Do Famous Battles Ever Really Affect War’s Outcome?
The prevailing wisdom among historians for the past couple of centuries says that battles like Waterloo or Gettysburg were crucial turning points. A new book says that’s not true.
Since the first truly national armies emerged in early 17th century Europe, statesmen, soldiers, and military historians alike have seen battle as the soul of war, and the decisive battle as the chief means for securing war’s political ends. Carl von Clausewitz, the pre-eminent philosopher of war in the West, was obsessed with the idea of the sustained combat engagement between adversaries. “Battles decide everything,” he declared. “Fighting is to war what cash payment is to trade, for however rarely it may be necessary for it to actually occur, everything is directed toward it, and eventually it must take place all the same and must be decisive.”
Napoleon, whom Clausewitz called “the god of war,” had a genius for winning large, set-piece battles, even when his forces were outnumbered. At Austerlitz, Napoleon crushed Austria, and brought an end to the War of the Third Coalition. On the fields of Jena-Auerstedt he vanquished the formidable Prussians, and soon thereafter presided over the largest empire in Europe since Rome. Little wonder his campaigns are closely studied in war colleges around the world to this day.
Over three days of furious combat at Gettysburg, momentum in the American Civil War passed irretrievably from the Confederacy to the Union, as Lee’s second, and last, invasion of the North was turned back. Hitler’s dreams of conquest in the east died in the grim, frigid wreckage of Stalingrad, and D-Day sealed the fate of the Third Reich in Western Europe.