On August 15, 1806, France celebrated St. Napoleon’s Day and Napoleon’s thirty-seventh birthday. The country, wrote Mme. de Rémusat (usually critical), “was in a state of profound tranquillity. Day by day the Emperor met with less opposition. A firm, equable, and strict administration—which was just inasmuch as it was equal for all—regulated both the exercises of authority and the mode of supporting it. Conscription was rigorously enforced, but as yet the murmurs of the people were faint; the French had not then exhausted the sentiment of glory.”25 Best of all, Prime Minister Fox for England, and Count Peter Oubril for Russia, had opened negotiations for peace.
Prussia, however, was reeling toward war. Her shotgun union with France had proved costly: England and Sweden had declared war upon her; the British Navy had blockaded her ports and seized her ships on the seas; her economy was suffering; her people wondered why their King had made so damaging an alliance. Her elder statesmen, contemplating the splendor of an army still stiff with proud memories of Frederick the Great, and counting the manpower that Czar Alexander was preparing for another round with France, told the hesitant Frederick William III that a lasting alliance with Russia was Prussia’s only alternative to being swallowed in Napoleon’s gaping appetite. Queen Louise, beautiful and passionate, doted upon the handsome and courtly Alexander, called Napoleon a “monster,” and scorned her husband’s fear of that “scum from hell”;26 the regiment that bore her name wildly cheered her as, shapely in her colonel’s uniform, she rode before them on the parade ground. Prince Louis Ferdinand, the King’s cousin, itched for war as a path of glory to a throne.
On June 30, 1806, Frederick William sent Alexander an assurance that Prussia’s treaty with France would never interfere with the treaty it had made with Russia in 1800. In July he was shocked to learn that Napoleon had received under his protectorate a Confederation of the Rhine which included several regions formerly held by Prussia and supposedly still within her sphere of influence. Furthermore the Prussian ambassador to France notified his master that Bonaparte was secretly proposing the return of Hanover to England as part of the price of peace; Hanover had been promised to Prussia; the King felt betrayed. On August 9 he ordered the mobilization of the Prussian Army. On August 26 Napoleon aroused Prussia still further by ordering—or allowing—the execution of Palm, a Nuremberg bookseller, for issuing a brochure urging resistance to France. On September 6, in a letter to the Czar, Frederick William pledged himself to join in an attack upon “the disturber of the universe.”27 On September 13 the gallant Fox died; this, Napoleon would later say, “was one of the fatalities of my career. If he had lived, peace would have been made.”28 The British ministry returned to a policy of a struggle to the death, and Alexander repudiated the tentative agreement that Oubril had signed with France. On September 19 Prussia sent to France an ultimatum that unless all French troops were within a fortnight removed to west of the Rhine, Prussia would declare war. Godoy, the wily minister then ruling Spain, offered its friendship to Prussia, and called the Spaniards to arms. Napoleon never forgot that move, and resolved that when opportunity offered he would set up a friendlier government in Spain. Reluctantly he left Paris and rode off with Josephine and Talleyrand to Mainz to face again the chances of war.
He must have lost his taste for battle, for when he had to part from Josephine at Mainz he suffered a nervous collapse. Possibly he had come to realize that no matter how often he risked his throne and life in war, no victory would ever win him an acceptable peace. Mme. de Rémusat described the scene as reported to her by her husband:
The Emperor sent my husband to summon the Empress; he returned with her in a few moments. She was weeping. Agitated by her tears, the Emperor held her for a long time in his arms, and seemed almost unable to bid her farewell. He was strongly moved, and M. de Talleyrand was also much affected. The Emperor, still holding his wife to his heart, approached M. de Talleyrand with outstretched hand; then, throwing his arms around both at once, he said to M. de Rémusat, “It is very hard to leave the two persons one loves best.” As he uttered these words he was overcome by a sort of nervous emotion, which increased to such a degree that he wept uncontrollably; and almost immediately an attack of convulsions ensued, which brought on vomiting. He was placed in a chair, and drank some orange-flower water, but continued to weep for fully a quarter of an hour. At length he mastered himself, and rising suddenly, shook M. de Talleyrand’s hand, gave a last embrace to his wife, and said to M. de Rémusat: “Are the carriages ready? Call the suite, and let us go.”29
He had to hurry, for his strategy depended upon bringing his best forces against the Prussians before the Russians could reach the front. The Prussians were not yet united: in the fore were 50,000 men under Prince Friedrich Ludwig of Hohenlohe; farther back were 60,000 men under Frederick William and that same gentlemanly Duke of Brunswick who, fifteen years before, had vowed to destroy Paris; add some 30,000 Hanoverians, who had come without ecstasy to the aid of their new King; in all, 140,000 men. Napoleon had 130,000 soldiers, hastily assembled but skilled in maneuvers, strangers to defeat, and confidently led by Lannes, Davout, Augereau, Soult, Murat, and Ney. Lannes and Augereau caught one Prussian division at Saalfeld, a plain between the Saale and the Ilm, tributaries of the Elbe; the Prussians, unused to the quick maneuvers of the French, were routed, and there Prince Louis Ferdinand was killed (October 10, 1806).
