The infancy of Eugène de Beauharnais and Hortense was much more marked by the death of their father, Alexandre, than by the poor state of relations between their parents. That death brought the siblings not only closer together but also closer to their mother – indeed in his last letter Alexandre had entrusted his children to their mother; furthermore, it was the memory of his father which led Eugène to become a soldier. His experience of war was confirmed by action in the Vendée under General Hoche, who out of respect for his mother, took Eugène while still a child onto his staff.
Whilst it is true that the marriage of Joséphine with general Bonaparte could only be displeasing to the two children (as a result they were deprived of their mother – it was Madame Campan who broke the news of the impending marriage to them), nevertheless, it was the best possible ‘leg up’ for Eugène as he followed his vocation in the military. On 30 June, 1797, received his ‘brevet’ as auxiliary sub-lieutenant in the First Regiment of Hussard and was affected to General Bonaparte as ADC. “My only duties were various front line reports… that was it”, he noted modestly (and with irony) in his Memoirs.
After Campo-Formio he was sent on a mission to the Ionian Islands and on his return found himself in Rome during the assassination of General Duphot, a circumstance in which he showed a great deal of sang-froid. Only on the Egyptian campaign was he to quench his thirst for action. He was a devoted and courageous ADC, acquired the chief of staff’s confidence and appreciation. Bonaparte began to address him confidently and to show real esteem for the young man. Eugène took a direct part in operations and paid dearly for his participation. He was present at the assault on Jaffa and was wounded in the siege of Saint-Jean-d’Acre.
On returning to France and the coup d’etat of 18 Brumaire, Eugène was appointed Captain of the Chasseurs à cheval de la garde consulaire and followed Bonaparte to Italy. At Marengo he distinguished himself in the charges led by Bessières and legitimately won his rank of Chef d’escadron (Squadron leader). In a letter to Josephine, Bonaparte even let slip some real praise, predicting that Eugène would become one of the great military leaders of Europe. It is true that in other circumstances he was to find in Eugène the stuff of a colonel rather than a general and was to treat him for the most part as a brilliant second ranker, but here one can feel the mark of satisfaction which shines clearly in the general climate of relations between the two men.
As the Consul continued his vertiginous rise, becoming Emperor, Eugène’s career was to rise to another level altogether, but it was always to remain within the bounds of reason. Colonel at 22, Brigadier general in 1802, on 14 June 1804, Eugène was made Prince and Archichancelier de l’Empire. In a message to the Sénat which, despite its conventional style, is redolent of unusual sincerity, Napoléon vaunted “the love and consoling friendship of this child of my adoption”, and considered him despite his youth, “a pillar beneath the throne and one of the ablest defenders of the fatherland”.
The great change in Eugène’s life – the viceroyalty of Italy.
Regardless of the fact that he owed this appointment to the repeated refusals of Joseph (who was most unkeen to abandon his rights to the imperial succession), Louis, and Lucien, nevertheless the modesty of his ambition and his retiring nature merely served to increase the sympathy which the emperor had for the Beauharnais clan. In his new role, despite his impatience, Eugène acted as no more and no less than the representative of the King of Italy. He had to report to the emperor on everything – the joke went around that he had ask permission from Paris to put out a fire in Milan. But in this school where the viceroy’s self-esteem was to suffer some knocks, Eugène learned to how become an administrator, how to manage business – and he was a good pupil.
The Third Coalition was to test his talents as an organiser, if not strategist. For this reason, Masséna was given command of the Armée d’Italie. Despite the cat that the campaign was to be fought in Germany, Eugène managed to cope with the defection of the Neapolitans since he had already raised an army of reserve, which was immediately sent to the front.
The victories at Ulm and Austerlitz were to rich in consequences. In his attempts link even closer Bavaria and France, Napoleon decided to have Eugène marry Princess Auguste-Amélie of Bavaria, already betrothed to the crown prince Charles de Bade. The Bavarian sovereigns however were to lean more towards the clear advantages of the French alliance. Eugène was officially adopted by Napoleon on 12 January, 1806. He renounced his rights to the crown of France, but was called to the succession of the throne of Italy after the emperor and his direct descendants. Eugène and Auguste-Amélie, despite the Princess’s initial reticence, got on well and and were much feted on their visits to Venice and Milan after their marriage.
