BATTLE OF MONTEBELLO.
But one of the most remarkable actions of his life, illustrating best the iron will and unsurpassed bravery of the man, was his battle with the Austrians at Montebello, which gave him the title of duke. Still leading the vanguard he had carried over the St. Bernard, he came upon the Po, and upon nearly eighteen thousand Austrians, admirably posted, with their right wing resting on the Apennines and their left reaching off into the plain; while the whole field was swept by batteries that lined the hillsides. When he beheld this strong array and discovered their position, he saw at once that he must retreat, or fight with no hope, except to maintain his ground till Victor, five or six miles in the rear, could come up. Independent of the superior position of the Austrian, they had between seventeen and eighteen thousand, while Lannes could muster only about eight thousand men, or less than half the number of his enemy. But his rear rested on the Po, and, fearing the effect of a retreat in such a disastrous position, he immediately resolved to hazard an attack. The cheerfulness with which his soldiers advanced to this unequal combat shows the wonderful power he wielded over them. They were not only ready to march on the enemy, but advanced to the charge with shouts of enthusiasm. There can scarcely be a more striking instance of valor than the behavior of Lannes on this occasion. There was no concealment of the danger, no chance of sudden surprise, and no waiting the effect of some other movement on which his own would depend. It was to be downright hard fighting, and he knew it—fighting, too, against hopeless odds for the first few hours. But all the heroic in him was aroused, and his chivalric bearing before his army inspired them with the highest ardor. Especially after the battle was fairly set, and it was necessary to make one man equal to three, he seemed endowed with the spirit of ten men. He was everywhere present, now heading a column in a charge, now rallying a shattered division, and now fighting desperately, hand to hand, with the enemy. Without waiting the attack of the Austrians, he formed his troops en echelon and advanced to the charge. Two battalions marched straight on the murderous artillery, which, stationed in the road, swept it as the cannon did the bridge of Lodi. The third battalion endeavored to carry the heights, while Watrin, with the remainder, marched full on the center. The battle at once became terrific. Before the furious onset of the French, the Austrians were driven back, and seemed about to break and fly, when a reserve of the Imperialists came up, and six fresh regiments were hurled on their exhausted ranks. The heights of Revetta had been carried, but the fresh onset was too heavy for the victorious troops, and they were driven in confusion down the hill. The center staggered back before the superior numbers and the heavy fire of the artillery; but still Lannes rallied them to another and another effort. Under one of the most destructive fires to which a division was perhaps ever exposed, he supported his men by almost superhuman efforts. Standing himself where the shot plowed up the ground in furrows about him, he not only coolly surveyed the danger, but by his commands and presence held his men for a long time in the very face of death. But it was impossible for any column, unless all composed of such men as Lannes, long to withstand such a fire; and they were on the point of turning and fleeing, when one of the divisions of Victor's corps arrived on the field and rushed with a shout into the combat. This restored for a time the fight. The Austrians were again repulsed, when, bringing up a fresh reserve, the French were forced to retire. Now advancing and now retreating, the two armies wavered to and fro, like mist when it first meets the rising blast. As division after division of Victor's corps came up, the French rallied, till at length, when they had all arrived, and the two armies stood twelve to eighteen thousand—the whole French force and the whole Austrian reserve in the field—the combat became dreadful. Though pressed by such superior numbers, and wasted by such commanding and hotly worked batteries, Lannes refused to yield one inch of the ensanguined field. It is said that his appearance in this battle was absolutely terrific. Besmeared with powder and blood and smoke, he rode from division to division, inspiring courage and daring in the exhausted ranks, rallying again and again the wasted columns to the charge, and holding them by his personal daring and reckless exposure of his life hour after hour to the murderous fire. General Rivaud, battling for the heights, and the brave Watrin, charging like fire on the center, cheered at every repulse by the calm, stern voice of Lannes, fought as Frenchmen had not fought before during the war. The moral power which one man may wield was never more visible than on this occasion. Lannes stood the rock of that battle-field, around which his men clung with a tenacity that nothing could shake. Had he fallen, in five minutes that battle would have been a rout. On his life hung victory, and yet it seemed not worth a hope in the steady fire through which he constantly galloped. From eleven in the morning till eight at night, for nine long hours, did he press with an army, first of six, then of twelve thousand, on one of eighteen thousand, without intermission or relief. It was one succession of onsets and repulses, till darkness began to gather over the scene. One-fourth of his army had sunk on the field where they fought. At length Rivaud, having carried the heights, came down like an avalanche on the center, while Watrin led his intrepid column for the last time on the artillery. Both were carried, and the Austrians were compelled to retreat. Bonaparte arrived just in time to see the battle won.* He rode up to Lannes, surrounded by the remnants of his guard, and found him drenched with blood, his sword dripping in his exhausted hand, his face blackened with powder and smoke-and his uniform looking more as if it had been dragged under the wheels of the artillery during the day than worn by a living man. But a smile of exultation passed over his features as he saw his commander gazing with pride and affection upon him, while the soldiers, weary and exhausted as they were, could not restrain their joy at the victory they had won.
