Napoleonic Literature
Napoleon and His Marshals - Vol. I
Chapter IV
MARSHAL DAVOUST


His Character— Battle of Auerstadt— Cavalry Action at Echmuhl [sic]— Retreat from Russia.

    IT is hard to form a correct opinion of such a man as Davoust. The obloquy that is thrown upon him, especially by English historians, has a tendency to destroy our sympathy for him at the outset and distort the medium through which we ever after contemplate him. Positive in all his acts, and naturally of a stern and fierce temperament, he did things in a way, and with a directness, and an abruptness, that indicated a harsh and unfeeling nature. But if we judge of men by their actions, and not also by the motive which prompted them, we shall be compelled to regard the Duke of Wellington as one of the most cruel of men. His whole political course in England—his steady opposition to all reform—his harsh treatment of the petitions of the poor and helpless, and heartless indifference to the cries of famishing thousands, argue the most callous and unpitying nature. But his actions—though causing so much suffering, and awakening so much indignation, that even his house was mobbed by his own countrymen, and his gray hairs narrowly escaped being trampled in the dust by an indignant populace—have all sprung from his education as a military man. Everything must bend to the established order of things, and the suffering of individuals is not to be taken into the account. The same is true of Davoust. Trained from his youth to the profession of arms, accustomed, even in his boyhood, to scenes of revolutionary violence, with all his moral feelings educated amid the uproar of battle or the corruptions of a camp, the life of the warrior was to him the true life of man. Success, victory, were the only objects he contemplated, making up his mind beforehand that suffering and death would attend the means employed. Hence his fearful ferocity in battle—the headlong fury with which he tore through  the ranks of the enemy, and the unscrupulous manner in which he made war support war. These were the natural results of his firm resolution to conquer, and of his military creed that "to the victors belong the spoils." He did nothing by halves, nor had he anything of the suaviter in modo, which glosses over so many rough deeds and conveys the impression they were done from necessity rather than desire.
    LOUIS-NICHOLAS DAVOUST was born at Annaux, in Burgundy, l0th of May, 1770, one year after Bonaparte. His family could lay claim to the title of noble, though, like many Italian cavaliers, who are too poor to own a horse, it was destitute of lands or houses. Young Davoust, being destined for the army, was sent to the military school of Brienne, where was also the charity boy, Bonaparte. At the age of fifteen he obtained a commission; but his fiery, impetuous nature soon involved him in difficulty with his superior officers, and it was taken from him. In the Revolution he became a fierce republican, and after the death of Louis was appointed over a battalion of volunteers, and was sent to join Doumourier, then commanding the army of the Republic on the Rhine. When Doumourier, disgusted with the increasing horrors of the Revolution endeavored to win the army over, to march against the Terrorists, the young Davoust used his utmost endeavors to steady the shaking fidelity of the troops. Doumourier was finally compelled to flee to the Austrians, almost alone; and Davoust, for his efforts and faithfulness, was promoted to the rank of brigadier-general, and during five years fought bravely on the banks of the Rhine and Moselle. When Bonaparte returned from Italy, where he had covered himself and the army with glory, Davoust sought to unite his fortunes with those of the young Corsican. He was consequently joined to the expedition to Egypt, and under the walls of Samanhout and Aboukir fought with a bravery that showed he was worthy of the place he had sought. He was not included with those selected by Bonaparte to accompany him to France, and did not return till the latter was proclaimed First Consul.
    Attaching himself still more closely to one whose fortunes were rising so rapidly, he was placed at the head of the grenadiers of the Consular Guard, and soon after, through the influence of Bonaparte, obtained the hand of the sister of General Le Clerc, a lady of captivating manners and rare beauty.
    The road to fame was now fairly open to the young soldier, and he pursued it with a boldness and energy that deserved success. In 1801 he was made Marshal of the Empire, and the next year found him at the head of a coprs [sic] of the Grand Army. Around Ulm, at Austerlitz, chief of all at Auerstadt, he performed prodigies of valor, and fixed forever his great reputation. At Eylau and Friedland he proved that honors were never more worthily bestowed than when placed on his head. For his bravery and success at Eckmuhl he received the title of Prince of Eckmuhl, and soon after, at Wagram, showed that Bonaparte never relied on him in vain.
    The three following years he spent in Poland, as governor of the country and commander of the French army there, and gave great offense to the inhabitants by the heavy contributions he laid upon them, and the unfeeling manner in which they were collected.
    In 1812 we find him at the head of the first corps of the Grand Army—the first to cross the Niemen and commence the splendid pageant of that memorable day. He crossed at one o'clock in the morning, and took possession of Kowno. Napoleon had his tent pitched on an eminence, a few rods from the bank, and there watched the movements of his magnificent legions. Two hundred thousand men, on that day, and forty thousand horses, in splendid array and full equipment, and most perfect order, slowly descended to the bridges, and to the stirring strains of martial music, and under the folds of a thousand fluttering banners, moved past the imperial station, rending the heavens with their shouts, while the saluting trumpets breathed forth their most triumphant strains. Throughout this disastrous campaign he fought with the heroism and firmness of Ney himself.
