The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot

Author: Jean Baptiste Antoine Marcellin de Marbot

Chap. 7.

After my father had accepted a command in Italy, a division became vacant in the army of the Rhine, which he would have preferred; but an inescapable fate drew him towards the country where he would find his grave.

One of his compatriots, and a personal friend, M. Lachèze, whom I might call his evil genius, had for a long time been French consul at Leghorn and Genoa, where he had business interests. This wretched man, in order to lure my father to Italy, was forever painting the most exaggerated picture of the country’s beauties, and pointing out the credit which might be gained by dealing successfully with the difficult situation in the army there, whereas there would be little opportunity to acquire distinction in the army of the Rhine, where all was well. My father was swayed by this specious reasoning, and believing that there was more merit in going to the more dangerous post, he persisted in his intention of going to Italy, in spite of the objections of my mother, who had a secret presentiment which made her wish for my father to go to the Rhine. This presentiment was not false. She never saw her husband again!

To his present aide-de-camp, Captain Gault, my father now added another officer, M. R*** who had come to him from his friend General Augereau. M. R*** had the rank of major. He was a member of a Maintenon family and had some ability and some education, which he very rarely employed; for in a stupid manner, which was then quite common, he swaggered about, forever cursing and swearing, and talking of running people through with his sabre. This bully-boy had only one virtue, very rare at this time: he was always turned out with the greatest elegance. My father, who had taken on M. R*** without knowing anything about him, now much regretted it; but he could not send him back without upsetting his old friend, Augereau. Although my father disliked him, he thought, perhaps rightly, that a general should make use of the military qualities of an officer, without worrying too much about his personal manners; but, as he did not care to have the company of M. R*** on a long journey, he had given him the job of taking his coaches and horses from Paris to Nice, having under his orders the old stud-groom, Spire, a highly responsible man, used to the management of stables. The stable was large: my father had fifteen horses, which with those of his aide-de-camp and of his chief-of-staff and his assistants, together with those for the wagons and so on, made up a fairly large group of which R*** was the leader.

They left a month before we did.

My father took in his coach the fatal M. Lachèze, Captain Gault and me. Colonel Ménard, the chief-ofstaff, followed, with one of his assistants, in a post-chaise. A big rascal, my father’s valet, went ahead as a courier. We travelled in uniform. I had a fine forage cap which pleased me so much that I wore it all the time, but, as I put my head out of the coach window frequently, because the coach made me travel-sick, it so happened that during the night, when my companions were asleep, the cap fell into the road. The coach, drawn by six vigourous horses, was going at top speed. I did not dare have it stopped and so I lost my cap. A bad omen! But I was to suffer far worse things in the terrible campaign which we were about to undertake. This incident upset me a good deal, but I said nothing about it for fear of being chaffed about the way the new soldier was looking after his kit.

My father stopped at Mâcon, at the house of an old friend. We spent twenty-four hours there and then continued our journey to Lyons. We were not more than a few leagues from there, and were changing horses at the post-house of Limonest, when we noticed that all the postilions had decorated their hats with tricolour ribbons, and that there were flags of the same colours hanging from all the windows. We asked the reason for this demonstration, and were told that General Bonaparte had just arrived in Lyons...!

My father, who was certain that Bonaparte was still in the depths of Egypt, treated this news as absurd, but he was taken aback when, having sent for the post master, who had just returned from Lyons, he was told, "I saw General Bonaparte, whom I know very well, because I served under his command in Italy. He is staying in some hotel in Lyon, and has with him his brother Louis, Generals Berthier, Lannes and Murat, as well as a great, number of officers, and a Mameluke."

This could hardly have been more positive; however the revolution had given rise to so many falsehoods, and factions had been so cunning in inventing stories which would serve their ends, that my father was still in doubt when we entered the suburbs of Lyon. All the houses were draped with flags. Fireworks were going off. The crowd filled the streets to the point of preventing our coach from moving. There was dancing in the public squares and the air rang with cries of "Vive Bonaparte. Saviour of the country!" It was evident that Bonaparte was indeed in Lyon. My father said, "I was well aware that he was to be sent for, but I did not think it would be so soon. The coup has been well organised, and there are great events to come. I feel sure that I was right to leave Paris. At least, in the army I can serve the country without taking part in a coup, which, however necessary, I find repugnant." Having said this, he fell into a deep reverie, which lasted for the long time it took us to work our way through the crowds to the hotel where our rooms had been prepared.

The nearer we got to the hotel, the thicker the crowd became, and when we reached the door we saw that it was hung about with Chinese lanterns and guarded by Grenadiers. It was here that General Bonaparte was staying, in rooms that had been booked a week before for my father.

