Eugéne de Beauharnais, 1781-1824

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Eugéne de Beauharnais (1781-1824) was Napoleon’s step-son and an able soldier who spent much of his career as Viceroy of Italy. He was the son of General Alexandre de Beauharnais and Josephine Tascher de la Pagerie, the future Empress Josephine. His father had briefly commanded the Army of the Rhine during the revolution, but in June 1794 he was guillotined for failing to raise the siege of Mainz. Eugéne first met Napoleon in the following year when requesting the return of his father’s sword.

In 1796 Napoleon married Josephine. At first Eugéne was opposed to the marriage, but was soon won over and his career would greatly benefit from his connection to Napoleon. In 1796 he joined the Guides, but was judged to be too young to accompany Napoleon to Italy for that year’s campaign, only joined Napoleon as one of his aides after the Peace of Leoben of April 1797. Eugéne’s active military career began with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt of 1798, where he served as of Napoleon’s aides, and was wounded during the siege of Acre.

In 1799 Napoleon took power after the military coup of Brumaire. Eugéne was promoted to command a brigade of the Guards, fighting with distinction at Marengo (1800). He was promoted again in 1804 after Napoleon became Emperor, this time to general and Prince of the Empire, and in the following year was made Viceroy of the Kingdom of Italy.

This had been created from the Ligurian and Cisalpine Republics. The crown had been offered to Joseph Bonaparte, but he had turned it down, and son on 26 May 1805 Napoleon had had himself crowned King of Italy. Eugéne’s kingdom would regularly increase in size over the next few years, gaining Venice after Austerlitz, and expanding south to the borders of the Kingdom of Naples in 1808. In 1806 Eugúne officially adopted by Napoleon, and was married to August Amélie of Bavaria, the eldest daughter of the King of Bavaria. He was also made Prince of Venice, and Napoleon’s heir in Italy. His rule in Italy was efficient, well meaning and reasonably popular, and he was probably the most successful of Napoleon’s Royal creations.  

Eugéne had to defend his kingdom against an Austrian invasion after the outbreak of the War of the Fifth Coalition (1809). The Austrians won the first battle, at Sacile on 16 April 1809, and Eugéne was forced to retreat towards Verona. He was rescued from disaster by the arrival of Marshal Macdonald, before setbacks on the Danube front forced the Austrians to retreat from Italy. Eugéne and Macdonald advanced into Austrian territory, capturing Trieste and Clagenfurth, before winning a victory at Raab (14 June 1809). Eugéne was then able to join Napoleon on the Danube, performing well at Wagram (5-6 July 1809).

In December 1809 he was summoned back to Paris to deal with a more personal matter – the divorce between Napoleon and Josephine. Eugéne was apparently in favour of this move, believing that his mother would be happier away from the poisonous atmosphere of the Imperial court, but he then had to announce Napoleon’s marriage to Marie Louise of Austria. For performing this unpleasant duty he was created Grand Duke of Frankfort.

Eugéne led the Italian contingent during the Russian campaign of 1812, fighting at Borodino and at Maloyaroslavets. He remained with the remnants of the army throughout the retreat from Moscow, taking command of the survivors in January 1813 after Napoleon and Murat had both deserted the army. He then returned to Napoleon’s side, commanding the left wing of the French army at the battle of Lützen (2 May 1813), before the threat of an Austrian invasion forced him to return to Italy.

In 1814 Eugéne found himself surrounded by enemies, with Bavaria and Austria active against him, and Murat abandoning Napoleon to make peace with the Allies. Despite this Eugéne managed to hold his own, retreating to the Mincio and winning three victories over the Austrians. The campaign only ended after Napoleon’s abdication. One month later, Eugéne was ordered to retreat to Lyons, ending his involvement in Italy.

Having promised his father-in-law that he would no longer take up arms, Eugéne remained inactive during Napoleon’s Hundred Days of 1815. He was rewarded with the title of Duke of Leuchtenberg, and later of Prince of Eichstädt. He retired to Munich, and devoted the rest of his life to the welfare of Napoleon’s old soldiers. Eugéne died on 21 February 1824, at Munich. Eugéne was considered to have been a good man, brave, honourable, amiable and generous, and was an able commander. His family retained its status after the fall of Napoleon, and his children married into Swedish, German, Russian, Brazilian and Portuguese royal families.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (21 March 2008), Eugéne de Beauharnais, 1781-1824, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_beauharnais_eugene.html

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