Napoleon and His Marshals - Vol. II
His Efforts under Kosciusko to Save his Country— Appointed Minister of State in the Grand Duchy of Warsaw— Joins Napoleon In his Invasion of Russia— His Last Struggle at Leipsic— His Tragical Death and Imposing Funeral— His Character.
I INTRODUCE a short sketch of Poniatowski, for the same reason that I did one of Brune, simply to make the gallery of marshals complete. Though his life and battles would make a volume by itself, still he does not occupy a prominent part in the history of the French Empire, nor form one of the chief characters in the great Napoleonic drama.
Joseph Poniatowski was born at Warsaw in 1763 of noble parents. Eleven years after his birth, in 1774, Stanislaus, is uncle, ascended the throne of Poland, and the family received the title of Prince. He first appears on the stage of action in 1794, just before the final partition of Poland. This unhappy republic, which Providence, from some inscrutable designs of its own, has allowed to be trampled under foot, and blotted out from the map of nations by tyrants, as no other country ever before has been, was destined to see its final overthrow under the brave, noble-hearted, and patriotic Kosciusko. Divided and portioned off in 1772 by the two Imperial robbers who sat on the thrones of Russia and Austria, and re-divided in 1793 by Russia and Prussia, the cup of her suffering seemed full. The royal plunderers kept two immense armies marching over her territory, to take care of the rich booty that already began to burn in their hands; until, at length, the energy and courage of despair took the place of submission, and a devoted band of patriots, maddened by the injustice and outrage everywhere committed, resolved to save their country or perish in the effort. Kosciusko, a name which can never be spoken in an American assembly without sending a thrill of emotion through every heart, was chosen their leader. This patriot and warrior had just seen a band of freemen hurl from their necks the yoke of oppression which a tyrannical power sought to fasten there; and, side by side with their chieftains, had nobly struggled in their cause. With joy he had witnessed the triumph of freedom on these shores, and then, when his work was done, sheathed his sword, and with a sad heart turned his footsteps toward unhappy Poland. When the war-cry was shouted from the streets of Warsaw, and he was declared the leader of the patriots, he knew it was a dreadful struggle in which he was to engage. But he had learned from the success of our almost hopeless struggle to have faith in the power of Right, and firmly stepped before the little band that had nobly thrown themselves between their country and the armies of two powerful despots.
Poniatowski took command of one of the divisions in Kosciusko's army, although in 1792 the latter served as major-general under him in his expedition against the Russians; and during the short but sanguinary struggle that followed, exhibited that valor which afterwards won the highest praise from Napoleon. The Poles, though at first successful, were finally utterly routed at Maciejowice, and Kosciusko, covered with wounds, was taken prisoner. Poniatowski then fled to Warsaw, determined to defend it to the last; thither also the Russian thousands swarmed, with the pitiless Suwarrow at their head. The Poles in Praga, on the other side of the river, fortified themselves, and planted a hundred cannon so as to sweep the bridge of the Vistula; but the indomitable Russian hurled his massive columns in such strength on the patriots that in spite of their utmost endeavors they were rolled back toward the river. Forced in a confused crowd on the bridge, they crushed the yielding structure under their feet, and were precipitated headlong into the stream.
Warsaw shrieked in dismay and anguish, as she saw her brave sons cut off from her protecting walls—the river ran blood, and amid the flames of the burning houses, and cries of despair, Suwarrow raged with his bloodhounds amid the defenseless multitude. Women and children fell in the indiscriminate massacre, infants were carried about on the points of Cossack lances, and over eleven thousand bodies were piled in the streets of Praga, and along the banks of the Vistula.
Warsaw fell, and Poniatowski, dejected and disheartened, went to Vienna. The Emperor and Empress, Paul and Catherine, used every endeavor to reconcile him to their sway; but his uncle was a prisoner in Petersburg, his family driven from the throne, and Poland, rent asunder, had been divided like a carcass among wild animals; and he wished no connection with the doers of all this wrong. His heart burning with indignation, and his memory still fresh with the bloody scenes he had seen at Warsaw, be rejected all their offers, and lived in retirement on his estate.
