Monthly Archives: October 2013

Napoleon’s Best Friend (Bessieries part Four)

Jean Baptiste Bessieres Duke of Istria Marshall of France

Jean Baptiste Bessieres
Duke of Istria
Marshall of France

The goal of the Egyptian campaign was to weaken Britain, for at the heart of it all the Napoleonic Wars were one campaign between two nations, France and Great Britain. Great Britain feared that a successful France (without a monarchy) would eventually lead to the demise of monarchy and the hereditary privilege of the upper classes in Great Britain. France’s great fear was the subjugation of France to Great Britain.

There was a large contingent of scientists and artisans with the Egyptian expedition, but the scientific aspect of the expedition was secondary to the military goals. With France in control of Egypt, the British trade route from the Mediterranean to the East Indies would be disrupted. This was to be followed by a military expedition to India from Egypt to unite with French allies and disrupt the British trade routes to India.

What the governing Directorate in Paris wanted was to remove Napoleon from the center of power in France, just as they had sought to do with the Italian Campaign. After the successful Italian Campaign Napoleon was even more popular in France and even more ambitious which caused the Directorate to fear him even more than they had before.

On 19 May 1798, Napoleon departed Toulon, France with 40,000 soldiers and 10,000 sailors. On the 11 June, the French forces captured Malta. On 1 July, Napoleon landed in Alexandria, Egypt.

While in Egypt Bessieres again distinguishes himself at the siege of Acre (19 march – 20 May 1799) and the battle of Aboukir (25 July 1799), this last battle saw him promoted to general of a brigade. While in Egypt Bessieres and Napoleon became good friends, a relationship which would only grow stronger. It was during this time that the War of the Second Coalition had started. France was suffering losses in Europe and the French people were becoming tired of the dictatorial leadership of the Directorate. Napoleon saw this as his chance.

Napoleon announced he was going on a voyage on the Nile Delta, while in reality he was returning to France to seize the government. On 23 August 1799, Napoleon left Egypt for France with only his most trusted men, of which Bessieres was chief among those.

The small cortie arrived in France in September. Abbe Sieyes, one of the five directors of the Directorate, was planning a coup to stop the Jacobins. Sieyes was planning on Napoleon’s popularity with the people to advance the coup and place himself at the head of France. Napoleon planned a coup within the coup using his small group of select, trusted officers. Bessieres was a member of this small group and helped Murat, Lannes, and Marmont secure the support of the Army for Napoleon in the coup d’état.

Napoleon wanted a wedding between Bessieres and his sister Caroline Bonaparte, However, Bessieres preferred his childhood sweetheart. Then Napoleon decides to wed his sister to Murat or Lannes. Murat and Bessieres were great friends and Caroline preferred Murat, but Napoleon preferred Lannes. Bessieres intervened and influenced Napoleon to choose Murat, and Lannes became a lifelong enemy of Bessieres. There would be many clashes between Bessieres and Lannes in their future. Lannes would go on to wed and have a happy marriage with his wife (this was his second wife), but the bitterness with Bessieres would only grow.

On 11 November, the Consular Guard was created with General Bessieres as its second in command. By 14 June 1800, during the battle of Marengo Bessieres, leading the Consular Guard, and Kellermann, leading the Dragoons, once again saved the battle for France (an occupation that was becoming a habit for General Bessieres). Bessieres was appointed commander of the guard on 18 July 1800.

Adele Marie Jeanne Lapeyriere age 20 On the occasion of her marriage to Jean Baptiste Bessieres 26 October 1801

Adele Marie Jeanne Lapeyriere
age 20
On the occasion of her marriage to Jean Baptiste Bessieres
26 October 1801

At age 33, on 26 Oct 1801, Bessieres married 20 year old Adele Marie Jeanne Lapeyriere (1781-1840). Miss Lapeyriere was of modest wealth (without fortune) from a royalist family. The Duchess d’ Abrantes said of Miss Lapeyriere, “… perfect model of all the virtues of wife, mother, daughter, and sister.”

