Meanwhile Napoleon was fighting for survival in a France no longer fascinated by his victories. Almost every family in the country was now to yield another son or brother. The middle classes had welcomed Napoleon as their protector, but now he was more monarchical than the Bourbons, and he was courting royalists, who were plotting to depose him. Priests distrusted him; generals were praying for peace. He himself was weary of war. Heavy in the paunch, plagued with ailments, conscious of age, slowing in mind, hesitant in will, he could no longer draw from the elixir of victory the zest for combat, or the appetite for government. How could this tired man find in this tired nation the human resources demanded by the mounting onrush of his enemies?
Pride gave him his last power. That faithless Czar, that comely dancer playing general; that frightened weakling tying the great Frederick’s army to a Cossack horde; that turncoat French marshal proposing to lead a Swedish army against his native land—they would never match the gay courage and quick skill of a French soldier, the passionate strength of a nation challenged to defend those hard-won natural boundaries which guarded the finest civilization in Europe. “From now on,” said Napoleon in December, 1812, in a desperate appeal to racial pride, “Europe has only one enemy—the Russian colossus.”7
So he levied taxes, negotiated loans, and drew on his cellar hoard. He issued orders to put the conscript “class” of 1813 into active service, to prescript the class of 1814 for training, to prepare for foreign service the “cohorts” or militia that had been pledged to only domestic needs, to commission contracts for ammunition, clothing, weapons, horses, food. He arranged for teaching the new levies the arts and discipline of drill and march and battle; for stationing the trained battalions at specified encampments; for holding them ready to unite, at command, at a given place and time. By mid-April of 1813 he had organized an army of 225,000 men. He appointed Marie Louise regent, during his absence at the front; gave her his tried and tired secretary, Méneval; and left Paris on April 15 to meet his armies on the Main and the Elbe.
Eugène marched south with the remnants salvaged from the Russian debacle, reinforced with troops called from their stations in Germany. General Bertrand came up from the south. With these trusted men leading his left and right wings, Napoleon moved forward with his Army of the Main, and on May 2, at Lützen, near Leipzig, met an Allied army under the command of the Russian General Wittgenstein and under the eyes of Czar and King. The French now numbered 150,000, the Russians 58,000, the Prussians 45,000. Perhaps to encourage his recruits, the Emperor, savoring once more the thrills of combat, repeatedly risked himself at the front of the action; “this was probably the day in all his career,” wrote Marshal Marmont, “on which he ran the worst direct dangers on the field of battle.”8 The Allies acknowledged defeat, and retired by Meissen and Dresden; but the victorious French had lost 20,000 men—8,000 more than their foes.9 Napoleon was in part consoled by the decision of Frederick Augustus I, king of Saxony-worried neighbor of esurient Prussia—to add his army of 10,000 to the French. On May 9 his capital, Dresden, became Napoleon’s headquarters between campaigns.
Fearing that Austria would join the Allies to try to recapture north Italy, Napoleon sent Eugène to Milan to rebuild his army there and keep an eye on Italian revolutionists. He himself left Dresden on May 18, hoping to achieve a more decisive victory against the Allies, who had regrouped at Bautzen, thirty miles east of Dresden. He dispatched Ney to march in a half circle around them and attack them in the rear, while he himself would lead his main army in a frontal assault. Ney took his time, and joined the battle too late to prevent the Allies, defeated by Napoleon, from retreating into Silesia after losing 15,000 men. Napoleon advanced to the Oder, freed the French garrison at Glogau, and added its men to his army. Roger de Damas, an émigré, wrote in anger: “The French Empire has met the crisis and emerged triumphant.”10
At this moment, when he might have moved along the Oder, freed other garrisons, and added their trained men to his army, Napoleon listened to Metternich offering the mediation of Austria in arranging peace. Berthier for the Emperor’s generals, Caulaincourt for his diplomats, urged him to accept, fearing a long war by a united coalition with endless resources against a divided and depleted France. Napoleon suspected a trick, but hoped that an armistice would give him time to gather another crop of conscripts, and reinforcements for his cavalry; and he feared that a refusal would lead Austria into the Allied camp. An armistice was arranged at Pleisswitz (June 4) for two months, later extended till August 10. Napoleon withdrew his forces to Dresden, issued directions for the replenishment of his battalions, and went to Mainz to spend some time with Marie Louise; perhaps she could persuade her father to maintain the alliance of which she was a pledge. Meanwhile Metternich enlarged and provisioned the Austrian Army, alleging fear of the Allies.
These made good use of the armistice. They welcomed Bernadotte, who now committed his army of 25,000 men to the cause. With him came Moreau, who, convicted of friendly association with the plotters of Napoleon’s death, had been allowed to emigrate to America; now he offered his services to the Allies as one who knew the secrets of Napoleon’s strategy. He stressed one rule: avoid battle when Napoleon is commanding, seek it when he is away. The Allies were more pleased with Lord Cathcart, who, on June 15, gave them a subsidy of four million pounds in return for a pledge to make no peace with Napoleon without England’s consent.11
On June 27 the Allies, accepting Austria’s mediation, agreed that all three parties should send negotiators to Prague to arrange terms of peace. Napoleon sent Narbonne and Caulaincourt, hoping that Alexander’s fondness for the latter, watched by the former, would incline the Czar to accommodations. In any case the terms offered to Napoleon through Caulaincourt and Metternich were what he might have considered reasonable in view of his defeat in Russia and Poland and the revolt of Prussia. He was asked to surrender all territory that he had taken from Prussia, and all claim to the duchy of Warsaw, the Hanseatic city-states, Pomerania, Hanover, Illyria, and the Confederation of the Rhine. He could go back to France with her natural boundaries still preserved, and his throne and dynasty still unchallenged. There was a serious flaw in the proposal: England had reserved the right to make additional demands, and no peace could be signed without her consent.
Napoleon sent to Prague a request for the Allies’ official confirmation of these terms. It reached him only on August 9, with a warning from Metternich that the congress and the armistice would expire at midnight of August 10; and that Napoleon’s acceptance must be received before that time. Napoleon sent a conditional acceptance, which did not reach Prague until Metternich had declared the congress and the armistice ended. On August 11 Austria joined the coalition against France, and the war was resumed.