Napoleonic Literature
Napoleon and His Marshals - Vol. II
Chapter XVIII

His Journey with Murat to Paris— Commands the Old Guard— Character of the Imperial Guard—Of Bessieres— Cavalry Charge at Austerlitz— Battle of Rio Seco—  Cavalry Charge at Aspern— at Wagram— His Death at Bautzen.

    IT is difficult to make a fair estimate of one's military character who occupies the position Bessieres did during most of his career. As commander of the guards his place was near the Emperor, and hence he was seldom brought into action till toward its close, and then to make a single desperate charge, in order to arrest a disaster, or to complete a victory. Just as he had obtained the appointment best suited to his character, and where he would have occupied a more prominent position, he was slain.
    Jean Baptiste Bessieres was born in Preissac, the capital of the department of Lot, the 6th of August, 1768. Murat was born in the same department about a year and a half before. Both of these future heroes were of humble origin, their parents being poor and ignorant. When Murat was twenty-four, and Bessieres twenty-three years of age, they started together for Paris to seek their fortunes. Both being romantic and chivalrous, they indulged in vague hopes of future renown as they passed on to the capital; but in the wildest flights of their imagination, one never dreamed of being king, nor the other of becoming a duke and marshal of the empire. The former had just come from the stables of a country landlord, and the latter from an equally democratic employment, and one would scarcely have marked them out as future heroes, as they jogged quietly on, buoyant with hope and youth.
    The contrast between those two poor young men plodding their weary way to the capital, and Murat on the throne of Naples, and Bessieres a marshal of the empire beside Napoleon, is one of the best comments on republican institutions that could be furnished. To human appearance, nothing but an indifferent fortune awaited them; and a subordinate situation in the army they sought to enter was all that could be reasonably expected. But a new era was to dawn on France, and its slumbering energies were to be called forth, and all men who had a soul in them were to be given a fair field and full scope. Murat and Bessieres were going into the heart of an earthquake, not to disappear in the abysses it opened beneath them, but to mount on its ruins to fame and honor.
    These two young adventurers arrived in Paris, and both obtained situations as privates in the Constitutional Guard of Louis XVI. The next year, on the fatal 10th of August, Bessieres's services for the King closed. His first lesson in war was taken at the storming of the Tuileries, and the first battlefield his youthful eyes gazed upon was the Place du Carrousel and the palace garden, in which were strewed the mutilated bodies of the brave Swiss Guard. During the continuation of this horrid massacre, he strained every nerve to save the members of the Queen's household; and, at the risk of his own life, succeeded in snatching some of them from the hands of the mob. The Constitutional Guard being no more, he was transferred to a regiment of cavalry destined for the Pyrenees. His brave conduct in the north of Spain soon procured for him the rank of captain of chasseurs. A Short time after, Bonaparte received the command of the Army of Italy, to which Bessieres's regiment was luckily joined. His intrepidity and impetuous valor in the battles that followed the opening of the campaign soon attracted the attention of Napoleon. On one occasion, especially, did be win his admiration. He was charging at the head of his company an Austrian battery, when a shot tore his horse to pieces under him, and they fell entangled together on the plain. Releasing himself, however, by a strong effort, be leaped on a cannon, which was sending death through his ranks, and began immediately to lay about him with his sabre. Two of his followers seeing him thus defend himself against the gunners, who made furiously at him, put spurs to their steeds and galloped to his aid. Together they succeeded in capturing the piece, and brought it off in triumph. Bonaparte, at the time young and impetuous himself, was so pleased with this feat that, when he formed his Corps of Guides, Bessieres was made its commander. His fortune was now secure, and from this time on his history and that of the Consular and Imperial guards go together.
    After the battle of Marengo, he was given the command of the Consular Guard, with the rank of general; and when Bonaparte assumed the imperial crown, he created him Marshal of the Empire. Placed at the head of the Imperial Guard, he went through the campaigns of Austerlitz, Jena, Eylau, Friedland, Tilsit, and Wagram,—now with his resistless riders stemming the reversed tide of battle, and now converting a defeat into a rout. The command of such a body as the Imperial Guard was an honor not lightly conferred, and was sufficient evidence in itself that he who held it was both a brave and an able officer. Still it did not give such scope to individual talent as the command of one of the corps of the army would have done. There was no maneuvering, no separate responsibility; and, indeed, no protracted and vacillating conflict, bringing out the resources and exhibiting the higher qualities of a great leader. The Imperial Guard were ever about the person of the Emperor; their squares enfolded him by night and by day, wrapping his tent in the field where he bivouacked, and standing the tower of his strength amid the tumult of the fight, and hence were always under his immediate control. The position of Bessieres, therefore, however honorable, would never fit him for a separate command. Unaccustomed to plan for himself, being troubled with no combinations either of his own or others, he would naturally fail at the head of a corps that was to operate by itself, governed only by general