A Look at the Generals of
Soldier Emperor, Part Two
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
France has by far the best pool of leaders in Soldier
Emperor, a reflection not only of the skills of the individual men involved but the far superior staff available to the French armies. The modernizing impulses of the Revolution had made their mark on the army as well as civil society, and the drive for rational efficiency had provided French formations with a dedicated staff including a large number of secretaries to assure that written orders could flow quickly once issued.
In game terms, that means that French leaders are rated somewhat higher than they would be if serving in other armies. Let’s start our look at these men with the lesser-known generals and the admirals:
Napoleon’s stepson Eugène de Beauharnais actually had some military and administrative ability, unlike the Emperor’s blood relations. The son of Napoleon’s first wife Josephine, Eugène served as an aide and then junior officer in Napoleon’s early campaigns. Once his stepfather became Emperor and adopted him, Eugène married a Bavarian princess and became Viceroy of Italy.
Placed in titular command of the Army of Italy for the 1809 campaign against Austria, he had Etienne MacDonald as a corps commander and advisor. MacDonald had been in disgrace for years, and eager to recoup his military fortunes he hinted afterwards that he had really been in command. Eugène’s army lost its first battle against the Austrians, but fought well afterwards and the Viceroy’s prestige certainly grew. Eugène commanded the same troops in the 1812 invasion of Russia, now organized as a large corps, and took over command of the Grande Armée’s remnants when Joachim Murat deserted his post during the great retreat from Russia.
After corps command in Germany, Eugène returned to Italy and fought the Austrians along the Mincio. When Napoleon abdicated for the first time, he joined his in-laws in Bavaria and remained there during Napoleon’s return and afterwards, dying of a brain hemorrhage at age 42.
Napoleon’s little brother, Jérôme Bonaparte proved a constant disappointment to the Emperor. Commissioned in the French Navy, he leapt from butterbar to command of a ship of the line, promptly disobeying orders, leaving his squadron, and trapping his ship in Concarneau Bay. But if it’s good to be the king, it’s better to be the Emperor’s brother, for Napoleon promoted him to Admiral following this stunt.
Things got even better in 1807, when Napoleon named Jérôme to command a corps of German troops occupying Prussian Silesia, annulled his marriage to a Baltimore merchant’s daughter and found a German princess to replace his first wife. Napoleon then named Jérôme King of Wesphalia. The younger Bonaparte floundered as sovereign of the so-called model kingdom, racking up huge expenses.
He first went to war in 1812, vaulting directly to corps command and promptly earning his brother’s ire by bringing along a massive household and bungling a battle between Polish cavalry allied to the French and Russian Cossacks. Napoleon reprimanded his brother, who promptly deserted his command to return to Westphalia; the Emperor declared that his brother had become ill.
Rallying to Napoleon in 1815, Jérôme was denied a combat command by Davout, the War Minister. He traveled to the army anyway where Napoleon gave him command of a division; Jérôme once again bungled things and contributed greatly to the French defeat at Waterloo. The Second Empire established by his nephew Louis Napoleon was good to Jérôme, who died in 1860 as a Marshal of France and Prince of the Empire.
Jérôme may be overrated in Soldier Emperor.
Claude Victor Perrin spent a decade as a Royal Army musician before mustering out in 1791. After a few months selling groceries he returned to soldiering as a lieutenant colonel of volunteers, rising to command a brigade at the siege of Toulon where he became friends with young artillery captain Napoleone Buonaparte. He rose steadily, holding an independent command in the Netherlands for several years and achieving a corps command during the 1807 winter campaign against the Russians in place of the wounded Bernadotte. He made the most of the opportunity, leading his new troops so well at the Battle of Friedland that Napoleon named him a Marshal of France.
Afterwards, Victor held independent commands in Spain and won a number of battles, but was defeated by Wellington at Talavera. Summoned to join the Grande Armée for the invasion of Russia, he commanded a corps there and afterwards in the campaigns of 1813 and 1814 across Germany and France. He earned Napoleon’s ire for arriving late to the battlefield at Montereau, and their relationship apparently never healed. Victor remained loyal to Louis XVIII upon Napoleon’s return from exile and later while serving as military judge voted to put Michel Ney to death.
Nicolas Oudinot, a brewer’s son, had joined a royal infantry regiment at age 17 and risen to sergeant by the time his father bought out his enlistment in 1787. Two years later he signed on again as a captain of volunteers, rising to lieutenant colonel and battalion command in 1791. Once fighting began against the Prussians and Austrians he quickly gained a reputation for personal courage, and as a magnet for bullets, sabre strokes and cannonball fragments. Sources differ on the number of wounds suffered by Oudinot in his career, but he appears to have been wounded on at least 22 separate occasions, often with multiple injuries each time.
He rose through the Revolutionary wars to command a division, and also served as chief of staff to André Masséna. Under Napoleon he commanded a division of grenadiers in the 1805, 1806 and 1809 campaigns. He commanded a corps in the latter part of the 1809 campaign, and was named a Marshal of France. Oudinot briefly held an independent command in 1810 in the Netherlands, but returned to corps command under Napoleon in 1812 in Russia and across Germany and France in 1813 and 1814. He refused to back Napoleon in 1815, but also refused to fight against him.
Pierre-Charles Villeneuve (he dropped the noble “de” from his name during the French Revolution) gave early support to the Revolution, and as a result shot quickly through the ranks, becoming a rear admiral in 1796 at age 33. He commanded the rear of the French line at the Battle of the Nile and escaped the French disaster there. Napoleon considered this a mark of good luck; most of the French naval officer corps considered it a stain of cowardice.
Villeneuve commanded the French Mediterranean Fleet in Napoleon’s complicated scheme to invade Britain by first sailing to the Caribbean. The British did not follow, and he ended up at Cadiz along with most of the Spanish fleet. The British fleet led by Horatio Nelson blockaded him there, and he refused to leave port despite direct orders to do so. When word came that he was to be replaced, he set sail and Nelson destroyed much of his fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar.
The admiral survived and became a British prisoner after the battle, spending several months on parole before returning to France. In April 1806 he “committed suicide,” improbably stabbing himself six times. After his death Napoleon changed his opinion, in later years blaming Villeneuve not only for the defeat at Trafalgar but for that at the Nile as well.
Villeneuve is probably over-rated in Soldier Emperor.
Julien Cosmao-Kerjulien had a long, successful career commanding French ships of the line, starting in 1793 at the age of 32 – the Revolution having created a lot of space on the promotion ladder. Cosmao fought in 11 battles during his career, gaining fame for his heroism at Trafalgar where his ship Pluton shot up the British Mars. On the next day he led the Franco-Spanish squadron of still-effective ships back out to sea to rescue stragglers. Despite a reputation for aggressiveness, he was never wounded or captured.
Cosmao became a rear admiral in 1806 and spent the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars commanding squadrons of the Mediterranean Fleet, conducting daring sorties to Spain and Italy under the eyes of the British blockade. He commanded the restored King Louis XVIII’s Mediterranean Fleet during the First Restoration, but rallied to Napoleon in 1815 and was forcibly retired after the Emperor’s second defeat.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.