“This first spark of revolt might become a general inferno”

Continuing with the series of letters in Louis Murat’s memoirs leading up to her father’s defection from Napoleon. We left off in July 1813, with Murat writing to Napoleon prior to departing to join him for the 1813 campaign, his pride still wounded from Napoleon’s treatment of him following his return from Russia. Sensing that Napoleon might be on the brink of destruction, he has, by this point, already begun sending feelers out to the Austrians. This next letter is from a few weeks after the French defeat at Leipzig and Murat’s subsequent departure from the Grande Armée and return to his kingdom. Murat is still sitting on the fence, not yet fully committed to abandoning Napoleon; he paints the Emperor a grim picture of the situation throughout Italy, and urges his brother-in-law towards Italian unification and independence.


Source: Souvenirs d’enfance d’une fille de Joachim Murat, by Louise Murat, pages 151-156.

To His Majesty the Emperor

Naples, 13 November 1813


I arrived here the night of the 2nd through the 3rd, and I wanted to know the state of things before writing to Your Majesty. He can therefore count on the truth of this report. I wrote to Your Majesty from Milan, but out of fear that my letter be lost, I’m sending a copy of it attached; I will do the same in the future with all the letters I write him. I found Italy greatly alarmed by the retreat of the Viceroy, and by the startling progress of the Austrians. The discouragement and the terror were at their height, all the more so as the events of Leipzig were beginning to be known here. The members of the government had packed their belongings and everyone was persuaded that the Austrians were soon going to arrive in Milan. I sought to ease their minds and I declared that I was going to march at the head of forty thousand men. This promise seemed to reassure them, and since, each courier brings me here the expression of desire to see me arrive promptly in Bologna. The departments of the Romagna refuse to furnish their contingent, and we are told they are in arms; it is announced to us at the same time that the Viceroy has retired beyond the Adige and that he has his headquarters in Villafranca. 

So that prevents the enemy from building bridges on the right bank of the Bas-Pô and coming to support these first movements of insurrection. The enemy will find the provinces of the Roman states and of Tuscany only too willing to imitate them, and this first spark of revolt might become a general inferno for all of Italy. If the enemy finally crosses the Po, I may be without communications with France and with the army of Italy, and yet in this case, I would have to march with my army in order to pacify those provinces and I would not believe myself authorized to penetrate into the imperial or Italian territory with my army. Would the malevolence that still pursues me then remain inactive, and would it not be made a crime of me to have violated the territory of Your Majesty? However as Your Majesty told me, as I separated from him, to do as I would like, and lest I stay here and be accused of being in intelligence with your enemies by letting them act without worrying them, I am going to put my armies in motion. I have not found the provinces of my kingdom animated with a better spirit, and the English have successfully breathed here principles and sentiments contrary to the government. Its enemies began to lose measure, its true friends were dismayed. Revolutionary placards and proclamations were found displayed every night in all the towns of Calabria; news of my death or of my wounds followed rapidly and the silence of our journals on my existence, which seemed to credit all the rumors, has contributed not a little to this change so extraordinary in the public opinion. Everywhere, only the defeats of the Grand Army are spoken of, everywhere its misfortunes are exaggerated; do we need to further exalt Southern heads, in order for people eager for novelty to revolt, who dislike the French, and dream only of the union of all Italy? 