Such was the terrible battle of Montebello; and Lannes in speaking of it afterward said in referring to the deadly fire of artillery before which he held his men with such unflinching firmness, "I could hear the bones crash in my division like hail-stones against the windows."† A more terrific description of the effect of cannon-shot on a close column of men could not be given. I have heard of single-handed sea-fights of frigate with frigate, where the firing was so close and hot that the combatants could hear the splitting of the timbers in the enemy's ship at every broadside, but never before heard of a battle where the bones could be heard breaking in the human body as cannon-balls smote through them. Yet no one would ever have thought of that expression had it not been suggested to him by what he actually heard. At all events, Lannes never fought a more desperate battle than this, and as evidence that Napoleon took the same view of it he gave him the title of Duke of Montebello, which his family bear with just pride to this day.
BATTLE OF MARENGO.
Bonaparte did not forget the great qualities of a commander he exhibited on this occasion, and ever afterward placed him in the post of danger. In the battle of Marengo, which took place a few days after, he performed prodigies of valor. Wandering over this renowned battle-field, Lannes was recalled to my mind at almost every step. The river Bormida crosses the plain between the little hamlet of Marengo, of some half a dozen houses, and Alessandria, where the Austrians lay encamped. Coming out from the city in the morning, and crossing the Bormida under a severe fire of the French, they deployed into the open field, and marched straight on Victor, posted just before Marengo. He had stationed himself behind a deep and muddy stream, resembling, indeed, in its banks and channel a narrow canal rather than a rivulet, and sustained the shock of the enemy with veteran firmness for two hours; but, overpowered by superior numbers, he was fast losing his strength when Lannes came up and restored the combat. There, divided only by this narrow ditch, across which the front ranks could almost touch bayonets, did the tiralleurs stand for two hours and fire into each other's bosoms, while the cannon, brought to within pistol-shot, opened horrible gaps in the dense ranks at every discharge, which were immediately filled with fresh victims. It did not seem possible, as I stood beside this narrow stream over which I could almost leap, that two armies had stood and fired into each other's faces hour after hour across it.
But I do not design to go into the particulars of this battle. Austrian numbers and the two hundred Austrian cannon were too much for Victor and Lannes both together. The little stream of Fontanone was carried, and these two heroes were compelled to fall back on the second line. This, after a desperate resistance, was also forced back. Victor's corps, exhausted by four hours' fighting, finally gave way, and broke and fled toward Lannes' division which alone was left to stay the reversed tide of battle. Seeing that all now rested on him, he put forth one of those prodigious efforts for which he was remarkable in the hour of extreme danger. Forming his men into squares, he began slowly to retreat. The Austrian army moved en masse upon him, while eighty pieces of cannon sent an incessant shower of round and grape shot through his dense ranks, mowing them down at every discharge like grass. Still he held the brave squares firm. Against the charge of cavalry, the onset of infantry, and the thunder of eighty cannon, he opposed the same adamantine front. When pressed too hard by the infantry, he would stop and charge bayonet, then commence again his slow and heroic retreat. Thus he fought for two hours, retreating only two miles in the whole time, leaving entire ranks of men on almost every foot of ground he traversed. But between the steady onset of the Hungarian infantry, which halted every ten rods and poured a deadly volley on his steady squares, and the headlong charge of the Imperial cavalry, sweeping in a fierce gallop around them, and the awful havoc of those eighty cannon, incessantly playing on the retreating masses, no human endurance could longer withstand the trial. Square after square broke and fled, and the field was covered with fugitives crying, "Tout est perdu, sauve qui peut." Still Lannes, unconquered to the last, kept those immediately about him unshaken amid the storm and devastation. Scorning to fly, unable to stand, he allowed his men to melt away before the destructive fire of the enemy, while the blowing up of his own caissons, which he could not bring away, added tenfold terror to the thunder of cannon that shook the field. He and the Consular Guard, also in square, moved like "living citadels" over the plain, and furnished a wall of iron behind which Bonaparte was yet to rally his scattered army and turn a defeat into a victory.
