Laurent de Gouvion Saint-Cyr

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Laurent de Gouvion Saint-Cyr
Gouvion-saint-cyr.jpg
Nickname(s) The Owl
Born (1764-04-13)13 April 1764
Toul, Meurthe-et-Moselle, France
Died 17 March 1830(1830-03-17) (aged 65)
Hyères, France
Allegiance  France
Rank Marshal of France
Battles/wars French Revolutionary Wars, Napoleonic Wars
Awards 1st Marquis of Gouvion-Saint-Cyr

Laurent de Gouvion Saint-Cyr, 1st Marquis of Gouvion-Saint-Cyr (13 April 1764 – 17 March 1830) was a French commander in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars who rose to Marshal of France and Marquis. His nickname was "The Owl".

Early life[edit]

He was born Laurent Gouvion in Toul, Meurthe-et-Moselle, the eldest child of Jean-Baptiste Gouvion, a tanner, and his wife Anne-Marie Mercier. He adopted the name Saint-Cyr after his mother, who had abandoned him at an early age.

He went to Rome when he was eighteen in order to study painting, but, although he continued his artistic studies after his return to Paris in 1784, he never adopted the profession of a painter.

He married Anne Gouvion (Toul, 2 November 1775 - Paris, 18 June 1844) and had issue, including Laurent François, Marquis de Gouvion Saint-Cyr (30 December 1815 - 30 January 1904), married in Saint-Bouize on 17 August 1847 to Marie Adélaïde Bachasson de Montalivet (5 November 1828 - 14 April 1880), daughter of Marthe Camille Bachasson, Count of Montalivet, and had issue.

Revolutionary Wars[edit]

In 1792 he was chosen a captain in a volunteer battalion, and served on the staff of General Custine. Promotion rapidly followed, and in the course of two years he became a general of division. In 1796 he commanded the centre division of Jean Victor Marie Moreau's army in the campaign of the Rhine, aiding in the celebrated retreat from Bavaria to the Rhine.

In 1798 he succeeded André Masséna in the command of the army of Italy. In the following year he commanded the left wing of Jean-Baptiste Jourdan's army fighting in Germany; when Jourdan was succeeded by Masséna, he joined the army of Moreau in Italy, where he distinguished himself in face of the great difficulties that followed the defeat of Novi. Moreau disliked St. Cyr for his sense of righteousness and incorruptibility. Rumours were soon spreading that St. Cyr was a "bad bed fellow". Moreau also accused him of not supporting his brother generals though General Ney and Davout often thanked him for support after battles. When Moreau, in 1800, was appointed to the command of the army of the Rhine, Gouvion Saint-Cyr was named his principal lieutenant, and on 9 May gained a victory over General Kray at Biberach. He was not, however, on good terms with his commander and retired to France after the first operations of the campaign.

In 1801 he was sent to Spain to command the army intended for the invasion of Portugal (see War of the Oranges), and was named grand officer of the Legion of Honour. When a treaty of peace was shortly afterwards concluded with Portugal, he succeeded Lucien Bonaparte as ambassador at Madrid.

Napoleonic Wars[edit]

St. Cyr was a stoic in an age of pragmatism and glory. His refusal to sign the proclamation of congratulation for declaring empire was soon met when his name was not included in the first list of Napoleonic Marshals, while commanders such as Lannes, Bessières and Soult who had not had independent command experience were included. For the whole of his life St. Cyr believed that Napoleon deliberately refused his troops just to disgrace him. In 1803 he was appointed to the command of an army corps in Italy, in 1805 he served with distinction under Masséna, and in 1806 was engaged in the campaign in southern Italy. When he returned to Paris to protest his treatment in Naples, Napoleon sent him back to his post on pain of death. He took part 1807 campaigns in Prussia and Poland, and in 1808, in which year he was made a count, he commanded an army corps in Catalonia; but, not wishing to comply with certain orders he received from Paris, he resigned his command and remained in disgrace till 1811.

Late portrait of Saint-Cyr

He was still a général de division, having been excluded from the first list of marshals owing to his action in refusing to influence the troops in favour of the establishment of the French Empire. On the opening of the Russian campaign, Saint-Cyr received command of an army corps, and on 18 August 1812 won a victory over the Russians at Polotsk, in recognition of which he was made a marshal. The Russians, under Barclay de Tolly, were burning everything as they retreated back towards Moscow, and had just burned nearby Smolensk. It was just prior to the victory at Polotsk on the banks of the Daugava river, however, that Oudinot was wounded, and thus Saint-Cyr assumed his command.

He received a severe wound in one of the battles during the general retreat. Saint-Cyr distinguished himself at the battle of Dresden (26–27 August 1813) and in the defence of that place against the Allies after the battle of Leipzig, capitulating only on 11 November, when Napoleon had retreated to the Rhine. In this year, St. Cyr's relation with the Emperor warmed as Napoleon commented that St. Cyr had no match in all of the marshalate and was the equal of Napoleon himself in defence. On the day he received his long overdue baton he wrote a lengthy letter to his wife and true to his character he devoted only one line to his promotion.

Last years[edit]

On the Bourbon Restoration he was created a Peer of France, and in July 1815 was appointed War Minister, but resigned his office in the following November. During this appointment he tried to assist long-time friend and fellow marshal Ney by providing him a jury of four other Napoleonic Marshals, but was disgraced when Marshal Moncey refused to even sit in it. In June 1817 he was appointed Marine Minister a pretext for him to resume the place of War Minister, which he did in September and continued to discharge till November 1819. During this time he initiated many reforms, particularly in respect of measures tending to make the army a national rather than a dynastic force. He made efforts to safeguard the rights of veteran soldiers of the Empire, organized the General Staff, and revised the code of military law and the pension regulations. He was made a marquess in 1817. Laurent de Gouvion-Saint-Cyr died on 17 March 1830 in Hyères, a town in the southeast of France. All in all, his blunt but correct suggestions, his dislike for grandeur, his incorruptibility, his uprighteousness attracted the dislike of many of his less scrupulous contemporaries, and was wronged.

In literature[edit]

Marshall St. Cyr is mentioned in Joseph Conrad's short story "The Duel" (as well as Ridley Scott's film adaptation The Duellists) as the commander of Armand d'Hubert after the second and final restoration of Louis XVIII as King of France.

Writings[edit]

  • Journal des opérations de l'armée de Catalogne en 1808 et 1809 (Paris, 1821)
  • Mémoires sur les campagnes des armées de Rhin et de Rhin-et-Moselle de 1794 à 1797 (Paris, 1829)
  • Mémoires pour servir de l'histoire militaire sous le Directoire, le Consulat et l'Empire (1831)

References[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Louis Nicolas Davout
Minister of War
7 July 1815 – 26 September 1815
Succeeded by
Henri Jacques Guillaume Clarke
Preceded by
Henri Jacques Guillaume Clarke
Minister of War
12 September 1817 – 19 November 1819
Succeeded by
Marie Victor Nicolas de Fay, marquis de La Tour-Maubourg
Preceded by
François Joseph de Gratet, vicomte Dubouchage
Ministers of Marine and the Colonies
23 June 1817 - 12 September 1817
Succeeded by
Louis-Mathieu Molé