Military Medicine: Does Rank Matter?

Last week at Gazette665’s Fourth Annual Civil War History Conference – 1864: Fighting To Survive – I had the opportunity to teach about the ’64 Shenandoah Valley Campaign but with a twist. Militarily and medically! I’d been planning this presentation for a year and drawing on my studies of primary sources to build a new look at Civil War medical history.

This month on the blog for our Friday post I wanted to share some thoughts and research I’ve been doing “on the side” about Military Medicine across different eras. I promise not to get too “gory and gross” (as my mom would call it).

We’ll kick off the month with some thoughts about rank and if/when/how this has affected survival rates, digging back into medieval history and then moving forward on the timeline.

Continue reading

Tea With Sarah: Favorite Historical Era, Civil War Doctors, & Country Music

Good afternoon, it’s time for tea!

Gather ’round because I’ve been baking today, and it would be quite a tea if you could all come over and really visit. We’d be having Raspberry Zinger “Tea” and Cream Cheese Coffee Cake. Could somebody please explain why it’s called coffee cake when there’s no coffee in it? But I digress from the really conversations of the day…

Early in the week on social media, I promised to reveal my second favorite historical era. Then we’ll discuss Civil War doctors and what’s been on my music playlist this week. Looking forward to reading your comments and continuing the conversation! Continue reading

1803: A Great Deal On “New” Land

Portrait of young Napoleon

Portrait of young Napoleon

In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte needed money. Why? It was peace time, and he was preparing for a new war with Britain. He wanted to invade England, but had to destroy the Royal Navy first (he never did). So Napoleon needed money to build up the French fleet and create his famed Grand Army.

Taking stock of the stuff in his new empire, Napoleon decided that the quick way to get some money would be a sale. Not a garage sale. A land sale. The Americans were willing to negotiate and buy. Continue reading

Reputations, Redcoats, & Squares: British Soldiers At Waterloo

British Infantry during the Napoleonic Era (not a Waterloo painting)

British Infantry during the Napoleonic Era (not a Waterloo painting)

There is an infamous quote by the Duke of Wellington regarding his British troops: “our [army] is composed of the scum of the earth — the mere scum of the earth. It is only wonderful that we should be able to make so much out of them afterwards.” (1813) That’s real encouraging, right? How much of his opinion was truth?

Today, we’ll take a less-prejudiced approach and discuss Waterloo‘s British Army. Wellington may have been partially right, but he was also partially wrong.

Not Conscripted

The first thing you need to know about the British Army of the Napoleonic Era is that it was made of volunteers. At this time, Britain did not use conscription or draft. Each regiment had to keep enlistments up and this was typically accomplished by sending out a recruiting detail who would make gloriously patriotic appeals (or monetary incentive) to get men to join the ranks. (This is vastly different from the British navy’s impressment policies, but that is another topic for another day).

So who actually enlisted? Men looking for work or escape often joined the ranks. This is what prompted Wellington’s disgusted statement. But not every soldier was fleeing a sordid past. Some needed an honest job or had patriotic motives.

Then there were the officers. Rank and commissions could be purchased. (See From Lazy Teenager to Waterloo Hero and Jane Austen’s Military for additional details.) Men from middle class families or nobility could purchase an officer’s commission and get a command position will little military experience.

The Officers’ Club

The higher ranking officers formed their own little cliques and if a man was promoted up from the ranks as a reward he was often shunned by his new peers because of his “lower social status.”

However, we must acknowledge with great joy and thanksgiving that there were very good officers in the British Army, and in 1809 actually less than 200 officers where from the nobility class. Though commissions could be purchased, many of “forgotten officers” came from the middle class and did not have the social prejudices of the nobility. Many accepted their role and were good leaders, gaining the respect of their men by fighting alongside them. Strong commanders were admired and loved by their troops, and there are multiple incidents from Waterloo battlefield of soldiers’ being angered and vowing total revenge on their enemies because of a beloved officer’s death.