    The next year, after the Russian campaign, he made his headquarters in Hamburgh, and defended the city heroically against the Russians, Prussians, and Swedes combined. He held out long after Napoleon's abdication, resolutely refusing to surrender the place, until General Gerard arrived on the part of Louis XVIII. He then gave in his adhesion to the Bourbons, but was among the first to declare for the Emperor, on his return from Elba. After the overthrow at Waterloo, he took command of that portion of the army which still remained faithful to Napoleon, and retreated to Orleans, and did not give in his adhesion to the Bourbons until the Russians were marching against him.
    This brief outline of Davoust's career embraces the whole active life of Napoleon, and was filled up with the most stirring scenes, and marked by changes that amazed and shook the world. The rôle that he played in this mighty Napoleonic drama shows him to have been an extraordinary man, and furnishes another evidence of the penetration that characterized Bonaparte in the selection of his generals.
    The three striking characteristics of Davoust were great personal intrepidity and daring, perfect self-possession and coolness in the hour of peril, and almost invincible tenacity. With all these rare gifts, he was also a great general. In the skill with which he chose his ground, arranged his army, and determined on the point and moment of attack, he had few superiors in Europe. Rash in an onset, he was perfectly cool in repelling one. This combination of two such opposite qualities, so prominent in Napoleon, seemed to be characteristic of most of his generals, and was one great cause of their success.
    His personal daring became proverbial in the army, and whenever he was seen to direct a blow it was known that it would be the fiercest, heaviest one that could be given. His susceptibility of intense excitement carried him, in the hour of battle, above the thought of danger or death.

BATTLE OF AUERSTADT.

    One of the most successful battles he ever fought was that of Auerstadt, where he earned his title of duke. The year before, at Austerlitz, he had exhibited that coolness in sudden peril, and that unconquerable tenacity, which made him so strong an ally on a battle-field. The night before the battle of Jena, Napoleon slept on the heights of Landgrafenberg, whither he had led his army with incredible toil, and at four in the morning—it was an October morning—rode along the lines and addressed his soldiers in that stirring eloquence which he knew so well how to use. The dense fog that curtained in the dark and chilly morning lifted, and rent before the fierce acclamations that answered him, and with the first dawn his columns were upon the enemy. When the unclouded sun, at nine o'clock, broke through, and scattered the fog, it shone down on a wild battle-field, on which were heard the incessant thunder of artillery and rattle of musketry, interrupted, now and then, by the heavy shocks of cavalry and the shouts of maddened men. Napoleon was again victorious, and at six o'clock in the evening rode over the cumbered ground, while the setting sun shone on a different scene from that which its rising beams had gilded. But not at Jena was the great battle of the 14th of October fought, nor was Napoleon the hero of the day. Less than thirty miles distant—within hearing of his cannon, could he have paused to listen—Davoust was winning the victory for him, by prodigies of valor, to which the hard-fought battle of Jena was an easy affair. Napoleon imagined he had the King of Prussia, with his whole army, on the heights of Landgrafenberg—and they were behind them two days previous. With ninety thousand men, he supposed he was marching on over a hundred thousand, instead of on forty thousand, as the result proved. After several hours of hard fighting, the Prussians, it is true, were reinforced by twenty thousand under Ruchel, making sixty thousand against ninety thousand, with Napoleon at their head and Murat's splendid cavalry in reserve. At Auerstadt, matters were reversed. The King of Prussia, with nearly two-thirds of his army, had marched thither, and with sixty thousand men threatened to crush Davoust, with only thirty thousand. Napoleon, ignorant of this, sent a despatch to him, which he received at six o'clock in the morning, to march rapidly on, Apolda, in the rear of the army he was about to engage and defeat. If Bernadotte was with him, they were to march together; but as the former had received his orders before, and this seemed a permission rather than an order, he refused to accede to Davoust's request to join their armies. He took his own route, and but for the heroism and unconquerable firmness of the latter this act would have cost him his head.
    Davoust, with his thirty thousand troops, of which only four thousand were cavalry, pushed forward, not expecting to meet the enemy till toward evening. But a short distance in front of him, on the plateau of Auerstadt, that spread away from the steep ascent up which his army, fresh from their bivouacs, was toiling, lay the King of Prussia, with fifty thousand infantry, and ten thousand splendid cavalry, the whole commanded by the Duke of Brunswick. The fog that enveloped Napoleon on the heights, of Landgrafenberg, and covered the battle-field of Jena with darkness, curtained in, also, the heights of the Sonnenberg and the army of the King of Prussia. At eight in the morning the vanguard of Davoust came unexpectedly upon the enemy, also advancing. The dense and motionless fog so concealed everything that their bayonets almost crossed before they discovered each other. Even then, both supposing they had come on a single detachment only, sent forward a small force to clear the way, the Prussians to open the defile up which Davoust was struggling, and the French to do the same thing, so that they could continue their march.
