Marshal Grouchy in America
Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy was a skilled cavalry officer who had a long career of service in the French army. This record has been overshadowed by accusations – originating with Napoleon and his followers on Saint Helena – that Marshal Grouchy was in large part responsible for Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. After Waterloo, Grouchy went into exile in the United States, where he began the frustrating process of defending himself against allegations of incompetence, cowardice and treachery.
A noble birth and education
Emmanuel de Grouchy was born on October 23, 1766 at his family’s palatial Château de Villette in Condécourt, 40 km northwest of Paris. His parents – François-Jacques de Grouchy, 1st Marquis de Grouchy, and Marie-Gilberte Fréteau de Pény – were members of the French nobility. François-Jacques had served as a page to King Louis XV. Marie-Gilbert was known for her learning and intelligence. The family spent winters in Paris, where they hosted the intellectual elite of the day.
Emmanuel’s older sister, Sophie, noted for her wit and beauty, married the mathematician and philosopher Nicolas de Condorcet. As Madame de Condorcet, she became a writer, a translator, and an advocate of women’s rights. She also hosted an influential republican salon. When Napoleon told her that he did not approve of women interfering in politics, she reportedly replied: “Neither do I, general, but in a country where they may have their head cut off it is only natural that they should wish to know the reason why.” (1) Grouchy’s younger sister, Charlotte, married the physician and philosopher Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis, who endorsed the French Revolution but opposed Napoleon’s policies.
In this supportive family atmosphere, which exposed him to ideas of the Enlightenment, young Emmanuel de Grouchy received excellent instruction from his tutors. At the age of 14, he entered the artillery school in Strasbourg, finishing with a commission in the royal artillery corps in 1781. In 1784, he transferred to the cavalry as a captain. In 1785, Grouchy was presented to King Louis XVI. He made such a good impression that the following year, at age 20, he became a Lieutenant Colonel in the Scottish Company of the Royal Bodyguard. Like his sisters, Grouchy had revolutionary sympathies, so he only stayed for a year before leaving the army completely. In the meantime, he married Cécile le Doulcet de Pontécoulant and started a family: Ernestine (1787-1866); Alphonse (1789-1864); Aimée-Clémentine (1791-1826); and Victor (1796-1864).
A fine cavalry commander
Unlike most of the nobility, Grouchy remained in France during the French Revolution. He joined the revolutionary army as a private soldier. His talent and training enabled him to become a cavalry colonel, and he served with distinction against royalist rebels in the Vendée. Despite this, Grouchy’s aristocratic background made him suspect. He was removed from command in September 1793, during the Reign of Terror. A warrant for his arrest was issued by the Committee of Public Safety and he was suspended from the army. When the Terror ended in June 1794, Grouchy was returned to service and promoted to general of division. He was the deputy commander of French forces under General Hoche in the failed invasion of Ireland in 1796.
When posted to Italy in 1797, Grouchy met General Napoleon Bonaparte for the first time. At the Battle of Novi (August 15, 1799), Grouchy performed well, but he was seriously wounded and subsequently captured. As a prisoner of war, he wrote a letter protesting Napoleon’s coup d’état of 18 Brumaire and the subsequent establishment of the Consulate.
Grouchy was released in 1800. Generals Masséna and Moreau convinced him to support the new regime. At the head of one of Moreau’s divisions, Grouchy played an important role in France’s victory at the Battle of Hohenlinden on December 3, 1800. However, Grouchy’s friendship with Moreau – a rival to Napoleon – limited his own prospects in the new French empire. In 1801, Grouchy was named inspector general of cavalry.
In 1805, Grouchy accepted command of a division in the Austrian campaign, but when he failed to get a promotion he contemplated resigning. Napoleon enticed him back by offering Grouchy’s son Alphonse a position in the Imperial Cadet School. Grouchy capably led a division of dragoons in the 1806 Prussian campaign, and performed heroically in the campaign in Poland in 1807, distinguishing himself in the battles of Eylau and Friedland.
When Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808, Grouchy was appointed governor of Madrid, where he successfully put down an insurrection. In recognition of his service, Napoleon made Grouchy a Count of the Empire in 1809. Grouchy’s next assignment was command of the cavalry of the Army of Italy under Napoleon’s stepson, Eugène de Beauharnais. They drove the Austrians out of Italy and joined Napoleon’s main army at the Battle of Wagram, where Grouchy again contributed to a French victory. Napoleon rewarded him with the cross of the Iron Crown and made him Colonel-General of the Chasseurs, a rank just below that of marshal.
