Etienne Jacques Joseph Alexandre Macdonald, Duke of Taranto, 1765-1840

Early Career
War of the Second Coalition
Out of Favour
War of the Fifth Coalition
Russia, 1812
Germany, 1813

Marshal Jacques Etienne Joseph Alexandre Macdonald (1765-1840) was the son of a Scottish immigrant who served under every regime from the pre-revolutionary Royal army, through the revolutionary and Napoleonic periods and on to the restored Bourbons. His career was a mix of triumph, in particular at Wagram, and defeat in Italy and Germany, and was interrupted by a spell out of favour

Early Career

Macdonald's father was Vall Macachaim of South Uist, a Jacobite who fled into exile in France after the failure of the '45 and joined the French army. The Macachaims of Uist were part of the Macdonalds of Clanranald, and Vall chose to use the more famous name once in France. Jacques was born at Sedan in 1765, and joined the Royal army as a lieutenant at the age of 19. He served in Dillon's Regiment.

Portrait of Marshal Jacques Macdonald, Duke of Taranto, 1765-1840
Portrait of
Marshal Jacques Macdonald,
Duke of Taranto, 1765-1840

Macdonald remained in the army after the Revolution. He served in the Low Countries in 1792-95. He served as Dumouriez's ADC, but refused to support his commander when he went over to the Austrians in April 1793. He commanded an infantry brigade at the battle of Courtrai (11 May 1794) taking part in an attack on the Austrian flanks. The Austrians withdrew, but returned a few days later in larger numbers, only to suffer another defeat at Tourcoing (17-18 May 1794). Macdonald was promoted to general of brigade on 1 August 1793. In 1794 he commanded a brigade with notable skill at the French defeat at Tournai (22 May 1794). Although the French attack on Tournai failed, it did help convince the Austrians that they couldn't hold onto the Austrian Netherlands. Macdonald was promoted to general of division in November 1794, aged only 29.

At the start of 1797 Macdonald served as commander of the Army of Batavia (the French satellite state in Holland), but later in the year he was replaced by General Joubert.

Late in 1798 King Ferdinand IV of Naples, supported by the Austrian General Mack, attempted to expel the French from Rome. The French commander in Rome, General Championnet, decided to fight north of Rome, in the Tiber Valley. On 22 November Mack's invasion began. He quickly took Rome, and then began an advance along both sides of the Tiber. On 4 December Macdonald defeated Mack's left wing at Civita Castellana. After a few more setbacks the Neapolitans retreated back into their own kingdom. Early in 1799 Championnet advanced into Naples, and established the Parthenopean Republic (this French satellite only lasted from January until June 1799). After Championnet was recalled, Macdonald was given command of this army.

War of the Second Coalition

At the start of the War of the Second Coalition Macdonald commanded the French 'Army of Rome', then based in Naples. In the north of Italy a combined Austrian and Russian army recaptured the areas lost to Napoleon in 1796-97 and threatened to expel the French from Italy.

Macdonald responded by marching north to help the Army of Italy, then commanded by General Moreau. His departure from Naples in April allowed an Anglo-Neapolitan force to temporarily retake Naples (ending the Parthenopean Republic).  

Macdonald won a victory against the Austrians at Modena (12 June 1799), suffering a head wound in the battle. He then advanced into the Po valley, hoping to cut the Allied supply line, but he ran into Suvorov's Russians and Austrians at the Trebbia (17-19 June 1799) and suffered a heavy defeat. Macdonald blamed Victor for this defeat, and Victor harboured a grudge over this for the rest of their careers (one of the many feuds to develop between the Marshals).

Although Macdonald had failed in his objective, the Allies also failed in theirs, which was to prevent the two French armies from uniting. Macdonald retreated across the Apennines to the coast, and then west to join up with Moreau at Genoa. On his way he fought two rearguard actions, at San-Giorgio (20 June 1799) and Sassuolo (23 June 1799).

In the aftermath of this defeat Macdonald was withdrawn from Italy, and was given command of some of the troops around Paris. He thus played a key part in the coup of Brumaire (November 1799), which saw Napoleon seize power. He led his troops to Versailles on the first day of the coup, securing one possible centre of opposition.

