The Campaigns of Napoleon: The Mind and Method of History's Greatest Soldier ;” by David G. Chandler; Scribner; Illustrated edition edition (March, 1973); ISBN-13: 978-0025236608

I own a large number of historical works of different flavors. Most are works on military history, but there are also quite a few biographies, as well as a fair number of books on economic and cultural history. In my entire collection, however, there are only three or four volumes that I have read multiple times from cover to cover: “The Campaigns of Napoleon” is one of them. I purchased my own copy of “The Campaigns of Napoleon,” by British professor, writer, and historian David Chandler, back in 1973. The then new hardbound (1,172 page) edition that I bought had just been published by The MacMillan Co.; so, I had ordered my copy from the campus bookstore because I had been unable to find a used copy of an older edition, anywhere. The new book set me back $17.50, and, being a college student at the time, I thought long and hard before I finally plunked down my money and ordered Chandler’s book. As book purchases go, it was probably the best $17.50 I ever spent.

The only reason I even knew about Chandler’s masterpiece was because of the positive commentary about the book from a friend. “The Campaigns of Napoleon” had been enthusiastically recommended to me by a fellow student who had read the book when it first came out a few years earlier. He stated, unequivocally, that it was the best single volume treatment of Napoleon that he had ever seen. So, taking him at his word, I bought the book. I was not disappointed. Not only is Chandler’s book scrupulously balanced in its treatment of Napoleon and his many adversaries, but it is rigorous in its scholarship, well-researched, and heavily biased in favor of primary rather than secondary sources. Moreover, it is also very well-written in that clear and unobtrusively graceful way that seems to come naturally only to some British history writers. The text is also abundantly illustrated with over forty-five black and white plates from the period, and more than seventy-five detailed maps.

In spite of its somewhat misleading title, Chandler’s book is far more than a detailed chronological study of Napoleon’s many military campaigns. It is that, certainly, but it is also part biography, part period history, and part dissertation on military history and theory. Without doubt, Chandler presents a vivid and exciting portrait of Napoleon the soldier, his generals, and his troops, as well as a detailed chronicle of the many military campaigns that took Le Grande Armée from Italy to Egypt and from Spain to Russia. However, he also describes Napoleon’s early life, his family, and his many other personal and romantic entanglements. In addition, Chandler looks at the political landscape of Europe during the Age of Napoleon, and at the successes and missteps of Napoleon the political general, and ultimately of Napoleon the emperor. Finally, the author examines the “art of war” as it was understood and practiced during the Napoleonic era.

“The Campaigns of Napoleon” is not a perfect book. “A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars,” by Brig. General Esposito, has much better, more detailed maps. Being an Englishman, Chandler is rather more enthralled with Wellington’s generalship, particularly during the Peninsula Campaign, than are some others, me included. Moreover, some critics have accused Chandler of falling victim to “hero worship” over his larger-than-life subject. That could be, but I don’t see it in the author’s writing. Does Chandler give Napoleon’s Marshals too little credit and the Emperor too much? Possibly, but the periodic military debacles that seemed to occur whenever Napoleon’s Marshals operated independently, would seem to inoculate Chandler’s writings against this criticism.

There are probably few historical subjects that have received more attention than Napoleon. Volume after volume have been written about the Corsican Ogre’s career and private life, and many of the books are quite worthwhile; in fact, I own a number of them, myself. None the less, if I were suddenly told that I could keep only one book on Napoleon, hands down, this would be it. Whatever its flaws, “The Campaigns of Napoleon” is still the absolute best single volume work ever written about the life and military career of Napoleon Bonaparte. I cannot recommend it too highly; it is, I believe, a must own for anyone with even a passing interest in Napoleonic history.


  • Jeff Vandine said...

    Agreed -- When visiting friends who claim scholarship on the subject of Napeoleon I, I always glance at their bookshelves for three or four titles. If this one is there, I accord them considerably more respect than if their bookshelves consist of Harlequin Regency Romance titles! :-)

    This, combined with "A Throne of Bayonets" and a couple of other books pretty much are my "must read" list for the career of Napoleon.

  • Greetings Again Jeff:

    Yes, this is one of the very few books that I have read, cover-to-cover, three or more times. It is also one of the first sources I turn to if I want a detailed, but succinct, chronology of a specific Napoleonic engagement. I have not always been impressed with Chandler's work when it comes to some of his other books, but "The Campaigns of Napoleon", even after all these years, still holds up as a truly masterful bit of historical writing and -- perhaps, more importantly -- as a genuine pleasure to read.

    Best Regards, Joe

    Best Regards, Joe

Post a Comment