British Infantry Soldiers (line formation: see "Tactics")

British Infantry Soldiers (line formation: see “Tactics”)

Soldiers of the Line

Good leadership is essential to the making of good soldiers. Thus, a regiment with responsible officers was well-drilled, prepared, and “well-behaved.”

On the whole, British troops were among the better disciplined soldiers of this era, both on the battlefield and march and in civilian towns. In battle, they gained a reputation for fierce fighting, and Napoleon’s generals predicted (correctly) that the British could not be moved from their position at Waterloo.

An example of British Infantry uniforms

An example of British Infantry uniforms

Weapons and Uniforms

We’ll talk about infantry because cavalry of this era is an entirely different story. A British infantryman carried a musket (history has nicknamed the model “Brown Bess”) and skirmishers sometimes carried the new rifles. Under perfect conditions a soldier was supposed to fire 5 shots in a minute, but 2-3 was likely more average. (Remember there’s a precise loading and firing sequence for these guns; they are not “repeaters” or “automatics.”)

Clothing was not “uniform” in this era of warfare. Each regiment usually adopted something unique. However, a “standard” British uniform was a red coat, white or black or grey pants, and some form of elaborate headwear. Scottish units might chose kilts and red jackets.

Waterloo Tactics

Stand. Kneel. Lie Down. Stand. Don’t Retreat.

Infantry tactics from the Napoleonic Era are fascinating and somewhat complex, so for the sake of time we’ll just talk about what the British infantry did on the main battle line at Waterloo.

They started off in a line, a typical British formation in a infantry vs. infantry fight. The line is exactly what it sounds like – soldiers lined up in ranks two or four deep – and this formation produced very effective fire power against attacking French columns.

When the cavalry attacks began, the infantry formed squares (squares, triangles, or circles) which placed the soldier facing outward in ranks four deep. The first two ranks knelt with bayonets facing out, the second two ranks shot at the attacking horsemen. None of the British squares at Waterloo broke! A square was very vulnerable to artillery shots, so during some of the heavier artillery fire the officers ordered the men to lie down.

And finally, the charge. Toward the end of Waterloo, British regiments bayonet charged the faltering French.

British Troops in a "Square" formation - Waterloo Campaign

British Troops in a “Square” formation – Waterloo Campaign

The Army That Stood

A number of British regiments at Waterloo were not “battle tested” and had never been under fire before. (The majority of the experienced units were still returning from the War of 1812 – ended in 1815 –  in America).

Thus, the infantry at Waterloo had much to prove and much to win. They proved their capability and courage as soldiers. They proved their ability to lead. They proved their tenacity to stand and never retreat. They won the battle, the won a new Europe, and they won a lasting reputation.

At Waterloo, the British army – despite its flaws and the nobility clique surrounding Wellington – won an impressive victory. Immortalized in history, literature, and art, these soldiers may have come from humble or disputed beginnings but ended their story becoming heroes whose actions and courage are still studied today.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Do battlefield actions “redeem” a reputation? Do you agree with Wellington’s quote or was he being a little too harsh and perhaps parading his own ability?

Five Napoleonic Era Battles & What To Know About Them

Nope. This isn’t exactly keeping with our Irish theme of the week. But it is part of the Friday history series of the month: Napoleonic Era. I promise, promise, promise, that tomorrow there will be our final post for “A Week in Ireland.” Until then, enjoy the Napoleonic Era and check Facebook for our Irish post of the day.

There were hundreds of battles and skirmishes during the Napoleonic Era. Now, I don’t want to write a book about the battles (and you might not want to read such a book), but I think there are a couple of battles that were so important that everyone should at least know a little about them.

Battle of Marengo

(Details about Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grande Armee can be found in our last few posts on the topic.)

Italian Campaign  

In 1796 Napoleon took a French army over the Alps and into Northern Italy and successfully introduced his “art of war.” Napoleon’s strategies included keeping enemy armies from uniting, move fast and strike hard, use the flank attack tactic, and build a reputation to make the enemy afraid. This campaign is significant because it established Napoleon as a “military genius” and his strategy was (is) often studied in military schools.


