The Treachery of Bernadotte
Van Murray, the American negotiator at the Convention of Mortefontaine, wrote on October 3, 1800: "Napoleon Bonaparte is an extraordinary man, and is too generous for the enemies of France. Generosity will cause his weakness and his ruin."
To show how prophetic this remark was, we will cite in this chapter extensive excerpts from the memoirs of Marcellin Marbot on the subject of Bernadotte, whose treason Napoleon always forgave, going so far as to make him a marshal and King of Sweden, which was later to be one of the enemies ranged against France in the battle of Leipzig in 1813.
From Marbot’s Memoirs:
“In May 1802, Bernadotte, whose command extended over every department, from the mouth of the Gironde to that of the Seine, was head of an army of 80,000 men.
If General Bernadotte had had a stronger character, the First Consul would have regretted giving him such an important command since, and I can state today, as a historical fact that will harm no one, that Bernadotte conspired against the government of which Bonaparte was the head.
Generals Bernadotte and Moreau, jealous of the First Consul’s rise to power, had resolved to overthrow him and place themselves at the head of the government. To achieve this goal, Bernadotte, who had a very marked talent for winning the affection of his officers and soldiers, visited the provinces in his district, reviewing his troops, and employing every means to increase their loyalty to him: cajolery of all kinds, money, bribes and promises of promotion. He used every subterfuge in his dealings with his subordinates, while in secret with senior officers, he disparaged the First Consul and his government.
Bernadotte’s chief of staff was a brigadier general named Simon, an able man who unfortunately lacked firmness. Since his position put him in daily correspondence with the heads of army units, he abused this to make his offices the centre of the conspiracy. A battalion commander by the name of Fourcart was then attached to General Simon, who made him his principal agent. Fourcart, going from garrison to garrison under the pretext of duty, organized a secret league, which was joined by almost all the colonels, as well as a crowd of senior officers who were incensed against the First Consul.
It was agreed that the garrison of Rennes, which comprised several regiments, would begin the movement, which would extend like a trail of gunpowder through every division in the army; and since in this garrison there needed to be one corps to make the first move that would set off the others, they summoned to Rennes the 8th regiment of line, commanded by Colonel Pinoteau, an able, very active, very brave man, who was however somewhat hotheated, despite his phlegmatic exterior. He was one of Bernadotte's creatures and one of the most ardent leaders of the conspiracy.
Everything was ready for the explosion, when Bernadotte, lacking resolution, and wanting to use a cat’s paw to pull his chestnuts from the fire, persuaded General Simon and the principal conspirators that it was essential for him to be in Paris when the army of Brittany proclaimed the overthrow of the Consuls, so that he would be in a position to seize the reins of government at once, together with Moreau, with whom he needed to confer about this serious matter. Actually, Bernadotte wanted to avoid being compromised if the affair failed, being prepared only to profit from it in the event of success, and General Simon, along with the other conspirators, was blind enough not to see through this subterfuge. The day of the general uprising was thus agreed upon, and the one who should have led and directed it, since it was he who had prepared it, was clever enough to keep his distance.
Before Bernadotte's departure for Paris, a proclamation was drafted, addressed to both the French people and the army. Several thousand copies, prepared in advance, were to be posted on the eventful day. A bookseller in Rennes, initiated into the conspirators’ secret by General Simon and Fourcart, undertook to print this proclamation himself. This would have been satisfactory if publication only had to take place in Brittany. Bernadotte, however, wanted to have a large number of copies in Paris, which would be distributed throughout the capital and sent to all the provinces, as soon as the Army of the West rose up against the government. Since he feared being discovered while dealing with a printer in Paris, this is how Bernadotte had a great quantity of these proclamations made without compromising himself. He authorized my brother Adolphe, his aide-de-camp, who had just been made a lieutenant in the region of the Loire, to accompany him to the capital and advised him to bring his horse and his own small cart, considering that it was going to be a long stay. Delighted, my brother filled the trunk of the cart with various personal effects, and entrusted the driving to his servant, Joseph, who was to make the trip in several stages while Adolphe took the stagecoach.
As soon as my brother left, General Simon and Commander Fourcart, delaying the departure of the servant under some pretext, opened the trunk of the cart, took out the luggage and replaced with it packages of proclamations; then, closing it tightly again, they sent poor Joseph on his way, never suspecting what he was taking along with him.
However, the First Consul’s police force, which was beginning to be well organized, had got wind that something was afoot in the army of Brittany, but did not know exactly what was being planned, or who the instigators were. The Minister of Police believed that it was its duty to warn the Prefect of Rennes, Monsieur Mounier, formerly a celebrated speaker in the Constituent Assembly. By an extraordinary chance, the Prefect received the dispatch on the very same day that the conspiracy was supposed to erupt in Rennes, during the parade, at noon. And it was already eleven thirty! M. Mounier, to whom the Minister had given no concrete details, believed that, in the absence of the General in Chief, the best way to obtain information was to address himself to the Chief of Staff. He thus requested General Simon to come to the prefecture and showed him the ministerial dispatch. General Simon, believing the plot had been uncovered, lost his head like a child, and told the Prefect that there was indeed a vast conspiracy in the army, that unfortunately he had taken part in it, but that he had repented. Here the conspirators’ plan unravelled entirely, as he named the leaders, adding that in a few moments, the troops united on the parade ground, upon a signal from Colonel Pinoteau, were about to proclaim the overthrow of the Consular government! One may judge the astonishment of M. Mounier, who, incidentally, was extremely embarrassed in the presence of the guilty General. There was also the danger that Pinoteau might recover from his initial shock, return to his senses, and remember that he had 80,000 men under his command, eight to ten thousand of whom were assembled, at that precise moment, just a short distance from the prefecture! M. Mounier was in an extremely perilous situation, but he managed to get out of it cleverly.