From early in the morning till three o'clock in the afternoon the battle had raged with ceaseless fury, and now the head of Desaix's column, with banners flying and trumpets sounding, was seen advancing with rapid step over the plain. Immediately at the commencement of the battle Bonaparte despatched his aids-de-camp with urgent haste for Desaix. But as the report of the first cannon fired on Marengo rose dull and heavy on the morning air the hero of Egypt stood and listened; and as he heard the distant and heavy cannonading like the roll of far-off thunder come booming over the plain he suspected the enemy he was after at Novi was on the plains of Marengo, and despatched Savary in haste to the former place to see. Finding his suspicions true, he immediately put his army in motion, and was miles on his way, when the dust of fierce riders in the distance told him he was wanted. Sending forward his aids-de-camp on the fleetest horses to announce his approach, he urged his excited army to the top of its speed. At length, as he approached the field and saw the French army in a broken mass rolling back, he could restrain his impatience no longer, and, dashing away from the head of his column, spurred his steed over the plain and burst in a fierce gallop into the presence of Napoleon. A short council of the generals was immediately held, when most advised a retreat. "What think you of it?" said Napoleon to Desaix. Pulling out his watch, he replied, "The battle is lost, but it is only three o'clock; there is time to gain another." Delighted with an answer corresponding so well with his own feelings, he ordered him to advance and with his 6,000 men hold the whole Austrian force in check, while he rallied the scattered army behind him. Riding among them he exclaimed, "Soldiers, you have retreated far enough; you know it is always my custom to sleep on the field of battle." The charge was immediately beat and the trumpets sounded along the lines. A masked battery of twelve cannon opened on the advancing column of the Austrians, and before they could recover their surprise Desaix was upon them in a desperate charge. "Go," said he to his aid-de-camp, "tell the First Consul I am charging and must be supported by the cavalry." A volley of musketry was poured in his advancing column, and Desaix fell pierced through the heart by a bullet. His fall, instead of disheartening his men, inspired them with redoubled fury, and they rushed on to avenge his death. Napoleon, spurring by where the hero lay in death, exclaimed, "It is not permitted me to weep now." No, every thought and feeling was needed to wring victory from that defeat. The battle again raged with its wonted fury. But the tide was turned by a sudden charge of Kellerman at the head of his cavalry, which, cutting down a column of two thousand men in two, made fearful havoc on the right and left. Soon the whole Austrian army were in full retreat, and, being without a commanding officer, broke and fled in wild confusion over the plain. "To the bridge! to the bridge!" rose in terrified shouts, as the turbulent mass rolled back toward the Bormida. Their own cavalry, also in full retreat, came thundering through the broken ranks and, trampling down the fugitives, added to the destruction that already desolated the field. All were hurrying to the bridge, which was soon choked by the crowds that sought a passage; and horses and riders and artillery and infantry were rolled together into the Bormida, that grew purple with the slain. Melas, the Austrian general, who at three o'clock, supposing the battle won, had retired to his tent, now rallied the remnants of his few hours before victorious but now overthrown army on the further shores of the river. Twelve thousand had disappeared from his ranks since the morning sun shone upon them, flushed with hope and confident of victory. The combat had lasted for twelve hours, and now the sun went down on the field of blood. Over the heaps of the slain and across the trampled field Savary, the aid-de-camp and friend of Desaix, was seen wandering in search of the fallen chief. He soon discovered him by his long, flowing hair (he had already been stripped naked by those after the spoils) and, carefully covering his body with the mantle of a hussar, had him brought to the headquarters of the army. Desaix saved Bonaparte from a ruinous defeat at Marengo, and saved him, too, by not waiting for orders, but moving immediately toward where the cannonading told him the fate of the army and Italy was sealing. Had Grouchy acted thus, or had Desaix been in his place at Waterloo, the fate of that battle and the world would have been different.
Lannes wrought wonders on this day, and was selected by Napoleon, in consideration of his service, to present to government the colors taken from the enemy. This calls to mind a scene which took place in Paris just before Bonaparte set out on the expedition. The news of Washington's death had just been received, and Bonaparte thus announced it to his army: "Washington is dead! That great man fought against tyranny; he consummated the independence of his country. His memory will be ever dear to the French people, as to all freemen of both worlds, and most of all to French soldiers, who, like him and the soldiers of America, are fighting for equality and freedom." Ten days' mourning were appointed and a solemn ceremony performed in the Church of the Invalides. Under the solemn dome Bonaparte assembled all the authorities of France and the officers of the army, and there, in their presence, Lannes presented to the government ninety-six colors, taken in Egypt. Berthier, then Minister of War, sitting between two soldiers, both a hundred years old, shaded by a thousand standards, the fruits of Bonaparte's victories, received them from the hand of Lannes, who pronounced a warlike speech as he presented them. The young Republic of France went into mourning for the Father of the American Republic, and this was the funeral ceremony.
Soon after this, Lannes was sent as an ambassador to Portugal, and, feeling too much the power Bonaparte and France wielded, treated with that independent nation as if its king and ministers had been subordinates in the army. He was better at the head of a column than in the cabinet, and got no honor to himself from his office as ambassador. This very bluntness and coarseness, which rendered,him fit only for the camp and the battle-field, and which indeed was the cause of his receiving this appointment, were sufficient reasons for his not having it. Being commander the Consular Guard, he administered its chest and disbursed the money intrusted to him with such prodigality and recklessness that there was a general complaint. It was done with the full knowledge and authority of Napoleon, yet he reproved him for it when the excitement became too great to be any longer disregarded. This exasperated Lannes so much that he indulged in the most abrupt language toward the First Consul, and resolved to replace the money that had been expended. But from all his victories he had little left, and Augereau was compelled to loan him the sum he needed, saying: "There, take this money; go to that ungrateful fellow for whom we have spilt our blood; give him back what is due to the chest, and let neither of us be any longer under obligations to him." But Napoleon could not afford to lose two of his best generals, and, thinking it was better to keep such turbulent spirits apart, sent Augereau to the army and Lannes as ambassador to Portugal.
