Claude-François Méneval.

Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, the court of the first empire (Volume 3) online

. (page 1 of 31)
Online LibraryClaude-François MénevalMemoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, the court of the first empire (Volume 3) → online text (page 1 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook







Estate of Evalyn Thomas








—p. HS

From the painting by Jan i~on Chelminski


The Court of the First Empire

His Private Secretary


With a Special Introduction
and Illustrations




Copyright, igio
By P. F. Collier & Son




ANOTHER incident which marked Napoleon's
stay at Vilna was the reception of a deputation
from the Diet of Warsaw, which came to ask
him to declare himself in favour of a re-establishment
of Poland. The address in which this wish was ex-
pressed, which had been written by Abbe de Pradt,
who had not found the address written by the deputa-
tion sufficiently academical, was of a kind to embarrass
the Emperor. If he did not pronounce the decision
which the Poles asked for, namely : " The Kingdom
of Poland is re-established," it was because he could
not and would not guarantee anything at the beginning
of a war the chances of which could not be fore-
seen. Nor was he prepared to bind himself to the
promise that he would not lay down arms until after
the accomplishment of an engagement on this head.
He wished, indeed, in case of a want of success, to be
able to conclude peace and not to prolong a struggle
which, whilst exhausting the forces and the resources
of France, would bring with it no decisive result for
and. A fortunate war, followed by peace, could
alone allow him to enfranchise this nation and to pro-
claim its independence. All therefore had to depend on
the issue of this war and on the way in which the Poles
should conduct themselves during its course: such was
the Emperor's way of thinking.

It has been seen that in the alliance which was con-


» • 1


eluded with Austria before the campaign was entered
upon, the cession of a part of Galicia had been stipu-
lated for in case Poland should come to be re-
established as a consequence of the war, that is to say
after the conclusion of peace. When in 1806, Prus-
sian Poland was created the Grand-Duchy of Warsaw,
Napoleon had acted with the same circumspection and
had refused to pronounce himself until after victory
was his.

The reasons which dictated the Emperor's answer
to the Poles were just and sincere. A prudent reserve
dictated the language in which he spoke to them,
although his mind was fully made up to make the re-
establishment of the Polish monarchy one of the con-
ditions of peace if victory once more remained faith-
ful to the French flag.

However, this declaration produced a bad
effect on the Poles and even in France. Napoleon
has been blamed for having been too prudent in this
matter. On reading over his declaration attentively,
it will however be found that he promised his support
to the Polish nation in no ambiguous terms. If he did
not add to the number of Russo-Polish provinces
which he advised to revolt the provinces which be-
longed to Austria, it was because the war being exclu-
sively directed against Russia, it was to the Russo-
Polish provinces alone that his call to arms had
exclusively to be addressed. Napoleon had moreover
no wish to reveal the secret of his plans nor to alienate
Austria to whom he was bound by a treaty, by a want
of consideration at the very outset of the campaign.
What moral force would have remained to him if,
in the course of a solemn audience, he had offended,
by the use of indiscreet expressions, a power whose
troops with the Prussian contingent formed the wings


of his army? If the war had been crowned with suc-
cess, the Austro-Polish provinces would necessarily
have been returned to the reconstituted monarchy of
Poland, Austria being compensated by means of an
indemnity which would have been equivalent and even

To appreciate Napoleon's interest in the re-establish-
ment of Poland it is necessary to make known the
instructions which he had given to his ambassador at
Warsaw, and above all it is necessary to know why
he had chosen him. With a view of assuring to his
representative preponderant authority, for it was his
to exercise a veritable vice-royalty in Poland, the Em-
peror had chosen him from amongst the high digni-
taries of the Church. The rank of archbishop gave
to the French envoy a political character which gave
him an exceptional position, an advantage which
neither a general nor a civil functionary would have
enjoyed in presence of the Polish generals and minis-
ters. Only his choice of the man was a most unfor-
tunate one. It is one of the few reproaches of the
kind which can be addressed to Napoleon, who, as a
rule, was so well able to find men fitted for the func-
tions with which he intended to intrust them.

