Vauban, Sébastien Le Prestre De

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(b. St. Léger–de–Fougeret [now St. Léger–Vauban],

near Avallon, Burgundy, France, 15 May 1633; d. Paris, France, 30 March 1707)

military engineering.

France’s greatest military engineer–the famous “taker of cities”–and a dedicated public servant of Louis XIV, Vauban scarcely deserves to be called a scientist. Although made an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Sciences in his old age, it was less for any scientific attainments than for his long, devoted, and manifold services to France. He never distinguished himself in mathematics or physics like Lazare Carnot or Coulomb, both trained as military engineers. Vauban was a practical man of little culture and sparse scientific training who was skilled in the application of simple arithmetic and geometry and the elementary principles of surveying and civil engineering to fortification and siegecraft. Above all he had range and flexibility of mind, common sense, and the tact and insight that comes from long experience.

Vauban’s family was of modest origin–notaries and small merchants of Bazoches in the climatically rugged Morvan. In the sixteenth century one member of Vauban’s family entered the lesser nobility through the purchase of a small fief. Vauban’s father boasted the title of “Écuyer, Seigneur de Champignolle et de Vauban.” Saint-Simon from his lofty social eminence called Vauban a “petit gentilhomme de Bourgogne, tout au plus.”

Of Vauban’s youth little is known. At first he was taught by the village curate of St.-Léger-de-Fougeret, where he was born during the reign of Louis XIII and the administration of Cardinal Richelieu. At the age of ten Vauban was sent to the Carmelite collège of Semur-en-Auxois; here he acquired the rudiments of mathematics, a smattering of history, and showed some talent for drafts-manship. In 1651, when he was seventeen, he entered upon his military career as a cadet in the forces of Louis II de Bourbon, prince de Conde, then in rebellion against the king. Under Condé he served his apprenticeship by working on the fortifications of Clermont-en-Argonne. Captured by the king’s forces in 1653, he shared in the pardon of Condé and his troops and entered the royal army. Cardinal Mazarin, learning of Vauban’s knack for fortification, placed him under the chevalier de Clerville, a man of mediocre gifts who was then regarded as the foremost military engineer of France. Two years later Vauban earned the rank of ingénieur ordinaire du roi.

Between the end of the war with Spain in 1659 and Louis XIV’s first war of conquest in 1667, Vauban worked under Clerville repairing and improving the fortifications of the kingdom. During the brief War of Devolution, he so distinguished himself–notably by his talent for siegecraft–that Louvois, his direct superior, promoted him over the head of Clerville to the rank of commissaire général, in effect making him the virtual director of all the engineering work in Louvois’s department. 1 The conquests of the War of Devolution in Hainaut and Flanders launched Vauban on a building program involving such conquered towns as Bergues, Furnes, Tournai, and Lille, the outposts of the future expansion.

Nine years of peace had succeeded the war with Spain. Vauban returned briefly to his native Morvan, where he married Jeanne d’Osnay, daughter of the baron d’Epiry. Yet soon after the wedding he returned to garrison duty at Nancy, leaving his wife behind. Until late in life, his visits home were rare, although he fathered two daughters and a son who died in infancy. In 1675 he bought the nearby Château de Bazoches, but until his last years his stays were brief in this, his favorite residence. He was constantly in the field. As Daniel Halévy put it, Vauban’s true family was the army.2

This, then, was the tireless rhythm of Vauban’s life: constant repairs and construction of fortress towns in time of peace; in war, sieges and new conquests; then more feverish construction during the ensuing intervals of peace, always with an eye towards the strategic goal of giving France the maximum security. 3 Until the year of his death, Vauban was constantly on the move, traveling from one end of France to the other on horseback, or, in his later years, carried in a famous sedan chair borne by horses. Although he sedulously avoided the court and was rarely seen in Paris or Versailles for any length of time, he kept in steady communication with his superiors, deluging Louvois, for example, with innumerable letters and reports written in pungent and undoctored prose. This “vie errante” of over forty years gave him an unrivaled knowledge of the state of France, and led to many of the proposals he set forth in his letters or in his ironically mistitled Oisivetés, a collection of papers written during intervals of repose at Bazoches or while traveling.

