Marshal Joachim Murat

Joachim Murat Brother-in-law to Napoleon, King of Naples, and dashing cavalry leader

Born: March 25, 1767

Place of Birth: La Bastide-Fortunière, Lot, France

Legion of Honor: Grand Eagle

Imperial Nobility: King

Died: October 13, 1815

Cause of Death: Executed

Place of Death: Pizzo, Italy

Arc de Triomphe: MURAT on the south pillar



The son of an innkeeper, Joachim Murat would one day go on to become a cavalry general, a king, and Napoleon's brother-in-law. But his family never envisioned such lofty goals and instead intended for him to become a priest, securing a scholarship for him to attend the seminary at Cahors. After studying at Cahors, Joachim Murat was sent to Toulouse to further his study in theology, where in February of 1787 he ran away from the school for a girl he loved, or so the rumors claimed. With little to no support from his family, he enlisted with a regiment of chasseurs and was promoted to sergeant major due to his ability to read and write.

The next notable event of his military career came five years later when in February of 1792 Murat was selected to join the Constitutional Guard of the King. Ostensibly this unit was formed to protect the king but it was really intended to prevent further escape attempts by the royal family. A month later he missed roll call and when questioned, he requested to leave the guard, citing royalist plots within the organization. His request was granted and he returned to his former regiment, now known as the 12th Chasseurs à Cheval. In October of that year, Murat was promoted to lieutenant and learned of the death of his brother Pierre, and thereafter he helped support Pierre's widow and children.

The next year General Dumouriez defected to the Austrians, and his immediate replacement General Dampierre thought highly of Murat, promoting him to capitaine in April. Less than a month later Captain Murat received another promotion, this time to chef d'escadrons, joining the newly formed 16th Chasseurs à Cheval. Unfortunately for Murat, his colonel denounced him as a noble, and to counter this for a time Murat signed his name Marat after the martyr Marat, but eventually he was cleared of all suspicion.

Alongside Napoleon

Murat's star began to shine when his regiment was posted to Paris in 1795. That October a royalist mob formed to violently overthrow the government, and General Napoleon Bonaparte was appointed to lead the defense. Napoleon ordered Murat to retrieve the artillery guns from the Place de Sablons, but when Murat and his men rode for the guns they encountered a group of soldiers of the National Guard who were also trying to take the guns. Some of the National Guard's leadership had declared the government as invalid, and in response Murat threatened to cut them down if they took the guns. The guardsmen backed off and abandoned the guns to Murat and his men. Murat's men rushed the guns back to Napoleon, who was now armed with artillery where the mob had none, and Napoleon successfully dispersed the mob with a "whiff of grapeshot", thereby saving the government. From then on, Murat's career was tied to Napoleon's. He received a promotion to chef de brigade less than two weeks later, and when Napoleon was appointed the commander of the Army of Italy in 1796, Murat requested to go along and became an aide-de-camp to Napoleon.

On the Italian campaign of 1796, Murat proved he could lead cavalry well into battle. His first cavalry charge was at the Battle of Dego , and he fought the next week at Ceva and Mondovi . In May he was promoted to général de brigade and alongside Junot he was given the honor of taking captured enemy flags back to Paris. Back in action with the Army of Italy, Murat commanded the cavalry at Borghetto, traveled to Genoa and Livorno, seized the camp at Migliaretto, fought at Lavis, Bassano , and Céréa, and was wounded at Saint-Georges. In December of 1796 he was placed in charge of all the cavalry of General Rey's division and then later the advance guard, and he fought at Monte Baldo in January. In March Murat fought at Tagliamento and Gradisca, and then for the rest of 1797 he bounced between various units.

In January of 1798 Murat was named commander of a brigade of dragoons in Baraguey d'Hilliers division in the Army of England that would later become the Army of the Orient. Taking part in the expedition to Egypt, Murat and his men fought and participated in many of the major battles, including Alexandria, the Battle of the Pyramids , Salahieh, and at the Siege of Acre. By this time Murat had already cemented his reputation as the epitome of a cavalry officer, daring and full of style. He designed his own uniforms, colorful and sometimes gaudy, but always unique and eye catching.

In the summer of 1799, a Turkish force threatened the French and Napoleon gave Murat command of the advance guard for the Battle of Abukir. As the French exploited a gap in the Turkish lines, Murat saw an opportunity and galloped to the Turkish commander's tent, intent on taking the enemy commander prisoner. Leaping off his horse, he then strode into the commander's tent. As the Turkish commander thought he was about to be killed, he raised a pistol and fired at Murat, hitting him in the mouth. Murat, in a dramatic gesture, spit out the pieces of his flesh that were no longer attached to his cheek and slashed at the Turkish commander's hand, slicing off two fingers and disarming the commander of the pistol. Later that day Napoleon promoted Murat to général de division for his performance throughout the battle, and when Napoleon decided to leave Egypt and return to France, he included Murat as one of the select few to accompany him.

