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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces part of
A Late Stuart Pretender

by George Sherburn

published by
The University of Chicago Press

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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 p137  Appendix III

The Battle of Saalfeld (1806)
Reported by an Eyewitness

[In October 1806 the ducal family of Saxe-Coburg, hoping to avoid the troops of Napoleon, removed from Coburg to Saalfeld. It was an unlucky move; for although there was no battle at Coburg (which, however, the French occupied), from the château of Saalfeld the terrified family had to witness the bloody combat of October 20. A story of this battle as seen from the château is preserved among the papers of Charles Edward Stuart, Count Roehenstart. The manuscript is in the fine small handwriting of Roehenstart himself, though he is probably not the author. He was, to be sure, at Coburg in 1806 or early 1807 and from there he went to St. Petersburg, to assume the office of chamberlain to the Duke of Württemberg, generalissimo in the Russian armies. Antoinette, the Duchess of Württemberg, was a daughter of Francis, Duke of Saxe-Coburg. The author of the story here presented was apparently the unidentified daughter of a Prussian general. She may have been only temporarily with the Saxe-Coburg family, but she seems an intimate in their group. One may theorize that she sent this "Souvenir de Saalfeld" to Russia, where Roehenstart transcribed it; but the early history of the document is hypothetical. It certainly is a manuscript practically contemporary with the events depicted. It is written in French, which is here translated. In the following list of persons mentioned in the story those most important are signalized by an asterisk:

The Family

* Francis, reigning but ailing Duke of Saxe-Coburg (1750‑Dec., 1806).

* Augusta Sophia of Reuss-Ebersdorff, Duchess of Saxe-Coburg.1

* Princess Caroline Reuss, niece of the Duchess.

Ernest, "prince hereditary," who succeeded Duke Francis, his father. He left Saalfeld to fight with the Prussians.

* Princess Sophia Frederica, daughter of Duke Francis and wife of Count Mensdorff.

* Emanuel, Count of Mensdorff-Pouilly.

Princess Juliana, youngest daughter of Duke Francis, separated from her husband, Grand Duke Constantine of Russia. She "emigrated" from Coburg shortly before the story begins.

Mre de Coburg, presumably Field Marshal Frederick (b. 1757) who after 1794 lived in retirement at Coburg.

Prince Leopold (1790‑1865), youngest son of Duke Francis, and years later King of the Belgians.

The Governor of Prince Leopold (mentioned but unnamed)

Prussians mentioned

King William III.

* Prince Louis Ferdinand, killed in the battle.

General Mafling.

M. Harden.

* Amelie, author (?) of the story; sister of Mme Huelssen.

French officers present

Lannes, Marshal (Jean Lannes, duc de Montebello).

Augereau, Marshal (Pierre-Francois-Charles, duc de Castiglione).]

1 October 1806

We left Coburg at a terrible moment hoping in Saalfeld to avoid the horrors of war. I said good‑bye to my sister Huelssen on her very birthday, oppressed with dark forebodings, not knowing when I might have the sweet pleasure of seeing her again. I got into the carriage with Madame the Duchess and her niece the Princess Reuss, and soon lost myself in darkest melancholy. A dreadful dream that I had had a fortnight before the departure of Madame the Grand Duchess haunted my memory.

In my dream I saw her depart, and shortly afterwards we followed. In passing through a small town and coming to a square like the courtyard at Saalfeld, we saw a military funeral march by — with doleful music. In vain I asked the occasion of this sad ceremony; no one could or would tell me the name and quality of the deceased. The sight made me weep bitterly, and when I awoke I was bathed in tears. The idea that this might presage the death of Monsignor the Duke, who had been long ailing, made me shiver. When I told this dream to some of the ladies of the court, they shared my disquiet, and in spite of my efforts to get rid of or to counteract the effect of the dream, I still  p139 had a very strong image of it, and upon our departure I was more affected than ever.

We reached Saalfeld at eight o'clock in the morning, and it was not without emotion that I saw the pleasing château, where in better days I had so agreeably passed a happy time.

The hereditary Prince arrived in the night with Monsieur Harden, eagerly preparing to go and join his friend the King of Prussia. The whole day passed sadly: painful forebodings disquieted the hearts of his parents, especially that of his sensitive mother. In the evening an adjutant arrived to announce the approach of Mafling's regiment; we had gay music during our supper, but far from enlivening us it only increased our solicitude, reminding us of the dangers that this dear Prince, about to depart, was to undergo.

