Napoleonic Literature
Napoleon and His Marshals - Vol. I
Chapter II
MARSHAL BERTHIER


The Talents a Revolution develops— Creation of the Marshals— Berthier's Character and History— Soliloquy of Napoleon— Berthier's Death.


    NOTHING is more unfortunate for a great man than to be born beside a greater, and walk during lifetime in his shadow. It is equally unfortunate to be great only in one department that is still better filled by another. Had Shakespeare not lived, Massinger might have stood at the head of English dramatists ; and had Alfieri kept silent, a host of writers, now almost unknown, would have occupied the Italian stage. Had it not been for Cæsar, Brutus might have ruled the world; and were it not for Bonaparte, many a French general would occupy a separate place in that history of which they are now only transient figures. Great men, like birds, seem to come in flocks; and yet but one stands as the representative of his age. The peak which first catches the sunlight is crowned monarch of the hills, and the rest, however lofty, are but his body-guard. Much injustice has been done to Bonaparte's generals by not allowing for the influence of this principle. There is scarcely a historian that will concede to such men as Lannes, Davoust, Murat, and Ney, any dominant quality, except bravery. Under the guiding intellect of Napoleon, they fought nobly; but, when left to their own resources, miserably failed. Yet the simple truth is: being compelled, by their relative position, to let another plan for them, they could do little else than execute orders. A mind dependent is cramped and confined, and can exhibit its power only by the force and vigor with which it executes rather than forms plans.
    But if it be a misfortune for a great man to live and move in the shadow of a still greater, it is directly the reverse with a weak man. The shadow of the genius in which he walks mantles his stupidity, and, by the dim glory it casts over him, magnifies his proportions. Such was the position of Boswell to Johnson, and this is the secret of Berthier's fame. Being selected by Napoleon as the chief of his staff, and his most intimate companion, he has linked himself indissolubly with immortality.
    The times in which Bonaparte lived were well calculated to produce such men as he gathered around him. A revolution, by its upturnings, brings to the surface materials of the existence of which no man ever dreamed before. Circumstances make men, who then usually return the compliment, and make circumstances. In ordinary times, as a general rule, the souls of men exhibit what force and fire they may contain, in those channels where birth has placed them. This is more especially true in all monarchieal and aristocratical governments. The iron framework they stretch over the human race effectually presses down every throb that would otherwise send an undulation over the mass. No head can lift itself except in the legitimate way, while very small heads, that happen to hit the aperture aristocracy has kindly left open, may reach a high elevation. Revolution rends this framework as if it were a cobweb, and lets the struggling, panting mass beneath suddenly erect themselves to their full height and fling abroad their arms in their full strength. The surface, which before kept its even plane, except where a star or decoration told the right of the wearer to overlook his fellow, becomes all at once a wild waste of rolling billows. Then man is known by the force within him, and not by the pomp about him. There is also a prejudice and bigotry always attached to rank, which prevents it from seeing the worth below it, while it will not measure by a just standard, because that would aepreciate its own excellence. Those, on the contrary, who obtain influences through the soul and force they carry within them, appreciate these things alone in others, and hence judge them by a true criterion.
    Thus Bonaparte—himself sprung from the middle class of society—selected men to lead his armies from their personal qualities alone. This is one great secret of his astonishing victories. Dukes and princes led the allied armies, while men headed the battalions of France. Bonaparte judged men by what they could do, and not by their genealogy. He looked not at the decorations that adorned the breast, but at the deeds that stamped the warrior—not at the learning that made the perfect tactician, but the real practical force that wrought out great achievements. Victorious battlefields were to him the birthplace of titles, and the commencement of genealogies; and stars were hung on scarred and war-battered, rather than on noble, breasts. He had learned the truth taught in every physical or moral revolution, that the great effective molding characters of our race always spring from the middle and lower classes. All reformers also start there, and they always must, for not only is their sight clearer and their judgment more just, but their earnest language is adapted to the thoughts and sympathies of the many. Those men also who rise to power through themselves alone feel it is by themselves alone they must stand; hence the impelling motive is not so much greatness to be won, as the choice between it and their original nothingness. Bonaparte was aware of this, and of all his generals who have gone down to immortality with him, how few were taken from the upper classes! Augereau was the son of a grocer, Bernadotte of an attorney, and both commenced their career as private soldiers. Bessières, St. Cyr, Jourdan, and the fiery Junot all entered the army as privates. Kleber was an architect; the impetuous Lannes the son of a poor mechanic; Lefevre, Loison, and the bold Scotchman Macdonald were all of humble parentage. The victorious Massena was an orphan sailor boy, and the reckless, chivalric Murat the son of a country landlord. Victor, Suchet, Oudinot, and the stern and steady Soult were each and all of humble origin, and commenced their ascent from the lowest step of Fame's ladder. And last of all, NEY, the "bravest of the brave," was the son of a poor tradesman of Sarre Louis.
