Bessières, Jean-Baptiste

b. 6 August 1768, Prayssac (Quercy)

d. 1 May 1813, Rippach, near Weissenfels

Son of a barber-surgeon, he was to have followed his father's career, but was diverted into the military at the beginning of the Revolution by being elected commander of the National Guard of Prayssac. He was a member of the Constitutional Guard of Louis XVI, then on 1 November 1792 joined the Legion of the Pyrenees. He was promoted captain on 8 March 1794, and helped to organise the cavalry of the Army of the Eastern Pyrenees. When peace was made with Spain, in 1795, the units of this army were sent to Italy, where Bessières was noticed by Bonaparte, who selected him to command his personal escort. He accompanied Bonaparte to Egypt, still as his escort commander, and at the founding of the Consulate was appointed commander of the cavalry of the Consular Guard. It was in this capacity that he served at Marengo. During this period, when both Lannes and Murat were trying to win the hand of Napoleon's sister Caroline, Bessières sided with Murat, thus earning Lannes' eternal enmity. Bessières was also largely the cause of Lannes being dismissed from the command of the Consular Guard, through his revelation to Murat that Lannes had been responsible for irregular expenditure on their uniforms. Bessières was promoted general of division on 13 September 1802, and appointed Marshal of the Empire on 19 May 1804. In the period that followed, he became de facto commander of the Imperial Guard, and served at its head during the campaigns of 1805-7. He made notable contributions at the battles of Austerlitz and Eylau by leading charges of the Guard Cavalry. In 1808, Bessières commanded a corps in Spain, and in March the same year he was created Duke of Istria. In 1809, he was given command of the cavalry reserve for the campaign in Germany and Austria. His poor relations with Lannes almost led to the two of them fighting a duel in the face of the enemy. Not long after this, Lannes became the first of Napoleon's marshals to die as a result of enemy action, having had his legs smashed by a cannon-ball. At Wagram, Bessières narrowly escaped the same fate, being unhorsed and slightly wounded by a round-shot. At the beginning of 1811, he returned to Spain to command an army supporting Massena, but affairs went badly, and he asked to be recalled. At the opening of the Russian campaign he was given command of the cavalry of the Imperial Guard. After the disaster of the retreat from Moscow, he reorganised what was left of his command and led it into Saxony. It was during a reconnaissance that he was struck by a cannon-ball and killed outright. Sources: Balteau, J. and others. Dictionnaire de biographie française, 1933-, vol. 6, pp. 326-8; Michaud. Biographie universelle ancienne et moderne, 1843-?, vol. 4, pp. 209-10.

Caldwell, R. J. The Era of the French Revolution: A Bibliography of the History of Western Civilization, 1789-1799, 1985 lists six biographical titles dedicated to Bessières.

No biography in Bouvier, F. Bonaparte en Italie, 1796, 1899.

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