The Tree of a Son of Skye

History | Culture | Ancestry

Marshal Étienne Jacques MacDonald of France (1765-1814)

Scottish emigres have always figured prominently as military leaders on the European stage, particularly from the 17th to 19th centuries.

At the height of the golden age of Sweden, when the Swedish Empire under Gustavus Adolphus was the preeminent military power in Europe, almost 40,000 Scots were serving in the Swedish Army. Scottish soldiers served faithfully, and the Swedish King could count on the support of no less than 4 Field-Marshals, 4 Generals, 3 Brigadiers, 27 Colonels, 51 Lt-Colonels and 12 Regiments from Scotland. Field Marshal Alexander Leslie and his brother General David Leslie would play important roles in the Thirty Years War for Sweden and they later became leading figures in the Scottish Covenanting Army that defeated the English Royal Army of Charles I during the Bishops Wars.

This image of 1631 depicts the Scottish soldiers in the service of Gustavus Adolphus, as seen from a Swedish perspective.

Scottish soldiers in the service of Gustavus Adolphus, as seen from a Swedish perspective of 1631.

There are numerous other examples of prominent exiles, including  another pair of brothers,  George Keith and James Francis Keith from Inverugie in Aberdeenshire. The Keiths were Jacobite exiles and central figures at the Prussian Court of Frederick the Great. They were held in high personal esteem by Frederick the Great, who promoted them accordingly. George Keith, a patron and close friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was Frederick’s ambassador to Spain, while his brother James Francis Keith was a Prussian Field Marshal and the Governor of Berlin.

Like the Keith bothers, many Jacobite emigres distinguished themselves throughout Europe.  The failure of the 1745 uprising in Scotland and the brutal recriminations that followed forced many Jacobites to flee overseas, often into the service of various continental monarchs who were willing to accept the services of exiled Jacobites. So while Scots had always emigrated to other European countries, often in large numbers, Jacobite exiles became particularly distinguished as they were inserted into the schemes of the various royal courts of Europe.

This Adolph Menzel paiting of 1750 depicts Frederick the Great at his palace of San Souci, sitting alongside Voltaire and the Keith brothers.

This Adolph Menzel painting of 1750 depicts Frederick the Great at his palace of Sansouci, sitting alongside Voltaire and the Keith brothers.

One such exiled Jacobite was Neil MacEachen, a relation of Flora MacDonald and native of Howbeg on South Uist. Neil studied in France at the Scots College at Douai and was fluent in Gaelic, Greek, Latin, English, and French before he returned to South Uist. He was loyal to the Stuart cause during the 1745 uprising and together with Flora MacDonald he was Charles Edward Stuart’s personal guide on South Uist and Skye while the Prince was a fugitive. The Scottish folk song, the ‘Skye Boat Song’ was inspired by Neil’s ferrying of the Prince from South Uist to Trotternish on Skye. Like Prince Charles, Neil MacEachen left Scotland as an exile and arrived in France, where he was given a French commission in the Ogilvy Regiment under the name Neil MacDonald. Although no one is quite  sure why he changed his name, it is possible that this change was the result of the French finding it too difficult to pronounce MacEachen.

Neil settled in Sedan, where his son Étienne Jacques Joseph Alexandre MacDonald was born in 1765. Following the disbandment of the French Jacobite Regiments, Neil moved to Sancerre to live amongst a Scottish Jacobite community that was established there. In 1784 the British Parliament passed the Act of Amnesty which pardoned all Jacobites, but despite this Neil never returned to Scotland on account of his poor health and he died in poverty 4 years later.

When Neil died in 1788, his son Jacques MacDonald had already begun a promising military career in the French army, but he had little indication that MacDonald would later be central to the cataclysmic events of the French Revolution, Napoleonic Wars and Restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy in France.

Louis-Édouard Rioul's portrait of 1834 depicts MacDonald as he was in 1792. This painting is currently housed in the '1792 room' of the Palace of Versailles.

Louis-Édouard Rioul’s portrait of 1834 depicts MacDonald as he was in 1792. This painting is now in the ‘1792 room’ of the Palace of Versailles.