Macdonald was rewarded with command of the French 'Army of the Grisons', in Switzerland. In the summer of 1800 Napoleon crossed the Alps into Italy and defeated the Austrians at Marengo (14 June 1800). In the aftermath of this battle the Austrians agreed to an armistice and withdrew behind the Mincio, giving them control of north-eastern Italy.

Fighting broke out again late in 1800. The most significant campaign came in Germany, where Moreau defeated the Austrians at Hohenlinden, but Macdonald also played a part in the French victory. In December 1800 he crossed the Alps, using the Splügen Pass, and defeated the Austrians in the Adige valley. After this victory the French regained control of north-eastern Italy. These combined defeats convinced the Austrians to sue for peace, and on 9 February 1801 they signed the treaty of Lunéville.

In 1802 Macdonald married for the second time, to Joubert's widow.

Out of Favour

In 1803 two of Macdonald's early patrons, Moreau and Pichegru, attempted to overthrow Napoleon. The plot failed, Moreau went into exile and Pichegru was arrested. Inevitably Macdonald came under suspicion, although there was nothing to link him to the plot. Napoleon chose not to employ Macdonald for the next six years, so he missed the War of the Third Coalition, War of the Fourth Coalition and the start of the Peninsular War.

War of the Fifth Coalition

In 1809 the Austrians declared war on France, one of the few occasions when Napoleon didn't initiate a war himself (War of the Fifth Coalition). By now the French were badly overstretched, and Napoleon was forced to recall Macdonald to active service. He was sent to join Prince Eugene's Army of Italy, which had suffered a number of defeats early in the war. Macdonald took part in Prince Eugene's recovery, which ended with the Austrians forced out of Italy and back into Hungary.

He played a part in the French victory at the Piave (8 May 1809), which helped trigger the Austrian retreat. Eugene then split his army, sending Macdonald towards Trieste to follow the Austrian left, while he chased the Archduke John into Austria. Macdonald captured Trieste, but then found an Austrian camp at Laybach (modern Lamarque). Macdonald decided to surround this camp and besiege it, but his moves convinced the Austrian defenders to surrender (Combat near Laybach, 22 May 1809). He then moved north to Maribor (Marburg), and by 29 May his leading cavalry forces were at the outskirts of Graz. This forced the Archduke to retreat east into Hungary, where he joined up with reinforcements, but still suffered defeat at the battle of Raab (14 June 1809).

In the meantime Napoleon had once again reached Vienna, but his first attempt to cross the Danube had ended in defeat at Aspern-Essling.

Napoleon learnt from this defeat. He summoned every available soldier to Vienna, including the troops from Italy. Macdonald's men arrived in Vienna on 4 July, the day before the battle of Wagram (5-6 July 1809). Macdonald's men took part in the failed French attack late on the first day of the battle, although only after Macdonald had protested about the plan. Macdonald's forces were repulsed, and some of his troops broke and fled, an ominous sign that the quality of Napoleon's army was beginning to decline. Macdonald was able to restore order and his men fought well on the second day of the battle.

On the second day of the battle Macdonald's men were committed to the main French attack on the centre of the Austrian line. He formed his 8,000 men into a massive hollow square, made up of two divisions (Lamarque and Broussier). This formation could defend itself against attack from the sides or the front, but was also vulnerable to artillery fire. Macdonald's attack began at about noon, and his grand square soon found itself under attack from three sides. Macdonald's force suffered devastating casualties, going from 8,000 down to 1,500 men. Napoleon had to commit three fresh divisions and the Young Guard, to save Macdonald. Wrede's Bavarians and the Young Guard moved directly up to support Macdonald, while two fresh divisions from the Army of Italy moved up so his flanks. The reinforced square did manage to advance, and helped push back the Austrian III Corps.

Although this attack hadn't achieved its main aims, it had weakened the Austrians. When news arrived that expected Austrian reinforcements wouldn't arrive until too late in the day, the Archduke Charles decided to withdraw. By this point Macdonald had reorganised his men, and he was able to contribute to the final French advance.