In his long and active life Vauban directed some fifty sieges, and Sir Reginald Blomfield lists nearly a hundred towns and strong points fortified or radically strengthened by Vauban. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, sieges were usually the focal operations of a campaign and the inevitable preliminary to invading foreign territory; indeed they were more frequent than infantry combat in open country, and were begun as readily as pitched battles were avoided or broken off. In siegecraft, the art of reducing fortified places, Vauban made his reputation as early as 1658–1659 at Montmédy, Ypres, Gravelines, and Oudenaarde in the Low Countries. His most famous success was the siege of Namur in 1692, defended by the great Dutch engineer, Cohorn, and immortalized by Uncle Toby in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Here the French troops were commanded by the king in person, and Vauban’s conduct of the siege was recorded by the official historian, the playwright Racine, in three letters to the poet Boileau. But it was at the earlier siege of Maastricht that Vauban, always concerned with the welfare of his troops, and hoping to reduce casualties, introduced the system of parallel trenches by means of which the assailants could approach under cover within close range of the ramparts of a fortress. 4 Less concerned about the fate of the defenders, at the siege of Philippsburg he first used the ricochet fire of mortars, where the propelling charge was so greatly reduced that the propelling charge was so greatly reduced that the projectile was gently lobbed into the enemy’s stronghold, where it would rebound this way and that, a peril to man and machine.

In the design of fortified places, Vauban owed a considerable debt to his predecessors. He was the heir of nearly a century and a half of progress, during which the profile was lowered and the bastioned trace (a polygonal outline marked by projecting bastions) reached a high degree of perfection at the hands of men like Jean Erard of Bar-le-Duc, the founder of the French school of fortification,5and Blaise Pagan (1604–1665), a theorist rather than a practical engineer and an astronomer of some repute. Pagan’s Traité des fortifications (1645) strongly influenced Vauban: indeed his earliest forts were based on Pagan’s designs, but with minor improvements and adaptations to differences in terrain, a characteristic feature of Vauban’s work.6

It has been claimed that Vauban followed three different “systems” in the course of his career. This claim has rightly been challenged. He never published anything about his methods, or wrote anything except to stress the importance of accumulated experience, flexibility of mind, and a distrust of bookish formulas. Many later writers have agreed with Lazare Carnot who admired Vauban, yet who gave him little credit for striking originality. “The fortification of Vauban,” Carnot wrote, “reveals to the eye only a succession of works known before his time, whereas to the mind of a good observer it offers sublime results, brilliant combinations, and masterpieces of industry.”7 Later studies, by Lieutenant Colonel Lazard and by Sir Reginald Blomfield have altered our perspective. Blomfield, while unable to praise Vauban’s architectural taste (he severely criticizes the design of gateways into some of Vauban’s fortified towns), fully agrees with Lazard that, strictly speaking, Vauban did not follow sharply defined systems; instead, as his experience grew and deepened, we detect distinguishable periods in which he favored modified designs, all variation of the polygonal trace with bastions. His major works were the citadel of Lille (his earliest honor was to be made its governor); Maubeuge, considered one of the best examples of a fortified town; and his masterpiece and last major work, Neuf-Brisach, designed as a wholly new fortified town.8octagonal in shape with elaborate outworks. Vauban’s tendency was increasingly to rely “on the outworks of his forts more than on the traditional rampart, bastion, moat, covered way and glacis.”9 The main body of his fort was protected by demilunes (detached triangular works erected in the moat), detached bastions, or hornworks (Ouvrages à cornes.10which pushed the defense out into the surrounding country. Such detached works first appear timidly in forts of what was once called his “second system,” for example, at Belfort and Besançon; but the culmination of this development is to be seen in the outline of Neuf–Brisach, which deserves also an important place in the history of city planning.

During Vauban’s lifetime there was not yet, in any real sense, an organized corps of army engineers. The engineers were men of diverse training and background: some were civilians (architects or mathematicians) of known ability; others held commissions in the infantry or cavalry and, like Vauban, had served a novitiate under an established practitioner. To see created a true corps of engineers, as a regularly constituted arm of the service with its own specially trained officers, with troops (including sappers and miners) under their command, and with a distinctive uniform, was an objective Vauban strove to attain throughout his career, although with little success. His recommendations did not bear fruit until later in the eighteenth century.

Vauban’s concerns were not limited to his own branch of the military profession. He was one of the most indefatigable military reformers of his age, and his proposals left few areas untouched. He was keenly interested in improving artillery; disliking bronze cannon, he urged the army to emulate the navy in the use of iron. He was a tireless advocate of the flintlock musket, and wished to abolish the pike and substitute for it the bayonet fitted with a sleeve or socket, in order to align the blade at the side of the barrel, thereby allowing the piece to be fired with bayonet fixed.