Bessieres saved Napoleon’s life by exposing the plot of an artist, Caracchi, to blow up Napoleon at the theater. When Napoleon decided to execute the Duke of Enghien (related to the ruling Bourbon family of France) on constantly changing charges, Bessieres protested long and loud against it.

During the peace, Napoleon kept Bessieres a busy man as a diplomat, ambassador, and in arranging a royal marriage for the sake of political alliances. In 1804, General Bessieres was made a Marshall of France; he was fourteenth on the promotion list after Napoleon had reinstituted the title. At the time Marmont (who was upset he did not make the list) said, “If Bessieres is a Marshall anyone can be a Marshall.”

Life was good for the Marshall by 1804, France was at peace, he started his family by marrying his childhood sweetheart, his son Napoleon was born 2 August 1802, and he was Napoleon’s best friend. Honors and awards were bestowed upon Marshall Bessieres, but the peace was to last for a mere year. In eight years he would be killed in battle, but it was also in those eight years that the level of his compassion and influence would be revealed.


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And What Were You Doing When You Were 22? (Part 3 Bessieres)

Napoleon at the Battle of Rivoli (January 14, ...

Napoleon at the Battle of Rivoli (January 14, 1797) by Félix Philipoteaux. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Bessieres arrived in the Army of Italy it was in a rebuilding stage, normally 107,000 men strong it had fallen to a mere 30,000. Bonaparte had been given command of the Army of Italy as a way of sending him into obscurity. However, General Bonaparte was rebuilding the army for an invasion of Italy. The Army of Italy began its war against Austria in Italy with the now famous ‘march across the Alps.’

There were more than a dozen major battles in Italy, and Bessieres was in the center of the fighting of the most important of these. The Italian campaigns, as they are known, brought Bessieres to the attention of General Bonaparte. Murat, Bessieres’ old friend, is the one who pointed out the cavalry captain to the General.

The battles of the Italian campaign have now been relegated to the history books, but in 1796 and 1797, they were instrumental in defeating the Austrians: Montenotte, Millesimo, Dego, Mondovi, Lodi, Castiglione, Roverto, Bassano, Arcole, and Rivoli. The battles of Lonato, Castiglione, Rovereto, Rivoli, and la Favorita di Mantovia would prove fateful for the future of France, and General Bonaparte, these were the battles at which Bessieres’ uncommon valor, calm in the heat of battle, and clearness of thought under pressure were noted by the General.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps

Napoleon Crossing the Alps (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On 4 Jun 1796, because of his courage and abilities, Bonaparte created the Guides and made Bessieres their commander. The Guides was the unit that Napoleon would use as the foundation to build his famous Imperial Guard.

At the battles of Lanato and Castiglione (4 August 1796) he was, as he remained throughout his life, at the center of the most heated fighting; he had the unusual ability to accurately assess any situation without the biases of hope, fear, and ego. Whether standing on the ground or sitting tall in the saddle, Bessieres could always be seen leading the fighting or directing it, as if he were standing in his own parlor directing furniture movers. Swords, bullets and balls (cannonballs) all around and yet it was as if Bessieres had not noticed.

At the battle of Rovereto he broke through the center of the Austrian line, capturing two enemy guns and turning them on the enemy. After the battle of Rovereto he received a battlefield promotion to major for courage under fire (4 Sept 1796). At the first battle of Rivoli he led an ambush that surprised the Austrians and was the deciding point of the battle. At the second battle of Rivoli (14 Jan 1797) he again distinguished himself for courage under fire and clearness of thought while all about him chaos reigned. At the siege of Mantua, Bonaparte began an offensive to defeat the Austrians coming to the relief of Mantua. The left and center of the Austrian line crumpled under the assault. The most contested fighting was in front of the Palace la Favorita di Mantovia (16 Jan 1797) on the right. In the center of this action, you guessed it, there was Bessieres; like George Washington twenty years before, he moved as if he wore an invisible armor that made him immune from harm and invincible. Eventually, the Austrians were driven from the field in full retreat.