    The upper end of this defile opened, as I remarked, on to the elevated plain of Auerstadt, far up the Sonnenberg mountains. Davoust sent on the brave and heroic Gudin, with his division, to clear it, and occupy the level space on the top, at all hazards. In a few minutes Gudin stood, in battle array, on the plateau, though entirely shut out from the enemy by the dense fog. Blucher, with nearly three thousand hussars, was ordered to ride over the plateau and sweep it of the enemy. The former part of the order he obeyed, and came dashing through the mist with his body of cavalry, when suddenly they found themselves on the bayonets' point, and the next moment shattered and rolled back by a murderous fire that seemed to open from the bowels of the earth. Rallying his men, however, to the charge, Blucher came galloping up to the French, now thrown into squares, and dashed, with his reckless valor, on their steady ranks. Finding, from the incessant roll of musketry, that Blucher was meeting with an obstinate resistance, the King of Prussia sent forward three divisions to sustain him. These, with Blucher's hussars, now came sweeping down on Gudin's single division, threatening to crush it with a single blow. One division against three, supported by twenty-five hundred cavalry, was fearful odds; but Gudin knew his defeat would ruin the army, now packed in the defile below, and, making desperate efforts to reach the plateau, presented a firm front to the enemy, and proved, by his heroic resistance, worthy to be under the illustrious chief that commanded him. Hitherto the combat had been carried on amid the thick fog that stubbornly clung to the heights, involving everything in obscurity, and only now and then lifted, like the folds of a curtain, as the artillery and musketry exploded in its bosom. At this dreadful crisis, however, it suddenly rolled over the mountain, and, parting in fragments, rode away on the morning breeze, while the unclouded sun flashed down on the immense Prussian host, drawn up in battle array. It was at this same hour the fog parted on the plains of Jena, and revealed to the astonished Prussians their overwhelming enemy rushing to the charge. There the sun shone on ninety thousand Frenchmen, moving down, with resistless power, on forty thousand Prussians, but here on sixty thousand Prussian s, enveloping thirty thousand Frenchmen. Nothing could be more startling than the sudden revelation which that morning sun made to Davoust; he expected to find only a few detachments before him, and lo! there stood a mighty army with the imposing front of battle. As his eye fell on the glittering ranks of infantry, and flashing helmets of the superb cavalry, it embraced at once the full peril of his position. It was enough to daunt the boldest heart, but fear and Davoust were utter strangers. He was not to reach Apolda that day, that was certain, and fortunate he might consider himself if he reached it at all in any other way than as a prisoner of war. The struggle before him was to be against desperate odds, one against two, while ten thousand cavalry stood in battle array—their formidable masses alone sufficient, apparently, to sweep his army from the field. Of Gudin's brave division of seven thousand men, which had fought, one against three, to maintain the plateau till his arrival, half had already fallen. The tremendous onsets of cavalry and infantry together on him could not be much longer withstood; but at this juncture the other divisions of the army appeared on the field, and with rapid step and in admirable order moved into the line of battle. The two armies were now fairly engaged. The mist had rolled away, as if hasting in affright from the scene of carnage, and under the unclouded sun there was no longer any room for deception. Davoust was fairly taken by surprise, and had on his hands an army double that of his own, while a retreat without a rout was impossible. With that coolness and self-possession which rendered him so remarkable in the midst of the conflict, he gave all his orders, and performed his evolutions, and conducted the charges, thus inspiring, by his very voice and bearing, the soldiers with confidence and courage. He rode through the lines, his brow knit with his stern resolve and with the weight that lay on his brave heart, and his clear, stern voice expressing by its very calmness the intensity of the excitement that mastered him. The next moment the plain fairly rocked and trembled under the headlong charge of the Prussian cavalry as they came pouring on the French infantry. The shock was terrific; but that splendid body of horse recoiled from the blow as if it had fallen against the face of a rock instead of living men. The French threw themselves into squares, and the front rank, kneeling, fringed with their glittering bayonets the entire formations, while the ranks behind poured an incessant volley on the charging squadrons. These would recoil, turn, and charge again, with unparalleled but vain bravery. Prince William, who led them on, disdaining to abandon the contest, again and again hurried them forward with an impetuosity and strength that threatened to bear down everything before them. Sometimes a square would bend and waver a moment like a line of fire when it meets the blast, but the next moment would spring to its place again, presenting the same girdle of steel in front and the same line of fire behind. Goaded to desperation and madness by the resistance he met with, and confident still of the power of his cavalry to break the infantry, he rallied his diminished troops for the last time and led them to the charge. These brave men rode steadily forward through the storm of grapeshot and bullets that swept their path, till they came to the very muzzles of the guns; but not a square broke, not a battalion yielded. Furious with disappointment they then rode round the squares, firing their pistols in the soldiers' faces, and spurring their steeds in wherever a man fell. But all this time a most murderous fire wasted them; for while they swept in rapid circles round each square a girdle of light followed them, and the fire of the musketry rolled around the living wall, enveloping it in smoke and strewing its base with the dead. At length Prince William himself was stretched on the field, where half his followers already lay bleeding, and the remainder withdrew.
