General Kellermann claims for himself
exclusively the honour of the victory of MarengoHis letterAnonymous
pamphletMy observationsThe 9th light regimentGeneral
DesaixThe Austrian staff assigns to each individual his proper share of
I had written these Memoirs, as I have already stated,
during my detention at Malta, and my sojourn at Smyrna ; at which latter place
I concluded them. Having proceeded to England in 1819 with the intention of
returning to France, I heard of the claims which had been set up with reference
to the battle of Marengo. They appeared to me of so extraordinary a nature,
that it never occurred to my mind that General Kellermann could have put them
forward. I ascribed them to the zeal of some indiscreet friend; and contented
myself with adding to the account of that great battle the reflections that
conclude it. They neither contest the merit nor the apropos of the charge; and
they leave to the general a share of glory sufficiently splendid to gratify his
ambition. They have, nevertheless, excited great displeasure: a friend of
truth contested their fairness, and met them by insinuations and assertions
which it behoved me not to leave unanswered. I had to call in aid my
recollections; but the anonymous writer had warned me that they could not be
relied on; I therefore searched amongst written documents. Great was my
surprise, on running over the Bibliotheque Historique , to find that I
was mistaken ; that the honour of the victory of Marengo was not claimed by
General Kellermann's friends on his behalf, but by the general himself!
He addressed the following letter to the director of that
literary collection, under date the 8th of October, 1818:
" Sir, I have read in one of the numbers
of your third volume an article respecting a monument erected at Marseilles to
the memory of General Desaix. I therein find that you share the error, so
common at the present day, regarding the last circumstance of his life: an
error which has been propagated and countenanced by a man whose ambition and
envy found it more to his purpose to extol the glory of the dead than that of
" The article in question asserts, that
General Desaix purchased, at the price of his life) the gain of the battle of
" God forbid I should presume to lessen
the glory of that illustrious warrior and virtuous citizen! But he has gathered
a sufficiently abundant harvest of it not to stand in need of its being further
augmented by the portion belonging to others. Had he lived, his mind was of too
noble a stamp to allow it, and to refuse to each one his proper meed of praise.
Had he lived, he would have refused all claim to a glory which did not belong
to him. He would have restored it to the individual who has an exclusive right
to it: for the fact is, that General Desaix had no share in the decisive event
which restored victory to our standards at the battle of Marengo. .
" This will be made manifest to you by the
following brief statement.
" At the commencement of the action, the
French army consisted of the corps of Lieutenants-general Lannes and Victor.
Exhausted of men, of ammunition, and of artillery, it was compelled, towards
noon-day, to desist from the combat, and abandon the field of battle. Its
half-destroyed battalions retreated across the plain, under cover of the
brigade of cavalry of the general of brigade Kellermann, son of the marshal of
that name; and thanks to the tardiness with which the Austrian army debouched
from the marshes of the Bormida, and to the wrong direction taken by its
immense cavalry, those scattered remains took shelter behind Desaix's corps.
"The First Consul, proud of the success of the action of Montebello, fancied he
was proceeding on a mere hunting excursion, rather than to a deadly strife, and
had sent that corps, if it deserves the name, towards Novi, in order to cut off
the retreat to Genoa from the enemy, who was supposed to be in full flight.
Desaix was recalled in all haste; he had just established himself at the
position near San-Juliano, on the left of the road from Tortona to Alexandria,
when General Kellermann's brigade of cavalry came up to that spot. He found
there the aid-de-camp Savary, who was waiting for him; this officer announced
that the battle was about to be resumed, and handed to him the First Consul's
directions that he should support the attack of General Desaix.
" General Kellermann had only four hundred
troops left, belonging to the 2nd and 20th regiments of cavalry, who were
exhausted by eight hours' fighting and by repeated charges. Valiant regiments,
your numbers did not exceed those of Leonidas; but you were more fortunate than
the Spartan soldiers: the country was on this occasion indebted to yon for its
safety ; the names of each of the gallant men present on the occasion should
have been handed down to posterity.
" It was therefore with the corps of
Desaix, amounting at most to three or four thousand infantry, and with four
hundred horsemen under General Kellermann, that the battle was resumed. This
bandful of warriors moved forward once more, whilst the Austrian army was
advancing in a compact mass to a victory, which it entertained no doubt of
" The two corps approached each other: a
discharge of artillery was heard; Desaix was mortally wounded; but there was
too great a disparity of numbers. The remains of the French army so imprudently
thrust forward were unable to resist the shock ; they were broken in, and took
to flight. Being masked by the vineyards, General Kellermann quickly perceived
the disaster of his own party and the disorder of the enemy, who incautiously
gave themselves up to the pursuit. At this critical moment, he only consulted
the courage of his companions in arms, rushed headlong into the midst of the
Austrians, whom he surprised with their fire-arms unloaded, and in the disorder
of victory; six thousand grenadiers were trodden under the horses' feet, or
instantly laid down their arms. The mass of the enemy's army being
panic-struck, and imagining they were opposed by an unexpected reinforcement,
fled in confusion towards the Bormida, and resigned to us a victory which they
had it yet in their power to dispute.
" The weak corps of General Kellermann
found itself alone for a short time in the midst of the two armies; and the
army of the First Consul was in such a state of annihilation and disorder, that
it was found impossible to collect sufficient troops to complete the enemy's
" Nevertheless, the Austrian general
acknowledged himself defeated; and sent the next day to propose a capitulation,
which restored to us the possession of Italy.
" The foregoing is an exact statement of
the occurrence which decided the fate of the battle: there are a sufficient
number of eye-witnesses in existence to attest its truth, and no one can
presume to contest it.