Recalled to the army, he fought at Austerlitz, Jena, Eylau, and Friedland with his accustomed valor. In the campaign of Eylau, at the battle of Pultusk, he advanced with his corps of 35,000 men in the midst of driving snowsqualls and knee-deep in mud, up to the very muzzles of a hundred and twenty cannon.
In 1808 he was sent to join the army in Spain. In crossing the mountains near Mondragon he came very near losing his life. His horse stumbled and in the effort to rally fell back on him, crushing his body dreadfully by his weight. He who had stormed over so many battle-fields, and been hurled again and again from his seat amid trampling squadrons as his horse sunk under him, and yet escaped death, was here on a quiet march well-nigh deprived of his life.
The surgeon,—who had seen a similiar operation performed by the Indians in Newfoundland,—ordered a sheep to be skinned immediately, and the warm pelt sewed around the wounded marshal's body. His extremities in the mean time were wrapped in hot flannels and warm drinks were given him. In ten minutes he was asleep, and shortly after broke into a profuse perspiration, when the dangerous symptoms passed away. Five days after he led his columns into the battle at Tudela, and completely routed an army of forty thousand men.
SIEGE OF SARAGOSSA.
The next year he was appointed to take charge of the siege at Saragossa, which had been successively under the command of Moncey and Junot. The camp was filled with murmurs and complaints. For nearly a month they had environed the town in vain. Assault after assault had been made; and from the 2d of January, when Junot took the command, till the arrival of Lannes in the latter part of the month, every night had been distinguished by some bloody fights, and yet the city remained unconquered. Lannes paid no heed to the complaints and murmurs around him, but immediately, by the promptitude and energy of his actions, infused courage into the hearts of the desponding soldiery. The decision he was always wont to carry into battle was soon visible in the siege. The soldiers poured to the assault with firmer purpose and fought with more resolute courage. The apathy which had settled down on the army was dispelled. New life was given to every movement; and on the 27th, amid the tolling of the tower-bell, warning the people to the defense, a grand assault was made, and after a most sanguinary conflict the walls of the town were carried, and the French soldiers fortified themselves in the convent at St. Joseph.
Unyielding to the last, the brave Saragossans fought on; and, amid the pealing of the tocsin, rushed up to the very mouths of the cannon, and perished by hundreds and thousands in the streets of the city. Every house was a fortress, and around its walls were separate battle-fields where deeds of frantic valor were done. Day after day did these single-handed fights continue, while famine and pestilence walked the city at noonday and slew faster than the swords of the enemy. The dead lay piled up in every street, and on the thick heaps of the slain the living mounted and fought with the energy of despair for their homes and their liberty. In the midst of this incessant firing by night and by day, and hand-to-hand fights on the bodies of the slain, ever and anon a mine would explode, blowing the living and dead, friend and foe, together in the air. An awful silence would succeed for a moment, and then over the groans of the dying would ring again the rallying cry of the brave inhabitants. The streets ran torrents of blood, and the stench of putrefied bodies loaded the air. Thus for three weeks did the fight and butchery go on within the city walls, till the soldiers grew dispirited and ready to give up the hope of spoils if they could escape the ruin that encompassed them. Yet theirs was a comfortable lot to that of the besieged. Shut up in the cellars with the dead, pinched with famine, while the pestilence rioted without mercy and without resistance, they heard around them the incessant bursting of bombs and thunder of artillery and explosions of mines and crash of falling houses, till the city shook night and day as if within the grasp of an earthquake. Thousands fell daily, and the town was a mass of ruins. Yet unconquered, and apparently unconquerable, the inhabitants struggled on. Out of the dens they had made for themselves amid the ruins, and from the cellars where there were more dead than living, men would crawl to fight who looked more like specters than warriors. Women would man the guns, and, musket in hand, advance fearlessly to the charge; and hundreds thus fell, fighting for their homes and their firesides. Amid this of devastation, against this prolonged and almost hopeless struggle of weeks, against the pestilence that had appeared in his own army, and was mowing down his own troops, and, above all, against the increased murmurs and now open clamors of the soldiers, declaring that the siege must be abandoned till reinforcements could come up—Lannes remained unshaken arid untiring. The incessant roar and crash around him, the fetid air, the exhausting toil, the carnage, and the pestilence, could not change his iron will. He had decreed that Saragossa, which had heretofore baffled every attempt to take it, should fall. At length, by a vigorous attempt, he took the convent of St. Lazan in the suburbs of the town, and planted his artillery there, which soon levelled the city around it with the ground. To finish this work of destruction by one grand blow, he caused six mines to be run under the main street of the city, each of which was charged with three thousand pounds of powder. But before the time appointed for their explosion the town capitulated. The historians of this siege describe the appearance of the city and its inhabitants after the surrender as inconceivably horrible. With only a single wall between them and the enemy's trenches, they had endured a siege of nearly two months by 40,000 men, and continued to resist after famine and pestilence began to slay faster than the enemy. Thirty thousand cannon-balls and sixty thousand bombs had fallen in the city and fifty-four thousand of the inhabitants had perished. Six thousand only had fallen in combat, while forty-eight thousand had been the prey of the pestilence. After the town had capitulated but twelve thousand were found able to bear arms, and they looked more like specters issuing from the tombs than living warriors.
