Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Napoleon's Viceroy - Book Review.

Seeing as I'll be commanding the IV Corps in the Borodino game next January, I thought I should know a bit more about the man whose shoes I'll be filling. The only biography in English I could find is an old one published in 1966 if my memory serves me.

Carola Oman, daughter of the great Charles Oman of Peninsular War History fame, was a historian of note herself, and penned several biographies of major personalities, including Moore and Nelson. Her biography of Napoleon's step-son borders on hagiographic, but still it seems that he was extraordinarily loyal when compared to his contemporaries in Bonaparte's inner circle.

That seems to be a theme throughout the book; his loyalty to his father, his mother, his step-father, his sister, his wife and her family, the royal house of Bavaria and, above all, to France. After all his motto was apparently "Honour and Fidelity", so that's no real surprise.

Both his parents were arrested early on in the Revolution, his father ending up with an appointment with the "National Razor", but during that time he took it on himself to protect his sister Hortense, and free his parents from imprisonment. After his father was executed he took on the role of head of the household. All this happened before the age of 12.

Once his mother became involved with the rising star of French politics that was Napoleon, Eugene seemed to latch on to Bonaparte as a surrogate father figure. From that moment onwards he rode the roller-coaster that was the Napoleonic regime, first as adopted son and heir-apparent, then as viceroy of the Kingdom of Italy and Corps commander in the Grand Armee.

The book doesn't really critique his military abilities, which I felt was a drawback, as I am looking to find out what sort of a commander he was, but tells the story of a quick learner in the 1809 campaign in northern Italy who learnt from his mistakes and from his step-father's written instructions to end up beating Archduke John twice, at the Piave and the Raab. The author also passes briefly over greatest battles, Borodino and Malojaroslavets without much analysis, and hardly makes anything of his retreat from Prussia to the line of the Elbe in early 1813 after being thrown the command of the remains of the Grande Armee after Murat chucked it in.

He seems really to have come into his own as a commander when the Austrians entered the fray and invaded northern Italy with the aid of the turncoat Murat. He beat them in every engagement even though he was well outnumbered. He also resisted Napoleon's command to the point of wilful disobedience. Napoleon ordered him to come to his aid in France, but Eugene insisted he'd be better off tying up the Austrians in Italy, rather than abandoning the kingdom and adding his paltry numbers to Napoleon's tiny command. He was probably right, too. Only Napoleon's abdication stopped the fighting in Italy; he had done his duty, keeping much greater numbers occupied which would otherwise have been able to reassert control in Italy and threaten France from the south. I have borrowed the Nafziger book on this last campaign and am looking forward to a more detailed critique of his military abilities.

His married life is the author's favourite focus, where she portrays him as a loving husband and doting father, cruelly and reluctantly separated from from the regularly by his duty.According to the author, he was one of the few members of Napoleon's inner circle whose arranged marriage (to a daughter of the King of Bavaria) was a success eventually turning into a love match. This paragon of matrimonial bliss is spoiled somewhat by mention in other people's accounts of his time at the Congress of Vienna including time spent with his 'mistress'! Otherwise, you'd be forgiven to think he was one of the few great Frenchman in history able to keep the contents of his pants only for his wife! Besides that little oblique mention of his infidelity, the author paints him in very Victorian terms as a blissfully happy family man who happened to have been the stepson of the most powerful man in Europe.

Probably a bit too 'fluffy' for what I was looking for and in certain passages the author's prose left it really difficult to work out exactly who she was referring to, it was nevertheless a good starting point to learn about the man himself. I want to find out more about him as a military leader, so I'm going to read these two books for more of an idea of his abilities a commander, at least in his Italian campaigns:

The defense of the Napoleonic kingdom of Northern Italy, 1813-1814 / George F. Nafziger and Marco Gioannini.

Napoleon's Italian campaigns : 1805-1815 / Frederick C. Schneid ; foreword by Gunther E. Rothenberg.

That's one of the perks of working in an academic library: all these resources on hand!


  1. I'll have to look this up. I've obviously come across him before, but he's always portrayed somewhat two-dimensionaly. Thanks for the tip.


  2. Excellent post! Eugene is one of my favorite napoleonic personalities. (One of the few who came out of that conflict with both his reputation and health intact). I'll definitely look for this to add to the library.

  3. Great post. Thanks for the recommendations...

  4. "Hagiographic", I had to look that one up but , yup, when you mention Charles Oman in the same sentence the the word does make sense. I have a lot of trouble plodding through the histrionics of some of those turn of last century authors so I commend you on that and coming up with another delightful review.

  5. After Davout, Eugene is probably my favorite character of Napoleonic France. He was at worst a competent commander, and always a man of honor and integrity.

  6. Great review Ben, thank for posting. I was not aware of another Oman, let alone her book(s).

    I am similar to Peter, except for me it is Lasalle then Eugène in my 'favs' list—a couple of different characters there!

    I finally purchased Epstein's "Prince Eugene At War" last year, after having searched for a copy at a reasonable price for quite some time. I have not read it yet though (ha, ha!). It will have to be another one for post-June 2015 once my current focus on the bicentennial years has finished. Do you know it/have you read it/is it in the Uni library? I recall that Peter knows it and has read it, so he may comment.


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