Plans of Buonaparte – Military and Political Questions regarding Paris – Napoleon crosses the Marne on 22d March – Retrospect of Events in the vicinity of Lyons, &c. – Defeats of the French in various quarters – Marmont and Mortier retreat under the walls of Paris – Joseph Buonaparte – Maria Louisa, with the Civil Authorities, leave the City – Attack of Paris on the 30th – A Truce accorded – Joseph flies.
The decline of Napoleon's waning fortunes having been such, as to turn him aside from an offered field of battle, and to place him betwixt two armies, each superior in number to his own, called now for a speedy and decisive resolution.
The manœuvres of Schwartzenberg and Blucher tended evidently to form a junction; and when it is considered that Buonaparte had felt it necessary to retreat from the army of Silesia before Laon, and from the grand army before Arcis, it would have been frenzy to wait till they both closed upon him. Two courses, therefore, remained; – either to draw back within the closing circle which his enemies were about to form around him, and, retreating before them until he had collected his whole forces, make a stand under the walls of Paris, aided by whatever strength that capital possessed, and which his energies could have called out; or, on the contrary, to march eastward, and breaking through the same circle, to operate on the rear of the allies, and on their lines of communication. This last was a subject on which the Austrians had expressed such feverish anxiety, as would probably immediately induce them to give up all thoughts of advancing, and march back to the frontier. Such a result was the rather to be hoped, because the continued stay of the allies, and the passage and repassage of troops through an exhausted country, had worn out the patience of the hardy peasantry of Alsace and Franche Comté, whom the exactions and rapine, inseparable from the movements of a hostile soldiery, had now roused from the apathy with which they had at first witnessed the invasion of their territory. Before Lyons, Napoleon might reckon on being reinforced by the veteran army of Suchet, arrived from Catalonia; and he would be within reach of the numerous chain of fortresses, which had garrisons strong enough to form an army, if drawn together.
The preparations for arranging such a force, and for arming the peasantry, had been in progress for some time. Trusty agents, bearing orders concealed in the sheaths of their knives, the collars of their dogs, or about their persons, had been detached to warn the various commandants of the Emperor's pleasure. Several were taken by the blockading troops of the allies, and hanged as spies, but others made their way. While at Rheims, Buonaparte had issued an order for rousing the peasantry, in which he not only declared their arising in arms was an act of patriotic duty, but denounced as traitors the mayors of the districts who should throw obstructions in the way of a general levy. The allies, on the contrary, threatened the extremity of military execution on all the peasantry who should obey Napoleon's call to arms. It was, as we formerly observed, an excellent exemplification, how much political opinions depend on circumstances; for, after the second capture of Vienna, the Austrians were calling out the levy-en-masse, and Napoleon, in his turn, was threatening to burn the villages, and execute the peasants, who should dare to obey.
While Napoleon was at Rheims, the affairs of the north-east frontier seemed so promising, that Ney offered to take the command of the insurrectionary army; and, as he was reckoned the best officer of light troops in Europe, it is not improbable he might have brought the levies-en-masse on that warlike border, to have fought like the French national forces in the beginning of the Revolution. Buonaparte did not yield to this proposal. Perhaps he thought so bold a movement could only succeed under his own eye.
But there were two especial considerations which must have made Napoleon hesitate in adopting this species of back-game, designed to redeem the stake which it was impossible to save by the ordinary means of carrying on the bloody play. The one was the military question, whether Paris could be defended, if Napoleon was to move to the rear of the allied army, instead of falling back upon the city with the army which he commanded. The other question was of yet deeper import, and of a political nature. The means of the capital for defence being supposed adequate, was it likely that Paris, a town of 700,000 inhabitants, divided into factions unaccustomed to the near voice of war, and startled by the dreadful novelty of their situation, would submit to the sacrifices which a successful defence of the city must in every event have required? Was, in short, their love and fear of Buonaparte so great, that without his personal presence, and that of his army, to encourage, and at the same time overawe them, they would willingly incur the risk of seeing their beautiful metropolis destroyed, and all the horrors of a sack inflicted by the mass of nations whom Napoleon's ambition had been the means of combining against them, and who proclaimed themselves the enemies, not of France, but of Buonaparte?