The French rushed on, 56,000 of them, and came upon Hohenlohe’s army near Jena, home of the famous university where Schiller had recently taught, and where Hegel, a year later, was to puzzle the world with a new philosophy. Napoleon deployed his forces in a complex web that enabled the divisions of Lannes and Soult to charge the enemy’s center and left flank while Augereau’s division attacked the right, and Murat’s cavalry rode furiously into the disordered Prussians, who abandoned all formation and fled from the field. In their flight they ran into the broken battalions of the Duke of Brunswick, which had been routed at Auerstedt by a French army brilliantly led by Davout; there the Duke of Brunswick was mortally wounded. On that day, October 14, 1806, the Prussians lost 27,000 dead or wounded, 18,000 prisoners, and nearly all their artillery. Napoleon, that evening, sent a hurried report to Josephine: “We have met the Prussian army and it no longer exists. I am well, and press you to my heart.”30 In the following days Ney, Soult, and Murat, pursuing the fugitives, captured 20,000 more men. Davout and Augereau drove straight on to Berlin; it quickly surrendered; and on October 27 Napoleon entered the Prussian capital.
One of his first acts was to levy from Prussia and her allies a contribution of 160 million francs to pay the expenses of the French army.31 In addition Berlin was required to supply the occupying forces with food, clothing, and medicines. Art scouts were ordered to dispatch to Paris the best pictures and statues in Berlin and Potsdam; Napoleon himself, in a tour of Potsdam, appropriated the sword of Frederick the Great.
From Berlin, November 21, 1806, he issued an historic decree: henceforth no vessel coming from Great Britain or her colonies should be allowed to enter any port in the French Empire, which now included the Hanseatic towns; no goods from Great Britain or her possessions were to be allowed entry into any territory governed by, or allied with, France; no Briton was to enter those lands. Finding all his military victories of no avail in persuading England to peace, and knowing that she would apply her blockade to any regions controlled by France, as she had (in May, 1806) extended it to all the coast from Brest to the Elbe,32 Napoleon sought to turn that weapon around: Britain was to be shut out from the Continent, as the British fleet had shut out France and her allies from all maritime trade. Perhaps in this way, he hoped, the merchants and manufacturers of Britain might be moved to peace.
There were many weak points in the plan. Continental manufacturers, freed from British competition, would raise the prices of their products, and consumers would mourn the absence of British products to which they had become accustomed. There would be much smuggling and bribery. (Already Bourrienne, whom Napoleon had made minister at Hamburg, was amassing a fortune by selling exemptions from the blockade; Napoleon had to dismiss him again.) Russia was still allied with England, and British goods could cross the Russian frontiers into Prussia and Austria. British goods were daily pouring into the port of Danzig, which was still held by Prussian troops.
Though the Prussian Army had been shattered, and Napoleon was dictator in Berlin, his military situation was more immediately worrisome than his economic affairs. Most of Poland was held by Russia and Prussia, and Polish patriots were sending appeals to Napoleon to come and free their once proud country from these humiliating yokes; however, a well-equipped army of eighty thousand Russians, stationed west of the Vistula under Count Levin Bennigsen, was preparing to challenge any French intrusion into Polish affairs. The French army, slowly recovering from Jena, was not eager to offer such a challenge; unused to the damp Baltic cold, it looked with tremors at the approaching winter, and longed for home. Meanwhile a deputation came from Paris to Berlin, ostensibly to congratulate Napoleon on his brilliant victories, but really to beg him to make peace and return to a France that had begun to see in every Napoleonic victory the necessity for many more, each risking all. He told the delegates that he could not stop now; that the Russian challenge had to be met, and that the blockade of England would fail unless Russia were coaxed or forced to join in the plan. He bade his army advance into Prussian Poland; it met with no immediate resistance, and on December 19, 1806, Napoleon entered Warsaw unhindered and acclaimed.
