CHARGE OF CAVALRY AT AUSTERLITZ.
At the battle of Austerlitz he exhibited that bravery and force which characterized him through all the after wars. While Soult, with his resistless battalions, was making such steady progress on the heights of Pratzen, Lannes and Bernadotte, commanding the left wing, were also gradually pushing the enemy before them. To check their advance the Grand Duke Constantine ordered up the Russian Imperial Guards. Descending from the heights, this imposing mass advanced boldly into the middle of the plain, where they were met by the division of Vandamme, and a furious conflict ensued. In the midst of the tumult, the Grand Duke put himself at the head of two thousand Russian cuirassiers of the Guard, and in the most beautiful order moved over the plain. The next moment they burst on the flank of Vandamme's column, and cutting it through and through, trampled it under foot; then wheeling amid the torn ranks, mowed down the soldiers like grass.
The quick eye of Napoleon seeing the overthrow, and knowing that in a few moments, without help, his left wing ,would be routed, he ordered up Bessieres with the cavalry of the Imperial Guard, and directed him to charge that mass of horsemen that were rioting so fearfully amid his infantry. Rapp headed the advance guard, crying out to his followers, "Soldiers! see how they are sabring your comrades below there! Let us fly to their rescue! "A fierce shout answered him; the bugles sounded the charge, and, moving forward in beautiful order, they broke into a trot, and then into a steady gallop, and fell like a rolling rock on the astonished foe. Driven back over the mutilated corpses of the square they were treading down with such fury, the Russian cavalry gave way, leaving their artillery in the hands of the French. The disorder, however, was but momentary. Rallying beautifully, the confused squadrons seemed to flow of their own accord into the array of battle, and returned gallantly to the charge. But now Bessieres, with his whole reserve, went sweeping to the onset, and both Imperial Guards met in full career. The shock of their wild meeting shook the plain, and for several minutes it was one cloud of tossing plumes and swaying helmets, and rising and falling standards; for neither mass gave way. The clashing of swords and ringing of armor, and steady blast of bugles, were heard over the volleys of musketry which the infantry still poured into each other's bosoms. Such a hand-to-hand cavalry fight had not been seen during the war before; for, equal in numbers and in courage, each resolved not to yield. The ground was soon covered with dead horses and men; while, to increase the chaos and confusion, the infantry on either side came pouring to the conflict. The sharp rattle of musketry and the thunder of cannon mingled with the fierce ringing of steel; while the fluttering of standards was seen amid the smoke, neither advanced nor forced back, showing that victory still wavered around them. At length, however, the Russians broke; a shout rang over the field; the trumpets sounded anew, and Bessieres poured his enthusiastic squadrons on the retiring foe.
The next year, after the campaigns of Friedland and Tilsit, in 1807, he was transferred to Spain, where a new field opened before him. Taken from the Imperial Guard, and from under the immediate eye of Napoleon, he was placed over the second corps, called the army of the "Western Pyrenees," and fixed his quarters at Burgos. In the mean time, the insurrection broke out, and Bessieres divided his disposable force of 12,000 men into several movable columns, and pierced the country in every direction to put down the insurgents. But while by his activity and energy he was successful in his attempts, and was ranging unchecked the mountains of Austria and Biscay, the Spanish general Cuesta was gathering a large army to overwhelm him. Bessieres immediately collected the troops and advanced to give battle, before Blake, on his march to join the latter, could arrive. The junction, however, was effected, and Bessieres with less than fifteen thousand men found himself opposed to more than twenty-five thousand. It so happened that his position was of vital importance to the whole French army, and Bonaparte, knowing it, had ordered Savary to Marenna, so that, in case of need, he could be reinforced. Savary however, heaped blunder on blunder, and Bessieres was left alone to save himself as best he could. The Emperor was made aware of the danger that threatened him, and his anxiety in view of it may be gathered from his language afterwards to Savary, when he rebuked him for his bad management. Said he, "A check given to Dupont would have a slight effect, but a wound received by Bessieres would give a locked-jaw to the whole army. Not an inhabitant of Madrid, not a peasant of the valleys, that does not feel that the affairs of Spain are involved in the affairs of Bessieres." Notwithstanding the errors of his general, Napoleon relied, and not without reason, on the good sense and courage of Bessieres. With such responsibility on his shoulders, it maybe imagined, that it was with no slight anxiety the latter beheld, on the 14th of July, an army nearly three times as large as his own drawn up in order of battle before him. True, only 25,000 of these were regular troops, but this number was nearly double his own.
