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Fascinating documentary on Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg

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Post  Martin on Fri Aug 09, 2019 4:26 pm

Here is something I’ve been meaning to post for a while.  My thanks to David Commerford for alerting me to it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2n9U87pv24&t=15s

It’s generally agreed that the 3 days at Gettysburg were neither Lee’s nor his army’s finest hour.  But in the subsequent retreat both demonstrated their skill, as they repeatedly pulled rabbits out of a hat.

The key focus here is on the logistic challenges of withdrawing to Virginia.  But the narrative is far from dry, as the presentation is good, and supported by many animated maps showing location of hospitals, and not only troop but also supply train movements.  Much of this stuff is normally omitted from battle maps.

The narrative focuses particularly on two constraints faced by Lee:

Evacuating the supply trains

Retreat was always a challenge, but in this case perhaps unusually so, as Lee’s various supply trains occupied over 57 miles of road!

The wagons for each infantry division occupied about 3 miles of road, and allowing for additional corps assets, each of the three corps needed 10 miles of road.  Army and cavalry division assets seem to have required a further 7 miles of road.

The eye-opener for me, was the consequences of the Confederate attempt to live of the land.  Far from allowing the Rebs to be fast and nimble, this decision required a further 20 miles of road-space for the additional wagons needed.  These were collected by the first corps across the Potomac (Ewell’s), which was able to forage widely for a few days before the Union army got back from Virginia.  And this huge logistical tail was after much foraged material had earlier been sent south to Virginia in the days before the battle.

Living of the land means you need more (not fewer) wagons.  That’s because you need the additional wagons to haul all that provender around, rather than for a short run from the nearest depot or rail-head.  The only alternative is to spend each day foraging……….that’s risky as the army must spread-out, and also means you cannot campaign, as you live from hand-to-mouth.  On reflection I can see that that makes sense, although I’d never really considered it before.

Evacuating the hospitals

In the Confederate army these were set-up at division and brigade level, although in other armies there were sometimes corps-level hospitals as well.

To perform their function effectively, these needed to be close to the front-lines.  Of course, that made it even more difficult to retreat in short-order.  Similar comments apply to the hundreds of munition wagons, although the documentary does not go into that aspect.  

Incidentally it also meant that nifty tactical retreats in battles were not usually possible, as they would have involved the loss of many wagons and medical facilities, and disrupted both the ammo supply chains to engaged units, and evacuation chains for wounded.  The impact of all of this on both capacity to continue the fight and on morale can be imagined.

Once you were in action, you pretty much had to stay and fight it out.

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Post  Uncle Billy on Fri Aug 09, 2019 4:45 pm

On the other hand, the French army of Napoleon was (in)famous for living off the land and being able to run circles around their opponents. Nappy was quite happy to not be reliant on depots. The Austrians, which always used supply depots, were tethered to them by long supply columns which limited their army's movement significantly. Six miles a day was good progress for them.

I think the logistic situation Lee found himself in was just another example of the level of the incompetence that blighted both armies during that period. They were much closer to an amateur version of Austrians than to the innovative French army.

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Post  Martin on Fri Aug 09, 2019 5:00 pm

Remind me. How many men did Napoleon lose in Russia?

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Post  Uncle Billy on Fri Aug 09, 2019 5:40 pm

He lost a lot between the Vilna and Smolensk. In Russia, his troops were unable to forage to any extent due to the impoverished region they marched through. They had to rely on the supply depot system. The prosecution rests.

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Post  Martin on Fri Aug 09, 2019 9:46 pm

Napoleon lost a lot of men at every stage of the 1812 campaign.  You mention Vilna to Smolensk, but Christopher Duffy suggests tens of thousands of losses before they even reached Vilna.  Losses were enormous in the heat of summer, in the cooler weather of autumn, during the Rasputitsa, and in the snows and the freezes of winter.  Both in the advance and on the retreat.  The vast bulk of these losses were due to logistical breakdown, rather than battle.  

Duffy says “of the 450,000-strong central group of the Grande Armee which had set-out six months before, just one thousand effective combatants and a few thousand stragglers survived to re-cross the Nieman”.

Napoleon comprehensively failed to feed his men and horses, secure them from the elements, and treat them when they were sick or injured.  This may well have been the most dramatic example of logistical failure in military history.

Yet the whole campaign was conceived, planned, organised and commanded by him, with all the resources the French Empire and its vassals at his command.  Difficult to blame anyone, or anything, else.

And it was not a one-off.  There were further logistical disasters in other Napoleonic campaigns, such as in Spain and even Germany (1813).

He was a great captain, but it seems difficult to argue that logistics was his forte.  Based on results, it looks more like a blind-spot  Wink .