Jacques MacDonald began his French military career in 1786 by joining the ‘Dillon Regiment’, which was primarily composed of Scottish and Irish Jacobite exiles. The regiment remained loyal to Louis XVI at the outbreak of the revolution in 1789, which led not only to its disbandment in 1791, but the execution of its Colonel, Arthur Dillon, by guillotine in 1794. MacDonald on the other hand was personally loyal to the revolution, marrying a Mademoiselle Jacob, whose father was an enthusiastic supporter of the changes that were taking place in French society.

At the outbreak of  war in 1792 MacDonald continued to serve in the new army and was offered a prestigious position as aide-de-camp to General Dumouriez. He distinguished himself at the Battle of Jemappes,and he was also present alongside Dumouriez at the Battle of Valmy. The victory of the French volunteer army at Valmy was a significant turning point in the Revolutionary Wars and it compelled France to formally abolish the monarchy shortly afterwards. By 1793 MacDonald had risen to the rank of Colonel and then refused to desert the Revolutionary Army when Dumouriez defected to the enemy. As a reward for this loyalty he was given the command of a Brigade.

By 1797 he had become a General of a Division and joined the French Army in Italy. He occupied Rome, became the governor of the city, defeated the Austrian Army of General Mack before reorganising the Kingdom of Naples into the Parthenopaean Republic. In 1801 he became the French ambassador to Denmark but did not enjoy the politics of diplomacy and he later asked to be recalled.

MacDonald  as he appeared later in his career by Antoine-Jean Gros.

MacDonald as he appeared later in his career, by Antoine-Jean Gros.

After returning to France, it was clear the French Republic was in crisis. Its armies were being outfought by a coalition of empires determined to destroy revolutionary ideas. Internally, France had become politically unstable and a coup d’etat was planned to overthrow the government. It was decided that a general should be part of the coup to ensure the support of the army. The conspirators first choice, General Joubert, was killed in Italy before he could be asked. General Moreau was then asked,  but he refused to be a figurehead of the coup. The decision then came to MacDonald himself, and like Moreau before him, he also refused. The next choice for the conspirators was Napoleon Bonaparte, who accepted the offer and took power backed by the army and MacDonald.

Following these events, MacDonald took command of the French Army of Switzerland, an important position that linked the French armies fighting in Germany with those in Northern Italy. He fell out of favour with Napoleon after associating with his rival, General Moreau. This led to Napoleon overlooking MacDonald in his first allocation of Marshals of France around 1805.

The Napoleonic Wars continued from 1805 but MacDonald still remained without a position in the French Army. It wasn’t until 1809 that Napoleon finally allocated command of a Corps to MacDonald, also giving him the responsibility of being a military adviser to Napoleon’s adopted son, Prince Eugene de Beauharnais, the Viceroy of Italy.

The highlight of MacDonald’s career soon followed at the Battle of Wagram in 1809. MacDonald was in command of the reserve corps, and at the height of the battle he was ordered to attack the Austrian centre to relieve pressure on the other parts of the French line. Forming his 8,000 soldiers into an unusual column formation that resembled a large hollow rectangle, MacDonald advanced and successfully held off three Austrian cavalry charges. Under concentrated Austrian cannon and musket fire his Corps suffered 50% casualties and could not advance any further. MacDonald recognised that the Austrians were now disorganised because of his attack, and he ordered the French Guard Cavalry to attack and seize the opportunity to destroy the Austrian centre. General Walther, commander of the Guard Cavalry, refused to take an order from anyone other than Napoleon himself and his cavalry remained stationary.  This crucial delay resulted in a lost opportunity to capitalise on the gains that MacDonald had made. Both MacDonald and Napoleon were later furious with General Walther for this decision, Napoleon even being moved to say that it was the first time his cavalry had ever let him down.

Napoleon at the Battle of Wagram, 1809.

Napoleon at the Battle of Wagram, 1809.

