Free shipping worldwide!

Jean Baptiste Bernadotte - Part 2: Traitor, Idiot, or Opportunist?

In our previous post we gave a biographical overview of the life of Marshal Bernadotte, later King Charles XIV of Sweden. This week we assess his controversial legacy. Was Bernadotte any good as a military commander? Was he a traitor to Napoleon and to France? Did Bernadotte only act in the interests of Bernadotte?

The Arc de Triomphe is one of France’s most famous landmarks, and serves as a reminder of France’s military glory during the turn of the 19th century. The walls of the arch are inscribed with the names of dozens of leading generals of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. These include 24 of the 26 men Napoleon appointed to the venerated rank of Marshal of France. The two exceptions are Marmont and Bernadotte, both considered traitors to France. While Marmont was censured for abandoning the defence of Paris in 1814 and spent the rest of his life in exile, Bernadotte had become Crown Prince of Sweden in 1810 and took up arms against his native land as part of the Sixth Coalition.

Sweden had approached Bernadotte with their offer in part due to the desire to maintain good relations with Napoleonic France. Despite his mixed record as a Napoleonic Marshal, Bernadotte was a close relative of the Bonaparte family. As we have explained in our previous blog post, while Napoleon initially treated the idea with much skepticism, he soon came to realise how it could benefit him. Not only did he believe that Sweden would finally comply fully with the Continental System, but it also kept a troublesome general at arm’s length, preventing him from causing any trouble in Paris.

It is also important to consider Bernadotte’s personal position when he was approached by the Swedes with the offer. After being ordered back to Paris after Wagram, and dismissed from his command in the Netherlands, it is unlikely that Napoleon would ever have employed him in the field again. Facing the prospect of a rather mundane retirement or serving in minor administrative roles, the opportunity to become King of Sweden was a godsend for Bernadotte. Thus, the arrangement suited all three parties: Sweden, Napoleon, and Bernadotte.

Events proved that Napoleon was mistaken in his belief that Bernadotte would stop Sweden from trading with Britain, or that Franco-Swedish relations would remain amicable. Did this make Bernadotte a traitor to France? At their final interview, Napoleon explicitly attempted to extract a promise from Bernadotte not to take up arms against France. Bernadotte refused, saying only that he would do what was in the best interest of his Swedish subjects. By then it was too late for Napoleon withdraw his blessing. Perhaps Napoleon believed that Bernadotte would not dare to take up arms against him.

While war with France was hardly in Sweden’s interests, it was very much in Sweden’s economic interests to continue trading with Britain through Swedish Pomerania. This prompted Napoleon to order Marshal Davout to occupy Swedish Pomerania. Not only was this an act of aggression on Napoleon’s part, but given Bernadotte and Davout’s previous enmity, it was designed to anger Bernadotte. Rather than forcing Bernadotte to back down, the Crown Prince opted to align closer to Russia. Despite this, Napoleon still hoped that Sweden would join his side in the invasion of Russia in 1812.

Bernadotte’s behaviour is entirely consistent with the fact that unlike Napoleon’s relatives on the thrones of Spain (Joseph), Naples (Murat), Westphalia (Jerome), all of whom had become kings through conquest, Bernadotte was invited by the Swedish Riksdag (Parliament). If he had to choose between the interests of Sweden and those of Napoleon, he would naturally side with the Swedes. Unlike Bonaparte, Bernadotte was no dictator and understood the risks of ignoring Parliament. (Contrast this with the experience with Louis Bonaparte, who had attempted to work with Dutch elites as King of Holland but was dismissed by his brother in 1810.)

Of course, for his former comrades in 1813, Bernadotte was a Frenchman leading an army of Prussian, Russian, and Swedish troops against fellow Frenchmen. Such feelings were easily shared among the men and women who lived in northeast France in early 1814 as Bernadotte’s Army of the North crossed the border into France. Bernadotte himself tried to demonstrate that he had no dispute against France, only against Napoleon, but this had understandably fallen on deaf ears. 

With the benefit of hindsight, some observers argue that Bernadotte’s conduct at Jena-Auerstedt and Wagram demonstrates that he was already intent on undermining Napoleon. At worst it was treachery, at best incompetence, or so the argument runs. While Bernadotte’s record as Marshal of France was certainly far from impressive, at closer examination he was not solely to blame.