Here he remained inactive while Europe was shaking with battles, apparently indifferent to the strife going on about him, since Poland was no more; till 1807, when Napoleon overthrew the army of Russia at Friedland. In the treaty of Tilsit that followed, it was stipulated that the provinces, which before the partition in 1772 belonged to Poland, and had since been held by Prussia, should be formed into the Duchy of Warsaw, and given to the King of Saxony. This initiatory step towards wresting back from those grasping powers their ill-gotten territory aroused Poniatowski from his indifference, and he accepted the office of minister of state in the new Duchy. He now began to look on Napoleon's movements with the deepest anxiety, and gradually identified himself with his interests, till he fell in the struggle to sustain his tottering empire. He felt that the only hope of his country was in the success of the French Emperor, and he bent all his energies to secure it: he had faith in him, and knew it was the wish of his heart to re-establish the fallen throne. Many of the patriot Poles have wronged Napoleon, in condemning him or not doing more for Poland than he did, but will they lay their finger on the spot where he could, without endangering the welfare of his own country, have emancipated theirs? It required a stronger hand than even his, to wrest away the plunder the three most powerful governments of the Continent had divided among themselves. It would have been the cause of an endless quarrel; and instead of struggling for France, he would have been compelled to devote all his energies to the safety and existence of Poland. It is true the Poles poured out their blood for him like water, and, glad to scourge the nations that had trampled them under foot, and at the same time strike tyranny in any part of the world, flocked to his victorious standard, and bore him triumphantly over many a battlefield. Their great services demanded a great reward, and could Napoleon have succeeded in his invasion of Russia, they would have had no cause to complain of his want of generosity. Russia's share of Poland would certainly have been given back to her, and Poniatowski knew it. Beloved by the Emperor, he was made aware of his designs and wishes, and hence felt that in helping him to crush the powers about him he was preparing the way for the resurrection of his country. Bonaparte declared at St. Helena that he intended, if he had succeeded in Russia, to have placed him on the throne.
He continued in the Duchy of Warsaw, protected by the powerful arm of the French Emperor, till 1809, when Austria, for the sole purpose of frightening Saxony out of her friendship for France, invaded it. Russia was then the ally of the latter, and had promised to protect Warsaw, so that Napoleon had made no provisions for its defense. More than 30,000 Austrians were moving down on that dependent province, to meet which Poniatowski could bring only 12,000 men into the field. Scorning, however, to ask the co-operation of his Russian allies, whom he hated as cordially as he did the Austrians, he prepared alone to meet this formidable array. He drew up his inconsiderable force at Raszyn, and there, for four hours, withstood the whole shock of the Austrian army. But 12,000 against 30,000 was too great an inequality; and he was compelled to fall back on Warsaw. Forced, at length, to capitulate, he marched with heavy heart out of the capital, accompanied by the authorities and all the principal inhabitants of the city.
The Archduke Ferdinand supposed he would immediately abandon the Duchy and retreat to Saxony, but Poniatowski boldly resolved to dispute his territory to the last; and returned up the Vistula, towards Gallicia, whither the Russian army was slowly marching, in order to co-operate with his troops. In the mean time, however, he surprised an Austrian division and took 1500 prisoners. But, in pursuing up his advantage, he effected a more important capture, and made a discovery which showed how little reliance could be placed on the good faith of those governments with which Bonaparte was compelled to treat. A courier, on his way to the Austrian headquarters, was intercepted, and in his dispatches was found a letter from a Russian general to Archduke Ferdinand, congratulating him on his capture of Warsaw—confidently predicting complete success to his efforts, and winding up with the wish that their arms might soon be united in the same cause. This certainly was a most peculiar letter to be sent from an ally to an enemy, and calculated to throw some doubts over the honesty of the Russian Emperor. Poniatowski immediately forwarded it to Bonaparte, in whom it aroused the most violent indignation. He dispatched it instantly to the Emperor Alexander, and demanded, in language that could not be misunderstood, an explanation. The Emperor declared it was written without his authority; and, as an evidence of his sincerity, immediately removed the unlucky general who was its author. Napoleon professed to be satisfied, but it was evident that the great sin of the general consisted in being found out. Conversing with Savary afterward, he said "I was perfectly in the right not to trust such allies. What worse could have happened if I had not made peace with the Russians? What have I gained by their alliance? It is more than probable that they would have declared openly against me, if a remnant of regard to the faith of treaties had not prevented them. We must not deceive ourselves; they have all fixed a rendezvous on my tomb, but they have not the courage openly to set out thither. That the Emperor Alexander should come to my assistance is conceivable, but that he should permit Warsaw to be taken, almost in presence of the army is, indeed, hardly credible; it is plain that I can no longer rely on an alliance in that quarter. . . . And yet, after all, they will probably say that I am wanting in my engagements, and cannot remain at peace."
