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.
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.
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.
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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