Neither of these questions could be answered with confidence. Napoleon, although he had embodied 30,000 national guards, had not provided arms for a third part of the number. This is hinted at by some authors, as if the want of these arms ought to be imputed to some secret treason. But this accusation has never been put in any tangible shape. The arms never existed, and never were ordered; and although Napoleon had nearly three months' time allowed him, after his return to Paris, yet he never thought of arming the Parisians in general. Perhaps he doubted their fidelity to his cause. He ordered, it is said, 200 cannon to be provided for the defence of the northern and eastern line of the city, but neither were these obtained in sufficient quantity. The number of individuals who could be safely intrusted with arms, was also much limited. Whether, therefore, Paris was, in a military point of view, capable of defence or not, must have, in every event, depended much on the strength of the military force left to protect it. This Napoleon knew must be very moderate. His hopes were therefore necessarily limited by circumstances, to the belief that Paris, though incapable of a protracted defence, might yet hold out for such a space as might enable him to move to its relief.
But, secondly, as the means of holding out Paris were very imperfect, so the inclination of the citizens to defend themselves at the expense of any considerable sacrifice, was much doubted. It was not in reason to be expected that the Parisians should imitate the devotion of Zaragossa. Each Spanish citizen, on that memorable occasion, had his share of interest in the war which all maintained – a portion, namely, of that liberty and independence for which it was waged. But the Parisians were very differently situated. They were not called on to barricade their streets, destroy their suburbs, turn their houses into fortresses, and themselves into soldiers, and expose their property and families to the horrors of a storm; and this not for any advantage to France or themselves, but merely that they might maintain Napoleon on the throne. The ceaseless, and of late the losing wars, in which he seemed irretrievably engaged, had rendered his government unpopular; and it was plain to all, except perhaps himself, that he did not stand in that relation to the people of Paris, when citizens are prepared to die for their sovereign. It might have been as well expected that the frogs in the fable would, in case of invasion, have risen in a mass to defend King Serpent. It is probable that Buonaparte did not see this in the true point of view; but that, with the feelings of self-importance which sovereigns must naturally acquire from their situation, and which, from his high actions and distinguished talents, he of all sovereigns, was peculiarly entitled to indulge – it is probable that he lost sight of the great disproportion betwixt the nation and an individual; and forgot, amid the hundreds of thousands which Paris contains, what small relation the number of his own faithful and devoted followers bore, not only to those who were perilously engaged in factions hostile to him, but to the great mass, who, in Hotspur's phrase, loved their own shops or barns better than his house.13
Thirdly, the consequences of Paris being lost, either from not possessing, or not employing, the means of defence, were sure to be productive of irretrievable calamity. Russia, as had been shown, could survive the destruction of its capital, and perhaps Great Britain's fate might not be decided by the capture of London. But the government of France had, during all the phases of the Revolution, depended upon the possession of Paris – a capital which has at all times directed the public opinion of that country. Should the military occupation of this most influential of all capitals, bring about, as was most likely, a political and internal revolution, it was greatly to be doubted, whether the Emperor could make an effectual stand in any other part of his dominions.
It must be candidly admitted, that this reasoning, as being subsequent to the fact, has a much more decisive appearance than it could have had when subjected to the consideration of Napoleon. He was entitled, from the feverish anxiety hitherto shown by the Austrians, upon any approach to flank movements, and by the caution of their general proceedings, to think, that they would be greatly too timorous to adopt the bold step of pressing onward to Paris. It was more likely that they would follow him to the frontier, with the purpose of preserving their communications. Besides, Napoleon at this crisis had but a very slender choice of measures. To remain where he was, between Blucher and Schwartzenberg, was not possible; and, in advancing to either flank, he must have fought with a superior enemy. To retreat upon Paris, was sure to induce the whole allies to pursue in the same direction; and the encouragement which such a retreat must have given to his opponents, might have had the most fatal consequences. Perhaps his partisans might have taken more courage during his absence, from the idea that he was at the head of a conquering army, in the rear of the allies, than during his actual presence, if he had arrived in Paris in consequence of a compulsory retreat.
