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Lazare-Nicolas-Marguerite Carnot

Lazare-Nicolas-Marguerite Carnot was the original multi-tasker, known as the “Organizer of Victory” because he applied his background in engineering to French military operations under Napoleon Bonaparte and successfully led them to victory. His background in mathematics led to innovative ground tactics and recruitment methods. To be sure, mathematics and science never ceased to be part of his life. He was well known for his early work on kinetic energy and went on to write La métaphysique du calcul infinitesimal in 1797. He instilled his love of calculations in his son, Sadi Carnot, who created the second law of thermodynamics. In 1783 he published his first work, Essai sur les machines en general. It contains a statement that suggests the principle of “energy as applied to a falling weight, and the earliest proof of the fact that kinetic energy is lost in the collision of imperfectly elastic bodies (” In it, he described his unique approach to the sciences, and it is easy to see how such an approach could apply to the art of war.

“... the sciences are like a beautiful river, of which the course is easy to follow, when it has acquired a certain regularity; but if one wants to go back to the source, one will find it nowhere, because it is everywhere; it is spread so much [as to be] over all the surface of the earth; it is the same if one wants to go back to the origin of the sciences, one will find only obscurity, vague ideas, vicious circles; and one loses oneself in the primitive ideas.”

While Carnot’s demeanor was often perceived as chilly, Napoleon, in 1810, described him as such: ‘Carnot était travailleur, sincère dans tout, sans intrigues, mais facile à tromper. Il montra toujours un grand courage moral. Il a été fidèle, probe, travailleur, et toujours vrai' (“Carnot was a worker, sincere in all, without intrigues, but easy to mislead. He always showed a great moral courage. He was faithful, honest, hard-working, and always truthful.”)

Carnot began his military career at the engineering military school, the Ecole du Génie de Mézières. He entered the army as an engineer in 1773, became a deputy to the Legislative Assembly in 1791 and joined the National Convention in 1792. His ascendency to power began with the French Revolution in April 1792, when he began to apply his improvisational and organizational abilities to politics, as well as to mathematics and geometry.

In 1793, Carnot was appointed to the Committee of Public Safety, where he achieved the majority of his successes. However, rivalries within the Committee intensified, especially between Carnot and Louis de Saint-Just. While Carnot was a member of the Committee of Public Safety (Grand comité de Salut), Napoleon needed to show his distinction in Corsica and spotted vulnerability in the harbor of Toulon. Napoleon sought help from Carnot, but before Carnot could respond, Napoleon had convinced the new Commander Dugommier to proceed. As a result, the fort fell, and Napoleon was promoted to the rank of brigadier-general and eventually went on to plan an attack on Italy under Robespierre (Wilson-Smith, 13). Unlike all the other Napoleonic ministers, Carnot was one of the ‘regicides’ of Louis XVI, he was even a member of the Committee of Public Safety when it was the guiding body of the Terror (Terreur). However, he would later clearly favor the Thermidor coup, which brought about the downfall of Robespierre and Saint-Just, and where they were guillotined.

From 1793-4, Carnot achieved his early successes, reorganizing the Armée de Nord and creating eleven armies from scratch ( The resultant crushing battle at Fleurus in 1794 won him his nickname “Organizer of Victory”.

In contrast, Napoleon was likely “the cause of more men’s deaths than any other man before him” (Wilson-Smith) and his ideas about warfare were shaped by advances in artillery. Napoleon surrounded himself with men of knowledge and used that knowledge to great effect. In his campaign on Egypt, he enlisted mathematicians, scientists, historians, archeologists, linguists and artists to create the Description de l’Egypte, which launched Egyptomania all across France, from the appeal of artifacts to the deciphering of hieroglyphs. He was also woefully prepared for this battle, with 1,500 troops facing 35,000 men and lacking in horses. However, the scimitars, maces and daggers of the enemy could not withstand European firepower (Wilson-Smith, 24-25). Just as war technology and scientific advancements have been credited for Napoleon’s successes, they’ve also been credited for his failures. In Napoleon’s Buttons, Jeremy P. Tarcher suggests that the Battle of Waterloo was partly lost due to the chemical composition of the tin buttons that held together the French uniforms, from their coats to their shoes, not being able to withstand the freezing temperatures of a Russian winter. Similarly, Kevin Ryan in Write Up the Corporate Ladder suggests that the battle of Waterloo was lost because of a badly written memo (Ryan, p. 13-14), as Elizabeth Longford describes in her book Wellington: The Years of the Sword.

“This was Napoleon’s chance to urgently to redirect Grouchy away from Wavre and towards Waterloo. Instead, the opening sentence of his reply perfectly illustrated the looseness of his thinking: ‘ His Majesty desires you will head for Wavre in order to draw near to us.’ In the circumstances [this sentence is] a plain contradiction, since Wavre lay north of Grouchy and Napoleon (“us”) to the west. Grouchy was also to “push before him” the Prussians who were marching in ‘this direction’ – an operation which, taken literally, would mean Grouchy pushing the Prussians towards Wellington – and reach Waterloo “as soon as possible.” In this verbal fog Grouchy was to discover only three luminous words: “Head for Wavre.” They were to prove fatal. (Elizabeth Longford, Wellington: The Years of the Sword (New York: Konecky & Konecky, 1969), p. 454.

In the French Revolutionary Wars, he introduced conscription (levée en masse) and other operations such as the amalgamations (l’amalgame) of two battalions of conscripts with one regular army battalion, thereby increasing the armies’ power and spreading the influence of experienced troops. He worked seventeen hours a day, managing fourteen armies, utilizing his mathematical experience to organize and mobilize the troops. Moreover, his modest upbringing limited his personal ambitions and his unique views of the soldier as citizen went against the grain of army obedience and passive participation, and he was known for his humane view of war, that its goal should be in defense of civilizations, not destruction of the enemy.

After the French defeats of 1813, Carnot offered his services to Napoleon and was appointed governor of Antwerp. After Napoleon’s exile to Elba, Carnot successfully defended himself before Louis XVIII, but his opposition to the politics of the restored monarchy meant that he would again serve Napoleon during the Hundred Days as minister of the interior. For his part, Napoleon was “advised that he must show himself a new man. In the later days of the Empire he had become more and more unreasonably dictatorial. Now he would be a conciliator, all things to all men other than the royalists, and a special hero for the liberals. He recalled an old adversary, Carnot [as Minister of the Interior]” (Wilson-Smith, 91). After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, Carnot was exiled for life by Louis XVIII and died in Magdeburg in Prussian Saxony on August 2, 1823.

On June 10, 1899, his ashes came to rest in the Pantheon. Since then, his contributions have been commemorated by Paris street names: rue, avenue and boulevard Carnot in the 17th and 12th arrondisements, on a plaque of celebrated scientists in the Eiffel Tower and in the naming of the lunar Carnot Crater.

For more information, check out (

Other Works Cited:

Gillispie, Charles Coulston. Lazare Carnot savant; a monograph treating Carnot's scientific work. Princeton

Wilson-Smith, Timothy. Napoleon: man of war, man of peace. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, c2002.


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