INS: Journal Of Napoleonic Scholarship 1997

Marshal Nicolas Charles Oudinot:

"Le Bayard de l'armée français"

By Kyle Eidahl
Florida A&M University

Nicolas Charles Oudinot is one of the lesser known of Napoleon's marshals. Despite receiving more wounds than any other marshal, and living to the ripe old age of eighty, relatively little has been written about him. He had neither the flamboyant personality of someone like Murat, nor is he among the two or three marshals who historians argue were "the best," however that happens to be defined. He also suffered neglect from early Bonapartist historians because he "abandoned" Napoleon in 1814 and refused service in 1815. By examining his life one can learn much about the marshalate, Napoleon's system of warfare, and about France in general.

Oudinot was described in 1801 as "supple and thin. On his very pale complexion a fine brown moustache stood out, the color of his sideburns and hair. His uncovered forehead was adorned with well-marked eyebrows. His fleeting smile was a little haughty." [1] Oudinot lived his life according to a strict code of honor and spent his whole life to the service of his country. He won his greatest fame as the commander of the Grenadiers. In many ways he was a throwback to the chivalric knights of the Middle Ages, always ready to defend his honor, the honor of the army, or of France. Napoleon introduced him to Czar Alexander at Tilsit as, "the Bayard of the French Army." He enjoyed the opera and theater, he collected clay pipes, was an amateur painter, and had a huge collection of arms, including a canon, at his home. At times he could exhibit a volcanic temper, but he also deeply enjoyed time with his family. He was married twice and had ten children. Towards the end of his life he became a devout Catholic and established a school for orphans. In all, he lived an incredibly rich life.

He was born on 25 April 1767 in Bar-le-Duc to Nicolas Oudinot and Marie Anne Adam. His father was a successful brewer, farmer, and distiller of brandy. Nicolas Charles was the only child of nine to survive to adulthood and was expected to follow his father in the brewing business. Unfortunately, the young man had neither interest nor inclination toward business. He received a solid education and was a good student; but he was uninterested in academics, preferring physical activities. His second wife wrote, as a young man he was, "boisterous and undisciplined….His iron will, which gave him the invaluable quality of endurance and tenacity, was never ready to accept opposition or contradiction." [2] At the age of seventeen he ran away from home to enlist as a private in the Medoc Infantry Regiment. His stint in the army was short-lived, however; after three years his parents convinced him to return home, and Oudinot was honorably discharged from the army. He had a strong sense of family obligation and, despite his dislike for it, probably would have followed his father in the family business had it not been for the outbreak of the French Revolution.

Nicolas Charles Oudinot

Nicolas Charles Oudinot
Painting by Bettye C. Copeland

Although Oudinot supported the Revolution, he had a bourgeois sense for law and order, so he never approved of its more radical aspects. He once threw a plate of hot beans on a supporter of the radical, Hébert, who came to dinner. Bar-le-Duc was fortunate in that it was spared much of the violence of the Revolution. As early as August 1789 the city council authorized the formation of a citizens's militia. Oudinot was elected a captain in the mounted militia company. At the same time he married Charlotte Derlin with whom he had six children. They remained happily married until her death in 1810.

On 27 February 1790 the citizens's militia was reorganized into the Barrois National Guard. Oudinot was elected chef de légion, and in less than a year became its commander. Up until this time the primary purpose of the National Guard was to maintain order in the countryside, but after the king's abortive attempt to escape to Varennes in June 1791, the National Assembly authorized a levy of 100,000 National Guardsmen for the defense of France. Oudinot volunteered on 6 September 1791 and was elected second lieutenant-colonel of the 3rd Meuse Volunteer Battalion. This marked the beginning of Oudinot's full-time military career. The 3rd Meuse spent the winter training in western France as part of the Army of the Center. In July 1792, after the commanding officer transferred to another unit, Oudinot assumed command of the 3rd Meuse.

Oudinot's first action was at Arlon in June 1793. In this relatively minor combat the 3rd Meuse lost twenty-two men killed and sixty-eight wounded. Surprisingly, Oudinot, who came to hold the record for "Most Wounded Marshal," emerged unscathed from the fighting. [3] Shortly thereafter the 3rd Meuse was transferred to the Army of the Rhine where it helped repel an allied attack at Saverne. Up until this time Oudinot was still in the National Guard, not with the regular army. However, during 1793 numerous noble officers emigrated, creating a need for officers in the regular army. On 5 November 1793 Oudinot became the colonel of the 2nd battalion of the 2nd Line Regiment. This was an important career move since the highest grade in the National Guard was that of colonel of a battalion.

Oudinot soon distinguished himself at the Battle of Gundershofen-Mietesheim on 26-27 November. General Burcy's division, to which Oudinot was assigned, was ordered by the representatives en mission to the army to attack an entrenched Austrian position at Gundershofen. Burcy reluctantly carried out the order; the attack was repulsed and Burcy himself was killed. Without a divisional commander, Oudinot's troops were forgotten in the woods near Mietesheim and spent the next day without orders. When the Austrians attacked his position, Oudinot, as ranking officer, assumed command and effected a spirited defense. However, during the attack Oudinot received a serious head wound, the first of his many injuries. Oudinot's troops were ultimately "found" by the divisional staff and ordered to retreat. His injury healed very slowly and gave him severe headaches. [4] He did not return to the army until the end of April 1794.

Oudinot's battalion was assigned to General Ambert's division stationed at Kaiserslautern. On 22 May the Prussian Army launched an attack against Ambert's outnumbered division. Oudinot commanded the advanced guard composed of two battalions and eighty cavalry. He was attacked at Morlautern by nineteen battalions and thirteen squadrons of cavalry, totaling 15,000 men. His troops held their position under devastating artillery and cavalry attacks for three hours before receiving orders to fall back. Oudinot's troops, which had served as the advance guard, now found themselves as the division's rearguard. During the retreat the artillery fell behind and was temporarily captured, until Oudinot's troops counter attacked and regained them, However, because all of the horses had been killed, the guns had to be hauled back by hand. As a result of his bravery Oudinot was praised by the Army commander General Moreaux, who wrote, "The 2nd Regiment…was particularly distinguished, Citizen Oudinot, commander of the 2nd Regiment gave proof of his intelligence and bravery." [5] The representative en mission to the army, Nicolas Hentz, named Oudinot general of brigade on 12 June 1794.