Despite the failure of the Guard Cavalry, MacDonald’s attack had sufficiently occupied the attention of the Austrians to allow the French to successfully conduct a general attack on other parts of the line. The French had won the battle and Napoleon rode directly to MacDonald and upon embracing him said,

“General MacDonald, Let us be friends henceforth. You have behaved valiantly and have rendered me the greatest services throughout the entire campaign. On the battlefield of your glory, where I owe you so large a part of yesterday’s success, I make you a Marshal of France. You have long deserved it.”

MacDonald was the first French Marshal to be created on the field of battle and he graciously asked Napoleon to let the rewards be distributed equally among the men of his corps. Napoleon said that he could not refuse him and in further recognition of his services he soon afterwards awarded MacDonald the Grand Eagle of the Legion of Honor, the title of Duke of Taranto and 60,000 francs.

Jacques MacDonald's Marshal's baton. You can tell from the Fluer-de-lis that it dates from after the Restoration of Louis XVIII. It is now held at the Clan Donald museum on Skye.

The title of Marshal of France is allocated to generals for exceptional achievement. Each Marshal would receive a baton as a symbol of their title. This picture shows the baton belonging to Marshal MacDonald of France. You can tell from the Fluer-de-lis that it dates from after the Restoration of Louis XVIII. It is now held at the Clan Donald museum at the Armadale estate on Skye. The picture also shows MacDonald’s signature, and his French coat of arms which were largely created using the coat of arms of Clan Donald.

Following the Battle of Wagram, MacDonald was made the Governor of Gratz, a role which he undertook with such distinction that the city wanted to pay him 200,000 Francs when he left, an offer which he refused. MacDonald was then made the Commander of the French army in Catalonia, and also the Governor-General of the principality. MacDonald had serious objections to the manner in which the French were fighting the war in Spain, which had degenerated into a brutal war between French regulars and Spanish guerrilla fighters. Putting aside his objections, he took up the role and met with mixed success. He was defeated at the Battle of Pla in 1811, but later took Figueras after a 4 month siege.   Both of these battles were typical of the Spanish War in which large numbers of French troops and resources were tied down by relatively small numbers of elusive Spanish troops. Following the siege of Figueras, MacDonald experienced a sever case of gout, followed by fever. He asked to be transferred and returned to Paris, unable to walk without the assistance of crutches.

MacDonald recovered in time to be present at the French invasion of Russia in 1812, in which he commanded the X Corps and the left wing of the Grand Army. This Corps was a multinational formation, comprising Poles, Bavarians, Westphalians  and Prussians. Initially the invasion met with little resistance and MacDonald was able to defend the flank of Napoleon’s invasion by routing a Russian Army near Riga in present day Latvia. Despite his Prussian infantry playing a major part in the victory, MacDonald started to become suspicious of them after they less than enthusiastically undertook his order to pursue and capture the defeated Russians.

After a series of battles Napoleon went on to capture Moscow, which had been completely abandoned by the Russians. After Moscow had been under occupation for three days, the city was set alight by a handful of Russians who had stayed behind to prepare the trap. The resulting fire destroyed 80% of the mostly wooden city and came as a terrible shock to the morale of the French army. Tsar Alexander continued to ignore all calls for surrender from Napoleon and with the French army now camped in a ruined city Napoleon had no choice but to retreat, which the Grand Army began in October 1812.

General Kutuzov of Russia and his generals at the village of Fili in 1812. It was here they decided to abandon Moscow and preserve the Russian Army.

General Kutuzov and his generals at the village of Fili in 1812. It was here they decided to abandon Moscow and preserve the Russian Army.

In November 1812 Napoleon learned that there had been a coup against his rule in Paris. Leaving Marshal Murat in command he left the army had hurried back to Paris to deal with the political problems that had arisen. Marshal Murat also later abandoned the army to save his Kingdom of Naples, leaving Napoleon’s adopted son the Viceroy of Italy, Prince Eugène de Beauharnais in command. MacDonald had previously been a close colleague and military mentor to de Beauharnais and they had worked closely together to secure the French victory at Wagram two years previously.