The resume of the instructions given to M. de Pradt,
was to see all, to know all, to direct all, to animate
all, but he was not to let his hand be seen. What the
Emperor could not or did not wish to say was to be
done by the country through the ambassador's in-
fluence. The latter was ordered to obtain from the
Polish nation the revival of the great confederations,
a pronouncement of its wishes, a vigorous display of
all its forces, and a general revolt against Russia.
The ambassador did exactly the contrary. He made
it his task to calm all agitation, to annihilate all mani-
festation, to cool all enthusiasm. He was ordered to


keep the Diet constantly assembled, to inspire it, to
keep up the warmth of its patriotic feelings and the
excitement with which its members were animated,
and finally to keep it permanently in session, so that
there should always be a tribune from which the
voices of those authorized to speak could address the
country, inflame the minds of men and keep the holy
flame aglow. M. de Pradt dismissed this assembly
after a three days' sitting; he sent the deputies back
to their homes and retained alone a committee which
he only assembled on rare occasions and which he
prevented from acting in any way. A manifesto,
comprising addresses by Polish ministers of approved
talent and patriotism, whose voices were known to the
Polish people, had been written. The ambassador re-
wrote these according to his own way of thinking,
considering that they were written in savage style, and
thus stripped these of their national character. In
this same way he disfigured the very pronouncement
of the confederation.

The Emperor hearing, at Vilna, of conduct so op-
posed to the orders he had given and so utterly incon-
sistent, regretted his choice and thought of recalling
M. de Pradt; but fearing that such a recall, under
existing circumstances, might produce a bad effect,
contented himself with sending him a severe repri-
mand and renewing his instructions in a positive and
peremptory manner. The delirium of pride however
blinded the archbishop. He woke up one day with the
idea that the duchy was threatened by sixty thousand
Russians, and at once thought of flight. He is urged
to take advantage of the anxiety caused by this rumour
to excite the Poles, to urge them on to levy troops, to
organize guerillas and to increase the numbers of
agents of the insurrection. On the morrow, this
imaginary danger having passed away, M. de Pradt


considers these measures useless and falls back again
into a state of apathy.

There can be no doubt mat the co-operation of the
Poles would have been unanimous if the Emperor's
instructions could have been faithfully carried out, but
the man who represented France at Warsaw seemed
to make it his duty to paralyze their efforts.

When one considers how M. de Pradt behaved in
his embassy, as proved by his own despatches, by the
Emperor's instructions and the correspondence of the
Ministry of Exterior Relations, one is tempted to ac-
cuse this fatal person of treachery, but the frivolity
and the inconsistence of his character exclude such an
idea. One cannot admit the suspicion that he had
conceived two years in advance the plan of working
in an underhand way towards the overthrow of the
Empire. All the evil he occasioned in the course of
the mission to Warsaw with which Napoleon had in-
trusted him. was inspired to him by his overweening
arrogance and his foolish and ridiculous vanity.

It remained only for the man who had basely flat-
tered Xapoleon in the days of his power, who had
caused him such serious damage by his incapable con-
duct in Poland, to hurl calumny and insult in the face
of the august and unhappy man ; nor did he fail to do
so, acting like a faithless servant, as soon as, having
nothing more to expect from his ancient benefactor
and master, he had. at the same time, no more reason
to fear him. The "History of the Embassy to War-
saw" is a monument of ingratitude and cowardice, to
which History ought to do justice had it ever occasion
io deal with its author.

A provisional government was established at Vilna.
It was composed of seven members belonging to the
most important families in Lithuania. Here are their
names: Count Soltan. Prince Alexander Sapieha,


Count Potocki, Count Sierakowski, Count Prozor,
Count Tysenhaus, and the President of the University
of Vilna, M. Sniadecki. A guard of honour under
the command of Count Oginski was placed at the Em-
peror's service, followed him to Moscow, and accom-
panied him on his retreat as far as Vilna. This guard
of honour, which was small in number, but whose zeal
never slackened for an instant, formed the nucleus of
the second regiment of light Polish cavalry of the
Guard. Many leading Poles, prompted by patriotic
feelings, and animated by the hope of contributing in
a more efficacious manner to the re-establishment of
the Polish nation, followed the Imperial headquarters
as volunteers, sharing the vicissitudes and the dangers
of the French army.