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Post  Mr. Digby on Sun Aug 11, 2019 12:50 pm

I think the 1812 campaign was a huge miscalculation by Napoleon, although all the problems were not of his making, and it isn't a sound example of how badly the French foraging system usually functioned. It is not a typical example of how the French army did function on campaign.

Napoleon's preferred strategy, unlike the wars and generals of the old order, was to find the enemy main army and destroy it, then march on the enemy capital and dictate terms, which, in almost all past campaigns had been a successful strategy. He aimed to do this in a single campaigning season then winter his army on the conquered soil at his opponent's expense.

Russia was different for several reasons. First its vast extent, making it immensely difficult to even reach their capital, and making the co-ordination of armies problematic. The factor of distance was compounded by the terrain which involved a number of major river crossings and vast areas of forest and marsh which were impassable to early 19th C armies. Secondly the roads were terrible; far worse, on average, than roads in western Europe, and there were few of them. Thirdly the weather which had extremes Napoleon hadn't met in western or southern Europe. In Egypt he had to deal with extremes but the Russian mud of autumn and snow of winter was a completely different obstacle. He did not make adequate preparations for this, nor did he establish enough big magazines en-route because he hoped to defeat Russian by year's end with his usual strategy of speed, then winter his army in warm towns. Building major magazines was what he considered an out-dated form of warfare - in Russia however it was fatal. Finally, the Russian military leadership chose the perfect strategy for their country - they refused a major battle for as long as they could, giving up ground for time, and destroying villages, stores and crops as they retreated. They also did something that perplexed Napoleon and confounded his plans - they simply gave up their capital city, allowing it to be ransacked and bided their time while Napoleon's forces dwindled.

This combination of events - all things Napoleon might have forseen but did not, or when he did encounter them he made poor decisions in response, sealed the fate of his army.

Spain was a similar example - once again the Spanish armies (this time by virtue of being regionally rather than centrally based) melted away after a series of moderate defeats but another was able to rise up elsewhere. At no time was the backbone of Spain's military capability broken. They also gave up their capital, relocated their administrative centre and continued the fight. In Spain Napoleon encountered a new civilian response of complete hatred as well which forced him to deplete his field forces into a myriad of small garrisons whose energies were soaked up policing their immediate environs and the ever critical Madrid-Pyrenees highway. Spain was also heavily sustained by first money and later military intervention from a foreign power.

Russia and Spain are deservedly seen as Napoleon's two great military errors but they were not the norm. In central, western and southern Europe Napoleon's strategy of strike fast, strike hard and with a minimal supply train using the system of corps dispersed for maneuver and concentrated for the decisive engagement worked time after time.

He was a military genius and invented new forms of warfare that dictated a trend in military thinking for a century or more, but like all men he made mistakes. Napoleon's other weakness was diplomacy, he dealt with his neighbours with a certain arrogance which, in the end, did much to build a strong coalition against him and fomented unrest in those states he did conquer.

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"Any hussar who has not got himself killed by the age of 30 is a jackass." - Antoine Charles Louis Lasalle, commander of Napoleon's light cavalry, killed in battle at Wagram 6 July 1809, aged 34.

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Post  Martin on Sun Aug 11, 2019 11:26 pm

Thanks for posting Diggers.

Several interesting points there, some of which I agree with, and some not.  Few of  these things are entirely black & white.

I think you make fair points re the difficulties of campaigning in Spain and Russia.  At the end of the day Napoleon chose to invade both countries, even though he should have been well-aware of the difficulties of campaigning there.  He apparently studied the Swedish invasion of 1708-9, so should for example have known that Russian scorched-earth strategy had been a major factor in the defeat of the Swedes.  We agree that he made bad decisions in both cases, including logistical ones.   These mistakes were catastrophic, and were key factors in his fall.

I would be less inclined to discount those campaigns as atypical though, since many of the logistical problems seen there featured in other Napoleonic campaigns too.  John Elting is in general quite a fan of Napoleon, but has a  pretty critical chapter on French logistics in ‘Swords Around a Throne’.  Much of what follows is taken from that.  

1805 - Elting regards this campaign as having been run with inadequate logistics.  Early victories and the good fortune that the Austrians failed to destroy their supply depots before capture, nevertheless brought success.

1806 - The campaign against Prussia offers a further instance of poor French organisation.  It brought further victories, but logistical arrangements had collapsed by the end of the year.  According to Elting there was ‘real famine’ in the Grande Armee by December 1806 and into early 1807, accompanied by demoralisation in the army.