The French Army had initially invaded Russia with an Army of 450,000 men, but now the remaining 150,000 had the unenviable task of retreating from Moscow through a vicious Russian winter and temperatures of -40c. As the pursuing Russians picked away at the remnants of what was once the largest army in European history, MacDonald was trying to deal with problems within his own Corps. During the retreat he was shocked to discover that General Yorck and the Prussians under his command had defected from MacDonald’s Corps en masse, secretly leaving the army during the night. MacDonald wrote contemptuously of these Prussian’s in his memoirs but he spoke highly of the Polish, Bavarian and Westphalian soldiers of his Corps, who he described as serving faithfully, courageously and with distinction.

During the final stages of the retreat, Marshal Murat requested the advice of MacDonald on how the French Army should proceed. MacDonald recommended abandoning all territory east of the Oder River, holding the line along the river and waiting for the fresh troops being assembled in France. His advice was ignored and the retreat would continue. The total losses during the whole campaign amounted to 380,000 men, with just 35,000 Frenchmen making it home from the initial force.

The French Army never recovered from the losses in men, material and horses that they suffered in Russia.

The French Army never fully recovered from the huge number of men, horses and materiel that were lost during the retreat from Moscow.

MacDonald eventually did make it back to France, despite having his travelling expenses of 12,000 francs stolen from him on his way through Prussia. He received a frosty reception from Napoleon when he eventually returned to Paris. The Emperor had been led to believe that the Prussians had deserted the army because MacDonald had treated them badly. In his memoirs MacDonald also suggests that this less than cordial meeting was because Napoleon felt resentment towards his plan of abandoning all territory East of the Oder River. MacDonald left the meeting bemused and with understandable disdain that his services and devotion were met with such a lack of appreciation. However some days later, news had reached Napoleon that the Prussian Government had fully accepted the actions of their soldiers, implying that the desertions had nothing to do with the way MacDonald treated them and everything to do with an imminent Prussian declaration of war against France. He was subsequently summoned by Napoleon, who admitted that he had been misled regarding MacDonald’s actions in Russia, and that he did in fact act wisely in his dealings with the Prussian soldiers of his command.

By 1813 MacDonald was back in the field, joining the 200,000 largely inexperienced soldiers that were sent to link up with the remnants of the French Army in central Europe. A new coalition of powers, including Prussia, had rallied together to defeat Napoleon following his disastrous invasion attempt of Russia.

In a twist of fate, MacDonald found himself opposing the Prussian General Yorck, who had defected from MacDonald’s Corps during the retreat from Moscow. MacDonald defeated Yorck at the Battle of Merseberg, before also playing a prominent role in the victories at Lutzen and Bautzen. Despite these victories, Napoleon could no longer replicate the vast numbers of men and resources increasingly accumulated against him, particularly in light of the enormous losses the French had suffered in Russia. So while France continued to win battles, it was losing irreplaceable troops and supplies in order to achieve those victories. This steady grinding down of the French Army ultimately led to a decisive allied victory at the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813. MacDonald commanded the South-Eastern portion of the French line at Leipzig, which was to be the largest battle in Europe until 1914.

Marshall MacDonald can be found on column 13 of the Eastern pillar of the Arc de Triomphe alongside Prince Poniatowski and Marshal Ney.

Marshal MacDonald and Prince Pontiatowski can be found alongside each other on the Arc de Triomphe. (Column 13 of the Eastern pillar). Jacques Lauriston, another Frenchman of Scottish descent is listed on the same panel.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Leipzig, MacDonald and Prince Poniatowski of Poland were given command of a desperate rear guard action. Hopelessly outnumbered, MacDonald and Poniatowski made a fighting withdrawal through Leipzig towards a bridge across the river Elster. Learning that the bridge had in fact been destroyed by the French in the confusion of the retreat, Poniatowski attempted to swim across the river on horse back. He made it across, but the bank was steep and his horse fell with exhaustion, drowning Poniatowski in the river. As the front disintegrated MacDonald found himself being followed by a crowd of his men desperate to escape the approaching enemy. Seized by his aide-de-camp, MacDonald found a makeshift bridge of wooden logs that had been hastily constructed by a resourceful French engineer. MacDonald dismounted and began walking across the flimsy construction, but as his men began to follow him the bridge began to shake, causing MacDonald to fall into the river. Luckily he fell close enough to the shore that his feet could reach the bottom of the river but he struggled to get out because of the loose soil and steep embankment. Enemy skirmishers fired on him at point blank range before they were scared off by French musket fire on the opposing river bank.

