Simon Bernard, Napoleon’s general in the US Army

General Simon Bernard by Édouard Baille

General Simon Bernard by Édouard Baille

In an illustration of Napoleon’s “career open to all talents,” Simon Bernard rose from modest origins to become an engineering general in the Grande Armée. He attracted Napoleon’s personal attention when, as a young officer, he had the nerve to give the Emperor unsolicited advice about campaign plans. After Napoleon’s 1815 defeat, Bernard spent 15 years as a military engineer in the United States Army, where he had a huge impact on America’s coastal defences.

Impressing Napoleon

Simon Bernard was born in Dole, France on April 28, 1779, the son of a plasterer. Educated thanks to the charity of monks, Bernard proved a keen and intelligent student. He was admitted to the École Polytechnique in Paris (the same school attended by Henri Lallemand). He then went to the Engineering School at Metz. In 1796 Bernard became a sub-lieutenant in the French army and was posted to the Army of the Rhine. He subsequently served in Italy.

In 1805 Bernard came to Napoleon’s attention, as described by Napoleon’s secretary, Bourrienne:

At the commencement of the campaign of Austerlitz a circumstance occurred from which is to be dated the future of a very meritorious man. While the Emperor was at Strasburg he asked General Marescot, the commander-in-chief of the engineers, whether he could recommend from his corps a brave, prudent and intelligent young officer, capable of being intrusted [sic] with an important reconnoitering mission. The officer selected [was Simon] Bernard…. Bernard set off on his mission, advanced almost to Vienna and returned to the headquarters of Ulm. Bonaparte interrogated him himself, and was well satisfied with his replies; but not content with answering verbally the questions put by Napoleon, Captain Bernard had drawn up a report of what he had observed and the different routes which might be taken. Among other things he observed that it would be a great advantage to direct the whole army upon Vienna, without regard to the fortified places; for that once master of the capital of Austria, the Emperor might dictate laws to all the Austrian monarchy…. After reading the report…the Emperor flew into a furious passion. ‘How,’ cried he, ‘you are very bold, very presumptuous! A young officer to take the liberty of tracing out a plan of campaign for me! Begone, and await my orders.’ …

[A]s soon as the young officer had left the Emperor all at once changed his tone. ‘That,’ said he, ‘is a clever young man; he has taken a proper view of things. I shall not expose him to the chance of being shot. Perhaps I shall sometime want his services. Tell Berthier to dispatch an order for his departure for Illyria.’ (1)

Bernard, who had been looking forward to the Austrian campaign, regarded the Illyrian posting as a punishment. When the campaign was over, Berthier (Napoleon’s chief of staff) did not include Bernard’s name on the list of engineers recommended for promotion. Napoleon himself wrote it in at the top.

In 1812 Bernard again entered Napoleon’s radar. In search of information about Ragusa (Dubrovnik), Napoleon interrogated several generals. Still feeling he was lacking the details he required, Napoleon sent for General Dejean, who had replaced Marescot as chief engineer. Bourienne picks up the tale:

‘Have you any one of your officers,’ [Napoleon] asked, ‘who is well acquainted with Ragusa?’ Dejean, after a little reflection, replied, ‘Sire, there is a chef de bataillon, who has been a long time forgotten, but who knows Illyria perfectly.’ – ‘What’s his name?’—‘Bernard.’ – ‘Ah! … Bernard! I remember that name. Where is he?’ – ‘At Antwerp, Sire, employed in the fortifications.’ – ‘Let a telegraphic despatch be immediately transmitted, desiring him to mount his horse and come in all speed to Paris.’ (2)

A few days later Bernard told Napoleon everything he wanted to know.

