Marshal Jean Baptiste Jules de BernadotteBrother-in-law to Joseph Bonaparte, Marshal of France, and Crown Prince of Sweden who led Sweden against France in 1813 and 1814
Born: January 26, 1763
Place of Birth: Pau, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France
Legion of Honor: Grand Eagle
Imperial Nobility: Prince
Died: March 8, 1844
Place of Death: Stockholm, Sweden
Arc de Triomphe: BERNADOTTE on the north pillar
Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte was the son of a successful tailor whose parents intended for him to become a lawyer. Both he and his brother began working in the legal profession, but when his father died suddenly in 1780, Jean-Baptiste decided to enlist as a soldier. By 1788 he had risen to become sergeant major of his company, and the next year his regiment was sent to Marseille. While there he was sent to be billeted with a wealthy merchant named François Clary, but he was sent away because he was not an officer.1 As the unrest of the Revolution grew, in 1790 he faced down a mob in Marseille to protect his colonel. At the end of 1791, he finally received a promotion to lieutenant.
Sent to the Army of the Rhine, Lieutenant Bernadotte's first combat took place in May of 1793 near Mainz. The next year in February he was promoted to chef de bataillon, and then in April to chef de brigade. In one fight, as his men fled he tore off his epaulettes and threw them on the ground, swearing that if they dishonored him he would refuse to be their colonel. He fought at Fleurus in June of 1794 and received a promotion to général de brigade on that battlefield. That October he won at Binche and then took part in the siege of Maestricht and was promoted to général de division in the Army of the Sambre and Meuse. After Maestricht was taken, he was appointed governor.
During the campaigns of 1795, Bernadotte commanded a division, first under Kléber and later under Hatry. That December he fought at Kreutznach. In 1796 he again commanded a division, crossing the Rhine at Neuwied and then taking Nassau. Forced back, he protected the retreat of the army, and then when the French resumed the offensive he won at Limburg. After taking Nuremberg, Bernadotte was hard pressed at Teining but able to repulse the enemy's attack, only to be defeated the next day at Neumarkt. A week later he was too ill to command and relinquished his division, but barely more than a week had passed before he resumed his command and covered the retreat of the army.
In early 1797 General Bernadotte was sent with reinforcements from the Army of the Sambre and Meuse to the Army of Italy. In Italy he would come under the command of rising star General Napoleon Bonaparte. That March, he led his men during the crossing of the Tagliamento and went forward, seizing Palmanova, Gradisca, and Laybach. After the armistice was signed, Bernadotte was given the honor of taking the captured Austrian flags back to Paris to present to the Directory. He was still in Paris during the coup of 18 Fructidor but did not participate except to proclaim his loyalty to the Republic. Afterwards, he returned to the Army of Italy until he was appointed ambassador to Austria in February of 1798. Arriving in Austria, Bernadotte took no care to disguise his disdain for the job and forced his republican principles upon everyone. When a mob tore down the tricolor flag and lit it on fire while the police watched, Bernadotte left.
Member of the Bonaparte Family
Once back in Paris, Bernadotte met and married Désirée Clary, daughter of the merchant whose house he had briefly visited nine years before. Désirée had once been a love interest of Napoleon's, but more recently had been engaged to General Duphot, but that relationship ended prematurely when Duphot was killed in a riot in Rome that year. More importantly, Désirée's sister Julie was the wife of Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's older brother. Bernadotte was now connected by marriage to the Bonaparte family, which would significantly alter the course of his career.
In early 1799 Bernadotte once again commanded a division, and that spring he took Mannheim and blockaded Philipsbourg before being forced to fall back. In April he was authorized to return to Paris and then in June he was invited to participate in the coup of 30 Prairial by Director Siéyès. Bernadotte declined to participate in the coup but at the same time did nothing to stop it. His reward for his inactivity was to become Minister of War. Within a few months though, Director Siéyès forced him to resign.
