The Eaglet in Uniform: The Military Service of Napoleon II
It’s a tragic story. Napoleon Bonaparte’s heir Napoleon II, the King of Rome, summed it up best with these words near the end of his short life: “My birth and my death -- that’s the whole of my story.” When he died at age 21, Napoleon II was known by his Austrian title Duke of Reichstadt and was serving as a battalion commander in the Austrian Army.
This is the story of Napoleon’s only offspring to follow in his footsteps. Neither Leon, born in 1806 to Eleonore Denuelle, nor Alexandre born in 1810 to Marie Walewska, pursued the profession of arms. Both children, however, were mentioned in Napoleon’s will at St. Helena. Their captive father was hoping that Alexandre would serve in the French Army and that Leon would join the civil service. Of course, it is worth noting that Napoleon’s stepson Eugene de Beauharnais, Josephine’s son whom the Emperor adopted, distinguished himself as an officer under Napoleon.
Napoleon II, often referred to as the Eaglet (l’Aiglon), was born in 1811 and was only three years old when he was separated from his father. Upon Napoleon’s exile to Elba, his wife Marie Louise took their son (Francois Joseph Charles Bonaparte) to Austria. During his stay on the island, Napoleon received a marble bust of the King of Rome from his wife, but neither the Eaglet or his mother visited the island. Marie Louise was already under the watchful eye of her homeland; she and the boy would never see husband and father again.
During his first years in Paris, Francis had been surrounded by the many military trappings of his parent’s Imperial Household. According to one account, his “favorite toys were flags, trumpets, drums, a great horse which he used so much that it had to be repaired innumerable times.” The boy spent time with his father in the study playing with wooden blocks with military unit markings as Napoleon worked.
Growing up in his new home at Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, the boy at first was not told very much about his father because of the political division between Austria and France. His mother’s family and the government (especially Metternich) wanted to transform him into an Austrian prince. The Eaglet, or Francis as we shall call him (also Francois or Franz), was raised by a staff of military tutors under the guardianship of his grandfather the Emperor Francis I; his mother taking up residence in Parma, Italy, living with and following Napoleon’s death, marrying Count von Neipperg. Francis was given the title Prince of Parma and was later created Duke of Reichstadt.
According to Dormer Creston, the boy’s passion for soldiering was no passing phase. “When he was only six he demanded a soldier’s uniform, the real thing, in miniature, and when later he was formally given the badge of a sergeant, he was beside himself with satisfaction. He would do sentry-duty outside the Emperor’s rooms and present arms to any man of the Court.” At the early age of eight, it was apparent to his tutors that the boy had clearly chosen his career. Count Maurice Dietrichstein, a retired major assigned to Francis, wrote to Marie Louise: “The profession of arms is undoubtedly the only one he can embrace. That is indicated by all his taste, and it would be a mistake not to encourage such inclination.”
By the spring of 1820, Francis had completed his elementary studies and was ready for the classics. The nine year old was now ready to begin his military training. As Octave Aubry relates, “Anything with a bearing on war delighted him. He had a soldier’s instinct.” Captain M. de Foresti, the assistant tutor, taught Francis tactics and strategy. The boy was now learning German and Italian while another tutor, Major Weiss, convinced him that learning math was important for a military career. Francis showed a “lively interest” in different systems of fortifications. His physical training consisted of running, jumping, swimming, wrestling and riding. “He adored horses and rode instinctively,” according to Octave Aubry.
When Napoleon died in May 1821 it took until July for a courier to reach Vienna with the news. The task of telling 10-year-old Francis fell to Captain Foresti. One of Napoleon’s final wishes on St. Helena was for his son to never forget that he is a French prince.The boy’s Army career officially began at age 12, during the summer of 1823, when his grandfather appointed him as an Army cadet entitling him to wear a uniform, which gave Francis “great delight.” As a cadet, he held the rank of a non-commissioned officer. His interest in the military easily distracted him from other studies. Aubry tells us that twice a day in the courtyard below his window “he could hear the bugle and drum announcing the changing of the guards. And he would at once jump to his feet...the sight of soldiers drawn up in file...the swift, spirited drill, the transmission of the password to the sentinels were an unfailing attraction to him...” Meanwhile, military bands, drums and trumpets were the only music that he liked.
