Napoleonic Literature
Napoleon and His Marshals - Vol. II
Chapter XII
MARSHAL LEFEBVRE


His Early Life— Character— Siege and Capture of Dantzick— Campaign in the Tyrol— Bloody Combat in an Alpine Gorge— His Death— Ignorance of his Wife— Her Generosity.


    IT was not my intention to speak of those four Marshals whose appointments were designed as honorary by Napoleon, but Lefebvre continued in active life to the close of the war, and hence belongs to the history of the Empire. Old age did not drive him into repose, and he battled bravely for freedom and for France till Paris capitulated. Though nearly fifty years of age when created Marshal, having fought for the republic on the Rhine and in Germany, he did not retire on his honors, but followed Napoleon through his wonderful career, and though verging on sixty, survived even the terrible Russian campaign.
    FRANÇOIS JOSEPH LEFEBVRE was born at Ruffach, in the department of the Upper Rhine, Oct. 25th, 1755. His parents were poor, ignorant, and belonged to the humblest rank of citizens. They were unable to give their son even a common education, but they instilled in his mind principles of honesty and incorruptible integrity, from which he never departed. A youth of eighteen, he enlisted as a private in the Guards, but did not reach even the rank of a sergeant till thirty-three years of age. At thirty-seven he found himself captain of the Light Infantry, and in the midst of the French Revolution. He was in Paris during those terrible scenes, amid which the Bourbon throne went down, and though a good republican, was twice was twice wounded in endeavoring to shield the king from popular violence.
    In 1793, war being declared, Lefebvre's promotion became rapid, for in a few months he went up to adjutant-general, general of brigade, and general of division. Under the first republican generals, Hoche, Jourdan, Moreau, and Pichegru, he fought with a bravery that showed him worthy of his command. At the terrible battle of Fleurns he covered his division with glory, and at Stockach, where one of the fiercest actions that had occurred during the war took place, he proved himself worthy to fight beside St. Cyr and Soult, who that day performed prodigies of valor. Amid the most wasting fire, he, with eight thousand men, withstood, hour after hour, the shock of thirty thousand Austrians, holding his men by his example and personal exposure to the shock as if the had been walls of iron, until at length he was borne severely wounded from the field. Fighting for liberty and his country, he continued his career of glory till Napoleon's return from Egypt; and on the 18th Brumaire helped to place him in the Consular seat. He commanded the guards of the Ancients and Council of Five Hundred, and was supposed to be in favor of the Directory, and he undoubtedly was. But it was of the utmost importance to Napoleon that the commander of the guards of the Legislative bodies should operate with him in his bold attempt to overthrow the government, and so the night before, at midnight, he sent an aide-de-camp to Lefebvre, requesting the latter to call on him at six o'clock in the morning. In the morning early all was in commotion. The cavalry went pouring along the streets, and distinguished generals were seen hastening, in full uniform to the RUE CHAUTEREINE. Lefebvre, as he was passing along, in compliance with Bonaparte's invitation, was surprised to find his troops in motion without his orders, and asked Colonel Sebastiani what it meant. Without answering him, the latter told him to go to Bonaparte. The old veteran marched into the presence of the general-in-chief with a cloud on his brow, but the latter turning to him, said, "Well, Lefebvre; you, one of the pillars of the republic, will you suffer it to perish in the hands of these lawyers? Join me and assist me to save it." As he was about to depart, Napoleon stopped him, and offering him a beautiful sword, said, "Here is a sabre which I wore at the Pyramids; I give it to you as a token of my esteem and confidence." "Yes," replied Lefebvre, now fairly brought over by the confidence and generosity of Napoleon, "let us throw the lawyers into the river." During all that stormy day and the next he was faithful to his new master.