Oudinot received command of a brigade in Ambert's division. On 8 August the French attacked Trier; after a brief battle the Austrians retreated into the city. Oudinot set off in pursuit, but was shot and broke his leg falling off his horse. As a result of his new injury he was appointed governor of the newly captured city of Trier. Throughout the autumn and winter his leg refused to heal and the headaches from his previous head wound returned. Eventually, he received permission to take the waters at Saint-Amand, where he spent four months in convalescence. It was not until August of 1795 that he returned to his command.

Oudinot's next action was during the siege of Mannheim, when the Austrian General Würmser counterattacked and fell upon Oudinot's exposed brigade. Attempting to rally his troops Oudinot was wounded six times&emdash;he was shot and received five saber cuts&emdash;and left for dead on the battle field. He was found by the Austrians and taken to Ulm, where he remained until 7 January 1796, when he was exchanged for the Austrian General Zainiaü. He returned to active duty in August in time to participate in Moreau's invasion of Germany.

Oudinot was not destined to remain on active service very long for once again he was wounded. On 14 September his division, which was holding the Austrians south of the Danube, was attacked. The divisional commander Delmas was wounded, leaving Oudinot in command. He held the position until the evening, preventing the French troops north of the Danube from being cut off, but in the process was wounded again. This time he received a musket ball in the thigh, three saber wounds to the arm, and one to the neck. Over the previous three years he had spent more time in the hospital than in the field.

Oudinot returned to his command in time to participate in a minor action at Oggersheim near Mannheim on 13 November. Moreau's spring offensive, planned to commence in April 1797, was put on indefinite hold when he learned of the Preliminaries of Campo Formio negotiated by General Bonaparte. The Treaty of Campo Formio was signed on 17 October and brought an end to the war of the First Coalition and the first peace since 1792. Oudinot was transferred for a short while to the Army of England, then the Army of Mayence, before finally being assigned to the Army of Switzerland in November 1798. He was fortunate to be part of the Army of Switzerland because it played a pivotal role in saving France in 1799, and it put Oudinot under the command of one of the best generals in the French army, André Masséna.

The War of the Second Coalition began in March 1799. Its focal point was in Switzerland. On 6 March Masséna crossed the Rhine in eastern Switzerland and advanced into Austrian territory. His objective was the Austrian army commanded by General Hotze. The following day Oudinot attacked Hotze at Feldkirch, which was the key to the Austrian position. Although outnumbered, Oudinot assumed the offensive in an attempt to drive Hotze out of Feldkirch. After two attacks, in which French troops reached the southern outskirts of the town, Oudinot was obliged to fall back and await reinforcements. During the operation, he had prevented Hotze from reinforcing his troops to the south, which Masséna destroyed, and he had captured four guns and taken 1,000 prisoners. [6] Masséna wrote in his report to the Directory, "The greatest praise is owed to the sang froid and to the talents of this general [Oudinot], the same is owed to his troops whose courage did not waver either by the number of the enemy or by the lack of munitions." [7]

Both Masséna and Hotze reinforced their positions around Feldkirch between 7-23 March. On 23 March Masséna launched an attack against the city. Oudinot's troops reached the outer field works before being driven back. By that evening, Masséna realized he did not have the necessary number of troops to seize the city and ordered a withdrawal. As a result of his bravery Masséna recommended Oudinot be promoted to General of Division, which the Directory confirmed on 12 April 1799.

While Masséna had limited success in Switzerland against Hotze, French forces in northern Italy were defeated by a combined Russo-Austrian army commanded by General Suvorov, and those in southern Germany by Archduke Charles. Masséna was obliged to withdraw to Zürich in response to Archduke Charles's advance into northern Switzerland. On 4 June Charles attacked Zürich. Everywhere French troops were forced back. Oudinot, retreating with the last ranks of grenadiers, was severely wounded in the chest. The French were able to regroup and repulse the Austrian troops, but Masséna abandoned Zürich and crossed the Limmat River. Oudinot spent the rest of June recovering from his injury. Masséna was so impressed with his fiery divisional commander that he appointed Oudinot to be chief-of-staff on 25 July.

As Masséna strengthened his position in central Switzerland, he and Oudinot oversaw an attack on Austrian troops at Schwyz on 14 August. The successful attack resulted in only eight killed and sixty wounded. Unfortunately, one of the wounded was Oudinot, who was shot in the shoulder leading a cavalry charge. Masséna wrote the Directory, "General Oudinot, whose talents and bravery determined the success of the action was wounded by a bullet in the shoulder." [8] Oudinot returned to the army in mid-September, in time to participate in Masséna's attack on Zürich. Oudinot, despite his position as chief of staff, led the troops who forced their way into the city. The victory at Zürich and subsequent operations against the Russians saved France from invasion. Masséna wrote to the Directory in October, "I owe the greatest praise to General Oudinot, my chief of staff, who knows how to apply his fiery energy to clerical labor, but whom I am always glad to have back on the battlefield. He has followed me in everything, and has made a perfect second in command." [9]

Events in France now took center stage; the Coup of 18 Brumaire replaced the Directory with the Consulate and brought to power Napoleon Bonaparte as First Consul. One of Bonaparte's primary objectives was to end the war against Austria. Masséna's victories in Switzerland had saved France, but it had not ended the war. Bonaparte organized an Army of the Reserve, crossed into Northern Italy and ultimately defeated the Austrians in the Battle of Marengo. Masséna's responsibility was to keep Austrian attention focused on Genoa and away from Bonaparte's army. Oudinot again served as Masséna's chief of staff. The campaign began ignominiously for Oudinot when the barge in which he was crossing the Rhône River hit the bank as it was docking, catapulting Oudinot, carriage and all, into the river. As a result, he lost not only his dignity and clothes, but the army payroll as well. The siege of Genoa lasted from 20 April to 4 June 1800. Oudinot had the good fortune to miss the siege. On 16 April he stole past the blockading allied fleet, bringing orders to General Suchet's division to coordinate operations with the troops inside Genoa. While they were never able to break the siege, they were successful in occupying a large number of Austrian troops. Following the Battle of Marengo Masséna was replaced by Brune as commander of the Army of Italy; Oudinot remained as Brune's chief of staff.