On Friday night 20 Jan 1797, Bonaparte wrote the following letter:

“Citizens, Directors: I send you eleven flags taken from the enemy in battles Rivoli and Favourite. The Bessieres citizen, commander of guides, which carries them, is a distinguished officer for his bravery.”

(Je vous envoie, Citoyens Directeurs, onze drapeaux pris sur l’ ennemi aux batailles de Rivoli et de la Favorite. Le citoyen Bessières, commandant des guides, qui les porte, est un officier distingué par sa bravure et par l’ honneur qu’ il a de commander à une Compagnie de braves gens qui ont toujours vu fuir devant eux la cavalerie ennemie, et qui, par leur intrépidité, nous ont rendu, dans la campagne, des services très-essentiels.)

21 Jan 1797 Napoleon ordered Bessieres be sent back with captured flags and the letter above. On 24 Jan 1797 he departed Verona (western Venetia) to the Executive Directory with the captured Habsburg regimental flags, returning to Paris as the honored conquering hero. On 4 Mar, Bessieres was promoted to squad leader, and on 9 Mar, the Guides were enlarged to also include infantry and artillery; and Bessieres received his second promotion in less than a week to full colonel and brigade commander. More important, as a sign of his growing respect for Bessieres, Bonaparte appointed the new colonel as tutor and instructor to Bonaparte’s stepson Eugene.

English: Map of the Battle of Rivoli

English: Map of the Battle of Rivoli (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The next campaign would take Bessieres to the East and Egypt with Bonaparte. When the two men returned to France the next time, it was to install Bonaparte as France’s new ruler, and Bessieres as a Marshall of France. When the old title of Marshall of France was revived, Bessieres would be on the first list of those promoted to the honor; he would also be Napoleon’s best friend and most trusted advisor, the man Napoleon turned to for advice in his darkest hours. Napoleon Bonaparte had plans for returning stability to France, regaining France’s lost territory, and marrying Jean Baptiste Bessieres to his sister Carolyn Bonaparte. However, as always, Bessieres would prove to be his own man, loyal to his country, but still in control of his own destiny.

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The Patriot: Part Two

Jean-Baptiste Bessières, Duke of Istria, Marshall of France (1768-1813)

Jean-Baptiste Bessières, Duke of Istria, Marshall of France (1768-1813)

In Prayssac near Cahors southern France, on 6 August 1768, Antoinette Lemosy Bessieres, wife of the affluent surgeon Mathurin Bessieres, gave birth to a son, Jean Baptiste Bessieres. He was trained to become a country surgeon like his father, but it was not to be. This son was destined to influence the world for the benefit of his beloved France during his life and against France through his absence, after his death. He did not seek the world stage; he was simply a decent man who took a stand for what he believed in. He was a man of integrity and strong character who set a high standard for himself. He had a clear, unbiased vision to see things as they were, and a strong desire to do what was right.   After his death, Napoleon said of Bessieres, “He lived like Bayard, he died like Turenne.”

In 1789, Frances finances were in shambles and King Louis XVI’s inability to improve the economy brought on the French Revolution. Jean Bessieres was 20 years old; he left his studies and joined the Prayssac National Guard as a non-commissioned officer. That same year he became a captain in the grenadiers.

The Flight to Varennes of King Louis XVI of France

The Flight to Varennes of King Louis XVI of France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By 1791, France had become so chaotic that the other monarchs in Europe were becoming concerned. They were concerned for the safety of the royal family in France and they wanted to contain the French Revolution. Many of the French nobles and aristocrats had already fled as refugees to the neighboring Austrian and Prussian kingdoms. King Louis decided to flee to Austria with his family. He intended to retake France with the protection and help of Austria and the French refugees there, restoring stability to France.