In a long paper of the Oisivetés on the reorganization of the army, he gives his views on war in general and the French army in particular11. War, he wrote, has “interest” (in the sense of our phrase “vested interest”) as father; its mother is ambition and for its close relatives it has all the passions that lead us to evil. The French, nevertheless, like war if it can be carried out with honor; they are courageous and intelligent; yet service in the army is hated: desertions are constant, even though they are cruelly punished on the gallows. Recruitment by force and the press gang is a source of constant complaint; and Vauban finds it a grave social evil, taking husbands away from their families and driving some wives to beggary. The mode of recruitment was to be reformed, and the special categories of men who are exempted should be sharply reduced. The pay (solde) must be increased and the conditions of service drastically improved. To Vauban’s influence is at least partly due the restriction, if not elimination, of the practice of quartering troops on the civilian population. After the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, this practice was supplemented by barracks (casernes), many of which were built by Vauban, chiefly used in frontier regions and recently conquered territory.

Vauban’s reformist impulses were far from limited to military matters. Deeply sensitive to the woes of others, shocked by the inefficiency and distress he encountered in town and country on his travels, his official correspondence and his Oisivetés contain blunt criticism on all manner of topics. His proposals were sometimes farfetched but at other times bold and farsighted. He wrote about the need to preserve the forests of France and urged that lumbering be regulated by the state. He proposed that the caprerie–those freelance, piratical raids on enemy shipping–should be systematized and supported by the government. Surely his most courageous proposal was to urge the recall of the Huguenots. He pointed out not only that the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes was an injustice to the Protestants, but that it brought grave injury upon France, which thereby lost excellent craftsmen, veteran soldiers, and eight or nine thousand of the finest sailors12.

Best known, of course, are Vauban’s economic views. Like his contemporaries, Pierre Boisguilbert and Henri Boulainvilliers, he had antimercantilist sentiments and was fully as well informed as they about the impoverishment of the kingdom and the need, above all, to reform the system of taxation, the unfairness of which was matched only by the arbitrariness and corruption of the tax collectors (maltôtiers). About 1680 Vauban drafted a memoir on the salt tax (gabelle), and in 1695 in his Projet de capitation he outlined a whole new scheme of direct taxation. His last words on the subject, and his chief published work, was his clandestine Dîme royale, published anonymously and without a license in 1707.13 It reviews the poverty and misery of the French people, the causes of which, he wrote, “are sufficiently well known,” and which he documents with statistics. Instead of the current forms of taxation he proposes a single tax to fall on all the king’s subjects, taking the form of one-tenth of the produce of landed wealth, or one-tenth of other forms of income. Basing his proposal on historical precedent, including the Bible, but modeling his proposal specifically on the Dîme ecclèsiastique, by which the church contributed to the national treasury, he argued that this would be the simplest to collect, and a form of levy less likely to arouse the ire of the people. It would, indeed, fall on all persons regardless of privilege or rank with the sole exception of the clergy.

When Fontenelle, who delivered Vauban’s eulogy before the Academy, spoke of Vauban as chosen by the Academy of Sciences as a mathematician, who more than anyone else had “drawn mathematics down from the skies,” this can be thought of in terms of Vauban’s keen interest in, and constant recourse to, statistics. Here, perhaps, he deserves to be mentioned along with his older contemporaries in Britain, William Petty and John Graunt.

To his superiors, and to many who have written about him, he was admired less perhaps for his recognized genius than as a model of the ideal public servant. Indeed the word citoyen, in the sense of a good citizen, a man devoted to the welfare of his country, was first used in reference to him. Voltaire said of Vauban: “He proved, by his conduct, that there can be citizens under an absolute government.”14

Yet despite his achievements, the honors he most desired were slow to come. He was sixty-five when he was made an académicien honoraire of the Academy of Sciences at the time of its reorganization (and installation in the Louvre) in 1699.15 In 1703, while inspecting the fortifications of Namur, he learned that he had been made a marshall of France. This high honor, for which he had been several times passed over, had never, according to Saint-Simon, been attained before by anybody “of this sort,” by which the great nobleman must have meant a man of middling origin or a mere engineer. Finally, in 1705, he received the highest distinction his sovereign could bestow, membership in the select Ordre du Saint Esprit.

