Prolife - Freddy and Bobby, Master and Student?
Two of the greatest tacticians in history were King Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-1786) and Gen. Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) of the Confederacy. Though separated in life by about a century, the men had quite similar command styles.
Frederick followed the maxim that a good offense is the best defense. Although attackers are supposed to have two-to-one odds in order to succeed, Frederick often attacked with one-to-two odds, counting on the superior élan of his troops to make up the shortfall. Not unlike Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia.
Frederick reasoned that offensives brought his army into areas where he could get forage, whereas defending one place quickly exhausted forage. Which is why Lee and his ANV twice invaded the North.
Tactically, Frederick was a big advocate of the attack en echelon: holding one flank in place while attacking with the other. Like Longstreet’s attack at Gettysburg on July 2. That way, Frederick explained, the unengaged flank could reinforce the attacking flank when needed, whether to support a successful attack, or to prevent an unsuccessful one from turning into a rout.
Frederick’s commitment to military principles did not prevent him from departing from them when circumstances warranted. Thus, at Torgau in 1760, while the Austrians had their backs to the Elbe River, Frederick split his forces and sent one wing in a wide march to assail the Austrians’ right flank, and then squeezed them as in a vise. Rather like Jackson’s flank attack at Chancellorsville.
Frederick’s penchant for the offensive sometimes got him into trouble. At Kolin in 1757, he attacked superior forces, but was himself forced to retreat. Like Lee in the case of “Pickett’s Charge” at Gettysburg.
As the Seven Years’ War wore on, Frederick became increasingly beleaguered, with the French threatening from the distant west, the Russians from the east, and the Austrians from the south. Just as the Confederate capital found itself threatened by Stoneman’s cavalry from the west, Grant and Sherman from the south, and Butler from the east.
As a result, Frederick’s depleted forces were unable to engage in the offensive operations which Frederick preferred, and he had to become an expert at castrametation: the arrangement of fortified camps so as to render them impregnable. So also did the ANV have to learn the art of trench warfare before Richmond and Petersburg.
Still, as Frederick readily conceded, he could not have resisted the superior forces arrayed against him, except that they failed to coordinate their offensives: Frederick was able to bat off one, then another, saving Berlin and Prussia in the end.
The Confederates were not so lucky: coordinated Federal assaults from all sides finally forced the evacuation of Richmond and the surrender of the Confederacy’s own Frederick the Great, Robert E. Lee.
It’s not clear to what extent Lee studied Frederick. The curriculum at West Point actually included very little military history, but Lee made extensive use of the Academy library, reading widely in history, and seems to have continued this custom throughout his life. Lee may also have read the early volumes of Thomas Carlyle’s famous History of Friedrich II of Prussia, which began to come out 1858, at a time when Lee was on extended leave from the Army trying to sort out his late father-in-law’s estate.
– John A. Braden
Our Contributor: John A. Braden is a west Michigan research lawyer who has been interested in the Civil War since he was a little shaver. His articles have appeared in the Camp Chase Gazette, the Michigan Bar Journal and Military Images. He is currently working on a book about the Fifth Michigan Infantry.