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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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