General Pierre Daumesnil


Pierre Daumesnil Napoleon's Guardian Angel who served in the Guard and later defended Vincennes in 1814 and 1815



Born: July 27, 1776

Place of Birth: Périgueux, Dordogne, France

Legion of Honor: Officer

Imperial Nobility: Baron

Died: August 17, 1832

Cause of Death: Illness

Place of Death: Vincennes, France

Arc de Triomphe: DAUMESNIL on the north pillar




Beginnings

The son of a successful shopkeeper, Pierre Daumesnil's first name was originally Yrieix but he went by Pierre most of his life. At the onset of the Revolution he was a student, but in 1793 at the age of seventeen he was insulted by an artilleryman. Demanding satisfaction, the two entered into a duel and the inexperienced Daumesnil survived but took things farther than intended when he killed his opponent. He immediately fled the consequences of this unfortunate action by setting out on foot to join his brother Jean Louis in Toulouse who was serving in the army. Upon meeting up with his brother in Toulouse he enlisted in his brother's regiment in the Legion of the Pyrenees in November of 1793. The unit was then reorganized to form the 22nd Chasseurs à Cheval where Daumesnil's squadron leader became Captain Jean Baptiste Bessières. The two cavalry soldiers became friends and their unit was assigned to the Army of the Eastern Pyrenees. Taking part in the campaigns against Spain, on August 19th, 1794 Daumesnil was wounded by a bullet to the left thigh. The surgeon who attended him decided to remove the leg, but the wound became infected before the operation could be carried out. The surgeon then decided that Daumesnil was going to die anyway and an amputation would just increase his suffering. Luckily for Daumesnil, he recovered from the infection and kept his leg.

After peace was signed with Spain in 1795, Daumesnil and his unit were transferred to the Army of Italy. Daumesnil participated throughout the Italian campaign of 1796, and while he distinguished himself with his skill in combat, his impulsive and carefree attitude held him back from promotion. During the Battle of Arcola in November, General Bonaparte led a dangerous charge across the bridge and was subsequently thrown into the mud alongside the river, and Daumesnil plunged into the mud to help extricate Bonaparte. Daumesnil would go on to distinguish himself in January of 1797 at the Siege of Mantua where he captured two enemy flags and presented them to Napoleon. In June of 1797 he was selected to join the Guides of the Army of Italy, an elite bodyguard for the commander-in-chief composed entirely of men of proven bravery and morality.

Expedition to Egypt

When General Bonaparte took command of the expedition to Egypt in 1798, Daumesnil continued along in his role as one of Napoleon's Guides. At the Battle of the Pyramids , Daumesnil was near Bonaparte when Napoleon witnessed one particular mameluke wreaking havoc throughout the ranks. Napoleon called Daumesnil to his side, handed him one of his own pistols, and told him, "Go kill that man for me!" Daumesnil grabbed the pistol, galloped out of a corner of the square that opened to let him through, and made his way through the smoke and horsemen to his target. Reaching his target, Daumesnil shot the man with a single shot, then rode back to the infantry square which again opened the ranks to let him through. He handed Napoleon's pistol back to him, saying, "That one won't come back again!"1

In 1799 Daumesnil continued to serve in the Guides for the expedition to Syria. During the Siege of Acre, Daumesnil was near Berthier and Bonaparte when a shell landed at Napoleon's feet. Daumesnil didn't hesitate and threw himself on top of the shell to absorb the blast, but luckily for everyone involved the shell did not explode. Later during the siege Daumesnil volunteered to join a force attempting to storm the city, but as he reached the top of the scaling ladder he was struck by a sabre blow, and then a mine exploded, sending him flying back to the ground.

After the army abandoned the siege and returned to Egypt, Daumesnil found himself in trouble in Cairo. He and his friends had gone to a café for a drink and after enough drinks became quite rowdy. Some generals in the same café asked them to quiet down, and Daumesnil and two friends refused and insulted their superiors, leading to their arrests by the military police. A court judged them to be shot for their flagrant breach of discipline and insubordination. When Napoleon learned of the fate of the soldier who had saved his life on more than one occasion, he told Daumesnil to ask for a pardon and it would be granted. However, Daumesnil refused, saying, "Never without my comrades! Pardon me or shoot me with them!" When the three men were taken in front of the firing squad, the same offer was made and Daumesnil again refused. Daumesnil's two friends were executed and then Napoleon ordered Daumesnil to be spared and imprisoned.2

Daumesnil was released from prison and rejoined the Guides in time to serve at the Battle of Abukir in July of 1799. During the battle, he was near General Bonaparte who had climbed atop an artillery piece and was watching enemy movements through his telescope. Daumesnil noticed a Turkish battery preparing to aim at them and he quickly grabbed Napoleon, lifting him off the cannon and carrying him a safe distance away with the simple statement of, "Excuse me, my general!" Just a moment later an artillery officer climbed atop the same cannon, only to be struck down immediately by an enemy bullet. Later during the same battle, as Murat's cavalry encountered significant resistance, Napoleon ordered Bessières into battle with the Guides, and Daumesnil again distinguished himself, seizing a flag of Captain Pasha. When Napoleon decided to leave the army and return to France, Daumesnil was one of the select few to accompany him.