Sorry, folks, you can’t really visit this battle site and see monuments. Why? It’s in the ocean, off Cape Trafalgar on the coast of Spain. The battle was British Lord Admiral Nelson’s greatest victory. It decisively ended the contest of which nation (France or Britain) would control the high-seas. October 21, 1805, was the date of this large-scale naval battle, including 33 British ships and 41 French/Spanish vessels. The British victory came at high cost; Lord Nelson was mortally wounded.



December 2, 1805, was Napoleon’s finest military victory and he destroyed the Austrian and Russian armies fighting against him. (Austerlitz battlefield is located in modern day Czech Republic). The battle is sometimes called “the battle of the three emperors” because the Russian, Austrian, and French rulers were all present. At one point in the battle the French counterattacked in the fog; the sun broke through as they made their charge and the legend of the “sun of Austerlitz” was born in the French army. In my opinion the Austerlitz victory is the high point of Napoleon’s career.

Invasion of Russian

The Russian Campaign in 1812 was a major blunder in Napoleon’s empire strategy. After a long march with limited supplies and a couple battles, the emperor and his Grande Armee arrived at Moscow. The city was deserted and the Russian emperor would not meet to discuss terms of surrender. (Not when General Winter was coming!) With anger and great frustration the French retreated from Moscow and then winter came. Snow, ice, and exhaustion hammered the retreating army and the Russian peasants attacked the marching columns. Napoleon fled back to France, leaving his army frozen and half-dead in Russian snows. The Invasion of Russian weakened the French army and it would never again be the fighting force it had been in previous years.



In June 1814 Napoleon was defeated and exiled to the Mediterranean Island of Elba, but in March 1815 he escaped, returned to France, and raised a new army. The other European nations were horrified and wanted to defeat him as quickly as possible. On June 18, 1815, the British army commanded by Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and the Prussian army commanded by General Blucher defeated Napoleon at Waterloo (located in Belgium). After a day of fierce attacks and hand to hand combat, the French army broke and retreated. Napoleon surrendered to the British a few weeks later. Waterloo ends the Napoleonic Era.

From the beginning of Napoleon’s military successes to his final defeat, the era is filled with battles, questions of leadership, and tragedy, but these five battles/campaigns stand out as major milestones in the timeline of the era and military history.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Do you agree with the list? Would you nominate other battles?

Organizing A Modern Army

Organization. Does that word delight or terrify you? Right now, it inspires both feelings in me – I love it when things are organized, but I’m not looking forward to cleaning up my stacks of books and piles of paper scattered all over the house. Whether you love or hate (or just can’t decide) about Napoleon, you’ll be forced to admit that he was an organizer. His revolutionary structuring of his armies and headquarters staff have influenced the modern military and even corporate office organization.

This week, we’re discussing the troops and organization of Napoleon’s Grande Armee (that’s French for “Great Army.”)

French Imperial Guards, Napoleonic Era

The Beginnings

Napoleon’s Grande Armee was the most organized fighting force in Europe up to its era.  It battled the armies of the Austrians, Prussians, British, Russians, and Spanish during the Empire years (1803ish to 1814).

The French Grande Armee started as Napoleon’s army for the invasion of England, but when that conquest was canceled (the floating barges just ain’t gonna work – take note, General Burnside) the force just moved east and started fighting the Austrians and Prussians. Although many of the original troops were replaced with new conscripts as the years dragged on, the name Grande Armee is generally used when referring to Napoleonic French armies.

The Organization

The Grande Armee was remarkable because its organization allowed flexibility in campaigning. It was divided into 5-7 corps, each with an average size of 20,000-30,000 men. Each corps, commanded by a marshal or a major general, was self-sufficient, although they usually worked together in campaigns.

Napoleon allowed his corps commanders a lot of freedom, but if they did not comply with his orders or do as he wanted, he would severely scold them and occasionally remove them from command.  The idea of dividing an army into “independent” corps was revolutionary and Napoleon’s system of army organization was eventually adopted by many nations during the nineteenth century.

Within the Corps were divisions of infantry (foot soldiers), cavalry (horsemen), and artillery (loud cannons.) Each divisions had permanent administrative departments and operational units and were commanded by division generals.