The Emperor appointed the Duke de Bassano
Governor of Lithuania, but established him at Vilna
with a mission to act as the centre of correspondence
and organization. M. de Bassano was charged with
publishing the news concerning the operations of the
French army, with corresponding with Austria, Prus-
sia, and especially with Turkey, whom it was a matter
of great importance to watch over, and if needs be to
excite against Russia. This last part of Napoleon's
instructions could not always be carried out with the
required promptitude. Various causes contributed to
this, especially the slowness and difficulties of com-
munication, which increased as the army moved
further and further away from Vilna. The Duke de
Bassano was also ordered to correspond with the War-
saw Government, and sometimes to transmit orders to
the corps which were ranged on the rear of the army ;
and finally to provide for stores, war ammunition, and
provisions. The couriers, officers, and auditors, who
came from France, called in at Vilna on their way,


and were sent on from thence by M. de Bassano to
the Emperor's headquarters.

It was near Vilna that Napoleon met the Crown
Prince ui Wurtemburg at the head of his contingent.
He blamed this Prince severely for the insubordina-
tion of the Wurtemburgs, who committed such dis-
orders that complaints were being made on every side
against these ruthless pillagers, both from the French
and Polish authorities, and from the inhabitants. The
Emperor pointed out to the Crown Prince in a very
violent manner, how urgent it was that these disorders
should be checked. He listened to the remonstrances
with coldness, and did not answer. The Crown Prince
considered himself humiliated, and bore a grudge in

We think that the following extract from General
Gourgaud's work, entitled "A Critical Examination
of the Count de Scgur's Work" will be read with
interest. It gives some particulars of the way in
which Napoleon usually spent his time when he was
on campaign : —

"The active life which he (the Emperor) led was
subordinated to the military operations. As a rule he
u>ed to ride along with the army when in pursuit of or
near the enemy. When the army was engaged in
grand manoeuvres and the operations took place at '
great distances he waited until the corps which were
to march by approached the positions which he had
ordered them to take up, and would then remain at
headquarters. There he used to receive the reports
which were addressed to him either directly or through
the Major-General by the officers in command of the
various corps. En the meantime he used to give his at-
tention to the home government of Prance, answer the
reports which were sent to him from Paris by the
ministers, who were in the habit of writing to him


every day, and the reports of the ministers in council
which were carried to him every week by an auditor
of the Council of State, who was put at the disposal of
the Intendant General of the army to be used in
different missions. In this way he governed his Em-
pire, at the same time that he directed his army.
Economical with his time he calculated the moment of
his departure so as to find himself at the head of his
troops at the moment when his presence there became
necessary. He would then proceed thither in his
carriage with full speed. But even during this journey
he did not remain idle, but busied himself in reading
his despatches, and very often received reports from
his generals, and answered them forthwith. Estafettes
brought his despatches from Paris enclosed in a port-
folio which was locked, and these despatches were
sometimes given to him at the same time. By means
of a lamp which was placed at the back of his car-
riage, and which lighted up the carriage during the
night, he was able to work as though he had been in
his work-room. The Major-General usually accom-
panied him in these journeys. His aides-de-camp and
orderlies marched by the door of the carriage, and a
brigade of his saddle-horses followed with the escort.

"Such was the privileged constitution of this extra-
ordinary man that he could sleep an hour, be awakened
to give an order, go to sleep again, be awakened anew,
without suffering for it in his health or in his rest.
Six hours of sleep were sufficient for him whether
taken consecutively or whether spread over intervals
in the twenty-four hours.