1813 - Immediately following the Russian debacle, the campaign in Germany was a further disaster for French arms, and sealed Napoleon’s fate.  Well populated and with a good road system, it should not have been hard to fight there, yet by the autumn French logistics had once again broken down.  Insufficient overland transport capacity had been provided, which necessitated reliance on barge transport up the Elbe from Hamburg to the main army base at Dresden to try and cover the shortfall.   This it failed to do, and even while that route remained open, the army was living hand-to-mouth. Rations were cut drastically only a few weeks after the summer armistice ended.   It was a high-risk strategy, and once the Allies interdicted the Elbe, the jig was up.  Many troops were now starving, and the already high desertion rate and sick-list shot up further (Source: article on Dresden as a Supply Source by Kevin Zucker).

One result was that at the decisive battle at Leipzig, the French were missing tens of thousands of troops.  These had either been lost through attrition, or were hospitalised and scattered in various German fortresses, where they were subsequently made pow.

For all that, I agree that the Emperor was a military genius, and he certainly had his successes.  Maybe the problem was that his logistical system was not scalable and not transferable.  What he could do with a smaller army in the fertile and well-populated Po Valley or in Bavaria, just did not work with larger armies, and in other areas?

Elting points to recurring problems with French logistics, even in the glory days.  Napoleon  seems to have repeatedly under-provided logistical means and overestimated logistical capacities.   Campaigns were run on a shoestring, depending on quick military success and the resulting capture of enemy depots. Elting believes this was a high-risk approach, as there was no resilience if things went awry during a campaign.

I think you’re quite right to mention his arrogance.  As well as contributing to his diplomatic gaffs, it was probably also a factor in his logistic ones.   One could imagine there were officers alert to future problems, but afraid to warn him.  If they did, perhaps their fears were swept brusquely aside.

I feel the reference to a minimal Napoleonic supply train, may convey the wrong impression. Napoleon’s armies had thousands of wagons.  Elting quotes over 4,000 supply wagons for the 1805 Ulm campaign.  Not enough in his view. Napoleon had apparently ordered many more, but several hundred failed to appear.  And to these must be added an unstated number of other wagons (HQs, regimental, hospital, ambulance, munitions, blacksmiths, farriers, engineers etc).  

In later campaigns, the armies grew, so the trains got even larger.  The Grande Armee took 25,000 wagons into Russia (Source: ‘Campaigns of Napoleon’ by David Chandler).

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Post  Mr. Digby on Mon Aug 12, 2019 1:54 pm

Interesting stuff, especially from Elting. My view is the high-risk strategy was intentional, it was all linked to what we might now call a horse-and-musket era form of Blitzkreig and was very much his style. Yes it was high risk but it was also successful for a decade and I think the logistics risks go hand in hand with his chosen style of warfare. It was, after all, an immensely successful recipe, more successful than almost every other commander before him with the possible exceptions (in the west) of Caesar and Alexander.

He was an arrogant man, there's no doubt of that. He didn't really even use a staff as we know it today but took every decision himself. The parallels with Hitler have been drawn before and there's justification for them.

I don't think anyone is questioning the size of wagon trains needed to support horse powered armies, whether Napoleon's or Lee's. I do still think though that there is a clear difference between how Lee approached a campaign and how Napoleon did. The two men had very different situations of course. The opposite end of the scale might be McLellan but then Napoleon did not have steam-powered river boats that could move with some ease against the tides and currents, nor did he have railways.

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"Any hussar who has not got himself killed by the age of 30 is a jackass." - Antoine Charles Louis Lasalle, commander of Napoleon's light cavalry, killed in battle at Wagram 6 July 1809, aged 34.

"I had forgotten there was an objective." - Generallieutenant Mikhail Borozdin I
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Post  Martin on Mon Aug 12, 2019 8:20 pm

Yes I agree with all of that.  A most worrying development to be sure..........

He was quite aware he was taking risks, but as time went on, and success kept coming, I think he came to believe in his star.  And of course in the Emperor's court all failures were ascribed to his subordinates.  Very easy to feel you are superman.  I believe he genuinely thought that rules didn't apply to him - whether legal or even laws of nature.  If Napoleon willed something to happen, it would.  If he wanted the supplies to last, they would.

I knew a CEO like that.......without the genius  Shocked

Going back a century, I think we see something similar with Louis XIV after his successful early wars.  IMHO he started to believe his own propaganda.  He was indeed le Roi Soleil, to whom the rules of diplomacy and the laws of war did not apply.  He was a highly intelligent man, but not a genius, I think.  Perhaps that helped to ground him in his later wars when things turned sour.

With Napoleon OTOH you get the impression he kept on believing, even through each of the 1813-15 campaigns, regardless of the ever increasing odds against him.