With the benefit of hindsight, Bernadotte is often criticised for his failure to assist Davout at the Battle of Auerstedt in 1806. However, on the eve of battle on 13 October, Napoleon had expected the Prussian army to be concentrated around Jena. Davout was expected to march west to the enemy’s rear at Apolda, while Bernadotte following behind would turn south towards Jena, spending the night at Dornburg. At 10pm in the evening, Davout received a postscript to his orders that ‘If the Prince of Pontecorvo [Bernadotte] is still with you, you can march together. The Emperor hopes, however, that he will be in the position which he has assigned to him at Dornburg.’

As Bernadotte had been delayed, he was still close enough to Davout for the latter to pass on the instruction to him. As it was not an explicit order for him to accompany Davout (which would have slowed the progress of both corps), and Napoleon’s preference was for him to be at Dornburg, Bernadotte chose to follow Napoleon’s original instructions. During the morning of 14 October Davout had no inclination that he would run into the main Prussian army at Auerstedt. By the time Davout realised the size of the enemy force he had engaged, Bernadotte would have been too far away to help. If Bernadotte is to be criticised for anything, it is the failure to participate at the Battle of Jena rather than his absence from Auerstedt.

Battles of Jena and Auerstedt

That Davout managed to prevail alone against Brunswick could be considered good fortune for both men. The former’s victory at Auerstedt would not have so special if his army had been twice as large, while the defeat of the Prussians allowed Napoleon to overlook Bernadotte’s absence from both battles. Bernadotte redeemed himself to a large extent with his relentless pursuit of the defeated enemy, ensuring that they could not regroup and give battle. He could not be faulted for his absence at Eylau since his orders never reached him, while the neck wound he suffered at Spanden which caused him to miss Friedland showed that he was not lacking in bravery.

In spite his absence from Jena and Auerstedt, Napoleon kept Bernadotte in the army. Bernadotte’s performance at Wagram three years later would see him suffer much more serious consequences. Bernadotte’s men were in the centre of the French line around the village of Aderklaa. On both days of the battle Bernadotte’s Saxons suffered considerable casualties, prompting him to fall back and abandon the village. Bernadotte had already criticised Napoleon’s handling of the battle on the first day, and this compounded his miseries. The final straw for Bernadotte his proclamation at the end of the battle to his Saxons that they had fought well and made the major contribution to the victory.

Bernadotte was not at fault for having inexperienced men under his command whom he had little time to train. It was also unfortunate that the white uniforms of the Saxons were difficult to distinguish from those of the Austrians, leading to several friendly fire episodes. Napoleon famously said that he preferred to have lucky generals than good ones. At Wagram, Bernadotte proved especially unlucky. As for Bernadotte’s proclamation to the Saxons, he was hardly the first general in history to lie about the contribution of his men in battle. Napoleon himself was the master.

Any examination of Bernadotte’s military capabilities must go beyond his record as a marshal. Bernadotte was not only a marshal because he was related to the Bonaparte family, but had proven a very successful and inspirational general in the Revolutionary Army. His tactical abilities and his personal bravery were never in doubt. He was respected and admired by his men and may have pulled off a coup in the manner of 18 Brumaire.

General Bernadotte on horseback during the Italian campaign

Bernadotte’s record as Crown Prince of Sweden during the campaigns of 1813-14 is rather complicated. His insights into Napoleon and the marshals proved invaluable when the allies formulated the Trachenberg Plan. Bernadotte knew intimately of the mutual jealousy and suspicion among the marshalate, and that only Napoleon’s presence could make them fight effectively as a team. With three allied armies advancing on three fronts, Napoleon could not expect to be everywhere at once. Thus, while Napoleon did prevail against Schwarzenberg at Dresden, Macdonald was defeated by Blücher at the Katzbach, while Oudinot and Ney were defeated by Bernadotte’s at Grossbeeren and Dennewitz.