Saragossa was taken; but what a capture! As Lannes rode through the streets at the head of his victorious army he looked only on a heap of ruins, while six thousand bodies still lay unburied in his path. Sixteen thousand lay sick, while on the living famine had written more dreadful characters than death had traced on the fallen. Infants lay on the breasts of their dead mothers, striving in vain to draw life from the bosoms that never would throb again. Attenuated forms, with haggard faces and sunken eyes and cheeks, wandered around among the dead to search for their friends; corpses bloated with famine lay stretched across the threshold of their dwellings, and strong-limbed men went staggering over the pavements, weak from want of food or struck with the pestilence. Woe was in every street, and the silence in the dwellings was more eloquent than the loudest cries and groans. Death and famine and the pestilence had been there in every variety of form and suffering. But the divine form of Liberty had been there too, walking amid those mountains of corpses and ruins of homes, shedding her light through the subterranean apartments of the wretched and with her cheering voice animating the thrice-conquered, yet still unconquered, to another effort, and blessing the dying as they prayed for their beloved city.
But she was at last compelled to take her departure, and the bravest city of modern Europe sunk in bondage. Still her example lives, and shall live to the end of time, nerving the patriot to strike and suffer for his home and freedom, and teaching man everywhere how to die in defending the right. A wreath of glory surrounds the brow of Saragossa, fadeless as the memory of her brave defenders. Before their achievements—the moral grandeur of their firm struggle, and the depth and intensity of their sufferings—the bravery and perseverance of the French and Lannes sink into forgetfulness. Yet it was no ordinary task the latter had given him [sic], and it was by no ordinary means that he executed it. It required all the iron in his nature to overcome the obstacles that encompassed him on every side.
The renown which belongs to him from the manner in which he conducted this siege to its issue has been somewhat dimmed by the accusations English historians have brought against him. He is charged with having, three days after the siege, dragged the tutor and friend of Palafox from his bed-side, where he was relieving his wants and administering to him the consolations of religion, and bayoneting him and another innocent chaplain on the banks of the Ebro. He is charged, also, with levying a contribution of 50,000 pairs of shoes and 8,000 pairs of boots and medicines, etc., necessary for a hospital, on the beggared population. He is accused of rifling a church of jewels to the amount of 4,687,000 francs, and appropriating them all to himself; and, worst of all, of having ordered monks to be enveloped in sacks and thrown into the river, so that when their bodies were thrown ashore in the morning they would strike terror into others. He is also accused of violating the terms of capitulation by sending the sick Palafox, the commander-in-chief, a close prisoner to France, when he had promised to let him retire wherever he chose. These are Mr. Alison's allegations; but as Madame d'Abrantes is the only authority he gives, they are all to be doubted, at least in the way they are stated, while some of them carry their falsehood in their very inconsistency; and one hardly knows which to wonder at most, the short-sighted pique of Madame Junot (alias d'Abrantes) which could originate them, or the credulity or national prejudice of Mr. Alison which could endorse them.
Junot had been unsuccessful in conducting the siege, and had been superseded in the command by Lannes, who had won the admiration of Europe by his success. That Junot's wife should feel this was natural, and that her envy should cause her to believe any story that might meet her ear tending to disparage her husband's rival was womanlike. Besides, Junot received less of the spoils than he would have done had he been commander-in-chief. This also warped the fair historian's judgment—especially the loss of the jewels of our Lady of the Pillar, which she declares Lannes appropriated to himself. All this witis natural in her, but how Mr. Alison could suppose any one would believe that Lannes wreaked his entire vengeance against the city of Saragossa and its brave inhabitants by spearing two harmless priests on the banks of the Ebro is passing strange. He must find some other reason for the act before any one will believe it. But the accusation that hie drowned a few monks to frighten the rest is still more laughable. One would think that Lannes considered himself in danger from monkish conspiracies to resort to this desperate method of inspiring terror. If this story was to be believed at all, one would incline to think he did it for mere amusement, to while away the tedious hours in a deserted, ruined, famine-struck, and pestilence-struck city. To inspire a sepulcher and hospital with terror by drowning few monks was certainly a very original idea of his.