    In 1804 he was made Marshal of the Empire, and went through the campaigns of 1805 and '6 with honor, and fought on foot at the head of the Guards at Jena. In 1807 he invested Dantzick and took it, and in 1808 was placed over the fourth corps of the army in Spain. He fought and won the battle of Durango, but though he gained the victory, his conduct displeased Napoleon, as it opened the campaign before his Plans were all matured. In 1809 be is found bravely fighting at Landshut, and Eckmuhl, and Wagram, and soon after struggling heroically amid the mountain passes of the Tyrol. He commanded the Old Guard in the Russian campaign, and though approaching his threescore years, bravely met the wintry storm, and cold, and with the remnant of his devoted followers closed sternly around the Emperor, stemming the tide to the last. In the campaigns that followed, the old veteran, still unsubdued, marched at the head of his columns, and in the last struggle of Napoleon for his Empire defended the soil of his native land inch by inch, and led his children (as he was wont to call his soldiers) into the battle at Montmirail, Arcis-sur-Aube, and Champ Aubert. Wherever the soldiers saw those gray locks streaming they would follow, if into certain death. In almost the last battle he ever fought he had a horse shot under him.
    After Napoleon's abdication, Louis made him Peer of France and a Knight of St. Louis. When the Emperor returned from Elba, Lefebvre gave in his adhesion, and accepted a seat in the Chamber of Peers. He remained inactive, however, during the short struggle that followed. At the second restoration be was deprived of his honors and rank for a while, but the next year he received again his Marshal's truncheon, and three years afterward his seat in the Chamber of Peers. This was in 1819, and, on the occasion of his taking his seat, Marshal Suchet pronounced a eulogium on the brave old soldier, now sixty-four years of age.
    Lefebvre was one of those few characters that circumstances never change. Simple in his manners, rank and honors brought no extravagance in dress or appearance. Honest and frugal in his youth, he never practiced extortion when in power, or retained the wealth that fortune flung into his hands. Of incorruptible integrity, no temptations could shake his truth, or provoke an ignoble action. Generous to a fault, he was weak only when his gratitude or affection were assailed. Born in poverty, and of humble parentage, he passed through the horrors of the Revolution, the corruptions of the camp, and a long military life, and finally became Duke of Dantzic and Marshal of the Empire, without losing any of his simplicity of character or love of virtue. A child of nature, he was never ashamed of his parentage. He owed nothing to education, but all to himself. He had not the genius of many of the other marshals, but he possessed in its place a well-balanced mind and strong common sense. He affected neither sumptuousness of living nor brilliancy of style. There was the same simplicity and naïveté in his language when Marshal of the Empire, as when a private in the Guards. He seemed utterly unconscious of the petty ambitions and rivalries that disturbed the happiness of others, and moved straight forward in the path of duty, without any concern for himself. His disinterestedness was proverbial, and the needy never left his door empty-handed. The tear of a poor soldier moved him more than the baubles of rank or fame; and it is the greatest eulogium that can be passed upon him when it is said that, amid all the changes, and turbulent scenes, and temptations he passed through, he never lost his heart. His soldiers worshipped him, and no wonder. Not one of them ever asked his help in vain, and his fatherly treatment of all bound him to them with cords of iron. In the latter part of his career, they were more anxious for his life in battle than for their own, and whenever a desperate charge was to be made, they besought him to retire.
    In early life he married a servant girl, similar in character to himself. Honest, affectionate, disinterested, truthful, and simple, she never changed with her change of rank, and was as plain-spoken and good-hearted when duchess as when a servant girl. Like her husband, she appreciated excellence of character alone, and seemed utterly unconscious that rank gave any claim to respect. Lefebvre loved her to the last, and cared no more than she for the jokes her ignorance of etiquette and good language gave rise to in the gay circles of Paris.
