Clausewitz, his influence…and that of other pundits.

by Fred Ray on October 29, 2008 · 0 comments

Dmitri Rotov is into a discussion of the influence of Clausewitz’s work On War on our Civil War. I’m not really a student of strategy, but thought I’d add that although Dmitri has found some earlier magazine excerpts, the first full publication of an English translation seems to have been that of Col. J. J. Graham in 1873. Selling only a few hundred copies, it wasn’t exactly a roaring success. Since it’s out of copyright both it and the German original can be found at the above referenced link.

UPDATE: Had to drop this post half-finished but wanted to add a few more thoughts tonight. Rotov brings up a good point—how much influence do various pundits actually have on military thought? And when? Clausewitz and Jomini were contemporaries and their works appeared at roughly the same time and pertained to the same Napoleonic period. However Rotov is correct, I think, to say that Jomini was extremely influential and Clausewitz a minor figure, even in his native Prussia, in the 19th Century. Today the situation is completely reversed—Clausewitz is revered, Jomini a period curiosity.

Thus when discussing the effect of pundits and philosophers, we must take care to specify what period we’re talking about. For example, in the decade 1960-70 literally thousands of books came out on guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency. One of the many was Frenchman David Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. It was not considered especially noteworthy at the time, nor did anyone use it as the basis of an actual counterinsurgency campaign. Today it’s a very influential text, required reading at the Army’s Command & Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, and was the basis of the successful American counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq.

When looking back as far as the Civil War, one finds hundreds, even thousands, of newspaper articles, books, and the like on military strategy and commentary on the same. The trick is figuring out which ones people, especially the ones at the top, actually read and acted on. A good example is a man who’s almost entirely forgotten today (you’d be hard put to find his name in any CW book written since at least the 1920s) but who was enormously influential at the time. His books, articles, and commentaries were read by generals and statesmen, and his work translated and widely read in Europe.

His name? John Watts de Peyster. He was adjutant general of the New York National Guard and prominent in the militia as well, and merited the title general although he did not, because of health reasons, serve in the Civil War. He was rich, blue-blooded, friends with generals and politicians, Phil Kearney’s first cousin, and a prolific writer on a dozen subjects. In short, a man to whom people listened. De Peyster was opinionated but not vindictive, and at times quite prescient, as when he predicted that the line of battle would eventually give way to a skirmish line. If you’re interested his bio (written in 1908) is here.

De Peyster was a great fan (you might almost say a groupie) of George Thomas, and thought highly of Rosecrans also. He did not think much of Meade or Grant, and said so. After the war he hosted regular confabs for generals but stopped writing about the war because, he said, things tended to get too heated. At one point he claimed he’d had to stop an impending duel between two officers over something he’d written. He began writing about the Revolutionary War instead.

Today I’d venture to say you’d be hard put to find half a dozen Civil War historians who have even heard of him.


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