In two columns he drove in the advanced guard of the enemy, but when he came in front of their lines he made a halt, and for a moment hesitated whether he should hazard an attack on such superior forces.
BATTLE OF RIO SECO.
Perceiving at a glance, however, the vicious position Cuesta had assumed, he determined to advance. The Spanish general had posted his men in two lines, one directly behind the other, and nearly a mile and a half apart. Bessieres, who had learned the art of war under Napoleon, saw at once that a skillful maneuver would soon destroy the advantage of numbers. Although the approach in front was up an abrupt ascent, he ordered Lasalle to engage the attention of the enemy there with partial attacks of cavalry, until, by a flank movement, be could throw the weight of his troops in the space between the lines. Succeeding in his maneuver he fell on the rear of the first line, at the same time that Lasalle, hearing his guns, charged furiously in front; and, rending it asunder as if it had been mist, sent the fugitives in one tumultuous crowd over the field. But while the French, in the disorder of success, were pressing with shouts after the flying enemy, Cuesta boldly advanced his second line. The attack was bravely made, and the first battalions of the French went down before the charge, and the shout of victory was heard in the Spanish ranks. The confusion of the French increased, and for a while the result of the battle was doubtful. But Bessieres, who saw the disorder that was spreading through his army, perceived at once that the crisis had come, and putting himself at the head of twelve hundred horsemen, burst with appalling fury on the enemy's flank. Everything sank before him; and, just then, the division that had been pursuing the remnants of the first line returning, the attack was renewed with vigor, and after a short but fierce conflict the Spaniards were utterly routed. Nearly 6000 of their number were stretched on the field, while 1500 prisoners remained in the hands of the French.
When Napoleon heard of this victory he could not repress his joy. "Bessieres has placed Joseph on the throne of Spain!" he exclaimed; and it was true.
Soon after this the Emperor left for Paris, and when be again returned to restore the affairs of Spain, which had got into a most disastrous state, Bessieres was superseded in his command of the second corps by Soult, a man better fitted for that position than himself. The battle of Rio Seco was the only brilliant deed he performed, and he was in a short time recalled to the Imperial Guard. He showed, however, in his short career, that he possessed the elements of a good commander, although no training could have made him equal to Soult and Suchet.
He went through the campaigns of Aspern and Wagram, and at the former place performed one of those great actions which so often wrung victory from the enemy in the moment of defeat.
CAVALRY CHARGE AT ASPERN.
On the first day of this great battle, while Massena and Lannes were struggling with almost superhuman energy to hold the villages of Aspern and Essling, the space between them, occupied by the French army, was exposed to a tremendous fire from several hundred Austrian cannon, placed in battery. So destructive was the storm of grape-sbot which they incessantly vomited forth, that the field was almost swept of the soldiers. Galled by this murderous fire, which nothing seemed able to withstand, Napoleon at length ordered up Bessieres to charge the guns with his cavalry. The marshal first sent forward the light horse of the Guard. They advanced at a furious gallop, and with noble enthusiasm to the onset; but those terrible batteries were too much for them. They reeled and bent backward before the volcano that opened in their faces, and though they bravely struggled to bear up against it, at length turned and fled, leaving the field strewed with mangled horses and their riders. Bessieres then put himself at the head of the heavy-armed cuirassiers, and ordered the trumpets to sound. They presented a noble sight as they moved away. In beautiful order the dark array swept into the field, and was soon seen passing like a rapid thunder-cloud over the plain. Around the base of the black and driving mass was a cloud of dust; midway it was one dense body of shining armor, while above shook the tbousands of sabres, amid the fluttering standards, and "Vive l' Empereur!" came rolling back over the field, like the shout of victory. Their steady gallop made the earth tremble; and the rattling of their armor was more terrible than the thunder of cannon, as they rode fiercely on into the very months of the batteries. One discharge tore through them and then with a shout that rent the air, they rushed onward. The artillerymen hastily withdrew their guns to the rear, and the infantry threw themselves quickly into squares, to receive the shock. To human appearance nothing could resist it; but when the smoke of the sudden volley cleared away, those firm squares, instead of being scattered and trampled under foot stood unbroken and complete, gazing sternly and resolutely on the foe. A body of cavalry was brought up to sustain them; but these were scattered like leaves in the tempest before the cuirassiers; and then there was nothing but those naked formations standing in the open field to overpower, and on these Bessieres hurled his excited squadrons anew. But keeping up a rolling fire on every side that astonishing infantry stood firm against every shock. Made furious by their stern resistance, he rode at the head of his men, cheering them to the onset, and, foremost in the charge, precipitated them again and again on that girdle of bayonets.
