“A long absence is very painful for one with a sensitive soul”

I came upon a gem today–a book of published correspondence from the 1812 campaign, specifically a compilation of letters intercepted by the Russians, both from and to soldiers in the Grande Armée. You can find the book on HathiTrust here (it might not be viewable outside the US, but it’s probably elsewhere online as well). The book actually includes three letters from Murat, all written on the 11th of November, 1812. The first is to his wife, Caroline [a rarity indeed, since hardly any of his letters to her still exist!]; the others, to his oldest two children, Achille and Letitia. Here are my translations of them (as usual, any errors are my own).

Source: Léon Hennet & E. Martin, Lettres interceptées par les Russes durant le campagne de 1812, 1913.

******

11 November 1812

The King of Naples to the Queen

My dear Caroline, I’ve just received four estafettes* at once; they brought me only your letter of the 16th of October, I find it charming; I appreciate, as I must, everything tender it contains; you are good and sensitive to my pains, I no longer have the object that caused my melancholy, I have only our separation. A long absence is very painful for one with a sensitive soul; I have told you that since the 24th I have been accompanying the Emperor and that he has heaped kindnesses upon me. They are at their height, so I never felt their price more than when I learned of the event of the 23rd**; it is as inconceivable as it is ridiculous; how did it not occur to anyone to speak of the King of Rome? It was so natural, it was so in order! How much I felt that I loved the Emperor at that moment! How superior he showed himself to be at any event! How he showed himself to be a good husband, a good father, and a good sovereign. I was confirmed in the idea I had made of his good heart. All is calm, the scoundrels have paid with their heads for the dreadful crime of which they were guilty.

We are leaving shortly to take on Wittgenstein’s corps; the Emperor was on the point of sending me forward for a moment, I obeyed with pleasure; but it pained me to leave him, anyway I am very happy.

I would have liked or desired that, in the article on your Te Deum, my name had at least been mentioned and that you’d seemed to thank God for having preserved me! Farewell, my friend, I await the shirts you told me about. My health is perfect, I embrace you with all my heart. I still flatter myself that I’ll be able to embrace you this winter. But don’t let that prevent the work on my apartments. Caraffa will depart this even with a courier. He will bring you the work, it was impossible for me to send him sooner. I desire that he resumes his functions as first equerry. He hasn’t been able to accustom himself to the cold of this country.

J.

*estafettes = dispatch riders

**Murat is referring to the attempted coup by General Malet that occurred in Paris on 23 October 1812. Malet, with the help of co-conspirators, spread the lie that Napoleon had died in Russia and tried to have a number of high-ranking officials of Napoleon’s government arrested before attempting to seize power. Malet’s scheme failed, he and his co-conspirators were arrested, and Malet and several others were executed by firing squad days later. 

***

The King of Naples to his daughter Letitia-Josèphe

My good and beautiful Laetitia, I found your letter charming, it pains me to not be able to write you more often. If this deprives me of the happiness of receiving your pretty notes, your good mama gives me your news often, she tells me of your portrait. I fear that it will not resemble as well as the first one. You are still in the beautiful days; here we have snow and frost, everything announces to us a rigorous winter. We are getting closer, and when the winter quarters are taken, I hope to be able to be able to get away and embrace my good and tender children. How happy I will be to be able to find myself in their midst. Farewell, my dear Laetitia, your letters charm me, your love and that of your brothers charm my leisures and the torments of our separation. I can only be happy near the Queen, near you. I no longer feel my wound. Farewell, I embrace my good Louise and I thank her for the note she wrote on the envelope where [she] traced a few lines for me. Farewell, all yours, my daughter. To ti abbraccio di tutto il mio cuore [I embrace you with all my heart].

J.

***

The King of Naples to his son Napoléon-Achille

My good Achille, here I am, a hundred leagues closer to my family. Here I am in Smolensk, where I’m writing to my children. I’m going to get even closer and I still hope to embrace them this winter. This idea consoles me and gives me the courage to bear our separation. Farewell, my friend, I am told the estafette is going to depart and I am leaving you. My health is perfect, embrace mama for me, speak to her of me, embrace Louise and believe in all my tenderness. 

***

8 thoughts on ““A long absence is very painful for one with a sensitive soul”

    1. Yeah, it’s sad to think about. Most of the letters in this book are from the soldiers to their wives, parents, or children. Knowing how few of the soldiers of this army actually managed to make it home only makes it all the more depressing to think that in many cases, these might’ve been the last letters some of these men sent home.

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  1. Josefa vom Jaaga

    That’s truely a gem you dug up there! I’ve immediately checked for the book but it seems to be unavailable here except for some snippets via Google Books. Which I have tried and tried and tried already ^_^. There’s letters from Caulaincourt to Louise Lannes and from Berthier to Madame Visconti in it! In short, I’ll have to get this thing on paper somehow.

    These letters from Murat I find heartbreaking. He clearly was truely homesick and missed his family. As did most of these old soldiers. When these folks had been young, war still had been of a much smaller scale. And the men had still had goals they fought for: spread liberty, defend their home country, in the end secure peace. Now, almost two decades later, they still have to fight. They barely get to see their children grow up. Life is passing them by. I remember Lannes had only a couple of days to see his kids when he returned from Spain and before he left for Austria (and his death). Soult who’s in Spain during the Russian camapign has been there for years, and had been in Prussia since 1806 before he went there. His children remembered him from the way he sang and from the way he pronounced some vowels (that’s from a letter by Mme Soult). Murat had been in a better position since he became king. I can see why he missed having some kind of family life.

    Of course, there’s also the detail about him wanting to be named in the prayers. Is this still a bit of distrust towards Caroline?