When Napoleon returned from Egypt, he asked Bernadotte for his support in his own coup d'état, and once again Bernadotte refused to participate. To others Bernadotte unleashed a tirade against Bonaparte, but nevertheless, Napoleon's coup d'état succeeded. Fortunately for Bernadotte, his wife and Joseph Bonaparte saved him. Napoleon said, "I want to send him away from the all these cabals, without there being any talk. I cannot get my own back in any other way, Joseph likes him and I'd have everyone against me. Ah, what a pain it is to have to take the family into consideration!"2
Napoleon gave Bernadotte a position as a Councilor of State and then as commander-in-chief of the Army of the West. Despite owing his position to his marriage connections to Napoleon, rumors began flying of Bernadotte's secret meetings, anti-Bonaparte propaganda, and attempts to incite a mutiny of troops against the First Consul. Bernadotte was removed from his positions and placed on leave. Perhaps to remove him as a threat, in 1801 Napoleon now offered to Bernadotte a position as governor of Louisiana, but he refused. Napoleon then instead offered to Bernadotte the position of ambassador to the United States, which he accepted but did not leave France and take up the position. When the Empire was proclaimed in 1804, Napoleon again tried to smooth over the family difficulties, this time by making Bernadotte a Marshal of the Empire and Governor of Hanover. It appeared that Bernadotte had finally agreed to serve under Napoleon, for Bernadotte said to his friend General Sarrazin, "...I swear that from this day on, Bonaparte will have no more faithful follower than Bernadotte."3
In 1805, Napoleon again rewarded Bernadotte, this time giving him a Grand Eagle of the Legion of Honor and command of the I Corps. Bernadotte led his corps throughout the campaign that year and his corps served as the reserve at the Battle of Austerlitz. The next year Napoleon elevated three of his marshals to the nobility: the indispensable Berthier as the Prince of Neuchâtel, his brother-in-law Murat as the Grand Duke of Berg and Cleves, and his brother's brother-in-law Bernadotte as the Prince of Ponte-Corvo.
After Prussia declared war that October, Bernadotte led his I Corps on the campaign and won at Schleiz on the 9th of October. On the 14th, as the majority of the army fought the Prussians at Jena and Marshal Davout's III Corps fought the numerically superior Prussians at Auerstadt, Bernadotte and his troops remained idle in between the two battles. Napoleon was furious when he learned that Bernadotte had not marched to either battle despite being able to hear the cannons of both battles and receiving requests for assistance from Davout. Napoleon signed the order for Bernadotte's court martial, but then tore it up since Bernadotte was considered part of the Bonaparte family. Napoleon told his aide Savary, "This business is so hateful that if I send him before a court martial it will be the equivalent to ordering him to be shot, it is better for me not to speak to him about it, but I shall take care he shall know what I think of his behavior. I believe he has enough honor to recognize that he performed a disgraceful action regarding which I shall not bandy words with him."4
Bernadotte and his corps took part in the pursuit of the now disorganized Prussians, and he won at Halle a few days later. In November, he fought Blucher at Nossentin and Crivitz before taking Lubeck and then Blucher's surrender at Schwartau. In January of 1807, Bernadotte won at Mohrungen, and then in March he was wounded by a ball to the head while crossing the Passarge. In June he fought at Spanden where he was wounded by a musket ball to the neck and afterwards the wound forced him to relinquish his command of I Corps to General Victor.
Bernadotte was next made governor of Hamburg, Bremen, and Lubeck. In 1808 he received another reward, being made a Knight of the Order of the Elephant of Denmark and then in 1809 receiving the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Henry of Saxony. In 1809, when Austria declared war, Bernadotte took command of the French allies the Saxons, and this Saxon unit became the IX Corps. Taking part in that campaign, in May he won at Linz.
On the evening of the 5th of July, he and his men attacked Wagram, but they panicked and fell back. Bernadotte was overheard telling others that had he been in charge instead of Napoleon, they wouldn't have even needed to fight. During the Battle of Wagram the next day, Bernadotte had abandoned an important village without orders, and he and Marshal Masséna were ordered to retake it. After retaking the village, the Austrians counterattacked and drove Bernadotte's men back. Bernadotte galloped back in a hope to stop their retreat, and as he did so, he came across Napoleon who saw him fleeing from the battle. Napoleon immediately rebuked him and stripped him of his command, telling him to leave the battlefield.5 Two days later, Bernadotte published a bulletin praising the Saxons for their exceptional contribution to the victory.6 Napoleon was further infuriated, and published an official rebuke.