    Davoust, feeling how everything wavered in the balance, multiplied himself with the perils that environed him. With no cavalry able to contend with that of the enemy, he was compelled to rely entirely on his infantry. The rapidity, coolness, and precision with which they performed their evolutions saved him from a ruinous defeat. Now he would suddenly throw a division into squares, as the splendid Prussian cavalry came thundering upon it, and, repelling the shock, unroll them into line to receive a charge of infantry, or throw them into close columns to charge in turn. The battle rested on his life; yet his personal presence at the points of danger was equally necessary to victory, and he seemed to forget he had a life to lose. He never appeared better than on this day. The intense action of his mind neutralized the strong excitement of his feelings which usually bore him into battle; and he rode through the driving storm with the stern purpose never to yield written on his calm, marble-like countenance in lines that could not be mistaken. He had imparted the same feelings to his followers, and the tenacity with which they disputed every inch of ground; and held firm their position against the united onsets of cavalry and infantry, astonished even their enemies.
    The heights of Sonnenberg never witnessed such a scene before, and the morning sun never looked down on a braver-fought battle. The mist of the morning had given place to the smoke of cannon and musketry that curtained in the armies; and the whole plateau was one blaze of light streaming through clouds of dust, with which the fierce cavalry had filled the air. Old Sonnenberg quivered on its base under the shock, and its rugged sides were streaked with wreaths of smoke that seemed rent by violence from the tortured war-cloud below. Amid this wild storm Davoust moved unscathed, his uniform riddled with balls and his guard incessantly falling around him. At length a shot struck his chapeau and bore it from his head among his followers. Prince William was down; the Duke of Brunswick had been borne mortally wounded from the fight, while scores of his own brave officers lay stretched on the field of their fame, yet still Davoust towered unhurt amid his ranks. At length Morand was ordered to carry the heights of Sonnenberg and plant the artillery there, so as to sweep the plateau below. This brave general put himself at the head of his columns, and with a firm step began to ascend the slope. The King of Prussia, perceiving at a glance how disastrous to him the conquest of this position would be, charged in person at the head of his troops. For a moment the battle wavered; but the next moment the heroic Morand was seen to move upward, and in a few minutes his artillery opened on the plain, carrying death and havoc through the Prussian ranks.
    The plateau was won, and Davoust master of the field. But, not satisfied with his success, he determined to complete the victory by carrying the heights of Eckartsberg, which protected the retreat of the enemy. The trumpets immediately sounded the charge, and the wearied Gudin pressed forward. But the King had already rallied his shattered troops behind a reserve of fifteen thousand men which had not yet been engaged. There, too, in security, the iron-souled Blucher rallied the remnants of his splendid cavalry. It was in this crisis Davoust showed himself the great commander, and fixed forever his military fame. This reserve, only a third less than his entire force, would have wrung the victory from almost any other hand than his. I do not believe there were three generals in the French army that would not have been defeated at this point,—there was not one in the allied armies. Here was an army of some twenty-four thousand men, wearied with a morning's march and a half-day's severe fighting, dragging its bleeding columns up to a perilous assault; while fifteen thousand troops, sustained by the new reformed cavalry and infantry, fell with the energy of despair upon it. Blucher stood eyeing the ranks, ready, the moment a column shook, to dash on it with his cavalry. The day so nobly battled for and won seemed at last about to be lost. Wearied troops against fresh ones, a division against a corps,—such was the relative strength of the armies. But Davoust gathered his energies for a last effort, and poured his wearied but resolute troops in such strength and terror on the enemy that they swept down everything in their passage, charged the artillerymen at their pieces, and wrenched their guns from their grasp, turned the cavalry in affright over the field, and carried the heights with shouts of victory that were echoed back from old Sonnenberg, as Morand, driving back the enemy that had just attacked him in his position, came driving down the slope, scattering like a wildwind everything before him. The Prussians were utterly defeated, and the tired Davoust paused amid the wreck of his army, and surveyed the bloody field that should stand as an everlasting monument of his deeds.
    That was a gloomy night for the Prussian King. Fleeing from the disastrous field, with his dishearted troops, he was soon crossed in his track by the fugitives from the equally disastrous plains of Jena. The wreck of Jena came driving on the wreck of Auerstadt, and the news of one overthrow was added to that of another, sending indescribable confusion and terror through the already broken ranks. Whole divisions disbanded at once. The artillerymen left their guns, the infantry their ammunition and baggage wagons; all order was lost, and nothing but a cloud of fugitives, of all that magnificent army that moved in such pomp to battle, was seen driven through the darkness. The King, himself well-nigh captured, struggled no longer for his army, but for his life.
