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Michel Ney, Marshal Of France
Among the marshals of the great Napoleon, Ney has always held in my mind the place of honor. "The Bravest of the Brave" was the sobriquet bestowed on him by the men of his own nation and his own time; and the briefest record of his life cannot fail to prove how well the title was deserved. I could wish for a larger canvas on which to paint his portrait; but the space allotted to me here will at least suffice to reveal his character, and chronicle the main events of his career.
Marshal Ney returning the captured Colors.
When Napoleon was proclaimed emperor Ney was made a marshal, "for a long succession of heroic actions," and when the army, instead of crossing the Channel, turned back to crush Austria and the coalition, Ney commanded the sixth corps. By October 14, 1805, Napoleon had surrounded Mack and his army in Ulm, and on that day Ney carried the heights of Elchingen after a terrific combat. It was from this achievement that his title of Duke of Elchingen was derived. After the capitulation of Ulm Ney had, at Innsprueck, the proud satisfaction of restoring to the seventy-sixth regiment the flags of which they had been despoiled. He was sent into the Tyrol in pursuit of the Archduke John, whose rear-guard he caught and cut to pieces at the foot of Mount Brenner, at the same time that Napoleon, at Austerlitz, brought the war to a close.
After the peace of Presburg Ney remained in Suabia until the rupture with Prussia. The day of Jena found him so anxious for the fray that he attacked the enemy without waiting for orders, and brought the whole Prussian cavalry upon his small division of some three thousand men, and held them at bay until Napoleon sent him assistance. Though Prussia was practically annihilated by the battles of Jena and Auerstadt, Russia was still to be reckoned with. Napoleon invaded Poland, and found himself forced into a winter campaign at a formidable distance from France. Marching and countermarching through mud and snow the whole army was subjected to horrible suffering; but even then Ney's impetuous energy was unabated. Napoleon even rebuked him for "fool-hardiness;" and more than once his only salvation from destruction was in the slowness and density of the Russians. He took little part in the dreadful and indecisive battle of Eylau, after which Napoleon remained for eight days without making any movement; but it was to him that, at Friedland, Napoleon allotted the post of honor and of danger, saying, as the marshal went off proud of his task, "That man is a lion."
Napoleon about this time discovered that "the interposition of France was necessary in the affairs of Spain;" and after the peace of Tilsit Ney was only allowed to remain in France long enough to recruit his forces, before being sent to the Peninsula. A few months later in the year, when Napoleon visited Spain, Ney was given the command of the sixth corps there, but he was destined to reap few Spanish laurels, and it is said that he endeavored to persuade the emperor to relinquish the hopeless struggle against an entire people. While Soult was engaged in the difficult task of forcing the English from the Peninsula by way of Corunna, Ney held Galicia and the Asturias, destroyed guerilla bands, defeated Sir Robert Wilson, and intercepted the enemy's convoys; but the whole country was in arms against the French, who after six months' unceasing struggle, were compelled to retreat.
When Massena was sent to Portugal with orders from Napoleon to drive the "English leopards and their Sepoy general into the sea," Ney, acting under his directions, took Ciudad Rodrigo and Almeida. At Busaco, on September 27, 1810, he differed from his commander-in-chief as to the advisability of attacking the English position in front, which was strong. Massena suffered a severe repulse; and Ney was undoubtedly right, since the fact remains that after the battle Wellington's position was easily turned, and he was compelled to fall back. He retreated upon the famous lines of Torres Vedras, before which Massena sat helplessly for months, until famine forced him to break up his camp. Ney was intrusted with the command of the rear-guard, and the universal opinion of military critics is that his management of this retreat was one of his most splendid feats of arms. On one occasion he confronted, with 5,000 men, Wellington and his army of 30,000, and delayed them for many hours, while the sick and wounded, the baggage wagons, and the main body of the French army made good their retreat. While Ney was in front of him Wellington knew no repose, nor, for all his efforts, did he succeed, during the whole pursuit, in capturing an ammunition wagon or even a single gun. But when Massena--with a view to saving his military reputation, which had been gravely compromised by his want of success--proposed again to advance upon Lisbon, Ney flatly refused to obey him, and after a violent quarrel, was ordered by Massena to relinquish his command and retire into the interior of Spain to await the decision of the emperor. Napoleon recalled him to France, and gave him the command of the third corps of that avalanche of men--men of so many nations and kindreds and peoples--which he was preparing to hurl upon Russia.
