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The Bravest of the Brave, from Harper's

 

In the small but strongly fortified town of Saar-Louis, on what was then the borders of France, in Rhenish Prussia, there was born, a little more than a hundred years ago, a child whose future intrepid career earned for him the title of "the bravest of the brave." His father's trade was nothing more warlike than that of a cooper; his home life and training were not different from those of many of his playmates; and yet before he was sixteen years old he had entered a regiment of hussars, or light cavalry, and before he was thirty had attained the high rank of general of division.

But those were warlike days; the French Revolution had just begun; all Europe was echoing with the clash and tread of such armies as the world had never before seen; and living as he did in the shadow of fortifications constructed by France's greatest military engineer, Vauban, it is not so strange that the youth became filled with an intense desire to taste the glory and share the danger of a soldier's life.

Michael Ney, Marshal of France, Duke of Elchingen, Prince of Moskwa—for by all these titles, commemorative of some one or other of his numerous victories, was he known—early rose in the confidence and estimation of the great Napoleon, and was by him intrusted with the most responsible commands in Switzerland, Prussia, Austria, and Spain; and it was not until he met Wellington at Torres Vedras, in the Peninsula, that he met his superior in the art of war; and even then, by a happy mixture of courage and skill, Ney was enabled to mitigate to a great extent the bitterness of defeat. But to relate his whole career would be to fill a volume, so we will only consider one or two incidents in his life.

In 1810, Ney took an active part in the invasion of Russia, and by his address and energy contributed largely to the French victory at the battle of the Moskwa, called by the Russians the battle of Borodino.

When the Russian Bear turned upon the invader, and the ever-memorable retreat commenced, with all its attendant horrors of cold, hunger, and physical pain, to Ney was assigned the honorable but arduous task of protecting the rear of the fleeing troops. At the start Ney's force numbered 7000 men, and on leaving Smolensk he found himself confronted by an army four times as large.

He was summoned to surrender before commencing the attack, and his characteristic reply, "A Marshal of France never surrenders," has passed into history, though it must be confessed that, in the light of recent events, history does not always bear out the assertion. Repeatedly driven back with awful loss, Ney determined to outwit the enemy; so, under cover of darkness, he and his troops made a wide circuit, and reached the bank of the river Dnieper far in advance of the pursuers.

But here a new foe confronted the gallant Marshal. How should he cross the stream? He had no boats, and although the weather was intensely cold, the rapid current was covered only by a thin coating of ice that bent beneath the weight of a single man. However, to deliberate was to be lost; so, dividing his forces into small companies, he caused the advance to be sounded, himself stepping first upon the glassy surface.

What a subject for a painter is here presented!—the frozen snowy landscape; the bare skeleton trees; the broad serpentine course of the frost-bound river, with here and there patches of open water showing darkly against the snow-covered ice; the scattered groups of soldiers treading carefully, and with the possibility before them that at the next step the treacherous floor might precipitate them into an icy grave.

But the hazardous passage was safely effected, and after a series of conflicts with forces in every case far superior to his own, Ney succeeded in rejoining the Emperor at Orsha, where he was received with open arms, and hailed as "the bravest of the brave"—a name which clung to him from that time.

After Napoleon left the army, Ney still continued to fight in the rear against the ever-increasing hordes of Russians that harassed the flanks of the fugitive army. Three times was the rear-guard that he commanded melted away by death, captivity, or flight, and as often was it reorganized by the indomitable Marshal who "never surrendered."

At last, with a poor remnant of only thirty men, Ney defended the gate of the town of Kovno—the last place in the Russian dominions through which the French retreated—against the pursuers, while the main body escaped through the gate at the other end of the town. He was himself the very last man to retire. Snatching a pistol from one of his men, he fired the last shot in the faces of the Russians, flung the weapon into the river Niemen, plunged in after it, and amid a storm of bullets swam the stream, and gained the neighboring forest, successfully eluded his pursuers, and joined his comrades, who had mourned him as dead, in the Prussian territory.

Ney's end was as unfortunate as it was unworthy so brave a soldier. When Napoleon was banished to Elba, Ney, who had previously incurred his displeasure, gave his allegiance to the restored Bourbons, and when the great Emperor re-appeared in France, Ney was placed in command of the army sent to oppose him, promising his new superiors to bring back Napoleon "like a wild beast in a cage."

There is no reason to doubt Ney's sincerity in this unhappy episode of his career. He was of a brave, impulsive disposition, one accustomed to act on the spur of the moment; so, when he drew near to the Emperor, and found that the men he commanded, nearly all of whom had fought at some time or other under the Emperor, were fixed in a resolve not to fight against Napoleon, it is not so much to be wondered at that Ney became Napoleonist with as much ardor as ever. And when Napoleon called on him by his old title, "the bravest of the brave," to once more rally under his standard, Ney responded with alacrity, as though the name possessed a magic spell he could not resist.

After Waterloo, when all that pertained to the cause of the dethroned Emperor was irretrievably lost, Ney was brought to trial by the re-restored Bourbons on the charge of treason, and was condemned to be shot on December 7, 1815. He met death with that same unflinching bravery which he so many times displayed, during his eventful career, on most of the great battle-fields of Europe.

On December 7, 1853, exactly thirty-eight years after his death, a statue was raised to the memory of the intrepid Marshal on the precise spot on which his execution occurred.