    Such was the battle of Auerstadt, fought on the same day with that of Jena. For his heroic conduct Davoust was created Duke of Auerstadt, and, to honor him still more, Napoleon appointed him to enter first the Prussian capital—thus showing to the whole army his right to the precedence. Not satisfied with having done this, and also with mentioning him in terms of unqualified praise in his bulletin home, he, two weeks after, in reviewing his corps on the road to Frankfort, extolled the valor of the soldiers, and, calling the officers in a circle around him, addressed them in terms of respect and admiration, and expressed his sympathy for the losses they had sustained. Davoust stepped forward and replied, "Sire, the soldiers of the Third Corps will always be to you what the Tenth Legion was to Cæsar."* Brave words, which his after-conduct, and that of his corps, on many a hard-fought field, verified. This battle cost Davoust about eight thousand killed and wounded, among which were two hundred and seventy officers. The brave Gudin lost more than half of his whole division.
    In the campaign of Eylau, the same year, Davoust sustained the high reputation he had gained at Auerstadt. He commanded the advance guard on the route to Warsaw, and at the passage of the Ukra, at Pultusk and Golymin, fought with his accustomed bravery. But it was at the bloody combat of Eylau, he performed the greatest service for Napoleon, for he saved him from utter defeat. Twice that day was Napoleon rescued from ruin,—first, in the morning, by Murat's splendid charge of cavalry on the Russian center, after the destruction of Augereau's corps, and the repulse of Soult; and last, by the victory Davoust won over the left wing of the army, just before night closed over the scene of slaughter. The French left and center had been driven back—the Russians were far in advance of their position in the morning, and they only waited the approach of Lestocq on the right, to complete the victory. But the heroic corps that had won the battle of Auerstadt was there. Davoust had struggled since morning with invincible bravery; and Friant and Morand, who had covered themselves with glory at Auerstadt, here enacted over again their great deeds. The victory swung to and fro, from side to side, till at length the two lines approached within pistol-shot of each other, when the Russians gave way. The artillerymen were bayoneted at their guns, and, though reinforced and partially successful in turn, the mighty columns of Davoust poured over that part of the field like a resistless torrent. Huge columns of smoke rising from burning Serpallen, which he had set on fire in his passage, came riding the gale that swept along the Russian lines—heralded by the triumphal shouts of his conquering legions as they thundered over the field—and carried dismay to the astonished Russians. The left wing was forced back till it stood at right angles with the center; when the reserve was brought up, and the victorious Davoust, who had so suddenly brightened the threatening sky of Napoleon, was arrested in his career. At this critical moment Lestocq arrived on the field. He had but one hour before dark in which to recover these heavy losses. Instantly forming his men into three columns, he advanced on the nearest hamlet, Kuschnitten, which St. Hilaire had just carried, and where he had established himself, threatening seriously the Russian lines. Under a tremendous cannonade Lestocq stormed and retook it, and immediately forming his men into line advanced on Anklappen, where Davoust, with the other divisions of his corps, lay, right in rear of the Russian center, and which formed the limit of his onward movement. He had fought for eight dreadful hours, and at last wrung victory almost from defeat itself; and now, wearied and exhausted, could poorly withstand the assault of these fresh troops. He roused himself, however, for the last time, and that little hamlet and the wood adjoining became the theater of a most deadly combat. It was fighting over again the Prussian reserve at Auerstadt, save that now he was exhausted by eight instead of four hours' fighting. Still he put forth almost superhuman efforts to keep the advantage he had gained. He rushed into the thickest of the fight in person, cheered and rallied on his wearied troops for the twentieth time, calling on them by their former renown to brave resistance. "Here," said he, "is the spot where the brave should find a glorious death; the coward will perish in the deserts of Siberia." The brave fellows needed no fiery words to stimulate their courage. They joyfully followed their leaders to the charge, but in vain. Napoleon, in the distance, through the dim twilight, saw this little hamlet enveloped in a blaze of light as the army rushed upon it, and for a whole hour watched his brave marshal, wrapped in the fire of the enemy, struggling to win for him the victory. With grief he saw him at length forced out of the blazing ruins, and slowly retire with his bleeding army over the field. And now the night drew her curtain round the scene, darkness fell on the mighty hosts, the flash of musketry grew less and less frequent, the sullen cannon ceased their roar, and the bloody battle of Eylau was over. At midnight the Russians begin to retreat, and Bonaparte remained master of the field—thanks to the brave and fiery-hearted Davoust.

CAVALRY ACTION AT ECKMUHL.

    The battle of Eckmuhl, where he carried the title of Prince, was distinguished by one of the fiercest cavalry actions on record; and as described by Stuttenheim, Pelet, and others, must have been a magnificent spectacle.
