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

His Early Life— Marries the Sister-in-law of Joseph Bonaparte— His Envy and Treason— His Folly and Disgrace at Wagram— Elected Crown Prince of Sweden— Quarrels with Napoleon— Joins the Allies— His Character.

    NOTHING could be more lucky for the reputation of Marshal Bernadotte than being elected Crown Prince of Sweden; and nothing could be more fortunate for the Crown Prince of Sweden than the failure of the Russian expedition. Too egotistical and self-inflated to perceive great qualities in other men, a querulous and unmitigated boaster, his career would have ended but sadly for himself, had he been left to pursue it as a Frenchman.
    Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte was born at Pau, in the Lower Pyrenees, January 26, 1764. His father was a common attorney, and designed his son for the same profession. But at fifteen years of age young Bernadotte enlisted as a private in the royal marines and was sent to Corsica. The same year Bonaparte, then a boy of eleven years of age, left the island to enter the school of Brienne. It is not improbable that the vessels that bore these two youths, who were yet to cross each other's track so frequently in life, met in the passage. What actors in what scenes those two children were destined to be! Serving here two years he was sent to the East Indies, where, in a sortie, at Cuddalore, he was wounded and taken prisoner.
    On his return to France, he designed to leave the service and prosecute the profession of law. But being promoted to the rank of sergeant it so inflamed his youthful ambition, that he determined to remain in the army; and from that time he steadily rose in his profession till he bore its highest honors.
    Soon after, the Revolution broke out; and in an insurrection of the Marsellaise, the colonel that had promoted young Bernadotte was surrounded by the infuriated populace, and would have been destroyed, but for the latter, who threw himself into the crowd, and by his harangues calmed their fury and saved his benefactor.
    Becoming a furious Republican, he was raised to the rank of colonel, and sent to the Rhine, where he fought bravely; and, at Fleurus, so distinguished himself that he was made general of brigade. Previous to this, however, he had, in the true affectation of Republicanism, so common at that time, refused this very appointment, and thus gained the credit for patriotic zeal which he knew to be the sure road to favor. Elevated to general of division, be fought gallantly during the campaign of 1795, and '96, on the Rhine, and though an unmitigated boaster, and utterly unworthy of confidence in his statements, especially of himself and his battles, was a brave, skillful, and efficient officer.
    At the close of this campaign, he was sent with 20,000 men, detached from the army of Sambre-Meuse, into Italy, to aid the army under Bonaparte, who had just astonished Europe by his deeds. At the first interview between them a mutual dislike seemed to arise. Bernadotte said to his quarter-general, "I have seen a man of twenty-six or seven years of age, who assumes the air of one of fifty, and he presages anything but good to the Republic." The young Bonaparte dismissed him more summarily, saying simply, "He has a French head and a Roman heart." He, however, placed him over the advance guard in the campaign of 1797, terminating with the fall of Venice. At the battle of Tagliamento, with which it opened, he led his division into the river with the words, "Soldiers of the Rhine, the soldiers of Italy are watching your conduct." This stimulated them to the highest pitch of enthusiasm, and they plunged headlong into the stream, and moved side by side with "the army of Italy," into the fire of the enemy's batteries.
    In honor of the bravery be exhibited in this battle, and the service he rendered, he was sent to Paris with the colors taken from the enemy. He took no part in the revolution of the 18th Fructidor, which occurred soon after; and already began to show that envy of Bonaparte which caused him finally to disgrace himself and well-nigh ruin his fortunes.
    Being sent about this time as ambassador to Vienna, he, on his arrival, hung out the colors of the Republic before his hotel, which so enraged the populace that they tore them down, and, rushing into his house, destroyed his furniture, and endangered his life. He immediately returned to Paris in anger; and because the Directory did not resent the insult sufficiently, refused to serve it in any capacity.
    While Bonaparte was fitting out his expedition to Egypt, Bernadotte was paying his addresses to Mademoiselle Désirée Clary, daughter of a Marseilles merchant. She was the sister of the wife of Joseph Bonaparte, and formerly counted on her list of suitors Napoleon himself. But the young general of artillery being then without employment, the father refused his consent to the match; saying, "that one Bonaparte was quite enough in the family." She therefore dismissed him, and accepted Bernadotte—which was about as poor a compliment to her taste and judgment as she could well pay.