The Battle of Marengo resulted in a series of half-hearted attempts to reach a peace settlement. However, the Austrians were not yet ready to conclude one. When negotiations broke down and hostilities resumed in November, Napoleon ordered an advance on Vienna. Oudinot distinguished himself at the Battle of Monzambano on the Mincio River. Despite the success in Italy, it was Moreau's victory at Hohenlinden that broke the Austrian resistance and led to the Peace of Luneville. Brune wrote Bonaparte, "General Oudinot sabered enemy gunners at their pieces. Do you not think it right to bestow some honor upon him: a saber, some armor, or the canon he captured?" As a result, Oudinot was awarded a saber of honor and was given the canon he captured. [10] He ultimately moved the canon to his estate at Jeand'heurs, where it was fired to celebrate Napoleon's birthday, and other important events.

Nicolas Charles Oudinot

Nicolas Charles Oudinot

During the short period of peace Oudinot was employed as an Inspector-General of the Infantry. The renewal of hostilities with Great Britain led to the creation of the Camp of Boulogne. On 30 August 1803 Oudinot was assigned to command the first division of Davout's corps. He remained in this position until transferred to command the Grenadier Division of Jean Lannes' corps on 5 February 1805. It was as the commander of the Grenadiers that Oudinot won his greatest fame. The previous May the Senate had declared Napoleon Emperor of France, and to go along with his new position of dignity, Napoleon created the marshalate, composed initially of eighteen distinguished generals. Oudinot was passed over for a number of reasons. He had never served directly under Napoleon, he was associated with the republican generals of the Army of the Rhine, and he had never held an independent command.

As commander of the Grenadiers Oudinot was a strict, sometimes harsh disciplinarian, yet he was also fair and cared deeply about his men. He believed his primary task was to forge the grenadiers into a disciplined fighting unity by instilling in them his fighting spirit. To do this, he emphasized drill and training, requiring his men to learn battalion maneuvers perfectly. His anger was legendary as illustrated in an incident that occurred in July 1805, shortly before the commencement of the Ulm campaign. Napoleon was reviewing the Grenadiers at the Camp of Boulogne. In the middle of the review, Oudinot suddenly had trouble getting his horse to go forward. He gave it the spurs, but it only bucked. Finally, in exasperation, he dismounted, and in front of the Emperor and his assembled troops, pulled out his sword and struck the animal dead. Later that evening, Napoleon asked him, "Is that the way you treat your horses?" Oudinot replied in typical fashion, "Sire, that is my way when I am not obeyed." [11]

By mid-1805 England had formed the Third Coalition which included Austria and Russia. Against this threat Napoleon ordered his newly christened Grande Armée to march on Austria. The Grenadiers's march to the Rhine, and even to the Danube, was uneventful. Reaching the Danube at Donauwörth on the morning of 8 October, the Grenadiers advanced with Murat's cavalry to Wertingen, where they discovered a small Austrian force. Together they captured several Austrian battalions and scattered the rest. It was a relatively minor encounter, but it was the first of the campaign, and Napoleon, who was anxious to glorify the first success of French arms wrote in the 3rd Bulletin of the Army, "It is impossible to see better troops, troops more filled with desire to vie with the enemy, troops filled with honor and that military enthusiasm that is the omen of great success." [12] These words proved prophetic when General Mack's army surrendered to Napoleon at Ulm on 17 October. The Grenadiers participated in the siege of Ulm, but saw no action. In the pursuit of Kutusov's Russian Army following the capitulation of Ulm, the Grenadiers were again in the advance guard with Murat's cavalry.

On 5 November Murat and the Grenadiers encountered the Russian rear guard commanded by Bagration. Oudinot, leading a squadron of cavalry, was surprised by fifty Russian infantry who had hidden in the woods. Instead of turning around, Oudinot rode directly up to them and shouted, "Lay down your arms," which they did. [13] After a wild ride lasting three quarters of an hour Oudinot chased the Russians to Amstetten where Bagration had his whole command drawn up for battle. Outnumbered three to one, Oudinot attacked. Fighting continued late into the evening when the Russians withdrew. Murat wrote Napoleon, "Oudinot's division covered itself in glory; it withstood, repelled, and defeated a corps three times as strong as it..." [14] From Amstetten the advance continued unimpeded to Vienna.

The city of Vienna surrendered and was occupied by the French on 13 November. But to Napoleon, the capture of Vienna was secondary to the capture of the Tabor Bridge, which was the main bridge spanning the Danube River. Any hope that Napoleon had in continuing his pursuit of the Russian army lay in the capture of the bridge, which the Austrians had mined to blow. Murat, Lannes, and Oudinot were assigned this task. They arrived at the bridge and informed the Austrian commander that an armistice had been signed. While the two marshals and their staff crossed the mined bridge, Oudinot casually led a detachment of grenadiers to the bridge. When the Austrian commander asked what they were doing, Lannes told him the troops were only moving to keep warm. When the suspicious Austrian commander ordered the guns to fire, Lannes grabbed the lit match from his hand, saying he would be personally responsible for any bloodshed. In the confusion the grenadiers crossed the bridge and overpowered the gunners. Through trickery, the all-important bridge over the Danube was captured with no loss of life.

Murat and Lannes pressed their advantage, advancing to Hollabrunn where they encountered Bagration's rear guard. Here, the wily Kutusov pulled the wool over Murat's eyes convincing him to sign an armistice, that would lead to peace. The armistice allowed Kutusov to get the majority of his army away. When Napoleon learned of this "armistice" he was extremely angry and ordered Murat to attack. Oudinot, who was on the front line, as usual, was shot in the thigh, but refused to leave the battlefield until the Russians had retreated.

While the two armies continued to maneuver toward the Battle of Austerlitz, Oudinot recuperated in Vienna. But when he learned that a battle was imminent, he left Vienna and rode to Napoleon's headquarters to resume command of his Grenadiers. When he reported to Napoleon, the emperor told him, "Your courage surpasses your strength. Stay with me, I have given your grenadiers to Duroc."[15] Oudinot desired so strongly to fight alongside his grenadiers that he sought out Duroc and offered to put himself under his orders. As a result the grenadiers were co-commanded by Duroc and Oudinot during the Battle of Austerlitz.