    Lannes, who had recently arrived from Spain, took command of two of his divisions, and with two such leaders that renowned corps could not well fail of victory. Coming from Landshut, where he had been victorious the day before, Davoust and his brave troops ascended the slope whose summit looked down on the villages of Eckmuhl and Laichling. It was a spring noon, and that green valley lay smiling before them, as if fresh from the hand of its Creator. Embosomed in trees and gardens arid winding streams, it seemed too sacred to be trampled by the hoof of war. But though no clangor of trumpets broke its repose, and the trees shook their green tops in the passing breeze, and the meadows spread away like carpets from the banks of the streams, and here and there the quiet herds were cropping the fresh herbage or reclining under the cool shade, yet there was an ominous stillness in the fields. No husbandman was driving his plow, and no groups of peasants were seen going to their toil; but that bright valley seemed holding its breath in expectation of some fearful catastrophe. Banners were silently fluttering in the breeze, and in the openings of the woods glittered bayonets and helmets, for the Archduke Charles was there with his army, waiting the approach of the enemy. Napoleon gazed long and anxiously on the scene, and then issued his orders for the attack. Davoust came fiercely down on the left, while Lannes, with two divisions of the corps, assailed the village in front. In a moment all was uproar and confusion. The roar of artillery, the rolling fire of the infantry, and the heavy shock of cavalry, made that village tremble as if on the breast of a volcano. In a few minutes the shouts of Davoust's columns were heard over the noise of battle as they drove the enemy before them. His success and that of Lannes together had so completely turned the Archduke's left that he was compelled to order a retreat. The streets of Eckmuhl were piled with the dead, and the green meadows, plowed up by the artillery, were red with flowing blood.
    Napoleon then directed an advance of the whole line. The Archduke retired behind Eglofsheim, where he planted powerful batteries, curtained in front by twelve squadrons of heavy armed cuirassiers and a cloud of hussars. The French infantry, in hot pursuit, paused as they saw this living wall rise before them. Napoleon then ordered up his own cavalry to fall upon them. The hussars on both sides charged first, while the cuirassiers looked on. After witnessing charge after charge, leaving the victory in the hands of neither party, the Austrian cuirassiers put themselves in motion. The trumpets sounded the charge, thousands of helmets rose and fell at the blast; the plain shook with the muffled tread of the advancing host, and the next moment they burst with the sound of thunder on the French hussars, scattering them like pebbles from their feet, and, sweeping in one broad, resistless wave over the field, bore down with their terrible front on the French infantry. But there was a counterblast of trumpets, and before the startling echoes had died away Napoleon's resistless cuirassiers emerged into view. Spurring their steeds into a trot, and then into a headlong gallop, with their plumes and banners floating back in the breeze, they swept forward to the shock. The spectacle was sublime, and each army held its breath in awe as these warlike hosts went rushing on each other. Their dark masses looked like two thunder-clouds riding opposite hurricanes and meeting in mid-heaven. The clouds of dust rolling around their horses' feet—the long lines of flashing helmets above—and the forest of shaking sabres over all, gave them a most terrible aspect as they swept onward. The shock in the center shook the field; and the two armies ceased their firing to witness the issue. The cannoneer leaned on his gun, and the soldier stooped over his musket, absorbed in the spectacle; while in the first rude meeting horses and riders, by scores and hundreds, rolled on the plain. Then commenced one of those fierce hand-to-hand fights so seldom witnessed between cavalry. In the first heavy shock one body or the other gives way, and a few minutes decide which is the successful charge. But here it was like two waves of equal strength and volume and velocity meeting in full career, and cresting and foaming over each other as they struggle for the mastery. The sudden silence that fell over the field as the two armies ceased firing added to the terror of the scene. The sight was new, even to those veteran troops. They were accustomed to the tumult and uproar of battle, where the thunder of cannon and rattle of musketry and shock of cavalry are mingled in wild confusion. But here there was nothing heard but the clear ringing of steel, save when the trumpets gave their blast.
    It was not the noise of a battle-field, but that of ten thousand anvils ringing under the fierce strokes of the hammer. The sun went down on the struggle, and his farewell rays glanced over swaying helmets and countless sabres crossing each other like lightning in the air. Twilight deepened over the field, and then it was one broad gleam of light above the struggling hosts, as the fire flew beneath their rapid strokes. The stars came out upon the sky, but their rays were dimmed by the dazzling sparks as sword crossed sword or glanced from steel armor—and at length the quiet moon came sailing in beauty up the heavens and shed her reproving light on the strife. But nothing could arrest the enraged combatants. Fighting in the light of their own flashing steel, they saw neither moon nor stars.
    At length the ringing strokes grew fainter and fainter, and that dark mass, canopied with fire of its own making, seemed to waver to and fro in the gloom; and then the heavy tramp of rushing steeds was heard. The Austrians, after leaving two-thirds of their entire number stretched on the plain, broke and fled, and horses and riders lay piled together in heaps on the rent and trodden plain.
