Napoleonic Marshals of France
In May of 1804 Napoleon established the French Empire and with it he brought back the title of Marshal of France, also known as Marshal of the Empire at this time. Abolished by the National Convention in 1793, the title of Marshal of France was officially a civilian appointment but reserved for experienced generals. It was an honor to become a marshal and the marshals received higher pay and privileges. Napoleon wished to gain legitimacy in the eyes of Europe since other nations had the rank of field marshal, and he wished to reward and ensure the loyalty of the generals to his empire.
The first appointment of 18 marshals was made up of generals who had distinguished themselves during the French Revolution. Berthier, Augereau, Masséna, Sérurier, Murat, Lannes, and Bessières had all served under Napoleon in Italy. The other generals came from different armies during the French Revolution, as Napoleon intended to unite different loyalties and factions within the military and reward more than just those who had served with him in Italy. For example, Jourdan, Mortier, Ney, and Lefebvre all had experience with the Army of the Sambre and Meuse, and many went on to serve with the Army of the Rhine. Many of the marshals were notable and unique compared to other generals for various characteristics of their personalities and careers. Masséna is often considered the best independent commander, though in later years he did not show as much genius as he had earlier in his career, and he was a notorious looter and womanizer. Berthier was utterly hopeless as an independent commander, but as chief of staff to Napoleon, no one else could compare to him with sorting out details and ensuring everyone had their correct orders. Murat was the most flamboyant of the marshals and he could lead a cavalry charge like no other, but strategy and administration were of no interest to him. The most surprising appointment was Davout, for he had not held a major command and many other successful generals had been passed by. Some wondered if Davout's ascension came about due to his marriage to General Leclerc's sister, since the deceased General Leclerc had married Pauline Bonaparte. Others surmised that Davout, as the protégé of the fallen Desaix, was perhaps selected in recognition of Desaix's services. Or perhaps Napoleon was able to discern some of the talent of Davout before others recognized his skills.
Marmont and Junot considered themselves friends of Napoleon from his earliest days and were disappointed to not be selected as marshals. Marmont would receive his marshal's baton in 1809 after the Battle of Wagram while Junot would fail to earn his in Portugal in 1807 and 1808. Victor had served well under Napoleon in Italy yet he was passed by while friends from the Army of Italy were selected. Victor had to wait until 1807 when he received his marshal's baton after the Battle of Friedland. Macdonald had commanded armies during the French Revolution but he was disgraced due to his support for Moreau at Moreau's trial, not to mention his outspoken criticism of others. Macdonald, however, was offered an opportunity at redemption in 1809 with the Army of Italy commanded by Napoleon's stepson, the inexperienced Eugene de Beauharnais. Macdonald displayed his skill and was awarded his baton in 1809 alongside Marmont and Oudinot. Gouvion St. Cyr had greatly distinguished himself during the Wars of the French Revolution yet he refused to sign a proclamation in support of the empire and he was therefore disgraced and passed by. His pride further hampered his progress as he had a history of resigning his command when angered. Nevertheless, he was finally named a marshal in 1812.