The grenadiers served as part of Napoleon's reserve and saw limited action during the battle. Their only real action came later that evening. Seeing a large flock of sheep wandering on the battlefield, Oudinot turned to Duroc and said, "Monsieur Marshal, what would you think if we charged these white coats?" [Referring to the white uniforms worn by the Austrians]. "I would like that very much," replied Duroc. [16] The grenadiers charged the sheep with great enthusiasm and thoroughly enjoyed their spoils of victory.

After Austerlitz, Napoleon began disbanding the Grenadier division. Some of the grenadier companies were sent back to their parent units, while Oudinot, with the remainder were sent on the delicate mission of occupying the ex-Prussian Principality of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. The citizens of Neuchâtel were resentful about becoming part of France, but Oudinot ultimately won their respect through a combination of tact and the good conduct by the grenadiers. Before leaving for France, Oudinot was honored by being named an honorary citizen of Neuchâtel. Additionally, because he had respected the Protestant church in the Principality, he was given a piece of the true cross, which had been one of Neuchâtel's precious relics before the Reformation. [17] The remainder of the grenadier companies returned to their units after the mission was completed.

The Grenadier Division was again constituted for the war against Prussia in 1806, but only after the victory at Jena-Auerstadt. Until then, Oudinot commanded a division of dismounted dragoons, hardly a position to help further his career. On 2 November 1806 Napoleon authorized the formation of another Grenadier Division. This Grenadier division was hampered by lack of esprit de corps because of its hasty creation. Many regimental commanders were reluctant to send their best men, so Oudinot was sent many misfits and troublemakers. The Grenadiers did not reach the front until January 1807, and then they were under strength and undertrained.

Once again the Grenadier division was assigned to Lannes's corps. However, when Oudinot reached Poland, Lannes was ill, so Oudinot received orders to remain at Ostrolenka to support General Savary. This was most unwelcome news to Oudinot, who personally despised Savary. In 1802 Oudinot had been visited by his friend Donnadieu, who had been exiled by Napoleon for certain uncomplimentary statements he said against the government. When Napoleon learned he had visited Oudinot he sent Savary to find and arrest Donnadieu. As luck would have it Oudinot, arrived just as Savary had finished ransacking his house, looking in vain for Donnadieu. Oudinot, not known for his restraint, threatened to shoot Savary if he did not leave immediately. Consequently, while Napoleon fought at Eylau, Oudinot remained to the south engaged in insignificant secondary operations with a person he hated. After a minor action at Ostrolenka, Oudinot finally received orders to rejoin the army and immediately left Savary, who complained loudly to Napoleon that Oudinot had abandoned him.

The grenadiers were next used in the siege of Danzig, helping to repulse a Russian relief effort. After the capture of Danzig, Napoleon turned his attention back to the Russian Army commanded by Bennigsen. On 5 June Oudinot reached Heilsberg where Bennigsen had established an entrenched camp. During the combat Napoleon was in a dangerously exposed position, prompting Oudinot to threaten, "Sire, if you remain exposed to enemy fire, I will seize you with my grenadiers and lock you inside a caisson." Napoleon sought safety within a square, grumbling, "the fact is, he would do it, just like he said." [18]

The grenadiers continued to lead the advance, arriving at Friedland on 13 June. Bennigsen reached Friedland later in the day. He realized that Lannes's corps was temporarily isolated from the rest of the Grande Armée and decided to attack before help could arrive. Consequently, the Grenadier division bore the brunt of the fighting in the early hours of the 14th. When Napoleon questioned whether they faced the whole Russian army, Oudinot wrote back, "my little eyes see it well, the whole Russian Army is here." [19] By early evening Napoleon had gathered his army and pushed Bennigsen into the Alle River. The grenadiers played a key role in the victory. Their tenacious defense allowed Napoleon to concentrate his army and win the battle.

The victory of Friedland led to the signing of the Peace of Tilsit on 7 July. Oudinot and the Grenadiers cantoned in Danzig throughout the rest of the year. Miraculously, Oudinot survived the 1806-1807 campaign without as much as a scratch, but good fortune ran out in December 1807. He and his staff rode out to visit his friend, General Jarry, who commanded the nearby Fort Wassen. During the return to Danzig, Oudinot's horse fell in a ravine, rolled over him, and broke his right leg just above the foot. His leg was set, but it didn't mend. Six weeks later, the doctors had to re-break and reset it. While awaiting the doctor, Oudinot's valet Pils remarked, "I believe, my general, that it would have been better to have been shot by a bullet when they rained from all sides at Friedland than to be thus the victim of a bad horse." Oudinot, who was in a great deal of pain replied, "you are right, Pils, a bullet would be the best thing for my situation." [20] This time his led healed correctly. As a result of his contributions, Oudinot was made count of the Empire on 25 July 1808. In September of that year he served as the governor of Erfurt for the big congress between Napoleon and Czar Alexander.

Following the 1807 campaign, it appeared as if Napoleon was again planning to dismantle the Grenadier division and to return the elite companies to their parent regiments. The reorganization of the French infantry seemed to confirm this. In February 1808 Napoleon increased the size of infantry regiments to four field battalions and one depot battalion. Each infantry battalion was reduced from nine companies to six companies—four of fusiliers, one of grenadiers, and one of voltigeurs. This new organization made it unfeasible for battalions to detach their two elite companies and still remain viable combat units. As a result, Napoleon ordered the elite companies in Oudinot's Grenadier division belonging to third battalions to return to their units, and those of fourth battalions to remain with Oudinot. The companies that remained with Oudinot were then to be completed with four companies of fusiliers drawn from the conscription of 1810. The end result was the unit that Oudinot commanded in 1809 was no longer the Grenadier division of 1805 or 1806-07, but was composed mainly of new conscripts. After 1809 Napoleon never again raised a grenadier division, but instead relied on increasing the size of his Imperial Guard.