    The next day the victorious army was at the gates of Ratisbon.
    The three following years Davoust spent in Poland as commander-in-chief of the forces and governor of the country. His conduct here, and, after the campaign of Russia, at Hamburg, has given rise to severe accusations against him. It has been characterized as "ruthless and oppressive." The Abbé de Pradt declared that he "filled all Poland with dread, and brought much disgrace on the French name." To acquire such a reputation from an ally like Poland goes far to prove that his character as a general was sullied by his conduct as a governor. But the character an enemy may give of their conqueror, especially if he is forced to levy heavy contributions, and create distress among the inhabitants in order to support his army, must be taken with many grains of allowance. Thus, the title of the "Hamburg Robespierre," which the citizens of Hamburg gave him while he held the city against the combined attacks of the allies, may or may not be just. Their assertion is of no consequence one way or the other. If many poor families were turned out to starve, and the hospitals seized for his own sick und wounded, and women were forced to work at the fortifications, and ruinous contributions were levied, and much distress produced, as is asserted, they do not prove the epithet given him to be merited. The whole question turns on the fact whether these things were necessary for the defense of the place and the salvation of the army. The famine and pestilence and death which a besieged army usually brings on the inhabitants would, by this mode of reasoning, stamp every commander of a city as a monster unless he surrendered without resistance. There is no proof that Davoust did anything that his perilous position did not render necessary. He defended himself against a united army, and exhibited that tenacity of purpose and power of will over the most discouraging obstacles which rendered him illustrious.
    His exactions in Poland were not for his personal benefit, but for the maintenance of his troops, and it is unjust to stamp a commander as cruel because his situation calls for severe measures. Contributions levied for personal aggrandizement, and suffering inflicted from personal revenge or hatred, leave the author of them without excuse; but the same results caused by an effort to save the army may be justifiable on the strictest rules of war. Napoleon, both in is memoirs and at St. Helena, does not corroborate the statements of English historians respecting Davoust. In speaking of the defense of Hamburg he says that Davoust was a name abhorred by the inhabitants, but adds, "When a general receives the defense of the city, with orders to maintain it at all hazards, it is not easy for him to receive the approbation of the inhabitants"; and at St. Helena, where he had no motive to disguise the truth, he said: "I do not think him a bad character. He never plundered for himself. He certainly levied contributions, but they were for the army. It is necessary for an army, especially when besieged, to provide for itself."
    In the campaign of Russia Davoust distinguished himself and his corps in almost every great battle. He fought bravely at Valentina, and his corps suffered severely. But, alas! Gudin at the head of his immortal division, with which he commenced the battle of Auerstadt, was here, while heading a charge, struck by a cannon-ball and borne dead from the field. The next morning this division showed the marks of the fierce encounter they had sustained. As Napoleon rode past it, he saw nothing but skeletons of regiments left in it. The wearied soldiers, black with the smoke of battle, stood leaning on their bent bayonets, twisted in the fierce shock of the day before, while the field around them exhibited a perfect wreck of overthrown trees, shattered wagons, dead horses, and mangled men. He was so deeply impressed with the scene that he remarked "With such men you could conquer the world."
    Davoust opened the "battle of the giants" at Borodino. As he moved over the field with his dense masses toward the flame of the batteries, his horse, mortally wounded, fell under him, and he himself received a blow which for a while rendered him unable to command his troops. Recovering, however, he rushed in the thickest of the fight just as Ney hurled his corps on the center. These two illustrious chiefs united their armies and fought side by side in that desperate, unparalleled struggle for the heights of Semonowskie.
    Previous to this, Davoust and Murat had a quarrel which well-nigh ended in a fight. Commanding the advance guard together, they could not agree on the measures to be adopted. The headlong rashness of Murat seemed downright madness to the methodical mind of Davoust, and the latter became insubordinate under the command of the former. Thus, in approaching Wiasma, the cavalry of the two armies became engaged, and Murat, wishing to support his own with the infantry, put himself at the head of one of Davoust's divisions, and was about to make a charge when the latter stepped forth and forbade his men to march, declaring that the movement was rash and perilous. Murat appealed to the gallantry of the soldiers, and endeavored to lead them on, but the authority of Davoust prevailed. After the battle was over, the "preux chevalier" shut himself up in his tent and gave way to a violent fit of rage, declaring that Davoust had insulted him, and he would wipe out the affront with his sword. He was just starting to go and attack him when Belliard prevented him by pointing out the consequence to his friends and the army. He was persuaded to pocket the insult, though in the effort to do it tears started to his eyes, and the fearless warrior wept that he could not avenge himself.
    But through all this campaign Davoust was a host in himself. When the retreat from Moscow commenced he was appointed to command the rear-guard, which post he held till his corps was almost annihilated, and then he joined the Emperor.