Bernadotte was sent back to Paris, but then in August Napoleon sent him to Antwerp to fight off the British landing at Walcheren. Napoleon was growing even more suspicious of Bernadotte, and sent General Reille there to keep an eye on Bernadotte. Bad weather and disease stopped the British plans without a battle being fought, but Bernadotte published another bulletin stating that with only his 15,000 men, he would have fought off any number of British. Napoleon was again annoyed, this time for Bernadotte giving away the strength of his forces. Napoleon wrote, "This is the first occasion on which a General has been known to betray his position by an excess of vanity."7
Crown Prince of Sweden
Despite Bernadotte's repeated failures and treachery, he was about to succeed on a scale that no others of the time achieved. In 1810, the King of Sweden's heir died, and a camp in the Swedish politics suggested someone from Napoleon's family should become the new heir. Bernadotte was not the first choice of many of the Swedes, but he was the only one willing to renounce his religion of Catholicism. Napoleon considered that despite their differences Bernadotte was born a Frenchman would not act against France. Bernadotte left France and his wife Désirée behind and was elected Crown Prince of the Swedes. Désirée finally joined him in 1811 but returned to Paris a year later.
In 1812 Bernadotte openly defied Napoleon's Continental System by opening trade with England. Furthermore, when the Grande Armée invaded Russia, Bernadotte promised to attack France when Tsar Alexander promised to support Sweden's desire to take Norway from the King of Denmark. In 1813 he joined the coalition against France when the British offered to pay for the war and ignore his conquest of Norway. Bernadotte led the Swedish army to Germany to fight against his old comrades. French soldiers were not happy about Bernadotte's questionable allegiance, and one story told of Bernadotte attempting to parley with a French-held fortress. The story went that when Bernadotte approached he was shot at, and when he protested firing on a soldier under the flag of truce, the official French response was that the sentry had only been trying to apprehend a French deserter.8
Months later, Bernadotte was upset when told the Allies would not support a conquest of Norway as they hoped to gain the favor of the King of Denmark. Luckily for him, the King of Denmark decided to ally with France, and the Allies agreed to turn a blind eye to his ambitions on Norway. That summer, he defeated his old colleagues Oudinot at Gross Beeren and then Ney at Dennewitz. His men arrived late to Leipzig but he helped convinced the Saxons to switch sides in the midst of the battle. Nevertheless, Bernadotte's Prussian allies were furious with him for his tardiness much as his former French colleagues had been, accusing him of taking credit for the victories of Gross Beeren and Dennewitz and being inactive throughout the campaign. Bernadotte next turned north to invade Holstein and after a quick campaign, he forced the King of Denmark to cede Norway to Sweden.
Bernadotte was hesitant to be seen as invading France, but he eventually crossed the Rhine and entered France behind the other Allies. After Napoleon's abdication, Bernadotte met some of his old colleagues, but when he went to meet Marshal Lefebvre and his wife, Madame Lefebvre refused to let him in and shouted through the door, "I am in, Turncoat, but I don't want to see you."9
Bernadotte returned to Sweden and in 1815 during the Hundred Days he refused to join the new coalition against Napoleon. In 1818, he became King of Sweden and Norway when the old king died, and in 1823 his wife finally joined him in Sweden. He reigned until 1844 when he died of a stroke. After his death, the words "Death to Kings" were allegedly found on his arm, an ironic choice of words from his time during the French Revolution.
On St. Helena, Napoleon said of Bernadotte, "...he sacrificed both his new and his mother country, his own glory, his true power, the cause of the people, and the welfare of Europe... He is now the only upstart sovereign in Europe."10
- David G. Chandler, ed., Napoleon's Marshals, (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1987), 20-21.
- F. G. Hourtoulle, Wagram: The Apogee of the Empire, trans. Alan McKay, (Paris: Histoire & Collections, 2005), 114.
- Ibid., 115.
- David G. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1966), 496.
- Ibid., 724.
- Hourtoulle, Wagram, 117.
- Chandler, Napoleon's Marshals, 29.
- John R. Elting, Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon's Grande Armée, (USA: Da Capo Press, 1997), 691.
- Hourtoulle, Wagram, 117.
- Philip J. Haythornthwaite, Who Was Who in the Napoleonic Wars, (London: Arms & Armour, 1998), 31.
- Chandler, David G., ed. Napoleon's Marshals. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987.
- Elting, John R. Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon's Grande Armée. USA: Da Capo Press, 1997.
- Haythornthwaite, Philip J. Who Was Who in the Napoleonic Wars. London: Arms & Armour, 1998.
- Six, Georges. Dictionnaire Biographique des Généraux & Amiraux Français de la Révolution et de l'Empire (1792-1814). 2 vols. Paris: Gaston Saffroy, 2003.
Updated May 2019
© Nathan D. Jensen