    Lefebvre was bravery itself. The most impulsive man in the army would not face death with more composure than he. Through the blaze of artillery, the close fire of musketry, and on the point of the bayonet, he would move with unflinching firmness. He could not carry his soldiers so far as a more impetuous man would have done, but he would hold them in their place as long. Still, when thoroughly aroused, he was a terrible man in battle, and moved amid its chaos and carnage with fearful energy and strength. He was also an excellent tactician on the field, and would bring his men into position with admirable order. His coolness was not so much the steadiness of a determined man as the composure of one perfectly unconscious of surrounding danger. This gave to his manner a quietness in executing a dangerous movement, or making a desperate assault, that robbed it, in the view of the soldier, of half of its power to injure. This peculiarity increased with years. He was more impetuous in youth, but age and long familiarity with danger made a battle like a common occurrence to him, and he viewed it apparently with as much sang froid as he would an ordinary review.
    He loved his country with devotion, and those who see nothing but fierce fighters in Napoleon's marshals, would do well to take a lesson of patriotism and disinterestedness from Lefebvre. Though giving his youth, manhood, and old age, all to the service of France, be was so poor that be could not send his son to college.
    After the peace of 1799, he was without the means of subsistence, and wrote thus to the Directory:—"The  definitive conclusion of peace enables the country to dispense with my services. I beg you to grant me a pension, that I may live in comfort. I want neither carriage nor horses, I wish only for bread. You know my services as well as I do. I shall not reckon up my victories, and I have no defeats to count." Noble man! after pouring out his blood like water for his country, the only return he asked was simply bread.
    But, during Bonaparte's career, he exhibited nowhere, perhaps, his great qualities as a commander, and the steadiness with which he prosecuted his plans, amid the most discouraging circumstances, than in the

SIEGE OF DANTZIC.

    Before the battle of Eylau, Lefebvre had made some progress towards reducing this town, but that great conflict had suspended for awhile his operations. But after the battle he was again sent to invest it with twenty-seven thousand soldiers, of whom but twenty thousand were effective troops.
    Dantzic, which, in the last unholy partition of Poland, had been given to Prussia, was an important place, not only as a fortress into which the enemy could at any time throw a large army, but situated as it was at the mouth of the Vistula, was the great commercial dépôt of all Poland. At the time Lefebvre invested it, it was surrounded by a firm rampart and a deep ditch filled with water, strong palisades, and all the outworks necessary for its defence. Added to all this, the ground around was marshy and soft, impeding all the operations of a besieging army, while the inhabitants, by opening the sluices of the Vistula, could at any time deluge two-thirds of the entire flat that surrounded the city with water, till the walls of the town became a mere island in a lake several miles broad. Seventeen thousand Russian and Prussian soldiers garrisoned the place, who, with the armed inhabitants, could present double the force Lefebvre could bring to the assault. To complete this formidable defence, nine hundred cannon stood ready to open their thunder on the daring enemy that should presume to approach the ramparts.
    From this statement it will be seen that it was no ordinary task Lefebvre had given him; and it was no ordinary energy and skill he brought to its fulfillment. He sat down before the city the middle of February, and marched his victorious army into it the latter part of May. For more than three months he struggled against the most overwhelming obstacles, and exhibited bravery and greatness him of resource, which stamp him the great general.
    After a fierce combat, he declared the narrow strip of land called the Peninsula of Nehrung, and completed the investment of the town on one side. The siege was fairly commenced by an attack on the fort of Hagelsberg, which stood on a little eminence outside the walls. Its elevation prevented it from being inundated, so that approaches to it could be made. After several weeks' incessant toil, and amid desperate sorties from the garrison, the second parallel was finished, and nearly sixty cannon and mortars together opened their fire within twenty-two rods of the wall. This tremendous battery, as if on purpose to add terror to the scene, commenced its thunder at night. Night and day the earth groaned under its heavy and constant explosions, while the cannon of the besieged answered it till it was one succession of deafening thunder-claps over the city, and it shook and trembled on its strong foundations. Amid storms of sleet and hail-in the full blaze of the noonday sun—at solemn twilight and at deep midnight—without cessation or relief, for an entire week, that volcano thundered on, driving sleep from the alarmed inhabitants, while the bombs hissed and blazed above their dwellings and fell in their midst, and the heavy shot came crashing into their apartments, and the cry of "fire" rung through every street. Nothing can be more terrible than this incessant play of heavy cannon on a town. During this week, Lefebvre worked his guns with a rapidity and skill that threatened to leave not one stone upon another. The only intermission to the fire was when the garrison made some desperate sortie on the batteries, when the musketry and the bayonet took the place of cannon.