The following years were dedicated to administration of the kingdom. Military works (the fortification of Mantua, and the Rocca d’Anfo, the key stronghold in the Tyrol); public works (construction of roads, restoration of the arsenal in Venice, draining of the marshes around Verona); promulgation of the Napoleonic legal monuments, the Codes de commerce and the Code de procédure pénale, the setting up of courts, etc. Eugène was tireless and showed himself an astute politician and administrator. On 2 April, 1808, an imperial decree was passed annexing the papal legations of Urbino, Ancona, Macerata and Fermo, but Eugène managed to keep relations with the Holy See from snapping and rallied the populations of these areas by means of economic benefits. On the whole, his management was successful.
The re-opening of hostilities in 1809 put Italy in danger. Uprisings occurred; an attack almost managed to get the better of Eugène. The campaign had a painful start for the young commander in chief. Forced onto the defensive, he was beaten by the Erzherzog Johann at Pordenone and was driven into retreat. But the situation was to be improved in June with the victory at Raab in June 1809, and the emperor was not to hold Eugène’s defeat against him for long.
This same year was was also hard in terms of family matters. His fidelity to Napoleon was sorely tried during the affair of the divorce. Remaining loyal to his mother, and ready to renounce all his titles, he accepted out of loyalty to the Emperor to help the Empress to make her decision. It was Eugène who in the Senate read the declaration prepared by Maret whereby Josephine declared that she agreed to sacrifice her affections for the good of France. The Grand Duchy of Frankfurt (which he received March 1810) was in some ways a reward for this balancing act.
But it was during the Russian campaign that Eugène’s qualities were really to come to the fore.
The troop from the Kingdom of Italy made up the 4e corps of the Grande Armée, which saw heroic action at Smolensk, and Borodino where Eugène commanded the attack on Borodino and the Great Redoubt. During the retreat he was obliged to fight 17,000 men from the Russian army at Malo-Jaroslawetz. After Napoleon’s departure, Murat received command, and he was to hand this to Eugène once the Vistula had been crossed. In the role of great responsibility, Eugène showed real grandeur. He gathered around him the elements available, forme three divisions out of these men and managed to hold out successively at the Oder, before Berlin and beyond the Elbe. It was as a result of this retreat that Napoleon was able to form a new army and Eugène was the principal architect of the success at Lützen.
But Austrian pressure forced Eugène back to Italy. There he set about re-organising his troops and arranging supplies. He then commanded a series of combats designed to slow the enemy down. These were in effect a series of retreats up to the river Adige, conducted in a perfectly orderly manner. Despite pressure from his father-in-law and despite Murat’s defection in February 1814, he refused to join the coalition and remained, as ever, faithful. He did not however join the emperor but fought in Italy, hence receiving some unfair criticism while he was defending the integrity of the kingdom of which he was in charge. Despite succes on the Mincio river and successive victories against Murat, he was beaten at the river Taro and the river Nura and was forced to accept an armistice.
After the First abdication, Eugène clearly thought that he would be able to keep his throne and worked actively for this,
but the uprising in Milan on 20 April, 1814 and the assassination of Prina removed any remaining hopes he may have had; he then headed for Munich where his family in law welcomed him warmly. In Paris, to which he came on his mother’s death, he was received honorably by the emperor Alexander and Louis XVIII. He immediately renounced all political activity and remained faithful to his new state and his family-in-law. He remained in Bavaria during the Hundred Days in accordance with the agreement which he had signed.
His final years were marked interest directed towards the management of his estates and his fortune, the building of a palace in Munich, and the completion of his art collections. And the new Duc de Leuchtenberg showed himself as good at estate management as he was as viceroy of Italy. At the same time he agreed to help proscripts such as Lavalette, and lobbied for the softening of the treatment towards the emperor, became Napoleon’s banker, but never once dreamed to a restoration and remained the Bavarian prince he had become. His health began to failed after 1822, and he suffered two attacks of apoplexy in 1823 and died in 1824. As his sister Hortense said, Eugène was “brave, loyal, straightforward, generous, incapable of not keeping his words, preferring honour to high rank, noble obscurity to power poorly taken, duty to pleasure…”
Author: Fernand Beaucour, tr. Peter Hicks
Review: Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien