History of Prussia - John S. C. Abbott

Prussia Overwhelmed

Louisa, the Queen of Prussia, was, intellectually, far the superior of her husband. She saw clearly that the principles of the French Revolution, organized in the empire of France, if unchecked, would inevitably undermine the Prussian and all other feudal thrones. The war-party in Berlin, with the queen and Prince Louis at its head, were unmeasured in their vituperation of this affiance with France. Their remonstrances, however, were of no avail.

The annexation of Hanover to Prussia gave to that kingdom an increase of territory amounting to fourteen thousand eight hundred square miles (equal to about twice the State of Massachusetts), and increased the population by over a million. The course, however, which Prussia pursued, was so vacillating, that "all sincere friendship had become impossible between Prussia and France. Prussia was regarded as a suspected power, whose hollow friendship had ceased to have any value."

England was greatly exasperated. The Prussian harbors were immediately declared in a state of blockade, and an embargo laid upon all vessels of that nation in the British harbors.

"An order of council," writes Alison, "was soon after issued, authorizing the seizure of all vessels navigating under Prussian colors. And such was the effect of these measures, that the Prussian flag was instantly swept from the ocean; and, before many weeks had elapsed, four hundred of its merchant-vessels had found their way into the harbors of Great Britain."

Queen Louisa and Prince Louis were still consecrating all their energies to bring Prussia into co-operation with England, Russia, and Austria, in antagonism to the principles of the French Revolution, which were now being borne widely through Europe on the imperial banners. Suddenly Prussia changed front, renounced the affiance with France, and commenced vigorous hostilities against the French Empire. We give the reasons for this change as expressed by Sir Archibald Alison:—

1. France had overturned the constitution of the Germanic Empire, and, by the newly-formed confederation of the Rhine, had made Germany essentially tributary to the French Empire.

2. The Queen and Prince Louis did not appeal in vain to the patriotic spirit of the nation. "The inhabitants of that monarchy, clear-sighted and intelligent beyond almost any other, as well as enthusiastic and brave, perceived distinctly the gulf into which they were about to fall. One universal cry of indignation burst forth from all ranks. The young officers loudly demanded to be led to the combat: the elder spoke of the glories of Frederick and of Rosbach. An irresistible current swept away the whole nation.

"3. But all these causes of complaint, serious as they were, sank into insignificance compared to that which arose when it was discovered by M. Lucchesini, the Prussian ambassador at Paris, that France had entered into negotiations with England, on the footing of the restitution of Hanover to its lawful sovereign; that, while continually urging the cabinet at Berlin to look for indemnities for such a loss on the side of Pomerania, Napoleon had engaged to Russia to prevent them from depriving the King of Sweden of any part of his German dominions; and that, while still professing sentiments of amity and friendship to Frederick William, he had offered to throw no obstacles in the way of the re-establishment of the kingdom of Poland, including the whole of Polish Prussia, in favor of the Grand Duke Constantine.

Irritated beyond endurance by such a succession of insults, and anxious to regain the place which he was conscious he had lost in the estimation of Europe, the King of Prussia put his armies on a war-footing; dispatched M. Krusemark to St. Petersburg, and M. Lacobi to London, to endeavor to effect a reconciliation with these powers; opened the navigation of the Elbe; concluded his difficulties with the King of Sweden; and caused his troops to defile in the direction of Leipsic.

"The torrent of public indignation at Berlin became irresistible. The war-party overwhelmed all opposition. In the general tumult, 'the still small voice of reason, which counseled caution and preparation in the outset of so great an enterprise, was over-tossed. Prince Louis and his confederates openly boasted, that Prussia, strong in the recollection of the great Frederick and the discipline he had bequeathed to his followers, was able, single-handed, to strike down the conqueror of Europe. Warlike and patriotic songs resounded, amidst thunders of applause, at the theatres; and the queen roused the general enthusiasm to the highest pitch by displaying her beautiful figure on horseback in the streets of Berlin, at the head of the regiment of hussars, in the uniform of the corps."

The Prussian armies, numbering two hundred thousand, entered the heart of Saxony. Frederick William compelled the King of Saxony to join the affiance. "Our cause," he said, "is the common cause of legitimate kings. All such must aid in the enterprise." The young emperor, Alexander of Russia, anxious to efface the stain of Austerlitz, was hastening by forced marches over the wilds of Poland, with two hundred thousand veteran troops in his train. The invincible fleet of England crowded the shores of the Mediterranean and of the Channel.

