Barclay de Tolly was born on 24 December 1757, in Pamuskis, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (now Zeimiai, Lithuania) and raised in Livonia, which then belonged to Russia and is now part of Estonia and Latvia. He was a German-speaking descendant of a Scottish family which had settled in Livonia in the 17th century. His grandfather served as the mayor of Riga, his father was admitted into the ranks of Russian nobility, and the future Field Marshal entered the Imperial Russian Army at an early age.
In 1787-1791 Barclay participated in the Russo-Turkish war, distinguishing himself in the taking of Ochakov and Akkerman. He also took part in the Russo-Swedish war of 1788-1790 and in the Polish campaign of 1794, for the latter of which he received the Order of St George (4th Class). He became lieutenant colonel, was appointed commander of a battalion of the Estland Jaeger Corps in 1794 and was promoted to major-general in 1799.
During the Polish campaign, Barclay distinguished himself commanding the rearguard under Bagration. He played an important role at the Battle of Pultusk (December 1806) - for which he was awarded the Order of St George (3rd Class) - and was wounded in the hand at the Battle of Eylau (7 February 1807), where his conduct won him promotion to the rank of lieutenant-general and commander of the 6th division.
During the Russo-Swedish war 1808-1809 he distinguished himself by crossing the frozen Gulf of Bothnia near Kvarken, which allowed him to surprise the enemy and seize the town of Umeå in Sweden. For this exploit, in April 1809, he was made full General and commander-in-chief of Russian forces in Finland. A year later, he became Minister of War, launching an important series of military reforms, whilst planning for Napoleon's invasion of Russia. He was to retain the post until 1813. In March 1812 Barclay was appointed commander-in-chief of the 1st Western Army, the largest of the Russian armies facing Napoleon. He was responsible for conceiving and carrying out the policy of retreat during the initial stages of the campaign, despite the bitter opposition of the majority of Russian officers (notably Bagration) and the public.
Under great public pressure (he was disliked because of his supposed German origins), Alexander eventually replaced Barclay with General Michael Kutusov in August 1812. Barclay commanded the right flank at the Battle of Borodino (7 September 1812) with great valour (five horses were short under him). For his actions he received the Order of St George (2nd Class).
Retiring because of poor health and public pressure in October 1812, he returned to the army in 1813 becoming in May commander-in-chief of the Russo-Prussian forces. He fought at Bautzen (21 May 1813), Dresden (26 - 27 August 1813), Kulm (29 - 30 August 1813) and Leipzig (16 - 19 October 1813). In the latter battle he commanded a central part of the Allied forces so effectively that the tsar bestowed upon him the title of count.
Barclay took part in the campaign of France in 1814 and commanded the taking of Paris, receiving the baton of a Field Marshal in reward. In 1815 he again served as commander-in-chief of the Russian army during the Hundred Days France, and was created Prince of the Russian Empire on 11 September 1815.
Barclay de Tolly died at Insterburg (Prussia) on 26 May (Old Style 4 May) 1818 on his way back to Russia. His remains were embalmed and put into the mausoleum built to a design by Apollon Shchedrin and Vasily Demut-Malinovsky in 1832 in Jõgeveste (in Helme Vald, Valgamaa, Estonia).
Bibliography Michael & Diana Josselson, The Commander - A Life of Barclay de Tolly, Oxford 1980
Source: Alexander Mikaberidze, The Russian Officer Corps in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1792-1815, Savas Beatie, 2005, s.v. Barclay de Tolly.