    But this tremendous cannonade produced but little effect on the ramparts, for they were covered with earth, which broke the force of the balls, and Lefebvre, finding that he could not make a breach for the assaulting companies, commenced sapping the place. He, ran mines under the walls, but the besieged countermined, and thus week after week wore away before any serious demonstration could be made.
    But the mines at length being completed, so as to render the defence of the place much longer hopeless, and the garrison not being strong enough to cut its way through Lefebvre's army, the Emperor Alexander determined to relieve it by a combined attack both by sea and land. His arrangements were kept secret from the enemy, and in order to prevent reinforcements being sent to Lefebvre, a feigned attack was to be made on the other portions of the army more remote at the same time. Oudinot and Lannes, with their strong corps, to prevent the Russians from interrupting the operations of the besiegers, while they also formed the rear-guard of the army. The Russian emperor had arranged every thing skilfully, and the storm that was ready to burst on Lefebvre threatened to destroy him utterly. But some little delay in the arrival of a Swedish man-of-war enabled Napoleon to get wind of the intended attack, and immediately perceiving the imminent danger to which  his marshal was exposed, he ordered Lannes and Oudinot to advance to his help. They came not a moment too soon; for, on the 15th of May, the enemy were seen to issue in formidable numbers from the trenches and march swiftly on Lefebvre's fortifications, which they swept away with irresistible fury. But, while the shouts of victory were still ringing, Lannes, at the head of the brave grenadiers of Oudinot, moved sternly to the assault. The intrenchments were carried, and the Russians driven back. Rallying again, however, they returned to the attack with such impetuosity that the French were again driven out, and Oudinot's horse being shot under him, he fell upon Marshal Lannes, and the two chieftains after that fought on foot, side by side, leading the repeated charges till the Russians were compelled to retire into the city.
    This settled the fate of Dantzic, but for more than a week the resistance was kept up. Several sorties were made by the garrison, one of which was successful, and a redoubt was carried of great importance to the French. No sooner did Lefebvre see his troops flying before the enemy, than he put himself at the head of his brave grenadiers, saying, "Now for our turn, my children," and moved intrepidly to the assault. But the redoubt was fiercely contested, and so deadly was the fire to which he was exposed, that the bullets rattled like hailstones around him. Fearing for their beloved chief, and forgetful of all danger to themselves, those grenadiers—his "children," as he termed them—closed darkly around to form a rampart with their bodies. But the old veteran pushed them affectionately one side, saying, "No, no, let me fight as you do," and marching straight through the storm, swept over the redoubt, carrying every thing before him. Those "children" would have died every one in his footsteps before he would have left the side of Lefebvre.
    Resistance at length became useless, and on the 24th the place capitulated. Lefebvre, with a generosity and nobleness of heart that always characterized him, delayed entering the town in order to send to Oudinot and Lannes, who had so bravely succored him on the 15th, requesting them to be present at the capitulation, and share the honor of entering the city. But with equal nobleness those brave generals refused to pluck one laurel from the head of the old veteran, and repassed the Vistula on purpose to compel him to enter the city alone and receive all the glory.
    Four days after the capitulation, Napoleon conferred on him the title of Duke of Dantzic, and never was an honor more worthily bestowed.
    But two years after this, he was destined to count at at least one defeat among his victories. After the battle of Wagram, and during the armistice that followed, Napoleon sent him, as before remarked, into the Tyrol, to quell the inhabitants that had taken up arms with Austria.

CAMPAIGN IN THE TYROL.

