“By no means insensible to flattery”

Guglielmo Pépé was a Neapolitan general, born in Calabria in 1783. Entering Napoleon’s army after having fought against the Bourbons in Naples, he would return to his native country to serve in the Neapolitan army during the reigns of both Joseph Bonaparte and Murat. His relationship with Murat was complicated. Pépé was a Neapolitan patriot whose most ardent desire was for Naples to be freed from foreign rule, and to be given a constitution; this naturally placed him at odds with Murat, who seems to have been unable to trust him until nearly the end of his reign, when Pépé proved to be one of the few Neapolitan generals who didn’t abandon King Joachim in his hour of need. Yet Pépé developed a genuine love and admiration for Murat; however, this did not stop him from analyzing Murat’s strengths and weaknesses as a ruler with complete objectivity, and there are abundant examples of this in his memoirs. He was especially critical of Murat’s mismanagement of the Neapolitan army.

This will be the first of numerous posts featuring excerpts about Murat from Pépé’s memoirs. And in keeping with my utterly chaotic style on this blog, they will be in no particular chronological order whatsoever.

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Source: Memoirs of General Pépé, Vol I (London, 1846).

Murat was a Charles XII in the field, but a Francis I in his Court. He would have regarded the refusal of a favour to any lady of the Court, even though she were not his mistress, as an indignity. (page 314)

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It was now the month of September of that disastrous year, 1813. Napoleon having lost the battle of Leipzig had retreated with difficulty to the Rhine. Joachim who had signalized himself greatly in that campaign, embraced the Emperor for the last time, and quitted those scenes to return to Naples. On his arrival, instead of bending all his endeavors to conciliate the regard of his people, and to the proper organization of his army, he used his utmost efforts to extinguish in the minds of his soldiers the knowledge which they were acquiring, and only displayed in idle reviews the really fine appearance of his army. Unfortunately for him as well as for our poor country, Murat fancied himself extremely sagacious in the art of kingcraft, and above all, that he alone could manage his affairs in the then intricate political state of the times. I do not mean to imply by this that the King was deficient in a certain sagacity; on the contrary, he could at times reason very aptly, and according to the opinion of his minister, Giuseppe Gurlo, who was a man of no ordinary stamp of mind, the King when in council often reasoned in a manner far superior to any of his ministers. However, in this instance, which was to decide upon his existence, he acted without the least judgement. How could he not avoid seeing the impossibility of retaining his throne under an absolute sway, when his rival Ferdinand (though forced to do so by England) had given a constitution to Sicily, and promised one to the Neapolitans to tempt them to restore to him the kingdom he had lost on this side of the Strait. Thus is it that the love of dominion blinds men in power. (318-319)

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Joachim was at one time in treaty with England, France, Austria, and the Viceroy of Italy, thinking by such means the better to conceal from them his true designs, if indeed he really had any fixed designs. The primary cause of all of Joachim’s aberrations was the extraordinary conduct pursued by Napoleon towards him, who one day exalted him to the skies, and the next would humble him to the very dust, condemning everything he did, not only through the public papers, but in his private correspondence; one day treating him as a King, and the next scarcely showing him the respect due to his former aide-de-camp. The following particulars were related to me two years later by the Duke of Campo Chiaro, who was at the head of the police.

Joachim wrote to the Emperor that he had thirty thousand men ready to support their common cause. Napoleon answered that the thirty thousand men were to be sent to the banks of the Po, where they were to await his further orders. This notification reached the King whilst he was at Pompeii with the Queen. Murat tore the letter into pieces, threw it on the ground and stamped upon it; then gathering up the scattered fragments he returned in haste to Naples and assembled his ministers, to whom he said: “Gentlemen, the Emperor ill-uses me in the most unwarrantable manner, and treats me with no more regard than if I were a corporal.” If instead of acting in this cavalier manner, the Emperor had excited the self-love of Joachim by his usual praise, and put him at the head of all the Italians as well as all the French, then commanded by the Viceroy, to whom he might have given some other charge, the heroic King of Naples would have startled Vienna with an army of a hundred thousand men. But such fortune was not in store either for Italy or for France, inordinate ambition having already damped the genius of Napoleon. The year before the Emperor, in a remarkable order of the day had vaunted Prince Eugène to the skies at the expense of Joachim, and now he left these two rivals in Italy, where their mutual jealousy paralyzed the power of a hundred and fifty thousand men obtained out of the whole Peninsula, and of about thirty thousand Frenchmen stationed in Lombardy. The above-mentioned forces under the command of an able General, might have entirely changed the destiny of the empire of France. (pages 319-321)

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The army was by no means unanimous as to the policy of the expedition to Sicily. One day, at a levee which the King held in his tent, he addressed himself to General Lamarque, and inquired whether he believed in the invasion of Sicily. Lamarque, without a moment’s hesitation, replied that he did believe it as he believed in the Gospel. This witty and evasive answer was applauded by all present. The French were indifferent to this enterprise, which, however, the Neapolitans had greatly at heart. The chief of the staff of the French army, General Grenier, constantly magnified the difficulties attending this step; and the King could not easily discover the real state of things, because all were acquainted with his own inclinations, and many were ever ready to flatter them. (page 277)

