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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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Napoleon’s Best Friend (Bessieries part Four)

  1. You have a very fluid easy-to-grasp style of writing in your narration of history. Nicely done.

  2. Do you really think Napoleon’s army could have made an orderly retreat at Waterloo as you claimed -even if Bessieres was there? Explore the facts….. Napoleon’s entire right wing was destroyed just at the time the Middle Guard was crushed. Only Napoleon’s left wing could escape the chaotic rout -but Reille’s corps itself was smashed in attacks at Hougoumont all day. All the French cavalry was crushed and winded at the time of the Guard attack. When Napoleon’s army was routed it was dark and the Prussian cavalry exploited the advantage of nightfall that added total confusion to the French army’s destruction. The Imperial Old Guard infantry was able to retreat extremely orderly though. Could Bessieres have made a better attack with the last reserves of Old Guard and Middle Guard battalions – nobody knows. Regardless, the French would have lost the battle even if the Guard had succeeded. They had no reserves to exploit a breakthrough and it was sunset; besides which, Wellington’s right flank was still largely intact with reserves of cavalry brigades which came over from the left wing.

    • Yes Bill, I do believe the French may have been able to make an orderly retreat, if Marshall Bessieries had been at the battle. Everything you stated is a fact of history – it happened, and we know the results. What is also a fact is that Marshall Bessieries had been killed in battle and was not at Waterloo.
      I usually avoid “what if’s” in history. The past cannot be changed. However, this is a “what if” that historians and even Napoleon discussed, and I felt I had to make a comment.
      If Marshall Bessieries had been at the battle, the battle would have been fought differently. Bessieries could have been sick (like Lee at Gettysburg) and the results could have been worse. Hard to brlieve I know, but even more French troops could have been killed and Napoleon could have been killed or captured on the field of battle. Or…
      Bessieries could have seen the dangers at Waterloo and could have convinced Napoleon to consolidate his forces and retreat much sooner.
      Many good commanders can intuitively see the weaknesses of their enemy and strike at a crucial point and time to win the victory. But they cannot see the same weaknesses in their own forces. Bessieries could! Also, just as important, Bessieries was bold enough to point out the weaknesses of the French forces when no one wanted to hear it.
      Remember, at one point in the march towards Moscow, the French had beaten the Russian forces in battle. All of Napoleon’s Marshall (except Bessieries) were imploring Napoleon to send in the reserves and finish off the Russians. When the other Marshalls finished Bessieries spoke up, pointing out that the army was more than 1,000 miles from Paris. He did not need to state what would happen if the reserves failed, everyone already knew that. The result? Napoleon choose Bessieries’ councel over that of everyone else.
      I believe Bessieries would have done the same at Waterloo. He would have instinctively seen the dangers of Waterloo (as he did in the Russian battle)

      • But this is still a game of “what if” the only thing we can say for certain is that the battle of Waterloo would have looked different had Bessieries been there. We will never know for certain if the presence of Napoleon’s best friend would have improved or lessened the performance of Napoleon that fateful day.
        Thank you for your comments Bill I thoroughly enjoyed them.
        Best Wishes,
        Joe

  3. Otherwise, an excellent article. I still wish you had taught me history in H.S.

  4. Question, early on, you made this comment: ” With Egypt in control of France”. Was it that or was France to be in control of Egypt? I got confused.
    Scott