I’ve been interested in the American Civil War for most of my life; it’s not possible for things to have been any other way, being as I’ve been reading military history since I was around 10 or 11 years old and I live within a short drive of four or five major Civil War sites. But I didn’t dive whole hog into Civil War studies until I was in my late thirties. That was when I realized I was about the same age as the typical Civil War brigadier general, and it was also around that time when I became interested in the practical aspects of ACW brigade command (troop movement, terrain, morale) as well as in the operational level of command (how a campaign is planned and fought throughout a theater of war).

In addition to doing extensive outdoor map and terrain work conducted on actual Civil War battlefields, I also began to read period military manuals. I don’t mean the guides to formations (such as the famous Hardee manual); I’m referring to the higher-level guides on how a campaign is conducted and how a battle is fought. There aren’t many of these; there’s West Point professor Dennis Hart Mahan’s Outpost, Henry Halleck wrote a couple of books, and of course there’s Jomini’s Art of War (which we’ll return to in a moment). There are also a few European military manuals, often translated by W.P. Craighill, and some Confederate manuals which are often distillations of the aforementioned works.

It’s one thing to sit in a comfortable easy chair while looking at maps and making pompous statements about how one general or another was an “idiot” because of the decisions he made; it’s quite another to immerse oneself in military theory as it was known at the time, then walk the ground upon which decisions were made and battles were fought in order to truly understand why their choices were made. That pursuit of genuine knowledge and understanding became my hobby, my pleasure, and (later, for two years) my vocation. And I had a great time doing it. I used to drive National Park Service rangers insane, not only with myriad questions, but also with some of my own battlefield excursions. I used to hike by myself to far-flung corners of battlefields, sans cell phone (this was the early 2000’s and I didn’t own one at the time), with no way to contact anyone for help if I got into a jam. The Great Spirit must have been looking out for me, for there were jams aplenty. I once slipped near the top of a steep incline east of Antietam’s Burnside Bridge and tumbled backwards down the bluff, finally being caught (and tangled) by an ancient wire fence which stopped me short of some large rocks a few feet farther down the incline. I took chances to increase my knowledge; I hiked across Gettysburg’s Forney Field following the path of Iverson’s Brigade, but I did it in the spring, not knowing until I’d started that the field is essentially a swamp at that time of year and that the weeds and rushes are more than head-high. Had I twisted or snapped an ankle during that hike, they’d have found me sometime in October or November, I suspect. But I’d made a special trip to do the thing, I had maps and printouts of the battle accounts with me, and I was damned sure going to do what I came to do, regardless of the risk. I used to joke that if I didn’t come back muddy, bloody, dirty, tired, and sore from a battlefield excursion that I hadn’t really done the field work, but there’s a lot of truth to that.

The dangers weren’t always products of field work, either. Back in those days, I also read many books about Napoleonic warfare (since the ACW was actually the last Napoleonic war, not the first modern war as is so often claimed), and I even studied theory back to the 1700’s to better understand the precedents for Napoleon’s military thought (which in turn greatly informed military theory as it was understood by ACW commanders).

In early 2002, the terror attacks of 9/11 were still very fresh in the public’s mind; people at that time were still acting just a little bit crazy. I was then the assistant parts manager of a small automotive dealership and had a few hours’ downtime each day, so I often brought history books to work. One car salesman in particular used to give me the third degree over my choice of reading material: “Why are you reading that? What’s so interesting about history?”, etc. On one memorable occasion, the salesman came back to the parts department to order some accessories a customer had requested for a new car he’d purchased. I distinctly recall that I was reading Jay Luvaas’ Frederick the Great on the Art of War at the time. This sales guy saw the book and started losing his mind; he raced to the parts manager’s office and a shouting match ensued. I couldn’t hear clearly much of what was said, but I remember hearing the guy pointing out my dark beard and dark wavy hair and screaming, “He even looks like one of those people!”

