Research Subjects: Biographies

Recollections about the Last Officer of Napoleon’s Army

Translated By Alexander Mikaberidze, FINS

(To the portrait of N.A. Savin)

[This article was originally published in Russkaya Starina, 1896, vol. 86, No.4, pp.109-114.[1]]

(Editor’s Note: Recent research by Russian scholar V. Totfalushin questions many details of Savin’s life and further details can be found in Footnote No. 3)

By Constantine Voyensky

Soon after the publication of my article on the veteran of the Grand Armee in the Novoye Vremo, I began to receive numerous letters and questions to publish his photograph and provide additional details about his personality, way of life and last minutes of this man of incredible longevity. So in this issue of the Russkaya Starina, I am including the portrait of N.A. Savin, taken when he was 120 and given to me by his daughter, Evdokia Nikolayevna Savin, and will try to share with readers a few details that I managed to gather about Savin in Saratov as well as with my personal impressions developed during the two year acquaintance of this venerable old men.

Arriving to Saratov in early 1893 and talking to one of the local old residents, I accidentally learned that an old Frenchman was living here since 1812, that he arrived in Russiawith the Grand Armee of Napoleon, participated in many battles of the First Empire and received the Legion d’Honneur from the hands of the Emperor of French himself. Such an interesting personality could not but interest me, and I decided to see this incredible old man, the living witness of Napoleonic epoch, at any cost. I say "to see” since I was certain that it would be impossible to have a conversation with a man of his age and was convinced that I will see a hundred year old, fragile man, who had long fallen back into childhood and had lost all memories and, possibly, sanity as well and so it will be hardly possible to get anything from him. Circumstances, however, soon showed that I was completely wrong.

That the same day I went to the indicated address. The old man lived in the first part of the town, on the Groshevaia Street, in a small wooden house, where doors were inscribed with the following inscription with the owner’s Russian style name - "Home of Lieutenant Nikolai Andreevich Savin". This tiny house, with three windows to the street, was one of those houses, with which our medium size town were abound until recently and huddled modestly among the larger wooden and stone buildings, which gradually replacing their humble neighbors. I unlocked the wicket and found myself in the court, where the following picture revealed itself to my eyes: among a miniature flower garden, surrounded by a low picket fence, there was a short old man sitting on a bench, bent in the back, with a cap on his head and wearing an old style long frock-coat with a red ribbon in the buttonhole; he just now finished watering his flowers, and, immersed in his favorite occupation, he apparently did not notice my arrival. I stopped and silently observed the old man, on whose wrinkled face gaily played bright rays of the noon sun. Looking at the red ribbon, I knew that I found who I was looking for: before me stood the lieutenant of the Grand Armée, the living witness of the half-legendary Napoleonic epic with its bloody but nevertheless bright halo of glory and military genius. Looking intently at the old man’s wrinkled face, into these seemingly frozen in time features, I involuntarily drew a parallel between the past and the present; I was transferred by thoughts to that memorable epoch of the "War and Peace", when, 82 years ago, this now time weary veteran but back then a dashing young officer – invaded Russia as an enemy, that very Russia that has now become his second fatherland and which he loves not less than France.

I approached the old man and called him by his name, apologizing for uninvited visit, which was caused by my deep surprise and desire to meet him and to have a talk with a living representative of that famous epoch, with a person, who served under the command of the greatest of military leaders. The old man warmly shook my hand and told me, “You spoke to me of the man to whom I dedicated the best years of my life and whose memory is sacred to me. Be my dear guest and enter my house.”

