GOURGAUD, Gaspard (1783-1852), general, Baron de l’Empire

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Gaspard Gourgaud was born in Versailles on 14 November, 1783, son of Etienne-Marie, “Musician Ordinary” violinist in the king's chapel, and Hélène Gérard, nursemaid to the Duc de Berry. He was furthermore the grand-son of the celebrated comic actor Dugazon (pseudonym for Pierre-Antoine Gourgaud) and nephew of Madame Vestris (née Françoise Rose Gourgaud).

He was found to have an aptitude for mathematics and so was sent to the Ecole Polytechnique where he enrolled on 23 September, 1799. His matriculation file, numbered 848 and dated 9 Frimaire, An VIII (30 November, 1799) gives the following details: hair and eyebrows – brown; forehead – low; nose – large; eyes – grey; chin – small; face – oval and well-filled; height – 1.68 m. On 22 September, 1801, he went to the Châlons artillery school with the rank of “sous-lieutenant”. On 23 September, 1802, he was detailed to the 7th regiment of foot artillery as “lieutenant en second” and in January 1803 he became assistant to the Professor of Fortification at the artillery school in Metz. Since Gourgaud was lively and brusque both in life and character, such an employment was never going to be the ideal post, and it comes as no surprise that only eight months later (18 August) to find him in 6th regiment of horse artillery, then in Hanover. He was spotted by general Foucher de Careil who appointed him as an ADC, and Gourgaud followed Foucher de Careil to the camp in Boulogne.

From then on, Gourgaud's life was inextricably linked to that of the Grande Armée. He played a brave and fiery role in all the campaigns: he was present at taking of Ulm and Vienna; at the crossing of the Danube at the Thabor bridge he seized the Austrian artillery park, at Austerlitz he was wounded in the shoulder by a shard from a shell. He played roles in the subsequent campaigns in Prussia and Poland, receiving the Légion d'honneur in Pultusk on 3 March, 1807. On 30 August, 1808, he was promoted to the rank of captain. Returning to the 6th regiment of horse artillery on 29 September, he followed the regiment to fight at Eckmühl, Essling, and Wagram. On 24 February, 1810, he was detailed to the Versailles arms manufactory, where he worked on the development of a new type of gun and improvements in lance manufacturing. He was there only briefly, returning soon the army and Spain where he fought bravely at the siege of Saragossa. Called away from Spain, he was sent on a mission to Danzig as part of secret preparations to the Russian campaign. Since this mission was a success, general de Lariboisière recommended him for the position of ordnance officer to the Emperor (he was appointed on 3 July, 1811) a position in which he remained even accompanying the emperor to St Helena. He received further missions to Aunis and Saintonge, visiting the ports and fortifications notably on île d'Aix… He made recommendations for the fortification of the strait of Maumusson.

In return for his services, he was made Chevalier de l'Empire with a rent of 2,000 livres. Further favours included his accompanying the emperor to the congress in Dresden. During the Russian campaign, captain Gourgaud performed bravely at the battles of Krasnoë, Vitebsk, Smolensk (where he was wounded by a bullet to the shoulder), Valoutina, and Moskowa/Borodino. After the latter battle he was sent with an interpreter to Moscow for a parley. He took 40 Cossack prisoners and sent them with their mounts and equipments to the imperial camp.

During the fire of Moscow (started on Rostopchin's orders), Gourgaud discovered a huge gunpowder store in the Kremlin, prevented its explosion and so saved probably not only the life of Napoleon and his headquarters but also the Kremlin from total destruction. His reward? the title of Baron de l'Empire, which he received on 3 October, 1812, despite being still a mere captain. During the retreat, Gourgaud distinguished himself once again by crossing the Berezina (dangerously filled with ice blocks) on horseback twice (there and back) reconnoitring the bank for suitable bridgeheads. He was given the rank of Chef d'escadrons and the title Premier officier d'ordonnance, a post specially created for him. Gourgaud was to accompany the emperor at the later battles of Lützen, Bautzen, and Wurschen. After the armistice of Pleiswitz, Gourgaud received another reconnaissance mission: his timely information (given the emperor on 24 August) changed the emperor's plans, from marching on Königsberg to heading for Dresden. On the 26th, Napoleon met and beat Moreau there.