    While Bonaparte was in Egypt, Bernadotte was intriguing at Paris. Being appointed Minister of War, his influence was thrown against the Directory, which, under the pretext of fearing that he was about to excite an insurrection, dismissed him, as before noticed, from his office. He was first apprised of it by a note declaring that his resignation was accepted. Perfectly furious at this summary way of disposing of him, he sat down and replied in bitter language, saying, "You accept a resignation which I have not given"; and demanded his half-pay.
    When Bonaparte, on his return, gathered around him his young lieutenants, Bernadotte was one of the three who stood aloof—Jourdan because he was a republican, Augereau because he was a Jacobin, and Bernadotte from envy and jealousy, and because he would take no part in elevating a man above himself. But no sooner was the former firmly established as First Consul, than this sturdy republican became an obsequious supplicant for office, and obtained the appointment of counsellor of state, and commander-in-chief of the Army of the West. But soon after, still filled with the idea that he was better able, and more worthy, to govern than Bonaparte, he mixed himself up with Moreau's conspiracy to overturn him. The plot being discovered, Moreau was exiled, while the former was disgraced by having his staff dissolved and his command withdrawn. English biographers, with stupid prejudice, assert that Bonaparte made the pretended conspiracy an excuse to humble a general that showed too much ability. Nothing can be more ridiculous than the endless reiteration of the charge that Napoleon was in a state of constant anxiety lest his lieutenants should be too successful, and therefore, the moment they fulfilled his commands, disgraced them.
    This is the more foolish, inasmuch as these same writers never weary of charging him with rigorous severity in his judgment, and with condemning and rebuking his generals whenever they failed in executing his orders, even though insurmountable obstacles intervened. That Bernadotte was implicated in the conspiracy of Pichegru and Moreau is now settled, from the confessions and documents of his friends who glory in it.
    Bonaparte at length became reconciled to him, through the mediation of Joseph's wife, the sister of Madame Bernadotte; and when he assumed the imperial crown, created him Marshal of the Empire, and gave him the command of the Army of Hanover, and of the eight cohort of the Legion of Honor—a remarkable instance of his generosity and magnanimity. The same institution of Legion of Honor, which Bernadotte now gloried in, he had opposed in the council of state with all the declamation peculiar to his race.
    In 1805 he was chosen president of the electoral college of Vaucluse, and was returned to the senate by the Lower Department of the Pyrenees—and the next year, after fighting bravely at Austerlitz, was created Prince of Ponte Corvo by Napoleon. The latter seemed determined, by flattering the pride of this self-conceited and overbearing Gascon, to keep him quiet and docile. At the battle of Jena, however his pride came very near securing again his downfall. When the Emperor sent to Davoust at Auerstadt—as mentioned in the description of that battle—to move forward, so as to take the enemy in rear, at evening, after he himself had defeated them in front, and, if Bernadotte had not departed for Dornberg, to take his corps also,—the latter had not departed, and it was plainly his duty to fulfill his last instructions. As it was, he took no part either in the battle of Jena or of Auerstadt, but with his splendid army marched within hearing of cannonading of both without rendering any assistance whatsoever. Napoleon's anger at his conduct, in thus leaving Davoust to maintain that unequal fight alone, was extreme. Said he, "If I should send him to a council of war nothing could save him from being shot. I will not speak to him on the subject, but I will let him see what I think of his conduct." Bernadotte, in his self-conceit, lets out the motive that prevented him from joining Davoust: "I was piqued," said he, "to be addressed in the language of authority by Davoust, but I did my duty. Let the Emperor accuse me if he pleases, I will answer him. I am a Gascon, but he is still more so." Constantly inflated with the idea of his self-importance, be struts about, boasting that he will answer the Emperor if he dares upbraid him—prouder to have shown his independence than he would have been had he won a battle.
