THE RETREAT FROM MOSCOW.
The blazing towers of Moscow, the turning-point of Napoleon's invasion and his fortune, have scarcely crumbled to ashes before the fated army turn their faces homeward. One would like to be made acquainted with the conversations of Ney and the other marshals as they sat together in the Kremlin, and talked over the disastrous issue they had met, and the only way of escape from total annihilation. The fiery and impetuous harangues of some, and the blunt characteristic replies of others, while the crackling of the flames and the falling of columns and walls without were borne to their cars, must have been in the highest degree dramatic. From the heap of ruins and from the solitude which was more prophetic than the uproar of the storm, the Grand Army commenced its retreat. A hundred and fifty thousand men, with nearly six hundred pieces of cannon, marched in separate columns over the open country, while behind in three separate files—stretching away till they were lost in the distance—followed forty thousand stragglers, with an endless train of carriages and wagons, loaded with the rich booty of the capital, and surmounted by countless standards, and the cross of Ivan the Great. Multitudes of women were mingled in this confused throng, and among them Russian girls, who were willing captives, Thus the mighty caravan dragged its slow length along, gradually diminishing day after day, under the fatiguing march and increasing cold, strewing the roads with the costliest furs and stuffs of the East, together with wagons and carriages.
At length, fighting its way, the army approached the field of Borodino, on which, nearly two months before, that "Battle of Giants" had been fought. As the column slowly toiled on, they came upon heaps of human skeletons, and corpses half devoured. Thirty thousand mutilated forms covered the plain, and amid them deserted drums, broken helmets, shattered wagons, gun-stocks, and fragments of uniforms, and torn and bloody standards sweeping the ground over which they lately floated in pride. The earth was all furrowed up, and desolation and gloom reigned over the scene. The height, on which stood the great redoubt, where the heat of the conflict had been, was white with skeletons that lay unburied where they fell. The field seemed a great cemetery which an earthquake had suddenly rent asunder,—emptying all its inmates upon the surface. Oh! it was a melancholy spectacle—that sad and dispirited throng treading amid the wreck and skeletons of a dead army.
At Wiazma Ney was appointed to relieve Davoust, and with his corps cover the retreat. In this act Napoleon utters more distinctly his opinion of that Marshal's generalship than language can do. The whole history of Ney's conduct during that memorable retreat seems to belong rather to some hero of romance than an actual man. The wonderful details appear incredible, and would not be believed if the evidence was not incontestable. With a mere handful of men he placed himself between the French and Russian armies, and by his marvelous exertion, desperate valor, and exhaustless ingenuity, saved a portion of that host which would otherwise have been totally annihilated. The retreat alone would make him immortal. With all the fault found with his generalship, there was not a commander among either the French or allied forces during the whole war, that ever did or ever could accomplish what Ney performed in that memorable flight. Had he fallen Bonaparte would have probably fallen also, and the former really saved the army, which the latter never could have alone. Without provisions, almost without arms, he battled the well-tried and countless legions of Russia back from his Emperor; and over the wintry fields of snow and amid the driving storm, with a heart untamed and a will unsubdued, he hovered like a protecting spirit around the divided and flying ranks of his countrymen. The soldiers, exhausted and despairing, threw their muskets from them into the snow-drifts, and lay down by thousands to die. Cold, benumbed, and famine-struck, this ghost of an army straggled on through the deep snow, with nothing, but the tall pines swaying and roaring mournfully in the blast for landmarks to the glazing eye, while an enraged and well-disciplined army was pressing in the rear. Clouds of ravens, whose dusky forms glanced like spirits through the snow-filled air croaked over the falling columns, while troops of dogs, that had followed the army from Moscow, fell on the prostrate forms before life was wholly extinct. The storm howled by as the soldiers sunk at night in the snow to rest, many to rise no more, while the morning sun, if it shone at all, looked cold and dimly down through the flying clouds of a northern sky. There were long intervals when not a drum or trumpet-note broke the muffled tread of the staggering legions.
On the rear of such an army, and in sight of such horrors did Ney combat. Nothing but a spirit unconquerable as fate itself could have sustained him, or kept alive the flagging courage of his troops. Stumbling every moment over the dead bodies of their comrades who had marched but a few hours in advance of them, thousands threw away their arms in despair, and wandered off into the wilderness to die with cold, or be slain by the Cossacks. Yet Ney kept a firm band around him that all the power of Russia could not conquer. Now ordering his march with the skill of a general, and now with musket in hand fighting like a common soldier, the moral force of his example accomplished what authority alone never could have done. At length the brave and heroic commander seemed to have reached the crisis of his fate, and there appeared no escape from the doom that hung over him. The Russians had finally placed themselves between the French army and that rear guard, now dwindled to a few thousand. Ignorant of his danger, Ney was leading his columns through a dense fog to the banks of the Lossmina, on which were strewed the dead bodies of his countrymen, when a battery of forty cannon suddenly poured a destructive storm of grape-shot into the very heart of his ranks. The next moment the heights before him and on either side appeared lined witn dense masses of infantry and artillery. Ney had done all that man could do, and here his career seemed about to close. He was ordered to capitulate. He replied, "A Marshal of France never surrenders," and closing his column marched straight upon the batteries. Vain valor. His noble and devoted followers proved themselves worthy of their heroic leader, but after a loss of half their number they were compelled to retire. Finding the army gradually extending itself on every side to hem him in, he returned back toward Smolensko.
