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

Serves in the War of the American Revolution— His Victory at Wattignies— At Fleurus— A Member of the Council of Five Hundred— Major-General in Spain— His Character.

    JEAN BAPTISTE JOURDAN, though in active service till the overthrow of Napoleon, performed his greatest military achievements in the early struggles of the Republic along the Rhine, and hence occupies less space than his real merit deserves, in these sketches of the marshals. The son of a surgeon, he was born April 29, 1762, at Limoges, and entered the army when but sixteen years old. Young, ardent, and of an age in which new impressions are most easily made, he came to this country, and fought side by side with the patriots of the Revolution, till the close of the war. Entering on his military career in a war of liberty against despotism, he naturally adopted the principles embodied in our Declaration of Independence, and became a stern republican, and continued so throughout all the violence and bloodshed he afterward witnessed in France—even to his death. His character as a military man could not have been formed under better leaders than Washington and Lafayette.
    Those who condemn the French Revolution, and the French generals who made Europe tremble, would do well to remember where many of them derived their first ideas of equality, that so alarmed the despots of the Continent. That fearful waking up which France had was caused in a great measure by our stirring appeal to the world, and our brave resistance to arbitrary power. The terrific and protracted struggle that covered Europe with armies, was but the successful strife on our shores transferred to a wider and more extended field. The French armies carried back with them our declaration of rights, and hurled it like a firebrand amid the despotisms of the Continent. When tyrants thought to quench it forever, they rushed to its defense, and whirled it aloft with shouts of vengeance, till Europe shook with the rising sound of arms. The French Revolution, with all its horrors, was the legitimate offspring of our Declaration of Independence, working amid the rotten monarchies, and ignorance and oppression and despair of the whole world; and those philanthropists, who never weary of singing the praises of Liberty in this land of peace and plenty, show themselves but bigots when they turn in disgust and horror from her more painful and revolting aspect there.
    "Ariosto tells a pretty story of a fairy, who, by some mysterious law of her nature, was condemned to appear at certain seasons in the form of a foul and poisonous snake. Those who injured her during the period of her disguise were forever excluded from participation in the blessings she bestowed. But to those who, in spite of her loathsome aspect, pitied and protected her, she afterwards revealed herself in the beautiful and celestial form which was natural to her, accompanied their steps, granted all their wishes, filled their houses with wealth, made them happy in love, and victorious in war. Such a spirit is Liberty. At times she takes the form of a hateful reptile. She growls, she hisses, she stings; but woe to those, who in disgust, shall venture to crush her. And happy are those who, having dared to receive her in her degraded and frightful shape, shall at length be rewarded by her in the time of her beauty and her glory." *
    I have made these remarks here, because they come more naturally under the sketch of Jourdan, who derived his first lessons of freedom from us, and was one of the first avid chief military leaders that helped to roll back the tide of aggression from the French borders, and opened the great tragedy that ended with the carnage at Waterloo. The marshals of Napoleon are regarded by many as so many ferocious animals let loose on the Continental armies: but let such except at least, Jourdan, the offspring of our own Revolution, and who won his renown in carrying out the very principles Washington and Lafayette implanted in his breast. True, where he was compelled to struggle, Liberty assumed the form of a hateful reptile, and dragged her slime over ruined altars and deserted firesides. But even there she will yet appear in her beauty, to cheer and to bless.
