Market Mad House

In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. Friedrich Nietzsche

Historical Insanity

History’s Dumbest Invasions

History is full of dumb invasions. The dumbest invasions to the destruction of empires and nations.

Since most invasions are dumb, determining which incursions are the stupidest is hard. However, some invasions stand out as incredibly dumb and destructive.

Two of history’s dumbest invasions include:

Napoleon’s Invasion of Egypt and Syria

Napoleon I did many stupid things, but his invasion of Egypt was the dumbest.

In early 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte, an ambitious general, proposed an idiotic scheme to France’s executive body; the Directory. The scheme was an invasion of the Ottoman Empire to help France’s only real ally in its war against the British Empire, the Indian warlord Tipu Sultan.

Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore, was fighting the forces of the British East India Company. Bonaparte did not propose sending French troops or weapons to India to help Tipu Sultan. Instead, Bonaparte suggested an invasion of the Ottoman territories of Egypt and Syria.

Napoleon’s scheme was stupid because his forces had to cross hundreds of miles of the Mediterranean Sea, which was patrolled by a powerful British fleet. Bonaparte’s Army would then land in Egypt hundreds of miles from India territory.

To reach India, the French Army would have to fight its way across the territory of two powerful empires, the Ottomans and Iran. Additionally, Britain’s top admiral, Lord Nelson, could cut the French army’s supply lines across the Mediterranean . Finally, during his voyage to Egypt, Bonaparte would have to divert part of his forces to occupy the island of Malta.

Incredibly, the Directory approved Bonaparte’s plan. Worse the Directory gave Napoleon 40,000 soldiers, 10,000 sailors, 13 ships of the line, 14 frigates, and 400 transports to carry out his scheme. Hence, the Directory devoted a large portion of France’s military resources to a stupid expedition while the country was at war.

Oddly, Bonaparte’s efforts were partially successful. The French captured Malta and landed at Alexandria, Egypt. On 20 July 1798, Napoleon defeated Egypt’s rulers; the Mamluks, at the Battle of the Pyramids. Bonaparte had conquered Egypt, but the conquest achieved nothing.

Between 1 August and 3 August 1798, the predictable catastrophe occurred. Nelson’s fleet attacked the French Fleet in the Bay of Abukir. During the Battle of the Nile, Nelson sank or captured 11 of the 13 French ships of the line.

Nelson trapped Napoleon and his army in Egypt with no hope of receiving supplies or reinforcements and no way home. Disgustingly, Bonaparte himself refused to admit defeat. Instead, Napoleon invaded Palestine (modern Israel) and Syria.

After capturing some fortresses and defeating Ottoman relief forces, Napoleon retreated back to Egypt. Back in Egypt, Bonaparte was fighting both an Egyptian revolt and Ottoman and British relief forces.

On 23 August 1799, Napoleon left for France, never to return. Although the general told his soldiers he would be back with reinforcements. General Kléber became commander-in-chief in Egypt and defeated a Turkish invasion force at the battle of Damietta in November 1799.

In early 1800, Kléber negotiated a French evacuation of Egypt. However, the British refused to go along and launched an invasion of Egypt with Mamluk troops. Kléber defeated the invasion force at the battle of Heliopolis in March 1800.

French resistance collapsed when Suleiman al-Halabi assassinated Kléber on 14 June 1800. The French held out until a British invasion force defeated them at the Battle of Alexandria on 21 March 1801. Cairo fell to the British in July 1801 and the Royal Navy repatriated the French army to France.

By the time the French soldiers returned, Napoleon was First Consul, or dictator, of France. Bonaparte had overthrown the Directory in the coup of 18 Brumaire in November 1799. Napoleon crowned himself the first Emperor of France in 1804.

Looking back people will ask why the Directory approved such a dumb invasion. I think the most probable answer is that the Directory’s leaders knew the invasion would fail. The directors hoped Napoleon would get killed or that failure in Egypt would destroy his reputation.

Instead, Bonaparte returned and staged his coup before the French people learned of his catastrophe. Disturbingly, Napoleon learned nothing from his debacle in Egypt. Bonaparte staged invasions of Haiti, Spain, and Russia that ended in disaster.

Thus, the dumbest aspect of the French Invasion of Egypt was that nobody in France learned anything from it. Napoleon did not learn the folly of invasions, and the French did not learn how stupid it was to follow Bonaparte.

France went onto suffer 15 years of catastrophic warfare that destroyed its status as a major power. The only winners in Egypt were the British who went onto become the world’s most powerful nation.

The US Invasion of Canada

An American invasion of Canada is such an absurd notion that the concept forms the plot of the movie South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. Incredibly, there was an insane American invasion of Canada almost 200 years before Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s animated satire hit theaters.

In June 1812, the US Congress declared war on the British Empire. The official pretext of the war was the Royal Navy’s habit of stopping US ships and impressing sailors into His Majesty’s service.

In reality, the goal of the War of 1812 was the conquest of Canada. The War Hawks who drove President James Madison (R-Virginia) into war did not care about sailors or impressment. Instead, they wanted Canada, possibly for that country’s lucrative fur trade.