Inside the house we were met by the veteran’s daughter, herself an old woman, whose caring hand put a visible imprint of neat homeliness on this modest dwelling. There were flowers in all windows since the old man loved them so much and despite very weak vision he dedicated all his time to the gardening. Six years from his death but at the old age of 120, he, nevertheless, still could read without eyeglasses and sometimes spent time at his favorite pastime – drawing. In recent years, however, his sight began to weaken rapidly and he found it difficult to sign his name with his trembling hand.[2] Nikolai Andreevich's (the old man liked it very much when he was called on a Russian name by his first and paternal names) room represented a miniature but to the highest degree unique corner, where everything spoke about the times long past; here he lived by the memories of the glorious and majestic past, of his Emperor who looked at him from the frame of a large watercolor portrait and from a small bronze statuette, which stood on the table near the n window. This was part of the cult of Napoleon, a unique but touching in itself, revealing a deep devotion, literally to "to the grave itself." The history of this portrait is noteworthy: it was painted by Savin himself in 1837, some 25 years after his arrival in Russiaand was painted by memory – the Emperor’s features were so firmly engraved in the memory of the old veteran. Napoleon was depicted standing, in his traditional campaign coat and bicorne, with his hand placed inside the uniform. He was standing on the seashore looking pensive into the distance. Not far away from him was another portrait showing a gallant hussar officer in the uniform of Napoleonic troops -  an inscription revealed that this was Nikolai Andreevich himself in the uniform of the 2nd Hussar Regiment in 1812.[3] Studying attentively every little thing in this wretched and at the same time rich in recollections room, I became especially interested in a small engraving inside the ancient frame with weathered gilding that was hanging in the far corner. The engraving depicted an episode of the Egyptian Campaign of 1798 and was noteworthy for remarkable sharpness of figures surrounding Bonaparte. The commander-in-chief and his staff were depicted sitting on the camels; the pyramids and the famous Sphinx, at whose feet the French troops were bivouacked, could be seen in the background.  When I commented that I was particularly intrigued by this engraving, the old man suddenly began to name all generals in Bonaparte’s suite with remarkable details. “I could hardly see this painting anymore,” –Nikolai Andreevich said, “But I remember everyone depicted on it… This was my first campaign with the Emperor… Here, to the right and facing Napoleon – that is Berthier, next to him is Lannes, the future Duc de Montebello, with whom served at Saragossa in 1809.”

I listened attentively to this remarkable old man, stunned by his memory that was incredible for his age… I discovered that he was 126 years old: he was born in April 1768; at 20, he took part in the Egyptian Campaign while the Patriotic War [Russian Campaign] of 1812 found Savin at a mature age of 43. This remarkable memory remained with the old man to the very last moments of his life. His aged daughter told me many time that when forgetting names of people who were long dead, she would ask her father and he would always remembers their names and oftentimes where they lived.

After that day I made frequent visits to the venerable Nikolai Andreevich and gradually learned about his remarkable Odyssey that was both fascinating and tragic. The main episodes of his military life flashed in front of his eyes: Egypt , Saragossa, captivity in the prison of the Spanish Inquisition, the 1812 campaign and the passage of the Berezina. In the bright colors and particular agitation, the old man told the story of the years of the bloody Terror in Paris, when his father perished defending the Tuileries. Nikolai Andreevich’s highly interesting but fragmented stories resulted in my first article that was published in the Novoye Vremya, which helped introduce Savin to readers in Russiaand abroad. Articles in support of the “veteran of the Grand Armée” appeared in many French newspapers and the Parisian "Figaro" helped organize a special subscription [to collect funds for Savin]. Nikolai Andreevich received numerous letters from all corners of Europe, not only from his compatriots but from Germany , Austria , Sweden and England . Among these many letters there was one from the young German scholar, Professor Holtzhausen from Bonn, who wrote saying that Savin was a comrade-in-arms of his grandfather, who also served in the Grand Armée during the Napoleonic Wars. But the best of all was the St. Helena Medal that the French government sent to Savin and which granted the old veteran the title of “compagnon de gloire” of his Emperor and officially confirmed his personality and military career. The medal arrived with a certificate, signed by the Minister of War Mercier, which among other things said, “Chancellor of the national Order of Legion d’Honneur confirms that the abovementioned St. Helena Medal is granted to Jean-Baptist-Nicolas Savin, the former lieutenant of the 2nd Hussar Regiment, who had served in the French army between 1797 and 1812.”

With the tears on his eyes, the deeply-moved Nikolay Andreevich received this precious medal from the hands of Governor Prince Mezhersky and showed it with great enthusiasm to his friends and acquaintances who came to congratulate. This interesting and very rare decoration consists of a dark- bronze medal (on the green ribbon), on face side of which is depicted the profile of Napoleon I with the inscription all around: "Napoleon I a ses compagnons de gloire Sa derniere pensee!" On other side – an imperial eagle and inscription: "Sainte-Helene, 5th May 1821 g." (the day of death of Napoleon).[4]

Nikolai Andreevich Savin lived in the Saratov Gubernia, without leaving it, for 82 years. Captured by [Ataman Matvei] Platov’s Cossacks during the crossing of the Berezina River, he was sent, with the other prisoners, first to Yaroslavl and then to Saratov, where he initially earned living by teaching fencing to local garrison officers. Later, with the help of the then Saratov Governor A.D. Panchulidzev, Savin received a position in the noble boarding house at the Saratov gymnasium, passed examination in front of the school board and received diploma allowing him to teach the French language. Since then he completely dedicated himself to training and instructing the youth as a home tutor of the children of local nobility, and had taught three generations of them. His successful work, universal admiration and respect, which Nikolai Andreevich always instilled, was testified in the numerous certificates that he received from different establishments and persons of the Saratov province during his long service from 1814 through 1874. In that year, after reaching the age of 106, he decided to bid farewell to his students and retire.