    Immediately on the assumption of supreme power, Napoleon created eighteen marshals, leaving two vacancies to be filled afterward. Four of these were honorary appointments, given to those who had distinguished themselves in previous battles, and were now reposing on their laurels as members of the Senate. The other fourteen were conferred on generals destined for active service, but in reward of their former deeds. The first four were Kellerman, Lefevre, Periguin, and Serruier. The fourteen active marshals were Jourdan, Berthier, Massena, Lannes, Ney, Augereau, Brune, Murat, Bessières, Moncey, Mortier, Soult, Davoust, and Bernadotte. Kleber and Desaix were dead, both killed on the same day, one in Egypt and the other at Marengo, or they would have been first on this immortal list.
    All these had been active generals, and had distinguished themselves by great deeds, and won their renown by hard fighting, except Berthier. Their honors were the reward of prodigies of valor and exhibitions of heroism seldom surpassed. Berthier alone obtained his appointment for his services in the staff, and partly, I am inclined to believe, for his personal attachment for Napoleon. Without any merit as a military leader, he still deserves a place among the distinaruished Marshals of the Empire, for is intimate relationship with Napoleon.
    Alexander Berthier was born at Versailles, on the 20th of November, 1753. His father was the coast surveyor to Louis XVI., and acquired great reputation for his skill in this department. Young Berthier naturally became proficient in mathematical studies—was a capital surveyor, and excelled in drawing. Though filling the situation in his father's office with a faithfulness and ability that promised complete success in his profession, he nevertheless preferred the army. By his father's connection with government, he was enabled to obtain a commission at the outset in the dragoons, and as lieutenant in Rochambeau's staff came to the United States, and served during the war of the American Revolution. I know of no act of his, during this time, worthy of note. He had none of the daring and intrepidity so necessary to form a good commander. At the time of the French Revolution, he was officer in the National Guards, and stood firm to the royal cause till the Guards themselves went over, when he himself became a fiery republican. He was chief of the staff in the first campaigns of the Republic, on the Rhine and northern frontier, and though faithful and efficient in the discharge of his duties, received no promotion. Not having sufficient energy and force to distinguish himself by any brilliant exploit, he obtained merely the reputation of being a faithful officer. In the first campaign in Italy, he was quartermaster to Kellerman; but when Bonaparte took command of the army, he made him chief of his staff, and promoted him to the rank of major-general.
    From that time on, for eighteen years, he scarce ever left the side of Bonaparte. We find him with him on the sands of Egypt, and amid the snows of Russia; by the Po, the Rhine, the Danube, and the Niemen, and admitted to an intimacy that few were allowed to enjoy. It seems natural for a strong, powerful mind to attach itself to a weak one; for its desire is not so much for sympathy and support, as for the privilege of relaxing and unbending itself, without impairing its dignity, or exposing its weaknesses. Berthier seemed to place no restraint on him. He had such a thorough contempt for his intellect, and knew in what awe and reverence he held him, that his presence relieved his solitude without destroying it. It is true, Berthier's topographical knowledge, and his skill in drawing maps and charts, and in explaining them, made him indispensable to Bonaparte, who relied so much on these things in projecting his campaigns. Especially as the channel through which all his orders passed, he became more necessary to him than any other single officer in the army. Yet, Berthier was admitted into privacies to which none of these relations gave him a claim. When it was necessary for Bonaparte to be in the open air for a long time, early in the morning, or late at evening, a huge fire was always built by the Chasseurs, to which he allowed no one to approach, unless to feed it with fuel, except Berthier. Backward and forward, with his hands behind his back, he would walk—his grave and thoughtful face bent on the ground—until the signals were made of which he was in expectation, when he would throw off his reserve, and call out to Berthier, "To horse."