Now I won’t disparage car salesmen as a group. I’ve had a lot of friends who worked in sales, and some of them are quite brilliant – guys who have advanced degrees in various fields (including history) but who realized that they could make a better living selling cars than they’d make in their field of study. On the other hand, you have some car salesmen who sell cars because they literally cannot find employment doing anything else — and dealerships will hire pretty much anyone, no matter how ill-educated (or just plain stupid), for car sales positions because the job turnover rate is so high.

The guy I’m talking about was squarely in that latter (e.g. stupid) category.

The parts manager tossed this guy out of his office, then told me what had happened. The salesman insisted that I absolutely, positively had to be an Islamic terrorist, because I was always reading military history. “That guy’s planning something, I just know it!” the guy had screamed, and demanded that I be fired immediately. The parts manager also said, “I’ll bet that he’s up there in Jerry’s [the owner’s] office right now saying the same thing.”

Now I wasn’t remotely worried. I was pretty tight with the owner (I’d worked for him a few years before) and we’d frequently had interesting discussions occasioned by whatever I happened to be reading at the time. Nor was I surprised when the owner showed up a couple of hours later, smiled at me, and said, “Steve! What’cha reading?”

I cracked right up. The owner told me that I was welcome to go on reading whatever history books I cared to read (just so long as my work was done), but he did ask me a favor. “If he [the salesman] gives you any more trouble, please let me or your manager know right away. Please don’t punch the guy, or I’ll be forced to fire you both. I’ve ordered him to make any further parts requests with someone else in your department.” It was ultimately immaterial, as that moronic sales guy was gone about a month later, but I appreciated that the owner had my back.

I mention this story because people can get a little crazy where history is concerned, especially in troubled times, when they have very little historical knowledge of their own. By reading some historical writings which were two and a half centuries old, I infuriated a guy who not only had no historical knowledge himself but who would be challenged to prove to me that he possessed two brain cells to rub together. I have a lot of friends and acquaintances who don’t understand why I’m so interested in history, but who at least give me some props for having acquired the knowledge and who think it’s a pretty cool pursuit (even if it’s not their particular pursuit). On the other hand, every once in a while I run into a clown like this car salesman. I prefer to write the incident off as a product of the time. When times get tough, people tend to get a little crazy. They get judgmental, they look for reasons to label, blame, and scapegoat other people; it makes them feel like they have some power at a time when they otherwise feel powerless. That’s a lesson which, ironically, history teaches us time and again.

I’ve made much in this blog about the value of approaching history from the standpoint of those who lived it in order to better understand what informed their opinions and decisions. This is how I approached (and continue to approach) my American Civil War military studies, and that’s what led me in turn to study Frederick the Great, Napoleon, and the writings, analyses, and interpretations of the military art as it was understood in the middle of the nineteenth century.

And that brings us right to the doorstep of Antoine Henri Jomini.

Jomini was a military officer who served in both the French and Russian armies during the Napoleonic Wars (and thus, for all intents and purposes, fought for both sides). While renowned as a general his greatest fame came after the wars ended, when Jomini set pen to paper and began to explain in print how Napoleon planned his campaigns and fought his battles. In his writings, Jomini not only explained the theory behind military science as it was known at the time but also backed up his conclusions with copious practical historical examples.

Jomini’s books, particularly The Art of War, were groundbreaking works. Prior to Jomini very little had been written about how to fight a battle. There had previously been major works on fortifications (Vauban), myriad military (auto)biographies and memoirs, manuals on troop training and formations, but few “how to” books which actually explained the proper way to conduct a campaign and fight a battle (most of the latter had been Asian works unknown in the West until the twentieth century, and a large number of those were just “stratagem”, as opposed to “strategy”, guides – little tricks one could use to put the opposing commander or army at a disadvantage. From a practical military viewpoint, Sun Tzu is highly overrated). Jomini was instrumental in setting down in print the principles and maxims of nineteenth century war.

