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Memorial Day Origins and Lessons to be Learned: The Wars of the French Revolution to World War I


Today is Memorial Day in the United States.  It is a day of remembrance for all those killed in the country's wars.  No one seems to be certain as to the holiday's origin.  The story I like best holds that newly freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina gave a proper burial to Union soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave at a local prisoner of war camp.  While the day is - or should be - full of remembrance, very little introspection takes place.   That this is so in the United States is especially striking.  Our long-standing policy of neutrality should prompt all sorts of questions concerning the types of conflicts the country is finding itself engaged in now.

In the review below, the major European wars between the French Revolution and World War I are briefly reviewed.  These wars involved the British, French and Spanish Empires, Portugal, Russia, Austria, Germany and Italy.   These wars saw the rise and fall of Napoleon, the unification of Germany and Italy, and the collapse of the Ottoman empire in southeastern Europe.  These enormous consequences notwithstanding, the US never judged any of these outcomes to be of sufficient importance to risk a single penny of American treasure or a single ounce of American blood.  This mindset forms a stark contrast with the America of today; an America complete with hundreds of military bases spread throughout the world and military treaties with countries that hold huge fractions of the American population in barely concealed contempt. 

One of the most overlooked beneficial aspects of hard money is its arresting effect on the size of government and the length of wars.  So, on this basis I hope no one finds this week's article too far removed from the topics I typically write about.  If nothing else, this week's article should serve as a refresher in European history!

Major European Wars - 1792 - 1914:
Wars of the French Revolution - 1792-1799
The French Revolution was a major turning point in world history.  Rather than leading to 'liberty, equality and fraternity,' it would provide the template for all political ideologues to follow, particularly the tyrants that came to dominate the 20th century.  Among those of the revolutionary mindset, you were either with the revolution or against it.  In such an unforgiving atmosphere, a reign of terror was inevitable.  After first dispatching King Louis XVI in January 1793, (1), Paris and all of France would descend into a bloodbath directed by tyrannical zealots.  Marie Antoinette was executed in October, and the political killings would continue until the terror turned on the madman singularly responsible for the terror's creation, Maximilien Robespierre. Ironically, it was Robespierre who said, "Terror is nothing other than prompt, severe, inflexible justice."  He was hoisted on his own blood-soaked petard. 

While France had descended into chaos, much of Europe looked on in horror, particularly so after the execution of Louis XVI.  However, these countries didn't just look, several coalitions among European countries were established to put down the revolution and return the monarchy to France.  These came to be called the War of the First Coalition (1792-1798) and War of the Second Coalition (1798-1800).  These wars are remarkable for two things; first, the French 'Levee' en Masse' and, second, the spectacular rise of a relatively junior French artillery officer, Napoleon Bonaparte. 

In the latter half of 1793 the French Revolution was tottering.  Counter-revolutions had sprung up in Lyon and Marseilles, while western France was in a state of civil war against the Republican government.  The Committee of Public Safety then ordered the conscription of the entire male population of France, and France was soon able to put more men into the field then the coalition allied against France.  Before the Industrial Revolution, it wasn't possible for a country to support an enormous conscript army like that created by revolutionary France and the levee en masse.  The era of total war had begun. 

For his part, Bonaparte had already distinguished himself in several campaigns against the Austrians and the Kingdom of Sardinia in modern day Italy, (March-October 1797).  The following year in March, Napoleon was placed in charge of the Army of the Orient and, from July 1798 through July 1799, he launched a campaign against the Turks, who were assisted by the British.  The fighting started in Egypt and Napoleon advanced into modern-day Syria.  While the campaign never amounted to anything of strategic importance - because of British control of the seas - it did further enhance Napoleon's reputation.  As a result of a coup, Napoleon would become dictator of France on 09 NOV 1799. 

The Napoleonic Wars: 1799 - 1815
With Napoleon's rise to power in France as First Consul, what came to be called the Napoleonic wars began.  The first of these wars, the War of the Second Coalition, was already underway and was ended by the Treaty of Luneville (February 1801).  Austria was forced to accept the gains won by Napoleon earlier.  In addition, Spain was forced to cede Louisiana to France.  In just two years - and largely as the result of a slave revolt in St. Martinique, modern day Haiti - France would sell Louisiana to the the United States.  It is particularly telling that the US would ultimately receive an enormous windfall from a war it didn't participate in!  So much for 'isolationism' being bad for a country!

Over the next fourteen-years, France would wage war throughout Europe.  Napoleon's most spectacular successes came early.  His twin victories in the Ulm Campaign (October 1805) and even more spectacularly at Austerlitz (December 1805) are some of the greatest in military history.  As a result of the Peace of Pressburg, (1805), the Holy Roman Empire - the loose confederation of German city-states, kingdoms and principalities - ceased to exist.  No one realized this at the time, but this would set the stage for German reunification under Bismarck in two generations.  Napoleon would press on and defeat Prussia (1806) at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstadt. 