At midnight on the 24th of September, 1806, Napoleon entered his carriage at the Tuileries to join his army in the Valley of the Rhine. In his parting message to the senate, he said, "In so just a war, which we have not provoked by any act, by any pretence, the true cause of which it would be impossible to assign, and where we only take arms to defend ourselves, we depend entirely upon the support of the laws, and upon that of the people, whom circumstances call upon to give fresh proofs of their devotion and courage."

"Napoleon," says Alison, "had no gallantry or chivalrous feeling in his breast. In his first bulletin he wrote, 'The Queen of Prussia is in the army, dressed as an Amazon, bearing the uniform of the regiment of dragoons, writing twenty letters a day to spread the conflagration in all directions. We seem to behold Armida in her madness, setting fire to her own palace. After her follows Prince Louis of Prussia, a young prince full of bravery and courage, hurried on by the spirit of party, who flatters himself he shall find a great renown in the vicissitudes of war. Following the examples of these illustrious persons, all the court cries,

"'To arms!' but when war shall have reached them, with all its horrors, all will seek to exculpate themselves from having been instrumental in bringing its thunders to the peaceful plains of the North.'

"Such," continues Sir Archibald Alison, "was the language in which Napoleon spoke of the most beautiful princess in Europe."

By skillful maneuvers, the whole French army, in a few days, having crossed the Rhine, were thrown into the rear of the Prussians, thus cutting off all their supplies. Victory seemed no longer doubtful. Under these circumstances, the emperor wrote as follows to Frederick William—

"Sire, I am now in the heart of Saxony. Believe me, my strength is such, that your forces cannot long balance the victory. But wherefore shed so much blood? to what purpose? Why should we make our subjects slay each other? I do not prize a victory which is purchased by the lives of so many of my children. If I were just commencing my military career, and if I had any reason to fear the chances of war, this language would be wholly misplaced. Sire, your Majesty will be vanquished: you will have compromised the repose of your life and the existence of your subjects, without the shadow of a pretext. At present you are uninjured, and may treat with me in a manner conformable with your rank. Before a month has passed, you will treat, but in a different position. I am aware that I may, in thus writing, irritate that sensibility which belongs to every sovereign; but circumstances demand that I should use no concealment. I implore your Majesty to view in this letter nothing but the desire I have to spare the effusion of human blood. Sire, my brother, I pray God that he may have you in his worthy and holy keeping. Your Majesty's good brother,


"Finding affairs," writes Alison, "in a situation so much more favorable than he could have anticipated, Napoleon, to gain additional time to complete the encircling of his antagonist, dispatched an officer of his household with proposals of peace to Frederick William. "Whatever may have been the motives which dictated the pacific overture, no reply was returned to the letter. Though the dispatch was entrusted to a Prussian officer, it is said that the king did not receive it until the morning of the battle of Jena.

On the morning of the 14th of October, the two hostile armies met, face to face, on the plains of Jena and Auerstadt. The two battlefields were at the distance of but a few miles from each other. On each side the soldiers were equally brave, equally inured to war, and were led by able generals. Immediately there was commenced one of the most awful storms of battle which has ever desolated this globe. For eight hours the struggle continued, with the summoning of all possible human energies. About mid-day, the Prussian commander felt sanguine of victory. He dispatched the following order to one of his generals:—

"Send all the force you can to the chief point of attack. At this moment, we beat the enemy at all points. My cavalry has captured some of his cannon."

A few hours later, the whole aspect of the field was changed. The tide of disaster was surging in upon the Prussian general from all directions. The following almost frantic dispatch was sent to his reserve:—

"Lose not a moment in advancing with your yet unbroken troops. Arrange your columns so that through their openings there may pass the broken bands of the battle. Be ready to receive the charges of the enemy's cavalry, which in the most furious manner rides on, overwhelms and sabres the fugitives, and has driven into one confused mass the infantry, cavalry, and artillery."

Night came. The Prussian army was destroyed. It was no longer a battle, but a massacre. All order was lost, as the Prussians, a rabble rout, fled like an inundation from the field. The king himself narrowly escaped being made prisoner. In the gloom of night, and almost alone, he leaped hedges and fences, and plunged through field and forest, to effect his escape. Prince Louis fell in one of the conflicts which ushered in the great battle, his head being split open by a sabre blow.

