The Art of War (Machiavelli, Vauban, and Frederick )

by Soldier Studies Article
March 8th, 2009

In the Civil War the average size army in battle was 54,000 men. There were 3 cannon per 1,000 combatants. There were 18 battles in which the opposing armies together numbered over 100,000. The Civil War averaged one battle per month though out the war.

The logical attempt to define strategy in the American Civil War comes to us from many resources. There are many defining examples of teachings of the art of war. In this compilation I have chosen to take a look at the American war in the 1860's from a European perspective of the very early days of war.


The Roman armies were a carefully selected militia whose soldiers came from rural areas. The Roman armies were of moderate size, and foot soldiers were their backbone; the value of the cavalry in a battle was very limited, although they were useful in reconnoitering and in preventing supplies reaching the enemy. The American armies were of large size, and foot soldiers formed the backbone of the armies. In the early days of war a 20,000 man army was the rule, and very seldom were battles fought with numbers much larger than this. In the Thirty-Year War there was one battle fought with armies numbering over 100,000 men.

Roman Warfare with small armies with very limited artillery. When looking at Machiavelli the student of history must realize that his ideas of war were based on his thoughts of

Machiavelli stated that "Artillery is of greater use to the attacker than to the defender, particularly in the siege of a town, and since the great strength of the Roman army was its capacity for attack, artillery might be used to reinforce the Roman methods of warfare. It does not invalidate them." With this in mind, and looking at various Civil War actions the student will remember such actions as McClellan's march up the Virginia Peninsula--gaining ground to support artillery for the all-out assault on Richmond. In this, McClellan's hopes were dashed, primarily because General Lee did not wait for the all-out destruction of not only his base of operations but also his army.

In the War with Mexico offensive minded artillery was a very real strategy that presented many valuable trophies. Lee's bombardment of Cemetery Ridge prior to the Pickett-Pettigrew charge on the Third Day of Gettysburg showed that offensive artillery was not all that it could be. Zachary Taylor showed that it was just what was needed in the Battles of Reseca de la Palma, and Palo Alto, both offensive actions, both results favorable due to the flying artillery employed with infantry. Both actions were very different in that Taylor employed his artillery in the very face of his adversary. Lee's artillery was emplaced a great distance away from both the offensive waves of infantry and the defensive position of the enemy. Could Lee have brought his artillery forward as Taylor did? Probably not--in Mexico the bulky artillery found in the Mexican army was no match for the flying artillery employed by the U.S. army. In the Civil War, artillery moving forward with infantry would have no doubt been destroyed. It did become a dilemma for offensive minded strategy. The tank was born from this dilemma and a new wave of flying artillery was achieved.

In other Civil War offensive actions, offensive mounted infantry and artillery assaults were very seldom used to any great affect. The typical softening up technique of a pre-assault bombardment very seldom if ever results in the desired demoralizing, or destructive affect. Naval and Air bombardments of Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Normandy, as well as other World War II engagements did little damage to the morale or destruction of enemy assets. In very few cases in the Civil War did an artillery bombardment greatly affect the out-come of a general infantry attack. An exception to this was the eventual bombardment of the Hornet's Nest at Shiloh. Seemingly without this bombardment the eventual success of Confederate infantry on this portion of the field seems to be in doubt. Great attacks such as Seven Days, Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Franklin, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor were broken up not so much because of artillery, although artillery was certainly used to great affect, but more so because of the nature of the ground that was defended. Only in siege operations has artillery been used to a great affect in reducing offensive casualties, while reducing enemy strength and will to fight.

Machiavelli states that the aim of war "....must be to face and enemy in the field and defeat him there; this is the only way to bring a war to a happy conclusion." This seemingly obvious statement bears up throughout history as the safe doctrine of warfare. He went on to say: "Human qualities needed for war: courage, obedience, enthusiasm, and ferocity." Machiavelli makes compromise with convention. In the preface of the book he wrote that the rulers of ancient times took care to inspire all their subjects, and particularly their soldiers, with fidelity, love of peace, and fear of God. "Who ought to be fonder of peace than soldiers whose life is placed in jeopardy by war?"