When Francis was 13, Count Dietrichstein made this report to Marie Louise in Parma: “His appearance, his demeanor, in word everything about him, are subjects of boundless admiration. His politeness is something exquisite...he sparkles with wit, his conversation is finesse itself, and the consideration he has for everyone...give him an ease that is far beyond his age.” While reports from the boy’s tutors might not be totally objective -- and could be self-serving to those charged with the boy’s development -- it does appear that Francis was developing into an intelligent, serious and focused young man.
With the passing of his father, Francis’ tutors showed less hesitation in speaking of the Emperor Napoleon. By the time Francis was 15, he was allowed to read some of the extracts of writings produced by some of the staff serving with his father on St. Helena, including Montholon, Gourgaud and Las Cases. The tutors had not been instructed to teach Francis to dislike his father, but “that with all his genius Napoleon had played a disastrous role in history,” says Aubry.
Francis was anxiously awaiting his promotion to lieutenant, but his tutor did not believe he was ready. Nevertheless, the 15 year-old enjoyed wearing the dark uniform of a lieutenant of the Tyrolian Chasseurs. The Duke was tall and slender with thick curly blond hair and blue eyes. He shared his military ambitions with his best friend Sophie, an archduchess six years his senior and married to the Archduke Franz Karl. He told her that “he was sure to love the soldiers’ life...[he] would take an interest in his men, lead them in maneuvers, pass them in review...” Meanwhile, by this time Francis was appearing to have problems with his health. The household staff began noticing that he was coughing a great deal, frequently suffering from colds, chills and even fevers.
During the summer of 1828 Marie Louise visited Vienna, finding that Francis had become “an absolute giant” at about six feet tall. While his mother was home, the 17-year-old was appointed by his grandfather as a captain in a light infantry company. Marie Louise presented him with the curved saber that belonged to his father in Egypt, “one of the few souvenirs of the Napoleonic epic” she had kept,” according to Andre Castelot. The sword became a part of a large collection of weapons Francis displayed in his bedroom along with military books, “symbols of what he most desired...but over books and weapons brooded the spirit of Napoleon,” writes Dormer Creston. “The legend of his father was a power-house which held everything to which his youth stretched out.”
Now that he was finally an army officer, the Eaglet was eager to be set free from his palace life. During the summer of 1829 the young captain took part in maneuvers at the camp at Vraiskirchen, but was still not considered ready for full-time active service on account of his health.The 18-year-old read the book “Memorial of St. Helena” by Emmanuel Las Cases which served to inspire him even more than previous accounts of his father. He became “intoxicated” and “inspired” according to Aubry, now openly declaring, “The principal aim of my life must be never to show myself unworthy of my father.” Aubry tells us that, “The spell was too powerful and nothing now could prevail against it. Not only had he found his father again, in his true heroic stature, but through his father he was to find himself.” At this point he was reading everything about his father that he could find.
The captain commented in a letter to his mother about a book on Napoleon’s Russian campaign by Chambray, “a very praiseworthy work. I should like to see the Russians invade Austria one day, to make them go through a similar retreat, only with the difference that it would be our courage and not the bitter cold that would send them back to their snow.”
At age 19, Francis met a 34-year-old major in the Austrian army who had written about Waterloo and defended Napoleon’s actions during the campaign. Francis, searching for friends (and probably a father figure) latched on to Major Antoine de Prokesch-Osten. The major was impressed by the Eaglet’s knowledge, writing to a friend that “I would stake my life on it that he knows more about the art of war than the cleverest of our generals.” He related that, “I am astonished by the liveliness of his mind and judgment, the clarity of his thought and practical intelligence.” Francis explained to his new confidant that he was loyal to Austria, but could never fight against France.