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    1. It’s a shame the digitized version doesn’t seem to be available in Germany, I’ve tried looking for alternate versions but so far I’m not turning up anything. I hope you’re able to find it somehow! I was browsing through the table of contents yesterday and there are a few letters from Eugène, some from various marshals to their wives (and yes, their mistresses; God bless Berthier and his legendary ménage-à-trois, LOL). It looks like it’s going to be very interesting to go through, I’ve only had time to read the ones from Murat so far. I’ll check out the ones from Eugène and try to translate them for you later on.

      Murat’s homesick letters always get to me. He was SO attached to his children and these long absences always affected him very badly. Catherine Davies, who was one of the governors for the Murat children, describes him as hardly being able to bear having them out of his sight for more than an hour at a time, so you can imagine what some of these long campaigns must have been like for him. Another short-term project I’ve been meaning to do eventually, is come to a rough calculation of how much time Murat spent away from his family over the years—from the time he married Caroline, up to their final parting before his death. He was separated from Caroline for… I think it was some six or seven months at least, during her first pregnancy, then there was another gap while he was in Italy and she was sent back to Paris for a time, then there were the wars in 1805, 1806, 1807, then the time he was away from her in Spain in 1808, and even during their reign in Naples they were frequently apart for long periods, whether for Caroline’s intermittent trips to Paris for months at a time to try to smooth things over between Murat & Napoleon, or Murat’s extended campaign against Sicily in 1810. And THEN you have the wars in 1812 and 1813… and again in 1815. It’s crazy. I would honestly be surprised to find out that they even spent half their marriage in close proximity to each other. It must’ve killed him to miss so much of his kids’ childhoods. Of course the other marshals had similar experiences too. They must’ve all been so worn down by the end of this period.

      I wasn’t completely sure how to take that part about the Te Deum either. Murat has this knack for occasionally just tossing in some saltiness but with just the right amount of good humor to soften it, so that even when he’s obviously unhappy about something you can’t be too sure it was meant in a harsh way. And to be fair, Caroline was great at it too when she wanted to be, and this kind of low-key sniping seems to have just been a part of their correspondence in general. That being said, I do think Murat was still quite paranoid at this point—I don’t think he really gets over it until sometime in 1813 after he returns, there seems to have been a total reconciliation once they got over their political squabbles and he let her in on the negotiations with Austria and they were finally on the same page. But at this point I think it’s still in the back of his mind that maybe—just maybe—Caroline might secretly hope he doesn’t come home from Russia. He knows she’s enjoying being regent, he’s getting reports sent to him regularly, and now, oh gee, she *forgot* to include a prayer for his safety in the Te Deum? This is just the sort of thing that would feed Murat’s omnipresent paranoia. General Pépé—who, as a disclaimer, didn’t get on well with Caroline (he says she “must have hated me most cordially“), because they didn’t share the same politics (he was a Neapolitan nationalist)—claims in his memoirs that he had it from La Vauguyon, who was an intimate of Caroline’s, that Caroline “lived in constant expectation of the death of her husband, though he was still in the prime of life. By virtue of one of Napoleon’s extraordinary decrees, his sister, in the event of her becoming a widow, was to inherit the crown in preference to her children.” I personally don’t think Caroline wanted Joachim dead—although, during the particularly bad moments in their relationship, maybe she made an off-handed remark out of bitterness that was spread around to reflect that sentiment. But I certainly believe Murat was paranoid enough for it to have never left the back of his mind.

      Once I get around to translating the Eugène letters, I’ll post them here in the comments for you. 🙂

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  2. Josefa vom Jaaga

    If you do that, I’ll have to include you in my evening prayers! (Which you probably should not mention to a certain Neapolitan monarch ^_^. Wouldn’t want to add fuel to the fire.) But please don’t postpone your Murat-related research because of that; I’m enjoying these posts way too much. Plus, I’ve found the book on a French used books Webseite for a reasonable price (and only realized on checking out that it will probably delivered from some obscure reprint factory in India :p). So I’ll be all good, hopefully.

    From the snippets I could glimpse on Google I did already see a bit right at the beginning, about somebody complaining that her daughter had asked for a post with the vice-queen without asking her advice first. That could/be about Eugène’s Household as well; I really have to get that book! (And yes, of Course because of the Visconti stuff. Plus, Duroc seems to have written to two ladies on the same day as well. Only one of which he was married to.)

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    1. It’s no trouble at all! I made a Tumblr post for them, here is the link:

      Both letters are to Berthier, describing the dire straits of Eugène’s corps during the retreat.

      *EDIT* Well apparently it wants to just pop the entire post itself down here, WordPress is weird sometimes.

      Anyway, I’m glad you were able to find a printing of the book for sale! I’d kind of like to have a printed copy myself, but I know what you mean about the obscure Indian printing companies–every time I look for older Napoleonic stuff on AbeBooks, 90% of it seems to ship from India. Well, hopefully your copy is good quality!

      I’ve compiled a whole PDF of some other non-Murat letters from this book I want to translate–including the Duroc ones to his wife and Mystery Woman whom he tutoyers and writes to with the greatest affection, I’m VERY intrigued by this. There’s also a letter from Junot to a woman who is probably a mistress of his as well, a “Mlle Caroline,” whom he calls “Caroly”. Oh, the Russians must’ve had a field day going through some of this stuff.

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      1. Thank you so much for this! I think I know what events these letters are about; Labaume covered that crossing of the Vop that cost 4th corps all its artillery quite extensively.

        As for Duroc: Could it be Emilie Bigottini? She’s said to have had two children from Duroc.

        If my Indian book ever gets delivered, I’ll let you know about the quality.

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