In the early afternoon of Feb. 3, 1814, the traveling carriage of Emperor Napoléon I clattered into the medieval city of Troyes, France, little more than 100 miles southeast of Paris. The French monarch’s entry was disheartening; there was no acclamation, not even a vivat of welcome. The streets were empty and silent, as residents had retreated into their homes. Facing shuttered and empty stores, the soldiers who followed Napoléon found themselves without food amid a population of fellow citizens that refused to assist them, hiding everything in anticipation of the victorious arrival of the Sixth Coalition—the allied armies of Russia, Austria, Prussia and the German states.
The emperor’s carriage stopped at 11 rue de la Temple, the home of merchant Duchâtel Berthelin. After passing through the heavy doors set in a massive stone arch, Napoléon stepped down into the cobblestone courtyard where Nicolas Piot de Courcelles, mayor of Troyes, waited to greet him. The men of the emperor’s Old Guard occupied the neighboring buildings and closed off the surrounding streets.
After a brief conversation with the mayor, Napoléon climbed a staircase and entered a salon—his headquarters—prepared in advance by his staff. There, he found a waiting pile of dispatches. He worked through the night, dictating orders he believed would deliver the victory he so desperately needed.
‘Despite the odds, Napoléon was confident he could defeat the allies and force them to a negotiated peace’
Driven back into France after a crushing defeat at Leipzig, Saxony, in October 1813, Napoléon was encumbered with political and military problems. He had hoped the Sixth Coalition armies would go into winter quarters, allowing him time to reorganize his government and raise new French forces. But in late December the allies streamed across the frontier into France, quickly overrunning the eastern part of the country. Towns and cities opened their gates to handfuls of allied cavalry and to the empty promise that liberation from Napoléon was at hand.
Prussian-born officer and strategist Carl von Clausewitz neatly assessed Napoléon’s situation. Setting aside the corps that would arrive later, the army of Austrian Field Marshal Karl Philipp, prince of Schwarzenberg, had 200,000 men at hand, that of Prussian Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher, 65,000. At best Napoléon would have just 115,000 men to face the invaders.
The odds against the French emperor were no better on the other borders of his empire.
In the Netherlands, Jean-Baptiste-Jules Bernadotte—a former marshal of France and by then crown Prince Charles John of Sweden—led his 60,000-man Army of the North southward, gently pushing General Nicolas-Joseph Maison and his 16,000 troops back toward France’s northern border, but not across. Aspiring to the French throne, Bernadotte did not want too much French blood on his hands.
In Italy, Napoléon’s adopted son and viceroy, Eugène de Beauharnais, and his 50,000 men were barely holding their own against Austrian Field Marshal Heinrich von Bellegarde’s 75,000 troops. And on the Spanish border the armies of Marshals Nicolas-Jean de Dieu Soult and Louis-Gabriel Suchet—some 90,000 men in all—were steadily losing ground against an Anglo-Spanish army of 125,000 under British Field Marshal Sir Arthur Wellesley.
Despite the overwhelming odds, Napoléon was confident he could defeat the allies and force them to a negotiated peace. The key to victory was to destroy the main coalition force invading eastern France. As Paris was a major arsenal, and mobilization and communication center, his strategy was constrained by the need to defend the French capital. Napoléon would have to maneuver to cover Paris while simultaneously massing his small army in a central position from which he could defeat each allied adversary in turn.
The central position he selected was the area between the region’s two major river systems, with the Marne northeast of Paris, the Seine to the southeast and the Aube flowing east-west across France, uniting southeast of Paris. Securing the bridges across the Seine, the Marne and their tributaries would assure Napoléon quick passage for supplies, reinforcements and the removal of casualties and would free his army from encumbering bridging equipment. More important, it would give him the ability to rapidly move his forces from one area to another.
On Jan. 25, 1814, Napoléon left Paris and traveled secretly to Châlons-sur-Marne, 100 miles due east of the capital. The emperor selected Blücher’s 25,000-man Army of Silesia as his first target, as he knew Blücher was approaching Saint-Dizier, 40 miles southeast of Châlons, not aware the French were on his flank. At the same time 60,000 troops from Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia were nearing Bar-sur-Aube, 70 miles to the south. Although converging, the allied forces were still 30 miles apart.
After slogging through a heavy rainstorm, Napoléon—ready to take the town—advanced on Saint-Dizier, arriving on January 27 with 34,000 men, but they were too late. Blücher had already moved through town toward Brienne-le-Château, 30 miles to the southwest, leaving only a small rear guard behind. Nevertheless, the French took Saint-Dizier, inflicting 1,500 casualties on the allied force.
Immediately turning in pursuit of Blücher, Napoléon caught up with him at Brienne on the afternoon of January 29. The battle raged into the night, as burning houses shadowed Napoléon’s young conscripts fighting their way to Blücher’s headquarters. The Prussian general and his chief of staff narrowly avoided capture by exiting a courtyard through one gate as the determined French soldiers broke in through another. At dawn Napoléon learned the elusive Blücher had withdrawn in good order beyond the village of La Rothière, just south of Brienne.