    In the battle of Krasnoi, which Napoleon fought in order to save Davoust, whom the Russians threatened to cut off, the marshal was so hard pressed that he lost his baton and a great part of his corps. Napoleon was at Krasnoi, and Davoust, struggling up from Smolensko, enveloped in the enemy. Hearing of his marshal's peril, he drew his sword, saying, "I have long enough acted the emperor; now is the moment to become the general again," and marched on foot toward Smolensko. He soon descried Davoust coming up, but it was a sight enough to appal the stoutest heart. He was moving slowly forward, perfectly enveloped in Cossacks, that formed a dense moving mass of which he and his devoted followers were the center. Added to this, the French marshal, in his great efforts to join Napoleon, was marching straight on a superior force of the Russians. He saved but the skeleton of his corps.
    But, though no longer commanding the rear-guard, he still kept halting resolutely in every defile and giving battle to the enemy, disputing, with his accustomed bravery, every spot of ground on which a defence could be made. It was there he showed the advantage of that stern military discipline which had so often brought on him the charge of cruelty. He and Ney alone, of all the marshals, were able to preserve order among their troops. Through the dreary wilderness, plunging on amid the untrodden snow, without provision or fuel, stumbling over the fallen ranks of their comrades, and pressed by a victorious enemy, the French soldiers gave way to despair, and flung away their arms and lay down to die. Amid these trying circumstances Davoust exhibited his great qualities. Giving way to no discouragement, disheartened by no reverses, he moved amid the wreck around him like one above the strokes of misfortune. To arrest this disorder among his troops, he caused every soldier that flung away his arms to be stripped by his companions and insulted, and thus made despair fight despair. He arrived at Orcha with only four thousand out of the seventy thousand with which he started. He had lost everything belonging to himself, endured cold, hunger, and fatigue without a murmur, and entered Orcha with the fragments of his army, on foot, pale, haggard, and wasted with famine. He had not even a shirt to put on his back, and a handkerchief was given him to wipe his face, which was covered with frost. A loaf of bread was offered him, which he devoured with the eagerness of a starving man, and then sat down exclaiming, "None but men of iron frames can support such hardships; it is physically impossible to resist them; and there are limits to human strength, the farthest of which have been endured."
    Segur relates an anecdote of him, when called from the wreck of the army to Paris, which was worthy of Murat. Passing through a small town with only two others, where the Russians were daily expected, their appearance enraged the already exasperated populace, and they began to press with murmurs and execrations around his carriage. At length some of the most violent attempted to unharness the horses, when Davoust rushed among them, seized the ringleader, and, dragging him along, bade his servants fasten him behind his carriage. The boldness of the action perfectly stunned the mob, and without a show of resistance they immediately opened a passage for the carriage and let it move untouched through their midst, with its prisoner lashed on behind.
    Of his after-career I have already spoken. When Bonaparte returned from Elba, Davoust, among the first to welcome him, was made Minister of War. He is accused of having treated the fallen Napoleon, after his second overthrow, like a man destitute alike of honor and shame. But there is no proof he ever uttered the language put into his mouth, and he held on firmly to the last. He finally gave in his adherence, though not in the most manly or heroic style, and returned to his country-seat. The next year, however, he obtained permission to reside in Paris, and three years after, 1819, he was given a seat in the Chamber of Peers. He lived but four years after this, and died in June, 1823, of a pulmonary affection. His son succeeded to his wealth and his peerage.



* Mr. Alison, in giving an account of this battle, with his accustomed readiness to accuse Napoleon of falsehood and meanness, and equal readiness himself to falsify, says: "Napoleon's official account of the battle of Jena, in the fourth bulletin of the campaign (it was the fifth bulletin), is characterized by that extraordinary intermixture of truth and falsehood, and unceasing jealousy of any general who appeared to interfere with his reputation, which, in one who could so well afford to be generous in that particular, is a meanness in an especial manner reprehensible." And further on he quotes the bulletin itself, commencing thus: "On our right the corps of Marshal Davoust performed prodigies. Not only did he keep in check, but maintain a running fight for three leagues with the bulk of the enemy's troops, etc., etc." Now, if Napoleon said this, he uttered a downright falsehood, as great as the one Mr. Alison has himself uttered. But by what authority he presumes to translates [sic] "Mais mena battant pendant plus de trois lieues," "Maintained a running fight," one would be puzzled to determine; and the French scholar will transfer to him the charges he prefers against Napoleon. And instead of treating him with neglect, he, in this hasty, short bulletin, places Davoust far above all his other marshals in the praise he bestows, while he practically goes still further, making him Duke of Auerstadt—conferring on him the honor of leading his brave corps first into Berlin, and afterwards selecting him and his officers out to receive his special approbation in sight of the army. Davoust did not complain, and this heaping of honor upon honor did not look like "jealousy and meanness."  Return to paragraph text.


(If you surfed directly to this page, please go to the Napoleonic Literature Home Page to see the wealth of information that's available on this website.)