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Research Subjects: Biographies



Bessieres and the Guides of Bonaparte: a Biographical Outline

By Roberto A. Scattolin, Italy

Jean-Baptiste Bessi�res, duc d� Istrie, mar�chal d� empire, was born at Prayssac[1] the 6th of August 1768; his father was Mathurin

Bessi�res, 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 Pyr�n�es, and fought the campaign against Spain in the arm�e des Pyr�n�es-Orientales (1792-1795).[3] He was then trasferred to the arm�e d� Italie with the 22�me r�giment de chasseurs � cheval, a unit where he retained the position of capitaine.

General Bonaparte had noticed him in the thick of the fighting � � la suite de l� affaire de Cr�mone � 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 � cheval du g�n�ral-en-Chef, though sometimes could be referred to as les guides de Bonaparte. [4]� �As the head of the unit, Bessi�res 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 pluvi�se, an V (Friday, 20 January 1797), the French generalissimo eulogized Bessi�res�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 Bessi�res, commandant des guides, qui les porte, est un officier distingu� par sa bravure et par l� honneur qu� il a de commander � une Compagnie de braves gens qui ont toujours vu fuir devant eux la cavalerie ennemie, et qui, par leur intr�pidit�, nous ont rendu, dans la campagne, des services tr�s-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 arm�e d� Italie.

Bessi�res 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 Bessi�res 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 r�putation sans tache, c� est le plus bel h�ritage qu� il ait pu l�guer � ses enfants. Ma protection leur est acquise.� Ils h�riteront aussi de l� affection que je portais � leur p�re. Trouvez, dans toutes ces consid�rations, des motifs de consolation pour all�ger 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 fa�ade of the Arc de Triomphe de l� �toile.

Sources:

1. Primary Sources:

Napol�on Ier, Correspondance g�n�rale de Napol�on Ier, publi�e par ordre de l�Empereur Napol�on� III; Paris, Imprimerie imp�riale, 1858-1869.

2. French Works:�

Bessi�res, Albert, Le mar�chal Bessi�res, duc d� Istrie, 1768-1813, Paris: Lavauzelle, 1941.

Miramont, Corn�de, Vie du mar�chal Bessi�res, Cahors, 1845.

Paumes, J., Bessi�res de Prayssac, Bulletin de la Soci�t� des Etudes du Lot.

Saint-Marty, Lucien, Nos monuments et nos statues (Croix du P�re Andr�. Colonne F�nelon. Statues de Bessi�res et de Murat. Vierge du pont Louis-Philippe. Monument Gambetta. Monument Cl�ment Marot. Monument des mobiles), dans Journal du Lot, 31 juillet, 3-5 ao�t, 14-28 d�cembre 1927.

Notes:

[1] At the place of his native house it was built the Coll�ge d� Istrie. A commemorative inscription recalls: ANCIEN COLL�GE D� ISTRIE / DANS CETTE MAISON EST N� LE MAR�CHAL BESSI�RES DUC D� ISTRIE LE 6 AO�T 1768.

[2] Bessi�res 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 22�me Chasseurs. He displayed great self sacrifice and campaigned extensively in Cerda�a and Catalo�ia.

[3] A delightful painting of Jean-Baptiste Bessi�res in 1792, wearing the uniform of adjudant de la legion des Pyrenees, is preserved in the Mus�e National de Versailles et des Trianons . It was executed by Gu�rin .

[4] This unit was to become the breeding-ground for the Consular Guard �� Chasseurs-�-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, Bessi�res 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 EX�CUTIF. Quartier g�n�ral, V�rone, 1er pluvi�se, an V (20 January 1797). Correspondance de Napol�on Ier. ― An V (1797). Tome Deuxi�me, 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 fa�ade of the hotel Zum Weiβen Schwan at Rippach (Saxony). It reads:

� LA M�MOIRE DE / JEAN BAPTISTE / BESSI�RES / MAR�CHAL D� EMPIRE DUC D� ISTRIE / COLONEL G�N�RAL DE LA CAVALERIE / DE LA GARDE IMP�RIALE / GRAND AIGLE DE LA L�GION D� HONNEUR / GRAND CROIX St. HENRI DE SAXE / DU CHRIST DE PORTUGAL / DE L�OPOLD D� AUSTRICHE / N� � PRESSAC D�P.t DU LOT / LE 6 AO�T� 1768 / TU� D� UN BOULET EN / COMBATANT / POUR LA FRANCE � WEISSENFELS / PR�S L�TZEN LE 1er MAI 1813 / IL V�CUT COMME BAYARD / IL MOURUT COMME TURENNE / NAPOL�ON

[8] Words of honour and commemoration were inscribed in the crypt: "J. B. BESSI�RES, Duc d� Istrie, Mar�chal de France, Golonel-G�n�ral de la Cavalerie de la Garde et Grand-Cordon de la L�gion d'Honneur, Commandant de la Couronne de Fer d� Italie, n� � Pressac, tu� par un boulet de canon � 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 C�UR / DE JEAN BAPTISTE BESSI�RES / MAR�CHAL DE FRANCE, DUC D� ISTRIE / COLONEL G�N�RAL DE LA CAVALERIE / DE LA GARDE IMP�RIALE / GRAND CROIX DE LA L�GION D� HONNEUR / DE St. HENRI DE SAXE / DU CHRIST DE PORTUGAL / DE L�OPOLD D� AUSTRICHE / N� � PRESSAC D�P.nt DU LOT / LE 6 AO�T� 1768 / TU� D� UN BOULET EN COMBATANT / POUR LA FRANCE � WEISSENFELS / PR�S L�TZEN 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 Lapeyri�re (1781-1840).� A most delightful portrait in miniature of La Mar�chale Bessi�res, duchesse d� Istrie, has been executed by Jacques Delaplace; the piece is preserved at Rueil-Malmaison in the mus�e national des ch�teaux de Malmaison et de Bois-Pr�au. The piece � tabati�re� 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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