Once back in France, Murat assisted Napoleon's coup d'état in November and then in December he was appointed commander of the Consular Guard. The next month he married Napoleon's sister Caroline, becoming even more tied to Napoleon's future. When Napoleon led the Army of the Reserve over the Alps to battle the Austrians, Murat was given command of the cavalry. In this command Murat seized Verceil and won at Turbigo, then seized Plaisance and took part in the Battle of Marengo. Afterwards he received a sabre of honor for his conduct during the battle. Later that year Murat took command of a corps of troops that occupied Tuscany and drove the Neapolitans out of the Papal States, and then in 1801 he signed an armistice with the King of Naples.

Marshal of the Empire

1804 was a year of change for Murat, when he was first named as Governor of Paris and he was later ordered to form the commission that judged the Duke of Enghien. When the French Empire was established, Murat was one of the first marshals of the empire. Due to his marriage to Napoleon's sister, he was considered senior to all the other marshals except Berthier. This seniority combined with his lack of understanding of infantry and artillery tactics and limits sometimes led to resentment towards Murat from the other marshals. He remained at heart a cavalry commander, more comfortable and more qualified at leading a charge than making strategic decisions.

By this time Napoleon had formed much of his opinion of his brother-in-law. Napoleon often complained of Murat's need of women, saying that Murat needed women like he needed food. And he disapproved of Murat's lack of strategic planning, but held Murat's leadership and combat abilities in high enough regard to give him important commands of cavalry.

Early in 1805 Murat received the Grand Eagle of the Legion of Honor. That summer, as hostilities resumed between France and the Third Coalition, Murat was given command of the Cavalry Reserve of the Grande Armée. Initially he disguised himself and traveled ahead of the army to scout out the terrain and enemy movements. He and his cavalry were essential to screening the army's movements and they entered numerous combats throughout the campaign, fighting at Donauworth, Wertingen, Langenau, Trochtelfingen, Neresheim, Ried, Lambach, and Amstetten.

During that campaign, Marshals Murat and Lannes were ordered to take a key bridge over the Danube intact, and seeing the prepared explosives, they attempted to bluff their way into possession of the bridge. The Austrians were armed and ready to destroy the bridge the moment the French attempted to take it. Lannes, Murat, Bertrand, Belliard, and a few other officers crossed the bridge, telling the Austrians that an armistice had been signed that gave the French the bridge. Sending Bertrand with the Austrians to meet the Austrian commander, Murat and Lannes talked to the Austrians in an attempt to distract them from Oudinot's grenadiers who were sneaking up. One Austrian noticed the approaching grenadiers and lit a match to fire the artillery, but Lannes immediately seized his arm and demanded how dare he break the armistice without higher authority. Bertrand returned with Austrian General Auersperg, whom Murat and Lannes explained the same story to, and the Austrian general agreed to not fire upon them. Oudinot's grenadiers finished coming up, cut the fuses to blow the bridge, and with that the bridge was in French hands without a shot being fired.1

After entering Vienna, Murat's cavalry fought at Hollabrunn and Gunthersdorf before fighting at the Battle of Austerlitz and contributing to the victory. In 1806 Murat received more rewards, becoming a grand dignitary of the Order of the Iron Crown and also becoming one of the first of the new nobility of the empire, the Grand Duke of Berg and Cléves.

In October of 1806 Prussia declared war and Murat's cavalry again took the field. After fighting at the Battle of Jena, his cavalry vigorously pursued the broken and scattered remnants of the Prussian army, leaving them little respite. His troops seized Erfurt, then broke the enemy at Zehdenick and Wigneensdorf, took Hohenlohe's surrender at Prentzlow, and then finally took Blucher's surrender at Lubeck.

However, the Russians continued to fight on, and Murat participated in the fighting at Golymin in December of 1806 and then at Hoff in early 1807. Shortly after Hoff at the Battle of Eylau, as Marshal Augereau's VII Corps was nearly wiped out, Napoleon ordered Murat and his 10,000 soldiers of the Cavalry Reserve to charge directly at the Russians. What followed was one of the largest cavalry charges of all time, with Murat leading a glorious charge that decimated the Russian center and saved the French from disaster. Given the heavy casualties and struggle to march in the winter, both armies went into winter quarters rather than continue the campaign. When the campaign resumed in the spring, Murat fought at Guttstadt and then at the Battle of Heilsberg, where he and General Lasalle rescued each other. After peace was signed with Russia at Tilsit, Murat received numerous awards, including the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Joseph of Wurzburg, becoming a Knight of the Order of the Crown of Saxony, and joining the Order of the Black Eagle of Prussia and the Order of Saint Andrew of Russia.

King of Naples

In 1808 as the French moved into Spain, Marshal Murat was named the commander in chief of the Army of Spain. As Napoleon's chief lieutenant in Spain, when the Spanish revolted against the French presence in Madrid on May 2nd, Murat imposed martial law and put down the revolt, but his forceful response only fueled growing resentment against the French. Napoleon had already placed his brother Joseph on the throne of Naples, but now he decided to make Joseph the new King of Spain, hoping to spread some of the ideals of the French Revolution to Spain and establish a solid ally. For this reason, Napoleon needed a new King of Naples, and he selected his brother-in-law Joachim Murat to be the new king. Murat left for Naples and was proclaimed king on August 1st. Two months later Murat led a successful attack to take Capri and forced the British under Sir Hudson Lowe to surrender. Encouraged by that success, the next year Murat led an attack to take Sicily but failed to make any progress. His wife Caroline assisted with governing Naples and proved herself a more capable administrator than her husband.

