Symbols of Napoleon: The Eagle

What is it with Napoleon and eagles? Napoleon’s troops carried an eagle standard into battle; his son was nicknamed the eaglet; Napoleon’s return to France in 1815 was called the flight of the eagle. Here’s a look at how the eagle became a symbol of Napoleonic France, and what those Napoleon eagle standards were all about.

Distribution of Napoleonic eagle standards

The army takes an oath to the Emperor after the distribution of eagle standards on 5 December 1804, by Jacques-Louis David, 1810

Adopting a classical symbol

When Napoleon became Emperor of the French in May of 1804, he wanted a symbol of empire that would signal his legitimacy and distinguish his reign from the Bourbon monarchy of the ancien régime. A number of options were proposed at a meeting of the Council of State on June 12: eagle, lion, elephant, bee, oak. A committee appointed to consider the question recommended the rooster, which had been associated with France since the Middle Ages and had been revived during the French Revolution. Napoleon reportedly dismissed this idea, saying “the cock belongs to the farmyard! It is far too feeble a creature!” (1) He preferred the lion. However, when it came time to sign the decision, Napoleon crossed out the word “lion” and replaced it with “eagle.”

The ancient Greeks and Romans associated the eagle with speed, strength and martial valour, as well as with their god of the sky (Zeus in Greek mythology, Jupiter in Roman mythology). The eagle was also a symbol of the Franks and Charlemagne, and had Christian connotations. It had long been associated with royal, imperial and divine rulers. Prussia, Russia and Austria already used the eagle as a symbol, as did the new republic of the United States. Napoleon believed the eagle would give his new Empire the appearance of grandeur, power and longevity. He also admired the ancient Romans. The eagle was just one aspect of the classical Roman style that came to influence the Empire’s art, architecture and décor (see The Caesar of Paris by Susan Jacques).

The Napoleon eagle standard

French Imperial Eagle

A French imperial eagle, probably from the 32nd regiment of infantry, on display at the Louvre des Antiquaires in Paris © BrokenSphere/Wikimedia Commons

In ancient Rome, the eagle was most prominent as a military symbol. Every Roman legion (large military unit) carried a standard, which was a banner or flag attached to a pole. The standard identified the legion and served as its rallying point. Beginning in the first century A.D., each standard was topped with a silver or bronze sculpture of an eagle.

Napoleon decided to imitate this tradition by putting the eagle on the standards of the French army. He wrote to his chief of staff, Marshal Berthier:

The eagle with wings outspread, as on the Imperial Seal, will be at the head of the standard-staves, as was the practice in the Roman army. The flag will be attached at the same distance beneath the eagle, as was the labarum. (2)

The new French standard incorporated a gilded copper eagle looking to its left, its wings half open, and its talons grasping a thunderbolt. Below this, a brass stand bore the number of the regiment in raised figures. The eagle was placed on top of a heavy, 8-foot oak pole, painted blue, to which the regimental tricolour flag was attached. The eagle became the important thing; the flag was secondary.

Distribution of the eagles

On December 5, 1804, three days after his coronation, Napoleon presented his troops with their new eagle standards on the Champ de Mars in Paris. During the cold and rainy ceremony, Napoleon called on regimental commanders to take an oath. “Soldiers, behold your standards! These eagles to you shall ever be your rallying-point. Wherever your Emperor shall deem it needful for the defence of his throne and his people, there shall they be seen! You swear to sacrifice your lives in their defence: to maintain them by your courage ever in the path of victory! You swear it?” In reply, the men shouted, “We swear it!” (3)

Initially one eagle was issued to each battalion. After a considerable loss of eagles, Napoleon decided that there were too many on offer to the enemy, and that too many men were busy guarding eagles when their service was needed elsewhere in the field.  In 1808, battalion eagles were withdrawn and replaced by regimental eagles at the rate of one eagle per regiment, borne by the first battalion. For special protection of the eagle in battle, a commissioned officer and two picked veterans were appointed as the “Eagle Guard.” The first eagle-bearer was to be a senior lieutenant with at least 10 years’ army service and service on the battlefield in four campaigns. The others were to be brave men of 10 years’ service in the ranks, who (in Napoleon’s words) “could neither read nor write, so that their only hope of promotion should be through acts of special courage and devotion.” (4) The eagle-bearers, who were given special rank, were appointed and dismissed by Napoleon himself. Two more soldiers were later added to each Eagle Guard. Regiments of hussars, chasseurs à cheval, dragoons and light infantry, although issued eagles, were not allowed to carry them into battle.