The Prussians lost, during this disastrous day, twenty thousand in killed and wounded; and twenty thousand were taken prisoners. In nothing was the military genius of Napoleon more conspicuous than in the vigor and ability with which he pursued a vanquished foe.

In less than fourteen days, every remnant of the Prussian army was taken, and all the fortresses of Prussia were in the hands of the French.

Frederick William III. fled to the confines of Russia to seek protection behind the bayonets of the troops of Alexander.

Prussia was struck as by a thunderbolt. The history of the world presents no other example of such a power being so speedily and so utterly destroyed. In one month after the emperor left the Tuileries, the feat was accomplished. An army of two hundred thousand men was killed, captured, or dispersed. Fortresses hitherto deemed impregnable had been compelled to capitulate. Napoleon was reposing in the palace of the Prussian king at Berlin, while the French army was encamped in the streets and squares of the city. Prussia was a captive in the hands of France, bound hand and foot.

By what is called the right of conquest, Prussia now belonged to France. Monarchical, Europe heard these tidings with amazement and dismay.

Wherever the French army appeared, it was the propagator of the revolutionary doctrines of "equal rights for all men:" Every soldier in the ranks was animated by the conviction, that all the avenues of honor and of wealth were open before him; that merit, not birth, was the passport to distinction. Many of the Prussian officers appreciated the tremendous power with which the doctrine of equality invested the French soldier.

One of them wrote, in a letter which was intercepted, "The French, in the fire, become supernatural beings: they are urged on by an inexpressible ardor, not a trace of which is to be discovered in our soldiers What can be done with peasants who are led into battle by nobles to encounter every peril, and yet have no share in the honors or rewards?"

The King of Saxony, as we have mentioned, had been compelled to join Prussia against France. Such is the fate of the minor powers. Immediately after the great battle, the emperor assembled the Saxon officers in one of the halls of the University of Jena.

"I know not why," he said to them, "I am at war with your sovereign. He is a wise, pacific prince, deserving of respect. I wish to see your country rescued from its humiliating dependence upon Prussia. Why should the Saxons and the French, with no motives for hostility, fight against each other? I am ready, on my part, to give you a pledge of my amicable disposition, by setting you all at liberty, and by sparing Saxony. All I require of you is, no more to bear arms against France."

The officers, with many expressions of gratitude, departed for Dresden; and Saxony immediately withdrew from the coalition; But the armies of Russia, two hundred thousand strong, rapidly advancing, were still to be encountered.

"It was shortly after having detached Saxony from the Prussian, and united it to his own alliance, that Napoleon received an answer from the King of Prussia to the illusory proposals of accommodation made by him before the battle of Jena, and which that unhappy monarch easily caught at after that disaster, as the only light which seemed to break upon his sinking fortunes."

The emperor replied, that he had then no time to negotiate upon the terms of a final peace; that the campaign was but just begun, and that he must await its issue. He, however, entered into an armistice with a foe who was disarmed and bound, and entirely at his mercy.

The French army then pressed forward, through December storms, for the banks of the Vistula. There they encamped for the winter. On the 7th of February, 1807, the terrible battle of Eylau was fought. Immediately after this great victory, the French emperor wrote to the King of Prussia as follows:—

"I desire to put a period to the misfortunes of your family, and to organize, as speedily as possible, the Prussian monarchy. Its intermediate power is necessary for the tranquility of Europe. I desire peace with Russia; and, provided the cabinet of St. Petersburg has no designs upon Turkey, I see no difficulty in obtaining it. Peace with England is not less essential with all nations. I shall have no hesitation in sending a minister to Memel, to take part in a conference of France, Sweden, England, Russia, Prussia, and Turkey; but as such a congress may last many years, which would not suit the present condition of Prussia, your Majesty therefore will, I am persuaded, be of opinion, that I have taken the simplest method, and one which is most likely to secure the prosperity of your subjects. At all events, I entreat your Majesty to believe in my sincere desire to re-establish amicable relations with Russia and England."

These overtures the allies peremptorily rejected. The King of Sweden wrote to the King of Prussia,—

"I think that a public declaration should be made in favor of the legitimate cause of the Bourbons by openly espousing their interests, which is plainly that of all established governments. My opinion on this point is fixed and unalterable."

