Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout

Louis-Nicolas Davout
The Iron Marshal, known for his discipline and unblemished record

Born: May 10, 1770

Place of Birth: Annoux, Yonne, France

Died: June 1, 1823

Cause of Death: Illness

Place of Death: Paris, France

Arc de Triomphe: DAVOUST on the east pillar



Considered to be one of the best of Napoleon's marshals, Louis-Nicolas Davout was born in a rented farmhouse into a noble but very poor family. His father died in a hunting accident when he was eight. After attending the military schools of Auxerre and Paris, Davout became a sous-lieutenant in the cavalry regiment of Royal-Champagne. With the arrival of the Revolution, he embraced the principles of the Revolution despite his noble birth. However, Davout soon got into trouble for his outspoken attitudes. When some of the men of his regiment were discharged without trial, he protested to the government, loudly enough to get himself arrested and imprisoned at Arras. After spending six weeks in prison, Davout returned home until he was elected lieutenant colonel of the 3rd Battalion of Volunteers of Yonne in September of 1791. In early 1792 Davout personally intervened to save the lives of several individuals. A group of men, including a former bishop, were attempting to flee France when the townspeople of Dormans learned of their presence at the inn. As a mob formed and was preparing to break into the inn, Davout marched his troops into their way and told them they would have to go through his soldiers first. Seeing a dangerous opposition, the mob dispersed and Davout took the men to the local jail.

In 1793 Davout and his men joined the Army of Belgium and they fought well at the Battle of Neerwinden . After the French loss of the battle, Davout's commander General Dumouriez decided to defect and as this became known, orders were issued for Dumouriez's arrest. Determined to stop Dumouriez, Davout led his men in search of Dumouriez and found him on the road returning from a meeting with the Austrians. Dumouriez unsuccessfully tried to persuade Davout to his side, and seeing the futility of this, he turned and fled for the Austrian lines. Davout ordered his men to fire and gave chase, almost catching Dumouriez when the general's horse refused to jump a ditch, but Dumouriez escaped by jumping on the horse of his subordinate Louis-Philippe, the Duke of Chartres. In recognition of Davout's attempts to capture Dumouriez, Davout received a promotion to colonel and then within a few months another promotion to général de brigade. At the end of July he received another promotion to général de division, but he refused this on the grounds of being too young.

Shortly thereafter, Davout was forced to retire from the military and stay away from Paris due to his noble birth. In the meantime, his mother was arrested on the charge of communicating with émigrés. Accompanying her on the journey to her trial, Davout learned of the charges and then snuck out of the inn in the middle of the night and ran back to their home. Sneaking inside the house without being noticed, he found the letters which were the primary evidence and burned them, then he hurried back to the inn with no one realizing he had been gone. When the trial commenced, the charges were quickly dropped as the prosecutor did not have sufficient evidence.

Friend of Desaix

With the Thermidorian Reaction bringing about the fall of Robespierre and a change of government, Davout was able to return to service as a général de brigade of cavalry in the Army of the Moselle. Here he became good friends with Generals Desaix and Oudinot, and he took part in the siege of Luxembourg. After serving in the capture of Mannheim, Davout was taken as a prisoner of war when the Austrian counter offensive retook the city. Released to France on parole, he was allowed to return to his home but not serve in the military until an exchange of officers in 1796 freed him from his parole agreement. Later in 1796 he served in Ambert's division and took part in the attack on Kehl and the fighting at Haslach. In April of 1797 Davout further distinguished himself when he crossed the Rhine at Diersheim and captured a wagon of the Austrian General Klinglin which contained correspondence with French General Pichegru.

The next year Davout was designated for the Army of England, and then in a few months time his friend General Desaix introduced him to General Bonaparte. Bonaparte took Desaix's recommendation and gave Davout command of a brigade of cavalry of the re-designated Army of the Orient. After arriving in Egypt, in July Davout was given command of the cavalry of Desaix's division, which he led at the Battle of the Pyramids . Falling sick shortly thereafter, Davout remained in Cairo until December when he felt well enough to rejoin Desaix's division. Over the next months he would lead his men into battle frequently, serving at Souagui, Tahtah, Samanhout, Louqsor, Bir el Bahr, Bendhadi, and finally contributing to the victory at Abukir in July of 1799. Davout and Desaix were not chosen to depart for France with Napoleon, and when the new commander General Kléber held a council to discuss evacuating Egypt, Davout voiced opposition to evacuation since he believed they still had the capabilities to win. When he realized that the consensus was evacuation, he agreed to sign a document validating evacuation to show unity with his fellow generals. Later when Kléber promoted Davout to général de division, Davout refused the promotion, not wanting it to appear as if the promotion was given for his agreement with the council.

