Memoirs of Napoleon— Volume 12

Author: Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne

Chapter XXXI. 1813.

The flag of the army of Italy and the eagles of 1813—Entrance of
the Allies into Switzerland—Summons to the Minister of Police—
My refusal to accept a mission to Switzerland—Interviews with M. de
Talleyrand and the Due de Picence—Offer of a Dukedom and the Grand
Cordon of the Legion of Honour—Definitive refusal—The Duc de
Vicence’s message to me in 1815—Commencement of the siege of
Hamburg—A bridge two leagues long—Executions at Lubeck—Scarcity
of provisions in Hamburg—Banishment of the inhabitants—Men
bastinadoed and women whipped—Hospitality of the inhabitants of

I am now arrived at the most critical period in Napoleon’s career. What reflections must he have made, if he had had leisure to reflect, in comparing the recollections of his rising glory with the sad picture of his falling fortune? What a contrast presents itself when we compare the famous flag of the army of Italy, which the youthful conqueror, Bonaparte, carried to the Directory, with those drooping eagles who had now to defend the aerie whence they had so often taken flight to spread their triumphant wings over Europe! Here we see the difference between liberty and absolute power! Napoleon, the son of liberty, to whom he owed everything, had disowned his mother, and was now about to fall. Those glorious triumphs were now over when the people of Italy consoled themselves for defeat and submitted to the magical power of that liberty which preceded the Republican armies. Now, on the contrary, it was to free themselves from a despotic yoke that the nations of Europe had in their turn taken up arms and were preparing to invade France.

With the violation of the Swiss territory by the Allied armies, after the consent of the Cantons, is connected a fact of great importance in my life, and which, if I had chosen, might have made a great difference in my destiny. On Tuesday, the 28th of December, I dined with my old friend, M. Pierlot, and on leaving home I was in the habit of saying where I might be found in case I should be wanted. At nine o’clock at night an express arrived from the Minister of Police desiring me to come immediately to his office. I confess, considering the circumstances of the times, and knowing the Emperor’s prejudices against me, such a request coming at such an hour made me feel some uneasiness, and I expected nothing less then a journey to Vincennes. The Due de Rovigo, by becoming responsible for me, had as yet warded off the blow, and the supervision to which the Emperor had subjected me—thanks to the good offices of Davoust—consisted in going three times a week to show myself to Savory.

I accordingly, having first borrowed a night-cap, repaired to the hotel of the Minister of Police. I was ushered into a well-lighted room, and when I entered I found Savary waiting for me. He was in full costume, from which I concluded he had just come from the Emperor. Advancing towards me with an air which showed he had no bad news to communicate, he thus addressed me:

"Bourrienne, I have just come from the Emperor, who asked me where you were? I told him you were in Paris, and that I saw you often. ’Well,’ continued the Emperor, ’bid him come to me, I want to employ him. It is three years since he has had anything to do. I wish to send him as Minister to Switzerland, but he must set off directly. He must go to the Allies. He understands German well. The King of Prussia expressed by letter satisfaction at his conduct towards the Prussians whom the war forced to retire to Hamburg. He knows Prince Witgenstein, who is the friend of the King of Prussia, and probably is at Lorrach. He will see all the Germans who are there. I confidently rely on him, and believe his journey will have a good result. Caulaincourt will give him his instructions."

Notwithstanding my extreme surprise at this communication I replied without hesitation that I could not accept the mission; that it was offered too late. "It perhaps is hoped;" said I, "that the bridge of Bale will be destroyed, and that Switzerland will preserve her neutrality. But I do not believe any such thing; nay, more, I know positively to the contrary. I can only repeat the offer comes much too late."—"I am very sorry for this resolution," observed Savory, "but Caulaincourt will perhaps persuade you. The Emperor wishes you to go the Duo de Vicence to-morrow at one o’clock; he will acquaint you with all the particulars, and give you your instructions."—"He may acquaint me with whatever be chooses, but I will not go to Lohraah."—"You know the Emperor better than I do, he wishes you to go, and he will not pardon your refusal. "He may do as he pleases, but no consideration shall induce me to go to Switzerland."—"You are wrong: but you will reflect on the matter between this and tomorrow morning. Night will bring good counsel, At any rate, do not fail to go to-morrow at one o’clock to Caulaincourt, he expects you, and directions will be given to admit you immediately."