The War Hawks thought the British could not defend Canada because their armies were busy fighting Napoleon in Europe and conquering India. Former President Thomas Jefferson (R-Virginia) called the conquest of Canada a “mere matter of marching.”

Like Napoleon, Jefferson and the War Hawks forgot about Britain’s powerful navy which could haul tens of thousands of troops to North America and land them anywhere on the US coast. Faced with those forces, America was unprepared.

The Canadian invasion was insane because in 1812, the United States had almost no regular army. Jefferson the War Hawks had not built the large army the US needed to invade Canada. America’s 1812 military comprised a few thousand regulars and enormous numbers of militiamen who had no military value.

It would take months or years to train and organize an army. Hence, the British had plenty of time to move troops to Canada.

The first US invasion of Upper Canada, modern Ontario, ended in total disaster. General General William Hull’s invasion force collapsed when militiamen refused to follow orders and the Shawnee captured his supplies.

Hull fled back to Fort Detroit, which British and Native American forces soon captured. The British then captured strategic American outposts at Mackinac Island and Fort Dearborn (modern Chicago). The American Invasion of Canada led to the loss of enormous amounts of US territory.

A second US invasion of Ontario from Niagara Falls failed when New York state militia refused to enter Canadian territory. A worse disaster was US General Henry Dearborn’s attack on Montreal. Dearborn’s army never entered Canadian territory. Instead, the troops marched around in the woods and fired on each other.

In 1813, Americans did a little better recapturing Detroit and burning York (Toronto) but captured no Canadian territory. Another attack on Montreal got nowhere. In 1814, American troops blew up their last outpost on Canadian territory; Fort Erie and went home.

Worse was to come. America’s tiny fleet was no match for the enormous Royal Navy. Starting in 1814, British forces went on the offensive on the Atlantic Coast. British forces occupied much of Maine, then part of Massachusetts.

In August 1814, British troops landed near Washington DC and routed militia forces at the Battle of Bladesburg. The British then occupied Washington and looted and burned the White House and the US Capitol. President Madison and other officials fled to Virginia for safety.

Fortunately for the Americans, the British withdrew after a failed attack on Baltimore. Meanwhile, the Americans won a victory at the Battle of Plattsburgh where they drove a British invasion force back to Canada.

Negotiations to end the war began at Ghent, Belgium, in August 1814, and dragged on for months. On 24 December 1814, British and American diplomats signed the Treaty of Ghent.

Effectively, the Treaty of Ghent changed nothing. Americans recognized the existence of Canada and agreed to respect its borders. The British recognized America’s claims to the Old Northwest (modern Midwest) and the Louisiana Purchase and agreed to respect US borders. Diplomats at Ghent did not discuss impressment because that an earlier treaty had settled that issue.

Unfortunately, British General Edward Parkenham and his American enemy General Andrew Jackson were unaware of the Treaty of Ghent. Parkenham attacked New Orleans with 8,000 British troops on 8 January 1815.

Jackson inflicted a humiliating defeat on the British by operating from strong fortified positions. At New Orleans, Jackson won the greatest victory of the war but it was completely unnecessary because the conflict was over. New Orleans made Jackson into America’s biggest celebrity and launched his national political career, however.

Another commander who was unaware of the war’s end was British Admiral James Cockburn. Cockburn’s forces occupied Campden County, Georgia, and seized several American forts in January 1815. Cockburn and other British commanders did not learn of the war’s end until the HMS Brazen arrived with a copy of the Treaty of Ghent on 12 February 1815.

The 1812 US invasion of Canada was dumb because it led to the capture of enormous amounts of American territory by the British. Worse, the War of 1812 led to the burning of America’s capitol, and the near capture of two important US ports, Baltimore and New Orleans by British troops.

Ultimately, the War of 1812 was pointless because neither side achieved its goals. The British could not seize or hold US territory and the Americans could not hold any Canadian territory.

US forces won the only permanent victories in the War of 1812 over Native Americans such as the Creeks in Mississippi and Alabama. The only winner was Andy Jackson who used his fame from New Orleans to reach the White House.

Eventually, politicians realized the war was pointless and ended the stupidity. Unfortunately, some American historians still spread the absurd myth that the War of 1812 was a Second War of Independence.

The Second War of Independence thesis is bullshit because the United States was not under threat of permanent British occupation in 1812. If anything, the war threatened American independence by exposing US military weakness. British troops did not threaten US territory until after the US attack on Canada.

However, the War of 1812 secured a nation’s independence. Canada was free to develop as an independent nation because the War of 1812 demonstrated Americans could not conquer it.

Tellingly, the United States never invaded Canada nor fought the British again. Likewise, the British never attempted another attack on the United States. Instead, Canada and the United States went their own ways.

Thus, the US invasion of Canada was dumb because it permanently denied Canadian territory to the United States. The invasion failed to achieve its only goal conquest of Canada.

So yes, History is full of dumb invasions. Unfortunately, many politicians never learn from that history.