And what of the other talented commanders to gain fame during the French Revolution? Pichegru had killed himself in prison and Dumouriez was in exile and considered a traitor. Moreau was disgraced due to his association with Pichegru and because his house became a place of discontent against Napoleon. Napoleon stated that Moreau would have been a marshal if not for Moreau's wife's ambitions and the intrigues that arose from Moreau's wife and the Moreau club.1 Lecourbe was disgraced due to association with Moreau. Vandamme had quite the fighting reputation but probably missed his opportunity due to his disagreeable and abrasive attitude. Marceau, Hoche, Joubert, Championnet, Kléber, Desaix, Lanusse, Richepanse, and Leclerc had died. Leclerc, married to Pauline Bonaparte, would almost certainly have been a marshal had he lived, for Murat as brother-in-law to Napoleon was appointed a marshal and Bernadotte as brother-in-law to Joseph Bonaparte was appointed a marshal. Ignoring the politics surrounding Joubert, had he lived he would have very likely been a marshal as he was a distinguished general in the Army of Italy and had greatly contributed to the victory at Rivoli. Desaix was one of the great commanders and was loyal to Napoleon, not to mention he saved the day at Marengo, so he would almost certainly have been a marshal. Hoche is often considered the second best general to arise during the French Revolution after Napoleon Bonaparte, so if he had lived and was willing to support the empire instead of a republic, he would have become a marshal. Given he and Napoleon worked together for the coup of 18 Fructidor to exile the royalists, it's possible he would have welcomed a military leader in charge of the nation. Lanusse is another likely candidate had he lived, as on Saint Helena Napoleon said that Lanusse "possessed the sacred fire".2
What about those generals who survived the French Revolutionary Wars only to be killed in battle before their careers reached their peak? Chandler cites historian Marcel Dupont that Napoleon told General Saint-Hilaire in April of 1809, "Well, you have earned your marshal's baton and you shall have it." Chandler goes on, "Before the coveted insignia could arrive from Paris, St. Hilaire would be dead..."3 It seems unlikely that Napoleon actually said this as it is not recorded in a number of sources that Saint-Hilaire would become a marshal. Furthermore, as an example Poniatowski was named a marshal on the spot, there was no delay to becoming a marshal, and it shouldn't have taken more than six weeks to receive something of such importance from Paris. Regardless, Saint-Hilaire was a distinguished general and he may have become a marshal had he lived.
If Napoleon had remained in power, who might he have named a marshal in later years? On Saint Helena, Napoleon was asked by Dr. O'Meara who was the ablest of his generals and Napoleon replied, "That is difficult to say, but it seems to me it may have been Suchet. Once it was Masséna, but eventually one had to consider him as virtually dead. Suchet, Clauzel, and Gérard were the best French generals in my opinion."4 Suchet was already a marshal, and both Clauzel and Gérard would become marshals during the reign of Louis Philippe. At another time on Saint Helena, Napoleon said to Las Casas, "The generals who seemed destined to rise to future distinction were Gérard, Clauzel, Foy, Lamarque, et cetera. These were my new marshals."5 Did Napoleon literally say "et cetera", or did Las Casas not write down all the names? It would have been very interesting to know who else Napoleon thought had the talent to be marshals. Reille is a likely candidate as he commanded wings of the armies in Spain and a corps in Belgium and Mouton is another candidate as he also commanded a corps in Belgium. Neither had failures in their record and both eventually became Marshals of France during Louis Philippe's reign.
Regardless of what ifs, Napoleon appointed the following 26 generals as Marshals of the Empire between 1804 and 1815:
- Napoleon Bonaparte, Memoirs of the History of France During the Reign of Napoleon: Historical Miscellanies, (London: Henry Colburn and Co and Martin Bossange and Co, 1823), I:52-53.
- Ibid., II: 78.
- David G. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1966), 694.
- David G. Chandler, Napoleon's Marshals, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987)", LVII.
- Emanuel Auguste Dieudonné Las Cases, Memoirs of the Life, Exile, and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon, (New York: The H. W. Hagemann Publishing Co, 1894), 252.
- Chandler, David G. The Campaigns of Napoleon. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1966.
- Chandler, David G. Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1979.
- Chandler, David G., ed. Napoleon's Marshals. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987.
- Elting, John R. Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon's Grande Armee. USA: Da Capo Press, 1997.
- Haythornthwaite, Philip J. Who Was Who in the Napoleonic Wars. London: Arms & Armour, 1998.
- Phipps, Ramsay Weston. The Armies of the First French Republic and the Rise of the Marshals of Napoleon I. 5 vols. USA: Pickle Partners Publishing, 2011.
- Six, Georges. Dictionnaire Biographique des Généraux & Amiraux Français de la Révolution et de l'Empire (1792-1814). 2 vols. Paris: Gaston Saffroy, 2003.
Updated January 2023
© Nathan D. Jensen