In the storming of Ratisbon Lannes exhibited one of those impulsive deeds which characterized him. Seeing a house leaning against the ramparts, he immediately ordered the artillery against it, which soon broke down the walls, and left them a sort of stepping-stones to the tops of the walls of the city. But such a destructive fire was kept up by the Austrians on the space between the French and it that they could not be induced to cross it. At length Lannes seized a scaling-ladder, and, rushing into and through the tempest of balls that swept every foot of the ground, planted it firmly against the ruined house and summoned his men to follow. Rushing through the fire, they rallied around him, scaled the walls, and poured into the city, and opened the gates to the army.
But now we come to the close of Lannes' career. He had passed through three hundred combats, and proved himself a hero in fifty-three pitched battles. Sometimes the storm swept over him, leaving him unscathed; sometimes, desperately wounded, he was borne from the field of his fame, but always rallied again to lead his host to victory. But his last battle-field was at hand, and one of the strongest pillars of Napoleon's throne was to fall amid clouds and darkness.
BATTLE OF ASPERN.
In the summer of 1809, after Vienna had fallen into his hands, Napoleon determined to pass the Danube and give the Archduke Charles battle on the farther shore. The Danube near Vienna flows in a wide stream, embracing many islands in its slow and majestic movement over the plain. Bonaparte resolved to pass it at two points at the same time, at Nussdorf, about a mile above Vienna, and against the island of Lobau, farther down the river. Lannes took charge of the upper pass and Massena of the lower—the two heroes of the coming battle of Aspern. Lannes failing in his attempt, the whole army was concentrated at Lobau. On the evening of the 19th of May Bonaparte surprised the Austrians on the island, and, taking possession of it and the other islands around it, had nothing to do but throw bridges from Lobau to the northern bank of the Danube in order to march his army over to the extended plains of Marchfield, that stretched away from the bank to the heights of Bisomberg, where lay the Archduke with a hundred thousand men. Through unwearied efforts Bonaparte was able to assemble on the farther shore, on the of the 21st, forty thousand soldiers. The Archduke saw, from the height he occupied, every movement of the French army, which seemed by its rashness and folly to be rushing into the very jaws of destruction.
It was a cloudless summer morning, and as the glorious sun came flashing over the hill-tops a forest of glittering bayonets sent back its beams. The grass and the flowers looked up smilingly to the blue heavens, unconscious of the carnage that was to end the day. Just as the sun had reached its meridian, the command to advance was heard along the heights, answered by shouts that shook the earth, and the roll of drums and thousands of trumpets, and wild choruses of the soldiers. While Bonaparte was still struggling to get his army over the bridge, and Lannes's corps was on the farther side, and Davoust in Vienna, the Austrian army of eighty thousand men came rolling down the mountain-side and over the plain like a resistless flood. Fourteen thousand cavalry accompanied this magnificent host, while nearly three hundred cannon came trundling with the sound of thunder over the ground. The army advanced in five massive columns, with a curtain of cavalry in front to conceal their movements and direction. Bonaparte looked with an unquiet eye on this advancing host, while his own army was still separated by the Danube. In a moment the field was in an uproar; Lannes, who had crossed, took possession of Essling, a little village that stood half a mile from the Danube, and Massena of Aspern, another village standing, at the same distance from the river, and a mile and a half from Essling. These two villages were the chief points of defense between which the French army was drawn up in line. Around these two villages, in which were entrenched these two renowned leaders, were to be the heat and strength of the battle. Three mighty columns were seen marching with firm and rapid steps toward Aspern, while toward Essling, where the brave Lannes lay, there seemed a countless host moving. Between thundered the two hundred and ninety pieces of cannon as they slowly advanced, enveloping the field in a cloud of smoke, blotting out the noonday sun, and sending death and havoc amid the French ranks. As night drew on the conflict became indescribably awful. Bursting shells, explosions of artillery, and volleys of musketry were mingled with shouts of victory and cries of terror, while over all, as if to drown all, was heard at intervals the braying of trumpets and strains of martial music. The villages in which Massena and Lannes maintained their ground with such unconquerable firmness took fire and burned with a red flame over the nightly battle-field, adding ten-fold horror to the work of death. But I do not intend to describe the first day's battle, as I shall refer to it again when speaking of Massena and Bessières, who fought with a desperation and unconquerable firmness that astonished even Napoleon.
At eleven o'clock at night the uproar of battle ceased, and through the slowly retiring cloud of war that rolled away towards the Danube the stars came out one by one to look on the dead and the dying. Groans and cries loaded the midnight blast, while the sleeping host lay almost in each other's embrace. Bonaparte, wrapped in his military cloak, lay stretched beside the Danube, not half a mile from the enemy's cannon. The sentinels could almost shake hands across the space that separated them; and thus the living and the dead slept together on the hard-fought field, while the silent cannon, loaded with death, were pointing over the slumbering hosts. Lulled by the Danube that rolled its turbulent flood by his side, and canopied by the stars, Napoleon rested his exhausted frame while he revolved the disastrous events of the day and pondered how he might redeem his error. Massena had lost most of Aspern, but Lannes still held Essling, and had held it during one of the most sanguinary struggles of that fiercely fought battle.