On 21 June 1791, the royal family fled Paris dressed as their servants. Jean Bessieres was only 22, but he had already developed the character and integrity for which he would later become famous. Bessieres joined the royal party as part of the guard. In Varennes King Louis was recognized, because of his profile on French coinage, and the entire party was captured. The royal family was returned to Paris and placed under house arrest in the Tuileries on 25 June 1791.

Tuileries Palace before 1871 - View from the T...

Tuileries Palace before 1871 – View from the Tuileries Gardens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On 27 August 1791, the kings of Austria and Prussia issued the Declaration of Pilnitz threatening vague consequences if any harm came to the royal family; in hindsight, this only made matters worse. Bessieres was appointed to the new King’s Constitutional Guard on 7 April 1792. On 27 April 1792, France declared war on Austria and Prussia; this was the beginning of the War of the First Coalition. On 4 March, Murat was dismissed from the King’s Constitutional Guard. Murat and Bessieres would remain great friends throughout Bessieres’ life. It was an attraction of opposites; Murat was more aggressive and Bessieres more thoughtful and reflective. The two would work well in the Grand Army balancing off each other’s strengths.

The King’s Constitutional Guard was disbanded on 5 June 1792, and Bessieres joined the Paris National Guard. On 10 August 1792, the Tuileries Palace was stormed and Bessieres defended the king fighting alongside the Swiss Guard against the Marseilles volunteers and the Paris mob. Bessieres was declared an outlaw and fled Paris. On 13 August, the king was arrested; and on 21 September, France was declared a republic.

On 10 August 1792 the Paris Commune stormed th...

On 10 August 1792 the Paris Commune stormed the Tuileries Palace and massacred the Swiss Guards (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Three months after fleeing Paris, Bessieres joined the 22nd cavalry regiment on 1 November 1792. King Louis XVI was executed on 21 January 1793. This event brought the other European powers into war against France. France began a massive draft of conscripts for the army.

Bessieres’ status as an outlaw was forgotten and the 22nd regiment was sent to Spain as part of the Army of the Pyrenees and the Army of Moselle. Bessieres was elected a lieutenant on 10 May 1793 and a captain on 8 May 1794. In 1795, the 22nd regiment was transferred to the Army of the Italy.

Bessieres had already distinguished himself in Spain, but it was in Italy that he would come to the attention of General Napoleon Bonaparte. This meeting would change the future of France.


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Royalist, Jacobin, Republican, or Patriot?

Napoleon Bonaparte in the coup d'état of 18 Br...

Napoleon Bonaparte in the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire in Saint-Cloud. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Battle of Weissenfels 1813 by Girardet

Battle of Weissenfels 1813 by Girardet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

His Grace Jean Baptiste Bessieres, First Duke of Istria, Marshal of France, awarded the Legion d’Honneur (grand eagle, the highest rank), knighted in two countries, and numerous other awards for bravery and valor in battle.

Jean Baptiste Bessieres was born on 6 August 1768, in Prayssac near Cahors in southern France. His father was a successful and affluent country surgeon. Jean was 21 and studying to follow in his father’s footsteps when the French Revolution began in 1789.

In 1791, the new Legislative Assembly was divided between those who wanted a constitutional monarchy like England and those who wanted a republic. It was a dangerous time in Paris and the royal family decided to secretly flee to Varennes near the Austrian border. In Austria they would join those who had fled France in voluntary exile, and with the support and protection of Austria, retake France.

On 21 June the royal family fled Paris, dressed as their servants. Jean Baptiste Bessieres joined those protecting the royal family on their attempted escape from Paris. The king was recognized in Varennes and captured before the royals could get into Austria; they returned to Paris 25 June under house arrest in the Tuileries.

In early 1792, Bessieres joined the National Guard as a non-commissioned officer. Then in April of 1792, he was selected to join the new King’s Constitutional Guard of Louis XVI. When the Constitutional Guard was disbanded, he remained in Paris. When the Tuileries was stormed by a Paris mob on 10 August, Bessieres again joined those who protected the king, at great risk to himself.