Soon after Napoleon's operations on the Danube calling the attention of Ferdinand from Warsaw, he withdrew his forces, and was finally compelled to leave the Duchy. The battle of Wagram and the peace of Vienna followed, and among the stipulations of the treaty, a territory, containing about 150,000 inhabitants, was taken from Russia and added to the Duchy of Warsaw. Thus Poland seemed to be getting back by slow degrees her ancient possessions. The outcry that Russia made about this strip of land, although a piece was cut from Austria and given to her as an offset, should convince the friends of Poland how difficult it would have been for Bonaparte to have wrenched from the sordid grasp of those monarchs the entire kingdom they had dismembered. It is pitiful to see with what greediness those royal plunderers gloated over their ill-gotten gains, and how narrowly they watched every shiver of the corpse they had mutilated.
At length, all other considerations were forgotten in the contemplated invasion of Russia. Napoleon, by his wonderful genius, had at length subdued his rivals, and not only induced Austria, and Prussia, and the whole territory from the Rhine to the Niemen to allow his armies a free passage, but he had prevailed on each monarch to furnish his quota of men to march under his banners and fight for the accomplishment of his plans. Among those who opposed the expedition, yet, when resolved upon, gave soul and heart to it, was Poniatowski; bringing nearly 40,000 Poles to swell the myriad numbers of the Grand Army. He fought bravely at the head of his followers, and at Smolensko and Borodino, and throughout the desolate retreat, brought a good sword, a noble heart, and a strong intellect to the aid of the Emperor. And then was seen the just retribution of Heaven. Poniatowski had witnessed the degradation of his country by Russian power, his capital sacked by Russian barbarians, and its women and children butchered in thousands by Russian soldiers. His proud heart had been compelled to bear and to suffer all this, and now the day of vengeance had come. He poured his victorious Poles through the burning streets of Smolensko, and bade them pitch their tents amid the ruins of the capital of his haughty enemy. The fire and the sword had been carried back to the homes of the invaders, and the cup they had compelled Poland to drink pressed to their trembling lips.
In the fatal retreat the Poles suffered less than any of the others, and exhibited great bravery and endurance. The first man across the Beresina was a Pole, and Napoleon never had better or more devoted troops than the Polish soldiers.
Poniatowski still clung with his diminished army to Napoleon in his falling fortunes, and at Leipsic fought his last battle, and poured out his life-blood for him and his cause.
The defection of Bavaria previous to the battle of Leipsic, and the treachery of the Saxon troops in the heat of the engagement, determined its issue and settled the fate of the French Empire. The allies brought to the encounter nearly 300,000 men and 1300 cannon, while Bonaparte had but 175,000 and 750 cannon. The latter were drawn up around Leipsic—with the city and the river Elster lying in rear—awaiting the onset of the immense host that was moving to the attack. On the last fatal day, at nine o'clock, the battle opened, and nearly half a million of men engaged in mortal combat. The scene at this moment was indescribably awful—the whole plain was black with the moving masses, save where the myriads of glittering helmets rose and fell in the sunlight, while 800 cannon, in one huge semi-circle, opened their united thunder on the French.