    Bonaparte's traveling carriage, a curiosity in itself, was arranged as much for Berthier as for himself. Notwithstanding the drawers for his despatches, and his portable library, he had a part of it partitioned off for the latter. True, he did not give him half, nor allow him the dormeuse, on which he himself could recline and refresh himself. But Berthier was content, even with the privilege allowed him, though it furnished him anything but repose, for Bonaparte made use of the time in which his cortège was sweeping like a whirlwind along the road, to examine despatches, and the reports of the positions, etc. As he read he dictated his directions, which Berthier jotted down, and, at the next stopping-place, filled out with a precision that satisfied even his rigorous master. Methodical in all he did—doing nothing in confusion—the rapid hints thrown out by Napoleon assumed a symmetry and order under his pen that required no explanation, and scarce ever needed an alteration. In this department he was almost as tireless as Napoleon himself. He would write all night, with a clearness of comprehension and an accuracy of detail, that was perfectly surprising. Apparently without the mental grasp and vigor necessary to comprehend the gigantic plans he filled out with such admirable precision, he nevertheless mapped them down as if they had been his own. A hint from Napoleon was sufficient for him; for so accustomed had he become to the action of his mind, that he could almost anticipate his orders. He had lived I and moved, and breathed so long in the atmosphere of that intellect, that he became a perfect reflector to it. He knew the meaning of every look and gesture of the Emperor, and a single glance would arrest him, as if it had the power to blast. At the battle of Eylau, when Augereau's shattered ranks came flying past him, pursued by the enemy, Napoleon suddenly found himself, with only his staff about him, in presence of a column of four thousand Russians. His capture seemed inevitable, for he was on foot, and almost breast to breast with the column. Berthier immediately, in great trepidation, called out for the horses. Napoleon gave him a single look, which pinned him as silent in his place as if he had been turned to stone. Instead of mounting his horse, he ordered a battalion of his guard to charge. The audacious column paused, and, before it could recover from its surprise, six battalions of the Old Guard, and Murat's Cavalry, were upon it, rending it to pieces. So perfectly mechanical was his mind, that it was impossible to confuse him by the rapid accumulation of business on his hands. He was, among papers, what Bonaparte was on a battlefield—always himself; clearheaded and correct, bringing order out of confusion, in a manner that delighted his exacting master. Bonaparte appreciated this quality in his major-general, and tasked it to the utmost. He once said that this was the great merit of Berthier, and of "inestimable importance" to him. "No other could possibly have replaced him." The services he performed were amply rewarded by making him Marshal of the Empire, grand huntsman, Prince of Neufchatel, and Prince of Wagram. Yet, such a low opinion did Napoleon have of this Prince and Marshal's character, that he once said: "Nature has evidently designated many for a subordinate situation; and among them is Berthier. As chief of the staff, he had no superior; but he was not fit to command five hundred men." From this intimate relationship with Napoleon, however, and all the orders coming through his hands, many began to think he was the light of Napoleon's genius. "Napoleon and Berthier" were coupled so constantly in men's months, that they began to be joined in praise by those who knew neither personally, and there might, to this day, have been a great difference of opinion respecting his merit, if he had never attempted anything more than to obey orders.
    Still Berthier showed at times ability which brought on him the commendations of the Commander-in-chief. At Lodi, Arcola, and indeed throughout the first campaign of the young Bonaparte, he behaved with so much bravery, and brought such aid to the army, that he was most honorably mentioned in the reports to the Directory.
    On Bonaparte's return to Paris, after his victorious campaign in Italy, Berthier was left in command of the army. Not long after, in an émeute in Rome, the French Legation was assailed, and the young General Duphet killed, which brought an order from the Directory to Berthier to march on the city. Arrived at the gates of the home of the Cæsars, the soldiers were transported with enthusiasm; and they, with the republican citizens, conducted Berthier through the Porta di Popolo in triumpli to the Capitol, as the victorious generals of old were wont to be borne. The intoxicated multitude, thinking the days of ancient glory, when Rome was a republic, had returned, sang the following memorable hymn as they carried him toward the
Capitol:
Romain, leve les yeux: là fut le Capitole;
  Ce pont est le pont du Coclès,
Ces chardons sont converts des cendres de Scévole,
  Lucrèce dort sous ces cyprès
Là Brutus là immola la râce;
  Ici c'engloutit Curtius;
Et Cesar à cette autre place
  Fut poignardé par Cassius.