"On the days which preceded the battle he was con-
stantly on horseback, reconnoitring the enemy's forces,
deciding upon the battle-field, and riding round the
bivouacs of his army corps. Even in the night he used
to visit the lines to assure himself once more of the


enemy's forces by the number of its fires, and would
tire out several horses in the space of a few hours.
On the day of the battle he would place himself at
some central point, whence he could see all that was
going on. He had his aides-de-camp and orderly
officers by him, and used to send them to carry his
orders in every direction. At some distance behind
the Emperor were four squadrons of the guard, one
belonging to each branch of the service, but when he
left this position he only took a platoon with him as
escort. He used usually to inform his marshals of the
place which he had chosen, so as to be easily found by
the officers whom they might send to him. As soon as
his presence became necessary he would ride off there
at a gallop."

I, on my side, can add to these details that every-
where where the Emperor halted, whether at a castle, a
cottage, or a hovel, his first care was for his work-
room. As soon as Napoleon had taken possession of his
temporary lodging, the portfolio containing his papers,
his maps, and two or three mahogany boxes divided
into compartments which contained his travelling
library, were set out on tables, when tables were to be
found, or on planks, or doors laid upon trestles.
When there was only one room, his little iron bed
and his toilet-bag were also placed there. There he
would dictate the numerous orders which it was
necessary for him to send off. The Major-General
who always lived within call used to lay the reports
which he had received before him, and carry back the
answers forthwith.

When the operations of the war obliged Napoleon
to remain for any length of time in one of his winter
quarters, or in one of the capitals which he had con-
quered, his time was for the greater part taken up
with the occupations of his cabinet. He attended to


the needs of the army without neglecting the affairs
or the details of the government of the Empire. He
used to summon to him the minister secretary of state,
who brought him the work which had been despatched
by the council of Ministers and received instructions,
orders, and decisions, which he was charged to for-
ward to Paris. The Emperor despatched numerous
orders providing for the repose of the troops, to
assign the places which they were to occupy, to re-
organize them, to prepare them to be in a better posi-
tion to resume hostilities. He watched over the carry-
ing out of his orders with the greatest care, and in
order to better obtain this result he would frequently
' repeat them. He used to go out every day, no matter
what the weather might be, to hold reviews. Some-
times he would undertake short excursions to visit
the corps of his army or strategical positions. In the
train of each corps he had a brigade of saddle-horses
composed of six or seven horses, two of which were
for his personal use, the others for his officers, a field
bedstead, and a portmanteau containing changes of
clothes. Napoleon used to lunch and dine every day
with the Major-General, and with some marshals or
general officers. He was fond of playing at whist
after dinner, and sometimes at vingt-et-un, a game
which he preferred because everybody present could
take part in it. Over these games of cards he would
forget the labours and the cares of the day. As a
general rule he would never occupy himself with two
things at the same time, his entire attention being given
to the pleasures as to the duties of the moment.
Moderate stakes only were played for, none the less
Napoleon took a great interest in the game. He would
sometimes associate one of the officers present in his
game as a half partner, and if fortune favoured the
Emperor, would hand over all his winnings to him.


Familiar with the soldiers, benevolent towards the
officers. Napoleon was accessible to all in the army.
In the camp all etiquette was banished in the entirely
military relations between the sovereign and his com-
rades-in-arms. The private was authorized to leave
the ranks, on presenting arms, and to lay any request
he might have to make before the Emperor, either
verbally or in writing. Such requests, whether they
were granted or refused, were immediately attended
to by the Emperor. When it happened that the peti-
tion could not be granted the soldier was always told
the reason of such refusal, which was explained to
him with kindness. Very often the refusal was com-
pensated for by the grant of some other favour. If
any officer had a confession to make to Napoleon, the
Emperor was always ready to hear him, and would
listen to him in a paternal manner.