Gourgaud then received a dotation of 6,000 livres de rentes and was promoted to the rank of officer in the Légion d'honneur. At the subsequent battle of Leipzig, during the retreat, Gourgaud had been ordered to destroy the Pont de Freyberg; he delayed execution in order to allow Marshal Oudinot's corps and a good number of wounded and stragglers to escape the enemy pursuit.

Then came Gourgaud's extraordinary Campaign of France, where he fought in the battles at Brienne, Champaubert, Montmirail, Rheims, and Arcis-sur-Aube. At Brienne, on 29 January, 1814, he saved the emperor's life by shooting a Cossack who was about to drive his lance through Napoleon, and a Gourgaud family tradition records that Gourgaud too nearly lost his life at the end of a Cossack lance (one supposedly trying to avenge his comrade shot by the Frenchman), only to be spared by his Légion d'honneur medal which glanced the lance head from his chest. As a reward, Napoleon gave Gourgaud the sword of Lodi. He was to be wounded yet again at Montmirail, and he was the first to enter Rheims, for which the emperor made him colonel and commander of the Légion d'honneur. Gourgaud was the one to tell Napoleon of Murat's betrayal.

Just like all the other ordnance officers, Gourgaud was admitted to Louis XVIII's Gardes du corps and received the cross of Saint-Louis what's more. He was subsequently appointed chief of staff of the artillery of the 1st military division. On Napoleon's return from Elba, Gourgaud rallied to the emperor and fought at Ligny, Fleurus, and Waterloo where he ordered the final cannon shots of the battle. Appointed brigadier general and emperor's ADC on 21 June, he followed the emperor into exile. When on île d'Aix, he was charged with delivering Napoleon's “Themistocles” letter to the Prince Regent. Then came St Helena…

Life on the island was difficult for Gourgaud: the climate at Longwood, the small apartments there, the annoyances caused by governor Hudson Lowe; furthermore Bertrand, Montholon, and Las Cases were all married, whilst the thirty-two-year-old Gourgaud was a red-blooded bachelor. His only amusements were dictation taken from the Empereur of the notes which would be used to write the history of the Napoleonic epic and a little hunting. Gourgaud was not however an easy man: he could be jealous, tactless and martinet, though he was also upright, strightforward, intelligent (perhaps too much so, since he could see right through the intrigues of Longwood). He left the island in 1818.

Since French territory was out-of-bounds to Gourgaud, he settled in England. During the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle, he wrote to the emperors of Russia and Austria, and Marie-Louise in an attempt to improve Napoleon's lot. He also published La campagne de 1815 which Wellington disliked; Gourgaud's papers and personal possessions were seized and he was expelled from the England. Landing in Cuxhaven, Gourgaud began an errant existence travelling between the courts of Europe pleading the cause of the prisoner, trying in vain to get an audience with Marie-Louise. Finally in March 1821, allowed to return to France and having been cashiered from the army – “for absence without leave”-, he set about writing several books: Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire de France sous Napoléon ; Lettre à Sir Walter Scott ; Napoléon et la Grande Armée en Russie ou examen critique de l'ouvrage de M. le comte Philippe de Ségur, which caused the latter to challenge him in a duel (Gourgaud wounded Ségur). Sainte-Hélène, the un-published journal of the years 1815 to 1818 was not to be published until 1889. In 1822, Gourgaud married Marthe, daughter of the Comte Roederer, but she was to die in 1823 giving birth to a son.

The Revolution of 1830 was to transform Gourgaud's life. He was reintegrated at his rank (confirmed retroactive from 1st January, 1816), and his later career was exceedingly successful, his appointments including: Commander of the artillery in Paris and Vincennes and Grand-officier of the Légion d'honneur (1831), ADC to the King (1832), lieutenant general (1835), inspector general of the artillery (1836), and commander-in-chief of artillery on the Northern frontier (1839). In 1840, he accompanied the Prince de Joinville to St Helena in order to bring the emperor's mortal remains to France: Gourgaud had requested repatriation of the body as early as 14 July, 1821. He was made Peer of France (1841), President of the Artillery Council (1845), Grand-Croix of the Légion d'honneur (1847), he was sent into retirement in 1848 by the provisional government. Though elected Député for the Deux-Sèvres constituency in 1849, he was to lose all his appointments after the coup d'Etat of 2 December, 1851, and die after a long illness on 28 July, 1852.
Jean Tulard (ed.), Dictionnaire Napoléon (Paris: Fayard), 2nd ed. 1999, p. 885, s.v., “Gourgaud”, author: Baron Gourgaud.

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