He had left this city on the 17th of November, supposing that Davoust was to sustain him; but he soon found that he must fight his way alone to the army. Despair then seized every heart, and a fathomless abyss yawned beneath that lone rear guard; and all discipline would have been lost, but for the sway which the lofty mind, rather than outward command, of Ney held over his troops. His kindness to the sufferers, and his care for the wounded, and the great generosity and self-denial he exhibited, were more potent than discipline to bind his devoted band to him. As they left the gates of Smolensko, a French mother, finding she had not room in her sledge for her infant child, cast it from her into the snow in spite of its piercing cries and pleading tones. Ney, touched by the spectacle, lifted up the infant himself, and replaced it on the mother's breast, bidding her cherish and protect it. Again did she cast it away, and again did he carry it in his own brave arms back to her; and though the mother was finally left to die on the frozen ground, that tender infant survived all the horrors of the retreat and lived to see France. What an eulogy on this man of steel was this single act! With destruction staring him and his army in the face, he, though hardened in a hundred battles, and called "the bravest of the brave," could forget his own dangers and duties in the efforts to save the life of a single infant. Countless acts of this kind, showing that in that fearless heart dwelt the kindliest sympathies of our nature, created a bond of affection between him and the meanest soldier, and enhanced ten-fold their awe of him when he moved in such terrible strength through the carnage of battle.
Pressing eagerly on, Ney and his six thousand men came upon Krasnoi, where Napoleon had struggled so nobly to save Davoust. Ignorant of the battle that had been fought there, the soldiers still knew its whole history; for by the caps lying amid the corpses, and the uniforms scattered here and there over the frosty ground, they could pick out even the regiments that had suffered most. Hurrying over this sad field, where they stumbled every moment over their unburied comrades, and horses lying still alive in their harness, amid broken muskets, and helmets, and dismounted cannon—kicking up, along every ravine where the snow had drifted, the horrid relies as they marched forward, they came at length to the Lossmina.
It was back over such a road that Ney, after his repulse, ordered his soldiers to march. They stood and gazed in amazement at him, as if they could not have heard aright, and then, wondering, as they afterwards said, at their own submission, quietly obeyed him. It was a dark and cold, night—a night of sixteen hours in length, when the shattered and bleeding column began its retreat, and retrod the battlefield over which it had marched with shuddering only a short time before. At length coming to a ravine, Ney halted and ordered the snow to be cleared away, thinking there must be a stream beneath leading to the Dneiper. The men soon came to ice, when the marshal, taking out his map and looking at it for a moment, ordered the army to keep along the ravine. After proceeding a short distance, he directed the fires to be kindled as if he intended to bivouac for the night, in order to deceive the enemy. As the lights blazed upon the darkness, the Russians fired off their cannon in joy, for their foes now seemed within their grasp. Ney listened a moment to the sullen echo, thinking at first that Davoust had come; but the next moment, understanding the language it spoke, "he swore he would give the lie to their joy," and immediately recommenced his march. In the hurry and darkness, many, who from wounds and exhaustion lagged behind, wandered out of the way, as the column, without the sound of a drum or trumpet, swept silently and swiftly across the fields; so that, when he reached the Dneiper, Ney saw that but a part of his followers had arrived.
As good fortune, or rather a kind Heaven above, ordained it, the river where they struck it was frozen across, while above and below the ice was all afloat. Still this narrow bridge was weak, and would bear only one at a time, and the position of Ney was perilous in the extreme.
To save himself and his army no time was to be lost, for not only were forty thousand men in his rear, but the ice was gradually giving way. But here he again exhibited that greatness of heart which honors him more than his bravery, and our love for him exceeds even our admiration—for, having arranged his fragment of an army so as to march over the ice at a moment's warning, he waited three hours before crossing to allow the weak and wounded stragglers to come in. Pressed by the most appalling dangers, he still yielded to the dictates of mercy; and there on the banks of the frozen river, and during this time of intense anxiety, with the ice melting before him, did this strange, indomitable man, lie down with his cloak about him, and sleep.
Bonaparte, far in advance, struggling forward on foot with a birch stick in his hand to keep him from falling on the ice, surrounded by his few exhausted yet faithful followers, was pressed with anxiety for the fate of Ney—his now last remaining hope. As he strode on over the desolate track, he was heard continually murmuring to himself,—and "Ney, Ney," almost momentarily escaped from his lips, accompanied with passionate exclamations of grief.