Buonaparte seems, as much from a sort of necessity as from choice, to have preferred breaking through the circle of hunters which hemmed him in, trusting to strengthen his army with the garrisons drawn from the frontier fortresses, and with the warlike peasantry of Alsace and Franche Comté, and, thus reinforced, to advance with rapidity on the rear of his enemies, ere they had time to execute, or perhaps to arrange, any system of offensive operations. The scheme appeared the more hopeful, as he was peremptory in his belief that his march could not fail to draw after him, in pursuit, or observation at least, the grand army of Schwartzenberg; the general maxim, that the war could only be decided where he was present in person, being, as he conceived, as deeply impressed by experience upon his enemies as upon his own soldiers.
Napoleon could not disguise from himself, what indeed he had told the French public, that a march, or, as he termed it, a hourra upon Paris, was the principal purpose of the allies. Every movement made in advance, whether by Blucher or Schwartzenberg, had this for its object. But they had uniformly relinquished the undertaking, upon his making any demonstration to prevent it; and therefore he did not suspect them of a resolution so venturous as to move directly upon Paris, leaving the French army unbroken in their rear, to act upon their line of communication with Germany. It is remarked, that those chess-players who deal in the most venturous gambits are least capable of defending themselves when attacked in the same audacious manner; and that, in war, the generals whose usual and favourite tactics are those of advance and attack, have been most frequently surprised by the unexpected adoption of offensive operations on the part of their enemy. Napoleon had been so much accustomed to see his antagonists bend their attention rather to parry blows than to aim them, and was so confident in the dread impressed by his rapidity of movement, his energy of assault, and the terrors of his reputation, that he seems to have entertained little apprehension of the allies adopting a plan of operations which had no reference to his own, and which, instead of attempting to watch or counteract his movements in the rear of their army, should lead them straight forward to take possession of his capital. Besides, notwithstanding objections have been stated, which seemed to render a permanent defence impossible, there were other considerations to be taken into view. The ground to the north of Paris is very strong, the national guard was numerous, the lower part of the population of a military character, and favourable to his cause. A defence, if resolute, however brief, would have the double effect of damping the ardour of the assailants, and of detaining them before the walls of the capital, until Buonaparte should advance to its relief, and thus place the allies between two fires. It was not to be supposed that the surrender of Paris would be the work of a single day. The unanimous voice of the journals, of the ministers of the police, and of the thousands whose interest was radically and deeply entwisted with that of Buonaparte, assured their master on that point. The movement to the rear, therefore, though removing him from Paris, which it might expose to temporary alarm, might not, in Buonaparte's apprehension, seriously compromise the security of the capital.
The French Emperor, in executing this decisive movement, was extremely desirous to have possessed himself of Vitry, which lay in the line of his advance. But as this town contained a garrison of about 5000 men, commanded by an officer of resolution, he returned a negative to the summons; and Napoleon, in no condition to attempt a coup-de-main on a place of some strength, passed the Marne on the 22d of March, over a bridge of rafts constructed at Frigincour, and continued his movement towards the eastern frontier, increasing the distance at every step betwixt him and his capital, and at the same time betwixt him and his enemies.
In the meantime, events had taken place in the vicinity of Lyons, tending greatly to limit any advantages which Napoleon might have expected to reap on the south-eastern part of the frontier towards Switzerland, and also to give spirits to the numerous enemies of his government in Provence, where the Royalists always possessed a considerable party.
