Letter from October 2006 Military History | HistoryNet
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Letter from October 2006 Military History

9/18/2006 • MH Issues

Peripheral Paladins
Some military heroes are not great captains — or even military personnel.

Alexander the Great, Gaius Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Douglas MacArthur. All are familiar names in military history. Their deeds have been recounted through the ages, though in Caesar’s case he hedged his bets by being the first to do the recounting. These and other great captains tend to dominate posterity’s memory of wars past. But alongside their accomplishments are those of lesser captains without whom they might not have achieved so much.

A case in point in this issue is Marshal Louis-Nicholas Davout, who commanded Emperor Napoleon’s III Corps during his Prussian campaign of 1806. On October 14 of that year, Napoleon’s Grande Armée squared off with an enemy force of roughly equal size at Jena and handily revealed how much the Prussian army had degenerated since its glory days under King Frederick the Great. At Auerstädt to the north, however, Napoleon’s III Corps was fighting a separate battle against another Prussian force twice its size — and also winning. It was Davout’s finest hour, and although Jena has been the subject of far more paintings and illustrations than Auerstädt, French historian François-Guy Hourtoulle gave the marshal his due: “At Jena, Napoleon won a battle he could not lose. At Auerstädt, Davout won a battle he could not win”.

One need not even be a great soldier to make a difference in war. Benjamin Franklin gained fame for any number of accomplishments before he played a critical role in winning the American Revolution, securing French recognition of the fledgling United States — and more important, obtaining massive military aid — both as a dextrous diplomat and as a devious secret agent. Among many other noncombatant contributors to military history, our October 2004 issue cited Archimedes, the mathematician and physicist who devised a terrifying array of weaponry to defend his hometown of Syracuse against Roman besiegers in 213 bc.

In some rare cases a character enters the annals of military lore by underhanded means. In this issue we mark the centennial of the day an impoverished German shoemaker donned a second-hand officer’s uniform to steal his 15 minutes of fame — as well as the treasury of the town of Köpenick. As with all good flimflam scams, Wilhelm Voigt took charge of a platoon of troops and made off with the cash by presenting his militarized victims with what they wanted to see. And therein lay the joke that grew into the enduring fable of the Captain of Köpenick.

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