But the marshal, of whom he had heard nothing for so long a time, had crossed the Dnieper with his three thousand men, although he had left in its frozen current scores under whose feet the treacherous ice had given way. Still there was a wilderness between him and his Emperor, and that wilderness was filled with Cossacks. For sixty miles he struggled on with his weary columns amid six thousand of these wild warriors—standing in order of battle by day, and marching through the deep snow by night. At one time they got in advance of him, and fell unexpectedly upon his advanced posts, which were immediately driven in, and all was given up as lost. But Ney ordered the trumpets to sound the charge, and with the cheering words, "Comrades, now is the moment; forward, they are ours," rallied their courage to the assault, and the Cossacks fled. Thinking their general saw what they did not see, and that the enemy were cut off, the soldiers pressed forward where otherwise they would have yielded and fled. At length with only fifteen hundred men out of the forty thousand with which he had started, he approached Orcha, and sent forward fifty horsemen to ask for help. Davoust, Eugene, and Mortier were there, and had just got their soldiers nicely quartered for the night—the first night the poor fellows had had a house to shelter them, or sufficient food to eat—when these horsemen galloped into the village. But as soon as it was known that Ney was near, asking assistance, the brave men turned cheerfully out into the cold, while Eugene and Mortier disputed the honor of going to his relief. Eugene carried it on the ground of superior rank, and at the head of four thousand men plunged into the deep snow, and marched six miles without getting any tidings of the fugitives. He then ordered a halt and directed some cannon to be fired. Their thunder rolled away through the gloom, and when silence again fell on the illimitable snow-fields, there came the dull report of musketry on the air. Ney had no cannon with which to answer those of Eugene, and his reply was like his army, weak and languishing. Eugene, however, heard it, and marching swiftly up, saw the black column of the brave marshal moving over the snow. Rushing up he clasped him in his arms and wept like a child on his neck. Ney strained him to his manly bosom, and then began sternly to upbraid Davoust for thus endangering him, and through him the French army. The soldiers also threw themselves into each other's arms with the most enthusiastic exclamations, and with joy retraced their steps to Orcha. Arrived there, the provisions and fire and beds were cheerfully shared, and the tired armies, after recounting their toils and dangers, lay down to sleep in each other's embrace. Still Ney could not forgive Davoust, and when the latter attempted to make some explanation of his conduct, he only replied in a stern voice, "Monsieur le Maréchal, I have no reproaches to make to you; God is our witness and your judge."
When Bonaparte heard of his arrival, he exclaimed, "I have three hundred millions in my coffers in the Tuileries; I would willingly have given them to save Marshal Ney." Well he might, and half his empire with it, for without him he had been a throneless Emperor. The meeting of Bonaparte and this brave man shows the profound impression the conduct of the latter had made on him. As his eyes fell on the worn, yet still proud, unconquerable veteran, he exclaimed, "What a man, what a soldier!" But words failed to express his admiration, and he clasped the stern warrior to his bossom and embraced him with all the rapture one hero embraces another.
But Ney's exhausting efforts were not yet over; Bonaparte dare not releive him from the important and dangerous post he had filled with such honor, and another rear guard was put under his command. At the awful passage of the Beresina he again stood between the army and destruction, and while Victor on one side of the river, he on the other side—after Oudinot's wound—kept back with a mere handful of men the Russian thousands. From this time on his duty became still more painful. At every step he came upon corpses—the whole country was covered with hillocks formed by the snow drifting over fallen soldiers, while the piercing cold and gnawing hunger and fatigue, thinned his ranks with frightful rapidity. Even when the enemy kept at a distance, the work of mortality went on; and all along the edges of the column men were staggering from the line of march, and with a groan pitching into snow-drifts. Others, unable to proceed, would sit down, and, resting their chills on their clenched hands, gaze with a look of unutterable despair on their retiring comrades. Others still would drop upon their knees, and tears of real blood streaming from their inflamed eyes, rest a moment in that pleading attitude, and then fall on their hands, while the most pitiful sobs and moans would escape their breasts. Struggling still for life they remained a short time in this position, and then their heads would begin to sway backward and forward, and the next moment they lay stretched stark and stiff amid the snow, while the blinding storm rapidly wove their winding-sheet. When the weather cleared up it was so cold the very air seemed frozen, and the birds dropped dead from the trees, and then the benumbed and stiffened column would go staggering over the frosty fields in dead silence—the crackling of the snow-crust and flakes of ice under their feet the only sounds that disturbed the solitude that surrounded them. At night the poor creatures wquld sit in circles all doubled up to retain the warmth of their bodies, and in the morning were still seen in that attitude frozen stiff, and left thus by their retreating companions. The bivouacs could be traced through the wilderness by the circles that marked their locality. Some became delirious, and roamed about, howling and gnashing their teeth, or making the clear, cold air ring with their demoniacal laughter. These, when the fire was built, would cast themselves frantically into the flames, and perish in horrible convulsions. Piteous moans and prayers and cries arose on every side, as the frozen, bleeding column dragged its weary length over the icy plains; and hungar and madness and pain filled every heart. At the head of such an army, and in the midst of such difficulties, was Ney compelled to struggle, and with such soldiers was he compelled to fight. But undaunted by the dangers that surrounded him—unsubdued by the despair that rested on every face—gnawed himself by the pangs of hunger, and his limbs stiffened with the frost, he still endeavored to keep alive the courage of his men; and with his noble heart bleeding at the sights and the sounds he saw and heard, still spoke encouraging words of France and of safety. Now helping a poor wretch to his feet, and now fighting with his musket beside the dispirited soldiers, he shamed even despair, and made the dying give another effort, then bless him as they fell. None but a man of wonderful intellect could have held the moral power he did over such soldiers in such calamities. There was a grandeur and nobleness in that character, which secured obedience, long after bravery and authority were forgotten.