    Jourdan passed several years in the United States, so that his character and principles became settled under the influence of our institutions, and when he returned to France it was natural he should enter heart and soul into the Revolution. In 1791 he commanded a battalion under Doumouriez, and the next year fought bravely at the battle of Jemappe. In 1793 he was made general of division, and in 0ctober was appointed to take command of the army in Flanders in place of Houchard, who had been executed for want of energy in conducting the war. The Republican armies needed the most efficient man at their head in order to resist the coalitions against which they were forced to contend; and Houchard, having endangered the campaign by his tardiness, was tried and unjustly executed. Jourdan, who, a short time before at Handschoote, mounted the enemy's works with the greatest intrepidity, and showed himself a man of energy and daring, was put in his place, with the most peremptory orders to attack the enemy and drive them over the French borders. Young, untried in chief command, and fighting at the foot of the scaffold, he nevertheless did not shrink from the task; and at the head of a hundred thousand men boldly took the field. The Austrians were strongly posted at Wattignies, but Jourdan, obeying his orders, marched rapidly against them. After a severe action, in which he lost more than a thousand men, he was compelled to draw off his troops. The next day, however, be renewed the combat. Concentrating his forces on the most important point, he at daylight moved his army, in three massive columns on the enemy. The artillery opened with a heavy and rapid fire, but their steady roar could not drown the enthusiastic shouts and songs of freedom with which the French soldiers rushed to the attack. Like the shouts of Cromwell's army, they fell in ominous tones on the enemy's lines, telling to the world the spirit that impelled them on. Nothing could resist their headlong onset; and over the enemy's works, and over their ranks, the excited thousands went, treading down everything in their path, and strewing the field with six thousand bodies.
    This victory relieved Flanders, and threw a ray of light across the darkened prospects of the Republic. Jourdan was hailed as the saviour of his country, and immediately summoned to Paris, to consult with the Committee of Public Safety, on future operations. Attending the Jacobin Society, he advanced to the tribune and vowed, that "the sword which be wore should only be unsheathed to oppose tyrants, and defend the rights of the people." Through the influence of Barère, however, he was deprived of his command, but soon after was appointed to the army of Moselle, and ordered up to the Sambre, to succor the French army there. He arrived just in time to prevent an utter defeat. Assuming the command of the combined forces, be crossed the Sambre, over which the Republicans, a few days before had been driven,—advanced on Charleroi, and investing the place, after a short but vigorous siege, compelled the garrison to capitulate. The troops, however, had hardly left the gates, when the thunder of cannon in the distance announced the approach of the Austrians, hastening up to their relief.
    The next day the battle of Fleurus took place. Jourdan had under him between eighty and ninety thousand men—the Austrians numbered about eighty thousand. The Austrians commenced the attack at daylight, moving forward in five massive columns, and the battle raged with various success till nightfall, when the enemy retreated, and the French encamped on the field of victory. More than a hundred and fifty thousand men struggled in mortal combat from daylight till sunset, and ten thousand were left on the field of carnage. This was the second great victory of Jourdan, and it immediately placed him at the head of the Republican generals. Under him in this great and decisive battle fought many of the future marshals, and most distinguished generals of France. Bernadotte, Lefebvre, Kleber, Moreau, Soult, Championet, and others here exhibited those striking qualities to which they afterwards owed their elevation.
    He continued to follow up his successes this and the following year, but in 1796 was badly defeated at Wurtsburg, and was forced to make a hurried and ruinous retreat. The loss of this battle, and the disasters that followed, wiped out the remembrance of his former victories, and he was recalled. Returning to Limoges, he kept aloof from public affairs till next year, when he was chosen member of the Council of Five Hundred. The Republican party considered him a great acquisition, and he took an active part in legislative matters during the session. He proposed the celebration of the 10th of August—gave his influence in favor of the measures that brought about the revolution of 18th Fructidor—opposed with violence the proposition of the Directory to interfere with the elections; and, finally, submitted a law to change the mode of recruiting for the army. When this law was passed, Jourdan declared that the act decided that the Republic was eternal.
    In November, he was called from political strifes to take command of the army of the Danube. After various maneuvers, he was at length met at Stoekach by the Archduke Charles, with an army nearly a third larger than his own, and after a stubborn conflict, in which the republican troops exhibited a courage worthy of their cause, was severely beaten. He strove bravely to arrest the disorder in his ranks, riding among them, and calling the soldiers, by voice and gesture, to rally again to the attack. But the defeat was complete; and after leaving five thousand of his bravest troops on the field, he was compelled to retreat precipitately towards France.