In March 1830 the Duke completed his formal education by taking an exam on the military code at the palace. A promotion greeted Francis in July, advancement to major with duties as a battalion commander in the 54th Lamezan-Salins regiment. Another promotion followed in November with his long wished-for appointment as a lieutenant colonel. He was assigned to the Duke of Nassau’s 29th Infantry Regiment, garrisoned at Brunn. Preparing for his spring entry into full-time active service, three officers were appointed to accompany him on this first venture away from the limits of Schonbrunn. General Count Hartmann would be the Francis’ chief of staff, joined by Captain Baron de Moll and Captain Joseph Standeisky.
An important lesson in Francis’ education about his father came about as the result of his social debut at the British Embassy in January 1831. The lieutenant colonel was introduced to one of his father’s former marshals, Marechal Marmont. Marmont knew Napoleon from the siege at Toulon and performed with distinction in Napoleon’s Army from the Italian Campaign until the 1813 Campaign where he negotiated with the Allies and surrendered his corps. Excited to meet someone who had fought alongside his father for so many years, Francis asked him for a series of meetings to discuss his father’s campaigns. Marmount consented (with the approval of Metternich) and the two began meeting three days later for the first of 17 sessions. At the end of the sessions, Francis presented his teacher with a portrait of himself by Daffinger, showing the Eaglet gazing at a bust of Napoleon. According to Caselot, these sessions had a huge impact on Francis, helping his father “come to life before his eyes: he was no longer just a character in his history books...”
Francis was still eager to see active service. When Austrian troops were ordered to Italy to control a rebellion that had caused Marie Louise to fear for her safety, the lieutenant colonel begged his grandfather to allow his battalion to be a part of the Austrian force, but the Emperor refused. “Never have I seen him so agitated,” recorded Major Prokech.
Frustrations lead to periods of depression for Francis and the winter took its toll on his fragile health. Count Dietrichstein recommended the Eaglet be given a grenadier battalion permanently garrisoned in Vienna (not only for health reasons, but since any foreign postings could compromise the Prince in the eyes of France).
On June 16, 1831, Francis was given his own command -- a battalion of 200 men of the 60th Regiment, Hungarian Infantry. He collected his battalion at the Alslegasse barracks, Alsler-Kaserne and began conducting drills and took charge of a function at the Hotel des Invalides. On his second day of command, he writes his mother that he now rises at four in the morning and spends many hours each day on horseback. According to Andre Castelot, “he became an excellent battalion commander, strict but just toward his subordinates. His fiery temperament soon captivated his chief, the Prince of Wasa. His young soldiers worshiped him. One day when he rode slowly by on his white horse, he looked so handsome, so serious, so soldierly that they could not refrain from giving him a cheer, in defiance of their machinelike discipline.”
Health continued to dog him though, with his voice easily giving out after shouting commands to his battalion. When the young commander complained to his his physician Dr. Malfatti about “this wretched body of mine,” the doctor replied that the Duke has “an iron spirit in a body of crystal.” After a few weeks of ordered rest, the duke resumed his duties. Dormer Creston describes the situation: “He lived in a see-saw of hope and despair; one moment he believed that by sheer determination he would still be able to lead a normal life; the next he was tripped up by physical weakness, by his inability to fight the germs of consumption.”
At the beginning of 1832 he resumed his military duties, caught pneumonia and was again back under ordered bed rest in his Hofburg apartments. His activities were limited to extra sleep, lots of reading of newspapers, pamphlets and books, although outings to the theater and riding were allowed. He was still recovering on his 21 birthday on March 20, 1832. He had now lost the hearing in one ear.
While some were recommending that the Duke remove to a warmer climate, like Italy with his mother, Andre Castelot argues that it was the Austrian Chancellor Metternich who blocked that option. Metternich “had no need to poison his old enemy’s son, as some writers have claimed he did; all he had to do was to let him die. For at the beginning of this spring of 1832, it seemed possible that Francis might still be saved...”
Finally, people were discussing and newspapers were reporting the Duke’s condition as tuberculosis. On May 13 the Emperor appointed his grandson as honorary colonel of the Prince of Wasa’s regiment. Francis was moved by carriage to Schonbrunn on May 22 and he took up residence in rooms that his father occupied following Austerlitz and Wagram. He died at the age of 21 on July 22 in the palace. He was buried in Vienna with full military honors, but was finally reunited with his father in 1940 when his body was returned to Paris. When the Eaglet was born, Napoleon had mentioned to Geraud Duroc, “I envy that boy. Glory is waiting there for him: I had to run after Her. I will have been Phillip: he will be Alexander. He has only to extend an arm, and the world is his.”