    The reflection, however, that he had taken no part in either of those two great conflicts with which the world would ring, annoyed him excessively; and the opportunity furnished him a few days after, of striking a successful blow, was eagerly seized. Overtaking the Duke of Wurtemberg at Halle, he cut his army to pieces, and drove him back to Magdeburg. But failing to follow up his success as he ought, he let the greater part of the enemy slip through his fingers, when, if he had followed Napoleon's orders and pushed on, he would have captured the whole of it. This, together with his conduct at Auerstadt, brought down a torrent of indignation on him from the Emperor, and it is more than probable, that, had he not been connected with the Bonaparte family, he would have been placed where his gasconade would have been in future as harmless as it was ridiculous.
    In 1808 he was sent into the neighborhood of Hamburg with a large force; and though unsuccessful in his military operations, his administration as governor of Frionia and Jutland was so mild and conciliating that he won the esteem and good will of the inhabitants.
    In 1809, with other corps of the French army, he was summoned from the banks of the Elbe with his Saxon troops, to the island of Lobau, where the forces were concentrating, previous to the battle of Wagram. But on the first day of the battle, both in his attacks on the heights of Wagram and on the village of Aderklaa, he was repulsed and on the second day he met with a still more serious discomfiture in his encounter with the Austrian center. It was his troops that, in their confusion, overwhelmed the carriage of Massena, which so enraged the marshal that he ordered his dragoons to charge them as if they had been enemies. But, notwithstanding his defeat, Bernadotte, who never contemplated himself except with the most perfect satisfaction, and could see nothing but glory in his own actions, issued, the very day after the battle, a proclamation to his soldiers, in which he spoke in the most inflated terms of their bravery. Said he: "Saxons! on the day of the 5th of July, seven or eight thousand of you pierced the center of the enemy's army, and reached Deutch Wagram, despite all the efforts of forty thousand of the enemy supported by sixty pieces of cannon; you continued the combat till midnight, and bivouacked in the middle of the Austrian lines. At daybreak on the 6th, you renewed the combat with the same perseverance, and, in the midst of the ravages of the enemy's artillery, your living columns have remained immovable like brass. The great Napoleon was a witness to your devotion; he has enrolled you among his bravest followers. Saxons the fortunes of a soldier consists in the performance of his duties; you have worthily performed yours." This eulogium would have applied with great pertinency to Macdonald and his iron column, or to Oudinot and his steady battalions, but, pronounced over the Saxon troops, was the most impudent falsehood ever uttered by a sane man. Napoleon immediately issued an order of the day, in which he declared, that the proclamation of the Prince of Ponte Corvo was "contrary to truth, to policy, and to national honor,"—that "the corps of the Prince of Ponte Corvo did not remain immovable as brass, but were the first to beat a retreat." This order of the day was directed to be circulated among the marshals and ministers alone, so as not to distress the Saxon troops.
    This—giving the lie so direct—for once, perfectly stunned Bernadotte; and his feathers dropped still more, when he found, a few days after, that his corps was dissolved, and he was disgraced from his command. He sought, again and again, a private interview with Napoleon, but the latter steadily refused to see him, and the disgraced marshal returned to Paris.
    One hardly knows which to be surprised at most in this proclamation of Bernadotte—the falsehood it contained, the impudence that dare publish it, or the self-conceit that would presume to distribute that praise or blame which the Emperor alone had a right to do. One cannot help from getting a supreme contempt for such a character, however much military ability he may at other times exhibit.
    On his return to Paris he was appointed by the Ministry to defend Antwerp from the attacks of the English, who had just landed at Walcheren: but no sooner did Napoleon hear of the appointment, than he sent Bessieres to supersede him. Soon after, Bernadotte publishing some other folly, Bonaparte exiled him. Subsequently, however, an interview took place between them at Vienna, which allayed somewhat the anger of the Emperor, and Prince Ponte Corvo was restored to favor. He received the appointment of governor of Rome, and was preparing to depart for Italy, when the astounding news was brought him, that he was elected Crown Prince of Sweden.
    A revolution had taken place in Sweden, and Gustavus IV was dethroned. The government was immediately placed under the protection of Napoleon, but he refused to involve himself with the powers of the North by accepting such a trust. Efforts were then made to conclude an alliance between Prince Augustus, the heir apparent, and some member of the Bonaparte family. But an end was suddenly put to all expectations of this kind, by the death of the prince, who fell from his horse in a fit of apoplexy, while reviewing his guards. The throne was now open to aspirants. The states of Sweden had the power to choose their king, but they wished in their election to secure themselves against the grasping power of Russia. Russia, on the other hand, was anxious to have one on the throne who would be bound to her interests—Napoleon one who would act as a sort of counterpoise to the growing strength of the former. In this state of affairs, the King of Denmark put in his claim and endeavored to induce Bonaparte to support it. But the leading men in the kingdom were opposed to his appointmentment, as they knew it would be displeasing to the majority of the Swedes.