Baffled in every effort, he rode round and round the blazing citadels, and fell against their steadfast sides in brave but vain valor. Nothing could break that array, and after leaving half his followers on the field, he was compelled to retire. This ended the fight for the day, and the two armies slept on the field of battle.
The next day, when the last effort was made to win the victory, and Lannes's intrepid column, in attempting to pierce the center, was checked in its advance, and stood and melted away before the close and heavy fire of the enemy, Bessieres again made one of those charges with the Imperial Guard, which were usually so resistless. His brave cuirassiers bore down with appalling fury on the ranks, urging their horses against the bayonet points; and, cheered by his voice and example, made almost superhuman efforts to break the squares of the enemy. But it was all in vain: the day was lost, and the mighty mass was driven back toward the Danube. Bessieres performed prodigies of valor during these two days, and his noble bearing, boiling courage, and firm and steady action won the admiration of Napoleon.
He was shut up in the island of Lobau with the army, where it lay from May to July, waiting for reinforcements to make another struggle for victory. At the battle of Wagram, when Macdonald was carrying the Empire on his rapidly perishing column, and it at length stopped in its awful career, Bessieres were ordered to charge with the cavalry to sustain him. Riding through a tempest of cannon-balls, at the head of his men, he was spurring furiously on, when a heavy shot in full sweep struck his horse, and hurled it, torn and shattered, from under him. Pitched to a great distance, he fell, covered with blood and dust, apparently dead, while from the whole battalion in which be rode there arose a mournful cry at the sight. Walther succeeded to the command, and led on the column; but the charge was feeble. The men, no longer seeing Bessieres at their head, were dispirited, for no one, except Murat, could give such weight to a charge of cavalry as he. After the battle was over, Napoleon said to him, "The ball which struck you drew tears from all my Guard; return thanks for it; it ought to be dear to you." The cannon-baIl which mangled his horse so dreadfully by some chance did not harm him, although it tore his pantaloons open from the thigh to the knee.
The year of 1811 he spent in Spain, as governor of Old Castile and Leon, but the next year was again beside Napoleon, and commanded the Imperial Guard through the Russian campaign. This Guard was always the Emperor's chief reliance, but especially during this disastrous invasion and retreat; and Bessieres, as commander, had his implicit confidence. He loved him, for he looked upon him as his child, a creation of his own. He had seen him fighting bravely by his side in his first Italian campaigns, and ever afterward kept him about his person, raising him from one post of honor to another, till he made him Duke of Istria, and Marshal of the Empire.
The night before the battle of Borodino, Napoleon, sick and suffering, and filled also with the deepest anxiety respecting the great battle that was to be fought on the morrow, sent for Bessieres and asked him if the Guard were in want of nothing. Calling him back, again and again, he repeated the question, and finally ordered him to distribute among them, from his own private stores, three days' provision of biscuit and rice. This favorite marshal could approach him, when he was in those moods that kept others at a distance. After the battle was over, Bonaparte, who had been worn down with business and a burning fever, finally lost his voice entirely from a severe cold. In this state, Bessieres read to him the long list of the slain and wounded generals. The dreadful mortality among his best officers, which it exhibited, filled him with such anguish that by one strong effort he recovered his voice, and exclaimed, "Eight days at Moscow, and there will be an end of it!"