The Emperor [then] entered into details respecting the system of fortification adopted at Antwerp, referred to the plan of the works, criticised it, and showed how he would, if he besieged the town, render the means of defence unavailing. The new colonel explained so well how he would defend the town against the Emperor’s attack, that Bonaparte was delighted, and immediately bestowed upon the young officer a mark of distinction, which, as far as I know, he never granted but upon that single occasion. The Emperor was going to preside at the Council of State and desired Colonel Bernard to accompany him, and many times during the sittings he asked him for his opinion upon the points which were under discussion. On leaving the council Napoleon said, ‘Bernard, you are my aide-de-camp.’ (3)

In that capacity Bernard participated in the Russian campaign of 1812. His leg was wounded during the retreat from Leipzig in 1813. Later that year Bernard superintended the defence of Torgau while it was under siege. In March 1814, he was made a baron of the Empire and promoted to the rank of general.

After Napoleon’s 1814 abdication, Simon Bernard served under Louis XVIII. When Napoleon returned to France after his escape from Elba, Bernard joined him. He took part in the Battle of Waterloo. When Napoleon was again forced to abdicate, Bernard stayed with him. He accompanied Napoleon to Rochefort. Had the British allowed it, he would have been happy to share Napoleon’s exile.

Explaining his admiration for Napoleon, Simon Bernard later told a French traveller:

He possesses, perhaps, the most profound genius of this century, and in all probability, the best organized that ever came from the Creator’s hands; nothing was unknown to him; nor did he ever confide in any one but at the moment of the execution of his plans, having always deliberated and decided upon himself upon what was most expedient to be done. (4)

Serving the United States

With Napoleon imprisoned on St. Helena, Bernard was at a loose end. Though Bernard’s name was not on the list of proscribed officers, the Minister of War advised him to leave France for his own safety. Fortuitously the United States government was looking for a French military engineer to help improve America’s coastal fortifications. The War of 1812 had proved the feebleness of the existing defences, and French officers had superior training.

Under a resolution of Congress, President James Madison issued a commission, dated November 16, 1816, appointing Simon Bernard as an “assistant in the corps of engineers of the United States, with the rank of Brigadier-General by brevet.” James Monroe (then Secretary of State) wrote to General Andrew Jackson on December 14, 1816:

You have heretofore, I presume, been apprized that General Bernard, of the French corps of engineers, under the recommendation of General Lafayette and many others of great distinction in France, had offered his services to the United States, and that the President had been authorized by a resolution of Congress to accept them, confining his rank to the grade of the chief of our corps…. It required much delicacy in the arrangement, to take advantage of his knowledge and experience in a manner acceptable to himself, without wounding the feelings of the officers of our own corps, who had rendered such useful services, and were entitled to the confidence and protection of their country. The arrangement adopted will, I think, accomplish fully both objects. The President has instituted a Board of Officers, to consist of five members, two of high rank in the corps, General Bernard, the engineer at each station (young Gadsden for example at New Orleans) and the naval officer commanding there, whose duty it is made to examine the whole coast and report such works as are necessary for its defense to the Chief Engineer, who shall report the same to the Secretary of War, with his remarks, to be laid before the President…. In this way it is thought that the feelings of no one can be hurt. We shall have four of our officers in every consultation against one foreigner – so that if the opinion of the latter becomes of any essential use, it must be by convincing his colleagues when they differ that he has reason on his side. I have seen General Bernard, and find him a modest unassuming man, who preferred our country in the present state of France to any in Europe, in some of which he was offered employment, and in any of which he may probably have found it. He understands that he is never to have command of the corps, but always will rank second in it. (5)

General Simon Bernard arrived in the United States with his wife Anne Joséphine Von Lerchenfeld, whom he had married in Bavaria in 1809, and their two young daughters, Pauline (b. 1812) and Sophie (b. 1815). A son, Charles, born in 1810, had died in 1812. In New York in 1820 they had another son, named Columbus.