"The continued existence of struggles and uncertainties patterns the character and the methods of war: there is no safe course. Risks must be taken in these surroundings of uncertainties and dangers, wars ought to be ended as quickly as possible with the attainment of a definite result: the complete defeat of the enemy. Wars ought to be short and sharp. A quick decision, however, can be reached only in a battle. Because everything depends on the outcome of the battle, you ought to do every thing to make sure of victory; you should use your full forces even if the enemy seems of inferior strength. Decision by battle is the aim of every military campaign, which must be a planned and coordinated operation. Command, therefore, must be in the hands of one man. If the state is a monarchy, the ruler himself ought to be the commanding general. But republics too should entrust their army in wartime to one commander who should have unlimited authority; that is what the Romans had done who had left the details of a campaign to the discretion and authority of the consul."

The Confederacy would no doubt abhor the thought that they could be compared to a Republic, however the results remain the same. The only way from the very outset of war the South had a chance of winning was that it should have placed command of its army in the hands of one man. The Federal Army did this, and eventually found the man to make this notion work. The Confederacy had more stars to pick from and never did allow this most basic of military thought to develop.

Military success depends on order and discipline. Natural courage is not enough. Hold military exercise in high repute and have many regulations for maintaining them. Training is never finished or completed. A wise leader should keep the necessity of training always in mind and insist on it in peacetime as well as in wartime. But even the bonds that training and discipline create cannot guarantee obedience. They must be reinforced by fear of harsh punishment. Severity and harshness are incurring the charge of cruelty for the purpose of keeping his subjects united and faithful; it is much safer to be feared than loved. Hannibal's inhuman cruelty was necessary to keep his forces, composed of men of all nations and fighting in foreign countries united; writers who admire Hannibal as a mighty hero and blame him for his cruelty are thoughtless; his cruelty was a principal cause of his success. Can such a thought be used today in successful management of War?

Sherman's march across the Deep South in 1864-65 was considered cruel by the standards set by Civil War chivalry. It did not come close to the mark of inhuman cruelty that was set by Hannibal's policies.

Machiavelli's most fundamental thesis, emphasized in all his writings, is that the military forces of a ruler or a republic must be composed by the inhabitants of the state that the army is expected to defend.

The necessary prerequisite of success in war--confidence and discipline--can exist only where the troops are natives of the same country and have lived together for some time. The Civil War regiments were made up of troops who lived together in civilian life.

Machiavelli was convinced, however, that citizens will be willing to fight and die for their ruler or government only when they are content with the society in which they live. There is a great difference between an army that is well content and fights for its own reputation and one that is ill disposed and has to fight only for the interests of others. The Vietnam War is a good example of Machiavellian thought. Whose interests did American service personnel fight and die for?


No works had greater influence or enjoyed greater prestige than those of Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban who lived during the reign of Louis XIV. His authority in the eighteenth century was immense. Vauban's teachings were primarily involved with fortification. He said that the purposes of a fortified frontier: "it should close to the enemy all the points of entry into the kingdom and at the same time facilitate an attack upon enemy territory." Vauban never thought that fortresses were important solely for defense; he was careful to stress their importance as bases for offensive operations against the enemy. "The fortified places should be situated so as to command the means of communication within one's own territory and to provide access to enemy soil by controlling important roads or bridgeheads. They should be large enough to hold not only the supplies necessary for their defense, but the stores required to support and sustain an offensive based upon them."

"The best kind of fortresses are those that forbid access to one's country while at the same time giving an opportunity to attack the enemy in his own territory." Characteristics should be: control of key routes, mountain passes, gorge--control of bridge heads on great rivers."

"Fortresses depend in large part upon the nature of its local situation. Certain fortresses are advantageously situated because the defenders have the communications leading to them well under their control. Whereas the enemy in consequence, will have difficulty in bringing up the supplies necessary for a sustained siege." Later in his career Vauban submitted that there should be a creation of camps retrenches', fortified encampments to supplement the fortresses and to strengthen the waterline. The purpose of these encampments was either to guard the waterline in the interval between the fortresses or to strengthen the forts themselves by producing a veritable external defense. With a small army-smaller than the ordinary field army-camped beyond the outworks of a fortress and protected by elaborate earthworks it was possible either to interfere with any besieging forces unwise enough to tackle the fortress directly or to impose upon them a wider perimeter to be invested.

I believe that Vauban's thoughts need to be analyzed in greater detail by Civil War historians. The South, being the entity that would no doubt suffer the most from invasion, and who had given some impetus for the use of fortresses in the overall strategy to defend the Mississippi River, needed to ascertain as much information concerning fortress warfare as was possible.