Re Lee etc I wonder whether living off the land was really feasible in the ACW.  At least the way Napoleon did it.  To support large armies, surely you need a high population density?  Until the railway arrives.  The region has to produce enough food and grain to feed men and horses.  

Yet the population of the eastern USA in 1860 was only 30 million (including slaves).  And this was spread over an area larger than western Europe, with a population of perhaps 150 million.  Did any area produce enough provisions in a small enough area, to allow Napoleonic foraging with a substantial army?

Attempts by whole armies to live off he land at all were very rare in the ACW, and perhaps this is the reason?  Grant did something in central Mississippi for a brief period, but that was a particularly productive area and he didn't have his whole army with him.  Sherman thought he was taking undue risks.  Sherman himself did something similar on the march to the sea. But of course he wasn't facing a Confederate army and could spread his corps without fear.  Ewell's foraging operation in Pennsylvania was especially unusual, as his various divisions had to spread out over such a wide area to get the provisions.  At times the divisions were 2 day's march apart!  Perhaps low population density was the reason? This risk was only taken because the Union army was presumed to be S of the Potomac.

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Post  gehrig38 on Mon Aug 19, 2019 6:13 pm

Fantastic conversation.
So much to unpack. But the overarching opinion of 'divinity' on the part of Napolean and Hitler is perfect. As their careers wound down their decision making, to me anyway, appeared to disconnect with reality more and more each day.
The only example I need to present on Hitler were his many directives of "Not one step back" in situations that were militarily impossible to defend.
I'd never delved that deep into Napolean to date, always taking the 'one of the greatest military minds ever' opinion and letting that stand.
This thread reveals that to not be the case.
Being a brilliant military mind means creating a plan to both win the battle in front of you and still have a mobile, healthy and somewhat "well off" surviving army. No one can hold conquered territory with an undernourished, hateful, sick group of men. I always wonder how far ahead of Paulus' surrender he knew they were defeated. He was active, he was in the field, he talked with his NCO's and soldiers, there's no way he didn't see the emaciated soldiers as the campaign went on. The books I've read have painted him in two extreme opposites.
Anyway, as I read this thread it appears to me that these two 'geniuses' shared a common trait. Lack of attention to detail on the things that truly mattered. I don't know how brilliant Hitler was as a strategist as reports are that the Polish and early western campaigns were ALL his brainchild, or almost none of it but pilfered from the brilliant minds of his Generals and passed on as "his".
But as wargamers we do the same thing in many cases do we not? When confronted with a game system that presents supply chains they tend to fall to the back of the line of the things we care about. We like the shiny 'toys'. They were no different. The earlier version of Hitler's SS combat soldiers was Napoleon's Imperial Guard.
One of the first things ANY good leader recognizes is the ability to make everyone on 'your team' feel valuable and committed. Making different rules for different groups is a no-no.
In the backroom that stuff is fine, but openly displayed it is not.
Both of these units were ALWAYS well supplied and armed whether the logistics made sense or not. They were kept full from a TO&E perspective, as well as food and supplies, at the expense of other units and it wasn't a secret. Especially amongst the leadership (a whole other issue where Hitler is concerned since he had his best minds fighting EACH OTHER for attention, men, materials).
But this lack of attention to detail in the truly important matters, like how I feed my men and how I clothe my men and how much I ask of my men is truly a glacier sized hole in the titanic as far as problems are concerned.
I guess what I am saying is that if you want to call someone who sits on a live active battlefield and orders his armies here and there and is "brilliant' in doing that, a military genius I guess that's fair.
But when that same commander is overseeing that same battle with an underfed, unhealthy and sick army, most of all of which is that same commander's fault, then I'm ok with that person not being recognized as some genius.
A true strategist takes all factors into account when displaying their brilliance. Full-blown knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses and their soldiers capabilities, combat principles and (to me anyway) one of the most important aspects of all of it, a thorough understanding of the supply chain, how it works and how it factors into a conflict.
Both of these men failed mightily at various points, amazing in all honesty that Hitler had Napoleans example in front of him, exactly as it would happen to him, and he ignored it. I know both of them thought the campaigns would be fought and won before the Russian winter but isn't that foresight ALSO a huge factor in the label "military genius"?
Anyway, fantastic thread.
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Post  Martin on Tue Aug 20, 2019 2:41 pm

Glad you're enjoying it.

The Napoleon-Hitler strategy comparison is interesting, isn't it. Not a perfect match IMHO, but certainly some parallels.

At least in the early years, I think there was calculation in Nappy's approach to risk. Sure his methods could lose a lot of men, but then France at that time had a large population and thus had more men to lose than his opponents. Once the Spanish ulcer kicked-in, and he was no longer just facing Austria or Prussia, then that calculation breaks-down, I think.

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