Despite these belated honors, Vauban’s last years were a disappointment. The king refused to assign him to conduct a major siege (that of Kehl), probably because of his age, but officially because the task was unworthy of his new illustrious rank. Although he led a successful attack on another fortress in 1703, he was in effect put out to pasture. His health began to fail and he suffered increasingly from chronic bronchitis and other ailments. The last months of his life were spent in his Paris house near the Palais-Royal. In early 1707 he fell dangerously ill with pneumonia and on Wednesday, 30 March, not long after the publication of his influential Dîme royale, he died in the arms of his son–in–law. After a modest funeral service his body was brought to Bazoches and buried, with his heart in a separate lead casket, in the family vault in the chapel that Vauban had himself built.16


1. The administration of military engineering, which had been centralized in the time of Sully, was divided in 1661. One department was under the minister of war (first Michel Le Tellier, then his son, the Marquis de Louvois). This department supervised work in the provinces of Flanders, Hainaut, Artois, and along the eastern frontier. The other department was headed by Colbert, first as controller general of finance and later (1669) as secretary of the navy. Until his death in 1683, Colbert was responsible for fortification in Picardie, Champagne, the Three Bishoprics, Provence, and Languedoc.

2. Halévy, Vauban, p. 104.

3. For the strategic consideration of Vauban’s fortress building, and the concept of the pré carré (a fleshed–out defensable frontier), see H. Guerlac, in E. M. Earle, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought From Machiavalli to Hitler, 44–47.

4. Voltaire ascribed the invention, or the first use of, the system of parallels to Italian engineers serving the Turks in the siege of Candia (now Iráklion) in Crete: see Oeuvres completes de Voltaire. XIV (Paris, 1878), 263–264.

5. Erard’s famous work with his La fortification démontree et réduite en art (Paris, 1594: repr., 1604).

6. On Pagan, see Blomfield, ch. 4.

7. See his Èloge de Vauban (1784). For this appraisal the reader may consut Charles Coulston Gillispie, Lazare Carnot Savant (Princeton, 1971). This passage has been frequently cited.

8. For a plan of the town of Neuf-Brisach, see Bélidor. La science des ingenieurs, bk, 4. plate 25, p. 60. Bélidor takes Vauban’s scheme for defending the town as his model for military architecture, and illustates its defense in bk, 6. plate 52, p. 40. A model of Neuf-Brisach is in the Musée des Plans Reliefs in the Invalides in Paris. A photograph is reproduced by Hebbert and Rothrock, “Marshal Vauban,” in History Today, 24 , pt. 1. p. 156. A colored aerial view is published in Michel Parent and Jacques Verroust, Vauban. p. 15.

9. Blomfield, pp. 53–54.

10. A hornwork is so named because of the acute angles, facing the point of attack, of the two detached half bastions.

11. Rochas d’Aiglun, ed., Vauban–Oisivetés et Correspondance, 1, p. 267.

12.Ibid., p. 466.

13. The first edition of the Dîme Royal was published without indication of place. According to Rochas d’Aiglun, it was probably printed at Rouen in 1706, under the supervision of the Abbé Roget de Beaumont, a longtime collaborator of Vauban. There have been a number of later editions, and an English trans, has appeared.

14. “Catalogue de la plupart des écrivains français qui ont paru dans le siécle de Louis XIV,” in Oeuvres complétes de Voltaire “Un Romain, qu’il semblait que notre siécle eut dérobé aux plus heureux temps de la république,” in Éloges de Fontenelle, Francisque Bouillier, ed, (Paris, n. d.), p. 31. According to James Kip Finch, Engineering and Western Civilization (New York, 1951), p. 36, n. 3, it was Saint-Simon who is “said to have coined the word citizen and applied it to Vauban.” I have not found that Saint-Simon in fact uses the term, at least in referring to Vauban.

15. The other honorary members besides Vauban were the Abbé de Louvois, the Chevalier Renau, Father Thomas Gouye, Jean Truchet, otherwise known as Father Sébastien, and the aged Malebranche. Most had repulations as mathematics including, of course. Malebranche. See Ernest Maindron, L’Académie des sciences (Paris, 1888), p. 27.

16. For the ceremonial reburial of Vauban’s heart, in the Invalides during the reign of Nepoleon, see Hebbert and Rothrock,”Marshall Vauban,” in History Today, 24 , pt. 2 (1974), 264.