On 13 August, the king was officially arrested, and on 21 September, France was declared a Republic. On 21 January 1793, King Louis XVI was executed. Afterwards Bessieres traveled south joining a cavalry regiment and was elected a second lieutenant.

All during this time, France was involved in war with foreign countries invading France and violent struggles among the revolutionaries within the country to establish a legitimate government in France. The Jacobins emerged in power after four years of struggle within France. The Jacobins were a political club that wanted France to be a democratic republic. By September of 1793, the Jacobins created the Committee for Public Safety and the Reign of Terror began, lasting for twelve months. Under the direction of this committee and its leader Robespierre, the streets of Paris ran red with blood until the execution of Robespierre in July 1794. The Jacobins were outlawed and most of its leaders also executed.  While all of this was going on, France continued to be attacked by foreign countries that feared the violence of France spilling over into their own country.

In 1795, Bessieres’ regiment was sent to the Pyrenees and coastal Italy, not good terrain for cavalry. It was while in Italy he attracted Napoleon’s attention with his calm and intrepid personality.

Of course, Jean Bessieres would have attracted attention anywhere he went. He was tall with a natural military bearing and grace, with long powdered hair (like the 18th century military men before him). His hair style fitted his youthful face. Bessieres was a man of integrity, very exact and even-tempered; in battle, he possessed an almost cold courage. Some of his contemporaries described him as unflinching. He was more intelligent and had better judgment than his peers. He also had an unusual kindness about him and took better care of his men, horses and equipment than other generals. Though, he was very disciplined, he was well loved by his men. At the battle of Wagram a cannonball struck Bessieres’ horse; killing the horse, injuring him, and knocking him unconscious. He was carried from the field of battle. His men, thinking he was dead, wept and charged into battle vowing revenge.

At the end of the Reign of Terror, the Directory was the governmental head of France, and still the wars and civil unrest continued. By 1799 it appeared the Directory was about to start a second Reign of Terror.

Meanwhile Bessieres was serving his country in the cavalry under General Bonaparte, first in Italy, then in Egypt and the East. Bessieres had risen to the rank of colonel and become a trusted friend of General Bonaparte. In November, General Napoleon Bonaparte secretly returned to France with a small body of trusted friends to take the reins of power through a military coup. Bessieres was a member of this small group and helped Murat, Lannes, and Marmont secure the support of the Army for Napoleon, and he went on to play a prominent role in the coup d’état.

In March 1804, when Napoleon had the Duke of Enghien executed on dubious and shifting charges, Bessieres protested loud and long against it. Apparently, Bessieres did not suffer from blind loyalty for his best friend and Emperor.

My Analysis

Thirty years ago, I was a young man still forming my approach to history. I accepted the history books at face value, except those areas I knew to be stilted concerning America’s Civil War. I knew the victor had written the history books in their favor on that great conflict, but was this the case throughout historical writing. I was determined to find out, and decided a good place to start my quest was with Napoleon, one of the most important military leaders in history.

I knew from history that Napoleon was an egomaniac determined to sacrifice his own country and Europe to feed his own ambitions of power, fame, and glory. I realized much of what I could find in English about Napoleon (I don’t read French) was written after the fact and could be tainted by the victors. So, I chose to start with Napoleon’s Marshalls. I chose, at random from a list of Napoleon’s first selected Marshalls, Jean Baptiste Bessieres. My approach to history was changed forever. From that point forward I would conduct my own research of primary source material, read the analysis of professional historians, and then arrive at my own analysis. Without Bessieres, my historical work as you see it today would not have been possible. The articles that so many of you have expressed appreciation for, through your comments and e-mails, would have never been written.

