunk from fire or battle.  His ambition spurred him on to glorious victory but also historic defeat.  This ambition fueled him and his army.  Even when the machine was straining under the pressure on continuous war and privation, Napoleon led them to victory in 1813.

In battle, Napoleon continued to act according the principles he had learned in war.  He saw the light of previous victories and he planned his strategy and tactics accordingly.  His judgments were based on lessons learned since the 1790’s.  In the fog of conflict Napoleon continued to see opportunities for envelopment, central position and strategic penetration.  In battle his mind still grasped the ability to see chances for frontal attacks, double envelopments, and strategic battles.  His victories of 1813 with degraded and outnumbered armies attest to his ability to win battles and campaigns by quick discernment of what actions needed to be taken. His mind became darkened as he combined the unbalanced goals of statesmen and general, as exemplified at Dresden and with his obsession with Berlin.

He followed the light of battle with determination and politics with obstinacy.  His determination recreated a missing center of gravity for France .  Yet peace would have been a far wiser course.  Clear convictions such as the lack of cavalry altered his operations in favor of hilly terrain and flanking rivers.  He refused, or ignored the convincing evidence of his subordinates’ inability to operate independently.  He fought more defensive battles, and sought to use economy of force at both Dresden and Leipzig.  But above all, he failed to recognize the signs of friction within his army that would loose him Germany and eventually lose the throne twice.  Thus Napoleon still acted with genius at the battle of Leipzig.  But his 1813 campaign showed signs of political ineptness, and overexertion of his army that would prove fatal, and beyond the capacity of any genius to overcome.



Chandler, David G. The Campaigns of Napoleon. New York: Macmillian Company, 1966.

Clausewitz, Karl. On War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

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Lorraine,Peter F.  Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany 1813. London, New York: Arms and Armor      Press, 1977.

Maude, F.N. The Leipzig Campaign: 1813- Napoleon and the battle of Nations. London: Leonaur  Publisher, 2007.

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Riley, Jonathon. Napoleon as a General. London, New York: Continuum Books, 2007.

Weigley, Russel F. The Age of battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991.


Gallaher, John G. “Political Considerations and Strategy: The Dresden Phase of the Leipzig Campaign”. Military Affairs 29, no. 2 (1985): 65-68.

Irvine, Dallas. “The French Discovery of Clausewitz and Napoleon” Journal of American Military Institute. 4, no. 3(1940): 143-161.

Leggiere, Michael V.  “Napoleon’s Gamble in Northern Germany, 1813” Journal of Military History 67, no. 9 (2003): 39-84.

Metz, Stephen. “battlefield Genius” Parameters 8, (1991): 49-59.

Rodgers, Clifford J. “Clausewitz, Genius, and the Rules” Journal of Military History 66, no. 4 (2002): 1167      -1176.

Teters, Kristopher A. “Dissecting the Mind of a Genius: An examination of the Tactics and Strategies of Napoleon Bonaparte” Journal of Phi Alpha Theta 9, no. 1 (2003): 9-21.


[1] Peter F. Lorraine, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany 1813 (London, New York: Arms and Armor Press, 1977) 71.

[2] Karl Von Clausewitz, On War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989)101-102.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] David G. Chandler. The Campaigns of Napoleon. (New York: Macmillian Company, 1966), 868.

[6] Depending on which numbers you accept.

[7] Clausewitz, On War, 104.

[8] Ibid., 108.

[9] Ibid., 101.

[10] Again, like Lee in some 1864 battles.

[11] Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 80.

[12] Chandler, Campaigns of Napoleon, 913.

[13] Anthony Brett James. Europe Against Napoleon: The Leipzig Campaign 1813. (London: Macmillan Press, 1970) 97. Also see Chandler, Campaigns of Napoleon, 913.

[14]  Johnathon Riley, Napoleon as a General. ( London, New York: Continuum Books, 2007) 192.

[15] Clausewitz, On War,  102.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Kristopner A. Teters, “Dissecting the Mind of a Genius: An examination of the Tactics and Strategies of Napoleon Bonaparte” Journal of Phi Alpha Theta 9 (2003): 16.

[19] Ibid.,13.

[20] F.N. Maude, The Leipzig Campaign: 1813- Napoleon and the battle of Nations. ( London: Leonaur Publisher, 2007) 9.

[21] Chandler, Campaigns of Napoleon, 888.

[22] Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 103.

[23] Chandler, Campaigns of Napoleon, 884.

[24] Michael V. Leggiere, “Napoleon’s Gamble in Northern Germany, 1813” Journal of Military History 67 (2003): 39-84.

[25] Ibid., 82.

[26]Ibid. See also Wiegley, Quest for Decisive battle, 437.

[27] Ibid., 83.

[28] Teters, 13.

[29] Riley, Napoleon as a General, 58.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Like this writer.

[32] Dallas, Irvine, “The French Discovery of Clausewitz and Napoleon” Journal of American Military Institute. 4 (3) 1940: 143-161.

[33] Russell F. Weigley, The Age of battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo. (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991) 457.

[34] Teters, 13.

[35] John G. Gallaher “Political Considerations and Strategy: The Dresden Phase of the Leipzig Campaign”. Military Affairs 29 (2) 1985: 65-68.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Riley, Napoleon as a General, 85.

[38] I use the term “open” loosely.

[39] Chandler, Campaigns of Napoleon, 932.

[40] Clausewitz, On War, 108.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Peter Paret “Napoleon and the Revolution in War” in Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age Peter Paret Ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984) 128.

[43] Clausewitz, On War, 109.

[44] Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 48.

[45] Weigley, Quest for Decisive battle, 478.

[46] Chandler, Campaigns of Napoleon, 925.

[47] Clausewitz, On War, 108.

[48] Chandler, Campaigns of Napoleon, 935.

[49] Clausewitz, On War, 103.

[50] James, Europe Against Napoleon, 122.

[51] Clausewitz, On War, 90.

[52] Ibid., 110.

[53] Petre, Last Campaign of Napoleon, 56.

[54] Ibid., 161.

[55] Maude, The Leipzig Campaign, 250.

[56] James, Europe Against Napoleon, 103.

[57] Chandler, Campaigns of Napoleon, 936.