Although quick-tempered, my father did not say a word when the hotelier, who had been compelled to obey the orders of the municipality, came with some embarrassment to make his excuses. The inn-keeper having added that he had arranged for our accommodation at another hotel....very good, though of second grade....and run by one of his relatives, my father simply asked Capt. Gault to tell the postilion to take us there.

When we arrived, we were met by our courier, a lively fellow, who, heated by the long journey he had just made and the numerous drinks he had downed at each post-house had complained most loudly when he found that the rooms booked for his master had been given to General Bonaparte. The latter’s aides-de-camp hearing this uproar and learning the cause, went to warn their master that General Marbot had been displaced to make room for him, and, at the same time, General Bonaparte saw through his open window my father’s two coaches pull up at the door.

He had not been aware, until then, of the shabby way in which my father had been treated; and as General Marbot, recently commandant of Paris, and now a divisional commander in Italy was too important a man to be treated unceremoniously, and also as General Bonaparte had good reason to make himself popular with everybody, he ordered one of his officers to go down straight away and ask General Marbot to come, as a fellow soldier, and share his accommodation. Then, seeing the coaches leave before his aide-de-camp could speak to my father, Bonaparte went immediately, on foot, to offer his regrets in person.

The crowd which followed him set up a great noise of cheering, which, as it drew near our hotel, should have warned us, but we had heard so much since coming to the town that it did not occur to one of us to look out of the window. We were all in the drawing-room where my father was striding up and down, deep in thought, when the valet-de-chambre, opening the double doors, announced, "The General Bonaparte."

On entering, he hurried to embrace my father, who received him very politely, but coolly. They had known each other for a long time.

The explanations about the lodgings could be disposed of in a few words between two such people, and so they were. They had much else to talk about; so they went alone into the bedroom, where they remained in conference for more than an hour.

During this time, the officers who had come with General Bonaparte chatted with us in the drawing-room. I never tired of examining their martial appearance, their sun-bronzed faces, their strange uniforms and their Turkish sabres, hung from cords. I listened with interest to their stories of the campaign in Egypt, and the battles which were fought there. I took pleasure in hearing them talk of such celebrated places as the Pyramids, the Nile, Cairo, Alexandria, Acre, the desert and so on. What delighted me most, however, was the sight of the young Mameluke, Rustum. He had stayed in the ante-chamber, where I went several times to admire his costume, which he showed me willingly. He already spoke reasonable French, and I never wearied of asking him questions.

General Lannes recalled having let me fire his pistols, when, in 1793, he was serving under my father in the camp at Miral. He was very friendly toward me, and neither of us then foresaw that one day I should be his aide-de-camp, and that he would die in my arms at Essling. General Murat came from the same region as we did, and as he had been a shop-assistant to a silk merchant at Saint-Céré during the period when my family spent the winter there, he had often come to the house, bringing purchases to my mother. My father, also, had rendered him a number of services, for which he was always grateful. He gave me a hug, and reminded me that he had often held me in his arms, when I was an infant.

General Bonaparte and my father having come back into the room, they presented to one another the members of their suites. Generals Lannes and Murat were old acquaintances of my father, who welcomed them with great affability. He was a little distant with General Berthier, whom, however he had seen before, when he was in the bodyguard and Berthier was an engineer.

General Bonaparte, who knew my mother, asked me, very politely, for news of her. He complimented me most warmly on having, while yet so young, taken up a military career, and taking me gently by the ear, which was always the most flattering caress which he bestowed on those with whom he was pleased, he said to my father, "One day this will be a second General Marbot." This prediction came true, although at that time I had no expectation of it. However I was very proud of these words. It takes so very little to make a child feel pleased with himself.

When the visit was over, my father disclosed nothing of what had been said between him and General Bonaparte; but I learned later that Bonaparte, without stating his objectives clearly, had sought, by the most adroit cajolements, to win my father over to his side, and that, my father had always dodged the issue.

Disgusted at seeing the people of Lyon running in front of Bonaparte, as if he was already the sovereign of France, my father declared that he wanted to leave at dawn the next day; but as his coaches needed some repairs, he was forced to spend an entire day at Lyon. I profited from this to have a new forage cap made, and, enchanted with this purchase, I took no notice of the political conversations, about which, to tell the truth, I understood little.

My father went to return the visit he had received from General Bonaparte. They walked alone for a very long time in the hotel’s little garden, while their suites remained respectfully at a distance. We saw them sometimes gesture with warmth, and at other times speak more calmly; then Bonaparte, with a wheedling look, went up to my father and put his arm through his in a friendly fashion, probably so that the officials who were in the courtyard and the many spectators who hung out of neighbouring windows might conclude that General Marbot agreed with the plans of General Bonaparte; for this crafty man neglected nothing to achieve his aims.