Rome, là liberté t'appelle!
  Romp tes fers, ose t'affranchir;
Un Romain dort libre pour elle,
  Pour elle un Romain dort mourir.
    Te Deum was chanted in St. Peter's by fourteen cardinals, and the old Roman form of government proclaimed in the ancient Forum.
    But he was no sooner installed in his place, than he began to practice such extortion and pillage, that even his own officers broke out in open complaints against him; and he had to leave the army and set out for Paris.
    He was one of those selected by Bonaparte to accompany him to Egypt. Berthier could not bear to leave his "beloved General's" side; but, though forty-three years of age, he had conceived such a violent passion for one Madame Visconti, that it quite upset his weak intellect, and, drove him into paroxysms of grief when he thought also of leaving the object of his passion. He hastened to Toulon, and told Bonaparte that he was sick, and could not go; and requested to be left behind. But his prayers and tears fell on a heart that had no sympathy with such nonsense, and he was forced to set sail. The long, tedious voyage—the separation of so many thousand miles—the new an glorious field to honor and fame which Egypt spread out before him, could not drive the image of his dear Visconti from his mind. He had a tent placed beside his own fitted up in the most elegant style, in which was suspended the portrait of this lady. Here "the chief of the staff of the army of Egypt" would retire alone, and, prostrating himself before it, indulge in the most passionate expressions of love and grief, and went so far at times even as to burn incense to it, as if it were a goddess, and he an ignorant devotee. At Alexandria, his grief became so intense, that he besought Bonaparte to allow him to return. Finding it impossible to drive this absurd passion from the turned head of his major-general, he at length granted his request. Poor Berthier bade his commander a solemn farewell, and departed. In a few hours, however, he returned, his eyes swimming in tears, saying, after all, he could not leave his "beloved General."
    He accompanied Bonaparte in his return to France, and with Lannes and Murat was his chief reliance and confidant in his plans to overturn the Directory. After the establishment of the Consular system, and his own appointment as First Consul, Napoleon did not forget the services of Berthier, but gave to him the portfolio of War. He bestowed on him also, at different times, large sums of money, which might as well have been thrown in the Seine, as to all good they did this imbecile spendthrift. On one occasion he presented him with a magnificent diamond worth nearly twenty thousand dollars, saying: "Take this; we frequently play high: lay it up against a time of need." In a few hours it was sparkling on the head of his lady-love.
    This mad passion, outliving separation, change, and all the excitements of the camp and battlefield, was doomed
to a most bitter disappointment. At the urgent request of Napoleon, he finally married a princess of Bavaria. But scarcely was the marriage consummated when, as if on purpose to complete his despair, the husband of Madame Visconti died. This was too much for Berthier. Cursing his miserable fate, he hastened to Napoleon overcome with grief, exclaiming: "What a miserable man I am! Had I been only a little more constant, Madame Visconti would have been my wife."
    I remarked before that Berthier might possibly have passed for a good general, had he not gratuitously revealed is own weakness to the eyes of Europe. At the opening of the campaigns of Abensberg, Landshut, and Eckmuhl, Napoleon dispatched him to the headquarters of the army, with definite directions—the sum of which was, to concentrate all the forces around Ratisbon, unless the enemy made an attack before the 15th, in which case he was to concentrate them on the Lech, around Donauwerth. Berthier, seized with some wonderful idea of his own, instead of carrying out the Emperor's orders to the very letter, as he had ever before done, acted directly contrary to them. Instead of concentrating the army, he scattered it. The Austrians were advancing, and the notion instantly seized him of executing a prodigious feat, and of stopping the enemy at all points.
    Massena and Davoust, commanding the two principal corps of the army, he separated a hundred miles from each other, while at the same time he placed Lefebvre, Wrede, and Oudinot in so absurd a position that these experienced generals were utterly amazed. Davoust became perfectly furious at the folly of Berthier—told him he was dooming the army to utter destruction, while Massena urged his strong remonstrance against this suicidal measure. As he was acting under Napoleon's orders, however, they were compelled to obey him, though some of the marshals declared that he was a traitor, and had been bribed to deliver up the army. Nothing but the slowness of the Archduke's advance saved them. His army of a hundred and twenty thousand men could, at this juncture, have crushed them almost at a blow, if it had possessed one-quarter the activity Napoleon soon after evinced. While matters were in this deplorable state, and Berthier was in an agony at his own folly, and utterly at loss what to do, Napoleon arrived at headquarters. He was perfectly amazed at the perilous position in which his army was placed.