On the two days following we watched Prussian regiments march by. The next day we had the pleasure of welcoming Princess Sophie, the Count her husband, and their charming infant six weeks old. She hadn't been able to join us sooner, and the pleasure of this reunion for the moment calmed our fears for the future — unaware that danger was so close at hand.

Thereafter every day we had Prussian officers at dinner. Many of them knew my father, whose bravery they praised; and especially the old General Mafling spoke of it with much kindness. I renewed my acquaintance with certain Prussian and Saxon officers from the avant poste of Prince Louis Ferdinand, and with pleasure heard them praise this brave fighter whom I had known from my tenderest years. He came often to see my father, whose friend he was since they had fought together. He was expected at Rudolstat two leagues from Saalfeld, and I had therefore some hope of seeing him again after having lacked that pleasure for eight years. I went back over those happy days, telling myself that on every occasion I was his little favorite. We talked about him for a long time, and I hoped soon to see him arrive on his way to battle and to victory.

That night by a courier from Coburg the Duchess was informed of the arrival there of the French — news that distressed us greatly, though we had foreseen that event. Mre de Coburg, grand Ecuyer, the same day received orders from the hereditary Prince to join him as soon as possible with his horses; and he without delay yielded to his wishes. Count Mensdorff had likewise the greatest desire to visit the King and his brother-in‑law, who had suggested it; but happily for us our one remaining defender yielded to the entreaties of his wife, who was not at all willing to be separated from him.

The next day brought new perils. The French drew nearer, and in the evening we saw a quarter of a league away a small camp of Prussians, distinctly lighted, and further off there were troops advancing towards them, singing and carrying torches: it made indeed a fine effect. Very late we went back to the apartments of the Princess Reuss, from which we could see perfectly what was happening. We saw a great fire on the edge of the forest, which filled us with fright and a fear that certain villages had been fired or that the  p140 French camp had been set up there. We went to bed in the keenest anxiety; later we learned that unfortunately it had too just a basis.

The tenth of October at seven in the morning the Princess Reuss awoke me, surprised at finding me asleep while the sound of muskets was noisy; but, having passed a very bad night, my sleep towards morning was so profound that nothing could disturb it. As soon as possible I joined their Highnesses at windows from which we could descry a small number of Prussians and Saxons drawn up for battle. Soon afterwards Count Mensdorff returned from a visit that he had paid to Prince Louis Ferdinand, whose joy at meeting his old friend had been great. He was at the head of his small detachment, and expected only a small engagement between advance guards. Unfortunately since he knew not at all the number of his enemies, he could not foresee the moment of attack. Far off I recognized this amiable Prince, distinguished by his noble bearing, his superb figure; and on seeing him my fears vanished: I thought his defeat impossible, for his appearance inspired confidence, and seemed to promise victory. Never, alas! was hope more cruelly deceived.

Where shall I find colors strong enough to paint the picture of these agonizing scenes? At eleven o'clock the battle began to look serious; one heard only the boom of cannon and the volleys of infantry. From out of the forest we saw the French advance: the first painful impression that I felt was caused by the arrival of some wounded, who were carried from the battle and passed under our windows. The bravery of this small troop, so few in number, gave me hope. The governor of Prince Leopold told us of having seen the artillerymen that morning on bended knees praying before their cannon — all prepared for death.

At noon we had a little dinner in a room on the other side of the chateau, where we were safe from bullets. That was not at all my fear: I should have preferred to remain at the window, but finally I tore myself from the sad spectacle, which still fascinated me, and sat down at table. No one could eat: Count Mensdorff rose from time to time to tell us what was happening. Soon he brought the sad news that the Prussians had lost the battle, and shortly the French would advance towards the chateau. — Oh, never shall I wipe from my memory those terrible words! We ran to the windows, from where we saw the retreat of the small body of Prussians and Saxons who had so valiantly fought against fifteen thousand French from six o'clock in the morning until two o'clock in the afternoon. We could still see in the distance a cavalry attack. My brave compatriots did their best; I admired their courage and would have given my life at that moment if it would have been of any use to them. Soon a portion of the victorious army came back; certain hussars of the 9th regiment entered the court of the chateau noisily, and before my eyes fired at an unlucky Prussian hussar who had taken refuge there. He defended himself a long time, and disappeared pursued by his enemies. They fired also at Coburg soldiers, and went into the guardhouse to see if any Prussians were hidden there. Having found nothing they quieted down. Count Mensdorff went down to remind  p141 that the soldiers of Coburg were not their enemies. He gave them some wine, and they were content.