MacDonald barely escaped with his life and upon reaching the top of the riverbank he turned to see whole companies of his men falling into the river, crying out  “Marshal! Save your men, save your children!” as they were swept away to their deaths. Overcome with rage and frustration at being unable to save his men, he sat on the riverbank and wept. MacDonald recalls in his memoirs that this scene traumitised him for years after the event and that he could often hear the voices of the screaming men ringing in his ear.

MacDonald was furious with Napoleon for allowing the whole disaster to happen and he initially refused to even meet with the Emperor. Rumors subsequently spread through the army that MacDonald had been killed while crossing the river, but he survived and eventually made his way to Cologne to rebuild his shattered Corps. He remained one of the central commanders of the now hopeless French efforts to keep the allied powers from entering France. Ultimately Paris was captured by the allies in 1814. As Napoleon raced to Fontainebleau it was clear the soldiers were no longer willing to follow Napoleon on what was obviously a lost cause. MacDonald was encouraged to approach Napoleon on behalf of the army, making him aware that the soldiers wanted peace. MacDonald made these points to Napoleon at Fontainebleau, expecting the Emperor to fly into a violent rage, but was surprised when Napoleon reacted quite calmly to the fall of Paris and the reality that the starving and worn out remnants of the army could no longer go on fighting.  Napoleon hailed MacDonald as a “good and honorable man” for his frankness and openness. He then turned to all those in the room and announced that he would abdicate the throne in favour of his son. Napoleon sat and wrote out his abdication, rewriting the draft two or three times. Then as Napoleon dismissed them for the evening, he threw himself on the sofa, slapped his leg with his hand and proclaimed, “Nonsense, gentlemen! Let us leave all that alone and march tomorrow, we shall beat them!” No doubt bemused by this departure from reality, MacDonald reiterated everything he had already said about the perilous state of the army. The Marshals, led by Marshal Ney then decided to mutiny against Napoleon to prevent further pointless bloodshed. Napoleon eventually yielded to the inevitable and MacDonald, along with Caulaincourt and Ney, left to personally negotiate the terms of surrender with Tsar Alexander of Russia on behalf of Napoleon.

Napoleon's abdication at Fontainebleau alongside Marshals Ney, Oudinot, Victor and MacDonald.

Napoleon’s abdication at Fontainebleau alongside Marshals Ney, Oudinot, Victor and MacDonald.

MacDonald was to write that Tsar Alexander was gracious in victory and spoke respectfully of the French. MacDonald notes in his memoirs that aside from Marshal Ney, who was unstable and aggressive, Tsar Alexander’s conciliatory tone was reciprocated by the French Marshals. The Prussians were far less accommodating and were quick to remind the French that they were the scourge of Europe, immediately demanding compensation and providing none of the compliments that the Tsar had generously offered the French army. The other main member of the allied coalition was Austria, who was willing to allow Napoleon’s wife and son to keep their titles, but on the condition that they were prohibited from ever attaining power in France. Britain refused to negotiate at all, claiming that they did not recognise Napoleon as a legitimate authority, which was probably just as well for Napoleon who half heartedly said that you could “never trust a MacDonald within sound of bagpipes.”

Throughout this time, MacDonald worked closely with Tsar Alexander, who asked MacDonald to personally draw the map of demarcation for the armistice. A brief period of negotiation resulted in the Treaty of Fontainbleu, a document that formally ended Napoleon’s rule as Emperor. MacDonald was one of only 6 signatories to the document, which also included Napoleon’s faithful aide Armand de Caulaincourt, Marshal Ney, Prince Von Metternich, Baron Hardenberg of Prussia and the Russian Diplomat Karl Nesselrode. During the exchange of ratifications, MacDonald was selected to personally present and deliver the French side of the treaty.

A statue of Marshal MacDonald on the side of the Louvre on Rue de Rivoli, Paris.