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A short time before my return to Naples, an event occurred which showed to advantage the magnanimous nature of the King. He was reviewing several battalions in the Campo di Marte, when in the midst of the fire one of the officers of the staff, who stood near the King, was wounded by a bullet. The wounded man had stood so immediately behind the King, that all present supposed that the ball had been directed against the King himself, and what made the case more serious was, that the shot had come from a battalion of the royal guard, amongst whom were many Carbonari. The officers in attendance upon the King entreated him to order the fire the cease; but he smiled as he replied, “I see that you suspect the bullet was purposely fired at me; but you are in error, for children never desire the death of their father.” As he uttered these words, he presented himself successively in front of each battalion and ordered them to fire. This intrepidity of the King entirely destroyed any latent feelings against him which might have existed in the minds of the Carbonari soldiers. (page 315)

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King Joachim, as well as the three brothers of Napoleon, Joseph, Louis, and Jerome, each of whom had been by his elevated to the throne, were desirous of reigning independently; but the Emperor, forgetful or heedless of the unchangeable nature of the human heart, wanted not merely to keep them his allies, but to treat them as his subjects. If such conduct was repugnant to the feelings of Joseph, King of Spain, Louis, King of Holland, and Jerome, King of Westphalia, it was far more so to Murat, King of Naples, who had not a little contributed to the exaltation of Napoleon. Joachim was, however, fully conscious that without a numerous and powerful army any attempt to consolidate his power and preserve his independence must be vain. Availing himself, therefore, of the tranquility of the kingdom, and notwithstanding the presence of the English in Sicily, he began to organize, and increase his army. His perseverance and determination insure some degree of success to his attempt, although more might have been done had his talents been equal to his decision of character. In granting promotion and distributing rewards he was always guided by his excessive desire of acquiring popularity, and of satisfying the wishes of his courtiers, or rather of the Court ladies. I do not mean to insinuate that he was therefore insensible to individual merit. We were in the habit of saying among ourselves, that the King had two lists of persons–one of favourites whom he wished to remunerate, and another of those whom he esteemed and valued. The truth of this is proved by the fact of his having raised to the rank of Baron several Generals and Colonels entirely without merit, as well by the numerous promotions he made both amongst the French and Neapolitans in his service. There is little doubt that a great part of the military misfortunes of the kingdom, and the discredit which fell upon it may be ascribed to the injudicious selection of the officers of the army. He issued a decree commanding that all such persons as chose to remain in the civil or military service of the kingdom should acquire the rights of Neapolitan citizenship. Such a decree, though perhaps wise in itself, was extremely displeasing to the Emperor Napoleon, who at once declared by an edict that the countrymen and companions in arms of Murat needed not the title of Neapolitan citizen to hold any civil or military employments in the kingdom. It must be conceded that even the strongest mind is apt to be intoxicated by power. Napoleon could not have offered a greater insult to a King and a people of whose assistance his ambition stood in great need. (pages 283-4)

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The natural clemency of his character, which even conciliated those who were least likely to be moved by it, facilitated the execution of his intentions. On the first visit that Joachim made to Paris after the events we have recited, Napoleon exclaimed when he saw him enter the salon, “Voilà un roi qui ne recule jamais.” Had Joachim better known how to organize his army, and to maintain discipline between the French and the Neapolitan troops, he would have succeeded in obtaining far better results. By nature generous, and by no means insensible to flattery, Joachim was extremely averse to inflicting punishment, and was prone to recompense not merely those who merited it, but to reward others whose conduct should have entitled them to very different treatment. This happened, because he could never resist the supplications of his courtiers, still less the entreaties of the ladies about the Court, and like all princes, he was extremely liberal to those whom he termed mes dévoués, without reflecting that the less elevated man is by nature, the more devotion he affects to princes, and the more he flatters their power. The beauty of his person, the charm of his smile, the natural urbanity of his manner–to which, however, he was inclined to add a bit more importance than was consistent with his proper dignity–and the richness of his dress, pleased the multitude and the army, although self-reputed sages laughed at this last display, and pronounced it ridiculous. The affability and gentleness of his manners, which were such as could not have been anticipated from a man of low birth, endeared him to the Court. In his youth he had been placed in the College of Toulouse, and had availed himself to the utmost of the education bestowed upon him. I do not recollect ever having presented myself before him, on my return from executing any of his orders, without his expressing his thanks to me in the most amiable manner. One day he was returning from the Campo di Morte, when a woman in tears, and holding a petition in her hand, stood forward to present it to him. His horse, frightened at the sight of the paper, began to kick and rear, and ended by throwing His Majesty some distance from the spot. After swearing roundly in the French fashion, Joachim took the paper and granted its petition, which was the life of the woman’s husband, who was to have been executed the following day. People of all classes, and even officers in the army, were in the habit of presenting themselves to the King, as he passed through the streets, with a petition in one hand and an ink-stand in the other. The good King Joachim granted those requests with too much facility, not considering that far from increasing his popularity by such conduct, he drew upon himself feelings of hatred, since the petitions so granted were for the part such as ought not to have been entertained. His too easy compliance, therefore, was calculated to awaken discontent and distrust of the efficiency of the laws. (pages 262-3)

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9 thoughts on ““By no means insensible to flattery”

  1. Karen Ronan

    Fascinating revelations about a most unique person. Napoleon was so stupid sometimes. So obstinate for no reason. That’s how he ended up where he did. (I still love him…)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Josefa vom Jaaga

    There’s little to add about the situation in Italy in 1813/4, except that surely Napoleon is not alone at fault. It is by no means sure that Eugène would have agreed to seeing his Italians under Murat’s command; after all, he had already protested against being subordinated to Murat in 1812. And at some point, the two of them could just have tried to come to grips with each other on their own, without Napoleon ordering them to. Sheesh, they were grown men!