    With thirty thousand men he marched on Innspruck, the Tyrolese capital, while ten thousand more advanced from the northern side. The armies met at Innspruck, and to all appearance the war was terminated. The Archduke John issued proclamations, informing the people that peace was established, and recommending submission. But these brave mountaineers determined t carry on the war in their own strength, and letting the Austrian army depart without a murmur, began to assemble on all their hills to defend their country; and on the 4th of August fell on the advanced guard of Lefebvre, who was leading his army down the Brenner mountains, along the banks of the Eisach torrent. He was pushing for a bridge below, the entrance to which was through a deep and dark defile made by the overhanging cliffs. The forest around was silent, and not a living man was seen, to excite any fear of an attack, and the army marched boldly into the mountain gorge. The green fir-trees stood silent in the summer air; and the huge cliffs, that, with their ragged fronts, rent here and there the leafy curtain that fell down the face of the mountain, stood motionless as ever. But no sooner had the head of the army moved partly through the defile, than the whole breast of the mountain was covered with smoke, as the rapid vollies of the sharp-shooters sent death amid the ranks. Not an enemy was visible, and yet the ranks melted like wax before the deadly aim of those mountaineers. The affrighted column stopped, uncertain whether to advance or recede, when the Tyrolese rushed from their ambuscade, and with their thrilling war shouts, rolled, like one of their own mountain torrents, on the foe, and pouring themselves through the confused ranks, fought hand to hand with the soldiers. Lefebvre, however, hurried up other troops, who moved with the stern front of disciplined bravery through the confusion, rolling the disordered mountaineers from the sides of their close column, as a strong ship cleaves the waves. The Tyrolese were routed, and the column, now relieved, pushed on through the defile. All was still again as the hush of death, and the mountain seemed to have swallowed up the enemy, when suddenly some loose stones came rolling down the steep, frightening the horsemen in front. The officers had scarcely turned their eyes up the cliffs to see what this new movement betokened, when the rapid blows of axes were heard, and several immense fir-trees began to wave to and fro above them as if swept by a sudden wind. This was succeeded by a crackling sound, and the next moment the huge trunks pitched heavily forward, and fell headlong down the mountain, followed by avalanches of rocks, earth, and logs, which crushed with the sound of thunder on the column, burying whole squadrons in one wild grave. This immense mass of rubbish had been piled against the trees, which were then cut nearly asunder, so that a few blows of the axe, with the pressure behind, would overthrow them and send the whole mass down the steep. So awful was the shock, and so sudden the death, that the column, broken through and shattered into fragments, again halted, and amid the deep silence that followed, was heard distinctly the roar of the Eisach through the forest as it poured its turbulent flood down the mountain. The silence, however, was but momentary—the Tyrolese immediately opened a destructive fire, but the intrepid column moved steadily forward—those behind mounting over the heaps of ruins that lay piled above their buried comrades—and reached the bridge. But alas! it was on fire, and the crackling, blazing timbers were rapidly falling, one after another, into the waters below. A bold Bavarian spurred forward and rushed in a gallop on the flaming arch—the smoke covered him from sight, and the next moment both horse and rider were seen falling together through the broken and blackened timbers into the torrent that swept fiercely beneath. The bridge was destroyed, and the two armies separated by an impassable gulf.
    Lefebvre attempted to lead his army over the Brenner, into the Italian Tyrol. It was twenty miles to the top of the pass, and up this steep ascent the marshal was compelled to lead his twenty thousand men. After the most wasting toil, he had succeeded in carrying his army part way up the heights, when from every cliff, and hollow, and tree, a sudden rapid fire opened on his men. Unable to manœuvre on the steep ascent, and his cannot being almost useless, he saw at once the peril of his position. Without any field on which to deploy his men—without room for his cavalry, or even footing for a single division to manœuvre, he was compelled to trust so solely to the almost useless fire of his infantry. The enemy being half concealed, the bullets only rattled against the cliffs, or buried themselves harmlessly in the trunks of trees, while their own ranks, crowded together in a narrow path, presented an unerring mark to the Tyrolese sharp-shooters. Lefebvre struggled bravely to carry his men through this wasting fire, and his troops sustained, for some time, the unequal contest; but no soldiers will long contend in such a useless struggle, and the head of the column began to give way, and settle heavily back upon the army below. For a moment, the mighty mass balanced along the steep, and then, like a loosened cliff, broke headlong down the mountain, rolling horses and cannon, cavalry and infantry, in irretrievable confusion to the bottom. Lefebvre, borne back in the refluent tide, narrowly escaped being made prisoner; and the next night, disguised as a common trooper, entered again Innspruck.