After the negotiations for evacuation were completed, Davout and Desaix departed Alexandria in March of 1800 for France, only to be taken prisoner by British Admiral Keith on their journey. Despite the agreement between the French and British granting them safe passage to France, they were held for months and finally arrived in Toulon in May. Desaix immediately set off to join the now First Consul Bonaparte and the Army of the Reserve while Davout remained in quarantine. While in quarantine he learned of his friend Desaix's death at the Battle of Marengo. In July Davout received a promotion to général de division, the third time he had been offered this rank, and this time he accepted it. He took command of the cavalry of the Army of Italy and fought at Molino and Pozzolo later in 1800 before returning to France in July of 1801.

Marshal of the Empire

Once back in France, Davout was appointed the inspector general of cavalry and commander of the Grenadiers à Pied of the Consular Guard. In the midst of these new appointments, he married Aimée Leclerc, sister of General Leclerc. This marriage also tied him to the Bonaparte family since Napoleon's sister Pauline has married General Leclerc, and Davout also became a brother-in-law to General Friant who had married another sister of the Leclerc family. In the future Davout would carry a watch with his wife Aimee's portrait inside it with him. In 1803 he commanded the camp of Bruges, and in 1804 Davout was created a Marshal of the Empire, the youngest of the first set of Marshals of the Empire. As a marshal, Davout became known for his strict discipline but also not caring about the appearance of his uniform or himself. More awards followed with Davout becoming a Colonel General of the Imperial Guard and receiving the Grand Eagle of the Legion of Honor. Taking a break from his military duties, Davout traveled to Auxerre to meet with his old schoolteacher. Since the school had been closed during the Revolution, after meeting with his old friend Davout pushed for the school to be reopened with his old teacher as the new principal, and the next year his wishes were achieved.

Returning to the military camp, in 1805 when the Grande Armée marched east to confront the Third Coalition, Davout took command of III Corps. He led them throughout the campaign of 1805, winning at Marienzell and Amstetten before marching hard to reach the Battle of Austerlitz in time. At Austerlitz he commanded the right wing and during the fighting he had four horses shot out from under him. The next year when Prussia declared war on France, Napoleon and the Grande Armée moved quickly to respond. Davout, still commanding III Corps, ran into the bulk of the Prussian Army at Auerstädt while most of the rest of the French army was engaged at the Battle of Jena. Despite being outnumbered two to one, Davout's corps successfully pushed back the Prussian army, inflicting heavy losses. In honor of this achievement, his corps was the first to march through Berlin when the Prussian capital was taken.

As the campaign continued against the Russians, III Corps moved into Poland. Davout was victorious at Nasielsk and Golymin in late 1806 before fighting at Ziegelhoff and the Battle of Eylau in February of the next year. At Eylau he again commanded the right, and Davout rode back and forth encouraging his men, telling them that "The brave will find a glorious death here, the cowards will visit the deserts of Siberia."1 That June, when Russian General Benningsen launched a surprise attack against Marshal Ney's VI Corps, Davout quickly assembled his troops to assist Ney. However, it would take far too long to reach Ney, so Davout ordered a courier to ride for Ney along a road which the Russians would most likely have overtaken by this time. The courier was captured and his false message of Davout marching on Benningen's rear halted the Russian advance, giving Ney breathing room and the French time to counterattack.

With the conclusion of the campaign after the French victory at the Battle of Friedland, Davout participated in the ceremonies at the Treaty of Tilsit. On one night, he and Oudinot were reprimanded for shooting out candles with their pistols. After the ceremonies, Davout was appointed Governor General of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw which made him the top administrator of Poland. Despite his position and victories, Davout had never profited from the many campaigns in which he had participated, and by now he found himself in financial difficulties trying to uphold the lifestyle expected of a Marshal of France. Napoleon came to his rescue in 1807, providing Davout with much more income after telling Narbonne, "It is necessary that I give to him...for he does not take for himself."2 In 1808 Davout was created the Duke of Auerstädt in honor of his victory in 1806, and later he was placed in charge of the Army of the Rhine, essentially in charge of most of the French troops east of the Rhine as the Emperor was preoccupied in Spain.