In reference to these proposals of peace made by the Emperor of the French, Alison says that the Russian general strongly advised Frederick William not to treat. He urged, that the fact of Napoleon proposing an armistice, after so doubtful a battle as that of Eylau, was the best evidence that it was not for the interest of the allies to grant it. Napoleon, being thus foiled in his endeavors to arrest the war by negotiation, gathered up his strength to conquer a peace with his sword.

Scarcely had the snows of winter begun to melt, ere the French army commenced its march northward from the banks of the Vistula to the Banks of the Niemen. A campaign of ten days, which culminated in the great French victory of Friedland, secured the following results:—

The French took one hundred and twenty pieces of cannon, seven colors, and killed, wounded, or captured sixty thousand Russians. They took from the hostile army all its magazines, its hospitals, its ambulances, the fortress of Konigsberg, with three hundred vessels which were in that port, laden with all kinds of military stores, and one hundred thousand muskets, which England was sending to the aid of the Russians.

Frederick William was with Alexander at the time of this terrible defeat of the Russian arms. The conference at Tilsit, between the Emperor of France and the Emperor of Russia, ensued.

"France," says Alison, "had nothing to demand of Russia, except that she should close her ports against England; Russia nothing to ask of France, but that she should withdraw her armies from Poland, and permit the emperor to pursue his long-cherished projects of conquest in Turkey."

The two emperors speedily agreed upon terms of peace. The poor King of Prussia was quite disregarded in these arrangements.

"The King of Prussia arrived two days after in Tilsit, with his beautiful and unfortunate queen, and the ministers on both sides,—Talleyrand on the part of France, and Marshal Kalkreuth on that of Prussia. But they were of little service; for such was the extraordinary length to which the intimacy of the two emperors had gone, that not only did they invariably dine and pass the evening together, but almost all the morning conferences, during which the destinies of the world were arranged, were conducted by them in person."

"Had the Queen of Prussia arrived earlier at our conferences," says Napoleon, "it might have had much influence upon the result of our negotiations; but, happily, she did not make her appearance till all was set tied. As soon as she arrived, I went to pay her a visit. She was very beautiful, but somewhat past the first flower of youth. She received me in despair, exclaiming, 'Justice, justice!' and throwing herself back with loud lamentations. I at length prevailed on her to take a seat; but she continued, nevertheless, her pathetic entreaties.

"'Prussia,' said she, 'was blinded in regard to her power. She ventured to enter the lists with a hero, oppose herself to the destinies of France, and neglect its fortunate friendship. She has been severely punished for her folly. The glory of the great Frederick, the halo his name spread round our arms, had inflated the heart of Prussia. They have caused her ruin.'

"Magdeburg," continues the emperor, "was the object of her entreaties; and when Napoleon, before dinner, presented her with a beautiful rose, she at first refused it, but immediately after took it with a smile, adding, 'At least with Magdeburg.'

"'I must observe to your Majesty,' replied the emperor, 'that it is I who give, and you only who must receive.'

"The Queen of Prussia," Napoleon continues, "unquestionably possessed talents, great information, and singular acquaintance with affairs. She was the real sovereign for fifteen years. In truth, in spite of my address and utmost efforts, she constantly led the conversation, returned at pleasure to her subject, and directed it as she chose, but with so much tact and delicacy, that it was impossible to take offence."

The Queen of Prussia was most bitterly disappointed at the terms of the treaty which her husband felt constrained to sign. The losses of Prussia, by this treaty, were enormous. Frederick William had about one-half his kingdom restored to him. The portion which Prussia had wrested from Poland was organized into a Polish state, called the Duchy of Warsaw. The provinces of Prussia upon the left bank of the Elbe were formed into the kingdom of Westphalia.. The kingdom of Prussia was reduced from about nine million of inhabitants to about five millions. Her revenue of twenty-four million dollars was diminished to fourteen million dollars. The fortresses left her, whether in Silesia or on the Oder, remained in the hands of France as security for the payment of the war-contributions.'

"At the same time," writes Alison, "enormous contributions, amounting to the stupendous, and, if not proved by authentic documents, the incredible sum of twenty millions sterling, were imposed on the countries which had been the seat of war between the Rhine and the Niemen. This grievous exaction completely paralyzed the strength of Prussia, and rendered her, for the next five years, totally incapable of extricating herself from that iron net in which she was enveloped by the continued occupation of her fortresses by the French troops."