Nevertheless, there is much to criticise about Bernadotte’s performance in 1813-14. It was abundantly clear to the allies, especially Blücher, that he was far more interested in using his 30,000 Swedish contingent for the conquest of Norway. To this end, he proceeded with an abundance of caution, always fearful of his rear, and relied on the Prussian and Russian contingents in the Army of the North to win his battles. Even at Leipzig, he was only persuaded to launch his attack when Blücher agreed to give him half his force. Following Leipzig, Bernadotte’s Army of the North went back north to besiege Marshal Davout at Hamburg. It was probably to the allies’ benefit that the most cautious commander of the three armies was tying up Napoleon’s best marshal.

While he enjoyed a reputation in his adopted homeland as a military hero, and was well-liked by both the British and Russians, some of his allies would have sympathised with Napoleon when it came to Bernadotte’s reliability and competence as a commander. By 1814 Tsar Alexander and Napoleon would not have agreed on much, but they may have been of a similar mind that Bernadotte was a political opportunist who was primarily motivated by self-interest.

While Alexander had flattered and indulged Bernadotte, making promises he could not keep, Napoleon alternated between keeping him under close supervision (1805-09) and sending him far away (1799-1804 and from 1809). As mentioned above, it was therefore very much in Bernadotte’s personal interests to become Crown Prince of Sweden in 1810. It is hard to imagine the likes of patriotic Frenchmen such as Marshal Macdonald or Jourdan making the same decision. Even after Bernadotte had been securely installed in Stockholm, he seriously entertained hopes of being a constitutional king of France.

Bernadotte’s political ambition manifested itself even before he became a marshal. His brief stint as minister of war caused Barras to fear a military coup. He frequently turned down appointments hoping for something better. While he seemed genuinely attached to the ideals of the French Revolution in his early years, his undiplomatic conduct as ambassador in Vienna could have been a ploy to be recalled and given an army command. Similarly, Bernadotte refused to go to America when he learned of the Louisiana Purchase and the downgrading of his status from governor to ambassador.

Marshal Bernadotte

Even so, Bernadotte was hardly alone among Napoleon’s marshals in being politically ambitious. Marshal Murat, another of Napoleon’s brothers-in-law, had been made King of Naples, and in 1814 concluded a separate peace with Austria in order to preserve his throne. When Murat came to realise that the Austrians might not keep the agreement, he rallied to Napoleon after his escape from Elba but was rejected as a turncoat. A forlorn attempt to unite Italy led him to a firing squad in October 1815. Bernadotte’s political instincts were far better, allowing him to enjoy a relatively peaceful 26 years as King of Sweden.

Like much of the marshalate, Bernadotte failed to get along with his peers. As we have seen, his relationship with Davout was especially bad. This in itself is not a surprise since Davout failed to get along with pretty much everyone. Bernadotte is said to have refused to respond to Davout’s call for assistance at Auerstedt as it would have meant taking orders from someone of equal rank. Such behaviour violated the spirit of Napoleon’s battalion carré, which stipulated that his marshals should march to support another who was attacked by the enemy. Davout hoped that Bernadotte would be court-martialled and shot for his failure to help at Auerstedt, and Napoleon might have briefly considered it. Yet this was just an early example of marshals failing to work together when Napoleon was not at hand.

In certain respects, Bernadotte’s character proved far more admirable to his colleagues. Bernadotte was among a select number of marshals who avoided looting and pillaging. This stood in contrast to Marshal Soult, nicknamed ‘King Nicolas’ for the wealth he had amassed in Spain, or Massena, who was as talented at stealing as he was at fighting. While on campaign Bernadotte ensured that his men would keep their discipline. This quality also made him an effective administrator in northern Germany. Indeed, his respectful treatment of Swedish officers had been a factor in his election as Crown Prince. The offer from the Swedish Parliament was a slice of good fortune which he did not expect, but gleefully took full advantage.

We have argued over the course of this blog post that Bernadotte cannot be considered a traitor. Napoleon himself admitted on Saint Helena that Bernadotte “never promised or declared an intention to stay true. I can therefore accuse him of ingratitude, but not of treason.” Nevertheless, Bernadotte continues to be singled out while Murat’s disloyalty is conveniently forgotten.