Napoleon was greatly impressed with Macdonald's performance, and promoted him to Marshal on the battlefield at Wagram, the only time this happened. In the following month he was promoted to the Imperial peerage as duc de Tarante.


Macdonald served in Spain from April 1810 to July 1811. Early in 1810 Marshal Augereau, commander of the Army of Catalonia, attempted to capture Tarragona, but he suffered an embarrassing defeat and had to return to Barcelona. On 24 April Napoleon gave Macdonald command of the Army of Catalonia. During his time in Spain he struggled to cope with the local guerrillas.

In December 1810 he was given the task of preventing the Spanish from interfering in the siege of Tortosa (16 December 1810-2 January 1811). He posted 15,000 men at Mora, twenty-five miles upstream from Tortosa on the Ebro.

In the summer of 1811 he lost command of part of his army during the siege of Tarragona (3 May-28 June 1811), when it was given to General Suchet for the siege.

He was eventually allowed to return to Paris on medical leave.

Russia, 1812

Russia 1812 - The Road to Moscow
Russia 1812
The Road to Moscow

In 1812 Macdonald commanded one of the supporting armies during the invasion of Russia. He was given X Corps, which had Prussian, Bavarian and Polish troops, and the job of capturing the Baltic provinces. In August-December 1812 he took part in an unsuccessful siege of Riga, which held out until the French were forced to retreat.

Towards the end of the Russian campaign the Prussian contingent in X Corps, under General von Yorck, was cut off from the rest of the corps, and agreed a separate armistice with the Russians (armistice of Tauroggen, 28 December 1812), and agreed to become neutral. This was the first crack in Napoleon's control of Germany, and helped trigger a series of revolts against him. He was forced to abandon Königsberg on 4 January 1813.

Germany, 1813

Macdonald was unimpressed with Napoleon's plan for the campaign in Germany in 1813, and suggested an alternative. He suggested that the French withdraw from all of their isolated fortresses in eastern and central Europe and use the new army that Napoleon had raised after his return from Russia to defend a position somewhere in the west, perhaps as far back as the Rhine. Napoleon rejected this plan, and instead decided to campaign as far east as he could.

War of Liberation 1813 - Spring Campaign
War of Liberation 1813 -
Spring Campaign

Despite his objections to the plan, Macdonald was given command of XI Corps for the campaign in Germany, although he didn't arrive in time to take part in the battle of Möckern (5 April 1813).

Macdonald's corps took part in the battle of Lützen (2 May 1813), where it was one of the units that was fed into the battle to support Ney's isolated corps. This ended as a costly French victory. In mid-May Napoleon reorganised his armies in Germany, creating a single Army of the Elbe. Ney was given command of one wing, while Napoleon took direct control of the other. Macdonald was appointed as his deputy.

His corps fought at the battle of Bautzen (20-21 May 1813), and were present for both days of the battle. In the period before the battle he had been sent on a reconnaissance in force, and on 16 May had found the allied army at Bautzen. On the first day of the battle he took part in an attack on Bautzen, but made little progress until he was supported by Marmont. On the second day the Russians attacked first, and Macdonald was used to bolster the line. He made effective use of his artillery and the Allied attack was repulsed. Finally, Marshal Ney carried out a flank attack that gave Napoleon a victory, although Ney's slow progress towards the battlefield reduced the scale of that victory.

War of Liberation 1813 - Autumn Campaign
War of Liberation 1813 - Autumn Campaign

Macdonald was given an independent command during the autumn campaign of 1813. He was given 100,000 men, with orders to block Blücher's Prussians. On 26 August he advanced across the River Katzbach (Silesia), but suffered a heavy defeat when his isolated columns were attacked by the Prussians. Macdonald lost 15,000 men, and Blücher was free to threaten Napoleon's flank. As a result the benefits of Napoleon's victory at Dresden (26-27 August 1813) slipped away. At first Napoleon didn't realise how serious the defeat on this flank had been, and gave Macdonald the task of defending the River Bobr as Ney led another attack on Berlin. When it became clear that Macdonald was still retreating, Napoleon decided to join him in person, and took the Imperial Guard and Marmont's corps with him. He was able to restore the morale of both Macdonald and his army, but was unable to force Blücher to fight. The Prussians withdrew after they realised that they faced Napoleon, and the Emperor was forced to return to his main army without the victory he wanted. Macdonald was left to face Blücher once again. This was only a temporary reprieve. Macdonald was soon retreating once again, and Napoleon was forced to dash back to support him once again. On 22 September he was able to force Blücher to retreat from Bautzen once again, but once again was unable to force a battle. This was exactly what the Allies were trying to achieve - their plan was to avoid battle with Napoleon in person, and press his subordinates. As a result the French army was being worn out without achieving anything, and Napoleon's successes were negated by the failures of his marshals.