Since 1807, relations with Austria had deteriorated. In April 1809 Archduke Charles crossed the Inn River and invaded Bavaria, a French satellite state. Napoleon, who remained in Paris to complete preparations for the campaign, left Berthier in charge of the army's initial dispositions. Berthier, an exemplary chief of staff but poor field commander, nearly ruined the campaign. Fortunately, once Napoleon reached the front he quickly defeated Charles at Abensberg and advanced on Vienna, entering the Austrian capital on May 13. Oudinot's troops saw little action during this phase of the campaign, in fact he was still trying to complete his battalions when hostilities broke out. After reaching Vienna, Napoleon discovered that Charles still had a lot of fight left in him and occupied a strong positioned on the east bank of the Danube. Napoleon was forced to make a dangerous river crossing to attack him. On May 20 the Grande Armée began crossing the Danube south of Vienna near the villages of Aspern and Essling. Napoleon's underestimation of Charles resulted in a hasty crossing over an unstable boat bridge. While Masséna's Corps was crossing, the bridge broke. It was quickly fixed, but broke again the following morning. Oudinot's troops were unable to cross until the evening of the 21st. They crossed safely, but, before Davout's corps could cross, the bridge was severely damaged by a floating mill the Austrians had set on fire and floated downstream. Therefore, Napoleon's army at the Battle of Aspern-Essling was deprived of a large number of men and had its back against a river.

Oudinot's troops, who were stationed between the two villages of Aspern and Essling, were exposed to a murderous artillery bombardment. Archduke Charles's main attack fell directly on the Grenadiers. After some incredibly fierce fighting the Austrian advance was halted. The battle then degenerated into an artillery bombardment. At the end of the day, unable to trust the safety of his army to a single rickety bridge, Napoleon ordered his army to retreat across the Danube. The Battle of Aspern-Essling was a bloody affair. Every single officer on Oudinot's staff was either wounded or killed. Oudinot himself was shot in the arm and had to leave the battlefield. But by far the most costly casualty was Marshal Lannes, who was hit by a canon ball at the end of the battle and died several days later. To replace him as commander of the Second Corps, Napoleon named Oudinot, and wrote in the tenth army bulletin, "The Emperor has given the command of the Second Corps to Count Oudinot, a general proven in a hundred combats, where he has demonstrated equally intrepidity and knowledge." [21]

Napoleon spent the next month and a half preparing for another river crossing, this time on safer and more secure bridges. The ensuing battle at Wagram proved to be a turning point in Oudinot's career since after the battle he was made a Marshal of France. Oudinot played an important role in the victory. His troops were among the first to cross the Danube and establish a bridgehead over which a large portion of the French army followed. Oudinot's position was toward the right flank of the army just to the left of Davout's corps, which formed the far right. By evening the French occupied a line just in front of the Russbach, facing the Austrians. The following day, the 6th, Davout and Oudinot attacked the left flank of the Austrian army. During the fighting, Oudinot was grazed by a bullet, which ripped off part of his right ear. His surgeon sewed it up and he rejoined the battle. At 2:00 p.m. Oudinot's troops forced Hohenlohe's corps from its position, and captured Wagram. With his line breached Archduke Charles ordered a retreat.

Nicolas Charles Oudinot

Nicolas Charles Oudinot

On 12 July Oudinot was informed by Berthier that he had been elevated to the marshalate. In many ways he was Lannes's replacement. The temperaments of the two men were similar. Oudinot had demonstrated his ability both to lead a division and to lead a corps under Napoleon's direct supervision, but he had never had an independent command. When that time came, Oudinot showed his inexperience. Of the three new marshals, Charles Parquin wrote, "France named Macdonald, the army named Oudinot, and friendship named Marmont." [22]

Oudinot's first assignment as marshal was the occupation of Holland. Napoleon had finally decided to annex Holland because of his brother Louis's inability or refusal to rigorously enforce the Continental System against British goods. In January 1810 Napoleon informed Oudinot of his intention to, "take military possession, then civil possession [of Holland]." [23] By the end of February Oudinot had completed the peaceful occupation of the country. The minister of war, Clarke, wrote Oudinot, "I see with great satisfaction how you have, in this thorny operation, been able to combine the necessary firmness with the moderation and wisdom which conciliated and smoothed the difficulties." [24] He remained in Holland until January 1811, ensuring a peaceful annexation to France.

The mission with which Oudinot was entrusted called for a level of tact and diplomacy that many people did not believe he possessed. Indeed, in his early years, he rarely demonstrated it. Hard and demanding as a commander and intolerant of incompetence, Oudinot often displayed a volcanic temper. But he also had a strong sense of personal honor and fairness. His temper mellowed with age, but even as an old man he was known to threaten ruffians who disturbed him at the theater or at dinner. Oudinot treated occupied territories with a degree of fairness and justice that was rarely seen in other Napoleonic marshals. He worked hard to maintain discipline in his troops, acting harshly against looting or pillaging. Oudinot himself set an example of good conduct, refusing any bribes and never seeking to enrich himself. In fact, Napoleon had to urge Oudinot several times while in Holland to take harsher measures against the populous. He earned the respect and gratitude of his enemies for his conduct. In 1814, when the Allied armies overran his home town of Bar-le-Duc, Czar Alexander gave Oudinot's estates his personal protection.

During the operation in Holland, Oudinot learned that his wife, Charlotte, had died at their home in Bar-le-Duc. Oudinot requested a leave of absence, but Napoleon refused to grant it, arguing it was more important to remain with the army. He was unable to return home until seven months after her death. Because he had six children ranging in age from two to twenty, he felt it necessity to remarry. A wife was expected of a marshal, but more important, his family needed a mother to help raise the children while he was campaigning. In 1811 he met and asked Marie Charlotte Eugénie de Coucy to marry him. She came from an old provincial noble family. Despite Napoleon's charge later at St. Helena that she "entirely dominated him and was loyal to the royalist party," the Emperor gave his blessing to the marriage. [25] In addition to the six children he already had, she gave him four more children.

The end of the Empire from 1812 to 1815 was the most trying time of Oudinot's life, both professionally and personally. The campaigns in Russia, Germany, and France strained to the breaking point both Oudinot's military ability as well as the Napoleonic system of warfare. By 1812 the armies and theater of war had become too large for Napoleon to handle personally. Consequently, his marshals were required to assume an unprecedented responsibility in Napoleon's overall strategy by leading large independent commands. Most marshals proved wanting in the responsibilities demanded of them. Oudinot was no exception. His lackluster performance in Russia, and the disaster suffered at Großbeeren in 1813 brought out all of Oudinot's weaknesses as an independent commander. However, not all of the blame can be placed on Oudinot and the other marshals who performed poorly during these campaigns. Part of the blame belongs to Napoleon himself, who had neither trained nor even encouraged his marshals to operate independently.