The Grand Army crossed the Niemen in June, 1812, and followed an ever-retreating foe to Smolensk, where the Russian general, Barclay de Tolly, had received positive orders from Alexander to give battle, and where he had placed a garrison of 30,000 men. On August 14th Ney cleared the neighboring town of Krasnoi at the point of the bayonet, and during the next two days the Russians were slowly forced back under the walls of Smolensk. On the 17th a general attack was ordered, and Ney was directed to take the citadel. But so obstinate was the Russian defence that when night came no entrance had been effected. However, an hour after midnight the Russian general set fire to the town, and abandoned it, having lost 12,000 men in the defence. At a council of war which followed the capture of the place, Ney strongly recommended that the Grand Army should establish itself upon the banks of the Dwina and the Dnieper, and occupying Smolensk and its environs with a vanguard, there await the Russian attack. His advice was overruled, however, and he was forced to follow the retreating foe upon the road to Moscow. But Russia was thoroughly dissatisfied with the way in which the war had so far been carried on, and Barclay de Tolly was at this juncture superseded by Kutusof, who, having intrenched himself strongly near the little village of Borodino, prepared to dispute the farther progress of the invaders. The battle which followed, on September 7th, was one of the most obstinate and sanguinary of modern times. It lasted from early morning till late at night, and more than eighty thousand men were killed or wounded. Ney fought like a common soldier in the very thickest of the conflict. The Russian positions were at last carried, and Ney sent to the emperor for reinforcements with which to complete the victory. The emperor had only his guard in reserve, and refused this request. "If there should be another battle to-morrow," he said, "with what am I to fight it?" "Let him go back to Paris, and play at emperor, and leave fighting to us," cried Ney, scornfully, when he heard this message. Had his request been granted, and the Imperial Guard been hurled into the conflict at the right moment, it seems probable that the Russian army would have been entirely destroyed. As it was, they drew off in good order, under cover of night, and Kutusof even had the effrontery to claim a victory. For his services during this memorable day Ney received the title of Prince of the Moskowa.
The result of the battle of Borodino was to leave Moscow at the mercy of the invaders, and a barren prize indeed it proved to them. In the horror of the fearful retreat from the ruined city the fame of Ney reached its highest point. Nothing in all history surpasses the record of his indomitable courage and cheerfulness in the most hopeless situations, and amid the most frightful hardships. As in Spain, he had the command of the rear-guard, and the soldiers, preyed upon alike by the Cossacks and the cold, died in the path like flies. Without artillery and without cavalry, they yet succeeded, day after day, in obstructing their pursuers. Ney was on foot in the midst of them, carrying a musket and fighting like the humblest private. But at Smolensk--where the army expected to find everything, and really found nothing--they stayed too long, and on resuming their march found the Russians barring their path. Napoleon and the Imperial Guard cut their way through. The first and fourth corps succeeded, after a desperate conflict, in evading their enemies, but Ney, who had received orders to blow up the fortifications of Smolensk before leaving the town, found himself with some eight thousand men cut off from the main body of fugitives by an army of 50,000 Russians. He attacked them as though the numbers were equal, lost in a short time nearly half his little force, and was obliged to fall back. Being called upon to surrender, he answered, proudly, "A Marshal of France never surrenders," and gave the order, as night approached, to retreat toward Smolensk, which was indeed the only way open to him. The soldiers were in despair. Ney alone did not lose heart. In the gathering dusk they came upon a small rivulet. The marshal broke the ice and watched the flow of the current beneath. "This must be a feeder of the Dnieper," he said. "We will follow it, and put the river between us and our enemies." This they succeeded in doing; but were obliged to leave their wounded, their artillery, and their baggage upon the other side. Ney had left Smolensk on November 17th, with about eight thousand men. On the 20th he joined Napoleon, who had given him up for lost--with somewhere about one thousand. Napoleon, hearing that he was come, fairly leaped and shouted for joy, exclaiming, "I have three hundred millions of francs in the Tuileries--I would have given them all rather than have lost such a man."