At length the scattered remnants of the French legions reached the Niemen, the boundary of the Russian territory. Ney arrived destitute of troops—the rear guard had again melted away. Collecting in haste a few hundred men be found in the town (Wilna), he planted seventy-four cannon on the redoubts, and kept back the enemy all day, while the army was retiring. The next morning he continued his defense, but the soldiers, seeing their comrades bending their footsteps toward France, and away from the bullets of the Russians, began bo follow after till he was left almost alone, Still, true to his duty, he continued to cover the retreat of the army he had so often saved. All had not yet passed the Niemen, and, by dint of persuasion and threats and promises, he collected thirty men around him, and with his musket in hand defended with this handful the gate of Wilna. These too finally deserted him; and then he fought alone, slowly retiring through the streets with his face to the enemy, and crossing the river, "was the last of the Grand Army who left the Russian territory."
Gumbinnen was the first place in Germany, after passing the river, at which rest could be obtained. General Dumas, who was sick, had just entered the house of a French physician in this town, when a man accosted him whom he took to be a perfect stranger. His powerful form was wrapped in a large military cloak—his beard was long and untrimmed—his countenance begrimed with powder, and his whiskers half burned off, while his emaciated face spoke of toils and privations of no common magnitude. But his eye still burned with that lustre no one ever forgot who once saw it in battle. "What," said the stranger, "General Dumas, do you not know me?" "No," replied Dumas, "who are you?" "I am the rear guard of the Grand Army—Marshal Ney. I have fired the last musket shot on the bridge of Kowno; I have thrown into the Niemen the last of our arms; and I have walked hither as you see me, across the forests." He had done all that man could do—fought till his army was annihilated, then formed another—created means where they did not exist—sustained the sinking courage of his followers when all before him was blank and hopeless—struggled at last with a few hundred, and then thirty, and then alone, as rear guard of the army, and finally on foot and unattended, crossed the forests to join his companions.
After the abdication of Napoleon he lived in Paris in almost entire seclusion. Too rough for the polished society of the French capital, and too stern and grave to be dissipated, he dwelt by himself. His palace was elegantly furnished; and his wife, fond of gayety and luxury, entertained her friends there, while he would be dining by himself, musing over the stormy and adventurous life he had led. Sick of the inactive monotonous life of the city, be retired to his country-seat, where in the sports of the field he could find some relief to his restlessness. It was here he received his unexpected order to join the sixth military division. On arriving at Paris he learned to his astonishment that Bonaparte had left Elba and was on his way to the capital.
Here occurs the only dark passage in his whole history. Bonaparte's star had apparently set forever at his exile, and Ney did perfectly right to sustain the government of France; but he had no right to betray the trust his monarch reposed in him and go over with his army to the side of the invader. He, by this act, became a traitor; but his treason had more excuses than the like crime ever had before. At first he regarded the descent of Napoleon on the shores of France as the most extravagant rashness, and designed, as he declared, to bring him a prisoner to Paris. But he had hardly set out on his expedition, before Bonaparte began to ply him with those arts he knew so well how to use. He had made Ney what he was, and he appealed to the gratitude of the noble-hearted veteran. He had stood by his side in the smoke and thunder of battle, and he recalled those scenes to his imagination. They had been warriors together in danger, and Bonaparte excited him with those recollections, so calculated to move a heart like his. He kept his emissaries constantly about him, representing to him the utter feebleness and imbecility of the Bourbon throne—he called him again the "Bravest of the Brave," and entreated him not to fight against his old companion in arms. At the same time he promised peace to France, and all that Ney could desire. A plain, blunt soldier, with a heart full of great affections for heroes like himself, what wonder is it that his constancy shook! Added to all this, the emissaries of Bonaparte had at length affected the fidelity of the army, and while Ney was wavering his soldiers had already determined for Napoleon. He felt that he could not resist the tide if he would, while he evidently had lost all desire to do so. His act of treason has many palliations: still it was unworthy of him. If his old affection and gratitude were too strong to allow him to fight against his former monarch, his honor should have prevented him from fighting against his new one. He should have returned and resigned his command, and retired from the contest. He himself afterwards felt so. The excitement and enthusiasm under which he had acted had passed away, and he saw the transaction in a clear and just light. It weighed on his heart, and he grew melancholy and spiritless. He had lost his self-respect; and his honor, which he hitherto had kept bright as his sword, was tarnished. Kindly feeling had conquered him whom no enemy could subdue,and now the eye no danger could daunt or hardship dim, became dull and lustreless. That glorious forehead that had been the terror of so many hundred battles, had a spot upon it, and Ney felt feebler than in the hour of extremest peril. Remorse gnawed at his heart, and the feeling of personal dignity was gone forever. He became morose and restless, and not until ordered by Bonaparte to Lille, "if he would see the first battle," did he evince any of his old fire.