My father came away from this second conversation even more pensive than he had been after the first, and on coming back to the hotel, he ordered our departure for the next day. Unfortunately, the next day, General Bonaparte was to make an excursion round the town to inspect the heights suitable for fortification, and all the post-horses were reserved for him. I thought that at this blow my father would become angry, but he contented himself by saying, "There is the beginning of omnipotence." And told his staff to see if they could hire any horses, so keen was he to get away from the town and from the sights which offended him. No spare horses could be found. Then Col. Ménard, who was born in the Midi, and knew the district perfectly, observed that the road from Lyon to Avignon was in such a poor state of repair that the coaches might be badly damaged if they attempted it, and it would be better to embark them on the Rhône, the descent of which would offer us an enchanting spectacle. My father, who was no great lover of the picturesque, would, at any other time, have rejected this advice, but as it gave him the opportunity to leave the town a day earlier, he agreed to take to the Rhône.

Col. Ménard then hired a large boat, the coaches were put on board, and the next day, early in the morning, we all embarked: a decision which was very nearly the end of us.

It was autumn. The water was very low. All the time the boat touched and scraped along the bottom. One feared that it might be torn open. We slept the first night at Saint-Péray, next at Tain, and took two days to get as far down as the junction with the Drôme. There we had much more water, and went along rapidly; but a dangerous high wind called the Mistral hit us when we were about a quarter league above the bridge known as Pont Saint-Esprit. The boatmen were unable to reach the bank. They lost their heads, and set themselves to praying instead of working, while a furious wind and a strong current were driving the boat towards the bridge! We were about to crash against the pier of the bridge and be sunk, when my father and all of us, taking up boat-hooks, hurried forward to fend off from the pier which we were about to strike.

The shock was so severe that it knocked us into the thwarts, but the push had changed the direction of the boat, which, by a miraculous piece of good fortune, shot through under the arch. The boatmen then recovered a little from their terror and resumed some sort of control of their boat; but the Mistral continued, and the two coaches offering a resistance to the wind made any manoeuvre almost impossible. At last, six leagues above Avignon, we went aground on a very large island, where the bow of the boat dug into the sand in such a way that it would not be possible to get it out without a gang of labourers, and we were listing over so far that we feared being swamped at any moment. We put some planks between the boat and the shore and, with the help of some rope, we all got ashore without accident, though with some difficulty.

There could be no thought of re-embarking in the very high wind,(although without rain), and so we pushed on into the interior of the island, which we thought at first was uninhabited; but eventually we came across a sort of farm, where we found some good folk who made us very welcome. We were dying of hunger, but it was impossible to go back to the boat for food, and all we had was a little bread.

We were told that the island was full of poultry, which was allowed to run wild, and which the peasants shot, when they wanted some. My father was very fond of shooting, and he needed some relaxation from his problems, so we borrowed guns from the peasants, some pitch-forks and sticks, and we set off on a hen shoot. We shot several, though it was not easy to hit them as they flew like pheasants. We also picked up many of their eggs in the woods. When we returned to the farm, we lit a big fire in the middle of a field, around which we set up a bivouac, while the valet, helped by the farmer, prepared the eggs and the chickens in a variety of ways. We supped well and then bedded down on some hay, no one daring to accept the beds which the good peasants offered us, as they seemed to us to be far from clean.

By day-break the wind had dropped, so all the peasants and the boatmen took spades and picks, and after several hours of hard work they got the boat afloat, enabling us to continue our journey towards Avignon, which we reached without any further accidents. Those that had befallen us were so embroidered in the telling, that the rumour reached Paris that my father and all his staff had been drowned.

The approach to Avignon, particularly when one comes down the Rhône, is very picturesque. The old Papal Château; the ramparts by which the city is surrounded; its numerous steeples and the Château de Villeneuve rising opposite, combine to make a fine prospect. At Avignon we met Mme. Ménard and one of her nieces, and we spent three days in the town, visiting the charming outskirts, including the fountain of Vaucluse. My father was in no hurry to leave, because M. R*** h d written to say that the very hot weather,still persisting in the Midi,had forced him to slow the pace of his march and my father did not wish to arrive before his horses.