A few days afterward Ney was fighting madly on the shores of the fatal Beresina to clear the way for the surging and almost frenzied crowd of soldiers, stragglers, women and children, who, under the merciless fire of the Russian batteries were streaming across the river on the rickety bridges improvised by the French engineers. The Grand Army was by this time only a crowd of wretched and undisciplined fugitives. Ney managed to preserve the semblance of a rear-guard, and if it had not been for his unceasing efforts it seems probable that hardly a single soldier would ever have seen again the shores of France. As it was, when he crossed the Niemen on December 13th, himself the last man to leave Russian territory--his rear-guard had vanished, and he had with him only his aides-de-camp, while of about five hundred thousand men who had crossed the river five months before scarcely fifty thousand returned.
No sooner did this catastrophe become known than Europe--so long ground under his heel--rose against Napoleon, who at once called upon France for fresh levies. Ney was given the command of the first Corps. On April 29, 1813, he drove the allies from Weissenfels toward Leipsic. On May 1st he again compelled a retrograde movement; and on May 2d he commanded the French centre at the battle of Lutzen, where, indeed, he bore the brunt of the fighting. The allies were compelled to retire, but they did not consider themselves beaten, and they fought again at Bautzen a few days afterward. Lutzen and Bautzen were both dubious victories, but at Dresden the allies were defeated with great loss.
This victory, however, was annulled by the defeat of Vandamme, who was taken prisoner in Bohemia, after losing 10,000 men. When Napoleon heard of this disaster he at once sent Ney to replace Oudinot in the command of the Northern army, with the object of pushing on to Berlin; but for once Ney's evil stars were in the ascendant, for on September 5th he was totally defeated by Bernadotte, at Dennewitz, losing 10,000 prisoners and eighty guns. "The Bravest of the Brave" was inconsolable. For some days he took no food, and scarcely spoke. He wished to give up his command and fight as a grenadier. "If I have not blown out my brains," he said, "it is only because I want to rally my army before dying."
And now came the catastrophe at Leipsic--the three days' battle of the Nations--where, on the first day, Ney was defeated by Bluecher, after a desperate struggle in which he lost 4,000 killed and wounded, and upward of two thousand prisoners. On the third day, after the defection of the Saxons, he held out for five hours with 5,000 men against 20,000, and retired fighting to the end. Through the whole of the succeeding campaign of France, he was at the emperor's side; and when, in spite of all the genius of Napoleon, and all the bravery of his soldiers, Paris capitulated, Ney was one of three marshals sent by the defeated Emperor of the French to negotiate with the Emperor of Russia for his abdication in favor of his son, the King of Rome.
This mission failed of any result--Napoleon went to Elba, and Louis XVIII. reigned over France in his stead. Ney accepted the new order of things, and was created a peer of France, knight of St. Louis, and governor of the sixth Military Division. But the world was for the time at peace; and Ney's occupation was gone. He had been a fighter all his life--he could not turn courtier at the end. He had married, in 1810, Mlle Auguie, who had been brought up in the court of Louis XVI., was a friend of Hortense Beauharnais, and naturally fond of gayety and society. The great marshal was a simple and rather illiterate man, who had had no time to cultivate fashionable graces, so it happened that when Madame la Marechal gave a banquet or a ball, Ney used not to appear, but dined by himself, in his own apartments, as far removed as possible from the noise of the festival. It is said that outside the field of battle he was one of the timidest of men, and even submitted quite tamely to the insolence of his own servants.
In January, 1815, he departed for his country-seat of Coudreaux, near Chateaudun, where he lived in the simplest possible fashion, till on March 6th, an aide-de-camp of the Minister of War brought him an order to return at once to the head-quarters of the Military Division of which he was commander. Instead of going directly to his post, he went by way of Paris, where he heard for the first time of the landing of Napoleon.
"It is a great misfortune," said he. "Whom can we send against him?"
Then, having visited the king, and assured him of his devotion to the monarchy, he went to his command at Besancon. Next morning he heard that Grenoble had declared for the emperor, and that the occupation of Lyons was inevitable. He could observe for himself the dissatisfaction of the troops by whom he was surrounded. On the 12th he was at Lons-le-Saulnier, organizing his troops, and writing to the minister of war for ammunition and horses. But he soon saw that resistance was hopeless. The Bourbons had managed, as usual, to make themselves hated. The king's brother and Marshal Macdonald had been obliged to flee from Lyons when Napoleon appeared. All the soldiers were delighted at the thought of having their "Little Corporal" back again. On the night of the 13th Ney received an emissary from Napoleon. What memories must have stirred in his heart, of old perils and old glories! How could he resist the mighty spell of the past? On the 14th he announced to his troops that the house of Bourbon had ceased to reign, and proclaimed Napoleon.
"It was a grievous fault, and grievously did Caesar answer it." From this moment Ney knew no more peace of mind. So bitter was his remorse that he could not face his fellow-soldiers, and obtained Napoleon's permission to retire for a time into the country. When he returned, Napoleon said, banteringly, "I heard you had emigrated." "Ah, sire," answered Ney, "I ought to have done so long ago, but it is too late now."
The approach of war revived his spirits to some extent, and when, a few days before the battle of Waterloo, he joined the army in Flanders, he looked like the Ney of old. At Quatre Bras, on June 16th, despite an obstinate combat, he failed to drive Wellington from his position, and the next day he does not appear to have discovered that the English had fallen back upon Waterloo until some hours after their departure. At the great battle of Waterloo, on June 18th, he fought with the same reckless bravery as ever. He had five horses killed under him, and his clothing was riddled with bullets. Napoleon said, not without truth, that he behaved like a madman. After his fifth horse was shot he fought on foot until forced from the field by the rush of fugitives. He had done his best to die on the field of battle, but almost miraculously he escaped without a wound.
After the second restoration of the Bourbons Ney retired into the country, meaning to escape to the United States, and was provided by Fouche with a passport for this purpose. He delayed, for some reason, to use it; and on August 3d he was arrested at the house of a relative. A council of war was appointed to try him, composed of Marshals Massena, Augereau, Mortier, and three lieutenants. It would have been better for Ney had he submitted himself to their verdict; but he unwisely denied their competence, and demanded, as a peer of the realm, to be tried by his peers, and it was a tribunal which showed him no mercy. It does not appear that the king desired his death; but Talleyrand declared that it would be a grand example, and the royalists generally thirsted for his blood. He was condemned, by a majority of 139 to 17, to be shot for high treason.
On December 7th his wife and four children were admitted to his prison in the early morning, to take leave of him. But neither in this painful ordeal nor at any time afterward, did the condemned marshal show any sign of weakness. At eight o'clock he was taken in a carriage to the place of execution, outside the garden gates of the Luxembourg. The officer who commanded the firing party wished to bandage his eyes, but Ney said, quietly--"Are you ignorant that for twenty-five years I have been accustomed to face both balls and bullets?" Then, raising his voice, he cried, "I protest against my condemnation. I wish that I had died for my country in battle. But here is still the field of honor. Vive la France!"
The officer in command, to his credit be it said, was dumb. He seemed incapable of giving the word to fire; and Ney himself, taking off his hat, and striking his breast, cried, in a loud voice--"Soldiers, do your duty--fire!"
Thus died, in his forty-seventh year, "The Bravest of the Brave."
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