directions. Resistless courage, unshrinking steadiness, and endurance that no toil could shake, were the great requisites of a commander of the Imperial Guard, as they were the great characteristics of the Guard itself. Perhaps Napoleon, who measured the capabilities of his generals with such accuracy, saw that he needed to be free from separate responsibility in order to be efficient. There is many a man who will be a hero when told what to do, yet shows great indecision and doubt when left to himself to decide on his own course. Such a position as Bessieres's would naturally produce such a character, even were it capable of a higher development. Acting constantly under the eye and direction of another, he would unconsciously acquire a feeling of dependence he never after could shake off. But Bessieres, who was a hero in action, seems naturally to have been exceedingly timorous in counsel. Cool, steady, and terrible at the head of his brave Guard, the moment he came into the cabinet his boldness and decision evaporated. His charge was as prompt and furious as Murat's, but his advice was that of one possessing an entirely opposite character.
    Yet it was an honorable post to be at the head of the Old Guard. At once the prop and pride of Napoleon—carrying his throne and empire over the battlefields of Europe—the magnitude of the trust committed to it, and the awe its movements inspired, gave it a grandeur and, indeed, a power, no body of men, since the legions of Caesar, ever possessed. The appearance of those bear-skin caps, and of the helmets of the cuirassiers, always operated like an electric shock on the army. When they moved, the Emperor moved, and they came to stand as his representative. Their approach to a battlefield was like the shout of victory on the sinking courage of the soldiers. Taught to believe themselves invincible, and never employed till a crisis came, it was not their duty to struggle, but to conquer. So well known was it, when they were ordered up, that the final hour of one or the other army had come, that the contest along the different portions of the lines became apparently of no account, and everything waited the result of their shock. So perfect was their discipline, that their tread seemed unlike that of other soldiers, and one fancied he could see in their very movements a consciousness of power. Their shout of Vive l' Empereur! never rang over a battlefield without carrying dismay with it; and so resistless was their charge always found to be, that they became the terror of Europe.
    Bessieres is linked in history with the Old Guard, and they go down to immortality together. Brave, generous, and noble, he was worthy of the trust that still honored him, and commanded not only the admiration but the love of all who knew him. Disinterested and humane, he sought no emoluments from war, and never let the training of a camp numb his generous feelings, or weaken his love of justice. His enemies praised him, and those he conquered came to love his sway. The excitement of a fierce-fought battle could not make him cruel, nor even render him indifferent to the complaints of the suffering. In Spain even, where the French name became odious, he was beloved, and on his return to that country as governor of Old Castile and Leon, the people welcomed him with acclamations; and when, at last, the news of his death on a distant battlefield was received by them, several towns assembled to offer up masses for his soul. What a touching eulogium on his virtues! Even his enemies prayed for his departed spirit. There must have been in that nature something more humane and gentle than is usually found in the ranks of war, to have caused such a demonstration of feeling in those whose country he had invaded. In the very heat of one of his fierce charges at Marengo, and when one would think he had enough to do beside caring for individual suffering, he saved an Austrian horseman from death. The latter had been cast from his steed, and stood unsheltered right in front of the swiftly advancing squadron, with uplifted hands, imploring them not to trample him under foot. "Open your ranks, my friends," said Bessieres, "let us spare that unfortunate man," and the furious horsemen divided at his bidding around him. At Moscow, as he and his suite were sitting down to dinner, a crowd of famished, trembling wretches, fleeing from the flames, rushed into his palace for shelter. The sight of their misery was too much for his sympathetic heart; rising up, he said, "Gentlemen, let us seek a dinner elsewhere," and ordered the food prepared for himself to be given to them. Mitigating the horrors of war by his kindness to the wounded and vanquished, he moves before us as a brave and chivalric warrior, and at the same time a humane and generous man. The tenderness of feeling and warm sympathy he exhibited may seem inconsistent with his desperation in the hour of battle, and the carnage that followed where his strong squadrons swept. But he felt that he was fighting for his country and for freedom against invaders and despots, and hence was not accountable for the suffering he occasioned.


    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.


    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.


    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.
    He was a noble man, and, regardless of wealth in his struggle for his country, left his family poor and in debt. Napoleon, however, in his last will bequeathed his son about twenty thousand dollars, and Louis XVIII. afterwards made him peer of France. Had the former reigned, honors without end would have been heaped on the family, for his affection for Bessieres was something more than the stern love which one warrior bears another. Theirs was the friendship of two manly hearts that had moved together through scenes that try the firmest attachments, without once being divided.

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