Napoléon received word that Blücher’s retreating columns had stumbled into Schwarzenberg’s advancing Army of Bohemia. Heavily outnumbered, the emperor could only fortify his position at La Rothière and wait for the allies to make a mistake.
He waited too long.
On February 1 the allies attacked through a raging snowstorm. Blücher led the assault with two corps of his army, plus two more from the Army of Bohemia, while another corps detached from the Army of Bohemia was ready to turn Napoléon’s left flank. With reserves the allies had 120,000 men engaging Napoléon’s 45,000.
Fortunately for the French, Blücher foolishly concentrated his attack on La Rothière, the strongest point in Napoléon’s line. For three hours the French resisted every attempt to dislodge them, but the sheer number of allied soldiers slowly turned the battle in the enemy’s favor. At nightfall Napoléon feigned a counterattack, then—covered by the blinding snow and darkness—his artillery expertly disengaged after inflicting some 6,000 casualties on his opponents. The French withdrew to the village of Lesmont, crossed the Aube and marched toward Troyes. The exhausted allies did not pursue.
Napoléon reached Troyes on February 3 to regroup and organize his army. Morale was low, his soldiers were exhausted and hungry, and the army and its general received a cold welcome from the citizens. Meanwhile, at La Rothière, the victorious allies were ecstatic with the outcome of the battle. Convinced Napoléon was no longer a threat, they decided to march directly on Paris, and in a measure to alleviate their supply problem, they chose to split their forces and march separately. Blücher and his 60,000 men would advance down the Marne, while Schwarzenberg’s 130,000 troops would advance down the Seine.
Learning of the separation of his adversaries, Napoléon first thought to pursue Schwarzenberg. But he soon learned that Blücher had entered the valley of the Marne, driving Marshal Jacques Macdonald’s 3,500-man French covering force before him.
“I am very annoyed by these moves,” Napoléon confided to brother Joseph in a February 6 letter, “for I wanted to attack Bar-sur-Seine and defeat [Schwarzenberg], whom I believe to have made some false dispositions. But I sacrifice everything to the need to cover Paris.”
Consequently, on February 6 the French army left Troyes, heading for the bridge at Nogent-sur-Seine, 30 miles to the northwest. To cover his move against Blücher, Napoléon ordered Marshal Édouard Mortier to advance east of Troyes and make a strong show of force against the Army of Bohemia, then force-march his men north to Nogent-sur-Seine. Deceived, the overcautious Schwarzenberg obligingly began to withdraw his army eastward, freeing Napoléon to move.
Three days later at Nogent-sur-Seine Napoléon learned that Blücher, in his haste to reach Paris, had carelessly allowed the Army of Silesia to disperse into four widely separated columns. Prussian Field Marshal Ludwig Yorck von Wartenburg was at Château-Thierry pursuing Macdonald; General Fabian Gottlieb von Osten-Sacken at Montmirail; and General Zakhar Dmitrievich Olsufiev at Champaubert. Blücher himself was at Vertus with the corps of Field Marshal Friedrich Kleist and Lt. Gen. Peter Kapzevich.
Napoléon would take full advantage of Blücher’s error. He left Marshal Claude Victor-Perrin with 14,000 men to hold a 30-mile stretch of Seine river crossings behind him. Centered on Nogent, Victor-Perrin was to guard against resurgence from Schwarzenberg. Napoléon marched north with the rest of his army.
“[I have] under my orders 30,000 men and about 120 guns,” he wrote to Joseph on February 9. “The forces of Yorck, Blücher and Sacken are estimated at 40,000 to 45,000 men. But [Macdonald] ought to occupy at least 5,000 men. I shall then be 30,000 against 40,000, a proportion which makes me hope success.…If this operation has a complete success, the campaign may be decided.”
On the morning of February 10 Napoléon and his 30,000 soldiers struck Blücher’s center, attacking the unsuspecting Olsufiev’s 5,000-man corps at the town of Baye, 30 miles northeast of Nogent. The French quickly drove Olsufiev out of Baye and north to the crossroads of Champaubert. By nightfall Napoléon had cut the Army of Silesia in half, capturing Olsufiev and more than 1,800 of his men and inflicting some 2,400 casualties with a loss of only 600 French soldiers.
Blücher soon learned the French had mauled the Army of Silesia, but he continued to believe Napoléon was incapable of a serious offensive. In fact, the Prussian commander thought the French emperor was at Sézanne, well south of Champaubert. Preparing for an advance on Sézanne, Blücher ordered Sacken and Yorck to fall back and rejoin him.
At Champaubert, Napoléon was already planning his next move. He ordered Marshal Auguste de Marmont to keep his 4,000 men near the crossroads, standing watch for Blücher’s advance. At dawn the next day the emperor led his tired, hungry soldiers down the sodden road west to Montmirail to intercept Sacken. A mile beyond town Napoléon’s cavalry ran headlong into Sacken’s surprised Cossacks.