Family tradition has Bessieres as royalists; Bessieres himself proclaimed to be a Jacobin; and most historians list him as a republican. I found Bessieres to be none of the above. To me Bessieres was a man loyal to France, a patriot. When France was in upheaval and under threat from forces within and without the country Bessieres sided with his country and not any particular government. When the Monarchy seemed to be France’s best hope for stability, the 26-year-old Bessieres risked his life to protect the Royal family. When the Jacobins seemed to be France’s best hope for stability, he joined the Jacobins and became a republican. When the Jacobins threatened to tear France apart with a second Reign of Terror to support their own power, he became a prominent figure in a coup d’état that brought Napoleon to power.

Friend and foe alike claimed that Bessieres was a man whose intelligence and cool judgment were above that of his peers. Bessieres had a clearness of vision and his advice always lacked bias, disinterested, but decidedly not uninterested. When, early in the Russian campaign, Napoleon had a defeated the enemy in the field, and had all of his Marshalls convened around him deciding what to do next. Bessieres kept quite while the other Marshalls advised sending in the reserves (comprised entirely of Imperial Guard) to finish off the Russian army. Then Bessieres calming stated to Napoleon, “Sire, you are seven hundred leagues from Paris.”

Napoleon did not send in his reserves.

Yet, when Napoleon executed the Duke of Enghien, unjustly to Bessieres’ view, he did not hesitate to go against his friend and Emperor. Undoubtedly, it was Napoleon’s respect for Bessieres’ intellect and clearness of thought, which saved Bessieres.

When I finished my studies of Jean Baptiste Bessieres, I was convinced the victor tainted our knowledge of Napoleon. Bessieres would not have supported Napoleon for so long if Napoleon had been the self-serving, egomaniac, sacrificing France for his own power and glory that we have been lead to believe.

Next week, more of this remarkable man, Jean Baptiste Bessieres, in war and peace.


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Sunday’s Post (For Real This Time) Available on 6 October 2013


Ok, this week the post I intended for you is coming out this Sunday on the 6th of October. I finished the first draft and sent out a few to a small group of people. While they were reading I did my rewrites and it is now queued up to be published at midnight on Saturday. I have enjoyed writing this series, the man you will meet reminded me of my grandfather. They both had the same character, integrity, and even the same flaw (from my perspective). Like my grandfather, this man had an impact on my research and writing. I hope you enjoy it. Thank you.

I grew up in the South in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The world I grew up in was still pockmarked with the scars from the Civil War (or The War of Northern Aggression, as we call it). The scars were not obvious, but they were not hidden either. The indentations left from horseshoes on the altar of an Episcopal church. A union officer rode his horse down the aisle up on the altar and took over the church as his headquarters. Then there were scorch marks on the baptismal brazier, union soldiers used it to cook chicken in.

Then there are the people too, a sharecropper trying to eke out a living for his family on another man’s land. When he did not produce enough crops for the landowner, he and his family were kicked off the land and out of the house that went with the land. What happened to the little farm? The landowner’s slaves replaced the sharecropper, and life went on. Yet, when the war started this man, this poor sharecropper, donned a grey coat and left his family to fight the Yankees. I knew this man did not fight to protect slavery; he had to compete against slave labor to feed his family.

Our schoolbooks were written in the north. Schoolteachers who were born in the north (most of them) told us no atrocities were committed against Southerners and the war had been fought to end slavery and for no other reason. So, as a boy I learned to doubt the accepted version of Southern history, I adopted the Missouri motto “show me.” I had to verify for myself what was factual and what was not. I learned the old adage “the victor writes the history books.”

As I became a man and moved north, I began to wonder if what I learned about Southern history applied to all history. Was Napoleon really the megalomaniac we were taught, the anti-Christ Nostradamus predicted? About this time, I began to read about a French doctor, a simple family physician, who left his field of chosen endeavor to stand up for his country and defend it with arms. What this man taught me was that the victor does write the history books, and that even a simple family doctor is capable of extraordinary things in extraordinary times.

This simple doctor who changed my approach to history is the man I want to introduce you to next.

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