I. Original Works. Vauban wrote voluminously and published hardly anything in his own lifetime. Many works attributed to him (like the small manual entitled Directeur général des fortifications [The Hague, 1785]) are probably spurious. It is debated whether he ever wrote a treatise on fortification. Unquestionably his, however, is the Traité de l’attaque de la défense des places (The Hague, 1737; repr., 2 vols., 1742), written for the Due de Bourgogne. This work was republished by Latour-Foissac in 1795, and by Lieutenant Colonel Augoyat in 1829: a German trans., 2 vols. in 1, appeared in Berlin, 1751. A similar work, written earlier (perhaps as early as 1667) is his Mémoire pour servir d’instruction dans la conduite des sièges et dans la défense des places (leiden, 1740), trans, by George A. Rothrock as A Manual of Siegecraft and Firtification (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1968). Of the mass of Vauban MSS that survive, a significant portion have been reprinted, notably in the nineteenth century. The Abrége des services du maréchal de Vauban, fait par lui en 1703 was printed under the editorship of Augoyat, who also published the first 4 vols. of Oisivetés in 1842–1845. Vauban’s De l’importance dont Paris est à la France, et le soin que l’on doit prendre de sa conservation was first printed in Paris in 1821.

Vauban’s most famous book. Projet d’une dixime royal, was published first 4° in 1707 with neither place nor date of publication, then in Brussels in 1708. It was reprinted by Eugène Daire, in Economistes fransçais du dix–huitième siècle (Paris, 1843). Its interesting preface was included by Rochas d’Aiglum in his own VaubanSa Famille et ses Ecrits–Ses Oisivetés et sa Correspondance, 2 vols. (Paris–Grenoble, 1910), which is a major source. D’Aiglun’s work begins with a geneology of Vauban, and in the first volume includes the most important memoirs in the 12 vols. of MSS to which Vauban gave the title of Oisivetés. The second volume of this work is devoted to Vauban’s correspondence with Louvois and others.

II. Secondary Literature. For a laudatory view of Vauban by a contemporary, see Charles Perrault, Les hommes illustres qui ont paru en France Pendant ce siècle, 2 vols. (Paris, 1696). Still valuable is the earely sketch of Vauban given by Fontenelle in his éloge: see Oeuvres Complètes de Fontenelle, I (Paris, 1818), 95–103, and E loges de Fontenelle, avec introduction et notes, Francisque bouillier, ed. (Paris, n.d.), 22–31. As indicated in our text there are interesting references to Vauban by Saint–Simon in his Mémoires and by Voltaire in his Siècle de Louis Quatorze. Lazare Carnot’s appraisal, Éloge de Vauban (Paris, 1784), aroused much contemporary debate among the military, and was viciously attacked by Cholerlos de Laclos. A fine study in English, by an architect and architectural historian, is Sir Reginald Blomfield, Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban, 1633–1707 (London, 1938), making good use of Colonel de Génie Pierre Elizir Lazard, Vauban (Paris, 1934), which covers the many aspects of Vauban’s career. Both works are well illustrated–Blomfield’s with his own drawings of Vauban forts in their modern state of preservation, and Lazard with sketches by Vauban and with photographs of models from the Musée des Plans Reliefs of the French army’s geographical service. Two recent general studies deserve especially to be cited: Marcel Parent and Jacques Verroust, Vauban (Paris, 1971), sumptuously illustrated and splendidly printed; and F. J. Hebbert and G. A. Rothrock, “Marshal Vauban,” in History Today, 24 1974), 149–157, 258–264. Among nineteenth–century works, George Michel, Histoire de Vauban (Paris, 1879), is a useful connected narrative, but not much of an imporovement on J. J. Roy, Histoire de Vauban (1844).

More specialized aspects are Jacques Guttin, Vauban et le corps des ingénieurs militaires (Paris, 1957); Humbert Ricolfi, Vauben et le génie militaire dans les alpesmaritimes (Nice, 1935); Ferdinand Dreyfus, Vauban économiste (Paris, 1892); Walter Brauer, Frankreichs wirtshaftliche und soziale Lage von 1700; dargestellt unter besonderer Berüchsichtigung der Werke von Vauban und Biosguillebert (Marburg, 1968); and Félix Cadet, Histoire de l’économie politique. Les précurseurs, Boisguilbert, Vauban, Quesnay, Turgot (New York, 1970), repr. of the early 1869 ed. Henry Guerlac, “Vauban: The Impact of Science on War,” in Edward Meade Earle, Makers of Modern Strategy (Princeton, 1943), 26–48, with bibliography on pp. 522–523, draws upon–for its discussion of Vauban strategic aims–H. Chotard, “Louis XIV, Louvois, Vauban et les fortifications du Nord de la France, d’après les lettres inédites de Louvois addressées à M. de Chazerat, Gentilhomme d’Auvergne,” in Annales du Comité Flamand de France, 18 (1889–1890), and on Gaston Zeller, L’organisation défensive des frontières du Nord et de l’Est au XVII’ siècle (Paris, 1928).

Henry Guerlac

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