This single fact is the best excuse that could be offered for him. It shows that, whatever his act may be, his heart was right. It was not deliberate treason, but the sudden impulse of a man too frequently governed by his feelings. He afterwards doubtless hoped, in the excitement of battle, to rid himself of remorse, and perhaps by his valor to wipe out the disgrace he had brought on his name.
BATTLE OF WATERLOO.
After the hundred days' preparation, Napoleon advanced to the Low Countries, to meet the allies, again banded together for his overthrow. He attacked Blucher at Ligny, and defeated him; and so hard pressed was this old veteran that he was overthrown, and lay entangled under his horse in the darkness, while the French cavalry passed twice over his body without observing him: he then extricated himself, and joining his troops retreated to Wavres. Ney had been less successful at Quatre Bras in his attack on Wellington, but he had retired in good order, and effected a junction with Napoleon, and the two together moved down on Waterloo where the Duke had taken up his position—entirely separated from the Prussian army.
To understand the field of battle, imagine two slightly elevated semi-circular ridges, or rather slopes, a half-mile apart, curving gently forward, somewhat in the form of a parenthesis, and you have the positions of the two armies. On the summit of one of these slopes was drawn up the French army, and on the other that of the English and the allies. The night of the 17th of June was dark and stormy—the rain fell in torrents, and the two armies lay down in the tall rye drenched with rain, to wait the morning that was to decide the fate of Europe and of Napoleon. From the ball-room at Brussels many English officers had been summoned in haste to the field, and shivering and cold were compelled to pass the night in mud and rain, in their elegant attire. The artillery had cut up the ground, so that the mud was ankle-deep, while the tall rye lay crushed and matted beneath the feet of the soldiers. The morning of the 18th opened with a drizzling rain, and the two armies, benumbed with cold and soaking wet, arose from their damp beds to the contest. Eighty thousand French soldiers were seen moving in close, massive columns on the crest of the height, as they took up their several positions for the day. After all was completed Bonaparte rode along the lines in the highest spirits, confident of success, and exclaiming, "Now to breakfast," galloped away, while the shout "Vive l' Empereur!" that rolled after him shook the field on which they stood, and fell with ominous tones on the allied army. Two hundred and sixty-two cannon lined the ridge like a wall of death, ready to open their fire on the enemy. At eleven o'clock the signal of attack was given, and the columns moved in beautiful order down the slope. Wellington's lines occupied two miles in extent, with the right resting on Chateau Hougomont, which from the defences it furnished was equal to a redoubt. The centre was protected by a farmhouse, La Haye Sainte, while the left stretched out into the open field. First, Jerome Bonaparte led a column of 6000 men down on Hougomont, who in the face of a most destructive fire pushed up to the very walls of the chateau, and thrust their bayonets through the door. But the Coldstream Guards held the court-yard with invincible obstinacy, and he was compelled at length to retire, after leaving 1400 men in a little orchard beside the walls, where it does not seem so many men could be laid. In a short time the battle became general along the whole line, and heroic deeds were performed on every rod of the contested field. The heavy French cavalry came thundering down on the steady English squares, that had already been wasted by the heavy artillery, and strove with almost superhuman energy to break them. Driven to desperation by their repeatedly foiled attempts, they at length stopped their horses and coolly walked them round and round the squares, and whenever a man fell dashed in, in vain valor. Whole ranks went down like smitten grass before the headlong charges of cavalry and infantry. In the center the conflict at length became awful, for there the crisis of the battle was fixed. Wellington stood under a tree while the boughs were crashing with the cannon-shot overhead, and nearly his whole guard smitten down by his side, anxiously watching the progress of the fight. His brave squares torn into fragments by bombs and ricochet shot, still refused to yield one foot of ground. Napoleon rode through his ranks, cheering on the exhausted columns of infantry and cavalry, that rent the heavens with the shout of "Vive l' Empereur!" and dashed with unparalleled recklessness on the bayonets of the English.
BATTLE OF WATERLOO.