Oudinot commanded the Second Corps in 1812. Almost immediately after the crossing of the Niemen River he was separated from the main body of the army. While Napoleon advanced on Smolensk, Oudinot's Second Corps and St. Cyr's Sixth Corps, were assigned the responsibility of watching the General Wittgenstein, stationed near Polotsk. Oudinot served as a liaison between Napoleon to the south and Macdonald's corps to the north.

During the first week of the advance Oudinot advanced swiftly—a bit too swiftly for Napoleon, who chastised him for outrunning his support. A few weeks later, Napoleon ordered Oudinot to, "pursue Wittgenstein with sword in hand...You have a blank check." (26) Still stinging from the earlier rebuke, Oudinot advanced cautiously. He believed that Wittgenstein greatly outnumbered him and was somewhat at a loss with what to do with his "blank check" from Napoleon. The confidence and decisiveness he had demonstrated as a divisional commander gave way to indecisiveness and timidity. He would have been much more comfortable under Napoleon's direct command. His confidence was not helped when he went for over two weeks without any information or instructions from the Emperor.

After some indecisive maneuvering between 8-14 August, Oudinot retreated back to his position at Polotsk. Wittgenstein pursued him and attacked, despite having fewer men. Oudinot called a council of war and decided to defend Polotsk. The French position was defended by Oudinot's Second and St. Cyr's Sixth Corps. Toward the end of the day as Oudinot was inspecting the front lines he was shot in the shoulder and seriously wounded. He was carried from the field and turned over command to Gouvion St. Cyr, who defeated Wittgenstein the following day.

Oudinot traveled to Vilna to recover from his wound. In one of the more dramatic stories of the campaign, Oudinot's wife, on learning of his wounding, embarked on a harrowing, thousand mile carriage ride with her uncle from Bar-le-Duc to Vilna to be with her husband, a trip which was strictly forbidden by Napoleon. As events turned out, Napoleon had more to worry about that the travels of a distraught young wife. On 19 October Napoleon abandoned Moscow and began his disastrous retreat. Oudinot left Vilna on 2 November to resume command of his corps. By that time the situation of the Grande Armée was desperate. In order for the army to reach safety it had to cross the Beresina River. The job of securing the crossing was given to Oudinot. Arriving at Borisov he discovered that the Russians commanded by Admiral Tschitchagov had seized the bridge spanning the Beresina. On 24 November Oudinot recaptured Borisov, but only after the Russians had destroyed the bridge. The fate of the French Army depended on being able to cross the Beresina. With the bridge at Borisov destroyed and a large Russian corps on the other side of the river, the odds looked bad. Fortunately, one of Oudinot's cavalry commander, General Corbineau, had discovered a ford a few miles north at Studianka.

Oudinot began construction of a bridge on 25 November in anticipation of the arrival of the remnants of the Grande Armée retreating from Moscow. General Eblé, the commander of Napoleon's bridging train, arrived later in the day and agreed with Oudinot that Studianka was the best place to cross. In freezing waters the engineer constructed the bridges that were to save the army. In the process, Eblé and most of his engineers died of exposure. Oudinot crossed the Beresina first on the 26th and attacked Tschitchagov. Napoleon told him, "you will be my locksmith, who will open this passage." [27]

Oudinot caught Tschitchagov in the process of deploying and drove him back. But then Tschitchagov inexplicably remained inactive for the remainder of the day, while the Grande Armée crossed the Beresina. Finally, at 7:00 a.m. on the 28th he attacked. Oudinot organized the defense and ordered the cuirassiers to counterattack. While awaiting the charge, he was shot in the side and fell off his horse. The wound was so bad that they feared him dead. He was taken to Larrey, Napoleon's personal surgeon, who cleaned the wound, but despite probing six inches into the hole, was unable to find the bullet.

This wound should have ended the campaign for Oudinot, but the following day, at the village of Plechnitsky, his small entourage was attacked by a band of Cossacks supported by a couple of cannon. They threatened to destroy the little cottage unless the French surrendered. Oudinot asked for his pistols and his grand cordon of the Legion of Honor. "If they take me alive," he said, "at least they will see who I am." [28] Inspired by his defiance, the small band held off the Cossacks until rescued by some French cavalry. However, before leaving, the Cossacks fired one last shot, hitting a beam in the roof, which fell on Oudinot's head. The now twice-wounded marshal was put back into his carriage for the trip back to France.

The Russian campaign had taken a tremendous toll on Oudinot, both physically and psychologically. The sight of thousands of Allied and French troops retreating and dying was almost more than he could bear. The following spring when Oudinot was asked by Napoleon what he thought about the breakdown of the armistice, Oudinot replied, "Yes, Sire, we go back to war, which is a bad thing." [29] Of the 47,864 effective troops in the Second Corps which entered Russia in June, only 4,653 remained in January 1813, a casualty rate of nearly 90%. [30]

To defend Germany and the Empire from the combined Russo-Prussian army, Napoleon completely reorganized and rebuilt the French army. Oudinot was given command of the newly created 12th Corps in late April. He was still suffering from the wounds acquired in Russia, but was needed at the front. The 12th Corps did not arrive in time to participate in the Battle of Lutzen, but Oudinot's troops anchored the right flank at the Battle of Bautzen on 20-21 May. Oudinot's orders were to hold his position no matter what. The fighting was very fierce and at times desperate, but the 12th Corps held on. Napoleon succeeded in driving the Allies from the field, but was unable to reap the fruits of the victory because of a lack of cavalry. French troops slowly advanced into Silesia and Saxony with the goal of capturing Berlin.

Oudinot fought two minor engagements against the Prussian General Bülow: at Hoyerswerda on 28 May, and at Luckau on 4 June. Both ended in draws. The day after Luckau Oudinot learned of the Armistice of Plasswitz, which suspended hostilities until 13 August. The armistice came at an opportune time for Oudinot, whose wounds had been aggravated as a result of the strenuous campaigning. He was forced to turn his command over to General Pacthod for several weeks to regain his health. During the armistice Oudinot stayed at the Chateau of Lubbenau, owned by the count of Kielmansegg. There he spent a charming time with the countess, with whom he became close friends.