A large part of warfare in Jomini’s time consisted of the art of maneuvering geometric blocks of men, so it was a natural leap for a guy like Napoleon to apply geometry to war’s other aspects. Nineteenth century campaigning concerned itself with bases of operations (and supply), lines of approach and attack, divisions of the theater into areas of operations (left, center, and right, often delineated by major terrain features like rivers and mountains), etc.. Then, when the maneuvering was concluded and armies made contact to join in battle, many of the same linear and geometric principles still applied (albeit in a greatly reduced geographic area), with additional localized terrain considerations (such as elevation, forestation, roads, fence lines, etc.) thrown into the mix.

Jomini took all of this varied knowledge and distilled it down into a book, The Art of War, which, not surprisingly, often reads like a geometry textbook; the book’s diagrams are of a definite geometric bent:

Jomini - The Art of War

It would be impossible to easily summarize all of The Art of War’s myriad contributions to military theory, and much of it is still very relevant today. Two examples leap out from just a few pages of Chapter 3. I’ll introduce the first with a Civil War example.

On the night of September 16-17, 1862, Gen. George McClellan prepared for what became the battle of Antietam by throwing two corps of his Army of the Potomac westward across Antietam Creek. These corps took up a position to the north (e.g. facing the left flank) of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. I have participated in countless ranger-led battlefield hikes in which visitors voice the opinion that “McClellan was stupid for telegraphing his move like that!”

Au contraire. McClellan absolutely wanted Lee to see that move (and, given the lines of sight available to Lee from atop both Sharpsburg Ridge and Hauser Ridge, it would have been impossible to disguise the movement in any event). As a West Point cadet, McClellan had been a member of instructor Dennis Hart Mahan’s “Napoleon Club”, an extracurricular group which studied Napoleon’s campaigns and battles. As a member of that group McClellan learned a major technique of Napoleon’s fighting style, one which the French emperor employed time and again, called “turning the enemy out of a position.” When the enemy occupies a piece of high ground which one is able to flank, that general will oftentimes abandon that position rather than face a flanking attack. The advantage of holding the high ground doesn’t counterbalance the power of a flank attack unless the defending flank can be pulled back at an oblique or right angle: “refusing the flank”; otherwise the defender risks a flank attack or, worse, the enemy continuing onward to take up a position behind him. If the defender can’t refuse the flank, his only alternative is to pull back and abandon his position.

To anyone who has made a close study of Napoleon (or a study of period military manuals), it’s pretty obvious that McClellan was trying to turn Lee out of his position and cause the Confederate forces to abandon Sharpsburg Ridge and fall back toward the Potomac. It didn’t work, though, because Lee was able both to cover the flank with Stuart’s mobile cavalry and pull back his infantry, refusing that flank, thus preventing the Union forces from getting behind him or launching a true flank attack.

Napoleon knew that the best way to win a battle was to not fight one at all. If one can maneuver to make the enemy’s position untenable, then one should do just that – then pursue the enemy as he falls back. That’s precisely what Sherman did on a larger operational level as he advanced on Atlanta, causing Johnston’s to pull back each time Sherman flanked the Confederates. Sherman advanced steadily from Tennessee to Atlanta in this manner.

Jomini covers this in Chapter 3 of The Art of War as one of his maxims illustrating what he terms “the fundamental principle of war”: “1. To throw by strategic movements the mass of an army, successively, upon the decisive points of a theater of war, and also upon the communications of the enemy as much as possible without compromising one’s own” [emphasis mine]. In other words, you move your army to threaten decisive points (which include the enemy’s own force) and cause the enemy to react. Although in this particular case, Jomini was referring to the strategic or operational levels of command, it also applies to the more tactical level of the battlefield itself. By threatening to flank the enemy, or even to bypass his position and threaten his rear by moving around his flank (see Longstreet’s proposal after the first day at Gettysburg), you can cause an enemy to leave a position — and you win the engagement without having to fight the battle.

Another legacy of Jomini is the concept of three lateral zones in warfare. Again from Chapter 3 (just a page or two after the previous quote): “The general theater of operations seldom contains more than three zones – the right, the left, and the center.” This delineation informs command decisions at all levels of warfare, from the overall strategic picture to the operational level (for example, when determining a base of operations and the routes of advance) down to the more granular tactical level in fighting a particular battle. It has become such a fundamental tenet of warfare that it appears in even casual war-based games designed for a general audience: Pocket Battles, Battle Cry, and Eagle Games’ American Civil War use these three delineations as a core concept which controls and directs gameplay.