The beginning of the end for Napoleon would begin with the so-called Pennisular War, France invaded Portugal, with Spanish permission, in 1807.  Soon after, Napoleon invaded Spain.  The invasion of Spain - Napoleon called it his 'Spanish ulcer' - would ultimately consume huge amounts of men and material in a guerilla war against Spanish partisans.  The enormous difficulties experience by the French in Spain gave hopes to the the people in Europe already toiling under the French yoke.  When Russia renounced Napoleon's Continental System in 1812, Napoleon made the fateful decision to invade Russia.  He advanced into Russia in June of 1812 and,  by February 1813, his forces were in retreat on all fronts.  In addition, new allied armies were being formed against him.  By March 1814, Paris was invested by allied armies and Napoleon abdicated in April 1814.  Less than one year later, March 1815, Napoleon seized power again but was dealt a crushing defeat by a combined British and Prussian force at Waterloo (June 1815).

The Crimean War (1853-185)
A conflict - originally between Turkey and Russia - would increase in size, with England and France soon joining Turkey.  The combat operations are generally of little historical significance.  The war would best be remembered for the appalling conditions prevailing among all the combatant armies.  Tens of thousands of troops on both sides of the conflict would die of cholera, not wounds in battle.  Florence Nightingale, a British nurse, would introduce a variety of innovations in battlefield medicine and sanitation.  She distinguished herself far more than any of the general officers commanding the combatant armies. 

The Wars of Italian Unification (1859-1861)

  • Austro-Sardinian War (1859) - assured of French support, King Victor Emmanuel of Sardinia mobilizes against the Austrians.  In the Treaty of Zurich, Sardinia acquires most of Lombardi, while France - by virtue of a secret agreement with Sardinia - acquires Nice and Savoy.  One year later, the Kingdom of Sardinia would annex the Duchies of Parma, Modena and Tuscany and the Papal States. 
  • Expedition of the Thousand - Guiseppe Garibaldi invades Sicily to assist a revolution there.  Garibaldi then crossed the Strait of Messina to mainland Italy.  Resistance crumbled before him and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies ceased to exist.  Italy was essentially unified. 

The Three Wars of German Unification (1864-1871)

  • Schleswig-Holstein War (1864) - Prussia, along with Austria, fight Denmark over the long-disputed territories of Schleswig and Holstein.  After a short war, the territories were ceded to Austria and Prussia.
  • Austro-Prussian War (1866) - also called the Seven Weeks War, essentially a battle between Prussia and Austria for supremacy among the German speaking people of Europe.  At war's end, a North German Confederation was formed under Prussian leadership while southern German states were free to form a separate confederation but without the participation of Austria.
  • Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) - On July 15, 1870, Napoleon III declared war on Prussia.  In two months, Paris would be under siege and capitulate in January.  A unified Germany under Prussian leadership was created. 

NOTE:  After the war, Paris descended into another reign of terror - the so-called Paris Commune.  The Communards murdered many of the hostages they had taken and planned to blow-up both Notre Dame Cathedral and the Pantheon. 

Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878)
Christian insurrections against the Ottoman Turks took place in Serbia and Montenegro, (1875), and were soon followed by declarations of war.  Russia entered the conflict against the Turks, (April 1877).  In less than a year, the Ottoman's were completely defeated and were forced to concede the independence of Montenegro, Serbia and Romania, while Bulgaria was placed under Russian control.

The era between the Wars of the French Revolution and World War I had enormous consequences.  These enormous consequences notwithstanding, the United States had no participation in any of the wars that took place.  The historical record is clear; the development of the United States wasn't diminished in any way, shape or form by its policy of 'isolationism.'  In fact, the unprecedentedly rapid development of the United States during this time is a consequence of its policy of strict neutrality.  The best evidence of this?  The millions of people who left Europe in search of a better life and more opportunities in the United States.  As is often the case, the best way to vote is with your feet, and millions of Europeans did just that.

Given all this, perhaps the best way of honoring all those fallen in the wars of the United States is to reestablish the policy of neutrality that served the country so well for so long.  After all, there is plenty of work that needs to be done here at home before looking for dragons to slay abroad. 


Peter Schmidt
Sugar Land, TX
May 30, 2021
Memorial Day


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1.  To this day, defenders of the French Revolution go to great lengths to highlight the critical support France gave to the United States in its revolution.  This ignores the fact it was Louis XVI who decided to support the American revolution.  It also ignores the fact that the greatest French hero of the American Revolutions, Lafayette, was forced to flee France after the French Revolution.