Napoleon on the Art of War
Today I wandered down a research rabbit hole, as I so often do. I would argue that this is not because I am easily distracted but because I am easily focused. I get on the trail of a factoid or an idea and don’t let go. Even would it would make sense to do so.*
Today I was looking for the source of a quotation that is attributed to Napoleon: “The fate of a nation may depend sometimes upon the position of a fortress.” It shows up in lists of Napoleonic aphorisms and as chapter headings in respectable scholarly books. (The earliest use I have found dates from 1916.) And no one says when or where Napoleon said it. This is sloppy scholarship, people. And frustrating. I’d really like to use the quotation, but not without proper provenance. Even if “everyone” does it.
But in the course of flailing about through books on military techniques in the Napoleonic age, and Napoleonic aphorisms, and Google Books, I stumbled on a lovely little gem of military history that I spent far too much of the afternoon browsing through: Napoleon on the Art of War, by Jay Luvaas, who was the first professor of military history at the US Army War College. The book is simply a selection of Napoleon’s writings, arranged by topic, all properly accounted for in time and place. And it reminded me that Napoleon was impressive—something I’m inclined to forget, especially on a day when I’m writing about the siege of Leningrad.** There is a clarity to his thought and his language (though possibly Prof. Luvaas should get the credit for the later)—whether he is writing battle orders, outlining a course of study for the military colleges at Metz and Saint-Cyr, explaining the importance of keeping clear lines of operation, or considering the decisions of his predecessors. I was left with the impression of a man who understood how war works in a fundamental way.
Perhaps he even explained the madness of his march into Russia. Considering the career of Alexander the Great in a discussion of the great captains of antiquity, written in 1809, he said “Unfortunately, when he attained the zenith of his glory and his success, either his head turned him or his heart was spoiled”. Takes one to know one I guess.
And by the way, if you happen to know the source of that quotation, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
*This is related to the character trait that kept me working on my doctoral dissertation for 20+ years. I like to call it tenacity. Others have suggested alternate terms.
**And yes, I am aware that Napoleon attacked Moscow rather than St. Petersburg, but his Russian campaign haunts any discussion of Hitler’s campaign. Comparative hubris, if you will.
Ah yes, I know your pain of trying to find sources for supposedly famous quotations. I write about Al Capone sometimes, and there’s tons of quotes attributed to him that it’s extremely hard to verify if he actually said it or not. I even named my blog after a quote that was attributed to him, but it actually came from a comedian in the 1960s. It’s funny, though, how often that kind of stuff comes up in books and no one seems to think twice—especially in primary sources and older history books, like you mentioned, which seem to assume you either know where it’s from already, or it’s assumed to be fact so there’s no need to cite anything. It can get kind of irritating sometimes.
You definitely get it!