The reinforcements despatched by the Austrians under General Bianchi, and their reserves, brought forward by the Prince of Hesse-Homberg, had restored their superiority over Augereau's army. He was defeated at Macon on the 11th of March, in a battle which he had given for the purpose of maintaining his line on the Saone. A second time, he was defeated on the 18th at St. George, and obliged to retire in great disorder, with scarce even the means of defending the Isère, up which river he retreated. Lyons, thus uncovered, opened its gates to Bianchi; and, after all that they had heard concerning the losses of the allies, the citizens saw with astonishment and alarm an untouched body of their troops, amounting to 60,000 men, defile through their streets. This defeat of Augereau was probably unknown to Napoleon, when he determined to march to the frontiers, and thought he might reckon on co-operation with the Lyonnese army. Though, therefore, the Emperor's movement to St. Dizier was out of the rules of ordinary war, and though it enabled the allies to conceive and execute the daring scheme which put an end to the campaign, yet it was by no means hopeless in its outset; or, we would rather say, was one of the few alternatives which the crisis of his affairs left to Buonaparte, and which, judging from the previous vacillation and cautious timidity displayed in the councils of the allies, he had no reason to apprehend would have given rise to the consequences that actually followed.
The allies, who had in their latest councils wound up their resolution to the decisive experiment of marching on Paris, were at first at a loss to account for Napoleon's disappearance, or to guess whither he had gone. This occasioned some hesitation and loss of time. At length, by the interception of a French courier, they found despatches addressed by Buonaparte to his government at Paris, from which they were enabled to conjecture the real purpose and direction of his march. A letter,14 in the Emperor's own hand, to Maria Louisa, confirmed the certainty of the information.15 The allies resolved to adhere, under this unexpected change of circumstances, to the bold resolution they had already formed. To conceal the real direction of his march, as well as to open communications with the Silesian army, Schwartzenberg, moving laterally, transferred his headquarters to Vitry, where he arrived on the 24th, two days after it had been summoned by Napoleon. Blucher, in the meantime, approached his army from Laon to Chalons, now entirely re-organised after the two bloody battles which it had sustained. As a necessary preparation for the advance, General Ducca was left on the Aube, with a division of Austrians, for the purpose of defending their depôts, keeping open their communications, and guarding the person of the Emperor Francis, who did not perhaps judge it delicate to approach Paris in arms, with the rest of the sovereigns, while the city was nominally governed by his own daughter as Regent. Ducca had also in charge, if pressed, to retreat upon the Prince of Hesse-Homberg's army, which was in triumphant possession of Lyons.
This important arrangement being made, another was adopted equally necessary to deceive and observe Napoleon. Ten thousand cavalry were selected, under the enterprising generals, Winzengerode and Czernicheff, who, with fifty pieces of cannon, were despatched to hang on Buonaparte's march, to obstruct his communications with the country he had left, intercept couriers from Paris, or information respecting the motions of the allied armies, and to present on all occasions such a front, as, if possible, might impress him with the belief, that their corps formed the vanguard of the whole army of Schwartzenberg. The Russian and Prussian light troops meanwhile scoured the roads, and intercepted, near Sommepuix, a convoy of artillery and ammunition belonging to Napoleon's rear-guard, when twenty pieces of cannon, with a strong escort, fell into their hands. They also cut off several couriers, bringing important despatches to Napoleon from Paris. One of these was loaded with as heavy tidings as ever were destined to afflict falling greatness. This packet informed Napoleon of the descent of the English in Italy; of the entry of the Austrians into Lyons, and the critical state of Augereau; of the declaration of Bourdeaux in favour of Louis; of the demonstrations of Wellington towards Toulouse; of the disaffected state of the public mind, and the exhausted condition of the national resources. Much of these tidings was new to the allied sovereigns and generals; but it was received by them with very different sensations from those which the intelligence was calculated to inflict upon him for whom the packet was intended.
Blucher, in the meantime, so soon as he felt the opposition to his movements diminished by the march of Buonaparte from Chalons to Arcis, had instantly resumed the offensive, and driven the corps of Mortier and Marmont, left to observe his motions, over the Marne. He passed the Aisne, near Béry-le-Bac, repossessed himself of Rheims by blowing open the gates and storming the place, and, having gained these successes, moved towards Chalons and Vitry. His course had hitherto been south-eastward, in order to join with Schwartzenberg; but he now received from the King of Prussia the welcome order to turn his march westward, and move straight upon Paris. The grand army adopted the same direction, and thus they moved on in corresponding lines, and in communication with each other.