Back in France, Napoleon seized power in the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire and the Consular Guard was formed to protect the new government of France. As one of the Guides, Daumesnil was transferred into the Chasseurs à Cheval of the Consular Guard. With the Consular Guard, he joined the Army of the Reserve and he received a promotion to sous-lieutenant in May of 1800. Daumesnil saw action at the Battle of Marengo, where he charged as part of the cavalry of the Consular Guard in support Kellermann's breakthrough. During the charge he captured Austrian Colonel Frimont. Bessières recommended Daumesnil for a promotion and in July Daumesnil was promoted to lieutenant.

The Imperial Guard

Over the next few years, Daumesnil continued to serve in Chasseurs à Cheval of the Consular Guard. He received a promotion to capitaine in July of 1801 and during this time the popularity of his nickname of "Napoleon's guardian angel" began to grow as stories of his exploits in Italy and Egypt spread. When the empire was established in 1804, Daumesnil's unit became part of the Imperial Guard and Napoleon preferred the Chasseurs à Cheval as his personal escort. The next year the War of the Third Coalition began in earnest and Daumesnil took part in the campaign, continuing to serve in the Imperial Guard. On the afternoon of December 1st, 1805 one day before the Battle of Austerlitz, Daumesnil was commanding Napoleon's escort as Napoleon wished to move between the two lines of the armies and examine the positions. As they reached the northern end of the battlefield, Daumesnil and one of Napoleon's aides Ségur entered into an argument about the distance to the Russian line. To prove his point, Daumesnil borrowed a carbine from one of his men, placed the barrel of the gun on the man's shoulder, aimed and took fire, hitting and taking down a Russian officer. Having proven his point, Daumesnil remarked, "That's one less for tomorrow, at any rate."3

The next day Daumesnil took part in the Battle of Austerlitz, charging with the cavalry of the Imperial Guard, receiving a slight wound, and helping to extract General Rapp from the midst of the cavalry melee. After assisting and escorting the wounded Rapp, Daumesnil told him, "Good lord, you're well decorated to go back to report to the Emperor, after having yourself dressed. Many would envy you those two 'button holes'!"4 For his actions at Austerlitz, Daumesnil received a promotion to chef d'escadrons and then in early 1806 he was named an Officer of the Legion of Honor. His friend Bessières noted that "the Emperor is convinced that Daumesnil brings him good luck."5

Daumesnil continued to serve in the Imperial Guard and in command of Napoleon's escort during the campaign against Prussia of 1806. While the Guard was not actively engaged in the major battles of the campaign, they still saw action at times. On December 25th Murat borrowed a few squadrons of the Imperial Guard in his pursuit of the Russians at Lopaczyn and Daumesnil participated in the combat. In February of 1807 Daumesnil was again by Napoleon's side during the Battle of Eylau, and Napoleon personally ordered him to join in the charge of the Imperial Guard cavalry to help cover Marshal Murat's return from behind Russian lines. During the campaign in June of 1807, Daumesnil remained with the Imperial Guard and therefore did not actively engage in battle.

In 1808 Daumesnil and his men were sent to Spain. On May 2, 1808 the people of Madrid rose up against the French, initially slaughtering unarmed French troops and rioting. As the French alarm was sounded, Daumesnil ordered his squadron of chasseurs into the saddle and led them through the city to Marshal Murat. On the way they were assailed with boiling water, bricks, and musket fire which they avoided as best they could. Daumesnil asked for permission to retaliate, but Murat instead ordered him to lead the chasseurs and mamelukes to escort his aide with orders to General Gobert. Daumesnil led 300 cavalry out at a gallop but they encountered armed insurgents intent on killing them. Cutting their way through, they made good progress but then Daumesnil's horse was killed by a shot and he was wounded in the thigh. As the mob swarmed around him, Daumesnil was almost overcome until a lieutenant of the mamelukes rescued him.

