As the 152d Anniversary of Gettysburg passes into the rearview mirror, I cannot help but also note the juxtaposition of last month’s Bicentennial of Waterloo. Both of these battles are among the most discussed and debated events in military history.
I offer two reasons.
DRAMA. Both Waterloo and Gettysburg occurred during important inflection points in their conflicts. In essence, Lee and Napoleon staked an incredible amount on the throw; win or lose, these battles would make a huge difference. These made the battles watersheds, and today they remain sublime places that pull people in to their gravity.
It’s not just the stakes of 1815 and 1863 – the battles themselves were dramatic in the extreme. They were nip-and-tuck seemingly from first to last, with both sides straining every sinew to win. Actions often turned on heroics of modest people, in several cases by lieutenants and sergeants rather than colonels and generals. The armies in both battles endured supreme stress tests rarely administered.
THE ATTACKERS. For the French and the Confederate armies, these battles are also acrimonious. It is true that they pushed their respective opponents to the brink of extinction, but miscues marred their performances. Command and logistical failures often resulted in uncoordinated attacks, and both Napoleon’s and Lee’s armies can fairly be said to not have fought their best in these battles. It is one thing to lose when you put out your best effort, but it is humiliating when you lose while not executing to your fullest ability. Because of this, the commanders on the losing side (and historians after them) spent years discussing, blaming, and debating what went wrong for the attackers.
These two reasons ensure that both battles will continue to fascinate well into the future.
Top Image: Pickett’s Charge as seen in 1870. Bottom image is of the Battle of Waterloo.