Nicolas-Charles Oudinot was born in Bar-le-Duc on 25 April, 1767, into a family from the petite-bourgeoisie. At the age of seventeen, after completing his studies in his hometown as well as in Toul and unwilling to follow in his father's professional footsteps, he signed up for the Médoc Infantry regiment, in 1784. Returning to the region three years later as a sergeant, he married Françoise-Charlotte Derlin in September 1789.
On 14 July, 1789, Oudinot was named captain and placed at the head of a band of national guard volunteers. Having served with distinction in a number of local disturbances, he was named chef de légion and commander of the département's National Guard in 1790, and was elected lieutenant-colonel of the 3e bataillon des volontaires de la Meuse, on 6 September, 1791, with whom he left for the north-eastern front.
Following his remarkable defence of Bitche, he was promoted to chef de brigade (colonel) on 5 November 1793 and was given the command of the 4e demi-brigade which had just been formed from one of the best regiments of the royal army: the Picardie regiment. In December of the same year, during the Haguenau affair, he received the first of many wounds that would make him the most injured maréchal in the Empire. A few months later, his actions at Kaiserslautern, where he cleared a passage with his bayonet through the ranks of Prussians, saw him promoted to Général de brigade (14 June 1794). He was, at the time, twenty-seven years old and, like the majority of future marshals of the Empire, had reached the rank of Général de brigade well before the events of 18 Brumaire. In October 1795, after receiving five sabre wounds at Neckerau and left for dead on the battlefield, he was taken prisoner by the Austrians. Freed the following year in an exchange of high-ranking officers, he rejoined the Armées du Rhin et de la Moselle, which were commanded by General Moreau. In 1799, during the Helvetian campaign, he distinguished himself during the captures of Zurich and Constance. At the time he was a chef d'état-major to Masséna, who named him général de division on 12 April 1799.
Oudinot went on to take part in all of the major campaigns of the Consulate and Empire, with the exception of the Spanish and Portuguese campaigns. Serving with Masséna in the Armée de Ligurie, he survived the siege of Gênes. During the final actions in Italy, he once again distinguished himself, notably in personally capturing (with the aid of his état-major) an Austrian battery that was guarding the Mincio passage (December 1800). In February 1805, on the eve of the creation of the Third Coalition, he was given the command of the grenadiers réunis, elite soldiers that would soon become known simply as "Oudinot's grenadiers". That same year, he was victorious at Wertingen, Amstetten, Vienna and Hollabrünn and was involved in the victory at Austerlitz. He played an important role in the 1806 Prussian campaign where he took Ostrołęka with a brilliant cavalry charge and was equally distinguished facing the Russians at Friedland (June 1807). On 25 July, 1808, the Emperor named him comte de l'Empire. At the head of his company, nicknamed "the infernal column" due to the fear that it inspired amongst the enemy's ranks, he was successful at Ebersberg then at Essling during the Austrian campaign of 1809. After Lannes was fatally injured, the Emperor gave the command of the 2e corps to Oudinot. Shortly after, at Wagram, he once again performed magnificently, seizing victory and going beyond his orders from Napoleon. The latter awarded him his Maréchal's baton on 12 July 1809 and also named him Duke de Reggio.
Whilst it may initially appear that Oudinot was singled as a future maréchal very early on in his career, there were a number of factors that could have limited his rapid rise through the ranks. Firstly, he originally served in the Armée du Rhin and therefore did not meet Napoleon until after the creation of the Consulate. He was also a confirmed Republican and for a long time remained in the 'opposition' group of generals. And whilst he was undoubtedly a leader of exceptional bravery, he was not always the greatest strategist. Finally, his numerous wounds meant that all too often he was sidelined at the moment that awards and medals were distributed. Nevertheless, he married intrepidity with a chivalric spirit that was admired by his opponents, and, despite his apparently rough exterior, he also displayed an undeniable savoir-faire which led to a number of missions more diplomatic than military in nature.
In 1806, he was charged with the task of taking possession of the Neufchatel (Switzerland) principality on behalf of Berthier. The principality had been ceded to France by Prussia, and his impartiality led to the inhabitants offering him sword of honour and Neufchatel citizenship on his departure. As Governor of Erfurt, he had the delicate task of ensuring that the Congress which took place there (September 1808) was successful. Following Louis Bonaparte's abdication as king of Holland and Napoleon's resulting decision to annexe the country to the Empire, Oudinot was given the task of managing the occupation.
It was during his time in Holland that he learnt of the death of his wife, with whom he had seven children. On 19 January, 1812, he married Marie-Charlotte-Eugénie de Coucy, a young Ancien Régime aristocrat, with whom he had four more children. All his sons went into a military career: the oldest, Victor, was a lieutenant in the hussars in 1809, a squadron chief by the end of the Empire and, in 1849, was made commander in chief of the French expeditionary corps against the Roman Republic, the short-lived state that emerged after theocratic papal rule was overthrown in the same year. His second son, Auguste, was a colonel in the Chasseurs d'Afrique and was killed during the Algerian conquest. The third, Charles, was an infantry lieutenant-colonel and the fourth, Henri, was a général de brigade.
During the Russian campaign of 1812, he had a number of victories in the Pulutsk region (August 1812) and demonstrated admirable courage during the Battle of Berezina (November 1812).
He was involved in the German campaign of 1813 and the French campaign of 1814, during which he received his thirty-second wound. He was one of the generals at Fontainebleau who encouraged Napoleon to abdicate and, allied to the provisional government after the Emperor's abdication, was made commander in chief of the corps royal des grenadiers et chasseurs à pied (the former Garde Impériale). He was also named ministre d'état and a Peer of France under Louis XVIII. During the Cent-Jours, he refused to serve Napoleon or Louis, explaining to Napoleon upon being summoned, "Since I shall not serve you, Sire, I shall serve no-one." Napoleon would later pay homage to this loyal and honourable conduct at St. Helena.
Upon Louis XVIII's return, Oudinot became Major General of the Garde Royale (8 September, 1815) and went on to serve under the Restoration governments. Although initially sidelined during the July Monarchy, the ageing maréchal accepted the functions of Grand Chancelier of the Légion d'honneur (1839) and, three years later, was made Governor of the Hôtel des Invalides. He died on 13 September, 1847.
Source: Dictionnaire Napoléon (tr. & ed., with permission, H.D.W.)