About the Author:
Tom Vance, a retired lieutenant colonel in the US Army Reserve, has contributed articles to The Napoleon Series, Napoleonic Literature, Military History magazine and British Army Review. He lives in Michigan and manages public affairs for a public school district.
 Castelot, Andre. King of Rome: A Biography of Napoleon’s Tragic Son (translated from the French by Robert Baldick) New York : Harper & Brothers; 1960. P. 357.
 Ludwig, Emil. Napoleon (translated by Eden and Cedar Paul) New York : Garden City Publishing; 1926. P. 664. Leon appears not have pursued any particular profession with any zeal, while Alexandre distinguished himself as a diplomat and served as Foreign Minister under Napoleon III. For a discussion about his other sons, those agreed upon and those rumored, see: Stracton, David; The Bonapartes New York : Simon and Shuster; 1966. P.143 and 85 (also the folded family tree at the end of the book identifying off-spring from mistresses or lovers); Alan Schom says Napoleon had a son with Emilie De Pellapra (Napoleon Bonaparte New York : HarperPerennial; 1998. P. 707); while Clarence Edward and Gordon Dorrance mention rumors of several other boys born to Napoleon, including a Colonel Duval and a John Gordon, who may have been born on St. Helena (The Bonapartes in America Philadelphia : Dorrance and Company, Philadelphia, 1939, pp. 235-238).
 Aubry, Octave. The Private Life of Napoleon (translated from the French by Elisabeth Abbott) Philadelphia : J.B. Lippincott: 1947. P. 380. Napoleon was, however, paid a visit by Marie Walewska and their son Alexandre (pp. 383-386).
 Aubry; Private Life Pp. 361-362
 Creston, Dormer. In Search of Two Characters: Some Intimate Aspects of Napoleon and his Son New York : Charles Scribner’s Son; 1946. Pp. 329-330
 Aubry, Octave. The King of Rome: Napoleon II “L’Aiglon” (translated by Elizabeth Abbott) Philadelphia : J.B. Lippincott; 1932. p. 127
 Aubry; King of Rome, p. 127, p. 133 and pp. 137-138.
 Nezelof, Pierre. Napoleon and His Son, (translated from the French by Warre Bradley Wells) New York : Liveright; 1937. P. 316. In Aubry’s King of Rome, there is a black and white sketch of Francis in uniform with musket and fixed bayonet by Kunstverig Wolfrum dated 1823 identifying him as a non-commissioned officer (plate is between pages 136 and 137).
 Aubry; King of Rome, p. 133
 Ibid; pp. 141-142
 Castelot, p. 261 and Creston, p. 359: “his health was far from satisfactory.”
 Pierre Nezelof (Napoleon and His Son, p. 328) and Aubry (King of Rome, p.165 ) report that Francis was appointed as a captain of light infantry, while Castelot refers to an appointment to the regiment of Tyrolean cavalry, p. 263).
 Creston, p. 361.
 Aubry, p. 156.
 Ibid; p. 279.
 Ibid; pp. 283-286.
 Ibid; pp. 287-289 and Aubry, King of Rome, p. 163 and p. 200. Meanwhile, Francis was aware of the events in France: the Revolution of 1830 with rumors about him being placed on the throne amid cries of “Long live Napoleon II” and talk of him assuming the thrones of Greece or Poland. Above all, though, he wanted to soldier.
 Ibid; pp. 307-308 and David G. Chandler, Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars New York : Macmillian; 1979, who calls Marmont’s surrender “the act of betrayal for which Napoleon never forgave him,” p. 273.
 Ibid; p. 312.
 Ibid; p. 314.
 Ibid; 321.
 Ibid; 325.
 Creston; p. 379.
 Castelot; p. 347.
 Aubry, King of Rome, p. 31.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2001
© Copyright 1995-2014, The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.