Napoleon used the armistice to try and complete the formation of the army; he especially hoped to augment the size of his cavalry. Unfortunately, the Allies persuaded Austria to join the coalition against France. Napoleon now had to contend with a large Austrian army located to his south. His initial strategy following the renewal of hostilities was to remain on the strategic defensive with the bulk of his army, while Oudinot, commanding three corps, marched on Berlin. Oudinot tried to turn down the great honor on the grounds of poor health, but Napoleon insisted. The advance on Berlin was Oudinot's second opportunity at independent command and for a second time he demonstrated timidity and uncertainty.

Bad luck plagued Oudinot's offensive from the start. On 19 August, the same day the advance began, the weather turned ugly. Torrential rains turned the roads into quagmires, making it nearly impossible to move his artillery. As the area south of Berlin was crisscrossed with small lakes and swamps, there were, in the best of weather, only a couple of routes by which to approach the city from the south. The rain turned many of the Prussian defensive positions into veritable fortified islands, further hindering the advance. Oudinot was forced to advance along three different roads without lateral connections. The lack of communication between the corps contributed to the defeat of the expedition, but Oudinot did not expect any serious opposition until after the corps had united at Großbeeren. His lack of cavalry kept him unaware of the position of the Allied army. The city of Berlin was defended by the Army of the North, commanded by Bernadotte, who was now the crown prince of Sweden. The fighting that took place on 23 August was essentially three isolated actions at Blankenfield, Großbeeren, and Sputendorf.

As the corps commanded by Reynier reached Großbeeren he encountered the bulk of the Allied army drawn up for battle. Reynier attacked, but failed to carry the Allied position. Oudinot, who was unable to concentrate his army, arrived late in the day after Reynier's troops had begun a withdrawal. Realizing his advance had been halted, and believing his army was in an exposed position, Oudinot ordered a general retreat to Jüterbog. The check at Großbeeren, combined with his continued illness and reservations over independent command, eroded his self-confidence and led him to continue the retreat to the safety of the guns of Wittenberg. Napoleon was extremely unhappy with Oudinot's conduct, not so much for his defeat at Großbeeren, but his withdrawal to Wittenberg instead of back to Luckau. "It is truly difficult to have fewer brains than the duke of Reggio," he fumed. [31] On 3 September Marshal Ney arrived to assume command of the three corps.

Ney renewed the advance on Berlin on 6 September, encountering Bernadotte at Dennewitz. While Oudinot has been criticized for advancing along three different routes, Ney was guilty of advancing his whole army along one road. Consequently, his army arrived and was deployed in a piecemeal fashion. Oudinot's corps was the last corps to reach the battlefield and was deployed on the left flank. However, after part of his corps had deployed he received direct orders from Ney to pull back and serve as a reserve. As he pulled his troops back the Allies thought it was the beginning of a retreat and redoubled their attack. The Saxon troops in Reynier's corps panicked and fled. Withing minutes the whole French line crumbled and Ney ordered a general retreat. The Battle of Dennewitz was a fiasco. Ney directed the battle poorly, committing his troops piecemeal and not understanding the overall flow of the fighting. Ney and Oudinot had a falling out after the battle, both requesting Napoleon relieve them. The most significant result of Dennewitz was the political fall-out. Bavaria withdrew from the war and other German states began to consider the option.

Shortly after Dennewitz Napoleon disbanded the 12th Corps and recalled Oudinot to command two divisions of the Young Guard. Oudinot was much relieved to be back under the direct command of the Emperor. Oudinot's troops fought with valor at the Battle of Leipzig and defended the bridges across the Elster River as the army retreated. His troops then served as the rear guard of the army. The retreat was particularly difficult because a typhus epidemic swept through the ranks. On 26 October Oudinot began to complain he was not feeling well. By the 30th his condition had deteriorated to the point that he was forced to relinquish command to General Pacthod. He was taken by carriage to his home at Jeand'heurs. When he arrived he was so ill that his wife called a priest in preparation for administering last rights. For many days he lay delirious with a high fever, but thanks to his robust constitution, he recovered.

Oudinot returned to command his two divisions of Young Guard troops on 21 January 1814. They participated in the Battle of La Rothière on 1 February and served as the rear guard for Napoleon's retreat to Troyes. After the battle, Napoleon adopted a strategy to utilize the bulk of his army to destroy the Army of Bohemia, commanded by Blücher, while leaving a smaller force to cover Schwarzenberg's Army of Silesia to the south. Oudinot and Victor were assigned this mission. On 8 February Oudinot assumed command of the newly constituted 7th Corps with instructions to hold the line of the Seine and Yonne Rivers. Schwarzenberg quickly breached the line because of Oudinot's lack of troops. However, Napoleon's victories against Blücher at Champaubert and Montmirail allowed him to turn south and attack Schwarzenberg. Napoleon defeated him at Montereau, then moved north again against Blücher, leaving Oudinot and Macdonald to hold the line of the Aube. Oudinot was attacked on 27 February at Bar-sur-Aube, retreating only after his corps had suffered tremendous casualties.

Nicolas Charles Oudinot

Nicolas Charles Oudinot

By March, it was growing apparent that even with Napoleon's stunning series of victories against both Blücher and Schwarzenberg, the French army was not large enough to destroy either army. The marshals, in particular were war weary and ready for peace. The fall of Paris on 31 March convinced them the war could not be won. On 4 April the marshals met with Napoleon, Oudinot and Macdonald were the last to arrive. Oudinot observed the proceedings and agreed with the other marshals that Napoleon's abdication was the best thing for France. That evening Napoleon met with Oudinot and asked him to clarify his position regarding abdication and the possibility of continued resistance. Oudinot replied, "I have fought for twenty-two years; more than thirty scars permit me to say that I do not spare myself in battle; well, I do not intend to draw my sword to encourage civil war." [32] News of Marmont's defection reached them the following day. Napoleon officially abdicated the throne on 6 April. Several days later Oudinot declared his support for Louis XVIII and the new government. Oudinot had adopted a position that he believed was in the best interest of France.

In 1815, after Napoleon's return to France, Oudinot tried to keep his troops loyal to Louis XVIII, but when they declared for Napoleon, he returned to his home in Bar-le-Duc. Napoleon asked him to rally to his cause, and even called him to Paris for a personal interview. "Well, Monsieur le duc de Reggio!" Napoleon said, "and what have the Bourbons done more for you than I, to make you want to defend them so finely against my approach?" Oudinot replied, "I will serve no one , since I will not serve you, Sire." [33] Oudinot believed he had acted honorably and could not join Napoleon because he had taken an oath of allegiance to Louis XVIII, which was still binding. Consequently, he retired to Polangis, his house near Paris.

