The values promoted by the American Revolution could not have been contained to North America indefinitely, but even the Founding Fathers were surprised at how quickly the universal values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness took hold in the most aristocratic and monarchical country in Europe. However, only a few could embody that rapid change quite like Louis-Alexandre Berthier.
The son of a minor nobleman and military engineer, Berthier chose initially to follow his father’s career in the army, before transferring to the dragoons, and serving in staff positions for several notable figures in the Royal French Army. It was in this role that he accompanied the Comte de Rochambeau to oversee the 1781 Yorktown Campaign as part of the alliance with the rebelling Americans. On the march to Virginia, Berthier composed a detailed personal journal that included several well-drawn maps, both of which became vital historical resources for the role of the French Army during the campaign. Berthier also used the opportunity to acquaint himself with the General Marquis de Lafayette, who supported the Revolution even before the official Franco-American alliance. He, too, earned a promotion to colonel before returning to France after the war. It is worth pointing out that King Louis XVI’s reasons for aiding the Americans against the British were far more geopolitical than ideological, and officers like Berthier continued to serve ably in the Royal Army for nearly a decade, many of Berthier’s colleagues had now gotten at least a glimpse of a struggle for liberty against tyranny, only to return to their own homes, simmering with discontent against the inequalities baked into their own French society.
The explosion of the French Revolution in 1789, which overthrew the oldest monarchy in Europe, presented an immense challenge to Berthier. Though he was a devout supporter of the Revolution, the Reign of Terror brought about intense Jacobin scrutiny on his head, and those suspicions of monarchism temporarily lost him his rank. Fortunately, Berthier’s political aptitude, combined with the Republic’s desperate need for talented officers in its fledgling army saw him restored to his post by 1795, and his campaigns against royalist rebels and the coalitions seeking to restore the Bourbons brought him into the sphere of a new patron: Napoleon Bonaparte.
Earning a position as General Bonaparte’s chief of staff, Berthier served at his side through his famous Italian and Egyptian campaigns and provided key support during the former’s coup against the Directory government in 1799. After Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of the French in 1805, he rewarded Berthier’s service and loyalty by naming him one of his 18 original Marshals of France; a purely ceremonial title, but an enormous sign of his favor nonetheless. And like many of his Marshals, the more service Berthier rendered for his emperor, the more noble titles he acquired, such as Prince of Wagram (named after Napoleon’s 1809 victory over Austria) and that of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. Unfortunately, much of this came to an end after Napoleon’s first abdication in 1814, though Berthier was allowed to go into retirement in exchange for pledging loyalty to the Bourbon Restoration. When the emperor returned the following year, it is likely Berthier was struggling to decide whether or not to rejoin him, before he died abruptly on the 1st of June by falling out a window. Whether it was an accident, suicide or murder remains a mystery today. What Napoleon thought on the matter we also have no way of knowing, but after losing at Waterloo, we know that Berthier was on his mind in some sense, saying, “If Berthier had been there, I would not have met this misfortune.”
Berthier’s loyalties shifting from King Louis to the Republic to Napoleon and back to the Bourbons again might suggest he was not the ideological champion of Republicanism and Liberty that Lafayette was, but there is actually little evidence to suggest that his commitment to the ideals of the Revolution or personal loyalty to Bonaparte was insincere. Berthier’s own extensive journals from the Yorktown campaign certainly show how interested he was in the movement that galvanized the war around him, and later supported by his exemplary service to the Republican cause. To this day, he is regarded by many historians as one of Napoleon’s best Marshals.