I join to my dispatch some reports from General M… [note: probably Manhès] as well as some of the placards sent from Calabria. It can well be said, Sire, that we are not only near volcanos here, but that we are on volcanos. However, as I am persuaded that I cannot delay in receiving some instruction from Your Majesty on the conduct that I will have to take, whether the Austrians cross the Adige and pursue their success to the high Po, or whether the insurrection momentarily interrupts my communications with France and Italy, I am going to occupy myself with the greatest activity in organizing and mobilizing my army, and putting myself consequently in a position to act with success in high Italy; but I need to know your intentions. What should I do if the circumstances of which I’ve just spoken to you are realized? What language must I use, what means must I employ? There is one which would be all powerful; that of speaking to the Italians of their independence, and of the union of all Italy. This language cannot be used without Your Majesty’s authorization and only when the Austrians have crossed the Po or conquered Milan. A proclamation to the Italians in this sense would act all the more strongly on them, as the rumor is public in Italy, that the Austrians want to reestablish the Pope, to divide Italy and to reestablish several other Princes. Sire, hasten to reply to me, the enemy’s plan is positive. A proclamation from Your Majesty to the Italians in which you announce the union of Italy and her independence would be a lighting strike for Austria. The Italians would rise en masse and Italy would ow you once again her political existence. But I repeat it, this proclamation must be made neither by the Viceroy nor by me; it must emanate directly from you, and you should charge a man of your trust for this noble and generous project. Sire, believe me, I am incapable of wronging you, and there is only this great determination of Your Majesty that can save an Italy already half conquered and nearly entirely discouraged. It is then, Sire, that this crown of iron that you have revived will be preserved. What Italian and what Frenchman in Italy would be deaf to your call? All would line up under the flag of the one you have designated to be the conservator of all that Your Majesty has done in Italy, and of all the glory with which you have covered it. This noble procedure, Sire, is worthy of the magnanimity of  your soul. Eh! why, if you find yourself in the impossibility of conserving this beautiful kingdom, not prove to the Italians in a manner so solemn, that Your Majesty has constantly wanted its glory and its honor? Since the defection of the Confederation of the Rhine, since the misfortunes of Leipzig, the Austrians can reinforce the army of Italy as much as they want. What can the thirty thousand men I have available do against them? I repeat, Sire, it is no longer armies that are needed to oppose the enemies in Italy, it is a moral force, an invincible force, that which can inspire in every Italian the hope of seeing all of Italy united as a single nation. Until this moment, I’ve spoken with pride to Your Majesty of the feelings of love that my subjects have for me. Those feelings have been cruelly altered by my absences and by circumstances, and I have no more hope of saving the crown which I hold from the kindness of Your Majesty than according to the determination I have just indicated to him.  Yet I must not hide from Your Majesty that my return has produced on the spirit of my people a favorable change, because the general persuasion is that I have no other course left to take but to obtain peace and neutrality from the belligerent powers. I must declare to Your Majesty that this course is repugnant to my heart, because I am convinced that, if the enemy might determine to grant me peace, which I don’t believe, they will make me pay dearly one day for my imprudence. I beg Your Majesty to see in everything I just wrote to him only the oppression of a heart that will be constantly devoted to him, constantly grateful, and that has never suffered a more vivid pain than when it thought that you might doubt its true feelings.

[Signed] Joachim NAPOLÉON

3 thoughts on ““This first spark of revolt might become a general inferno”

  1. Pingback: “Everything announces a revolution” – Project Murat

  2. Josefa vom Jaaga

    I guess Murat’s meaning is pretty clear: The boy can’t do it (correct assessment), so drop Eugène, make me King of Italy, and I’ll rally the Italians and drive the Austrians out (wrong assessment). Oh, and if you don’t, my Italians will unfortunately force me to make peace with “the English”.

    But even if there may be a lot of selfishness in this proposal/ nicely worded blackmail, it still feels as if Joachim is quite serious about the cause of Italian unity. I do not think this is only a means to an end for him. He really wants to do something for “his” Italians.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think one of the things about Murat that has never really been delved into deeply enough up to this point–and it’s something I’d like to look into more myself–is Murat’s attachment to Italy. I get the impression that he became quite enamored with the country during the first Italian campaign, then of course he spends another year or so there years later shortly after his marriage with Caroline (she joins him there several months after Achille is born). Apart from Murat’s general jealousy of Eugène and dislike of the Beauharnais (except maybe Hortense, whom he appears to have gotten on well with), I think Murat would’ve genuinely relished being viceroy of Italy out of his love of Italy as much as for the prestige of the position itself, which only made him doubly resentful when Napoleon gave it to Eugène instead. So I do think that his desire to unite Italy under himself in 1814 came out of something more than just a simple hunger for power. I think he saw everything Napoleon had accomplished in Italy in danger of slipping away, and he didn’t want to see the restoration of the “old order,” in either Naples or the rest of Italy. He thought Ferdinand’s restoration in Naples would be terrible for the Neapolitans. I think in our cynical age it’s easy to assume his motives were purely selfish, and while there surely was some self-interest involved–and the interest of his children, whose futures he viewed as being at stake if he lost everything–I do think Murat cared a great deal about what happened to his subjects, towards whom he always took a very paternal attitude.


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