Louis-Alexandre Berthier (1753-1815) is recognized as the only man to have fought in two revolutionary wars, on two continents, within a span of less than ten years. He gained valuable experience while serving with Lafayette during the American Revolution. This training served him well during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.
Louis-Alexandre Berthier was born on November 20, 1753, in Versailles, France. He was one of four sons born to Jean-Baptiste Berthier, a court surveyor and military engineer. Berthier followed in his father's footsteps, learning the craft of mapmaking, which he applied during his time in America with the French army officers, Rochambeau and Lafayette.
Berthier began his military training in 1777, at the age of twenty-four. In 1780, he attained the rank of captain and requested assignment to Rochambeau's army, which was preparing to leave for America. Berthier missed sailing with Rochambeau's troops and proceeded to America by way of the West Indies, where he met the army on September 30, 1780 at Newport, Rhode Island. His journals, in the form of letters to a friend, relate chronicle his experiences beginning with his departure from France in 1780 through his return to France in April 1783.
In January 1781, Berthier was assigned to the staff of General Rochambeau as aide marechal general des logis surnumeraire. He accompanied the army as it marched from Newport, Rhode Island to Yorktown, Virginia and back to Boston. From Boston he continued on to the West Indies and then on to France. He stayed in America from September 30, 1780 until December 24, 1782.
Berthier prepared at least 111 known maps, from Newport, Rhode Island to Yorktown, Virginia on a southward march and a second set describing the daily marches from Newport to Elkton, Maryland in 1781. Berthier's maps of the American Revolutionary War campaigns reflect the work of a proficient cartographer and are representative of the highest standards of his day. Both Berthier and one of his younger brothers, Charles-Louis, are credited with providing the excellent maps of the American Revolution that survive today. The brothers are mentioned by the Abbe Robin, a chaplain with Rochambeau's army, in his Travels: "… to this gentleman and his brother we are indebted for an exact map of the country, containing the whole route of the French army from Newport to York in Virginia."
Returned to France
Berthier earned frequent promotions throughout his military career. In 1783, after his return to France, he was sent to Prussia on a military mission. In 1789, Berthier was named major general of the National Guard of Versailles. In this role he was able to help two aunts of Louis XVI to flee the French Revolution and provided some protection to the royal family. During this time he again saw active service as survey and staff officer and finally as chief of staff from 1791 to 1792. In 1793, Berthier was sent to fight royalists in western France, but was recalled after four months of dangerous service, when he was driven underground by the Revolutionary Terror.
Berthier met Napoleon Bonaparte in 1796, and they developed a close and trusting relationship. That same year, Berthier accompanied Bonaparte during the Italian campaign, occupying Rome in February 1798. He later joined Bonaparte in Egypt.
Berthier was established himself as a strong administrator and diplomat. In 1799, he participated in the coup d'etat of the 18th Brumaire, which established the Consulate. He received the post of minister of war, which he held until 1808. In this role he demonstrated his expertise in organizing the military. Berthier also proved to be an able diplomat who successfully negotiated a peace agreement with Spain. In 1804, after declaring himself Emperor Napoleon I, Bonaparte chose Berthier as one of 18 army officers to be named Marshal of the Empire. Berthier was briefly given leadership of the Grande Armee in 1809, during the Austrian campaign. Not considered by most to have been a great commander in the field, he did not conduct the campaign well and had to be rescued by Napoleon. Still, Napoleon liked and trusted Berthier and named him chief of staff of the Grande Armee, a position he held from 1808 to 1814. Berthier's devotion to Napoleon was never in question. He remained loyal through many campaigns, including Austerlitz, Jena and Fried land; the Peninsular campaign (1808), the Austrian campaign (1809), in Russia (1812), Germany (1813) and France (1814). Berthier was accorded several titles during his illustrious military career including Duc de Valangin, sovereign Prince de Neufchatel (1806), and Prince de Wagram (1809).
The Tide Turned
As Napoleon began to experience one defeat after another, Berthier's loyalties began to waver. In 1814, when Bonaparte abdicated, Berthier accepted the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, submitting to the cause of Louis XVIII. He was named a peer of France. But the relationship with the Bourbons was short-lived when, in 1815, Napoleon returned from exile on Elba. Berthier now experienced divided loyalties and retreated to his wife's family castle at Bamberg in Bavaria. On June 1, 1815, just a few short weeks before Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, Berthier died as the result of a fall from his castle. The circumstances of his death are curious and it is not known whether he committed suicide, was murdered, or fell by accident.
Further Reading on Louis Alexandre Berthier
Columbia Encyclopedia, Columbia University Press, 1993.
Webster's Biographical Dictionary, G.&C. Merriam Company, 1976.
"Berthier, Louis Alexandre," http://encartrs.msn.com/encarts/Contents.asp (January 12, 2000).
Encyclopaedia Britannica Online http://members.eb.com/bol/topic?eu=81026&sctn=1 (January 12, 2000).
"Louis-Alexandre Berthier Collection," http://infoshare1.princeton.edu:2003/libraries/firestone/rbsc/aids/berthier.html (January 12, 2000).
"Louis Alexandre Berthier (1753-1815) Prince of Neuchatel and of Wagram," http://perso.club-internet.fr/ameliefr/E-Berthier.html (January 22, 2000).
"Serving both Napoleon and George Washington, this Frenchman witnessed history to the bitter end." http://www.galenet.com/servlet/Bio (January 15, 2000).