Today’s post is by a guest blogger, Alice Shepperson. Alice read my earlier blog post about the portrait of the King of Rome and wondered how Eugène de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s step-son and adopted son felt about the situation. Alice and I exchanged a few emails and she agreed to put her Cambridge history degree to work and the result is this post on the relationship between Napoleon and Eugène.
Without further delay, here is Alice’s post:
Legend has it that Eugène de Beauharnais first met Napoleon when he was 15. He had come to the office of the commander of the Convention’s
troops in order to beg the return of his father’s sword, which had been confiscated, along with all other weapons in Paris. General Alexandre de Beauharnais had been executed the previous summer during the Terror, and Eugène was anxious to secure the return of this keepsake. Impressed by his courage, General Bonaparte returned the sword and invited the young man to visit him again. When he did so, his mother Josephine tagged along, and the rest is history.
Although Eugène recalled in his memoirs that “I have never been able to forget the agony I endured when I realized that my mother had made up her mind to marry again,” he quickly formed a very close attachment to his new step-father who he was anxious to please. Eugène wished to be a soldier, so in 1797 Napoleon took him to Italy as his aide-de-camp and then to Egypt the following year. Eugène was quick to prove himself. After the battle of Marengo, Napoleon wrote to Josephine that, “…your son is making rapid strides on the road to immortality. He has covered himself in glory in all the battles in Italy.”
Though not perhaps an outstanding military genius, Eugène proved
himself brave, hard working, reliable and loyal, and became thoroughly proficient in military strategy and logistics – talents which Napoleon found ample use for. A steady stream of promotions followed: he was colonel by the age of 22 and a general two years later. In addition to military rank, be became a prince of the French Empire in 1804 and Viceroy of Italy in 1805.
Eugène later earned the epithet “The Bayard of the century, without fear and without reproach” (a title which unfortunately lacks punch unless you know of the exploits of the Chevalier de Bayard (1473–1524)). In addition to his physical bravery, perhaps the most remarkable feature of Eugène’s character was his spotless honour. In an imperial court where Bonaparte’s family were continually conspiring to secure advancement and political gain, it was a blessing to Napoleon to have one person who was, as Madame Remusat described Eugène, “simple and frank, light-hearted and open in all his dealings, displaying no ambition, holding himself aloof from every intrigue, and doing his duty wherever he was placed”.
The Russia Campaign
By 1812, Eugène was an experienced soldier, having led the Army of Italy since the Wagram campaign of 1809. Napoleon had formally adopted Eugène in 1806 and their relationship had survived the divorce of the Empress; in fact when Eugène had suggested following his mother into retirement, the Emperor had replied “Do you want to leave me, then, Eugene? You . . . ah! …Supposing I have a son… who will take my place by his side when I am absent? Who would be a father to him if I died? Who would make a man of him?” Though the birth of the “Eaglet” in 1811 had distanced the Emperor a little from his first son, the bond remained strong.
In the Russian campaign, Eugène once more commanded the Army of Italy. He wrote frequent letters home to his wife, Princess Augusta of Bavaria, who was pregnant with their fourth child. On July 6th, he writes from Vilna that “Yesterday the Emperor asked me a great many questions about you. I begged him to allow me to call our next little darling after him, if it should be a boy. He replied, ‘Yes, gladly.'” Luckily, the child turned out to be a girl.
Eugène commanded the left wing of the army at the Battle of Borodino on the 7th September and entered Moscow with the rest of the army on the 14th September. On the 18th, he writes to Augusta “This city is almost entirely in ashes… The Russians have been guilty of the utmost barbarity in thus ruining 300,000 inhabitants and 600 of the greatest seigneurs in Russia, in order to prevent us obtaining possession of their flour, wine, furs and cattle… From 8 to 10,000 inhabitants remained in the town; they are now naked, starving, without a roof over their heads… it is awful!”
During the army’s stay in Moscow, Eugène was often at the Emperor’s side. They played vingt-et-un to pass the time, but found few other amusements in the city, “not even a billiard table”. Things got so dull that the Emperor asked Eugène to have a particular troop of singers sent up from Italy, though it quickly became apparent that this would be impossible. There was however, time for shopping. On the 28th September, he writes to Augusta that “The courier has started with the furs and a small store of tea; he will arrive in time, I hope, for your first soiree when tea will take the place of ices. Here we shall have more ice than tea, and everybody is getting out their fur coats in consequence; as for me, I shall wrap myself up in fur from top to toe.” Eugène’s Italian troops felt the cold even more keenly than the French, being unused to cold winters.
It would be on the retreat from Moscow that Eugène would show his true worth, distinguishing himself in the rearguard actions at Malojaroslawitz and Borowsk, and doing perhaps more than any other general to maintain the coherence and morale of the frozen columns of men. By December, it would be Eugène who shepherded the last survivors of the Grande Armée back across the Nieman.
Napoleon and His Adopted Son Eugene de Beauharnais by V. M. Montagu
The Memoirs of the Empress Josephine by Madame de Remusat, written between 1818 and 1821.
Napoleon and Josephine: An Improbable Marriage by Evangeline Bruce.
Be sure to visit Alice’s blog Noon Observation, where her razor wit and keen observations are on display. ~ Scott Armstrong