The Top Twenty French Cavalry Commanders:
General Auguste-Francois-Marie de Colbert-Chabanais was born on 18 October 1777. He was the younger brother of General Pierre-David (Edouard) de Colbert-Chabanais. He was an extremely talented and gifted cavalry officer, a loyal Bonapartist and friend of le Marechal Michel Ney.
He enlisted at the age of 16 in the Bataillon Guillaume Tell and later joined the 7e Chasseurs-a-Cheval. By 1797, he was a Capitaine and ADC to General Joachim Murat.
In Egypt with l'Armee d'Orient, he was promoted to Chef d'Escadron after the battle at Salahieh on 11 August 1798, and just five days later Bonaparte himself gave him command of the 4e Chasseurs-a-Cheval.
For the Syrian Expedition he was present at the siege of St Jean d'Acre in May 1799, when a bullet passed through both legs just above the knee. He took over a month to recover, during which time he received a gift of a pair of pistols from Napoleon.
He was one of the few officers given leave to return to France on 3 March 1800 on the brig "l'Etoile" together with the ill-fated General Desaix and became ADC to Murat at Marengo.
In July 1800, de Colbert took over command of the 10e Chasseurs-a-Cheval from the veteran Colonel Michel Ordener, he was just 22 years of age. The fitness of the regiment for campaign duty was highly questionable when the young officer took over but during the following years he was to develop it into one of the finest regiments in le Grande Armee.
On 30th December 1803 with General Joachim Murat as one of his witnesses, he married Marie-Genevieve-Josephine Canclaux the 18 year old daughter of General Jean-Baptiste-Camille Canclaux with whom he had served very early in his career. There was some speculation as to whether de Colbert was sincere and utterly committed to this union but the marriage did indeed take place and proved a fruitful one. Two years later in 1805, Marie-Genevieve gave birth to their first child, a boy, Auguste-Napoleon-Joseph.
de Colbert was promoted to General-de-Brigade on 24 December 1805 and sent on a mission to Saint Petersburg.
In 1806 and 1807, de Colbert served in Austria, Prussia and Poland with le Grande Armee where he commanded a brigade comprising the 10e Chasseurs-a-Cheval under Colonel Jacques-Gervaise Subervie and the 3e Regiment des Hussards whose Colonel was the 31 year old future General Louis-Marie Levesque comte de Laferriere, in the VI Corps of le Marechal Michel Ney.
The brigade was present at Jena and Friedland before moving on to Spain. On 2 July 1808 de Colbert was made Baron de l'Empire and served with Bessieres at Medina del Rio Seco, then Tudela with Lannes in November of the same year.
In late 1808, Marie-Genevieve gave birth to another boy, but sadly he died in infancy.
Three of de Colbert's ADC's were members of very famous Napoleonic families, and all three were very young men, they were: Alfred and Rudolphe Latour-Maubourg and Adrien-Louis-Antoine-Jerome d'Astorg.
On 3 January 1809 at Cacabelos in Spain at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, de Colbert decided not to wait for assistance from the advancing forces of General Pierre-Hugues-Victoire Merle who commanded the 3e Division of le Marechal Soult's 2e Corps de l'Armee. de Colbert riding a superb distinctive grey charger led his command across the bridge. On the opposite side, the English commander General Henry William Paget offered a financial reward to anyone who could bring down the French officer. Rifleman Thomas Plunkett of the 95th Rifles, immediately took aim and with a single shot, just above the left eye, brought down the gallant French officer. (For more information on this, see: Rifleman Thomas Plunkett: 'A Pattern for the Battalion')
The English later denied that any financial reward was offered for the shooting of the young French General.
de Colbert lived just 15 minutes. His loss was keenly felt by the whole division and for many months afterwards, their standards were edged with black crepe as a mark of mourning.
The following day Alfred Latour-Maubourg also died of wounds received. Adrien Astorg had also been previously wounded, although he survived to become Colonel of the 25e Regiment des Dragons.
There is no doubt that Auguste de Colbert, like his brother Edouard, was a fine cavalry commander. He was well educated, a gifted linguist fluent in several languages, a strict disciplinarian and a first rate horseman. He was a tall handsome young man with a mass of flowing blonde hair. He rarely gave way to his emotions although when he did, it was usually under the influence of drink. However, it would appear that he could not hold his drink and for that reason rarely drank alcohol. He did not enjoy the best of health and on a number of occasions suffered with stomach problems.
He turned the 10e Chasseurs-a-Cheval from a very ordinary regiment into one of the finest in the Grande Armee. Le Marechal Michel Ney, duc d'Elchingen said of him "I sleep peacefully when de Colbert commands my outposts"
Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2002
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