The hero of Wagram, and Borodino, and Austerlitz, and Marengo, and Jena, enraged at the stubborn obstinacy of the British, rode over the field, and was still sure of victory. Wellington, seeing that he could not much longer sustain the desperate charges of the French battalions, wiped the sweat from his anxious forehead, and exclaimed, "Oh, that Blucher or night would come!" Thus from eleven till four did the battle rage with sanguinary ferocity, and still around the center it grew more awful every moment. The mangled cavalry staggered up to the exhausted British squares, which, though diminished and bleeding in every part, seemed rooted to the ground they stood upon. The heroic Picton had fallen at the head of his brigade, while his sword was flashing over his head. Ponsonby had gone down on the hard-fought field, and terror and slaughter were on every side; still the charge of the French cavalry on the center was terrific. Disregarding the close and murderous fire of the British batteries, they rode steadily forward till they came to the bayonet's point, and then firmly urged their horses heads against the barrier, but in vain—pierced through, and broken, they were rolled back over the field, but rallied again and again to the charge, and prodigies of valor were wrought, and heroes fell at every discharge. The rent and trodden field ran blood, yet through the deep mud the determined foemen pressed on, while out of the smoke of every volley arose from the French lines the shout of "Vive l' Empereur!"
THE CHARGE OF THE OLD GUARD.
At length a dark object was seen to emerge from the distant wood, and soon an army of 30,000 men deployed into the field, and began to march straight for the scene of conflict. Blucher and his Prussians had come, but no Grouchy, who had been left to hold them in check, followed after. In a moment Napoleon saw that he could not sustain the attack of so many fresh troops, if once allowed to form a junction with the allied forces, and so he determined to stake his fate on one bold cast, and endeavor to pierce the allied center with a grand charge of the Old Guard—and, thus throwing himself between the two armies, fight them separately. For this purpose the Imperial Guard was called up, which had remained inactive during the whole day, and divided into two immense columns, which were to meet at the British center. That under Reille no sooner entered the fire than it disappeared. The other was placed under Ney, the "bravest of the brave," and the order to advance given. Napoleon accompanied them part way down the slope, and halting for a moment in a hollow, addressed them in his fiery, impetuous manner. He told them the battle rested with them, and that he relied on their valor. "Vive l' Empereur! answered him with a shout that was heard all over the field of battle.
He then left them to Ney, who ordered the charge. Bonaparte has been blamed for not heading this charge himself; but he knew he could not carry that guard so far, nor hold them so long before the artillery, as Ney. The moral power the latter carried with him, from the reputation he bad gained of being the "bravest of the brave," was worth a whole division. Whenever a column saw him at their head, they knew that it was to be victory or annihilation. With the exception of Macdonald, I do not know a general in the two armies who could hold his soldiers so long in the very face of destruction, as he.
The whole Continental struggle exhibited no sublimer spectacle than this last effort of Napoleon to save his sinking empire. Europe had been put upon the plains of Waterloo to be battled for. The greatest military energy and skill the world possessed had been tasked to the utmost during the day. Thrones were tottering on the ensanguined field, and the shadows of fugitive kings flitted through the smoke of battle. Bonaparte's star trembled in the zenith—now blazing out in its ancient splendor, now suddenly paling before his anxious eye. At length, when the Prussians appeared on the field, he resolved to stake Europe on one bold throw. He committed himself and France to Ney, and saw his empire rest on a single charge. The intense anxiety with which he watched the advance of that column, and the terrible suspense he suffered when the smoke of battle wrapped it from sight, and the utter despair of his great heart when the curtain lifted over a fugitive army, and the despairing shriek rung on every side, "La garde recule, "La garde recule," make us for the moment forget all the carnage in sympathy with his distress.
Ney felt the pressure of the immense responsibility on his brave heart, and resolved not to prove unworthy of the great trust committed to his care. Nothing could be more imposing than the movement of that grand column to the assault. That guard had never yet recoiled before a human foe, and the allied forces beheld with awe its firm and terrible advance to the final charge. For a moment the batteries stopped playing, and the firing ceased along the British lines, as without the beating of a drum, or the blast of a bugle, to cheer their steady courage, they moved in dead silence over the plain. The next moment the artillery opened, and the head of that gallant column seemed to sink into the earth. Rank after rank went down, yet they neither stopped nor faltered. Dissolving squadrons and whole battalions disappearing one after another in the destructive fire, affected not their steady courage. The ranks closed up as before, and, each treading over his fallen comrade, pressed firmly on. The horse which Ney rode fell under him, and he had scarcely mounted another before it also sank to the earth. Again and again did that unflinching man feel his steed sink down, till five had been shot under him. Then, with his uniform riddled with bullets, and his face singed and blackened with powder, he marched on foot with drawn sabre at the head of his men. In vain did the artillery hurl its storm of fire and lead into that living mass. Up to the very muzzles they pressed, and driving the artillerymen from their own pieces, pushed on through the English lines. But at that moment a file of soldiers who had lain flat on the ground, behind a low ridge of earth, suddenly rose and poured a volley in their very faces. Another and another followed till one broad sheet of flame rolled on their bosoms, and in such a fierce and unexpected flow that human courage could not withstand it. They reeled, shook, staggered back, then turned and fled. Ney was borne back in the refluent tide, and hurried over the field. But for the crowd of fugitives that forced him on, he would have stood alone, and fallen on his footsteps. As it was, disdaining to fly, though the whole army was flying, he formed his men into two immense squares, and endeavored to stem the terrific current, and would have done so had it not been for the 30,000 fresh Prussians that pressed on his exhausted ranks. For a long time these squares stood and let the artillery plow through them. But the fate of Napoleon was writ, and though Ney doubtless did what no other man in the army could have done, the decree could not be reversed. The star that had blazed so brightly over the world went down in blood, and the "bravest of the brave" had fought his last battle. It was worthy of his great name, and the charge of the Old Guard at Waterloo, with him at their head, will be pointed to by remotest generations with a shudder.
