Research Subjects: Biographies



Bessieres and the Guides of Bonaparte: a Biographical Outline

By Roberto A. Scattolin, Italy

Jean-Baptiste Bessières, duc d’ Istrie, maréchal d’ empire, was born at Prayssac[1] the 6th of August 1768; his father was Mathurin

Bessières, his mother Antoinette Lemosy. He enlisted in  the National Guard of Prayssac, and reached the rank of capitaine de grenadiers in 1789; he was chosen from the Department of Lot, and joined the ranks of the Garde constitutionnelle of King Louis XVI (1792, April).

After the dissolution of this corps (5 June), he took part in the defense of the TuileriesPalace (August 10).[2] On November 1, he became a light cavalryman in the legion des Pyrénées, and fought the campaign against Spain in the armée des Pyrénées-Orientales (1792-1795).[3] He was then trasferred to the armée d’ Italie with the 22ème régiment de chasseurs à cheval, a unit where he retained the position of capitaine.

General Bonaparte had noticed him in the thick of the fighting – à la suite de l’ affaire de Crémone – while counter-attacking the Austrian in the 1st Italian Campaign of 1796.  On 5 June, he was given the command of an elite cavalry unit which became thereafter known by its title compagnie des guides à cheval du général-en-Chef, though sometimes could be referred to as les guides de Bonaparte. [4]   As the head of the unit, Bessières displayed great personal courage under enemy fire at Roveredo di Trento (4 September 1796), an action which earned him promotion to the rank of major.[5]

He further distinguished himself at the battle of Rivoli (14 January 1797), and at la Favorita di Mantova. On 24 January 1797 General Bonaparte ordered him to depart from the town of Verona – western Venetia – to bring to the Executive Directory the flags captured from the Habsburg regiments at Rivoli and at the tremendous clash of  la Favorita di Mantova (16 January 1797).

On 1er pluviôse, an V (Friday, 20 January 1797), the French generalissimo eulogized Bessières’Guides. For the honour of martial compensation, Bonaparte wrote the following letter to the Parisian government: 

Je vous envoie, Citoyens Directeurs, onze drapeaux pris sur l’ ennemi aux batailles de Rivoli et de la Favorite. Le citoyen Bessières, commandant des guides, qui les porte, est un officier distingué par sa bravure et par l’ honneur qu’ il a de commander à une Compagnie de braves gens qui ont toujours vu fuir devant eux la cavalerie ennemie, et qui, par leur intrépidité, nous ont rendu, dans la campagne, des services très-essentiels.[6]

On 18 February 1797, the Minister of War introduced the proud sabreur to the Directoire, which honourably welcomed the trophies captured by the armée d’ Italie.

Bessières was given further steps of promotion: he was confirmed in the rank of chef d’ escadrons, 4 March 1797; and appointed chef de bridade, 9 March 1797.

Rendezvous to Glory

Glory gave her rendezvous to Bessières in the Marshalate of France (1804), but the road which originated his taking the command of the Guides – the surprise of Valeggio (30 May 1796) – had a sudden stop at the defile of Poserna-Rippach, in Saxony. On May 1, 1813, while he was reconnoitering the enemy’s position a cannonball struck one of his escort by his side, and a second shot hit him full in the chest.[7]

Filled with dismay at the loss of one of his toughest friends, Napoleon ordered the body to be embalmed and sent to the Hotel des Invalides[8]  – where it arrived on 20 May. Sorrow and consternation prevailed on the French Emperor writing touching words to the heart-broken widow:[9]

"[...]Ma cousine, votre mari est mort au champ d’ honneur. La perte que vous faites et celle de vos enfants est grande sans doute, mais la mienne l’ est davantage encore. Le duc d’ Istrie est mort de la plus belle mort et sans souffrir. Il laisse une réputation sans tache, c’ est le plus bel héritage qu’ il ait pu léguer à ses enfants. Ma protection leur est acquise.  Ils hériteront aussi de l’ affection que je portais à leur père. Trouvez, dans toutes ces considérations, des motifs de consolation pour alléger vos peines et ne doutez jamais de mes sentiments pour vous[...]"[10]

The King of Saxony erected a monument to the Duc d’ Istrie on the spot where the French Marschal had fallen. His name is inscribed in the eastern façade of the Arc de Triomphe de l’ Étoile.

Sources:

1. Primary Sources:

Napoléon Ier, Correspondance générale de Napoléon Ier, publiée par ordre de l’Empereur Napoléon  III; Paris, Imprimerie impériale, 1858-1869.

2. French Works: 

Bessières, Albert, Le maréchal Bessières, duc d’ Istrie, 1768-1813, Paris: Lavauzelle, 1941.

Miramont, Cornède, Vie du maréchal Bessières, Cahors, 1845.

Paumes, J., Bessières de Prayssac, Bulletin de la Société des Etudes du Lot.

Saint-Marty, Lucien, Nos monuments et nos statues (Croix du Père André. Colonne Fénelon. Statues de Bessières et de Murat. Vierge du pont Louis-Philippe. Monument Gambetta. Monument Clément Marot. Monument des mobiles), dans Journal du Lot, 31 juillet, 3-5 août, 14-28 décembre 1927.