The divisions were further divided by into units with specific military tasks. For example, an infantry regiment would have companies of basic “boring” infantry, grenadiers (known for their fierce fighting tactics), and light infantry trained for marksmanship.

Cavalry units formed about 1/5 to 1/6 of the Grande Armee’s forces, but Artillery was Emperor Napoleon’s favorite. He established the practicality of Horse Artillery, which was known for moving swiftly across and around battlefields, repositioning and keeping the enemy guessing.

Painting of French Cavalry in 1807 (Public Domain)

Painting of French Cavalry in 1807 (Public Domain)

French military regiments were given flags and Imperial Eagles. The Eagles were based off the ancient Roman standards and regiments vowed to defend them to the death. (No, they weren’t real birds; they were made of gold.)

“Napoleon’s Spoiled Children”

The Imperial Guard, practically its own corps, was the Grande Armee’s elite fighting force, Napoleon’s personal guard, and his especial delight.  All troops within the guard were hand-picked and had to have fought in at least 1, but preferably 3-5 campaigns, be completely loyal to Napoleon, and cited for gallant action. These unit were known for “staying in reserve” and could get away with bending military rules, leading to awe, envy, and ridicule from the rest of the army.

Military Staff

Gone were the days of staff officers in the position because of their nobility. (Sure, Napoleon appointed friends and family members all over his empire, but they had to get the job done, or they were done.) Napoleon created a military staff system which was revolutionary for all its functions; it was invented, organized and commanded by his commander, Marshal Berthier.  The system of staff organization has been copied by numerous organizations and its basic form is still used today in modern militaries, police and fire departments, and businesses.

The Staff of the Grande Armee, also called the Imperial Headquarters, was divided into three main sections: 1) Napoleon’s Military Household, which included Napoleon’s personal messengers, spies, and advisors, 2) the Army General Headquarters, which was under the chief of staff and handled all reports, orders, and information without Napoleon’s intervention, and 3) the Intendant General’s Department, which was controlled by the quartermaster and managed all the administrative and logistical problems for the army.


Engineers handled the clearing of roads, making of bridges, and kept the Grande Army moving in hostile territory. Supply trains followed the army carrying 8 days of rations, but the troops were encouraged to live off the land.

The French experimented with fast moving ambulance corps to quickly transport their wounded. They also tried pigeons, hot air balloons, and a visible telegraph system to improve the more traditional means of communication – couriers on horseback, drums, bugles, and flags.


The tactics employed by the Grande Armee were “flexible”, meaning they could be used by different units or combined to creating a new strategy. The French often attacked in columns, which laid a disastrous foundation for later wars with more advanced weaponry (Crimean War & American Civil War). Yes, I could write a couple of blog posts on Napoleonic Era tactics, but I’m trying not to get too carried away tonight.


Promotion in the French army was by merit alone, in theory at least.  The saying “There’s a marshal’s baton in every soldier’s knapsack” gave the idea that a common soldier could be promoted to the highest rank in the army if he did his duty and served with extreme bravery.

French Soldier Napoleonic Era


In the organization and structure of the Grand Armee, we find the basis for modern armies. The management systems introduced have also influenced many of the “command chains” in corporate offices and public safety organizations.

The Grande Armee introduced a change in military organization, tactics, or leadership during the Napoleonic Wars. The French army enjoyed years of success against their enemies; however, when its opponents had completed their reforms (many of them copied from Napoleon’s force) they proved to be difficult opponents for the Grande Armee.

Though Napoleon and his Grand Armee were eventually defeated, their legacy has continued in the organization of modern armies.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. To organize or not? That’s a question. What do you think of Napoleon’s revolutionary idea of breaking large military units into smaller, more manageable, more “flexible” units?

Ready to read about some of the great battle of the era? Come back next Friday. (And for those of you not so excited about military – I promise something about an author of the era whose initials are JA…guess if you like.)

OH, this coming week is GREEN on Gazette665 as we take a jaunt to Ireland and back in honor of St. Patrick’s Day!