We now come to the expiation of his treason by a public execution. The allies, after they assembled in Paris, demanded some victims to appease their anger. Many were selected, but better counsel prevailed, and they were saved. Ney was a prominent example; he had routed their armies too frequently, and too nearly wrested their crowns from them at Waterloo, to be forgiven. It was intended at first to try him by martial law, but the Marshals of France refused to sit in judgment on so brave, generous, and heroic a warrior. By a royal ordinance, the Chamber of Peers was then directed to try him. Scorning to take advantage of any technicalities of the law, he was speedily found guilty and condemned to death, by a majority of a hundred and fifty-two. Seventeen only were found to vote in his favor. That he was guilty of treason in the letter of the charge is evident, but not to that extent which demanded his death. No man had done more for France than he, or loved her honor and glory with a higher affection; and his ignominious death is a lasting disgrace to the French nation. Justice was the excuse, not the ground, of his condemnation. To have carried out the principle on which his sentence was based would have ended in a public massacre. Ney and Labedoyère were the only victims offered up to appease an unjust hatred. Besides, Ney's person was sacred under a solemn treaty that Wellington had himself made. One of the articles of that treaty expressly declared that "no person should be molested for his political conduct or opinions during the hundred days." On such conditions was Paris surrendered, and there never was a more flagrant violation of national honor than the trial of Ney. The whole affair, from beginning to end, was a deliberate murder, committed from feelings of revenge alone. Napoleon never did so base an act in his life—and on Wellington's forehead is a spot that shall grow darker with time, and cause many a curse to be muttered over his grave. He should have interfered to have saved so gallant an enemy at the hazard of his life, but be let his honor go down before the clamor of vindictive enemies, and become a murderer in the sight of the world. Ney was publicly shot as a traitor.
His last moments did not disgrace his life. He was called from his bed and a tranquil sleep to hear his sentence read. As the preamble went on enumerating his many titles he hastily broke in, "Why cannot you simply call me Michael Ney,—now a French soldier and soon a heap of dust?" The last interview with his wife and children shook his stern heart more than all the battles he had passed through, or his approaching death. This over he resumed his wonted calmness. In reply to one of his sentinels, who said, "Marshal, you should now think of death," he replied, "Do you suppose any one should teach me to die?" But recollecting himself, he said in a milder tone, "Comrade, you are right, send for the curate of St. Sulpice; I will die as becomes a Christian!" As he alighted from the coach, he advanced toward the file of soldiers drawn up as executioners, with the same calm mien he was wont to exhibit on the field of battle. An officer stepping forward to bandage his eyes, he stopped him with the proud interrogation, "Are you ignorant that for twenty-five years I have been accustomed to face both ball and bullets?" He then took off his hat, and with his eagle eye, now subdued and solemn, turned toward heaven, and with the same calm and decided voice that had turned the tide of so many battles, "I declare before God and man, that I have never betrayed my country; may my death render her happy! Vive la France!" He then turned to the soldiers, and gazing on them a moment, struck one hand upon his heart and said, "My comrades, fire on me." Ten balls entered him, and he fell dead. Shame upon his judges that for a single act could condemn one braver and nobler than they all to a base death. A sterner warrior never trod a battle-field—a kinder heart never beat in a human bosom, and a truer patriot never shed his blood for his country. If France never has a worse traitor, the days of her betrayal will be far distant, and if she has no worse defender, disgrace will never visit her armies. Says Colonel Napier, in speaking of his death, "thus he who had fought five hundred battles for France—not one against her—was shot as a traitor."
His wife was on her knees before the King praying for his pardon when the fatal knews [sic] was brought her, and immediately fainted away, then went into convulsions, which well-nigh added another victim to this base murder. His father, who loved him tenderly as the son of his pride and the glory of his name, was never told of his ignominious death. He was at this time eighty-eight years of age, and lived to be a hundred years old. He saw by the mourning weeds of his family that some catastrophe had happened, and his father's heart told him too well where the bolt had struck; but he made no inquiries, and though he lived for twelve years after, never mentioned his son's name, and was never told of his fate. He knew he was dead, but he asked not how or where he died.