A statue of Marshal MacDonald on the side of the Louvre on Rue de Rivoli, Paris.

Following the exchange, the allied powers were keen to ensure that the Marshals submitted to the new order. This would guarantee that the French Army would also obediently submit to the provisional government. Marshal Ney immediately submitted, but MacDonald and Caulaincourt remained loyal to Napoleon until the formal ratification of the treaty, after which time MacDonald wrote a simple statement to the provisional government saying that “being released from my allegiance by the abdication of the Emperor Napoleon, I declare that I conform to the Acts of the Senate and the Provisional Government.”  This act of dignified defiance infuriated the ever scheming French statesmen de Talleyrand, whose face was said to turn pale before almost bursting with rage when MacDonald politely refused to submit until the formal ratification of the treaty.

MacDonald returned to Fontainbleu to call upon Napoleon. On the morning of the 13th of March 1814, MacDonald entered to find a despondent Napoleon wearing his dressing gown and slippers, with his head buried in his hands and his elbows on his knees. He did not stir when MacDonald entered the room, but on prompting from Caulaincourt he appeared to wake from a dream and MacDonald found him to have a sickly yellow-green complexion. Napoleon apologised and said that he had been sick all night, later evidence suggests that it was likely Napoleon had taken an overdose of opium in an attempt to try and sleep after the emotionally exhaustive events of recent months.

Again, Napoleon sat in the room, remained silent for a period of time before turning to MacDonald and saying,

“Duke of Tarentum, I cannot tell you how touched and grateful I am for your conduct and devotion. I did not know you well; I was prejudiced against you. I have done so much for, and loaded with favours, so many others, who have abandoned and neglected me; and you, who owed me nothing, have remained faithful to me I appreciate your loyalty all too late, and I sincerely regret that I am no longer in a position to express my gratitude to you except by words.”

Napoleon noted that MacDonald had always had a generous manner, never accepting large amounts of money while being an impartial ruler who brought justice wherever he commanded. Napoleon then implored MacDonald to accept the sword of  the former leader of the Mamelukes, Murad Bey, which had been captured in Egypt in 1798 and worn by Napoleon at the Battle of Mount Tabor in 1799. MacDonald accepted the gift as a sign of Napoleon’s friendship and the two commanders emotionally embraced each other. It was the last time that MacDonald and Napoleon would ever meet.


Part Two – click here!

Some of the monuments throughout Europe dedicated to MacDonald. Click here.

The Recollections of Marshal MacDonald, Duke of Tarentum. Click here.



7 comments on “Marshal Étienne Jacques MacDonald of France (1765-1814)

  1. Candia
    May 10, 2014

    I think the exiled Drummonds also went to Sweden…

    • Colin MacDonald
      May 12, 2014

      There are many other examples of prominent Scots in European courts and it certainly would make for an interesting study.

      One other notable link to Sweden is Baron Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, the former Finnish president who was voted Greatest Finn of all time. One of his ancestors was a George Wright, who emigrated from Dundee to Sweden in the 17th century, therefore forming the ‘Von Wright’ line of Swedish nobility. An unlikely connection!

  2. Pingback: Spinners, Weavers and Radicals – The Life of Donald MacDonald (1795-1879) | The Tree of a Son of Skye

  3. Pingback: Marshal Étienne Jacques MacDonald of France (1815-1840) | The Tree of a Son of Skye

  4. arthur mcclench
    December 31, 2017

    I enjoyed this portrait of a good soldier and an honourable man. I feel I should point that, in miltary terminology, the word for the primary army formation that featured so prominently in Macdonald’s career is ‘corps,’ which being a French word has the last two letters left silent. ‘Corp,’ usually with the last letter pronounced, is a comparitvely modern abbreviation of the noun ‘Corporation.’ The two words are obviously related but one is military and the other civil.

    • Colin MacDonald
      January 3, 2018

      Hi Arthur, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Thank you for pointing out this mistake, which has now been corrected.

  5. Pingback: Marshal Étienne Jacques MacDonald of France – Tour of Scotland in 1825 | The Tree of a Son of Skye

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