Napoleon and Baron Hilaire Reynaud

It seems unlikely that Napoleon ever visited Saint Hilaire.  However, the first Baron, Hilaire Reynaud and Napoleon were well-known to each other.

Hilaire was a local boy who after attending military college joined the army as a sergeant-major at the age of 14.  He seems to have caught the eye of the regiment’s colonel who made him a lieutenant and later his aide-de-camp during the Italian campaign.

The Battle of Marengo

Hilaire was then transferred into the Consular Guard, Napoleon’s elite guard which would later become known as the Imperial Guard – just in time for the battle of Marengo.  Marengo is one of Napoleon’s famous victories at which the Guard made a heroic stand.

Here we find a reference to Hilaire being part of Napoleon’s wider entourage as one of  “the men to whom the First Consul confided his safety on the first day: Duroc, the favorite aide-de-camp, who could almost be called a friend of Bonaparte and the latter’s deputy, the future General Reynaud, who had known him in Italy, and who joined successively Clement, a former officer of the General Staff of Desaix, and Philipe de Segur, without counting Lannes, who commanded the Consular Guard.”

Hilaire in the West Indies

From 1800-1804 Hilaire was posted to Santo Domingo where one wonders if he had any involvement in the sale of France’s extensive North American territory (which doubled the size of the USA).

Whatever Hilaire was doing in the West Indies, it presumably went well as on his return Napoleon awarded him the Legion of Honour and made him Colonel of the 15th Line Infantry for the campaign against Prussia and Russia.

Baron Hilaire Reynaud

Napoleon and the Consular Guard at Marengo

Napoleon at Friedland

Jena and Freidland

After beating the Prussians at Jena, Napoleon turned his attention to the Russians and it is at the battle of Friedland where we have the most detailed account of a meeting between the two men. 

Hilaire’s regiment was part of Mortier’s VIII Corps which arrived before Napoleon  and the main body of troops.  Outnumbered at that stage, Mortier and Hilaire were to hold the centre while Ney was to attack on the right.  

Here is the eyewitness account …

Hilaire’s encounter with Napoleon at Friedland

Imagining that the Russians had only made an attack to cover their retreat ….. he [Napoleon] was very much surprised to hear a prolonged and vigorous cannonade.  In his anxiety he urged on his Arab steed, with which few other horses could keep up, and quickly found himself among a number of wounded who were retreating towards the ambulances.  Amongst them he recognised Colonel Reynaud of the 15th Regiment of the Line, and stopped to ask him what had happened, if his regiment had retreated, and under what circumstances he had been wounded. Reynaud who had been struck by a [musket] ball, replied that tired of seeing his regiment inactive under decimating fire, he had ordered it to advance and charge the enemy’s guns in the hope of carrying some of them, but that a trench he had not been able to see had arrested the men, of whom he had lost 1,500 on its brink.  He added: ’On the plateau of Friedland, behind the  position I hoped to take, the enemy has just amassed an immense number of men, certainly not less than 80,000’.  The Emperor, still in error as to the state of things, thought this account exaggerated, and exclaimed, ’That is not true!’ to which Reynaud, irritated at being disbelieved answered, ‘Well, I swear by my head that the numbers I have stated are there, and there will be hot work’.   The Emperor’s only reply was to dash his spurs into his Arab, which bounded furiously forward, carrying its master into the very midst of the sharpshooters.”

Napoleon went on to win the battle and sign a peace treaty with Tsar Alexander who famously said  “Sir, I hate the English as much as you do and am ready to assist you in any undertaking against them.”

Despite the high casualties and failure to take the guns it seems that Hilaire’s actions were viewed positively as he was commended for his fine conduct by Mortier and shortly after made a Baron of the Empire and promoted to Brigadier General. 

The Peninsular War and Hilaire in England 

Sadly we have no more evidence of interaction between Napolean and Hilaire.  Hilaire and his brigade saw action in the Peninsular War but this was cut short when, out scouting with only 4 companions, Hilaire was captured by Spanish  guerillas and handed over to the British.

Hilaire spent the next 4 years as a “prisoner of war” in Reading.  As an officer his fate was in stark contrast to that of ordinary soldiers.  At the time it was customary for officers to be given free reign to take private lodgings and live a normal life, provided that they gave their word not to leave the town.  According to accounts at the time it seems that the French and Polish officers were viewed as a welcome addition to Reading society !

 The Restoration, Waterloo and after

On his return to France in 1814, Hilaire was given a position in the army of Louis XVIII.  However, when Napoleon returned from exile in Elba Hilaire was to serve under him once more.  

However, Hilaire did not directly participate in the Waterloo campaign having been assigned to a command in the militia defending Paris. 

Hilaire’s letter of enoblement

 A parole stone marking the limit of the town for PoWs

The Napoleonic Legacy

Napoleon can be viewed as a liberal conqueror spreading revolutionary ideas, meritocracy and modern government throughout Europe.  However, views of Napoleon’s place in history differ widely.  

He was beyond doubt one of the greatest military leaders in history and dominated his times so completely that European history between 1800 and 1815 is commonly described as the Napoleonic era. 

Napoleon also made great strides in promoting efficiency and equality through his administrative and legal reforms which remain at the heart of much French law.  

However, the cost in human terms of his military campaigns was enormous and the harsh terms given to defeated enemies stoked national hatreds that perhaps contributed to future conflict in Europe. 

In his Own Words

Napoleon is remembered for many famous quotes.  Here are a few which do not seem so out of place 200 years after his death. 

Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools

If you want a thing done well do it yourself

Victory belongs to the most persevering