Bernard adapted well to life in the United States. He enjoyed his work, though there were uncomfortable moments, as his presence in the US army was regularly contested by some of the officers who worked with him. Secretary of War John C. Calhoun supported Bernard and got his projects approved by Congress. Bernard came to admire his new country. In April 1818 he wrote to a friend in France:

This country, my dear Huard, offers much food for thought to a man of quality, a statesman, or a philosopher. A man of quality sees that work is the only true source of domestic happiness and public wealth. Here there are none of those governmental parasites who shamelessly embrace the ideas and extravagances of anyone who will give them employment at the expense of the exploited working people. A statesman sees that public opinion is supreme, that it alone can determine the character of an administration good for both individuals and society. I say ‘administration’ rather than ‘government’ because here we have an administration subordinate to the individual’s self-interest as determinant of his actions. (6)

The Board of Engineers – on which Bernard was the senior member – studied the entire US coastline, made a series of detailed surveys and transmitted a report to Congress with recommendations for a comprehensive system of coastal defences. James Monroe (by this time President) endorsed the plan, arguing in his second inaugural address (1821) that fortifications were “the best expedient that can be resorted to to prevent war.” (7) The Board’s work soon extended to making recommendations for communications through the interior of the country, including improving navigation on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, as well as roads and canals and other “internal improvements.”

Simon Bernard is best known for designing Fort Monroe in Virginia, the largest stone fort in America. He also designed Forts Adams, Hamilton, Macon and Morgan. In addition, Bernard taught at the US Military Academy at West Point, which is where Henri Lallemand tries to persuade him to join Napoleon’s force in Napoleon in America.

Though he was content in the United States, Bernard never abandoned his French roots or his adoration for the Emperor. Meeting Bernard in Washington in 1825, Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar Eisenach noted:

With General Bernard I conversed for a long while on the science of military engineering…. The general said also a great deal about the importance of Anvers and gave me many interesting explanations of Napoleon’s designs in fortifying that place. Finally the conversation turned on the battle of Waterloo, at which the General had been present as aid to the Emperor. Tears came into the eyes of this gallant man while speaking of his former master. (8)

Once, when passing Joseph Bonaparte’s New Jersey estate during the course of his duties, Bernard indicated that he would not stop because of the sensitivity of his official position. But just as he went past the Point Breeze gate, Bernard saw Joseph getting into his carriage and could not resist the urge to visit for an hour or two.

Back in France

Simon Bernard was delighted when the July Revolution of 1830 overthrew Charles X in France. On July 8, 1831 he wrote to President Andrew Jackson:

Should my humble services have repaid partially what I owe to a great people, which, on all occasions, has shown to me so much liberality and confidence, I remain conscious, that those services will secure to me an honorable place in the estimation of my countrymen in France.

Now aware that the noble task to which I have been associated is completed within the agency assigned to me, and conscious that the present unsettled state of Europe, and the political independency of my native country, place me under the moral obligation to tender once more my humble services to France, I beg of you, most respectfully, to accept of my resignation.

The habits of my family raised in this land of peace and happiness; my feelings of devotion towards so many generous and hospitable friends; my sense of gratitude towards the members of the administration, render this determination most painful to me; but it is a sacrifice which I owe to the cause of this age of turmoil and political struggle. (9)

Bernard and his family returned to France, where he was welcomed by King Louis Philippe and tasked with preparing plans for the fortification of Paris. In 1834, Bernard was made a French peer. He served as Minister of War from September 1836 to March 1839. General Simon Bernard died in Paris on November 5, 1839 at the age of 60. He was buried in the cemetery of Montmartre. On learning of his death, President Martin Van Buren directed all US army officers to wear mourning for thirty days.

For more about Simon Bernard’s impact on America’s defences, see “American Gibraltars: Army Engineers and the Quest for a Scientific Defense of the Nation, 1815-1860,” by Todd A. Shallat in the Winter 2008 issue of Army History. Bernard’s US appointment was recommended by the Marquis de Lafayette, who stopped at Fort Monroe during his tour of the United States in 1824. You can read about that in “Lafayette’s Visit to Fort Monroe in 1824 as Guest of the Nation” by historian Robert Kelly.