Napoleon's attempts to keep the Allied armies apart eventually failed, and it became clear that they were all heading for Leipzig. Napoleon realised that he would have to concentrate his own armies there as well, and on 14 October Macdonald was ordered to join him at Duben ready for the march to Leipzig.

Later in the campaign Macdonald fought at Leipzig, where his corps was posted to the south-east of the city on the first day of the battle, where it attacked the Allied right wing, then to the east on the crucial third day. He took part in the rearguard action as the French evacuated the city, and was forced to escape capture by swimming across the River Elster. His corps then took part in the battle of Hanau (30-31 October 1813), the only serious attempt to stop the French leaving Germany. At the start of the battle his corps was the only one available to Napoleon, but reinforcements soon arrived and the Allies were pushed aside.


Battles of the French Campaign of 1814
Battles of the
French Campaign
of 1814

Macdonald served in the campaign in France in 1814, but his performance wasn't terribly impressive. In early February Napoleon inflicted a defeat on Blücher at Montmirail (11 February 1814). As the Prussians retreated north, Macdonald was meant to capture Château-Thierry, block their line of retreat and allow Napoleon to crush them. He moved too slowly, and the Prussians arrived first, crossed the river and broke the bridges. Although Napoleon was able to inflict another defeat on the Prussian rearguard, it wasn't the major victory that he required (battle of Château-Thierry, 12 February 1814). Despite this failure, in late February Macdonald was given command of a force made up of Oudinot's, Gérard's, Kellermann's and Milhaud's troops, with orders to convince Schwarzenberg that his Army of Bohemia still faced Napoleon. This was to give Napoleon time to defeat Blücher.  

Things didn't as Napoleon had hoped. Oudinot suffered a defeat at Bar-sur-Aube on 27 February and retreated, leaving Macdonald's left flank exposed. Macdonald was forced to retreat to the west bank of the Seine, allowing the Austrians to capture Troyes by 5 March. In addition Macdonald fell ill. In mid-March Macdonald was forced to retreat along the Seine towards Meaux. Napoleon was forced to move south to deal with Schwarzenberg. At the battle of Arcis (20-21 March 1814) he attacked what he believed was an isolated Austrian force, only to discover that the entire army was present. Macdonald was ordered to march from Bray to Arcis to join the fight, but instead Napoleon had to retreat before Macdonald could get close to the battle. The retreating troops from Arcis joined Macdonald's force near Ormes.

After the fall of Paris to the allies in March 1814 Macdonald and Ney insisted that Napoleon should abdicate instead of attempting to fight on. Macdonald helped negotiation the generous terms of the first abdication, which gave Napoleon his own principality on Elba. Napoleon appreciated his performance in this, and presented him with Murad Bey's sword, captured during Napoleon's Egyptian campaign.

After the abdication Macdonald returned to the service of the Bourbons. He remained with them during Napoleon's return in 1815. After Napoleon's second abdication Macdonald was given command of the Army of the Loire, which contained many of the survivors of the Grande Armée. He helped demobilise this army, and at the same time protected many of its officers from the Bourbon desire for revenge.

Soon afterwards Macdonald left the army. He sat in the House of Peers, where he was a moderate liberal. He married for a third time in 1821, and his first son was born in 1822. In 1825 he visited Scotland, where he visited his family's ancestral home, lost after the '45. Although he didn't speak English, he did speak Gaelic, and was able to use the language during his visit. He died at his chateau at Courcelles-le-Roi in 1840. 

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (12 August 2016), Etienne Jacques Joseph Alexandre Macdonald, Duke of Taranto, 1765-1840,

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