The second and third battalion eagles were supposed to be returned to the War Minister for storage at the Invalides, but a number of battalions stationed in far-away posts disregarded the eagle recall order, such that it had to be repeated in 1809 and 1811.

Early in 1813 Napoleon ordered most of the regiments in Spain to send their eagles back to France, allowing only one eagle per brigade in that failing campaign.

Caricature of Napoleon and eagle

Napoleon the Little in a Rage with his Great French Eagle, Caricature by Thomas Rowlandson, 1808. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1959. Napoleon: “Confusion and destruction, what is this I see? Did not I command you not to return till you had spread your wing of victory over the whole Spanish nation? Eagle: “Aye it’s fine talking Nap, but if you had been there you would not much have liked it. The Spanish cormorants pursued me in such a manner that they not only disabled one of my legs but did me a moulting in such a terrible way that I wonder I had not lost every feather. Besides it got so hot that I could not bear it any longer.”

Replacement of an Imperial eagle

The eagle standards were highly prized and soldiers went to extremes to protect them. The regiment’s honour was at stake. Any harm to, or loss of, an eagle had to be directly reported to Napoleon. No replacement eagle would be granted until the regiment in question had made amends by achieving distinction in the field, or by presenting the Emperor with an enemy’s standard. Even this was at Napoleon’s discretion.

During the Battle of Austerlitz (December 2, 1805), the eagle-bearer of the First Battalion of the 4th Regiment of the Line was killed during a charge by Russian cuirassiers. None of the French survivors had seen him fall. Meanwhile, the battalion had captured two Austrian standards, which they later presented to Napoleon, asking for a new eagle in exchange.

He replied coldly and contemptuously: ‘These two foreign flags do not return me my Eagle!’ Then, after a pause, he launched out into words of the severest censure and rebuke, telling the men that he had seen them with his own eyes in flight at Austerlitz. He poured bitter scorn on their conduct, ‘in phrases stinging, burning, corrosive, which those present remembered long afterwards – to the end of their lives.’

Again the unhappy colonel pleaded his hardest for his men. He entreated the Emperor’s clemency, once more beseeching Napoleon to allow that they had wiped out the slur on their good name, and to grant the battalion a new Eagle.

Napoleon said nothing for a moment. Then he again addressed them in an abrupt tone:
‘Officers, sub-officers, and soldiers, swear to me here that not one of you saw your Eagle fall. Assure me that if you had done so you would have flung yourselves into the midst of the enemy to recover it, or have died in the attempt. The soldier who loses his Eagle on the field of battle loses his honour and his all.’

‘We swear it!’ came the reply at once.

At that there seemed to come a change in the Emperor’s mood…. ‘I will grant that you have not been cowards; but you have been imprudent! Again I tell you that these Austrian standards – even, indeed, were they six – would not compensate me for my Eagle.’

He stopped short. He seemed to be musing for a moment, looking straight into the eyes of the men. After that, with a curt, ‘Well, I will restore you yet another Eagle!’ Napoleon turned his horse and rode on down the line of troops. (5)

The precarious life of an eagle-bearer

To France’s enemies, the eagle standard was an important prize in battle. This meant that carrying a Napoleonic eagle into battle was a particularly dangerous job. There are numerous tales of heroic attempts to save eagles from the enemy.

At the Battle of Eylau (February 7-8, 1807), at least one was saved accidentally.