Early in the morning, as soon as the light broke over the eastern hills, the two armies were again on their feet, and the cannon opened anew on the walls of living men. The French troops were dispirited, for the previous day had been one of defeat, while the Austrians were full of hope. But the rest of Lannes's corps had crossed the Danube during the night, while Davoust, with nearly thirty thousand more, was marching with flying colors over the bridge. The Archduke had also received reinforcements, so that two armies of about a hundred thousand each stood ready to contest the field on the second day. At the commencement of the onset Lannes was driven for the first time from Essling; but St. Hilaire coming up to his aid, he rallied his defeated troops and led them back to the charge, retook the place, and held it, though artillery, infantry, and cavalry thundered upon it with shocks that threatened to sweep the village itself from the plain.
At length Bonaparte, tired of acting on the defensive, began to prepare for his great and decisive movement on the center. Massena was to hold Aspern, Davoust to march on Essling, while Lannes—the brave Lannes, who had fought with such courage and almost superhuman energy for two days—was ordered, with Oudinot, to force the center and cut the Austrian army in two. Bonaparte called him to his side, and from his station behind the lines which overlooked the field pointed out to him the course he wished him to take. Lannes spurred to his post, and when all was ready Napoleon came riding along the lines to animate the soldiers in the decisive onset that was about to be made. The shouts of "Vive l'Empereur!" with which they received him were heard above the roar of battle and fell with an ominous sound upon the Austrian lines. Apprised by the shouts where the Emperor was passing, they immediately turned their cannon in that direction, hoping by a chance shot to strike him down. General Monthier was killed by his side, but he passed unhurt through the fire. In a few minutes Lannes's terrible columns were on the march, and moved with rapid step over the field. Two hundred cannon were placed in front and advanced like a rapidly moving wall of fire over the cumbered ground. Behind was the cavalry—the irresistible horsemen that had swept so many battle-fields for Napoleon, and before the onset of which the best infantry of Europe had gone down.
The Imperial Guard formed the reserve. Thus arrayed and sustained, those steady columns entered the close fire of the Austrian batteries and the deadly volleys of the infantry. Lannes knew that the fate of the battle was placed in his hands, and that the eye of Napoleon was fixed with the deepest anxiety upon him. He felt the weight of Europe on his shoulders, and determined to sustain it. In front, clearing a path for his strong legions, went the artillery, rending the serried lines as though they had been threads of gossamer. Around the threatened point the whole interest of the battle gathered, and the most wasting and destructive fire opened on Lannes's steady ranks. But nothing could resist the weight and terror of their shock. Through and through the Austrian lines they went, with the strength of the inrolling tide of the sea. Into the wild battle-gorge thus made by their advance the cavalry plunged at headlong gallop, shaking their sabres above their heads, and sending their victorious shouts over the roar of the artillery. They dashed on the ranks with such fury that whole battalions broke and fled, crying "All is lost." Amid this confusion and dismay still advanced the firm column of Lannes. On, on it moved with the strength of fate itself, and Bonaparte saw with delight his favorite marshal wringing the crown from Germany and lacing it on his head. At length the enveloped hoist pierced to the reserve grenadiers of the Austrian army, and the last fatal blow seemed about to be given. In this dreadful crisis the Archduke showed the power and heroism of Napoleon himself. Seeing that all was lost without a desperate effort, and apparently not caring for his life if defeat must be endured, he spurred his steed among the shaking ranks, rallying them by his voice and bearing to the charge, and seizing the standard of Zach's corps, which was already yielding to the onset, charged at their head like a storm. His generals, roused by his example, dashed into the thickest of the fight, and at the head of their respective divisions fell like so many rocks upon the head of Lannes's column. Those brave officers, almost to a man, sunk before the fire that received them; but that dreadful column was checked for the first time in its advance, and stood like a living rock amid its foes. The Austrians were thown into squares, and stood in checkers on the field. Into the very heart of these Lannes had penetrated and stopped. The empire stopped with him, and Napoleon saw at once the peril of his chief. The brave cuirassiers that had broken the best infantry of the world were immediately ordered to the rescue. Shaking the ground over which they galloped—their glittering armor rattling as they came—they burst into the midst of the enemy and charged the now steady battalions with appalling fury. Round and round the firm squares they rode, spurring their steeds against the very points of the bayonets, but in vain. Not a square broke, not a battalion fled; and, charged in turn by the Austrian cavalry, they were compelled to fall back on their own infantry. Still Lannes stood amid the wreck and carnage of the battle-field around him. Unable to deploy so as to return the terrific fire that wasted him, and disdaining to fly, he let his ranks melt away beside him. Being in squares, the Austrians could fire to advantage, while Lannes could only return it from the edges of his column. Seeing that he dare not deploy his men, the Archduke advanced the cannon within five rods of them, and there played on the dense masses. Every discharge opened huge gaps, and men seenied like mist before the destructive storm. Still that shivering column stood as if rooted to the ground, while Lannes surveyed with a flashing eye the disastrous field from which he saw there was no relief. Amid this destruction, and in this crisis, the ammunition began to fail, and his own cannon were less hotly worked. Just then, too, the news began to fly over the field that the bridges over the Danube had been carried away by the heavy boats that had been floated down against them. Still Lannes disdained to fly, and seemed to resolve to perish in his footsteps. The brave marshal knew he could not win the battle; but he knew also he could die on the spot where he struggled for an empire. Bonaparte, as he looked over the disordered field from his position, saw at once that the battle was lost. Still in this dreadful crisis he showed no agitation or excitement. Calm and collected, as if on a mere review, he surveyed the ruin about him, and by his firm bearing steadied the soldiers and officers amid whom he moved. Seeing that no time was to be lost if he would save the remnant of his army—for the bridges were fast yielding to the swollen stream—he ordered a general retreat. Lannes and his army then began to retire over the field. In a moment the retreat became general, and the whole army rolled heavily toward the bridge that crossed to the island of Lobau. As they concentrated on the shore it became one mighty mass where not a shot could fall amiss.