    In the midst of this agitation and excitement, an article appeared in the Journal des Débats, declaring that the election of the King of Denmark would be acceptable to the Emperor. This sent consternation through Sweden; and amid other suggestions as to the mode of relieving themselves from embarrassment, some of the chief men proposed that a French general should be elected crown prince. The public mind naturally fell on Bernadotte, who in 1807 had commanded the army on the shores of the Baltic, and, by his kindness toward some Swedish prisoners taken in Poland, endeared himself to many of the inhabitants. Besides, he was regarded in Sweden as the favorite marshal of Napoleon. How much his gasconade while on the Baltic had to do with this opinion, it is impossible to tell. He was also the nearest relative of the Emperor, of any fame, without a throne, and to elect him, therefore, seemed to secure the protection of the former, which Sweden was determined to have at all hazards, for his star was then in the ascendant, and his strong arm was sufficient to protect any ally. Still, all these reasons combined would not, probably, have secured his election, but for the timely occurrence of a single mistake. The committee of twelve, appointed to recommend a successor to the Diet, met, and at the first ballot the young prince of Augustenburg had eleven votes, and Bernadotte one. The chances of the latter, therefore, were far from being favorable; but, previous to the day of final meeting, a French agent arrived, and announced, though without any authority, that the election of Bernadotte would meet the wishes of Napoleon. This settled the question at once, and he was chosen. Whose agent this was, or by whose instigation he was sent to make such a declaration, does not appear. At all events, the trick succeeded.
    When the result was announced to Bernadotte, he referred the whole matter to Napoleon as his Emperor. The latter advised him to accept, and promised him two millions of francs as an outfit. English historians say, however, that he used every effort to dissuade him from accepting, and finally submitted with as good grace as possible, and endeavored by his generosity and kindness to bind him to his interests. The picture they draw of him in this affair makes him appear in a most unenviable light; but there is only one statement necessary to render it all plain. If Napoleon had wished to prevent Bernadotte from taking the crown, he had but to say it, and that would have ended the matter; or had he intimated to the Diet of Sweden that he never would countenance the election, it would have been put aside. The sole motive of the Diet was to secure his good will and protection—while Bernadotte would as soon have laid his head on the block, as undertaken to have filled the Swedish throne contrary to his command. All powerful as the former then was, it would have been madness to have done so without his hearty co-operation; and it was only because he was so powerful, that it was permitted by Denmark and Russia. The crown of Sweden was as much the gift of Napoleon to Bernadotte as if he had himself placed it on his head. It is true he wished him still to be a subject of France, as Murat was; but finding it repugnant to his feelings, withdrew his request.
    Bernadotte entered Stockholm in triumph, and was immediately adopted by the aged Charles XIV as his son, with the name of Charles John. The old king being too far advanced in life to take an active part in matters of state, the government of Sweden depended on Bernadotte as much as if he had already been crowned. But with such a man at the head of affairs, it was not to be expected that friendly relations could long exist between Sweden and France. Napoleon insisted that the former, as it had virtually put itself under his protection, should share his fortunes—and as he was then at war with England, immediately close her ports against English ships. This Bernadotte refused to do until it became a choice between a war with England and one with France, and then submitted; though the fulfillment of his contract was a piece of mockery throughout. English goods were smuggled in, and a contraband trade kept up, so that the ports were really as open to British traders as ever. This system of double dealing was to secure two things: the revenue which trade with England furnished, and peace with France at the same time. The consequence was, that England did not trouble Swedish merchantmen, but let them go and come as in time of peace. This violation of good faith, and this deception, which was to be expected from Bernadotte, exasperated Napoleon beyond bounds, and he used stern and threatening language toward the treacherous government. Finding at last that nothing was to be gained by words, he seized on Pomerania, and treated Sweden as an open enemy: this completed the estrangement, and Bernadotte waited only for a favorable opportunity to ally himself with Russia against France. He hesitated, however, to provoke the deadly blow of the man he had learned to fear; and shuffled and delayed, and expostulated and promised, till the disastrous issue of the Russian campaign gave  him hopes that the hour of his rival's overthrow had come.