Four Eagle-bearers of the 9th [Light Infantry] fell, one after the other. Four times the Eagle was taken by the Russians and recaptured at the point of the bayonet. A fifth time the Eagle-bearer went down, and on his fall this time the Eagle disappeared, while the 9th were driven back, broken and in disorder. They were quickly rallied again, however, and led once more to the charge, ‘going forward to the combat with the fury of despair.’ This time their impetuous onset forced the Russians to give ground. Advancing with shouts of victory, they stormed the village of Psarrefelden, immediately in front of them, and there seized part of a Russian ammunition train. While searching for fresh cartridges in one of the enemy’s ammunition wagons to replenish their empty cartouche-boxes an officer, to his surprise, came upon the lost Eagle. It had been broken from its staff in the last fight round it, and its Russian captor, probably having enough to do to look after himself without carrying it about, had apparently thrust it hastily into the ammunition wagon on top of the cartridges. At any rate there the Eagle of the 9th Light Infantry was found, and so it was regained. The broken staff and flag were missing and were never seen again, but the all-important Eagle had been recovered. It was hurriedly mounted on a hop-pole, found leaning against a peasant’s hut nearby, which was improvised for a staff, and on that the Eagle was carried to the close of the fighting that day. … Napoleon specially decorated the lieutenant who recovered the Eagle, and who also had led more than one of the charges to rescue it in the earlier fighting. He gave him the cross of the Legion of Honour with a money grant. He further recorded the recovery of the Eagle – though without mentioning how it was got back in the 55th Bulletin of the Grand Army, dated Warsaw, January 29, 1807:

‘The Eagle of the 9th Light Infantry was taken by the enemy, but, realizing the deep disgrace with which their brave regiment would be covered for ever, and from which neither victory nor the glory acquired in a hundred combats could have removed the stigma, the soldiers, animated with an inconceivable ardour, precipitated themselves on the enemy and routed them and recovered their Eagle.’

So Napoleon wrote history. (6)

In the same battle, the eagle of the 30th Regiment of the Line was saved only because a fourrier (quartermaster-sergeant) by the name of Morin buried it under the snow. “He fainted from loss of blood as he did it. Morin was found next morning just alive, outstretched over where the precious Eagle lay concealed. He was able to make signs and indicate that it was lying underneath the snow, and then he died.” (7)

At the Battle of Borodino (September 7, 1812), the eagle-bearer of the 9th Regiment of the Line was cut off by himself and surrounded.

Amidst the confusion, wounded by two bayonet thrusts, I fell, but I was able to make an effort to prevent the Eagle falling into the hands of the enemy. Some of them rushed at me and closed round, but, getting to my feet, I managed to fling the Eagle, staff and all, over their heads towards some of our men, whom I had caught sight of, fortunately nearby, trying to charge through and rescue the Eagle. This was all I could do before I fell again and was made prisoner. (8)

In the same battle, one dying eagle-bearer saved his eagle by stuffing it into a gaping wound on his horse’s carcass.

In the Battle of the Katzbach (August 26, 1813), a soldier of the 134th Regiment of the Line saved the eagle of another regiment, the 147th.

The two regiments, as the Prussians charged down on them after their cartridges gave out, in desperation rushed to meet their assailants with the bayonet. They were overpowered and hurled back in confusion to the bank of the river, all intermingled in the mêlée. The Eagle-bearer of the 147th fell dead, shot down, and a Prussian officer made for the Eagle. A soldier of the 134th bayoneted the officer as he got to it, picked up the Eagle, and seeing only more Prussians round him, flung himself, still holding on to the Eagle, into the river. The man could not swim, and was fired at as he floundered in the water, but he was not hit. Unable to reach the other side, he somehow got on to a shallow patch, and, still holding fast to the Eagle, kept his footing there, until, to get away from the hail of bullets all round him, he again risked drowning by trying to drift downstream. He managed to keep his head above water, and got over to a bed of rushes, fringing the farther bank. Creeping in there, still holding on closely to the Eagle, the brave fellow hid for six hours until dark, embedded in mud to his armpits most of the time. After nightfall he worked his way through and crawled ashore. Finally, after wandering across country for eight days, feeding on berries and what he could pick up, in constant peril of discovery among the hostile peasants and parties of Prussian dragoons scouring the district, the heroic soldier at length found his way to Dresden. There he was brought before Marshal Berthier to whom he delivered the Eagle. (9)

Fate of the eagles when Napoleon fell

On the night of March 30, 1814, Paris surrendered to the Allies. The eagles that had been returned to the Ministry of War as result of the various recall decrees perished in a large bonfire of trophy flags at the Invalides, burned by veterans who did not want them falling into enemy hands. On April 6, Napoleon abdicated the French throne. On April 20, at Fontainebleau Palace, he bid farewell to the veterans of his Old Guard and kissed the eagle standard in their presence, expressing the wish that his kiss would pass to their hearts. He then went into exile on Elba.

