Tag Archives: King of Rome

Eugène: Napoleon’s True Son

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

Eugène de Beauharnais

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

Napoleon in 1812

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.

HQ on 9 July 1812
by Albrecht Adam
Adam served on Eugène’s staff

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

The Portrait of the King of Rome Arrives

On the eve of battle, a letter from Napoleon’s wife, Marie Louise and a portrait of their son arrived from France.  The portrait had been recently painted by François Gérard and showed Napoleon II, also known as the King of Rome, in his cradle, playing cup-and-ball with the globe and an imperial scepter.  Napoleon was delighted to see the portrait and set it on a chair in front of his tent so it could be publicly displayed.

Napoleon showing the portrait
of the King of Rome

Philippe-Paul de Ségur recorded the scene, “It chanced that very day the Emperor received from Paris a portrait of the King of Rome, the child whom the Empire had welcomed with as much joy as had the Emperor himself.  Every day since the birth of his son Napoleon had been seen at his side in the palace, expressing the most tender of sentiments: and when on such far-removed fields, in the midst of such threatening preparations, he looked on the image of that gentle face again, his soldier’s heart was strangely softened.  He set up the picture outside his tent and called his officers, even the soldiers of the Old Guard, wishing to share his feelings with those seasoned troopers, to show his private family to his military family, and display this symbol of hope in the presence of grave danger.”

Another view of the same scene
by Hippolyte Bellange
Note that the portrait in this image
differs from the one described by Ségur

This scene was also described in War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.  The prefect of the Emperor’s palace, Beausset, arrived at the camp at Borodino.  “‘Ha, what have we here?’ asked Napoleon, observing that all the suite kept glancing at something concealed under a cloth.

With courtly adroitness de Beausset half turned and without turning his back to the Emperor retired two steps, twitching off the cloth at the same time, and said:

‘A present to Your Majesty from the Empress.’

It was a portrait, painted in bright colors by Gerard, of the son borne to Napoleon by the daughter of the Emperor of Austria, the boy whom for some reason everyone called ‘The King of Rome.’

A very pretty curly-headed boy with a look of the Christ in the Sistine Madonna was depicted playing at stick and ball. The ball represented the terrestrial globe and the stick in his other hand a scepter.

Though it was not clear what the artist meant to express by depicting the so-called King of Rome spiking the earth with a stick, the allegory apparently seemed to Napoleon, as it had done to all who had seen it in Paris, quite clear and very pleasing.

‘The King of Rome!’ he said, pointing to the portrait with a graceful gesture. ‘Admirable!’

Marie Louise and Napoleon II

With the natural capacity of an Italian for changing the expression of his face at will, he drew nearer to the portrait and assumed a look of pensive tenderness. He felt that what he now said and did would be historical, and it seemed to him that it would now be best for him- whose grandeur enabled his son to play stick and ball with the terrestrial globe- to show, in contrast to that grandeur, the simplest paternal tenderness. His eyes grew dim, he moved forward, glanced round at a chair (which seemed to place itself under him), and sat down on it before the portrait. At a single gesture from him everyone went out on tiptoe, leaving the great man to himself and his emotion.

Having sat still for a while he touched- himself not knowing why- the thick spot of paint representing the highest light in the portrait, rose, and recalled de Beausset and the officer on duty. He ordered the portrait to be carried outside his tent, that the Old Guard, stationed round it, might not be deprived of the pleasure of seeing the King of Rome, the son and heir of their adored monarch.

And while he was doing M. de Beausset the honor of breakfasting with him, they heard, as Napoleon had anticipated, the rapturous cries of the officers and men of the Old Guard who had run up to see the portrait.

‘Vive l’Empereur! Vive le roi de Rome! Vive l’Empereur!’ came those ecstatic cries.”

Tomb of Napoleon II
Les Invalides

Blogger’s Note:  I also used this episode in my book Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army.  In the story, 14-year-old Henri Carle, though not a soldier,  is accompanying the Grande Armée on the invasion.  His older brother is with the 18th Regiment of the Line in Ney’s III Corps.  On the night before battle, Henri volunteers to fill some canteens.  Earlier in the campaign, at Smolensk, Henri had run an errand for Marshal Ney…

After I had filled the canteens and started back, I came across a group of officers including Marshal Ney who called me over.

“Napoleon is going to issue a proclamation to be read to the troops, run over to headquarters and bring it back for me,” Ney said as he pointed to a spot behind the lines.

Even though I was weighed down by the full canteens, I ran as fast as I could.  This was important.  I was being sent to pick up a message from Napoleon.  I found a large tent surrounded by officers and soldiers.  The sight of so many men and the thought of being so near to Napoleon made me pause.  I decided if you act like you know what you are doing, people will listen to you.

I adjusted the canteens and walked with purpose toward the tent.  I looked for a clerk of some kind as I pushed my way through the milling crowd.  Next to the tent, under the light of two lanterns, sat an officer writing at a field desk.

“I’m here to pick up the proclamation for Ney’s corps,” I announced in a voice a little too loud.

To my left, I heard someone say, “This one looks a little thirsty,” and the soldiers around him laughed at the sight of all my canteens.  I turned to look at them and saw a short man in a grey coat with dark, straight hair that fell over his forehead.  It was Napoleon.  I’d seen paintings of him, but here he was in person.  He was standing next to a chair that held a large, framed painting of a young child.  Soldiers of the Old Guard, Napoleon’s finest troops, were gathered around admiring the painting.

“Come here,” the Emperor said holding out a hand to me, “I want you to see this.  It is my son, The King of Rome.”

The soldiers made room for me, and I walked over to stand in front of the painting.  “It just arrived today straight from Paris.”

He put one hand on my shoulder and held out his other hand to the painting.  “What do you think?”

I didn’t know Napoleon even had a son.  “I’m sure it looks just like him,” I said.

“Ah, a diplomat to be sure,” Napoleon laughed.  “Someday he’ll be in the army, just like you, but for now, he is too young to witness his first battle.”  Turning to an aide, he said, “Take it into my tent where he won’t see.”

He then dropped his hand from my shoulder and hurried into the tent.  The officer behind the desk called out, “I have the proclamation for the Third Corps.”

I went to pick it up, and the officer said, “He’s feeling a little under the weather and sometimes needs to excuse himself to use the latrine,” as way of explaining the sudden end to my meeting with the Emperor.

Blogger’s Note II:  The painting did not survive the retreat.  The painter had made copies, however, although I could not find one for this post.


Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, p. 61

http://www.online-literature.com/tolstoy/war_and_peace/216/, book ten, chapter XXVI

Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army, Scott Armstrong, p. 82