Next morning the first thing I did was to call on M. de Talleyrand. I told him what had taken place, and as he was intimately acquainted with Caulaincourt, I begged him to speak to that Minister in favour of my, resolution. M. de Talleyrand approved of my determination not to go to Switzerland, and at one o’clock precisely I proceeded to M. de Caulaincourt’s. He told me all he had been instructed to say. From the manner in which he made the communication I concluded that he himself considered the proposed mission a disagreeable one, and unlikely to be attended by any useful result. I observed that he must have heard from Savory that I had already expressed my determination to decline the mission which the Emperor had been pleased to offer me. The Duc de Vicence then, in a very friendly way, detailed the reasons which ought to induce me to accept the offer, and did not disguise from me that by persisting in my determination I ran the risk of raising Napoleon’s doubts as to my opinions and future intentions. I replied that, having lived for three years as a private individual, unconnected with public affairs, I should have no influence at the headquarters of the Allies, and that whatever little ability I might be supposed to possess, that would not counterbalance the difficulties of my situation, and the opinion that I was out of favour. I added that I should appear at the headquarters without any decoration, without even that of the Cordon of the Legion of Honour to which the Emperor attached so much importance, and the want of which would almost have the appearance of disgrace; and I said that these trifles, however slightly valued by reasonable men, were not, as he well knew, without their influence on the men with whom I should have to treat. "If that be all," replied. Caulaincourt, "the obstacle will speedily be removed. I am authorised by the Emperor to tell you that he will create you a Duke, and give you the Grand Cordon of the Legion of Honour."

After these words I thought I was dreaming, and I was almost inclined to believe that Caulaincourt was jesting with me. However, the offer was serious, and I will not deny that it was tempting; yet I nevertheless persisted in the refusal I had given. At length, after some further conversation, and renewed, but useless, entreaties on the part of M. de Caulaincourt, he arose, which was a signal that our interview was terminated. I acknowledge I remained for a moment in doubt how to act, for I felt we had come to no understanding. M. de’ Caulaincourt advanced slowly towards the door of his cabinet: If I went away without knowing his opinion I had done nothing; addressing him, therefore, by his surname, "Caulaincourt;" said I, "you have frequently assured me that you would never forget the services I rendered to you and your family at a time when I possessed some influence. I know you, and therefore speak to you without disguise. I do not now address myself to the Emperor’s Minister, but to Caulaincourt. You are a man of honour, and I can open my heart to you frankly. Consider the embarrassing situation of France, which you know better than I do. I do not ask you for your secrets, but I myself know enough. I will tell you candidly that I am convinced the enemy will pass the Rhine in a few days. The Emperor has been deceived: I should not have time to reach my destination, and I should be laughed at. My correspondents in Germany have made me acquainted with every particular. Now, Caulaincourt, tell me honestly, if you were in my place, and I in yours, and I should make this proposition to you, what determination would you adopt?"

I observed from the expression of Caulaincourt’s countenance that my question had made an impression on him, and affectionately pressing my hand he said, I would do as you do: Enough. I will arrange the business with the Emperor." This reply seemed to remove a weight from my mind, and I left Caulaincourt with feelings of gratitude. I felt fully assured that he would settle the business satisfactorily, and in this conjecture I was not deceived, for I heard no more of the matter.

I must here go forward a year to relate another occurrence in which the Due de Vicence and I were concerned. When, in March 1815, the King appointed me Prefect of Police, M. de Caulaincourt sent to me a confidential person to inquire whether he ran any risk in remaining in Paris, or whether he had better remove. He had been told that his name was inscribed in a list of individuals whom I had received orders to arrest. Delighted at this proof of confidence, I returned the following answer by the Due de Vicence’s messenger: "Tell M. de Caulaincourt that I do not know where he lives. He need be under no apprehension: I will answer for him."

During the campaign of 1813 the Allies, after driving the French out of Saxony and obliging them to retreat towards the Rhine, besieged Hamburg, where Davoust was shut up with a garrison of 30,000 men, resolutely determined to make it a second Saragossa. From the month of September every day augmented the number of the Allied troops, who were already making rapid progress on the left bank of the Elbe. Davoust endeavoured to fortify Hamburg an so extended a scale that, in the opinion of the most experienced military men, it would have required a garrison of 60,000 men to defend it in a regular and protracted siege. At the commencement of the siege Davoust lost Vandamme, who was killed in a sortie at the head of a numerous corps which was inconsiderately sacrificed.

It is but justice to admit that Davoust displayed great activity in the defence, and began by laying in large supplies.

