Research Subjects: Miscellaneous

A Cursory View of Prussia from the Death of Frederick II to the Peace of Tilsit

LETTER XIII: The Skirmish at Saalfeldt and the Death of Prince Louis


SAALFELDT is situated in a valley, on the left side of the river Saale, over which there is a stone bridge.  This valley is the last slope of the mountains adjoining the Thuringian wood, and is about two miles board.  On the right side of the river, there are very high sand hills, on the road leading to Neustadt.  Here, the Saale seems to have no outlet, as high hills, for four miles from Saalfeldt towards Schwarza, seem to oppose it; and then, through a sort of cleft, it takes it’s course towards Rudolstadt.

At Garnstedt, a small hamlet opposite to Saalfeldt, there is a hollow way, which opens from the Thuringian Mountains, and embraces the high road from Coburg to Saalfeldt.  From this hollow way seventy thousand French troops gradually ascended, extending themselves to the right and left along the surrounding woody hills.  Louis had, at Schwarza, a very good position to oppose the French in their progress through the valley of Saalfeldt to that of Rudolstadt, and nothing but an unaccountable phrenzy could have induced him to pass it, and take such a position near Saalfeldt, as left him no retreat: for, instead of keeping the road to Rudolstadt behind him, it remained on his right wing, and gave the French the opportunity, they immediately took, to cut him off.  Though only half the French were engaged, yet they were too powerful; and, notwithstanding every effort of bravery, the few that escaped the tirailleurs and their grape-shot, sought their safety in flight.  The Prince, thus totally abandoned, was obliged to follow:  but his fate was decided.  On leaping over a hedge, his horse received a musketshot behind, and soon fell.  The Prince, calmly taking his pistols from the holsters, attempted to regain the road to Rudolstadt; but he was soon overtaken by a serjeant and a common hussar.  On their approach he fired at them, but without effect.  The serjeant offers him quarter; the Prince refuses, crying, at the same time, “Death or Victory!”  The serjeant was a remarkably stout man, and on horseback:  the Prince on foot.  Victory was long doubtful; till at length the Prince receives a deadly blow on the neck, and falls.  The hussar immediately leaped from his horse and ran him through the body:  they then stripped him, and carried his clothes in triumph away.  A neighbouring peasant, who had witnessed the conflict, wrapped his naked body in a sheet, and brought it to Saalfeldt, where it was afterwards deposited in the church with all military honor.  This is the true account of this melancholy event, as described by every one in Saalfeldt; and it is farther affirmed, that the Prince was quite alone, and that his adjutants, and all his people, had fled to Jena.

From the known habits of this Prince, it was said that he was intoxicated when he entered upon this wild enterprise; but the landlord of the inn at Saalfeldt, where he had bespoken his morning luncheon, assured me that, before he could dismount, he was informed the enemy were approaching; and that, without tasting any thing, he immediately proceeded to battle.  Indeed, when we consider the continued dissolute mode of his life, which must ultimately affect a mind like his, no farther research is necessary to discover the calamitous cause of his conduct.  To take the most candid side of the question, we will willingly suppose that he might have felt a kind of presentiment of the approaching fate of his country, and of the extirpation of his family, which induced him to act with that prodigality of bravery he did—but bravery here was his ruin.  He dug not only a grave for himself, but also a deep one for his country.

            The loss of the battle of Saalfeldt drew after it that of Jena; for the reports of the fugitives depressed the courage of the whole army.  Yet, notwithstanding this warning—notwithstanding General Tauenzien’s defeat, and the advices he received of the quick approach of Bonapartè, whose rapid movements threatened to cut off all communication with Saxony and Berlin, still at the headquarters, now removed to Weimar, there did not seem to be any decided plan, farther than to remain quiet in their present position, under their first adopted idea, that the enemy would there make his first serious attack.  The Prince of Hohenlohe, on the contrary, as soon as he had heard of the defeat and death of Prince Louis, and thus saw all his plans and hopes so unexpectedly disappointed, was obliged to form others; which, with the best account I can procure of the battle of Jena, shall be the subject of my next.


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