Following the defeat at Waterloo and Napoleon's second abdication, Oudinot again assumed a position in the Bourbon government, and serving as an intermediary between the Royalists and Bonapartists. It was through his efforts that Marshal Davout was reconciled with the government. He served as a peer of France and as the Inspector General of the National Guard of Paris until its dissolution in 1827. Oudinot's final campaign, in 1823, was the invasion of Spain. He commanded the First Corps of the Army of the Pyrenees. The invasion was designed to suppress the rebellion and restore Ferdinand VII in accordance with the decision of the Congress of Verona. It also served to revive a sense of French national honor and pride, which had been lost in the defeat of 1815. While his troops saw little action, he was appointed military governor of Madrid. Following the overthrow of Charles X in 1830 Oudinot retired to his estates of Jeand'heurs in Bar-le-Duc. But with the revival of Bonapartism in the early 1840's many Napoleonic officers were brought back to duty. Oudinot was named governor of Les Invalides in 1842, a post he held until his death on 13 September 1847 at the age of eighty.


  1. Geroges Bousquié, "Histoire de Joinville-le-Pont: Oudinot à Polanges," Vieux Saint-Maur 5th ser. 30 (1963): 462.
  2. Marie Charlotte Eugénie Julienne Oudinot, duchess de Reggio, Memoirs of Marshal Oudinot, duc de Reggio, by Gaston Steigler, translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1897), 2.
  3. Oudinot to administrators of the Meuse, 21 June 1793, France, Archives de la Meuse, Bar-le-Duc, Carton L 942.
  4. Certification of injury, 24 February 1794, France, Archives de la guerre, Service historique de l'armée de la terre, Château de Vincennes, MSS [hereafter Service historique], Oudinot Dossier, Carton MF 21.
  5. Léon Moreaux, Le général René Moreaux et l'armée de la Moselle, 1792-1795 (Paris: Firmin-Didot et cie, 1886), 129.
  6. Louis Marès, Papiers de Marès. Précis de la guerre en Suisse (1799), ed. Edouard Gachot (Lausanne: Librairie Payot et cie., 1910), 59.
  7. Masséna to the Directory, 13 March 1799, Service historique, Correspondance: Armée d'Helvétie, Carton B2 71.
  8. Masséna to the Directory, 21 August 1799, Service historique, Correspondance: Armée du Rhin et du Danube, Carton B2 76.
  9. Masséna to the Directory, 16 October 1799, Service historique, Correspondance: Armée du Rhin et du Danube, Carton B2 78.
  10. Jules Nollet-Fabert, Histoire de Nicolas-Charles Oudinot, maréchal d'Empire et duc de Reggio. (Bar-Le-Duc: N. Rolin, 1850), 45.
  11. Oudinot, Memoirs, 3&endash;4.
  12. 3e Bulletin de la Grande Armée, 10 October 1805, Napoleon Bonaparte, Correspondance de Napoléon Ier publiée par ordre de l'Empereur Napoléon III (Paris, 1868), No. 9361, XI, 305&endash;307.
  13. François Pils, Journal de marche du grenadier Pils, 1804-1814, recueilli et annoté par M. Raoul de Cisternes (Paris: P. Ollendorff, 1895), 12.
  14. Belliard to Berthier, 5 November 1805, Paul Claude Alombert-Goget and Jean Lambert Alphonse Colin, La campagne de 1805 en Allemagne. (Paris: Librairie militaire R. Chapelot et cie., 1902&endash;8), IV, 512.
  15. Pils, Journal de marche, 20.
  16. C. de Fromont, "Journal historique de la division de grenadiers d'Oudinot, recueilli par J. Dumas, docteur en médecine et chirurgien-major du bataillon d'élite du 28e régiment d'infanterie légère, grande armée, 5e corps. Années 1805 et 1806." Carnet de la Sabretache 2nd ser., 9 (1910): 552-553.
  17. Les Gloires militaires contemporaines de la France, Première Série (Paris: Maison de la Bonne Presse, n.d.), 5.
  18. Pils, Journal de marche, 48.
  19. Léon James Emile Nicolas Michel, Étude sur la période du 5 au 14 juin de la campagne de 1807 (Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1909), 37.
  20. Pils, Journal de marche, 56.
  21. Dixième Bulletin de l'armée d'Allemagne, 23 May 1809, Correspondance de Napoléon Ier, No. 15246, XIX, 34-38.
  22. Denis Charles Parquin, Souvenirs de gloire et d'amour du lieutenant-colonel Parquin, (Paris: J. Tallandier, 1911), 166.
  23. Napoleon to Clarke, 27 January 1810, Correspondance de Napoleon Ier, No. 16173, XX, 145-146.
  24. Clarke to Oudinot, 20 February 1810, Service Historique, Correspondance: Armées du Nord et de Brabant, Carton C2 108.
  25. "L'Ile d'Elbe et les Cent Jours," Oeuvres de Napoléon Ier à Saint-Hélène. Correspondance de Napoléon Ier, XXXI, 99.
  26. Berthier to Oudinot, 26 July 1812, Service historique, Correspondance de Berthier, Carton C17 173.
  27. Pils, Journal de marche, 143.
  28. Ibid, 151.
  29. Auguste Charlotte von Schönberg, gräfen von Kielmansegg, Mémoires de la comtesse de Kielmannsegge sur Napoléon 1er, d'après le manuscrit original des archives du comte Guerrino du Lynar, traduits de l'allemand par Joseph Delage, (Paris-Neuchâtel: Attinger, 1928), II, 20-21.
  30. Situations: Grande Armée, 2e et 3e corps, 1 Juin 1812, Service historique, Carton C2 526; Situation des troupes composant le corps d'armée à l'epoque du 6 janvier 1813, France, Archives Nationales, Secrétairerie d'état impériale (an VIII-1815), AF IV 1644/2.
  31. Napoleon to Berthier, 2 September 1813, Correspondance de Napoléon Ier, No. 20502, XXVI, 162-163.
  32. Pils, Journal de marche, 250.
  33. Oudinot, Memoirs, 307.

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