Tired of campaigning and pained by his wounds, Grouchy went home to rest. He returned to the field in 1812, as commander of the Third Cavalry Corps in Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. He performed admirably, was wounded by grapeshot to the chest at the Battle of Borodino, and became commander of the Sacred Squadron – an ad hoc cavalry unit that served as Napoleon’s bodyguard during the retreat from Moscow.
Upon his return to France, Grouchy asked to be retired from active service for health reasons. Napoleon granted this request, effective April 1, 1813. In 1814, when Napoleon’s enemies were pressing the French army back to France’s borders, Grouchy was recalled to service. He commanded the cavalry, performed brilliantly at the Battle of Vauchamps, and was badly wounded in the leg at the Battle of Craonne. He later limped as a result.
After Napoleon’s abdication and exile to Elba, Grouchy applied to be reinstated at full rank in the French army under King Louis XVIII. Instead he was given a modest pension.
Marshal Grouchy at Waterloo
When Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to France in 1815, Grouchy rallied to the Emperor. Napoleon gave Grouchy command of the army that was fighting royalist forces under the Duke of Angoulême. Angoulême soon surrendered. On April 15, 1815, Napoleon promoted Grouchy to the rank of marshal. He also made him a peer of France.
Napoleon had to confront two allied forces on the Belgian border: an army of British, Dutch and German troops under Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington; and a Prussian-Saxon army under Field Marshal Gebhardt von Blücher. Napoleon moved to the frontier with his army divided into three parts: a left wing commanded by Marshal Ney; a right wing commanded by Marshal Grouchy; and a reserve commanded by himself. On June 16, Napoleon (supported by Grouchy) defeated part of Blücher’s forces at the Battle of Ligny. On June 17, Napoleon ordered Grouchy to take the right wing – nearly one-third of Napoleon’s total force – to find and give battle to the retreating Prussians so that they could not join up with the British. Meanwhile, Napoleon headed for Waterloo to fight Wellington.
Grouchy pursued the Prussians as instructed. Shortly before noon on June 18, he and his corps commanders heard the sound of cannons, possibly coming from the Battle of Waterloo. Grouchy refused to march toward the sound, citing his orders from Napoleon and conscious of Napoleon’s criticism of Marshal Ney for not following orders at the Battle of Quatre Bras on June 16. Later that day, Grouchy received further orders that appeared to confirm his decision to proceed to Wavre and engage the Prussians.
The Prussians left a strong rearguard at Wavre. Grouchy successfully defeated them on June 18-19; however, this rearguard concealed the bulk of the Prussian force, which marched under Blücher to join the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo, ensuring an allied victory over Napoleon on June 18. Grouchy did not learn of Napoleon’s defeat until the following morning.
Grouchy gathered up the demoralized remnants of the Army of the North and led them skillfully back to Paris, acting as a rearguard against the allied forces. They reached Paris on June 29. Meanwhile, Napoleon had abdicated on June 22. The French provisional government under Napoleon’s Minister of Police, Joseph Fouché, ordered Grouchy to assist in the negotiations with the allies for a ceasefire. When Grouchy did so, the Minister of War, Marshal Davout, removed him from his command.
Grouchy became a scapegoat for the provisional government, just as he would become a scapegoat for Napoleon and anyone else who could be blamed for Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. Grouchy would have to spend the rest of his life defending himself.
According to historian Paul Dawson, Grouchy has been unfairly treated.
[F]or many, primarily due to the Dino de Laurentis film Waterloo, Grouchy is the bumbling buffoon strawberry eater who failed to march to Waterloo. This vision of an incompetent man, promoted beyond his abilities, has stuck to Grouchy…..
Despite what many historians suggest, Grouchy acquitted himself marvelously during the campaign. He was an excellent administrator, and the truth of the matter is, he was an excellent choice to command the right wing of Napoleon’s army. His retreat to Paris is a text book fighting retreat, yet few remember him for this. (2)
Exile in the United States
Grouchy knew that he would be a marked man under the restored Bourbon monarchy. By the time he was proscribed and charged with treason, he had already escaped France. Leaving his family behind, he headed for the United States. He arrived in Baltimore in January 1816. A newspaper noted: “We are rejoiced to announce the arrival of Marshal Grouchy in this city, having made his escape from the vindictive tyranny which now persecutes and massacres the distinguished patriots of France.” (3)
Grouchy bought a house in Philadelphia, where a number of French exiles settled. In May 1816, the French citizens of that city gave a fête for Grouchy, General Lefebvre-Desnouettes and General Clauzel.