The marshal, after the burning of Moscow, was one of the council he called to decide whether the army should retreat or advance. He gave his opinion against the impetuous Murat; and firmly and emphatically declared in favor of a retreat. Napoleon listened to him in silence, but broke up the council without giving his own opinion.
During all that retreat, he, with the faithful Guard, that no disaster could shake, and no losses dishearten, hovered, like a protecting spirit, around Napoleon. Though their thousands had dwindled down to hundreds, and toils that seemed endless wasted them at every step; and famine and cold, and a victorious enemy, thinned their ranks daily, and the most appaling [sic] sights that ever met the human eye, were constantly before them, and dismay and despair on every side—they, with their worn yet firm-hearted leader, faithful to their trust, still maintained their order and their courage. Singing gayly past the batteries that tore their ranks asunder—standing in squares around their emperor as he bivouacked in the cold snow, and furnishing him the last fragment of fuel that could be gathered, while they, one after another, dropped dead in their footsteps—they fasten themselves on our affections, and stand, to remotest time, as a model of fidelity and firmness.
The next year he was again beside Napoleon in Germany, still with the Imperial Guard, but he did not share in the victories or disasters of that campaign, and was spared the pain of seeing his beloved commander, for whom he had so often periled his life, a fugitive and an exile.
As the army was approaching Lutzen, its foremost column came upon the advanced guard of the allies, posted on the heights of Poserna, and commanding a defile through which it was necessary to pass. Attempting to force this defile, Bessieres, rode forward, with his usual reckless exposure of his life, to reconnoitre the enemy's position more closely, when a cannon-ball struck one of his escort by his side and killed him instantly. "Inter that brave man," said he, with the utmost composure; but the words had hardly escaped his lips, when a musket ball struck him, and he reeled from his horse into the arms of his officers, dead. A white sheet was thrown over him to conceal his features and uniform from the soldiers as they passed by, lest the knowledge of his death spread discouragement among them. The next day the battle of Lutzen was fought, and the Imperial Guard wondered where their well-tried and beloved leader was, as they moved into the fight. Motionless and lifeless, his martial form lay near them, but unconscious of their wishes or their struggles. The genius of Napoleon was again shining out in its former splendor, and the star of his destiny was again mounting the heavens. The heavy tread of the tens of thousands that moved to battle was again heard—the thunder of cannon rolled over the Bohemian Mountains and the cloud of war covered the plain, in which nearly two hundred thousand men were mingled in mortal combat. The empire was again battled for, and the Imperial Guard once more put their brave arms around the throne of Napoleon and bore it steadily through the fight, but their intrepid leader was heedless of it all. Through his form trembled under the explosion of cannon that shook the house in which he lay, and the confused tumult of the battle was borne loudly past, no change passed over those marble features. The voice that should have steadied his ranks was not beard in the conflict, and the good sword that had flashed foremost in the charge was no longer seen, like a guiding star to the thousands that crowded after. Silent and motionless as its master, it lay stretched by his side, its work also done, Bessieres bad fought his last battle; but while his spirit bad gone to that world where the shout of the warrior is never heard, his body still lay on the field where mighty armies were meeting.
At night it was known that Bessieres had fallen, and sadness filled the hearts of the Imperial Guard. Napoleon ordered the body to be embalmed, and sent to the Hôtel des Invalides, where he designed to give it great honors, but his overthrow prevented him. He wrote the following letter to the heart-broken widow:
"My Cousin: Your husband has died on the field of honor. The loss which you and your children have sustained is great, but mine is still greater. The Duke of Istria has died a noble death, and without suffering; he has left a reputation without spot, the best inheritance he could bequeath to his children. My protection is secured to them; they will inherit all the affection which I bore to their father."The King of Saxony erected a monument to him on the spot where he fell; and for a year afterward the inconsolable widow kept lamps burning night and day around his tomb, and daily bedewed it with her tears.