Clouds of dust filled the air—and amid the roar of artillery, the strains of martial music, the shrill neighing of tens of thousands of horses moving to battle, and all the deafening clamor and solemn murmurs of a mighty army, the shock came. Nearly two thousand cannon opened with terrific explosions on the living masses, and the frightful carnage began. Poniatowski on the right, was the first engaged. Made Marshal of France the day before by the Emperor, he burned to distinguish himself; and, though at first forced back by the heavy charge, he firmly held his position against the united onsets of artillery, cavalry, and infantry, that from morning till night thundered in overwhelming numbers and power on his diminished troops. A wilder day this earth never saw, and when darkness separated the combatants both armies sank down exhausted and silence, solemn and awful, fell over the bloody field.
Napoleon was beaten, and soon gave orders to retreat. All night long the weary thousands went pouring over the bridge, and when daylight dawned the allies beheld with joy the retiring masses of the enemy. A general movement on Leipsic immediately followed, and the victorious columns went rushing with shouts to the attack. All was uproar and confusion. Artillery, infantry, cavalry, ammunition and baggage wagons, and chariots, were crowded and rolled together, and went streaming over the only remaining bridge. A rear guard under Macdonald, Lauriston, and Poniatowski, was formed to cover this disorderly retreat. As Napoleon gave his directions to each, he said to Poniatowski, "Prince, you will defend the suburbs of the south." "Sire," he replied, "I have but few followers left." (He had but 2700 men left out of all the brave Poles he led two days before into battle.) "What then," added Napoleon, "you will defend it with what you have!" "Ah, sire!" replied the exhausted but still unconquered chieftain, "we are all ready to die for your Majesty!"
I have already spoken in my sketch of Macdonald, of the heroic defence these two leaders made, and of the consternation and woe that followed the premature blowing up of the bridge. Poniatowski struggled bravely to arrest the victorious allies, until he heard the explosion that sent it into the air; and then he drew his sword, saying to the officers around him, "Gentlemen, it now behooves us to die with honor." With his little band around him, be dashed on a column of the enemy that crossed his path, and, though severely wounded, he fought his way through to the Pleisse, a small stream he must cross before he reached the Elster. Dismounting from his horse, he passed it on foot, but finding that he was fainting from fatigue and loss of blood, he attempted to mount another. With difficulty vaulting to the saddle, he spurred boldly into the Elster. His good steed bore him safely across, but as he was struggling up the opposite bank the earth gave way under his feet, and he fell back on his rider—and Poniatowski disappeared in the water and never rose again. Weary, wounded, and bleeding, this last calamity was too much for his strength and he had done as he said, "died with honor."
The allies celebrated his funeral with great magnificence, and those kings who had driven his family from the throne, buried his capital in ashes, plundered and divided his country as if it were common booty, now gathered in solemn pomp around his coffin. Countless banners drooped mournfully over the fallen chief—mighty armies formed his funeral procession, and elegiac strains from a thousand trumpets were breathed over his grave. But amid all this imposing mockery of woe, the noble-hearted Pole was not without some sincere mourners. His few remaining followers who had battled by his side to the last, pressed in silence around his coffin, and, with tears streaming down their faces, reached out their hands to touch the pall. There lay the Prince they had loved, the leader they had followed, the last of the royal line, and the only hope of Poland—cold and stiff in death. Ah! the tears of those rough warriors were worth more than all the pomp and magnificence imperial pride had gathered round that bier, and honored the patriot for whom they were shed more than royal eulogies or splendid pageants.
"Poniatowski," said Napoleon, "was a noble character, full of honor and bravery,"—a short but comprehensive eulogium. A skillful commander a bold warrior, and true friend; wise in counsel, of pure patriotism and unsullied honor, he was beloved by his friends and mourned by his enemies. He had redeemed all the follies of his weak relative Stanislaus, and proved that he was worthy to sit on the throne of Poland. Tried by misfortune, he was never found wanting: his enemies could not bribe him nor his friends allure him from that deep devotion to his country which was the great passion of his life. He left no spot on his name, and at the last preferred death to surrender, and proudly let his enemies dig his grave, conscious that when they lay his sword across his coffin none dare point to a stain on the blade.
(If you surfed directly to this page, please go to the Napoleonic Literature Home Page to see the wealth of information that's available on this website.)