" Desaix, therefore, had been slain, and
the troops were in flight, when General Kellermann plunged in the midst of the
enemy, and wrested the victory from their grasp. It belongs to that general and
to the gallant men who devoted themselves along with him. If the
general-in-chief of the French army, with the view of evading the duty of
gratitude which he owed to the men who (unintentionally no doubt) had placed
the crown upon his head, omitted to acknowledge services which were rather
rendered to the country than to himself; if he deemed it consonant with his
interest to avert the glory of it towards a deceased warrior ; if General
Kellermann persevered in a modest silence, and was satisfied until now with the
good opinion of his comrades, it becomes his duty to break that silence, and to
restore the truth respecting a memorable and unheard-of military achievement,
at this moment when it is studiously affected to make it the brightest gem in
General Desaix's civic crown.
" I do not ask of you to publish this
letter : for what purpose could now be answered by recalling victories, the
results of which have been rendered ephemeral by the ambition of a madman" The
battle of Marengo is as far removed from us as those of Zama and of Pharsalia,
for any useful purpose we have derived from it.
" But I request of you to correct, when an
opportunity shall offer, what you have advanced on that subject, and to restore
to each one the share that belongs to each. "
"I have the honour to be,
The pamphlet of the Friend of Truth is hardly
anything more than a long paraphrase of the general's letter.*
* "The Duke of Rovigo has just published
fresh memoirs illustrative of the history of Napoleon, From the very first
pages of that new publication, it will have been discovered that his
recollections were not much to be relied on ; and when we come to the account
of the battle of Marengo, and to the charge effected by General Kellermann, an
opportunity is offered of observing the justness of this remark.
We therein find, at page 182 (Vol. i. part
1.) this singular phrase : "Since the downfall of the Imperial
government, some pretended friends of General Kellermann have presumed to claim
for him the merit of originating that charge. This is too bold a pretension ,
and it is certainly not set up by that general, wliose share of glory is
sufficiently splendid to gratify his ambition." The author of the refutation
proceeds as follows :
Those reflections, besides being rather
uncourteous towards General Kellermann, are not in accordance with the truth.
This is not the first time that certain individuals have contested to him the
glory of the inspiration of a feat of arms so closely bordering upon the
marvellous, that he is much more disposed to ascribe it to chance, than to any
merit on his part.
So legitimate, so incontestable a property
has already been claimed for him, as it is again found necessary to do at the
present day ; why, in fact, should he content himself with the share to which
the Duke of Rovigo again pretends to reduce him, when he has a just right to
the whole ?
There is felt no hesitation in affirming
that the happy inspiration of the charge of cavalry, which on that day had the
effect, not of deciding the victory, but of bringing it back to our standards,
belongs to General Kellermann. With respect to tlie glory of the execution, he
shares it in common with the handful of gallant men who all, without exception,
plunged headlong, at his command, on the enemy's compact body of troops.
If the idea did not originate with him,
who then can lay claim to it ? No one has hitherto ventured to do so in
explicit terms, not even the First Consul himself. If the then aide-de-camp
Savary had set up such a pretension on his own part, it would be of a still
more daring character. No such injury will be done to that officer as to
ascribe to him the merit of it. There was too great a distance between him and
the aforesaid general, young as he was, that he should have pretended to issue
directions to him. If the Duke of Rovigo has written in the interest of the
First Consul, why does he not say so, and prove his assertion ? He is satisfied
with throwing out the insinuation, and obscuring the truth. He gives to
understand in page 181 (Vol. i. part 1.) that he did not quit General
Kellermann until after the dispersion of the Hungarian column. It may be
positively asserted that M. Savary has had no personal knowledge of the fact :
he was not near General Kellermann when the latter flew to the relief of his
comrades, with that instinctive feeling which induces a person to plunge into
the water in order to rescue a fellow-creature from drowning. Chance presented
him with this opportunity: he eagerly grasped at it : five minutes sooner or
later, his timely interference would have failed of its object.
No such injury will be offered to the
memory of the First Consul as to suppose that the Duke of Rovigo has made
himself in this place the interpreter of his private sentiments, it would be
ascribing a weakness of character to him, from which his well-established
superiority ought readily to screen him.
The man who, at twenty-six years of age,
had begun his career by the campaign of 1790, in Italy, who had made the
conquest of Egypt, had been borne on the shoulders of the French from Frejus to
Paris, had planned and executed the wonderful passage of the St. Bernard, and
conceived the idea of stopping Melas by pulling him back, as it were, by the
skirts of his coat, of forcing him away from France, into which country he was
about to penetrate, and compelling him to light for his own safety, such a man,
I say, could have no need of a few more laurels he who already possessed the
splendid treasure of a still maiden and undefiled glory. Does not, besides, the
glory of a battle definitively belong at all times to the general-in-chief ?
When success has been attained, the conqueror is at liberty to describe his
battle as he thinks proper. He will represent a rout as a change of front ; he
will acknowledge no other error than that which he claims the merit of having
repaired, though lie often owes it to mere chance. The truth is, as the Duke of
Rovigo himself admits, that Napoleon did not calculate upon a battle.
He considered, in fact, that the enemy was
more intent on escaping from than on fighting him. Fully bent upon this idea,
he had sent Desaix forward towards Novi, in order to cut off the road to
Gerres; and having himself left a portion of his troops in the rear, he was
closely following Melas with less than twenty thousand men, with twelve pieces
of cannon, and ammunition insufficient for a battle. The latter was no sooner
broken by the engagement of Castigio, than he suddenly turned round, and the
battle of Marengo was the consequence.
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