Bernadotte's critics, having convicted him of treason, point to his conduct at Auerstedt and Wagram as evidence of pre-conceived designs to undermine Napoleon. As we have seen, Bernadotte’s refusal to aid Davout was partly motivated by personal animosity, but he was far from unique in his display of impertinence. His decisions at Wagram were a combination of bad luck and his desire to avoid further needless casualties. He was an average marshal at best, but remained a competent and inspirational commander.

There is no doubt, however, that Bernadotte made many choices to advance his career, with little consideration for his family, Napoleon, or France. In this respect, Bernadotte was no better or worse than Napoleon himself, who proved a master of political intrigue during his rise to power. While Napoleon leaves behind a greater legacy, Bernadotte proved to have superior political instinct at the time. After refusing several compromises in 1813 which could have kept him on the French throne, Napoleon ended his life in exile in Saint Helena, while Bernadotte became a well-loved King of Sweden, founding a dynasty which continues to reign to this day. In their lifetimes, Bernadotte proved to be Napoleon’s more successful alter ego.

If you are a Bernadotte fan and enjoyed reading this, check out our Bernadotte matryoshka mug:


  • Sebastian

    Hello, also I might make a correction on the point about Bernadotte not being liked by his peers: Actually, unlike Davout, he got along with most of his fellows.

    In particular, he was good friends with Murat (he was a witness at his wedding), Lannes, Massena, Marmont and Jourdan. And he was exceptionally close to Ney, who saw Bernadotte as a mentor as well as friend. It was Bernadotte that convinced Ney to accept the third offer of promotion to General of Division. And, to Bernadotte’s great credit, after Ney was executed, he took Ney’s son and made him an officer in the Swedish Army on his staff, then as Aide-de-Camp to his son Crown Prince Oscar. Oscar and the younger Ney formed a life-long friendship.

    Of course, Bernadotte had enemies, Davout being the most prominent, but this actually predated Jena-Auerstadt. It stemmed from Davout’s time as provost marshal, when Bernadotte learned Davout had had his personal letters, including to his wife, opened and read. He threatened to horse whip Davout. They later made up somewhat, with Davout being his guest in Hannover on a couple occasions. Bernadotte had a running feud with Berthier, which, in hindsight, may explain the lack of orders before J-A, and the debacle with the IX Corps reserve at Wagram. Oddly enough, Bernadotte employed, and got on with, Berthier’s brother as his Chief of Staff.

    Finally, Bernadotte was well loved within the Bonaparte family. Indeed, Napoleon’s sisters and brothers usually took Bernadotte’s side during their many arguments and disagreements.

    Something else that should be noted about the relationship between Napoleon and Bernadotte is that despite their disagreements, Napoleon thought very highly of Bernadotte and trusted him with his family’s safety during the Consulate and early Empire. When he departed for the Marengo campaign, Napoleon left Bernadotte in command of the Army of the West, that is 40,000 troops near Paris. In the event Napoleon fell, he fully expected, and desired, that Bernadotte be his successor, not only to protect the family, but to keep France from falling apart. It is for this reason that Napoleon thought of making Bernadotte his heir (also considered Murat) in the period of 1804-1807 until his brothers had sons. Ultimately, he knew enough about Bernadotte to understand that he was the only Marshal with both the military and political skills to preserve the Empire. He also considered making him King of Spain.


  • Sebastian

    Hello, nice article. I am glad you dug much deeper into Bernadotte. There is a lot of dubious history that has become very fashionable when it comes to him.

    That said, I think perhaps you might have been a bit too harsh on Carl Johan and the 1813 Campaign.

    He was juggling a lot of different things as head of state, general and chief diplomat. People discount his need to pursue Swedish interests while balancing those of the Allied Coalition. Ultimately, Bernadotte knew he could not spare his Swedish troops because he could not replace them like the other nations could make good their losses. And for good reason, his allies were looking to stab in the back at the first opportunity.