While Buonaparte, retiring to the east, prepared for throwing himself on the rear of the allies, he was necessarily, in person, exposed to the same risk of having his communications cut off, and his supplies intercepted, which it was the object of his movement to inflict upon his enemy. Marmont and Mortier, who retreated before Blucher over the Marne, had orders to move upon Vitry, probably because that movement would have placed them in the rear of Schwartzenberg, had he been induced to retreat from the line of the Aube, as Napoleon expected he would. But as a very different course had been adopted by the allies, from that which Napoleon had anticipated, the two maréchals found themselves unexpectedly in front of their grand army near Fère-Champenoise. They were compelled to attempt a retreat to Sezanne, in which, harassed by the numerous cavalry of the allies, they sustained heavy loss.
While the cavalry were engaged in pursuit of the maréchals, the infantry of the allies were approaching the town of Fère-Champenoise, when a heavy fire was heard in the vicinity, and presently appeared a large column of infantry, advancing checker-wise and by intervals, followed and repeatedly charged by several squadrons of cavalry, who were speedily recognised as belonging to the Silesian army. The infantry, about 5000 in number, had left Paris with a large convoy of provisions and ammunition. They were proceeding towards Montmirail, when they were discovered and attacked by the cavalry of Blucher's army. Unable to make a stand, they endeavoured, by an alteration of their march, to reach Fère-Champenoise, where they expected to find either the Emperor, or Marmont and Mortier. It was thus their misfortune to fall upon Scylla in seeking to avoid Charybdis. The column consisted entirely of young men, conscripts, or national guards, who had never before been in action. Yet, neither the necessity of their condition, nor their unexpected surprise in meeting first one, and then a second army of enemies, where they looked only for friends, could induce these spirited young men to surrender. Rappatel, the aide-de-camp of Moreau, and entertained in the same capacity by the Emperor Alexander, was shot, while attempting, by the orders of the Emperor, to explain to them the impossibility of resistance. The French say, that the brother of Rappatel served in the company from which the shot came which killed the unfortunate officer. The artillery at length opened on the French on every side; they were charged by squadron after squadron; the whole convoy was taken, and the escort were killed, wounded, or made prisoners.16
Thus the allies continued to advance upon Paris, while the shattered divisions of Mortier and Marmont, hard pressed by the cavalry, lost a rear-guard of 1500 men near Ferté Gauchère. At Crecy they parted into two bodies, one retreating on Meaux, the other on Lagny. They were still pursued and harassed; and at length, the soldiers becoming desperate, could hardly be kept together, while the artillerymen cut the traces of their guns, and mounted their draught-horses, to effect their escape. It is computed that the French divisions, between Fère-Champenoise and Lagny, lost 8000 men, and eighty guns, besides immense quantities of baggage and ammunition. Indeed, surrounded as they were by overpowering numbers, it required no little skill in the generals, as well as bravery and devotion in the soldiers, to keep the army from dissolving entirely. The allies, gaining advantages at every step, moved on with such expedition, that when, on the 27th March, they took up their headquarters at Collomiers, they had marched upwards of seventy miles in three days.
An effort was made, by about 10,000 men of the national guards, to stop a column of the army of Silesia, but it totally failed; General Horne galloping into the very centre of the French mass of infantry, and making prisoner the general who commanded them with his own hand. When Blucher approached Meaux, the garrison (a part of Mortier's army) retreated, blowing up a large powder magazine. This was on the 28th of March, and on the evening of the same day, the vanguard of the Silesian army pushed on as far as Claye, from whence, not without a sharp action, they dislodged a part of the divisions of Marmont and Mortier. These maréchals now retreated under the walls of Paris, their discouraged and broken forces forming the only regular troops, excepting those of the garrison, which could be reckoned on for the defence of the capital.