Alerted to the presence of the French, Sacken deployed his 19,000 men and 40 guns along a mile-long position centered on the village of Haute-Épine—on the route to Paris—and prepared to overwhelm the 10,000 French soldiers he estimated were opposite him. Yorck and his 12,000 troops had moved south toward Montmirail from Château-Thierry and were just three miles north of Sacken’s position.
Facing a combined allied army of 31,000 with just 15,000 men, Napoléon formed his infantry on a line parallel to Sacken’s with his center supported by the village of Marchais-en-Brie. He stationed his cavalry in the fork between the routes to Château-Thierry and Paris, keeping a watchful eye on Yorck.
At 11 a.m. Sacken ordered his attack. The battle began with an allied assault on French-held Marchais, and the village changed hands repeatedly as the day progressed. Hearing the roar of cannon fire to the south, Yorck sent a message to Sacken, asking if he needed support, but Sacken declined, asserting that his soldiers could crush the French by themselves.
The battle raged without progress on either side. By 2 p.m. Mortier had arrived with a division of Napoléon’s Imperial Guard, permitting the emperor to launch the decisive attack. Napoléon ordered his cavalry to attack Sacken’s left flank, while commanding his infantry to feign a retreat on the enemy’s right flank. Sacken took the bait. He stripped troops from his center to reinforce his threatened left wing and strengthened his own right wing in order to turn the French left flank. Seeing this, Napoléon launched six battalions of his elite Old Guard under Marshal Michel Ney straight up the route to Paris through Sacken’s denuded center. While Ney and the Old Guard captured Haute-Épine, breaking the Russian center, Napoléon’s young conscripts, supported by two other Old Guard battalions, stormed Marchais a final time.
Sacken’s corps broke and fled, and it was only then Yorck stirred himself to move against the French right flank. It was too late. Napoléon turned and overwhelmed him. As night fell, the remnants of the two allied corps fled northward toward the bridge across the Marne at Château-Thierry. The battle was over, and that evening Napoléon wrote to Joseph, “These two days place Paris completely out of danger, for the Army of Silesia was the best that the allies had.”
On February 12 Napoléon left a small force at Montmirail to link with Marmont, while the emperor pursued Yorck and Sacken. If Macdonald had captured the bridge across the Marne at Chateau-Thierry, as ordered, Sacken and Yorck faced annihilation.
Throughout the day the French cavalry repeatedly outflanked, sabered and scattered the retreating allies. Unfortunately for Napoléon, when the armies came within sight of Château-Thierry that evening, the Prussians held the crossing, which allowed the allied troops to flee across the Marne and burn the bridge behind them. French engineers re-established the crossing, and on the afternoon of the 13th Mortier’s infantry and a major part of the French cavalry continued pursuit of the allies. That same day, however, Napoléon learned Blücher was advancing against Marmont at Champaubert, slowly driving him westward toward Montmirail at the emperor’s rear. Before dawn on the 14th Napoléon led a force to Montmirail, there he learned Blücher had attacked Marmont, three miles to the east near Vauchamps.
Blücher’s overwhelming desire to crush his French adversary led him into a trap: Marmont’s “retreating” troops suddenly turned and attacked, driving back the allied formation. Blücher, convinced Napoléon himself had arrived on the field, ordered a retreat but decided too late to withdraw. While French infantry attacked his front, French cavalry swarmed around his flanks. Napoléon’s cavalry broke the retreating Prussian squares, overrunning and scattering the allied soldiers. Blücher, Kleist and Kapzevich narrowly avoided capture. The French pursuit lasted until nightfall, and the next day Blücher withdrew to Châlons, where he was joined by the remnants of the Sacken and Yorck corps.
In a six-day campaign Napoléon and his 30,000 soldiers had marched more than 70 miles, won four battles—Champaubert, Montmirail, Château-Thierry and Vauchamps—and inflicted nearly 20,000 casualties on the 55,000-strong Army of Silesia. During that second week of February 1814 the French emperor had again demonstrated his astonishing ability to inspire his soldiers and exploit his enemies’ errors and weaknesses.
Despite his brilliance during those six days, Napoléon ultimately could not save his throne. The allies rebounded from their February drubbing and captured Paris on March 31. Napoléon abdicated on April 11, and the victors exiled him to the Mediterranean island of Elba. Three hundred days later he escaped, returned to France and raised yet another army. But in June 1815 the emperor’s old enemies Blücher and Wellington, at the head of the Seventh Coalition, finally and definitively beat Napoléon at the Battle of Waterloo. Exiled again, this time to the far more remote British-held South Atlantic island of Saint Helena, Napoléon Bonaparte died on May 5, 1821.
James W. Shosenberg writes from Oshawa, Canada. For further reading he suggests A Military History and Atlas of the Napoléonic Wars, by Brig. Gen. Vincent J. Esposito and Colonel John R. Elting, or, for those who read French, Napoléon en 1814, by Commandant Henry Lachouque.