In 1812 Napoleon was preparing to campaign against Russia for its failure to adhere to the Treaty of Tilsit, and Napoleon asked Murat to return to the Grande Armée to command the cavalry in another campaign. Murat returned to the army and took command of the advance guard, but the Russians repeatedly refused to do battle and kept falling back. Nevertheless, Murat took the opportunity to dazzle his opponents, often riding ahead of the army in his glittering uniform, dazzling Russian Cossacks with his appearance, nerve, and swordsmanship. He so impressed the Cossacks that they passed around word that no one was to harm the King of Naples, but they did hope to take him prisoner.2 During the campaign that summer, Murat fought at Ostrowno, Krasnoe, Smolensk , and the Battle of Borodino. At Borodino, as the French struggled to take the notorious redoubt, Murat dismounted as French soldiers began to retreat around him, daring them to leave him to the Russians, refusing to retreat. His leadership halted the retreat and helped to secure the great redoubt.

During the retreat from Russia, Murat's forces were beaten at Winkowo in October. On December 5th, 1812, Napoleon finally left the army to return to Paris and left Marshal Murat in charge. Murat, more concerned with Naples and despairing of the turn of events in Russia, began to privately denounce Napoleon's leadership, but he stayed with the army until January 18th when he turned over command to Napoleon's stepson, Prince Eugene.

Murat hurried back to Naples and secretly opened negotiations with the Austrians and British to retain his kingdom. Napoleon personally wrote to his brother-in-law Joachim and appealed to him to return and defend their gains, and Murat agreed and rejoined the Grande Armée in August of 1813. He was given command of the cavalry, and he went on to serve at Dresden that August before fighting at the Battle of Leipzig in October. The French retreat from Leipzig was a turning point where Murat no longer believed Napoleon could possibly win, and he told his brother-in-law that he needed to return to Naples to raise more troops. Napoleon allowed him to depart and the two would never see each other again.

Fall from Power

Murat reopened secret negotiations with Great Britain and Austria, and they agreed to let him keep Naples in exchange for bringing 30,000 troops from Naples against France. Murat agreed and his troops began to maneuver against Prince Eugene's French troops, forcing Eugene to defend the Kingdom of Italy along a second front, holding back the Austrians in the northeast and the Neapolitans in the south. In April Napoleon unexpectedly abdicated in favor of his son, altering the political balance of power in Europe. Unfortunately for Murat, most of the Allies had no intention of holding to their agreements with him, and they began to maneuver both politically and militarily to renege on their earlier agreement.

It seemed the only way for Murat to hold onto his kingdom was through military force, but just then Napoleon escaped from Elba in March of 1815 and reclaimed the throne of France without a shot being fired. Suddenly the Allies were interested in pleasing Murat again, though now he knew the value of their word and would have none of it. Murat published a manifesto calling for independence and a unified Italy, and he did not wait to coordinate his campaign with Napoleon and France. Instead he immediately moved his army to take Modène and Florence, and his forces experienced success until he lost the Battle of Tolentino. Badly beaten, he returned to Naples and realized he could no longer hold onto his kingdom.

Murat decided to disguise himself and return to France to offer Napoleon his services as a cavalry commander like the old days. However, Napoleon had not forgotten Murat's betrayal of the previous year and ordered him to not come to Paris. Murat waited in Lyon where he learned of the French defeat at Waterloo and a price the Allies had put on his head. To avoid the bounty hunters, Murat bought passage to Corsica but missed the boat and instead he was forced to hide in a hut of an old soldier by the coast. Finally he escaped to Corsica, where he learned that the Emperor of Austria had offered him and his family asylum in Austria. But he had enough of Allied promises and still held the ambition to retake his crown.

Murat set sail with 250 men for Naples, but a rough storm separated the ships of his small force. When the captain of his vessel refused to go further without provisioning, they stopped at Pizzo, where Murat and 30 of his men went ashore to buy provisions. Murat was recognized by some fishermen who began shouting, "Long live King Joachim!" and a crowd soon gathered to stare at his entourage. Sensing a dark shift in the mood of the crowd, Murat and his men made a run for the beach but were caught before they could reach the relative safety of the boats.

Thrown into prison, Murat was put on trial. He argued that none of his soldiers should be tried with him, for their only crime was of being loyal to him. He then gave his defense that the court was incompetent to try him, they couldn't try him as a Frenchman, and if they considered him a Neapolitan then he was their king. Within half an hour, he was judged guilty and condemned to death. On the day of his execution, Murat refused to sit down or wear the blindfold provided to him. He told the firing squad to aim at his heart, and then gave the command to fire.



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Updated June 2017

© Nathan D. Jensen