—[Vandamme fought under Grouchy in 1815, and died several years
afterwards. This killing him at Hamburg is one of the curious
mistakes seized on by the Bonapartists to deny the authenticity of
these Memoirs.]—

General Bertrand was directed to construct a bridge to form a communication between Hamburg and Haarburg by joining the islands of the Elbe to the Continent along a total distance of about two leagues. This bridge was to be built of wood, and Davoust seized upon all the timberyards to supply materials for its construction. In the space of eightythree days the bridge was finished. It was a very magnificent structure, its length being 2529 toises, exclusive of the lines of junction, formed on the two islands.

The inhabitants were dreadfully oppressed, but all the cruel measures and precautions of the French were ineffectual, for the Allies advanced in great force and occupied Westphalia, which movement obliged the Governor of Hamburg to recall to the town the different detachments scattered round Hamburg.

At Lubeck the departure of the French troops was marked by blood. Before they evacuated the town, an old man, and a butcher named Prahl, were condemned to be shot. The butcher’s crime consisted in having said, in speaking of the French, "Der teufel hohle sie" (the devil take them). The old man fortunately escaped his threatened fate, but, notwithstanding the entreaties and tears of the inhabitants, the sentence upon Prahl was carried into execution.

The garrison of Hamburg was composed of French, Italian, and Dutch troops. Their number at first amounted to 30,000, but sickness made great-havoc among them. From sixty to eighty perished daily in the hospitals. When the garrison evacuated Hamburg in May 1814 it was reduced to about 15,000 men. In the month of December provisions began to diminish, and there was no possibility of renewing the supply. The poor were first of all made to leave the town, and afterwards all persons who were not usefully employed. It is no exaggeration to estimate at 50,000 the number of persons who were thus exiled. The colonel commanding the gendarmerie at Hamburg notified to the exiled inhabitants that those who did not leave the town within the prescribed time would receive fifty blows with a cane and afterwards be driven out. But if penance may be commuted with priests so it may with gendarmes. Delinquents contrived to purchase their escape from the bastinado by a sum of money, and French gallantry substituted with respect to females the birch for the cane. I saw an order directing all female servants to be examined as to their health unless they could produce certificates from their masters. On the 25th of December the Government granted twenty-four hours longer to persons who were ordered to quit the town; and two days after this indulgence an ordinance was published declaring that those who should return to the town after once leaving it were to be considered as rebels and accomplices of the enemy, and as such condemned to death by a prevotal court. But this was not enough. At the end of December people, without distinction of sex or age, were dragged from their beds and conveyed out of the town on a cold night, when the thermometer was between sixteen or eighteen degrees; and it was affirmed that several old men perished in this removal. Those who survived were left on the outside of the Altona gates. At Altona they all found refuge and assistance. On Christmas-day 7000 of these unfortunate persons were received in the house of M. Rainville, formerly aide de camp to Dumouriez, and who left France together with that general. His house, which was at Holstein, was usually the scene of brilliant entertainments, but it was converted into the abode of misery, mourning, and death. All possible attention was bestowed on the unfortunate outlaws; but few profited by it, and what is worse, the inhabitants of Altona suffered for their generosity. Many of the unfortunate persons were affected with the epidemic disease which was raging in Hamburg, and which in consequence broke out at Altona.

All means of raising money in Hamburg being exhausted, a seizure was made of the funds of the Bank of that city, which yet contained from seven to eight millions of marks. Were those who ordered this measure not aware that to seize on the funds of some of the citizens of Hamburg was an injury to all foreigners who had funds in the Bank? Such is a brief statement of the vexations and cruelties which long oppressed this unfortunate city. Napoleon accused Hamburg of Anglomania, and by ruining her he thought to ruin England. Hamburg, feeble and bereft of her sources, could only complain, like Jerusalem when besieged by Titus: "Plorans, plorcatrit in nocte."


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Chicago: Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, "Chapter XXXI. 1813.," Memoirs of Napoleon— Volume 12 in Memoirs of Napoleon—Volume 12 Original Sources, accessed December 5, 2023,

MLA: Fauvelet de Bourrienne, Louis Antoine. "Chapter XXXI. 1813." Memoirs of Napoleon— Volume 12, in Memoirs of Napoleon—Volume 12, Original Sources. 5 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: Fauvelet de Bourrienne, LA, 'Chapter XXXI. 1813.' in Memoirs of Napoleon— Volume 12. cited in , Memoirs of Napoleon—Volume 12. Original Sources, retrieved 5 December 2023, from