Years added burden on his shoulders and the difficult responsibility of teacher and educator became too hard for the old man: using the meager savings that he was able to save during 60 years of his pedagogical career, he acquired that very house where his old daughter still lived and where he spent that last 20 years of his life. His physical agility and cheerfulness, extraordinary for such old years, left him only recently. Only few year ago, the residents of Saratov could see the small figure of old man, bent in his back, hurrying early in the morning to the market with a basket in the hand, or going on Sundays towards Catholic church, wearing a holiday frock-coat with the Legion d’Honneur ribbon on it. Judging from the words of Nikolai Andreevich himself and the stories of local old residents, he was always characterized by extraordinary moderation in food, drinking and overall way of life. He always ate the simplest, the most unpretentious food, and especially loved tea, which, until the very last days, he drank eagerly; in the spring and summer, he spent most of the time in the open air, rummaging in his garden; he remain on his feet until the end of his life.

The death arrived quietly, without any sufferings. After feeling sick for several days, he felt particularly weak on Tuesday, 29 November 1894, and, after inviting a local priest, he was given the sacraments. The Roman Catholic priest, Count Chembec, who attended him in these last minutes, testified to the deep religiosity of old man, who remained a sincere and good Christian throughout his life. Several hours after the priest’s departure, the old man died. He was 126 years, 7 months and 12 days old. Soon after Nikolai Andreevich’s funeral,[5] which were paid for by the town of Saratov, which desired to honor the memory of its oldest residents, the French community[6] in St. Petersburg started a subscription for his monument, which is, at present, being built by his daughter at the local Roman Catholic cemetery, where the "last veteran of the Grand Armée" now rests.

Notes:

[1] A revised version of this article is also available in French: “Le dernier des vétérans de la Grande Armée [Souvenirs personnels des entrevues et entretiens de l'auteur avec un officier de l'Armée de Napoléon Ier] / Constantin Woensky. “Revue des Études napoléoniennesvol 5 (3e année, Tome I, Janvier - Juin 1914), p. 5-21.

[2] Voyensky’s Note: In 1894, shortly before his death, Savin signed his last name in the letter to the editor of Figaro and on the request letter written to the Minister of People’s Education Count Delyanov. One of Savin’s last autographs is preserved with the author [Voyensky] of these recollections inside Count Segur’s Histoire de Napoleon et de la Grande Armee, which was gifted to him by the old man himself. 

[3] Editor: Russian historian V. Totfalushin has recently found a document in the Russian State Historical Archive that casts doubts about Savin’s claims and provides a few very interesting details about this man. The document is an excerpt from the official memo by the Russian Minister of Internal Affairs relative to the status of the surviving veterans of the Grand Armeé still residing in Russia . According to this document, in 1834, the French authorities contacted the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs with a note that Nicolas Savin had requested permission to leave Russia and return home. The memo specifies that, according to the French authorities, Savin was born in Rouen (western France ) and had served as a non-commissioned officer in the 24th Chasseurs à Cheval before being captured in 1812 and sent to Saratov, where he accepted Russian citizenship (poddanstvo) in 1813. The memo further notes that Savin married on the daughter of a local merchant in 1816 and sired two sons (Pavel (born in 1821) and Alexander (born in 1828)) and two daughters (Avdotia (born in 1823) and Akulina (born in 1825)). Totfalushin’s research also questioned Savin’s age, noting that in another document, which Savin submitted to the local authorities in Khvalynsk in 1839, he indicated that he was 52 years old, which means he was born in 1787. I am grateful to Eman Vovsi for providing me with a copy of Totfalushin’s article ”Novoe o legendarnom Savene”, in Epokha 1812 g. Issledovania, Istochniki, Istoriografia. Moscow, 2004, vol. III, pp. 233-236.

[4] Voyensky’s note: At the present moment only four veterans have the St. Helena Medal: J. Sabatier (serving since 1809), aged 104; Victor Baillot, aged 103; Pierre Rousset and Joseph Kose, aged 102. All of them retired in low ranks.

[5] Voyensky’s Note: Details of the funeral were published in the local Saratov newspapers and the Novoye Vremya of 14 December 1894.

[6] Voyensky’s Note: In 1895, the community also published a French language brochure “Nicolas Savin, dernier veteran de la Grande Armee. Savie. Sa mоrt". (1768—1894)” (Saint-Petersbourg 1895)

Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2007; updated November 2007.

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