    Soon after, when the great confederacy was formed against the falling Emperor, he was assigned a conspicuous place in the conferences of Trachenberg; yet even here, his selfish and vain heart still hesitated. With the maps illustrating the proposed operations laid out before him, and flourishing his scented white pocket-handkerchief in his hand, he harangued with his usual pomposity on the greatness of the plans, and uttered flaming declarations of his zeal for the common cause; yet still hung back from the coalition. He was afraid that the mighty genius which had shaken Europe so long and so terribly would rise superior to the disasters that environed it; and then woe to the charity-King who had dared to open his cannon on the ranks of his countrymen, and against the benefactor who had given him his crown. His unbounded vanity also stepped in; and, if he joined the confederacy at all, he wished to be appointed commander-in-chief of the allied forces.
    But at length this pompous King, this half-charlatan, half-genius, struck hands with Russia and Austria—the former the natural enemy of his kingdom—and at the head of 30,000 troops marched into the field. A Gascon to the last, he, in order to cover his infamy and excuse his conduct wrote a hypocritical impudent, and bombastic letter to Napoleon, urging him—though at the time in a death-struggle for his throne—to abandon the idea of universal dominion; and ended by declaring that in fighting against him he was espousing the cause of liberty against tyranny. False-hearted and false-tongued, he seemed to be ignorant when he was committing an insult, or uttering an untruth.
    Moreau, another traitor to France, landed at this time in Europe from the United States, and proceeded immediately to Stralsund, to have an interview with Bernadotte. The latter received him with thunders of artillery, and all the pomp and display becoming a triumphant hero. Cordial in their hatred of Napoleon, these two generals, nevertheless, felt a little awkward when they began to concert together to subdue their former master, and march against the troops they had so often led to battle.
    While Napoleon was overthrowing the allies at Dresden, Oudinot was advancing against Bernadotte, who intercepted his route to Berlin. With a little over 70,000 men he came upon the Prince Royal at Gros Beeren with over a hundred thousand troops at his disposal. With this overwhelming force against him, Oudinot, as mentioned before, was defeated with great slaughter. Ney, who superseded him, shared the same fate. These victories, for which even the panegyrists of Bernadotte give him but partial praise, filled his mind with extravagant ideas of his greatness, and he looked forward to the overthrow of Napoleon, as paving the way to the throne of France, to which he confidently expected to be called.
    When the Allies marched on Paris, he hesitated for some time to cross the Rhine, and took no part in the campaign of 1814, which ended in the capitulation of the French capital. This his friends attribute to his love for France, and repugnance to appear as an enemy on the soil of his native country. But one would think that after he had butchered the troops which once followed him joyfully into battle and helped to overturn the government that had fostered him, he would have little scruple to march on Paris.
    The truth is, his supreme selfishness, vanity, and ambition lay at the bottom of his inactivity. He was afraid that, if he pushed matters to extremity, it would interfere with his future prospects, so be kept aloof and addressed an inflated proclamation to the people of France, vindicating his conduct. But neither France nor the allied powers took the same exalted views of his capacities that he himself did; and he returned to Sweden, with only the gift of Norway in his hand, as a reward for his services in the common cause, and as a remuneration for the loss of Finland which Russia had wrested from his grasp. In 1818, the old monarch dying, Bernadotte was crowned King of Sweden, with the title of Charles XIV., and a few months after  King of Norway also at Drontheim; and continued to reign as a very just and equitable monarch, though completely under the thumb of Russia. He died a few years since, and left his throne to his son Oscar. To this son, born in 1799, Napoleon stood as godfather and gave him his name. He married, in 1823, Josephine Maximilienne, eldest daughter of Eugene Beaubarnois, Viceroy of Italy.
    It was thought, at the death of Bernadotte, that Prince Gustavus Vasa would make an effort for the throne but Oscar seated himself quietly in the place of his father, and now rules as a wise and able king.