That’s just a small taste of how much Jomini influenced (and continues to influence) military thought. Perhaps his greatest contribution (or his best-known, at least) was the concept of interior lines. It’s another geometric concept, and it’s best illustrated by the positions of the two armies in the largest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere:

Battle of Gettysburg map

[Map courtesy of TotalGettysburg.com and Wikimedia]

In the above map of the battle of Gettysburg, the Union forces are pictured in blue while the Confederates are in red. This map shows the classic “double fishhook” formation which (along with the higher ground they occupied) gave the Union army a distinct advantage. George G. Meade, the Union commander, could easily rush forces from crisis point to crisis point along the battleline far more quickly than could his counterpart Lee. Anytime the Confederates made a strong assault against the Union line, Meade could move forces from a less-threatened point to the point of attack very quickly – the troops didn’t have far to travel. As an extreme example, Meade could easily move troops from the far left of his line to the far right, as it was just a short distance between them. Lee, on the other hand, would have to move men in a far more circuitous (and hence longer) path to get them from one of his flanks to the other. That advantage which Meade enjoyed, the advantage of having the shorter “inside” arc between his flanks, is the advantage of having interior lines.

Here’s a practical illustration with which you’re likely familiar. Anyone who has played the casual wargame Risk (or the far better Attack! by Eagle Games; somewhat similar, but with more overall crunch and much tougher decisions to be made) has had a taste of this concept in action. It’s easier to defend a central position in which all your territories are in a cluster than it is to defend a long strung-out hemispherical line of territories. If an opponent cuts your line, you’re unable to send reinforcements from one end of the line to the other – your territories are now in two groups and one group is now completely unable to reinforce the other. And, flipping the coin, it’s easier to attack out of a cluster of territories than it is from a long line as well, for similar reasons. If an attack fails, you can more easily reinforce the territory from which the attack was launched by sending in forces from the center of your cluster without endangering your entire position.

Honestly, every time I win a game of Risk or Attack! from a centralized position, somewhere in the back of my mind is a voice shouting, “Jomini, you magnificent bastard! I READ YOUR BOOK!”

For those who need help understanding the reference.

This post has been one of my longest and I’ve barely scratched the surface regarding Jomini’s principles of warfare and the importance of his writings. To truly understand why the campaigns and battles of the Napoleonic wars and the American Civil War (as well as the Mexican War, the Crimea, and numerous other mid-nineteenth century conflicts) were fought as they were, one must have at least a passing familiarity with Antoine Henri Jomini’s work.

Which brings us to today’s comic book feature. It was nearly a couple of months ago when I was perusing some back issues of Nedor’s It Really Happened and came across the very timely Amelia Earhart story which was discussed in my last post. As I read through some more issues, I was floored (yet delighted) to discover a biographical feature about Antoine Henri Jomini in the comic’s third issue. Talk about finding something in an unlikely place! I have no idea how the decision to include Jomini was made, aside from the fact that the issue was published in 1944 – it was wartime, and military-themed pieces were a staple of It Really Happened. And while Jomini’s importance to military history is indisputable, his contributions remain largely unknown outside of military circles; he’s certainly far lesser-known than, say, Carl von Clausewitz who I’d think would have been a more likely candidate for inclusion; von Clausewitz’ work is at least generally known, at least by reputation, to many outside the military. There’s no indication of who drew the Jomini piece in It Really Happened nor who wrote it. Regardless of the authorship I was grateful to see the feature, because it took me back to the days when I was avidly reading period manuals and hiking across battlefields, doing the field work that became the basis for my later work as a ranger-historian.

Page scans courtesy of Comic Book Plus.

It Really Happened #3, 1944

It Really Happened #3, 1944

It Really Happened #3, 1944

It Really Happened #3, 1944

It Really Happened #3, 1944

It Really Happened #3, 1944

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2017, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.