The Archduke, wishing to turn this retreat into a total rout, immediately advanced with his whole army upon
them. His entire artillery was brought up and arranged in a semicircle around this dense mass crowding on to the bridges, and poured their concentrated storm into a perfect mountain of flesh. It seemed as if nothing could prevent an utter overthrow; but Lannes, cool and resolute as his Emperor, rallied his best men in the rear and covered the retreating and bleeding army. With Massena by his side, now steadying his troops by his words and actions, now charging like fire on the advancing lines, these two heroes saved the army from burial in the Danube.
Lannes never appeared to better advantage than on this occasion. His impetuosity was tempered by the most serious and thoughtful actions, and he seemed to feel the importance of the great mission with which he had been entrusted. At length, dismounting from his horse to escape the tempest of cannon-balls which swept down everything over the soldiers' heads, he was struck by a shot as he touched the ground, which carried away the whole of the right leg and the foot and ankle of the left. Placed on a litter, he was immediately carried over the bridge into the island, where Bonaparte was superintending some batteries with which to protect the passage. Seeing a litter approach him, Napoleon turned, and, lo! there lay the bleeding and dying Lannes. The fainting marshal seized him by the hand, and in a tremulous voice exclaimed: "Farewell, sire. Live for the world, but bestow a passing thought on one of your best friends, who in two hours will be no more."
The roar of battle was forgotten, and reckless alike of his defeat and the peril of his army, of all, save the dying friend by his side, Napoleon knelt over the rude couch and wept like a child. The lip that had seemed made of iron during the day now quivered with emotion, and the eye that had never blenched in the wildest of the battle now flowed with tears. The voice of affection spoke louder than the thunder of artillery, and the marble-hearted monarch wept. And well he might. For there before him, mangled and torn, lay the friend of his youth and the companion of his early career—he who charged by his side at Lodi and Arcola, saved his army at Montebello, and Italy at Marengo, who opened Ratisbon to his victorious army—nay, the right hand of his power—broken and fallen forever. "Lannes," said he, in his overpowering emotion, "do you not know me? It is the Emperor, it is Bonaparte, your friend; you will yet live." "I would that I might," replied the dying hero, "for you and my country, but in an hour I shall be no more." Soon after he fainted away, and then became delirious. He lingered thus for nine days, now charging in his frantic dreams at the head of his column, now calling wildly on the Emperor to come to him, and now raving about his cruel fate. He would not hear of death, and when told that he must die, that nothing could same him— "Not save a Marshal of France!" he exclaimed, "and a Duke of Montebello! Then the Emperor shall hang you." No, death spares neither marshals nor dukes, and the hero of so many combats had fought his last battle.
Lannes was prodigal of money, notwithstanding the attempt of Mr. Alison to make him covetous; frank even to bluntness, and unconscious of fear. In the midst of battle his penetrating eye detected every movement with precision. Napoleon himself says of him: "Lannes was wise, prudent, and withal bold; gifted with imperturbable sang froid in presence of the enemy." There was not a general in the French army that could maneuver thirty thousand infantry on the field of battle so well as he, and had he lived, he would have become as distinguished for his military skill as he was for his bravery. His intellect was developing rapidly, and Napoleon was astonished at the growth of his understanding. In a few years more he would have been one of the ablest generals of his time. The rashness of youth was rapidly giving way to the reflection of the man, and his character was forming on a solid and permanent basis. He was but forty years of age when he died. His soldiers loved him like children, and a poor officer never was forgotten by him. His wife, whom he married in poverty, and from the lower ranks of life, partook of his generosity and kindness.
The eldest son of Lannes, the present Duke of Montebello, married not many years ago in Paris a daughter of Charles Jenkinson, an English gentleman.