    Bernadotte has been extravagantly eulogized by his friends, and all his stupid jealousy and vain ambition tortured into integrity of character and true patriotism. The mere fact that he occupied a throne, and was able to manage well a country that did not require as much intelligence and strqngth of character as to rule the State of New York; and still better, that he struck hands with the allies and turned against the author of his fortunes, and the land of his birth, have placed him in great favor with the enemies of Napoleon. But had he exhibited the same vanity and ridiculous self-conceit—enacted the same follies, and yet stood as firm to his master's cause as did the other marshals, he would have been the butt and ridicule of all historians.
    Still, with all his boasting, he was firm and cool in the hour of danger, and of great energy and resources on the battle-field. He is called a great general, but it is bard to show where he merited the title. He was not an inferior one, it is true, nor does his career exhibit the traits of a superior one. His vanity and sensitiveness respecting the honor due him constantly interfered with the operations of his intellect; and with his mind divided between himself and the object he was after, he necessarily committed many blunders. He was a good general, and with a little more mind would have been a distinguished one. His bravery was proverbial to the army. He has been frequently known, when his men recoiled before a deadly fire, to throw his epaulettes among the enemy—and thus shame them into bravery. In this respect he resembled a fighting-cock, of which his countenance almost instantaneously reminded one. With round, sharp eyes, a small, hooked nose, feeble intellectual developments, and a brusque, confident, and pompous air, he had all the courage of this warlike bird, as well as its amazing capacities for crowing. Even the allies, with whom he made common cause, gave him the sobriquet of Charles Jean Charlatan. Querulous, bombastic, vain, declamatory, and boasting, he so tasked the patience of Napoleon, that it required all his generosity of character, backed by his relationship, and the intercessions of his brother's wife, to prevent him from putting him one side, as an impracticable general and a trustless friend. Yet the rebukes which the former sometimes administered, English biographers declare grew out of envy of Bernadotte's brilliant talents and great achievements; while the vanity, jealousy, and envy of the latter, who could appreciate nobody but himself, and was fault-finding and intractable—they call patriotism and hatred of tyranny. His denunciations of Napoleon, however, sprung from any source but Republicanism. Opposing his election as First Consul, then taking appointment from his hands when elected; conspiring against his authority and life, then swearing allegiance to his throne; too Republican to help place a man in power, yet fawning upon him when there; opposing vehemently the establishment of the Legion of Honor, afterwards wearing its insignia with pride when bestowed on him; declaiming like an old Roman against the assumption of regal power by Napoleon, yet grasping eagerly the first crown placed within his reach; mourning over the fall of liberty in France at the establishment of the Empire, yet banding with tyrants to overthrow what freedom there was left in Europe,—he stands before the world the most singular republican and patriot it has ever produced. Quarreling with his king and equals alike; too vain and conceited to obey, yet too shallow to command in chief; ready to sacrifice the welfare of the entire army in order to gratify personal pride; breaking over all rules of propriety in his arrogant attempts to screen his defeats; making use of his relationship to Napoleon to be restored to favor, after he had been disgraced, yet striking at his very heart the moment he can do it with safety; receiving a crown as a gift, and then helping to uncrown the giver; uttering frothy words of patriotism to France, yet invading her territory, overturning her throne, and sending a hostile army into her capital; false to his old friends and benefactor, and cruel as the grave to the land of his birth; traitor alike to his principles and the claims of gratitude;—he is about as unsymmetrical and contemptible a character as one would wish to see on a throne. His panegyrists are welcome to their subject, and the haters of Bonaparte to their ally and friend.
    Still, he was not a vindictive and cruel man in his disposition. His rapacity grew out of his love of display, his unscrupulous use of the means to elevate himself out of his inordinate ambition; and nine-tenths of all his follies and quarrels, out of his boundless vanity and incurable self-conceit. He obtained the character of charlatan among his friends, from his love of declamation, and great pleasure in hearing himself harangue; in short, he was a thorough Gascon—intrepid, cool in the hour of danger—had some genius—some talent—was very lucky; and, either by mistake or trick, obtained a crown, and took a place amid the kings of the earth, which has thrown a mantle over his character and a dignity about his name.

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