    And can I just say how much I love the scene with Murat being thrown of his horse, cursing and then limping over to that woman in order to grant her petition?

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    1. He’s not alone at fault, but he certainly didn’t help matters by publicly humiliating Murat/praising Eugène in the Moniteur after Murat left the army during the retreat from Russia. It was typical Napoleon stoking up more tension between his subordinates which ended up backfiring and hurting his own interests later on. And Murat had become so enamored with the idea of being king of all Italy that he would’ve viewed his men being subordinated to Eugène in any capacity as a blow to his credibility with the Italians.

      The story about him getting thrown from his horse before granting the petition is one of my absolute favorite Murat anecdotes, it’s such a great snapshot of his personality and how, even though he had a hair-trigger temper, he never let it manage him. There’s another anecdote from Pépé I’ll put up in a future post where he talks about how corrupt the suppliers of the Sicilian expedition were and how Murat had been urged to have them shot, and he ends it by saying Murat worked himself up into a fury but ended by pardoning them. Again, very typical Murat.

      I also have to laugh at Pépé describing him tearing up Napoleon’s letter and stamping it into the ground, but then gathering up all the scattered pieces. One can just imagine Caroline’s reaction to this scene.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Josefa vom Jaaga

        Napoleon’s whole way of thinking after Russia truely baffles me, but particularly the way he acts towards some key figures (also Metternich, the Pope, Fernando of Spain, even his brother Joseph). I think there are several quotes in which Napoleon claims that he could easily sway Murat whenever he wanted to. And he probably could have just as easily convinced (or at least intimidated) Eugène. So why did he not do it, at this time, when he needed both of them the most? If he had told each of them separately: Look, I know there’s no love lost between you two but I need you both, and I love you both, would they not have at least tried to get along? If he knew they rivaled with each other for his love, and if he was ready to use that to his advantage before, why did he not do it then?

        On a side not: the difference in tone in Eugène’s letters is funny. Towards Napoleon, he usually holds back – and in his letters to his wife he then lashes out against »ce diable de roi de Naples«. Maybe on some level, he even felt he was overreacting.

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      2. Napoleon’s thinking post-1812 really is hard to grasp sometimes. I feel like the collapse of the Russian campaign, combined with the attempted coup by Malet back in Paris, shook him a great deal. And rather than show any weakness by taking a conciliatory approach with Murat in 1813, he doubled down on exerting his dominance over him and just expecting Murat to fall in line accordingly; anything less would’ve (in Napoleon’s view) threatened his steadily waning grip on power.

        I’m also not sure when, exactly, Napoleon learned that Murat was negotiating with the Austrians, but he was at least aware of it by the time Murat rejoined the army for the 1813 campaign (or at least he strongly suspected it, which was confirmed for him when a captured Austrian general expressed visible surprise at seeing Murat in Napoleon’s camp). He might’ve still been able to sway Murat to some extent up until that point if he’d taken the right approach, but after Murat left the army and returned to Naples with the mindset that Napoleon’s defeat was probably certain, it was probably too late. Maybe he still could have if he hadn’t been so heavy-handed. I think Murat must’ve bristled knowing that Napoleon needed his support then more than ever and yet Napoleon was *still* treating him so disrespectfully. So I do think Pépé’s right here; Napoleon did himself no favors in his conduct towards Murat. Caroline had figured out how to manage Joachim eventually, but Napoleon either never did (which I have a hard time believing, since he himself told Caulaincourt at one point that it took a combination of “vexation and sentiment” when getting Murat to do what he wanted) or simply didn’t care to put in the effort (especially when he was mad at him for whatever reason) and just defaulted to leaning on his authority over Murat instead.

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  3. Josefa vom Jaaga

    Maybe that’s the main difference in Napoleon’s attitude towards Murat on one hand and Eugène on the other: Murat he saw as a potential rival (not that he ever would have admitted that, of course, and in addition to all other potential insecurities). He knew Murat had the ambition and, at least to some degree, the ability. Compared to that, Eugène seemingly lacked ambition, which is probably why both Joseph and Napoleon qualified him as a “mediocre character”. What Eugène wanted was to be brave, have fun, get the girl, live a good life. Hardly someone who might ever pose a challenge to Napoleon. It seems Eugène on several occasions went to great lengths to make sure Napoleon kept up that opinion of him.

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  4. Pingback: “I could have fallen at his feet and worshipped him” – Project Murat

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