Among the great military leaders, it is difficult to say which had the greatest impact on modern society because it is difficult to even imagine where one would be without their strategic advances and contributions. In the late 18th century, General George Washington led the American milita and Continental army into battle against the British, and in an unprecedented victory defeat the British military, considered one of the strongest armies during this period (Lengel, 2007). Without Washington’s superb leadership during the American Revolutionary War, there would be no America today. However around the same period in Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte was rising into a military force to be reckoned with, and his achievements as a military leader forever impacted modern European history. At the height of the Napoleonic Empire "Napoleon controlled and dominated much of continental Europe,"(Durant, 1975). His legacy reaches into philosophical thought and political ideas but it is in his military achievements that Napoleon stood apart from the rest. By examining the lives of Washington and Napoleon it is easy to see that it was Napoleon who had the greater military strengths was able to make the most advances in warfare technique.
Washington’s first military experience came when he was appointed as a major in the Virginia colonial militia at the young age of twenty. In 1754, Washington led a small expedition into the Ohio River valley on behalf of Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia to demand that the French withdraw from the British territory on the Ohio frontier. The French attacked his company, forcing Washington to surrender, and sending them back to Virginia in what was Washington’s first experience of military combat. Dampened by this defeat, Washington resigned his commission but found himself rejoining the militia in 1755 as a lieutenant colonel and the aide of General Edward Braddock. In this post, Washington went back into the Ohio Valley frontier and in an ambush attack, Braddock was killed, giving Washington charge over the remaining militia member and leading them to safety. For his bravery and leadership during this episode, Washington was promoted to colonel and in the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France, he led the defenses of the western Virginia frontier into battle.
As hostility between the colonies and Britain grew, Washington took an active place in politics, serving for seventeen years in the House of Burgessess. After war was declared in 1775, Washington showed up before the Continental Congress in his military uniform, offering his services. At his sight, Congress passed a bill authorizing the formation of the Continental army and giving Washington full command over them (Weir, 2006). However it is not so much for his military achievements that Washington was given this position–Congress merely believed he had the diplomatic skills to head an untrained army into battle against the world’s strongest armies. Washington took command of the Continental army and organized the chaotic armies, trained and disciplined an amateur army, and led them into a series of battles which eventually culminated in victory against the British in Yorktown. He became the first President of the United States and set the precedent that makes all Presidents General of the United States military.
Although George Washington is lauded as a great military hero, it should be noted that his strength was not on the battle field but rather in his diplomacy. As Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, Washington in fact had only one decisive victory against the British–the final battle at Yorktown which ended the American Revolution. During his tenure as Commander in Chief, Washington used a policy of patience and attrition warfare, attempting to wear the British army down and surrender.
Washington knew very well that the weaknesses of his army against the strengths of the British army would spell disaster in the battle field. The Continental Army had no uniform, no training and no discipline. Many of them did not want to venture far from home, making long battles difficult for Washington. The Continental Army did not have nearly enough arms for all the soldiers and most soldiers had no training to use them effectively. All the odds were against Washington and for the most part, the Continental Army was continually defeated in every battle they entered, not because of poor leadership, but due to their lack of discipline against the highly established military of the Crown.
Knowing this, Washington used another strategy for winning the war. He recognized that his army was no match in open combat against the British army but that they had something the British did not have: time. The longer the war lasted, the more the British suffered from financial expenditures and loss of soldiers. At this time, many European countries sought to confront Britain but feared their military strength. If Washington could keep them fighting for long enough, eventually another country would seize the opportunity to declare war against Britain, weakening them enough to give the American colonies freedom. As long as Washington kept the Continental Army in the field, America was a nation defending herself and had a chance of triumph. This strategy of attrition warfare is not the best of military strategies, but was "all Washington had against the dominating British army,"(Weir, 2006). His stalemating technique eventually paid off when France took the chance and declared war on Britain, causing the British to give in and granting the colonies their freedom.
Despite his supposedly small stature, Napoleon dominated everything around him in a demanding manner. His presence and charisma was enough to instill a fighting spirit to all soldiers under him and an authority from those who should have expected Napoleon to bow to them. His authoritative personality was expanded on the battlefield and in his continuously offensive position in combat.
Napoleon is credited with his "large influence in the military sphere in the conduct of welfare,"(Fisher & Fisher, 2003). Operational strategy in battle underwent massive reconstruction during the Napoleonic era and a new emphasis was placed not only on outmaneuvering an opponent, but in completey annhialating them. It was during this time that Napoleonic warfare was born,"a costlier and more decisive type of war,"(Reit, 2001). His direct and ruthless approach in battle is such that "he never flinched when facing the prospect of war and death for thousands, friend or foe,"(Fisher & Fisher, 200).
Unlike Washington, Napoleon never relied on attrition warfare to will his battles. His gained every victory of his by active planning and strategic placement of his armies who were continually surprising their opponents in quick and ruthless battles. Napoleon did not ever believe that time was on his side and his aggression in warfare reflects his idea that in war, one must be on the offense in order to succeed. He sought out his battles to compliment political policies he wanted passed and "his complete control over his army and his enemies who both feared and respected him is reminiscient of Machiavellian principles of leadership,"(Weir, 2006).
In the end General Washington went on to become the first President of the United States, credited with a victorious war for liberty and creating a solid foundation upon which America would be built. In contrast, Napoleon’s career ended in humiliating defeat, exile in isolation and an unceremonious death. But in the realm of military strategy, although Washington proved to be a great political leader with admirable diplomacy skills, there is no match against that of Napoleon’s. Even today he is still considered one of the greatest, if not the very greatest, military authority in the history of mankind.
Durant, W. (1975). The Story of Civilization Part XI The Age of Napolean. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Fisher, M., & Fisher, K. (2003, August 1). Introduction to Military Leaders. Retrieved Apr. 16, 2008, from http://www.carpenoctem.tv/military/intro.html.
Lengel, E. (2007). General George Washington: A Military Life. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks.
Reit, S. (2001). Guns for General Washington: A Story of the American Revolution. New York: Gulliver Books Paperbacks.
Weir, W. (2006). 50 Military Leaders Who Changed the World. Franklin Lakes: New Page Books.