Daumesnil returned to France with Napoleon and then accompanied the Emperor on campaign when Austria attacked in April of 1809. During the campaign, he fought at Eckmühl where he was wounded by a lance blow. Daumesnil's next major action came at the Battle of Wagram . He was serving near Napoleon, to the left and rear, ready to receive any orders when he was struck by a ball in the left leg. Coincidentally, his friend Hercule Corbineau was struck in the right leg at about the same time, and both were carried to the field station set up for the doctors. When Doctor Larrey saw that Daumesnil had arrived, he told Daumesnil, "You're a terrible customer!" Larrey recognized that he must amputate Daumesnil's leg just below the knee and Corbineau's above the knee. Daumesnil tried to make light of the seriousness of the wound, telling Larrey, "You're a pitiless man to deprive me of all hope of getting my two dozen scars. Go ahead, I'd rather live with three limbs than four."6

For their recovery, Daumesnil insisted that both he and Corbineau be placed in the same room, and they were transported to the Esterhazy palace in Vienna. On Napoleon's birthday, August 15, a celebration with fireworks was held throughout Vienna, and Daumesnil and Corbineau gave permission for their attendants to attend the celebration. That evening Daumesnil heard what sounded like water dripping on the floor, and he called out to Corbineau but got no response. Growing concerned and without help, Daumesnil crawled to the floor and dragged himself over to Corbineau's bed where he found Corbineau unconscious and losing blood from his wound, the stitches having come undone. Daumesnil called out for help repeatedly but got no response. He resolved to get help and then dragged himself across the floor and out the door. After crossing two large rooms he made it to the staircase where he lowered himself down one step at a time, clinging to the railing. Finally at the bottom of the stairs Daumesnil called for help again and then passed out from his exertions. Luckily for them both, this time his call for help was heard, the doctors were summoned, and both he and Corbineau survived due to his efforts.

With the loss of his leg and its subsequent replacement with a wooden leg, Daumesnil could no longer actively serve in the Chasseurs à Cheval of the Imperial Guard. Nevertheless, in 1810 he was named a Baron of the Empire in recognition of his service. In January of 1812 Daumesnil met Léonie Garat, a sixteen year old daughter of the Director General of the Bank of France. Daumesnil fell madly in love and the young woman returned his feelings. They were married barely a month later and at about the same time Napoleon promoted Daumesnil to général de brigade and appointed him the commander of Vincennes. Napoleon had decided that Vincennes was to serve as France's primary arsenal, and he told Daumesnil, "I need a man on whom I count, and I thought of you."7

Commander of Vincennes

Daumesnil commanded Vincennes for the next few years, strengthening its fortifications and running the fortress efficiently. His wife gave birth to a son in August of 1813 and Daumesnil enjoyed running the fortress and entertaining visitors. At one point he made a bet with some friends that he could single-handedly prepare a dinner for fifteen guests. Having taken cooking lessons with Prince Eugene years earlier, he set out at four and served dinner at six. Afterwards he won the bet, though the guests were hardly disappointed to have lost.8

In 1814 the allies of the Sixth Coalition attacked France and eventually made their way to Paris by the end of March. Marshal Marmont signed an armistice to surrender his troops, Paris, and all the arms and ammunition defending Paris. French troops abandoned their equipment, but on the night of March 30th Daumesnil and his men sneaked out of the fortress of Vincennes and gathered as much of this abandoned equipment as they could and brought it back into Vincennes. The next morning the Russians realized Daumesnil's actions and sent an envoy to demand the surrender of the fortress of Vincennes. Daumesnil responded, "I will only surrender this fort on the orders of his majesty, the Emperor." The Russian envoy kept insisting the fortress must be surrendered, and Daumesnil lost his patience and said, "The Austrians took one of my legs. Let them return it, or come take the other. In the meanwhile, I advise you to stay clear of my guns, if you do not wish to feel their effect." Still determined, the Russian envoy responded, "You're completely surrounded. You'll be starved out." Daumesnil replied succinctly, "Try it." Exasperated, the Russian envoy now said, "Well if that's the way it is, we'll blow you up." Daumesnil gestured to the buildings around him filled with gunpowder and replied, "Go ahead, and we'll all go up in the air together, and if we should pass one another in mid-air, I won't promise not give you a scratch." The Russian envoy then gave up and returned to the Russian headquarters, and the Russians immediately established a blockade around the fortress.9