    The Directory immediately appointed Massena in his place, and accused him of inefficiency in this campaign; and, indeed, laid at his door the reverses that also befell Moreau, with whom he was to co-operate. To defend himself, be published a "Précis des Operations de l'Armée du Danube," in which he showed that the disasters were all owing to the ignorance and stupidity of the Directory, who did nothing but heap blunder on blunder, and was fast bringing France to the verge of ruin.
    Being soon after re-elected to the Council of Five Hundred, he proposed the following as the form of the civic oath: "I swear to oppose with all my power the restoration of royalty and every other form of despotism in France." He had already began [sic] to see whither things were tending, and threw in this impediment, while he could, to check the first attempt that should be made to overthrow the Republic.
    During this summer, all the sessions of the legislative bodies were stormy. Divided into two great parties, they were engaged in perpetual wranglings , while defeat attended their armies abroad. Everything was tending toward an explosion of some sort, unless a strong hand should be found to steady the rocking structure of the Republic. The prospect grew darker continually, and in the autumn France seemed on the eve of another revolution. The moderates and the politicians were arrayed against the patriots, and a fierce conflict was kept up.
    Jourdan belonged to the patriots, who were in the minority; and, in order to do something to check the disorders and arouse public spirit, proposed the resolution declaring the country in danger. This was strongly opposed, and the excitement running high the members of the clubs assembled in great numbers around the palace of the Five Hundred, and openly insulted the deputies. It was in the midst of this confusion the report spread that Bernadotte was about to put himself at the head of the patriots, and excite an insurrection. It was on this occasion, also, that the Directory, alarmed and agitated, dismissed him from office, under the form of an acceptance of his resignation. The news of this high-handed act reached the Council of Five Hundred, just as they were about to vote on Jourdan's resolution. Alarm instantly seized the patriots, and it was declared aloud that some extraordinary measures were in preparation. In the heat of the excitement caused by this announcement, Jourdan arose in his place, and in a stern voice exclaimed, "Let us swear to die in our curule chairs!" "My head shall fall," replied Augereau, "before any outrage shall be committed upon the national representation." The tumult increased, and before the house could be quieted the resolution to declare the country in danger was put and lost.
    After this, things went on as they had done before, and every one was casting about for some one to arise and arrest the disasters abroad, and quell the tumult at home. Affairs were in this state when Bonaparte returned from Egypt, and, throwing himself into the chaos, soon showed that he was the spirit called for by the times. Jourdan, however, kept aloof, and with Augereau remained at St. Cloud, while this young general was wresting the power from the Directory, and placing it in his own hands.
    But the next year, the new government being consolidated, he accepted the appointment of governor of Piedmont, and by his just and wise administration secured the respect and obedience of the inhabitants, and friendship of the King, who, sixteen years afterward, sent him his portrait set in diamonds as a token of his esteem. In 1812 he was called to the Council of State and chosen senator, and the next year appointed over the Army of Italy. When Napoleon became Emperor he was made marshal, and grand officer of the Legion of Honor. At the commencement of the war, in 1805, he was superseded by Massena, for Napoleon never had a high opinion of his military abilities.
    When Joseph Bonaparte was put on the throne of Naples, he was appointed governor under him; and two years after, when the former was declared King of Spain, he joined him as his major-general. He was present at the battle of Talavera, and gave his opinion, as before remarked, against that of Victor, who insisted on an immediate attack. Although the result sustained that opinion, still, had he been sufficiently prompt and energetic, he could have recovered the battle as it was, and secured the victory. But "his glory belonged to another era"; he could not adapt himself to the new system of things, and looked on the wonderful career of Napoleon without that feverish ambition to join it which characterized the other marshals.