    His hasty interrogations of every one around him soon placed the condition of the two armies clearly before him; and his thoughts and actions, rapid as lightning, quickly showed that another spirit was at the head of affairs. Officers were dispatched hither and thither on the fleetest horses—Berthier's orders were all countermanded, and the concentration of the army was effected barely in time to save it. Immediately on his arrival at Donauwerth he dispatched a note to Berthier, saying: "What you have done appears so strange, that if I was not aware of your friendship, I should think vou were betraying me. Davoust is at this moment more completely at the Archduke's disposal than my own." Davoust was also perfectly aware of this, but thought only of fulfilling his orders like a brave man. In speaking of this afterward, Napoleon said: "You can not imagine in what a condition I found the army on my arrival, and to what dreadful reverses it was exposed if we had to deal with an enterprising enemy. I shall take care that I am not surprised again in such a manner." The chief of the staff was never after suspected of being anything more than a mere instrument in the hands of the Emperor.
    The change that passed over the French army was instantaneous, and the power of intellect and genius, working with lightning-like rapidity, was never more clearly seen than in the different aspect Napoleon put on affairs in a single day. Under his all-pervading, all-embracing spirit, order rose out of confusion, and strength out of weakness. Had an Austrian general committed such a blunder in his presence as Berthier did in the face of the Archduke Charles, he would have utterly annihilated him.
    It is useless to follow Berthier through the long campaigns, in which he never quitted the Emperor's side, as he only now and then appears above the surface, and then merely as a good chief of the staff, and a valuable aid in the cabinet with his topographical knowledge. He was with him in his last efforts to save Paris and his throne. He, with Caulincourt, was by his side in that gloomy night when, in his haste to get to his capital, he could not wait for his carriage, but walked on foot for a mile, chafing like a fettered lion. They were the only auditors of that terrible soliloquy that broke from his lips as he strode on through the darkness. Just before, when news was brought that Paris bad capitulated, the expression of his face as he turned to Caulincourt and exclaimed, "Do you hear that?" was enough to freeze one with horror; but now his sufferings melted the heart with pity. Paris was illuminated by the innumerable watch-fires that covered the heights, and around it the allied troops were shouting in unbounded exultation over the glorious victory that compensated them for all their former losses; while but fifteen miles distant, on foot, walked its king and emperor through the deep midnight—his mighty spirit wrung with such agony that the sweat stood in large drops on his forehead, and his lips worked in the most painful excitement. Neither Berthier nor Caulincourt dared to interrupt the rapid soliloquy of the fallen Emperor, as he muttered in fierce accents: "I burned the pavement—my horses were swift as the wind, but still I felt oppressed with an intolerable weight; some thing extraordinary was passing within me. I asked them to hold out only twenty-four hours. Miserable wretches that they are! Marmont, too, who had sworn that he would be hewn in pieces rather than surrender! And Joseph ran off, too—my very brother! To surrender the capital to the enemy—what poltroons! They had my orders; they knew that, on the 2d of April, I would be here at the head of seventy thousand men! My brave scholars, my National Guard, who had promised to defend my son; all men with a heart in their bosoms, would have joined to combat at my side! And so they have capitulated, betrayed their brother, their country, their sovereign—degraded France in the sight of Europe! Entered into a capital of eight hundred thousand souls, without firing a shot! It is too dreadful! That comes of trusting cowards and fools. When I am not there, they do nothing but heap blunder on blunder. What has been done with the artillery? They should have had two hundred pieces, and ammunition for a month. Everyone has lost his head; and yet Joseph imagines that he can lead an army, and Clarke is vain enough to think himself a minister; but I begin to think Savary is right, and that he is a traitor;" then suddenly rousing himself, as if from a troubled dream, and as if unable to believe so great a disaster, he turned fiercely on Caulincourt and Berthier and exclaimed: "Set off, Caulincourt; fly to the allied lines; penetrate to headquarters; you have full powers; FLY! FLY!" * It was with difficulty that Berthier and Caulincourt could persuade him that the capitulation had been concluded. Yielding at length to the irreversible stroke of fate, he turned back, joined his carriages, and hastened to Fontainebleau, where he arrived a little after sunrise.