In August, Grouchy was described in an American newspaper as “one of the most distinguished generals of France.”
In private life, he is a most intelligent and agreeable companion. Perhaps no human being is more free from every taint of pride or vanity. He possesses a natural simplicity of character, blended with the easy and unostentatious manners of a polite, well bred, accomplished gentleman. The marshal has left an amiable consort and children in France, to whom he is endeared by every tie of conjugal and filial affection. (4)
At a banquet in New York in October, Grouchy was hailed as a “Marshal of France.” This annoyed the French Ambassador to the United States, Jean-Guillaume Hyde de Neuville, since the restored monarchy did not credit Grouchy with that title.
In November, Grouchy visited Niagara Falls. He spent Christmas of 1816 with the most prominent French exile in America: Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte, who had an estate in Bordentown, New Jersey. Despite the controversy over Grouchy’s conduct at Waterloo, Joseph bore him no ill will. Grouchy purchased some land in upstate New York, near where Joseph owned property.
In 1817, Grouchy asked his sons Alphonse (a Napoleonic colonel) and Victor (a lieutenant) to join him in the United States. They arrived in May. All three of them became shareholders in the Vine and Olive Colony in Alabama. Victor, who soon became bored in Philadelphia, sailed for Mobile in August 1817 to visit the colony, but did not stay long. The Grouchys did not sell or work their grants of land and their claims eventually lapsed.
In October 1817, Grouchy set out to visit Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, preceded by a letter of introduction from the Marquis de Lafayette. Grouchy made it as far as Wilmington, Delaware, where he stayed with his friend Éleuthère du Pont de Nemours. When Alphonse became ill, Grouchy wrote to Jefferson expressing regret that he could not travel further and promised to make the journey the following spring.
How much I congratulate myself on dwelling in your interesting country; how proud I am, and how thankful for the honorable hospitality which has been bestowed upon me here, and…if anything can lessen the bitterness with which a distant exile overwhelms me, and the state of servitude and degradation of my native land, it is to see yours, happy, powerful, free, and respected, and all through institutions founded upon the very same principles for the establishment of which I have so often needlessly shed my blood. (5)
On November 2, Jefferson wrote to Grouchy in reply:
Your name has been too well known in the history of the times, and your merit too much acknowledged by all, not to promise me great pleasure in making your personal acquaintance. If, too, the trouble of such a journey could be compensated by anything which the country between us could offer to your curiosity, it would save me the regret which I could not fail to feel were I to suppose myself the whole object of the journey. In this last case I would certainly think myself sufficiently honored by the written expressions of respect just now received, and should postpone the pleasure of receiving them personally to the unreasonable trouble which such an object would impose on you. As you flatter me with taking the journey in the spring, I am in hope the face of our country at that season will still better reward the labor of the undertaking. (6)
Grouchy and Alphonse were staying with du Pont when the latter’s gunpowder factory on Brandywine Creek exploded on March 19, 1818, killing 34 people.
Upon the first alarm they rushed out with others to the scene to afford whatever assistance circumstances might require and had just crossed the creek when the magazine blew up, spreading destruction in all quarters. A workman at the elbow of Colonel Grouchy was killed by a stone which passed through his breast, and the head of another fell at the marshal’s feet; they, however, both escaped unhurt. It was supposed that all the building in this quarter had been destroyed by the first explosion, as they appeared to be all in flames, but it was presently pointed out to them by one of the surviving workmen that the drying house (in which they perceived through a window, there was a considerable quantity of powder) had not yet caught fire.
There was time enough to escape from all danger from this building, had they sought safety by flight, but with that decision and promptness in action which distinguishes truly brave men, they instantly seized axes and commenced cutting and tearing away a kind of bridge or platform, which communicated with all the buildings and was then in flames, and which in a few minutes more must have set fire to the drying house. Their example and encouragement drew others to the spot, and after great exertions, with the aid of the water buckets the fire was here stopped. Had this building blown up, the refinery and other buildings on the right of the creek, which had escaped from the explosion of the magazine, together with the cloth manufactory on the left, with what remained of the dwellings of the Mr. Dupont’s, would in all probability have been entirely destroyed; and with these buildings, the houses, occupied by the wives and children of the workmen. In short, it is known to the writer of this article that the family of Mr. Dupont attribute the salvation of what remained of their property at their works to the example and exertions of these gentlemen, who have thus entwined a civic wreath with the Laurels of Borodino, and erected on the breasts of the widow and the orphans a monument that will be as lasting, and not less honourable to them, as their military fame. (7)
Grouchy missed his wife and daughters. He thought of going to the Low Countries, but was discouraged by reports that French exiles there were being persecuted. In 1817, Grouchy told Hyde de Neuville that he wished to return to France and serve the restored government. He began to disassociate himself from the more vehement exiled Bonapartists, including the Lallemand brothers, and even hesitated to attend the wedding of General Henri Lallemand and Henriette (Harriet) Girard. Grouchy did not take part in Charles Lallemand’s invasion of Texas.