All classes, from nobles still longing for the liberum veto to the peasants still suffering the disabilities of serfdom, united in seeing him as the miracle-worker who would annul the three partitions of their country by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, and would make Poland again a sovereign state. He returned plaudits with lauds, praised their nation, their heroes, and their women (who spoke French as readily as their own seductively sibilant tongue), and took one of these, Countess Marie Laczyńska Walewska, to his bed and heart. His appeals to her, before and after, were as humble and passionate as his early letters to his Josephine. Walewska refused him (we are told) until a group of Polish nobles, “in a document signed with all the first names in Poland,” called upon her to sacrifice herself in the hope that Napoleon would thereby be moved to restore the integrity and independence of their thrice-partitioned country. It reminded her that Esther had given herself to Ahasuerus not out of love for him, but to save her people. “If but we could say the same, to your glory and our good fortune!”33 When Josephine begged to be allowed to come up from Mainz, Napoleon used the bad roads of Poland as reason for bidding his wife, “Go back to Paris;… be bright and gay; perhaps I shall be there soon.”34
Hibernating with Walewska, he hoped that the Russians would await the spring before troubling him. But when he sent a force under Marshal François-Joseph Lefebvre to capture Danzig, Bennigsen led nearly all his 80,000 men across the Vistula in a massive attack upon Lefebvre’s columns as they neared Thorn. Couriers rushed back to notify Napoleon; he hurried north, and with 65,000 men, on February 8, 1807, he fought at Eylau (south of Königsberg) one of the costliest battles in his wars. The Russian artillery proved superior to the French; Augereau, old, wounded, and dazed, asked to be relieved of his command, alleging that he could no longer think clearly; Murat’s cavalry broke the enemy’s lines, but these re-formed, and stood their ground till evening. Then Bennigsen ordered a retreat, leaving 30,000 men killed or disabled on the field; however, he reported to the Czar that he had won a glorious victory. The Czar celebrated it with a Te Deum Mass at St. Petersburg.35
The French had won, but they had lost 10,000 wounded or dead, and the survivors wondered how they could resist another assault from those tough and innumerable Slavs. Napoleon too now had unwonted moods of gloom; that diseased stomach which was to kill him was already humbling him with pain. He never forgot the devoted care that Marie Walewska gave him through that trying winter in the army camp at Finkenstein. Nevertheless he labored daily, ordering food, clothing, and medicine for his troops, supervising military practice, summoning conscripts from his weary people and his reluctant allies, and issuing decrees for the government of France. In the meantime Czar Alexander I and King Frederick William III met at Bartenstein on April 26, 1807, and signed an agreement for dividing non-French Europe between them after the next battle, in which they expected the French army to be destroyed.
When that mutilated army had been reinforced, and cheered by the sprouting spring, Napoleon sent another detachment to take Danzig; it was done. Bennigsen, who had also rebuilt his battalions, received orders from Alexander to march to Königsberg, where he would be fortified by a Prussian garrison 24,000 strong. Bennigsen proceeded, but on the way he allowed his 46,000 men to rest at Friedland. There, at three o’clock in the morning of June 14, 1807 (anniversary of Marengo), they were awakened by an artillery barrage from 12,000 Frenchmen led by the reckless but undefeated Lannes. The Russians soon returned his fire, and his venture might have ended in disaster had not reinforcements come. Napoleon rushed up with his entire force, and hemmed in the Russians on every side except the River Alle, which denied them retreat. By 5 P.M. the French prevailed; the Russians took to boats or the water in desperate flight; 25,000 of them were left on the field. The French had lost 8,000, but they had won a decisive victory over the only Russian army then available to meet invasion. Russians and Prussians fled to Tilsit, losing so many hundreds to their French pursuers that their generals, Alexander permitting, asked for a truce. Napoleon granted it; then, leaving General Savary to hold and govern Königsberg, he himself proceeded to Tilsit to make peace with a broken King and a chastened Czar.