    1) Swedish policy was to wage war with Denmark, not necessarily to see France defeated and Napoleon driven from the throne. Far from being blinkered by Alexander’s charm, Bernadotte knew full well of the Czar’s dealings with Metternich and the Austria and Prussia’s intent to break their promises on Norway. The Great Powers were intent on using Bernadotte and Sweden to defeat France and then throw them aside afterward. Bernadotte needed his troops to enforce the promise extracted in early 1813. And, as it turns out, Metternich and Hardenberg were very much trying to deprive Sweden of its spoils and until December 1813 were openly conniving with the Danes to bring them into alliance despite their thrice sent refusal to abandon France. It was only Bernadotte forcing the issue by invading Denmark and utterly defeating the Danes that brought about the Treaty of Kiel. This would not have been possible had his lost his Swedish corps defending the capital of a faithless ally.

    2) I think then Prussian interpretations of Bernadotte’s generalship in fall 1813 may be receiving too much credit. Unlike the other two Allied armies, Bernadotte’s Army of the North was the only one that was both tied to a geographic location, and had large enemy formations in his immediate rear. By being tied to Berlin, Bernadotte’s freedom of maneuver was greatly compromised. Add to that his sole line of communication with Straslund and there lies a situation where if he were attacked by Napoleon in force he, unlike Blucher and Schwartzenberg, could not simply retreat and buy time for the other armies to advance. Hemmed in by fortresses and Davout at Hamburg, there was no where to retreat to if things went badly.

    As a consequence, Bernadotte had to be cautious as he had no margin for error. Moreover, Napoleon was fighting a battle of the central position. The Trachenberg Plan relied on space to wear out the French and to prevent Napoleon from defeating each army in detail. The Prussians, by advancing toward Napoleon in the manner they wished, would have done exactly what the Emperor wanted by bringing the army closer to his position, allowing him to combine his forces for a rapid advance to crush the Army of the North without having to worry about advancing all the way to Berlin and leaving Dresden uncovered and vulnerable to Allied attack. Indeed, Napoleon had planned several advances with the majority of his army to destroy Bernadotte in detail, combined with first Oudinot’s advance, and then Ney’s, and then using his forces in Bernadotte’s rear to prevent his escape. Each time, however, Napoleon was forced to break off his advance, due to enemy attacks in his rear. It was the distance that Bernadotte had that bought him the time needed for his colleagues to advance to prevent Napoleon’s move.

    Indeed, when General Moreau visited Bernadotte at his HQ, prior to latching on with Alexander in August 1813, he felt that Bernadotte’s position was a hopeless one. That the Army of the North was doomed like a sheep tethered to a pole waiting for the wolves to devour it. In the end, it was Bernadotte knowing when to move, and not to move, that never gave Napoleon a chance to strike, and allowed the Army of the North to receive unorganized French attacks on the ground of their choosing. Bernadotte never presented Napoleon with an opening to attack, all the while attriting the French.

    As for Leipzig, it wasn’t a Swedish policy aim to completely destroy Napoleon. And, it was obvious even after the first day that the French would be defeated and evicted from Germany. Bernadotte’s agents within the French lines relayed to him that Napoleon fully intended to withdraw. Bernadotte likely didn’t want to see the French utterly destroyed (knowing Sweden’s usefulness to them would have expired), nor did he wish to risk his troops in a battle already won.

    3) Finally, I don’t see why Bernadotte gets dinged for pursuing Swedish interests when that is exactly what the others were doing. Let’s not forget, it was Sweden that started building the Sixth Coalition. Sweden made peace with Russia, and then made peace with the UK, and then served as the mediator between Russia and the UK, who had been at odds since 1807. Austria didn’t even join the coalition until it thought Napoleon was wounded enough to finish off. And why shouldn’t Bernadotte have relied on Prussian troops to do the majority of fighting? It was, after all, their capital, and their country, that was being defended.

    -I recommend reading Franklin D. Scott’s book “Bernadotte and the Fall of Napoleon.” It is a very comprehensive look at the diplomatic goings on during 1812-1814 and details Bernadotte’s balancing act in the coalition, as well as the perfidy of Austria and Prussia regarding Denmark. Ultimately, Bernadotte’s foresight regarding his troops (he said to a British officer in summer 1813: “If I lose my army no one in Europe would even loan me six francs.”) paid off.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

Worldwide delivery

Orders shipped worldwide within 30 days (covid impact notwithstanding).

Free shipping

Free shipping worldwide for all products

Free replacement

Free replacement for damaged or defective items

100% Satisfaction

Top quality printed products