The great fault in Ney's character was indolence. Unless his energies were summoned from their repose by some pressing danger, he was inclined to inactivity. Yet this tendency, which has so often been severely censured, is almost necessarily associated with the prodigious power and resolution he possessed. The Lion is not easily roused and strength is always immobile till there is a call equal to its capacity. The heavy English squares can never be converted into light troops without losing their invincible tenacity.
He was also plain and direct even to bluntness, and often offended his friends by the freedom with which he spoke of their errors. He never lost sight of his low origin and was never ashamed of it. To some young officers boasting of their rank, titles, etc., he said, "Gentlemen, I was less fortunate than you. I got nothing from my family, and I esteemed myself rich at Metz, when I had two loaves of bread on my table." Simple and austere in his habits, he reminds one of an old Greek or Roman hero. The vacillation of feeling which caused him to commit the great error of his life adds to our sympathy with him, while it injures the perfection of his character. It led him to be a humane soldier, and when second in command frequently to disobey orders for the execution of criminals. He died in debt, having saved nothing from all his toils. His last words were for France, and his last injunction to his children not to treasure any feelings of animosity towards those who had slain him.
A small monument still stands in the garden of the Luxembourg, on the spot where he fell, but his noblest monument is in the hearts of men, who will take care that his fame survives that of his destroyers.
The Empire of Napoleon had departed forever; the infamous coalitions had finally triumphed, and despotism slowly settled back to its ancient places, but not to its ancient strength. The putrid mass still heaves on the subdued but not chained billows, and its doom on the continent is writ. Said Robert Hall, that great as well as good man, "When I heard of the result of the battle of Waterloo, I felt as if the clock of the world had gone back six ages." Let those who so readily adopt English authorities respecting Napoleon's wars, ask themselves why this Christian divine and Englishman uttered such a sentiment.
Let all who regard Napoleon as a scourge of his race go and ask Italy and Prussia, and Sweden and Poland—the Waldenses of Piedmont—the Caucasians of Asia—the Jews of Paris, and all the people of France—how much they think they have gained by his overthrow. Let them ask Italy, groaning under Austrian and Papal tyranny till one fruitless conspiracy follows another in quick succession, ending only in the death and banishment of patriots, and the despair of noble hearts. Let them ask the people of Prussia, who, when his fearless hand was ringing with such rapid strokes the death-knell of feudalism on the continent, demanded from their king a constitution and congress, and obtained the royal promise they should be given—aye, ask them now, when after long years that promise has not been fulfilled, and the bold man who dare publish the "FIER FRAGEN" (four questions) demanding why it had not been fulfilled, has been condemned to two years' imprisonment for his presumption. Let them ask Poland, the last symbol of whose nationality disappeared forever in the carnage of Waterloo. Let them ask Sweden what she gained by the victory of Dennewitz and the disasters of Leipsic,—as she now sits and trembles under the frown of Russia, daring only to throw in her childish complaint as that haughty power threatens momentarily to make of her merely a dependent province in name as she is in fact. Let them ask the brave and unconquerable tribes that still struggle for their ancient rights amid the forests and mountain gorges of Caucasus, what they think of the success which has emboldened despots to carry out those aggressions which have so long made the world mourn. Let them ask the Waldenses, who, under the sword of Napoleon, for the first time saw light beaming on their darkness, and in spite of Papal complaints, and the astonishment of Catholic kings, stood up amid their countrymen, freemen—endowed with all the rights of citizenship, and free to worship God as their consciences dictated—how they feel when they think of Waterloo. The shout that despotism sent up from that fatal field was the knell of their hopes and the end of their joy. From its bloody margin, the wave of oppression surged slowly back, till it covered once more their mountain homes and the altars of their sacred religion. To them the name of Bonaparte is that of a deliverer, under his sway they sat down in peace and freedom; at his fall they fell in tears, and have wept ever since. Let them ask the thousands of the Jews in Paris, who, for the first time under any Christian or infidel king, heard themselves with astonishment called to assemble like freeborn subjects, and addressed as men, with promises of future protection—how they regard the Christian thanksgiving that followed the downfall of him on whom his enemies have fixed the brand of "Scourge of God." Let them ask the people of France, and the lovers of human progress the world over, what man and liberty gained by the disappearance of that power which shed such terror and dismay on the hearts of oppressors. Let silent Italy, and rent Poland and the starving millions of Europe, have a voice in the general outcry, before the unjust decision is ratified.
The prejudice and falsehood that have loaded France with crime begin already to be detected, and every year will see the woes and suffering of the wars she carried on rolled from her shoulders, and laid at the door of England and Russia, and Austria and Prussia.
I have never endeavored to justify Napoleon's wrong acts by offsetting them with similar outrages committed by his foes, nor to defend an unjust war of France because other nations exhibited equal recklessness and want of honesty. The comparisons of this kind have all been made for one single purpose—to prove that Napoleon and France do not deserve the exclusive condemnation which has been meted out to them. I have designed to place Napoleon above the monarchs that surrounded him, both in virtue and genius—not to make him a model for the conduct of others.