Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXII, 9

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XXII, 8 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXII, 10

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXII, chapter 9
Notes which became the pamphlet: De Bonaparte et des Bourbons – I take an apartment on the Rue de Rivoli – The notable Campaign of 1814 in France

In the second book of these Memoirs, it states (I was then returning from my first exile in Dieppe): ‘I was allowed to return to my Vallée…The earth trembles under the feet of foreign soldiers….I write like one of the last Romans, amidst the sounds of the Barbarian invasion. By day I trace pages as troubled as the events of the day….at night, while the rumble of distant cannon dies away among my woods, I return to the silence of years that sleep in the tomb, to the tranquillity of my earliest memories.’

These restless pages that I trace today were notes respecting the events of the time, which, collected, became my pamphlet: De Bonaparte et des Bourbons. I had such an elevated idea of Napoleon’s genius and the bravery of our soldiers, that foreign invasion, happy as it might be in its final outcome, would never have entered my head: but I thought that invasion, in making France realise the danger into which Napoleon’s ambition had led her, would lead to an internal reaction, and that the freedom of the French would be achieved by their own efforts. It was with this idea in mind that I wrote my notes, in order that if our political assemblies halted the march of the Allies, and resolved to divorce themselves from the great man, who had become a scourge, they would know whom to resort to; it seemed to me that recourse was to be found in that authority, modified to suit the times, under which our ancestors had lived for eight centuries: when in a storm one finds only an old building within reach, ruined as it is, one shelters there.

In the winter of 1813-1814, I took an apartment on the Rue de Rivoli, facing the front railings of the TuileriesGarden, before which I had heard the death of the Duc d’Enghien being cried aloud. As yet in that street one could only see the arcades built by the Government and a few isolated houses, rising up here and there, their jagged sides outlines of waiting stone.

It required nothing less than the ills that weighed on France, to maintain the aversion that Napoleon inspired and at the same time resist the admiration that he could arouse as soon as he stirred: he was the most incredible genius in action who ever existed; his first Campaign in Italy and his last Campaign in France (I do not speak of Waterloo) were his two finest campaigns; Condé in the first, Turenne in the second, a great warrior in the former, a great man in the latter; though they differed in their outcomes: since with the one he gained an Empire, with the other he lost it. His last moments of power, naked and rootless as they were, could not have been extracted from him, like the teeth of a lion, except by the exertion of all Europe. Napoleon’s name was still so formidable that the enemy armies only crossed the Rhine with apprehension; they looked behind them constantly to make sure that retreat was still possible; masters of Paris they still trembled. Alexander glancing back at Russia, on entering France, congratulated those who could return there, and wrote to his mother to express his anxiety and regret.

Napoleon beat the Russians at Saint-Dizier, the Prussians and the Russians at Brienne, as if to honour the fields in which he had been nurtured. He overthrew the Silesian army at Montmirail, at Champaubert and a section of the Grand Army at Montereau. He resisted everywhere; passing and re-passing in his own steps; pushing back the columns that surrounded him. The Allies proposed an armistice; Bonaparte tore up the peace preliminaries offered and shouted: ‘I am nearer to Vienna than the Austrian Emperor is to Paris!’

Russia, Austria, Prussia and England, for mutual support, concluded a fresh treaty of alliance at Chaumont; but at heart, alarmed by Bonaparte’s resistance, they thought of retreat. At Lyons, an army presented itself on the Austrian flank; in the south, Marshal Soult halted the English; the Congress of Châtillon, which was not dissolved till the 15th of March, was still in negotiations. Bonaparte drove Blücher from the heights of Craonne. The Allied Grand Army only triumphed at Bar-sur-Aube, on the 27th of February, by weight of numbers. Bonaparte, increasing his forces, had recovered Troyes which had been reoccupied by the Allies. From Craonne he took himself to Rheims. ‘Tonight,’ he said, ‘I am off to catch my father-in-law at Troyes.’

On the 20th of March, an engagement took place near Arcis-sur-Aube. During an artillery barrage, on a shell falling in front of a Guards’ square the square appeared to make a slight movement. Bonaparte dashed up to the projectile whose fuse was smoking and made his horse sniff at it; the shell exploded, while the Emperor emerged safe and sound from the midst of the shattered lightning-bolt.

The battle was due to recommence the following day; but Bonaparte, yielding to the inspiration of genius, an inspiration nonetheless fatal to him, withdrew in order to bear down on the rear of the allied troops, separate them from their supplies, and swell his army with the garrisons from the frontier forts. The invaders were preparing to fall back towards the Rhine, when Alexander, by one of those heaven-sent impulses which change the world, decided to march on Paris, to which the road was now open (I have heard General Pozzo recount that it was he who persuaded the Emperor to advance). Napoleon thought he was drawing the bulk of the enemy after him, but he was only followed by ten thousand cavalry, whom he took to be the vanguard of the main body, and who were masking the true movement of the Prussians and Muscovites. He scattered those ten thousand horsemen at Saint-Dizier and Vitry, and then realised that the Allied Grand Army was not behind them; that army, hastening towards the capital, had only Marshals Marmont and Mortier facing it, with about twelve thousand conscripts.

Napoleon headed in haste for Fontainebleau: where the sacred prisoner, in departing, had left it to those who would repay and avenge. Two things are always linked together throughout history: when a man opens the way to injustice, at that same moment he opens a way to perdition, into which, after a certain distance, the former path will collapse.