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Waterloo and The Civil War

by | Jul 17, 2016 | News

A few days ago, I finished reading an outstanding book about the battle of Waterloo. Titled “WATERLOO: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles,” it was written by Bernard Cornwell.

If you know anything about historical fiction, you’ve probably encountered Cornwell before. The man is, quite possibly, the greatest writer of that genre of all time, and that’s no exaggeration. He’s done dozens of books on not only the Napoleonic Wars, but the American Revolution, the Knights of King Arthur, the Civil War, Vikings and many other subjects. But for this most recent one, he tried his hand for the first time at nonfiction. And he tackles the tale of the great battle of June 18, 1815 with skill and knowledge.

I’ve always been fascinated by Waterloo. The principal adversaries, the French emperor Napoleon and the British Duke of Wellington, were the greatest commanders of that age. The emperor’s defeat and subsequent exile to the island of St. Helena marked one of the great turning points not only of the 19th century but in all of world history. The battle was filled with apocalyptic drama: the fight at the farm at Hougoumont, the huge French cavalry charges against the British squares, the capture of La Haye Sainte, the repulse of Napoleon’s Old Guard, the providential arrival of the Prussian army at the end of the day, Wellington’s calmness throughout the day. The world was changed by what happened on that field in Belgium.

At this point, you’re probably wondering: Okay, that’s swell but what, pray tell, does all that have to do with the American Civil War? That is the topic we’re all generally tasked with discussing here.

In the half-century after Waterloo, the Civil War generation came of age. They heard about the great battle. Many of them went on to West Point and became professional soldiers. Waterloo was studied over and over, along with all the other battles of Napoleon and his adversaries. Commanders sought to be compared to the French emperor because of his great success as a battlefield commander. Many of the tactics of that era would be employed again and again almost 50 years after Waterloo, in the battles of our Civil War, 1861-1865.

Tragically, though, weaponry had undergone a tremendous upgrade. Rifled weapons were commonplace. The Brown Bess musket that the British had used against Napoleon had been replaced by the Enfield rife and the Springfield. Grooves now lined the insides of the barrels of rifles and cannon, and that change increased their lethality. They were much more accurate than the guns and especially the artillery of the armies of Napoleon and Wellington.

Troops assaulting positions in the Civil War came within range of the guns of their enemies much sooner than the armies of that earlier time, and were far more likely to be wounded or killed.

That combination of the tactics of the Napoleonic era and the weapons of the 1860s helps explain the butcher’s bill that was paid during the Civil War.

It took a lot of fighting before some of the generals began to grasp this. In the last year or so of the Civil War, men began to fight from trenches and behind earthworks rather than out in the open. And those defensive tactics would look not 50 years into the past and to Waterloo, but about 50 years into the future and to Passchendaele and the Somme, when the “no man’s land” of the First World War claimed the lives of millions throughout Europe.

This new Waterloo book also has some descriptions of the fighting there that I suspect the Civil War soldier would recognize. Cornwell tells of a battlefield enveloped in smoke, volcanic noise, great chaos and blood. And constant death and destruction. The men who wore blue and gray would know all about that. Waterloo was all those things. But so were Shiloh and Antietam. So were Gettysburg and Chickamauga. So were Spotsylvania Courthouse and Franklin. And when the firing finally stopped, the sounds and sights of what was left would haunt the survivors for as long as they lived.

Maybe the Duke of Wellington put it best in his summation of Waterloo — a battle, remember, in which he was the victorious commander: “My heart is broken by the terrible loss I have sustained in my old friends and companions and my poor soldiers. Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won.”

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