You might also enjoy:

John C. Calhoun: War Hawk

Napoleonic General Henri Lallemand: Improving the US artillery

Napoleon and the Marquis de Lafayette

  1. Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, Vol. II (London, 1831), p. 380.
  2. Ibid., p. 381.
  3. Ibid., pp. 381-82.
  4. Edouard Montulé, A Voyage to North America, and the West Indies, in 1817 (London, 1821), p. 50.
  5. Niles’ Weekly Register, Vol. 26, May 15, 1824, p. 166.
  6. Georges Bertin, Joseph Bonaparte en Amérique: 1815-1832 (Paris, 1893), p. 199.
  7. Stanislaus Murray Hamilton, ed., The Writings of James Monroe, Vol. VI, 1817-1823 (New York, 1902), pp. 165-166.
  8. Carl Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar Eisenach, Travels Through North America, During the Years 1825 and 1826, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1828), p. 183.
  9. Niles’ Weekly Register, Vol. 41, Oct. 1, 1831, pp. 92-93.

12 commments on “Simon Bernard, Napoleon’s general in the US Army”

  • Peter D'Onofrio says:

    Great article on Bernard. He was quite the soldier.

  • Lori Levitt says:

    Shannon, Are you only interested in Napoleon or other aspects of History?

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks for the question, Lori. I love anything to do with history, particularly pre-20th century. I’m currently focused on the Napoleonic era and early 19th century Europe and North America because that’s where research for the novels has taken me. Other areas of fascination include ancient Greece and Rome, Vikings, medieval Europe, the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and Tudor and Georgian England.

  • John Adan says:

    Great story about the values of diligence, industry and patience.
    Glad to learn of your interest in Vikings. 1,000 years ago the Viking Hanseatic League traded with Byzantium via the Mediterranean, coping with the pirates of Barbary Coast, building fortifications in Sicily. They had an alternate overland route from the Baltic to the Black Sea via the river systems. Byzantian emperors employed them as their body guards, the Varangian Guard.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, John. It’s amazing how far and wide the Vikings travelled. One of my favourite historic sites is L’Anse aux Meadows, site of their brief settlement in present-day Newfoundland. I’d love to get to Istanbul someday to see the Viking graffiti in Hagia Sophia.

  • Faury says:

    Bonjour Shannon,
    Baron Bernard is my husband’s ancestor, and the family (now Faury) still hold some memorabilia from him, such as his medals. I am very happy to read such nice lines about him. Merci!

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Avec plaisir! Thank you for writing. I have a great admiration for Baron Bernard. It’s lovely to hear from someone with such a personal connection to him.

  • John Weaver says:

    Your treatment of Bernard is both well researched and highly enjoyable to read. I am a Bernard enthusiast – as a Third System historian I believe that what was achieved is a major tribute to the Baron. I hold him as a genius in fortification design, taking the best of Vauban and Montelembert and creating formidable works. Thank you for your article!

  • Jamie Niles says:

    Hi Shannon, I work with the National Park Service at Fort Pulaski, Savannah, Georgia. I know that Bernard designed this fort as well. Was he intimately involved in the design of each Third System Fort or did he oversee a board of designers? I am researching for a paper for my American Art History course at Savannah College of Art and Design. Thank you. Jamie

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks for this excellent question, Jamie. My understanding is that Bernard personally designed Fort Monroe and his aide, Captain William T. Poussin (another Frenchman), completed the drawings. Ditto for Forts Hamilton, Macon and Morgan. Fort Adams was designed by Bernard and Colonel Joseph G. Totten, a fellow member of the Board of Engineers. I believe that Bernard designed the initial plans for Fort Pulaski, but these later had to be revised (under Lt. J.K.F. Mansfield), as the deep mud at Cockspur Island would have been unable to support the weight of Bernard’s design. I don’t know how involved he was in the design of the other Third System Forts. Good luck with the paper – it sounds interesting.

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[Napoleon] possesses, perhaps, the most profound genius of this century, and in all probability, the best organized that ever came from the Creator’s hands.

Simon Bernard