In April of 1809 as the Austrians launched attacks against French allies, Davout faithfully followed orders from Marshal Berthier despite disagreeing with the soundness of the orders. With Napoleon's arrival on the scene, things began to improve and Davout fought at Thann, Schierling, Eckmühl, and Ratisbon. During the Battle of Aspern-Essling , the destruction of the bridges across the Danube kept his corps out of the action there, but six weeks later at the Battle of Wagram he commanded the right and contributed to the victory. Once again playing a critical part in the campaigns, Davout received the title of Prince of Eckmühl for his victory there. After the campaign, Davout resumed command of the Army of Germany and generally spent his time there except when on leave at Paris.

Campaigns of 1812 - 1815

In 1812 Marshal Davout helped to assemble the army for the campaign against Russia, and when the war began he took command of I Corps. During the campaign he occupied Minsk, took Borisow, was victorious over Bagration at Mohilew, and served in the attack on Smolensk . A huge argument erupted between Marshal Murat and Davout in front of Napoleon, since Davout considered Murat to be wasting the cavalry and attempting to waste his men. Napoleon did not interrupt their argument, and afterwards ordered the marshals to cooperate, even though this order did little to enforce such cooperation. The next day as Murat launched an attack on the enemy, he ordered the infantry forward, only for Davout to ride up and order them to stop. Davout refused to listen to Murat's superior rank and considered the attack a waste of men, so Murat sent General Belliard to appeal to Napoleon, who detached a division from Davout's corps and put it under Murat's orders. This temporarily solved the problem, but Belliard also had to calm down Murat to keep the marshals from dueling.

As the Russians finally made a stand at the Battle of Borodino, Davout was leading his men when he was hit in the abdomen by a cannonball, but luckily it only bruised him. Despite the intense pain, he continued to command, and later he was hit by a bullet in the right thigh. He continued to command until the battle was over and his men were resting. After the army left Moscow for the retreat, Davout fought at Maloyarslavetz, and he later took command of the rear guard for a week before being removed from this command by Napoleon, who considered Marshal Ney to be a more capable rearguard commander. As Davout's corps became cut off from the army during the retreat, he managed to cut his way through when Prince Eugene turned his men around and came to his assistance. After Napoleon left the army to return to Paris, Napoleon placed Murat in command of the army, who was soon considering abandoning the army too. When Murat declared Napoleon a madman and prepared to leave for Naples, Davout reprimanded him, telling him that he was King of Naples but for the grace of Napoleon and the blood of many Frenchmen. Murat didn't care, leaving the army soon thereafter, and Prince Eugene assumed command.

Once back in friendly territory, Davout took command of I Corps in Germany in March of 1813. He successfully defended Dresden and then occupied Hamburg. Commanding the XIII Corps, he was victorious at Lauenbourg and he was then ordered to organize and direct the defense of Hamburg. As the French army was pushed farther back, Davout continued to hold Hamburg against all odds and refused to surrender even after the abdication of Napoleon, suspecting that it was a trick. Only when his cousin arrived with news of Napoleon's abdication did Davout believe it, but he still did not surrender the city, instead waiting for orders from the new government, which eventually arrived. Since he had not surrendered immediately upon learning of Napoleon's abdication, he was forcibly retired by the restored Bourbons immediately.

With Napoleon's return from Elba in 1815 for the Hundred Days, Davout went to him to offer his services. Wanting a battlefield command, Davout was upset when Napoleon wanted to make him the Minister of War. But Napoleon persuaded Davout to take the position, considering him to be the best available soldier for the job. After the French loss at the Battle of Waterloo, Davout began managing the defense of Paris, and he tried to convince Napoleon to seize control of the government, but instead the Emperor abdicated again. Now in charge of the army, Davout began to negotiate for the safety of Paris and an amnesty of those who had joined Napoleon, using the French army's considerable strength to get the allies to agree to his terms. Unfortunately, the restored Bourbons did not follow the agreement of the amnesty and the Allies refused to stop them from persecuting those who had joined Napoleon. Davout was again forcibly retired, exiled from Paris, and suffered financial hardship without his military income.

Recommended Biography: The Iron Marshal: A Biography of Louis N. Davout by Dr. John G. Gallaher.



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Updated February 2017

© Nathan D. Jensen