There were many fortresses built in America since before the French and Indian Wars. Many of these old forts were put into service during the Civil War. Working under the premise that the South had to maintain control of the Mississippi in order to win the war--how could the fortress situation along the Mississippi improved?

First premise of Fortress warfare --- it should close to the enemy all the points of entry into the kingdom and at the same time facilitate an attack upon enemy territory. Did Forts Henry and Donelson achieve this affect? Could fortresses have been built in other locations that would have facilitated offensive fortress warfare? I think this is a very key question in the over-all understanding of the very nature of President Davis' strategy concerning the use of fortress warfare. I am quite certain that the very good engineers located in the Confederate armies could have found very capable geographical positions to place fortresses that would have aligned with Vauban's strategy in the art of offensive fortress warfare.

Frederick the Great:

Frederick's battle alignment: On each wing was cavalry, artillery fairly evenly distributed along the rear, infantry battalions drawn up in two parallel solid lines, one a few hundred yards behind the other, and each line, or at least the first, composed of three ranks, each rank firing at a single command while the other two reloaded. Battle order tended to determine marching order: troops should march, according to Frederick, in columns so arranged that by a quick turn the columns presented themselves as firing lines with cavalry on the flanks. Frederick set a great value on cavalry, which constituted about a fourth of his army, but he used it in general only for shock action in solid tactical units. His scouting service was therefore poor.

Unlike Napoleon, Frederick, though a successful battle general, was not fond of full-size battles, that is, showdown clashes between the main forces of the belligerents. To his mind the outcome of battle depended too much upon a chance and chance was the opposite of rational calculation. The supreme planning intelligence, the power of command to elicit obedience, which to Frederick was the first premises of scientific war, could not be relied on in the heat of a major engagement. "It is to be remarked in addition that most generals in love with battle resort to this expedient for want of other resources. Far from being considered a merit in them, this is usually thought a sign of sterility of their talents. Fredericks' premise of scientific war would have proved a great facilitator to the views of many generals of the Civil War. How would Lee's campaigns in Maryland or Pennsylvania changed had he subscribed to Frederick's policies as opposed to his devotion to Napoleon? Both Lee and Napoleon brought about major battles which ultimately destroyed themselves. Frederick maintained a small principality in Europe, surrounded by many much larger enemies, because he very rarely brought about a major engagement. In actuality, Nathan Bedford Forrest achieved more by using Frederick's thoughts of war than many of his contemporaries. To Forrest's credit, he didn't realize that he was following the policies of Frederick--a pure natural in the art of war.

To annihilate the enemy's main combat force was thus not Frederick's usual strategic objective. He indeed realized that, if battle is fought, the winner should attempt a destructive pursuit of the enemy. In effect for Frederick the purpose of battle was to force an enemy to move. He did this primarily with attacks on flanks of his opponents by using the oblique order and attacks in echelon. ("oblique order, the advance of one wing by echelons with refusal of the other.")
Frederician war became increasingly a war of position, the war of complex maneuver and subtle accumulation of small gains; leisurely and slow in its main outlines (though never in tactics), and quite different from the short sharp warfare recommended in earlier writings. "To gain many small successes means gradually to heap up a treasure." "All maneuvers in war turn upon the positions which a general may occupy with advantage, and positions which he may attack with the least loss." "I observe that all wars carried far from the frontiers of those who undertake them have less success than those fought within reach of one's own country."

Frederick favored offensive strategy in the field, as permitting more freedom on initiative; but would willingly fight on the defensive, as he often had to, which less strong than his enemy or when expecting to gain an advantage by time. It must however be an active and challenging defensive, which, while based on fixed fortifications, freely assaulted enemy positions and detachments. "A commander deceives himself who thinks he is conducting well a defensive war when he takes no initiative, and remains inactive during the whole campaign. Such a defensive would end with the whole army being driven from the country that the general meant to protect." Interesting thoughts when you consider the nature of the geography of the Eastern battlefield. Natural fortifications along many east-west flowing rivers.

During the Overland Campaign of 1864 Lee held true to his defenses. When it was time to take the initiative, North Anna and Cold Harbor, Lee was ill with very weak subordinates at the corps level. Even though he caused great injury to the invading army by holding true to his defenses. It was the lack of offensive initiative in his own homeland that eventually cost him the greatest treasure.

Source: From the papers of the late Dr. Ernest Butner