Napoleonic Wars: Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte

Marshal Jean Bernadotte
Marshal Jean Bernadotte. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte was a French commander during the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars who later ruled Sweden as King Charles XIV John. A skilled enlisted soldier, Bernadotte earned a commission during the early years of the French Revolution and quickly advanced through the ranks until being made a Marshal of France in 1804. A veteran of Napoleon Bonaparte's campaigns, he was approached about becoming the heir to Charles XIII of Sweden in 1810. Bernadotte accepted and later led Swedish forces against his former commander and comrades. Crowned King Charles XIV John in 1818, he ruled Sweden until his death in 1844.

Early Life

Born at Pau, France on January 26, 1763, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte was the son of Jean Henri and Jeanne Bernadotte. Raised locally, Bernadotte elected to pursue a military career rather than become a tailor like his father. Enlisting in the Régiment de Royal-Marine on September 3, 1780, he initially saw service in Corsica and Collioure. Promoted to sergeant eight years later, Bernadotte attained the rank of sergeant major in February 1790. As the French Revolution gathered momentum, his career began to accelerate as well.

A Rapid Rise to Power

A skilled soldier, Bernadotte received a lieutenant's commission in November 1791 and within three years was leading a brigade in General of Division Jean Baptiste Kléber's Army of the North. In this role he distinguished himself in General of Division Jean-Baptiste Jourdan's victory at Fleurus in June 1794. Earning a promotion to general of division that October, Bernadotte continued to serve along the Rhine and saw action at Limburg in September 1796.

The next year, he played a key role in covering the French retreat across the river after being defeated at the Battle of Theiningen. In 1797, Bernadotte left the Rhine front and led reinforcements to the aid of General Napoleon Bonaparte in Italy. Performing well, he received an appointment as ambassador to Vienna in February 1798.

His tenure proved brief as he departed on April 15 following a riot associated with his hoisting of the French flag over the embassy. Though this affair initially proved damaging to his career, he restored his connections by marrying the influential Eugénie Désirée Clary on August 17. The former fiancée of Napoleon, Clary was sister-in-law to Joseph Bonaparte.

Engraving of Marshal Jean Bernadotte in uniform.
Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte. Public Domain

Marshal of France

On July 3, 1799, Bernadotte was made Minister of War. Quickly showing administrative skill, he performed well until the end of his term in September. Two months later, he elected not to support Napoleon in the coup of 18 Brumaire. Though branded a radical Jacobin by some, Bernadotte elected to serve the new government and was made commander of the Army of the West in April 1800.

With the creation of the French Empire in 1804, Napoleon appointed Bernadotte as one of the Marshals of France on May 19 and made him governor of Hanover the following month. From this position, Bernadotte led I Corps during the 1805 Ulm Campaign which culminated with the capture of Marshal Karl Mack von Leiberich's army.

Remaining with Napoleon's army, Bernadotte and his corps were initially held in reserve during the Battle of Austerlitz on December 2. Entering the fray late in the battle, I Corps aided in completing the French victory. For his contributions, Napoleon created him Prince of Ponte Corvo on June 5, 1806. Bernadotte's efforts for the remainder of the year proved rather uneven.

Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte/Charles XIV John of Sweden

  • Rank: Marshal (France), King (Sweden)
  • Service: French Army, Swedish Army
  • Born: January 26, 1763 in Pau, France
  • Died: March 8, 1844 in Stockholm, Sweden
  • Parents: Jean Henri Bernadotte and Jeanne de Saint-Jean
  • Spouse: Bernardine Eugénie Désirée Clary
  • Successor: Oscar I
  • Conflicts: French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars
  • Known For: Ulm Campaign, Battle of Austerlitz, Battle of Wagram, Battle of Leipzig

A Star on the Wane

Taking part in the campaign against Prussia that fall, Bernadotte failed to come to the support of either Napoleon or Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout during the twin battles of Jena and Auerstädt on October 14. Severely reprimanded by Napoleon, he was nearly relieved of his command and was perhaps saved by his commander's former connection to Clary. Recovering from this failure, Bernadotte won a victory over a Prussian reserve force at Halle three days later.

As Napoleon pushed into East Prussia in early 1807, Bernadotte's corps missed the bloody Battle of Eylau in February. Resuming campaigning that spring, Bernadotte was wounded in the head on June 4 during fighting near Spanden. The injury forced him to turn command of I Corps over to General of Division Claude Perrin Victor and he missed the victory over the Russians at the Battle of Friedland ten days later.

While recovering, Bernadotte was appointed governor of the Hanseatic towns. In this role he contemplated an expedition against Sweden but was forced to abandon the idea when sufficient transports could not be gathered. Joining Napoleon's army in 1809 for the campaign against Austria, he took command of the Franco-Saxon IX Corps.

Arriving to take part in the Battle of Wagram (July 5-6), Bernadotte's corps performed poorly on the second day of fighting and withdrew without orders. While attempting to rally his men, Bernadotte was relieved of his command by an irate Napoleon. Returning to Paris, Bernadotte was entrusted with command of the Army of Antwerp and directed to defend the Netherlands against British forces during the Walcheren Campaign. He proved successful and the British withdrew later that fall.

Crown Prince of Sweden

Appointed governor of Rome in 1810, Bernadotte was prevented from assuming this post by an offer to become the heir of the King of Sweden. Believing the offer to be ridiculous, Napoleon neither supported nor opposed Bernadotte pursuing it. As King Charles XIII lacked children, the Swedish government began seeking an heir to the throne. Concerned about the military strength of Russia and wishing to remain on positive terms with Napoleon, they settled on Bernadotte who had shown battlefield prowess and great compassion to Swedish prisoners during earlier campaigns.

Painting of Crown Prince Charles John in a military uniform atop a horse.
Crown Prince Charles John entering Leipzig in 1813. Public Domain

On August 21, 1810, the Öretro States General elected Bernadotte crown prince and named him head of the Swedish armed forces. Formally adopted by Charles XIII, he arrived in Stockholm on November 2 and assumed the name Charles John. Assuming control of the country's foreign affairs, he began efforts to obtain Norway and worked to avoid being a puppet of Napoleon.

Fully adopting his new homeland, the new crown prince led Sweden into the Sixth Coalition in 1813 and mobilized forces to battle his former commander. Joining with the Allies, he added resolve to the cause after twin defeats at Lutzen and Bautzen in May. As the Allies regrouped, he took command of the Northern Army and worked to defend Berlin. In this role he defeated Marshal Nicolas Oudinot at Grossbeeren on August 23 and Marshal Michel Ney at Dennewitz on September 6.

In October, Charles John took part in the decisive Battle of Leipzig which saw Napoleon defeated and forced to retreat towards France. In the wake of the triumph, he began actively campaigning against Denmark with the goal of forcing it to cede Norway to Sweden. Winning victories, he achieved his objectives through the Treaty of Kiel (January 1814). Though formally ceded, Norway resisted Swedish rule requiring Charles John to direct a campaign there in the summer of 1814.

King of Sweden

With the death of Charles XIII on February 5, 1818, Charles John ascended to the throne as Charles XIV John, King of Sweden and Norway. Converting from Catholicism to Lutheranism, he proved a conservative ruler who became increasingly unpopular as time passed. Despite this, his dynasty remained in power and continued after his death on March 8, 1844. The current King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, is a direct descendant of Charles XIV John.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "Napoleonic Wars: Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 28). Napoleonic Wars: Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Napoleonic Wars: Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).

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