General Virion of the gendarmerie, had been charged by the government with forming an infantry corps of gendarmes in Rennes, to which each regiment in the army had contributed a few grenadiers. These soldiers, having no common bond of loyalty, were consequently outside the influence of the colonels of the army of the line and only accepted orders from the new officers of gendarmerie, who themselves, in accordance with regulations, obeyed the Prefect. M. Mounier then commanded General Virion to send in all the gendarmes. However, fearing that General Simon might have second thoughts, and escape to put himself at the head of the troops, he used all his eloquence to persuade him that his repentance and his confession would lessen his guilt in the eyes of the First Consul, and urged him to surrender his sword and to go to the Labat tower, escorted by the gendarmes who were arriving in the courtyard at that moment. Thus it was that the prime mover of the revolt found himself in prison.
While this was occurring in the prefecture, the troops of the line were assembled on the parade ground, waiting for the order for the parade to begin, which was also the signal for the revolt. All the colonels were in on the secret and had promised their assistance, except for Colonel Godard of the 79th, whom everyone hoped would follow the movement.
Upon what slight threads the destinies of empires hang! Colonel Pinoteau, a firm and determined man, was to give the signal, which his regiment, the 82nd, already ranged in battle formation on the square, awaited impatiently. Yet Pinoteau, together with Fourcart, had spent the entire morning preparing to send out the proclamations, and was so preoccupied by this that he had forgotten to shave. Noon struck. Colonel Pinoteau, ready to go on parade, realized that he had not shaved, and hastened to do so. But while he was proceeding with this operation, General Virion, escorted by a large number of officers of gendarmerie, burst into his room, seized his sword, and informed him that he was a prisoner. He was escorted to the tower where General Simon was already confined! Only a few moments later, Colonel Pinoteau, at the head of 10,000 men, would never have allowed himself to be intimidated by the capture of the General Simon and would certainly have gone through with his plan to revolt against the Consular government. But, surprised by General Virion, what could he do? He had no choice but to yield.
When this second arrest was accomplished, General Virion and the Prefect dispatched an aide-de-camp to the parade ground with orders to tell Colonel Godard of the 79th that they had a message for him from the First Consul. As soon as he joined them, they informed him of the discovery of the conspiracy, as well as of the arrests of General Simon and Colonel Pinoteau, and urged him to join forces with them to suppress the rebellion. Colonel Godard pledged himself to do so and returned to the parade ground without informing anyone of what had just been communicated to him, He then ordered his regiment to march on the right flank, and led them towards the Labat tower, where he joined forces with the battalions of gendarmes holding it. There they also found General Virion and the Prefect, who were distributing cartridges to these loyal troops, and awaited events.
However, the officers of the regiments stationed on the Parade ground, astonished by the departure of the 79th, and not understanding how Colonel Pinoteau could have been delayed, sent for him, and learned that he had been just led to the tower. At the same time, they were informed of the arrest of General Simon. Stupefaction reigned!
As soon as he had heard General Simon’s confession, and although victory was far from assured, M. Mounier dispatched a courier to the government, and the first Consul ordered all travellers from Brittany to be searched.
While all this was going on, the good servant Joseph arrived quietly in Versailles in my brother’s cart, where to his great dismay, he was nabbed by the gendarmes and conducted, notwithstanding his protests, to the Ministry of Police. You can imagine that when Minister Fouché learned that the cart driven by this man belonged to one of Bernadotte’s aide-de-camps, he wasted no time ordering the trunk to be opened. This was found to be full of proclamations, in which Bernadotte and Moreau, after denouncing the first Consul in virulent terms, announced his fall and their own accession to power. Bonaparte was furious at the two generals and ordered them to be brought to him. Moreau claimed that since he had no authority over the army of the West, he could not be held responsible for the conduct of its constituent regiments.
The rebels’ proclamations carried the signature “Bernadotte,” and more than a thousand copies had just been discovered in his aide-de-camp’s cart! The first Consul thought that such flagrant evidence would dismay and confound Bernadotte; but feigning surprise and indignation, he proclaimed, “I knew nothing, absolutely nothing!” General Simon and Colonel Pinoteau, he said, were miserable wretches! He challenged anyone to show him the original of the proclamation he had supposedly signed! Was it his fault if some lunatics had printed his name at the bottom of a proclamation that he repudiated with all his heart, along with the guilty authors of all these machinations, whose punishment he was the first to demand?
Although he was convinced of Bernadotte's guilt, the First Consul did not think that he could justify an indictment against a General-in-Chief who was so popular with the people and the army. They did not deal so lightly with my brother Adolphe, however. One beautiful night, they came to arrest him at my mother’s house, at a moment when the poor woman was already overwhelmed by grief.
The leniency that Napoleon showed toward Bernadotte and Moreau, who a short time later attempted to have him assassinated, as we will see in Chapter 26, was repeated with his ministers Talleyrand and Fouché, as with the Tsar of Russia, the Emperor of Austria and the King of Prussia. The phrase "His goodness was his downfall" was never truer than when applied to Napoleon.