    The reverses which the inefficient monarch experienced were charged over to him, and he was so constantly beaten that he at length acquired the sobriquet of "the anvil." But his position was the most discouraging one in which a man could well be placed. Acting in a subordinate capacity to one who was fit only to be a subordinate himself, all his actions were crippled and most of his counsels disregarded. He became discouraged and disgusted; for, while other generals were enjoying separate commands, he was kept as a mere companion to King Joseph, for whose follies and blunders be was held, in public opinion at least, responsible.
    At the close of 1809 he asked to be recalled, and returning to the bosom of his family at Rouen, calmly waited the issue of the gigantic efforts of the being who was wielding the destinies of France and of Europe. All his favorite schemes of a Republic had disappeared like a dream; and, borne away by a current he could not stem, he had at last yielded to its force, though not partaking of the passion or energy that bore it on. Had Napoleon trusted him with his armies, and brought him under the influence of his genius in some of his great campaigns, it might have been different. But he entirely neglected him, or only put him in places calculated to break the spirit of any man.
    Jourdan remained inactive for two years, but in 1812, when Napoleon set out on his expedition to Russia, he was ordered to return to Spain in his capacity of major-general. Here he sustained the appellation given him of "the anvil," and was called to very little active service, except to conduct inglorious retreats. No honor attended his marches; no success in his maneuvers; and, overshadowed by King Joseph, he scarcely ever appears above the surface in that last effort to hold the Peninsula. He was present at the battle of Vittoria, in which the French army was utterly routed; and was so hotly pursued, after the retreat, or rather flight commenced, that he lost his marshal's truncheon. This most singular battle, in which the French army seemed to have been suddenly turned into cowardly Spaniards, gave a mortal blow to the prospects of Napoleon in Spain—for, although Soult was afterwards sent to restore them, he achieved only transient success. As Napier remarks, there never was an army so badly used by its commanders as the French in this battle, for the soldiers were not half beaten when the flight began.
    Jourdan, after this, remained idle, and took no part in the last struggle of Napoleon. On the abdication of the latter, he gave in his adhesion to Louis XVIII., and was made Knight of St. Louis. When the news of the Emperor's return from Elba reached Paris, he retired to the country, and for some time took sides with neither party; but at length he came over to his old allegiance, and was given a seat in the Chamber of Peers, and appointed to defend Besançon.
    Soon after the second restoration, be was placed over the seventh military division, and restored to his seat in the Chamber of Peers.
    In 1830, he gave in adhesion to Louis Philippe, who, years before, had fought under his command in the Republican armies; and was appointed by him governor of the Invalides, which office he continued to hold till his death in 1833.
    Jourdan was a good general, but not a great one; at least not a great one under the system which Bonaparte introduced. All his habits of command, and modes of conducting a campaign or battle, were fixed before military science underwent such a change under the genius of the young Corsican. He was in advance of the military leaders with whom he was first brought in collision as commander-in-chief, and at Fleurus, in a great and decisive pitched battle, had proved himself a great and able general. But he could not adapt himself to the changes that were introduced. One or two important victories usually fix certain notions in the head of him who wins them, that nothing can afterwards root out. At least they give way so slowly, that he who possesses them is laid aside as a man belonging to another age. This was somewhat the case with Jourdan. He, as well as Moreau, could not consent to abandon the tactics in the practice of which they had won their renown, at the first bidding of a young man who had an idea he could storm through Europe. The consequence was, Moreau became at first jealous, then envious, and finally traitorous. Jourdan, having more sense and more patriotism, yielded to the popular feeling, and, instead of being exiled, was neglected. Napoleon could do nothing, except with those generals who came entirely into his system, and after he became Emperor he appointed no man commander-in-chief who had not won his right to the place, in his service. He, however, felt at last that he had not treated Jourdan right; and at St. Helena confessed it, saying, "He is a true patriot; and that is an answer to many things that have been said against him."

* Macauley.  Return to paragraph text.

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