From Avignon we headed for Aix, but when we reached Bompart, on the banks of the Durance, which, at that time, was crossed by a ferry, we found the river so swollen by flood, that it would not be possible to cross for at least five or six hours. We were debating whether to return to Avignon, when the operator of the ferry, a gentlemanly sort of person, who owned a charming little castle on the height some five hundred paces from the river bank, came and begged my father to rest there until the coaches could be embarked. He accepted, hoping that it would be for a few hours only; but it appeared that there had been heavy storms in the Alps, where the Durance has its source, for the river continued to rise all day, and we were compelled to accept lodging for the night, which was offered most cordially by the owner of the castle. The weather being fine we spent the day walking. It was a break in our travels which I enjoyed.

The next day, seeing that the flood-water was running even more rapidly than the evening before, our host, who was a devout Republican, and who knew the river well enough to judge that we would not be able to cross for twenty-four hours, hurried off, unknown to us, to the little town of Cavaillon, which is about two leagues from Bompart, on the same bank of the river. He had gone to inform all the "Patriots" of the locality that he had in his house divisional General Marbot. He then returned to the castle, where, an hour or so later, we saw the arrival of a cavalcade composed of the keenest "Patriots" of Cavaillon, who had come to beg my father to accept an invitation to a banquet, which they offered him in the name of all the notables of the town, "Always so staunchly Republican."

My father, who found these sort of occasions far from agreeable, at first refused; but these "Citoyens" were so insistent, saying that everything had been organised and that the guests had gathered, that my father gave in and went off to Cavaillon.

The best hotel had been decked with garlands, and was graced by the presence of the local dignitaries from the town and its outskirts. After an interminable number of compliments, we took our places at a table laden with the most exclusive dishes. Above all, there were ortolans, birds which thrive well in this part of the country.

A great many toasts were drunk. Virulent speeches were made, denouncing the "Enemies of liberty" and the dinner did not end until ten o’clock in the evening. It was a little late to return to Bompart, and anyway, my father could not with politeness leave his hosts the moment the meal was over. He decided then to spend the night at Cavaillon, and the rest of the evening was passed in rather noisy talk. Eventually, one by one, the guests went home and we were left alone.

The next morning, M. Gault asked the inn-keeper how much my father owed for his part in the immense feast of the night before, which he assumed was a communal meal in which each paid for his own share. The inn-keeper presented him with a bill of more than 1500 francs. The good "Patriots" not having paid a single sou!...We were told that though some had expressed a wish to pay, the great majority had replied that this would be "An insult to General Marbot"....!

Capt. Gault was furious at this procedure, but my father, who at first could not get over his astonishment, burst into laughter, and told the inn-keeper to go and collect the money at Bompart, to where we returned straight away, without saying a word of this to the chatelaine; whose servants we tipped handsomely, and then, taking advantage of the fall in the water level, we at last crossed the Durance and made our way to Aix.

Although I might not yet be of an age to discuss politics with my father, what I had heard him say led me to believe that his Republican ideas had been much modified over the preceding two years, and what he had experienced as a supposed guest of honour at Cavaillon had severely shaken them, but he did not display any ill-feeling on the subject of this banquet, and was even amused at the anger of M. Gault, who said repeatedly, "I am not surprised that, in spite of their cost, these scoundrels produced so many ortolans, and ordered so many bottles of good wine! "

After spending a night at Aix, we left for Nice. This was the last stage of our journey. While we were travelling through the mountain and the beautiful forest of Esterel, we encountered the Colonel of the 1st Hussars, who, escorted by an officer and several troopers, was taking some lame horses, returned by the army, back to the depot at Puy-en-Velay. This colonel was named M. Picart and had been given his command because of his administrative ability. He was sent frequently to the depot to arrange for the equipment of men and horses, which he then forwarded to the fighting units, where he appeared but rarely and did not stay for long.

When he saw Col. Picart, my father had the coach stopped and got out, and after presenting me to my colonel, he took him on one side, and asked him to name an intelligent and well educated non-commissioned officer who might be made my mentor. The Colonel named Sergeant Pertelay. My father made a note of the name, and we continued on our way to Nice; where we found M.R*** settled in an excellent hotel, with our coaches and horses in first-class order.


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Chicago: Jean Baptiste Antoine Marcellin de Marbot, "Chap. 7.," The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot, ed. Iles, George, 1852-1942 and trans. Colt, Oliver C. in The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1909), Original Sources, accessed April 20, 2019,

MLA: de Marbot, Jean Baptiste Antoine Marcellin. "Chap. 7." The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot, edited by Iles, George, 1852-1942, and translated by Colt, Oliver C., in The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot, Vol. 36, New York, Doubleday, Page, 1909, Original Sources. 20 Apr. 2019.

Harvard: de Marbot, J, 'Chap. 7.' in The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot, Doubleday, Page, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 20 April 2019, from