Before continuing the account of the Russian cam-
paign. I must rectify a certain error which has been
repeated by some of Napoleon's historians. It is a
fact that the Prince of Wagram has been accused of
having on various occasions transformed or even sup-
pressed orders which the Emperor had given him, or
of having delayed to forward them. To make such a
statement is to show one's ignorance of the way in
which the Major-General used to work with Napoleon.
The Major-General, who was always lodged within
call of the Emperor, was. so to speak, endowed with
the faculty of sleeping with one eye open, and he
needed very little sleep. He was always found awake
by the officer who bore the despatch which was sent
to him. He would then proceed to the Emperor,
followed by the officers, so that Xapoleon, in case of
need, could examine the latter. If the Emperor were
in bed he would get up at once, put on a white .^wan-
skin or pique dressing-gown and dictate an answer


to the Major-General. The latter would send it as it
was written to the marshals or generals, having at the
same time copied into his book of orders the name of
the officer who was charged with carrying it to the
address, and the mention of the hour on which this
officer had been despatched. Before giving another
order the Emperor used to have the book of orders
laid before him, and would re-read the preceding
orders. The marshals and the generals never failed
to add with the date of their letters the mention of the
hour on which they wrote them.

Anybody who knew Prince de Wagram is well
aware that this marshal was incapable of committing
such an abuse of confidence, both by the loyalty of
his character, as by the feeling of his responsibility.
Nature moreover had given him neither the spirit of
intrigue nor the audacity requisite to defy the conse-
quences of forgetting his duties in such a manner.

I have heard it said that Prince de Wagram was
a model of chief staff-officers, that his absence during
the 1815 campaign was fatal to the Emperor. I am
far from wishing to contest the talents of General
Berthier, displaying in the campaigns of Italy, Egypt,
the Consulate, and during the first campaigns under
the Empire. He was young at that time, as Napoleon
used to say of himself, and his comrades-in-arms, and
he had his fortune to make; but I should not be
telling the truth if I did not add that in proportion as
honours and riches came to General Berthier the
solid and real qualities which had distinguished him
diminished. In this connection I will simply relate
what I witnessed during the 18 12 campaign. The
Emperor would often blame him for his carelessness
in my presence. "Berthier," he used to say to him,
"I would give an arm to have you at Grosbois. Not
only are you no good, but you are actually in my


way.'' After these little quarrels Berthier would sulk,
and refuse to come to dinner (he was Napoleon's
habitual table-fellow). The Emperor would then send
for him. and would not sit down to dinner until he
had come ; he would put his arms round his neck,
tell him that they were inseparable, etc., would chart
him about Madame Visconti, and in the end would
seat him at the table opposite him.

On arriving in the evening at any place where he
was to pass the night, the Emperor would often think
it his duty to provide at once for the establishment
of his guard, and the troops who had followed him,
unless he had some pressing orders to give.

He would remain on horseback and visit the biv-
ouacs round his house to see if the soldiers had food,
if communications between them were easy and, in
one word, would fulfil the functions of a simple staff-
officer. Whilst Napoleon was absent himself in this
way the Major-General, leaving him to the occupa-
tion, would hurry off to his house, and settle himself
in it.

It happened that I was sent one day by the Emperor
to the Major-General — I do not remember what for —
and I found him alone in his bedroom, with his head
on his hands, and his elbows on the table. He raised
his eyes up to me glistening with tears. When I asked
him what was grieving him he broke out into bitter
complaint of the wretchedness of his positon. "What
is the good," he said, " of having given me an income
of £60,000 a year, a magnificent mansion in Paris,
a splendid estate, in order to inflict the tortures of
Tantalus upon me. I shall die here with all this work.
The simplest private is happier than I am." Then
wiping his eyes with his hand: "Well! What is up
now? Must send for Salamon, Leduc." These were
his secretaries. Of course I took very good care not


to repeat these remarks to the Emperor, who by the
way, was only too well aware of the state of things.
Napoleon was attached to Berthier, in spite of all
his imperfections, by a bond which was a very strong
one with him, the tie of custom. Later on, he
regretted the absence of his old comrade-in-arms, not
on account of the qualities which the Major-General
no longer possessed, but because, having been long
accustomed to his services, the Emperor remained in

Online LibraryClaude-François MénevalMemoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, the court of the first empire (Volume 3) → online text (page 1 of 31)