In 1818, Grouchy sent Alphonse back to France to advocate on his behalf for a royal pardon. Grouchy was compelled to sell the Château de Villette to Fouché to raise money to further these efforts. Meanwhile, reports began to appear in American newspapers – based on accounts written by General Gourgaud, one of Napoleon’s companions on Saint Helena, and others – that Grouchy was to blame for the French defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. Grouchy vigorously refuted these allegations.
It is the part…of blind and even criminal partiality, (for it is criminal to endeavor to obscure historical truth, and to traduce the intimate opinion which arises necessarily from the evidence of circumstances, experience in war and military means) to advance, as is done by the judicious author of Considerations on the Art of War, that Marshal Grouchy’s corps remained the 18th in a stupid immobility, and that when the cannon was heard on his left, he should have forgotten the instructions that had been given to him, abandoned the track of Marshal Blucher, and gone to join Napoleon. (8)
Grouchy wrote a book defending his actions. His Observations sur la relation de la campagne de 1815, publiée par le général de Gourgaud: et refutation de quelques-unes des assertions d’autres écrits relatifs à la bataille de Waterloo was published in 1818. According to Grouchy, the accounts coming out of Saint Helena were intended to conceal Napoleon’s own mistakes during the campaign.
In November 1819, the Duke of Angoulême advised Alphonse that Grouchy had been given an amnesty and would be allowed to return to France. On May 26, 1820, Emmanuel de Grouchy sailed from New York for Le Havre. On June 29, he had an audience with the Duke of Angoulême in Paris. Marshal Grouchy does not appear as a character in Napoleon in America because he had already left the United States by the time Napoleon fictionally arrives there in 1821.
Back in France
Grouchy was reinstated as a general, but not as a marshal or a peer of France. He was shunned by many members of the nobility for his support of the Revolution, and by many veterans of the Grande Armée, who believed the accusations that Grouchy had betrayed Napoleon at Waterloo. The controversy was not suppressed by the Bourbons, who were happy to have the Bonapartists divided on the issue. Marshal Grouchy continued to write books defending himself against the attacks on his reputation.
On February 1, 1827, Grouchy’s wife, Cécile, died. In June of that year, Grouchy married Joséphine-Fanny Hua, who was 36 years his junior. They had one daughter, Noémie (1830-1843).
After the July Revolution in 1830 overthrew the Bourbons, the new king, Louis Philippe, granted Grouchy his title of marshal and restored him to the Chamber of Peers. Grouchy was one of the few marshals who attended Napoleon’s funeral in Paris in 1840. Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy died on May 29, 1847, in Saint-Étienne on his way home from a trip to Italy. He was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
You might also enjoy:
- Charlotte Julia Blennerhassett, Madame de Staël: Her Friends and Her Influence in Politics and Literature, Vol. II (London, 1889), p. 350.
- Paul L. Dawson, Battle for Paris 1815: The Untold Story of the Fighting After Waterloo (Barnsley, S. Yorkshire, 2019), p. 2.
- National Intelligencer (Washington, DC), February 1, 1816.
- “Marshal Grouchy,” National Intelligencer, August 31, 1816.
- Jesse S. Reeves, The Napoleonic Exiles in America (Baltimore, 1905), pp. 24-25.
- Ibid., p. 25.
- “Marshal and Col. Grouchy,” National Advocate (New York), March 31, 1818.
- “A corner of the curtain raised which covers the causes of the loss of the Battle of Waterloo: showing that it was impossible for the body of the army which was under the orders of Marshal Grouchy to take part in that engagement,” National Intelligencer, September 1, 1818.
Your name has been too well known in the history of the times, and your merit too much acknowledged by all, not to promise me great pleasure in making your personal acquaintance.