The allied armies moved onward, on the same grand point, leaving, however, Generals Wrede and Sacken, with a corps d'armée of 30,000 men, upon the line of the Marne, to oppose any attempt which might be made for annoying the rear of the army, and thus relieving the metropolis.
Deducing this covering army, the rest of the allied forces moved in columns along the three grand routes of Meaux, Lagny, and Soissons, thus threatening Paris along all its north-eastern quarter. The military sovereigns and their victorious armies were now in sight of that metropolis, whose ruler and his soldiers had so often and so long lorded it in theirs; of that Paris, which, unsatisfied with her high rank among the cities of Europe, had fomented constant war until all should be subjugated to her empire; of that proud city, who boasted herself the first in arms and in science, the mistress and example of the civilized world, the depositary of all that is wonderful in the fine arts, and the dictatress as well of taste as of law to continental Europe.
The position of Paris, on the north-eastern frontier, which was thus approached, is as strongly defensible, perhaps, as can be said of any unfortified town in the world. Art, however, had added little to the defence of the city itself, except a few wretched redoubts (called by the French tambours,) erected for protection of the barriers. But the external line was very strong, as will appear from the following sketch. The heights which environ the city on the eastern side, rise abruptly from an extensive plain, and form a steep and narrow ridge, which sinks again as suddenly upon the eastern quarter of the town, which it seems to screen as with a natural bulwark. The line of defence which they afford is extremely strong. The southern extremity of the ridge, which rests upon the wood of Vincennes, extending southward to the banks of the river Marne, is called the heights of Belleville and Romainville, taking its name from two delightful villages which occupy it, Belleville being nearest, and Romainville most distant from Paris. The heights are covered with romantic groves, and decorated by many pleasant villas, with gardens, orchards, vineyards, and plantations. These, which, in peaceful times, are a favourite resort of the gay Parisians, on their parties of pleasure, were now to be occupied by other guests, and for far different purposes. In advance of these heights, and protected by them, is the village of Pantin, situated on the great road from Bondy. To the left of Romainville, and more in front of Belleville, is a projecting eminence, termed the Butte de Saint Chaumont. The ridge there sinks, and admits a half-finished aqueduct, called the canal de l'Ourcq. The ground then again rises into the bold and steep eminence, called Montmartre, from being the supposed place of the martyrdom of St. Denis, the patron of France. From the declivity of this steep hill is a level plain, extending to the river Seine, through which runs the principal northern approach to Paris, from the town of Saint Denis. The most formidable preparations had been made for maintaining this strong line of defence, behind which the city lay sheltered. The extreme right of the French forces occupied the wood of Vincennes, and the village of Charenton upon the Marne, and was supported by the troops stationed on the heights of Belleville, Romainville, and on the Butte de Chaumont, which composed the right wing. Their centre occupied the line formed by the half-finished canal de l'Ourcq, was defended by the village of La Villette, and a strong redoubt on the farm of Rouvroi, mounted with eighteen heavy guns, and by the embankments of the canal, and still farther protected by a powerful artillery planted in the rear, on the heights of Montmartre. The left wing was thrown back from the village called Monceaux, near the north-western extremity of the heights, and prolonged itself to that of Neuilly, on the Seine, which was strongly occupied by the extreme left of their army. Thus, with the right extremity of the army resting upon the river Marne, and the left upon the Seine, the French occupied a defensive semicircular line, which could not be turned, the greater part of which was posted on heights of uncommon steepness, and the whole defended by cannon, placed with the utmost science and judgment, but very deficient in point of numbers.
The other side of Paris is almost defenceless; but, in order to have attacked it on that side, the allies must have previously crossed the Seine; an operation successfully practised in the following year, but which at that period, when their work, to be executed at all, must be done suddenly, they had no leisure to attempt, considering the great probability of Napoleon's coming up in their rear, recalled by the danger of the capital. They were therefore compelled to prefer a sudden and desperate attack upon the strongest side of the city, to the slower, though more secure measure of turning the formidable line of defence which we have endeavoured to describe.
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