Horace François Bastien Sebastiani (1772-1851)

Horace François Bastien Sebastiani (1772-1851) was a French general who fought at Austerlitz, in Spain and during the invasion of Russia, but who is perhaps best know for being surprised on several occasions in Russia.

Sebastiani was born on Corsica, and his family originally intended that he should enter the church. After the outbreak of the French revolution he abandoned that plan, and in 1789 he joined the French army.

Much of his early career was spent in the Alps or in Italy. He also fought on Corsica. During Napoleon's first Italian campaign he fought at Arcola and Dego. He was promoted to colonel after the battle of Verona (26 March 1799).

He took part in the Coup of 18 Brumaire (9 November 1799), which saw Napoleon come to power, initially as First Consul. He fought at the battle of Marengo (14 June 1800).

After Marengo he was sent on his first diplomatic mission, to Egypt and the Ottoman Empire. His report of this mission, which was published during the brief Peace of Amiens, helped to increase mistrust of Napoleon's motives in Britain, making it look as if the French were contemplating a second invasion of Egypt.

He was promoted to general of brigade at the Camp of Boulogne in 1802 or 1803.

During the campaign that ended at Austerlitz he commanded Murat's advance guard during the French pursuit of the Russian army that retreated from Vienna. He was thus the first to make contact with the Russians at the start of the Action of Hollabrunn (15-16 November 1805), a delaying action that allowed the Russians to break contact with the main French army.

He commanded a brigade of the 2nd Dragoon Division at Austerlitz, where he was wounded. He was promoted to general of division after the battle.

In 1806 he was appointed as Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. He managed to convince Sultan Selim III to leave the Coalition and declare war on Russia (27 December 1806), and helped defend Constantinople against a British fleet under Sir John Duckworth in 1807. He was recalled after Selim III was deposed.

In August 1808 he was sent to Spain to command the 1st Division in Lefebvre's IV Corps. He took part in the battle of Zornoza (31 October 1808), a French victory that disrupted Napoleon's own plan for a double envelopment of the Spanish position on the Ebro. Early in 1809 Sebastiani replaced Lefebvre in command of IV Corps.

In March 1809 he had to deal with a Spanish attempt to force the French out of La Mancha, winning an almost bloodless victory at Ciudad Real (26-27 March 1809).

He commanded the corps at the battle of Talavera (27-28 July 1809), where the French were defeated, but were saved from the consequences of the defeat by the arrival of reinforcements under Soult. While part of the French army followed the retreating Wellington, King Joseph led Sebastiani 's troops back to deal with the Army of La Mancha under General Venegas. The two sides clashed in an inconclusive skirmish at Aranjuez, before the Spanish were defeated at the battle of Almonacid (11 August 1809), although at some cost to the French.

In the autumn of 1809 the Spanish Junta began a major campaign, involving three separate campaigns. Sebastiani took part in the battle of Ocana (19 November 1809), a major French victory that effectively ended the Spanish campaign.

Early in 1810 he took part in the invasion of Andalusia, defeated a Spanish army at Jaen (23 January 1810). He was then sent to deal with those Spanish troops that had retreated east into Granada. He defeated some of these troops at Alcala la Real (28 January 1810), and on the following day occupied the city of Granada. Malaga fell to him on 5 February, and he then occupied the towns on the coast.

In late August 1810 Sebastiani invaded Murcia, but he was forced to retreat back into Granada after running into strong Spanish defences at the city of Murcia. As the French retreated the Spanish under General Blake advanced, but they stopped at the border for seven weeks. When Blake finally advanced into Granada he was defeated by General Milhaud at Baza (4 November 1810) and force back to the border. In the meantime Sebastiani defeated Blayney's landings at Fuengirola in October 1810, after the British commander decided to besiege the fortress instead of using the landing as a diversion for an attack on Malaga.

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

In 1812 he was given command of the 2nd Light Cavalry Division in Montbrun's II Cavalry Corps during the invasion of Russia. He took over the corps after Montbrun's death, but didn’t enhance his reputation. He was surprised on more than one occasion, notably at Inkovo (8 August 1812), early in a short-lived Russian offensive, where his headquarters was captured and at Vinkovo (18 October 1812), where Russian cavalry broke into his camp (in his defence Murat was equally surprised by this Russian offensive). He gained the nickname 'General Surprise'. Marbot described him as brave in action but careless at reconnaissance.

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

In 1813 he commanded II Cavalry Corps during the German campaign. He fought at the battle of the Katzbach (26 August 1813), a French defeat that helped undo the results of Napoleon's victory at Dresden. He took part in the massive battle of Leipzig (16-19 October 1813), where he was wounded. He fought at the battle of Hanau (30-31 October 1813), a French success during the retreat from Leipzig.

In 1814 he commanded cavalry again, fighting at Rheims and Arcis-sur-Aube (20-21 March 1814).

Later in the year he accepted the first Bourbon restoration, but in 1815 he returned to Napoleon's side during the 100 Days. He was given command of a National Guard unit, perhaps not the best use of his skills.

After the second Bourbon restoration he was placed on half pay. He then went into politics, becoming deputy for Corsica. He was more successful under Louis-Philippie, serving as Minister of Marine in 1830, Foreign Minister in 1830-32, Minister without Portfolio in 1832, Ambassador to Naples in 1833 and Ambassador to London in 1835-40. He was appointed a Marshal of France on his retirement in 1840.

Sebastiani's later years were marred by the murder of his daughter, the Duchesse de Praslin, by her husband, the Duke, who later poisoned himself in prison.

As well as 'General Surprise' he earned a more flattering nickname as the 'Cupid of the Empire' due to his dashing manner and impressive physique.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (10 December 2015), Horace François Bastien Sebastiani (1772-1851), http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_sebastiani.html

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