After Napoleon's abdication, Daumesnil continued to refuse to surrender the fortress, considering it his duty to preserve the weaponry inside for the army of France, regardless of France's leadership. Some of his men grew uneasy at his continued defiance of the Allies' demands and Daumesnil's previous statements about blowing up the entire arsenal to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. Daumesnil approached his men and one took a shot at him, but a cantinière standing next to the man struck the musket upwards, causing the shot to miss. Daumesnil ignored the shot, ordered the men to put down their weapons, and shouted, "I've never seen any place that needed timid men. Let all the cowards get out of here!" Many of the troops did not want to be accused of cowardice and pledged their willingness to follow Daumesnil, but a few wanted out. Daumesnil had them stripped of their uniforms and expelled them from the fortress.10

By this time the provisional government in Paris was growing anxious as they had a commander within their vicinity who refused to obey their orders. Furthermore, Daumesnil and Vincennes had become a rallying point for the people who saw Daumesnil's resistance as heroic and loyal. The provisional government sent an emissary of one of Daumesnil's old friends along with Daumesnil's wife and child to have lunch with him at the fortress. During discussions after the lunch, Daumesnil informed his friend that he would only surrender the fortress if the Allies guaranteed that the arms would remain in the service of France. His friend returned to Talleyrand with this information, and the Allies, tired of dealing with Daumesnil's obstinate behavior and with the war coming to an end, agreed to the terms. Fearing a revolt of the army or the people, the provisional government left Daumesnil in charge of the fortress as the siege was lifted. Despite Daumesnil having successfully prevented the army's main arsenal of equipment from falling into enemy hands, the restored Bourbons considered Daumesnil's loyalty to Napoleon a danger, and Daumesnil was removed from his command in December. However, he was named governor of Condé and a Knight of Saint Louis.

In 1815 Napoleon returned from exile and landed back in France, and once news reached Daumesnil he immediately declared support for Napoleon and rallied his men. After Napoleon resumed power without a shot being fired, he placed Daumesnil back in charge of the fortress of Vincennes. After Napoleon's second abdication after the loss of the Battle of Waterloo, Daumesnil found himself back in a familiar situation, with Vincennes besieged by an enemy force, though this time it was the Prussian army. The Prussians attempted to negotiate with Daumesnil to no avail, but they didn't have strong enough artillery to breach the fortresses' walls. They therefore asked to borrow stronger artillery pieces from the Duke of Wellington, who replied that he would loan them the cannon, but one excuse after another followed and Prussians did not receive the British cannon. Negotiations continued without success, and Daumesnil wrote a letter to the French government requesting direction, but the Prussians refused to allow the letter through their blockade. The Prussians attempted to bribe Daumesnil but again without success, and then they attempted to intimidate him by marching their troops forward and placing cannon as if beginning an attack. However, Daumesnil rode out to meet them and demanded they withdraw or he would beat them back, and the Prussians withdrew.

Finally the Prussians agreed to allow letters through their siege between the French government in Paris and Daumesnil in Vincennes. Through these communications Daumesnil learned that the French government did not want him to hand over all the equipment in Vincennes, but on paper they had to agree to the terms signed by the Allies. To break the impasse and follow orders, Daumesnil and other French officers drew up a significantly underestimated list of the armaments held in the fortress. When inspectors were sent inside the fortress, they were only allowed into select sections to see a nominal amount of equipment. The orders of the French government to Daumesnil only included turning over the armaments on the list and Daumesnil dutifully followed these orders, turning over the equipment in August. However, the Allies had to know the list was incomplete, and they refused to lift the blockade. The Allies continued to demand the surrender of the fortress, while Daumesnil continued to refuse, but eventually the blockade was raised in November. The royalists in the government still remembered Daumesnil's loyalty to Napoleon and they ensured Daumesnil was quickly replaced in his command and forcibly retired.

Daumesnil suffered financially in the following years, with his family living with his father-in-law due to having only a little money from his pension. He was watched by the police for many years but his fortunes rose again when the events of July of 1830 led to the abdication of King Charles X and Louis Philippe becoming king. Daumesnil was recalled to service by the government and placed in charge of Vincennes once again. In this position he was given the undesirable position of serving as jailer of the ministers of Charles X who had failed to flee the country. In December of 1830 a mob formed and came to demand the heads of the ministers. Daumesnil met them calmly and told them that his duty and honor required him to defend the men so they could be lawfully tried and he would not surrender them. While that took the rioters aback, they still demanded blood and Daumesnil now made a familiar threat, that he would have no qualms about blowing up the fortress and taking everyone to death with him. Daumesnil gave his word of honor that the ministers would not escape justice and soon the rioters were cheering him.

Daumesnil was finally promoted to lieutenant general in February of 1831 and he died of cholera at Vincennes in 1832.

Recommended Biography: Napoleon's Shield and Guardian: The Unconquerable General Daumesnil by Edward Ryan.


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Updated March 2017

© Nathan D. Jensen