Notes:

[1] At the place of his native house it was built the Collège d’ Istrie. A commemorative inscription recalls: ANCIEN COLLÈGE D’ ISTRIE / DANS CETTE MAISON EST NÉ LE MARÉCHAL BESSIÈRES DUC D’ ISTRIE LE 6 AOÛT 1768.

[2] Bessières was outlawed for participating in the military defense of the Tuileries Palace; he took refuge for a three months period with the Duc de la Rochefoucauld and joined as a trooper the 22ème Chasseurs. He displayed great self sacrifice and campaigned extensively in Cerdaña and Cataloñia.

[3] A delightful painting of Jean-Baptiste Bessières in 1792, wearing the uniform of adjudant de la legion des Pyrenees, is preserved in the Musée National de Versailles et des Trianons . It was executed by Guérin .

[4] This unit was to become the breeding-ground for the Consular Guard –  Chasseurs-à-Cheval Regiment – and at later a time the Imperial Guard.

[5] During the fighting, he attacked the Austrian line of fire and resistance; followed by six troopers, Bessières succeeded in taking a couple of guns after having killed the Austrian artillerists manning the pieces.  Because of his daring exploit, Bonaparte appointed him chef d’ escadrons provisoire on the battlefield.

[6] Despatch N. 1403. ― AU DIRECTOIRE EXÉCUTIF. Quartier général, Vérone, 1er pluviôse, an V (20 January 1797). Correspondance de Napoléon Ier. ― An V (1797). Tome Deuxième, p. 262.

[7] The Emperor was deeply affected on learning the Marshal’s death.   After remaining for several moments silent, he bent his head and blamed that he had died the death of Turenne, and that his fate was to be envied.  In 1992, a commemorative plate was placed on the façade of the hotel Zum Weiβen Schwan at Rippach (Saxony). It reads:

À LA MÉMOIRE DE / JEAN BAPTISTE / BESSIÈRES / MARÉCHAL D’ EMPIRE DUC D’ ISTRIE / COLONEL GÉNÉRAL DE LA CAVALERIE / DE LA GARDE IMPÉRIALE / GRAND AIGLE DE LA LÉGION D’ HONNEUR / GRAND CROIX St. HENRI DE SAXE / DU CHRIST DE PORTUGAL / DE LÉOPOLD D’ AUSTRICHE / NÉ À PRESSAC DÉP.t DU LOT / LE 6 AOÛT  1768 / TUÉ D’ UN BOULET EN / COMBATANT / POUR LA FRANCE À WEISSENFELS / PRÈS LÜTZEN LE 1er MAI 1813 / IL VÉCUT COMME BAYARD / IL MOURUT COMME TURENNE / NAPOLÉON

[8] Words of honour and commemoration were inscribed in the crypt: "J. B. BESSIÈRES, Duc d’ Istrie, Maréchal de France, Golonel-Général de la Cavalerie de la Garde et Grand-Cordon de la Légion d'Honneur, Commandant de la Couronne de Fer d’ Italie, né à Pressac, tué par un boulet de canon à Weissenfels le 1er mai 1813". His heart was instead deposed in the church of Thillay (Val D’ Oise); in 1968, it was transferred to his native village, in the church of Prayssac. On the marble slab can be read the following memento:

"ICI REPOSE LE CŒUR / DE JEAN BAPTISTE BESSIÈRES / MARÉCHAL DE FRANCE, DUC D’ ISTRIE / COLONEL GÉNÉRAL DE LA CAVALERIE / DE LA GARDE IMPÉRIALE / GRAND CROIX DE LA LÉGION D’ HONNEUR / DE St. HENRI DE SAXE / DU CHRIST DE PORTUGAL / DE LÉOPOLD D’ AUSTRICHE / NÉ À PRESSAC DÉP.nt DU LOT / LE 6 AOÛT  1768 / TUÉ D’ UN BOULET EN COMBATANT / POUR LA FRANCE À WEISSENFELS / PRÈS LÜTZEN LE 1er MAI 1813 / DE PROFUNDIS".

[9] On 27 October 1801, he had married in the castle of Carrussel (at Ferussac, Lot-et-Garonne) Marie-Jeanne-Magdelaine Lapeyrière (1781-1840).  A most delightful portrait in miniature of La Maréchale Bessières, duchesse d’ Istrie, has been executed by Jacques Delaplace; the piece is preserved at Rueil-Malmaison in the musée national des châteaux de Malmaison et de Bois-Préau. The piece – tabatière– was aquired in 1953; inventory number M.M.40.47.8633; ancient collection of baron Rabusson-Corvisart.

[10] A more comprehensive text and english translation of the letter to Madame the Duchesse d’ Istrie can be provided: "My cousin, your husband is dead on the field of honor! The loss that you and your children have sustained is doubtless great; but mine is yet more so.  The Duc d’ Istrie died the most beautiful of deaths and without suffering. He leaves a reputation without a spot; it is the finest heritage he could have bequeathed to his children. My protection is assured to them. They will inherit, also, the affection that I bore their father. Find in all these considerations some consoling motives to alleviate your sorrows, and never doubt my sentiments toward you. This letter having no other purpose, I pray God, my cousin, that He may have you in His safe and holy keeping.  NAPOLEON".


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