Research Subjects: Biographies

Jean-Baptiste Bessières, Duc d'Istrie, Marshal (1804)

(Born Prayssac, Lot, 1768 - Died Rippach, Saxony, 1813)


Bessières takes part in every campaign. When he dies on the battlefield, Napoleon writes to his widow: "It is surely a great loss for you and your children, but an even greater one for me. The Duc d'Istria is dead, he had a beautiful death and did not suffer. He leaves an irreproachable reputation, the most valuable inheritance he could leave his children."

Without the Revolution, Bessières would no doubt have been a doctor, like his father. When it breaks out, he enlists in the National Guard and joins the King's Constitutional Guard in April 1792. Later, his corps, the 22nd chasseur, joins the Army of Italy. Promoted chief of the Guides corps by Bonaparte, he wins fame at the battle of Rivoli (January 14, 1797).

During the Egyptian campaign, he distinguishes himself at the Acre siege (March 19-May 20, 1799) and at the Battle of Aboukir (July 25, 1799). Having become a good friend of Napoleon's, he is among those who follow him to France and take part in the 18-Brumaire coup d'état. He is rewarded by being named second in command of the Consular Guard, which will become the Imperial Guard.

On June 14, 1800, at Marengo, his conduct during the cavalry charge wins him the rank of brigadier general. Two years later, he has become major general (September 13, 1802). When the Empire is proclaimed, in 1804, he is on the list of field marshals, but just basely: his name is last. When the Austrian campaign begins the following year, Bessières is in command of the Guard. At Austerlitz (December 2, 1805), his cavalry overwhelms the Russian Imperial Guard. It is the beginning of this famous corps' reputation of invincibility.

Bessières is at Jena (October 14, 1806) and at Eylau, on February 8, 1807, when his and Murat's cavalry succeed in stopping the Russian attack at a critical moment. In Poland, he heads the newly-formed cavalry reserve. In 1808, Bessières is sent to Spain to command the army corps occupying Salamanca. He goes after General Cuesta, who is threatening to cut off his communications with France. With 14,000 men against 40,000, he wins the victory of Medina del Rio Seco (July 14, 1808). When he hears this, Napoleon exclaims: "Bessières has put my brother on the Spanish throne."

The following year, Bessières receives the title of Duc de Istria and is once more put in command of the cavalry of the Guard for the 1809 campaign against Austria. At Wagram, a cannonball kills his horse and he faints. The Guard, who adores him and believes he has been killed, is grief-stricken. Napoleon says to him: "Bessières, that was some cannonball! It had my Guard in tears."

In 1811, as Governor in Spain, he shows great honesty and comprehension towards the civil population. The following year, he is back in the army, once more in command of the Guard, for the Russian campaign. In October he saves the Emperor from a desperate situation: 6,000 Cossacks suddenly swoop down on the headquarters, in the village of Shorodina. Bessières rushes over with his men and repels the attack. For the 1813 campaign in Saxony, he is put in command of the entire cavalry.

The day before the battle of Lützen, on May 13, 1813, he is reconnoitering when a cannonball hits him full in the chest. He is buried at the Invalides.

By Artea


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