    That was a gloomy day for him; and while he was pondering on his perilous position, endeavoring to pierce the night of misfortune that now enveloped him, Paris was shaking to the acclamation of the multitude, as the allied armies defiled through the streets. Caulincourt had been sent off to make terms with the victors, but nothing would do but Napoleon's abdication—and he was forced to resign. Then commenced the shameful desertion of his followers, which broke his great heart, and drove him in his anguish to attempt the destruction of his life. Among these feeble and false-hearted men was Berthier. Napoleon was a crownless, throneless man, without an army—without favor, or the gifts they bring—and Berthier had no longer any motive for attaching himself to him, except that of honor and noble affection—both of which he was entirely destitute of. Afraid to turn traitor before his benefactor's face, he asked permission to go to Paris on business, promising to return the next day. When he had left, Napoleon turned to the Duke of Bassano, and said—"He will not return." "What!" replied the Duke, "can Berthier take such a farewell?" "He will not return," calmly replied Napoleon. "He was born a courtier. In a few days you will see my Vice Constable begging an appointment from the Bourbons. It mortifies me to see men I have raised so high in the eyes of Europe, sink so low. What have they done with that halo of glory, through which men have been wont to contemplate them?" He was right; Berthier returned no more. Too mean to entertain or even act a noble sentiment—and yet with sufficient conscience to feel the glaring ingratitude and baseness of his treachery, and fearing to confront the man who had elevated him to honor, and heaped countless benefits on his head; he shrunk away like a thief, to kiss the foot of a Bourbon. A few daye after, he presented himself at the head of the Marshals before Louis XVIII., saying—"France having groaned for the last twenty-five years under the weight of the misfortunes which oppressed her, had looked forward to the happy day which now shines upon her." This infamous falsehood, crowning his base treason, ingratitude, and blasphemy was uttered within one week after he had sworn to Bonaparte he would never desert him, whatever adversity might befall him. When the Bourbon King made his public entry into Paris, Berthier was seen riding in front of the carriage in all the pomp of his new situation. But even the common people could not witness the disgrace this companion and private friend of Napoleon put on human nature, in silence. As he rode along, reproachful voices met his ear, saying, "Go to the island of Elba, Berthier! go to Elba!" There was his place. Honor, gratitude, affection, manhood—all called him there, but called in vain. A seat in the Chamber of Peers, and a command in the King's body-guard, were the price he received for covering himself with infamy in the sight of the world.
    But his baseness was doomed to receive another reward, for the next year Napoleon was again in France. As Louis withdrew to Ghent, Berthier wished to accompany him; but the King bad sufficient penetration to see that one who had deserted his greatest friend and benefactor in the hour of adversity, would not be slow to betray him; and hence intimated that he could dispense with his company. Trusted by no one, he retired to Bomberg, in his father-in-law's dominions. Here, on the 19th of May, 1816, he was seen leaning out of the window of his hotel, as the allies were defiling past, in their retreat from France. A moment after, his mangled body was lifted from the pavement, where it lay crushed and lifeless at the very feet of the Russian soldiers. Some say he was thrown out by the soldiers themselves; others, that he leaped purposely from the window to destroy himself. His death is surrounded in mystery; but the common belief is, that, Judas-like, stung with remorse and shame for his treachery, and finding himself deserted by his new master, and fearing the vengeance of his old one, he took this method of ending a life which had become burdensome, and added to all his other crimes that of suicide.
    But he need not have feared Bonaparte—he held him in too great contempt to make him an object of vengeance, and was beard to say, on his march to Paris "The only revenge I wish on this poor Berthier, would be to see him in his costume of captain of the body-guard of Louis." He knew that he would writhe under his smile of contempt, more than under the stroke of a lance.
    Berthier wrote a history of the expedition into Egypt, and, if he had survived Napoleon, would probably have given an account of his private life, which would have added much to the facts already collected.


* Vide Caulaincourt and Alison.  Return to paragraph text.


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