The restored monarchy of King Louis XVIII ordered that the white Bourbon flag was again to be the standard of the army, with a brass fleur-de-lis at the head of the pole instead of the eagle. Every regiment was required to send its eagle to the Ministry of War in Paris for destruction at the artillery depot of Vincennes. No exceptions were made, even though a number of officers petitioned to be allowed to retain theirs as mementoes of regimental feats on the battlefield. Some refused to comply and successfully hid their eagles.

In late February 1815, Napoleon escaped from Elba, arriving in France on March 1. He was accompanied by the regimental eagle of the 600 members of the Old Guard who had been with him on Elba. After landing, he proclaimed, “the Eagle with the national colours shall fly from steeple to steeple to the towers of Notre Dame!” (10)

The eagles were officially restored as the standards of the army by an Imperial decree issued on March 13 from Lyons. Napoleon entered Paris on the night of March 20. On June 1, he distributed the new eagles – which, unlike their predecessors, had closed beaks and closed legs – to the troops in the Champ de Mars.

Two eagles were captured by British troops at the Battle of Waterloo (June 18, 1815). Sergeant Charles Ewart of the Scots Greys (2nd Dragoons) described in a letter to his father how he took the eagle of the 45th Regiment of the Line as it was being hurried to the rear for safety by a band of devoted men who were fighting with their bayonets to keep the British off. Ewart rode straight for the eagle-bearer.

He and I had a hard contest for it. He thrust for my groin; I parried it off and cut him through the head, after which I was attacked by one of their lancers, who threw his lance at me, but missed the mark by my throwing it off with my sword, at my right side. Then I cut him from the chin upwards, which went through his teeth. Next I was attacked by a foot-soldier, who, after firing at me, charged me with his bayonet; but he very soon lost the combat, for I parried it and cut him down through the head. That finished the contest for the Eagle. (11)

Fight for the eagle standard

The Fight for the Standard, by Richard Ansdell, 1847. Depicts Sergeant Charles Ewart defending the seized standard of the French 45th Regiment of the Line from a French lancer during the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. Image credit: Eric Gaba, Wikimedia Commons user Sting

The other eagle sent to England from Waterloo was that of the 105th Regiment of the Line, captured by the Royal Dragoons.

Following his defeat, Napoleon abdicated for a second time and was sent into exile on Saint Helena.

On August 3, 1815, Louis XVIII again abolished the eagle standard. As before, some eagles escaped destruction in the furnaces of Vincennes. They re-emerged after the Revolution of July 1830. Over 100 Napoleonic eagles remain in existence in museums and private collections.

Thanks to Bernard Wilkin for suggesting a post about Napoleon’s eagles.

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  1. Edward Fraser, The War Drama of the Eagles (London, 1912), p. 4.
  2. Ibid., p. 10.
  3. Ibid., p. 46.
  4. Ibid., p. 184.
  5. Ibid., pp. 117-118.
  6. Ibid., pp. 151-153.
  7. Ibid., pp. 168-169.
  8. Ibid., p. 270.
  9. Ibid., pp. 295-296.
  10. Ibid., p. 353.
  11. Ibid., p. 397.

8 commments on “Symbols of Napoleon: The Eagle”

  • Alanne says:

    I enjoyed your article, Shannon. I wasn’t aware of Fraser’s 1912 book and have added it to my reading list.
    The fate of the Eagles after Waterloo interests me. Despite all the analysis of the battle and its aftermath, and the focus on individual battalions and soldiers, I don’t think anyone has tackled a full accounting of the Eagles. Perhaps some of the Eagles that are still missing will turn up one day.

  • Joachim Tran says:

    ” He preferred the lion ” … oh wow, impressed. I just think he doesn’t like the lion because that is the symbol of England.

  • Graeme Gepp says:

    An excellent & very interesting article on Napoleon’s Eagles. Unfortunately, living in Australia means that access to anything Napoleon is extremely difficult, so I really look forward to receiving your e-mails. May they long continue!

  • Addison Benjamin Jump says:

    Interesting and informative. Man lives by symbols and N understood this well.

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Soldiers, behold your standards! These eagles to you shall ever be your rallying-point. Wherever your Emperor shall deem it needful for the defence of his throne and his people, there shall they be seen!

Napoleon Bonaparte