    The next day, a general battle took place before the town. It opened at six in the morning, and ended at midnight. All day long did Lefebvre manfully maintain his ground, and roll back the hardy mountaineers from the shock; and when darkness curtained in the mountain valley, it was one broad blaze of light over the struggling hosts, and the Alpine heights shook to the incessant thunder of cannon. But at midnight the French were compelled to give way, and fall back into the town.
    Lefebvre lost six thousand men in this bloody struggle, and immediately evacuated Innspruck, and marching out of the Tyrolese territory, finally collected the fragments of his army at Salzburg.
    Bonaparte, however, sending reinforcements, Tyrol was again invaded, and after some hard fighting conquered.
For six years after this he continued in active service, and, as before mentioned, finished his honorable and glorious career, by fighting bravely beside Napoleon, in his last struggle for France and his empire.
    He died in Paris, September 14th, 1820, at the age of sixty-five. He left no children, and but little property. His wife, who was devotedly attached to him, wishing to raise a monument over his grave, and having no money with which to defray the expenses, with a nobleness of heart, that always characterized her, sold all her jewels for that purpose, and reared the present splendid sarcophagus, of white marble, which stands in Pìre la chaise. On it is inscribed—Soldat, Marechal, duc de Dantzick, pair de France : Fleurus, Avante-Garde, Passage du Rhin, Altenkirchen, Dantzick, Montmirail—names which recall the fields of his fame, and many a hard-fought battle, where the sleeping hero once poured out his blood for France.
    Though Duchess of Dantzic, his wife was utterly unfitted by her education, for the refined circles of Paris. Plain, direct, blunt, and honest, like her husband, she, by her frank, fearless manner of expressing herself, committed many blunders, which, for a time, made her the joke of the drawing-rooms of the French capital. In Paris, moral worth is at such a discount, that the good heart, generosity, and kindness of the ignorant duchess went for nothing. She might have broken the rules of morality every day without exciting a remark, by to violate the laws of etiquette, and exhibit ignorance of the conventional forms of the society in which she moved, was an unpardonable offence. She could have possessed a doubtful reputation as a wife without injury, but ignorance made her the jest of the elegant.
    Calling one day with Madame Lannes on the Empress Josephine, word was returned that her Majesty would see n one. "What! what." said she, "not see any one? Tell her that it is Lefebvre's wife and la celle à Lannes"—meaning to say, Lefebvre's wife and the wife of Lannes. But the Parisians, following the pronounciation  instead of the spelling, seemed never to weary of saying, Lefebvre's wife and "la selle à l'âne." [the saddle of the ass.]
    But notwithstanding her ignorance of etiquette, she was not destitute of true delicacy of feeling. Generous to a fault, she seemed to love all soldiers for her husband's sake, and a poor officer especially called forth her sympathy. Hearing once that an old emigrant officer had returned to Paris poor, she went to the Marchioness of Valady, in whose house she served as a domestic when Lefebvre was private in the Guards, and said with her usual bluntness, but no less truth, "How little generosity there is among you folks of quality! We who have risen from the ranks know our duty better. We have just heard that M——, one of our old officers, has returned from emigration, and is starving from want. Now we were fearful of offending him by offering him assistance, but it is quite different with you. A kind act on your part will be grateful to him, so pray give him this as coming from yourself," handing her as she spoke a hundred louis. This delicate act of generosity shows a heart that is pure gold, and outweighs all the external accomplishments with which she could be invested. Such a heart could appreciate the upright and truthful character of Lefebvre, and was worthy the confidence and affection of the brave old soldier.


(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.)