Poor Princess Sophie, seeing her husband descend was in despair: she feared for his life and ran to the cradle of her infant, to protect it in case its life were threatened. Her imagination was so inflamed that the danger seemed to her far greater than it actually was. Her husband came back and consoled her; our servants brought to the chateau certain Saxon officers, now captives, who were covered with wounds. They were given aid and were bandaged.

That evening we spent in a dimly lighted room in a silence woeful and stupefied; the feeble light of a single lamp perfectly suited the somber melancholy of our hearts. We were the more depressed by the cries of the poor inhabitants of Saalfeld, who, given over to pillage, came for refuge to the chateau, begging for aid against the excesses of the troops. Among others came an unfortunate old man of eighty years, led by his two daughters, to voice his bitter complaints: he had been robbed, and without respect for his white hairs or his body bent with the weight of years, he had been brutally beaten. Revolting spectacle that tore the tears from our eyes and made our hearts bleed! Princess Sophie offered him her chamber for refuge, and there he tasted some hours of repose. Mre de Mensdorff went to Marshal Lannes and gave him a picture of the excesses that his troops were allowing themselves, and the Marshal ordered a check to pillage and to the furors of the soldiers.

We had to go to bed without supper, for victuals were rare, and insufficient for all. It was the Duke alone who from his feeble health felt this privation. — I went to bed at last, my heart torn, thinking of the unfortunate prince and of my dear brothers, for whom the same fate was perhaps prepared. I sought sleep but did not the whole night find it.

The next day we had to witness a scene more painful than all those preceding. How shall I describe it? — Seated at my window, quite lost in reflection on the past, absorbed in grief and pain, I was roused by the Princess Reuss who had called my attention to note in the distance on the battlefield a stretcher on which was borne an unhappy wounded man. Suddenly we saw it surrounded by a group of soldiers who accompanied it to the sound of gay and  p142 victorious music: they came to the chateau and set it down in the middle of the court. — Great Heavens! what a scene! I recognized Prince Louis Ferdinand, that superb young man, the pride of the Prussian army, once brilliant as the day‑star, now wan and pale in death. — I saw the nephew of the great Frederick pillaged, despoiled, covered only with some remnants of clothing — ah, never shall I forget that terrible sight!

Marshal Lannes and his officers watched the spectacle, and the Marshal asked Count Mensdorff, who approached the body of his friend and grasped the hand now lifeless, if this was the man whom he had known. The Count replied only, "Yes," fixing his tearful eyes on the adored prince, covered with wounds: he had talked with him on the very eve of his glorious death.

The men who had brought in the stretcher now wished to leave it there, but the Count suggested that it would be an honor for them to carry this valiant fighter to the church, and he himself led the funeral convoy of his friend. — I returned pale and downcast to the rooms of the Princess Sophie; both of us, overwhelmed with the same sorrow, bitterly bewailed this amiable prince.

Marshal Lannes left us that same day, and soon afterwards came an adjutant of Marshal Augereau to announce the Marshal's arrival that evening. He duly came at five o'clock with his staff, which was not so numerous as that of Marshal Lannes. After dining he paid a long visit to their Highnesses and conversed especially with Madame the Duchess concerning the results of this fighting — and unfortunately his predictions were only too well realized. These soldiers also began pillaging, but the Marshal soon stopped it. He had the further kindness before departure to give us a gendarme as protector who was a completely genteel man.

The day after this day of horror I was so affected that I had a fever and was obliged to stay in bed. The corpse of that unfortunate prince was forever in my mind as well as the thought of the danger run by my dear brothers. The kindness shown me on this occasion by Monsieur and Madame Mensdorff I shall never forget.

The thirteenth of October — the day fixed for our departure — I was a bit better, and the idea of paying the last honors to the hero who had fallen in battle restored my strength. Unknown to everyone I went to the church, accompanied by two servants and a basket full of flowers. On the way I passed many wounded, Prussians and Saxons, to whom I gave what bits of money I had with me, but always quickening my step to reach the church. I approached the coffin and helped place a crown of laurels on the beautiful brow of the prince, a crown that he well merited. His fine mouth seemed to smile on me; he was not yet disfigured by death: his features were still marked by nobility. In cutting a lock of his hair, which I shall always keep as a bitter but precious souvenir, I saw the mortal wounds that his bosom had received, and the scissors fell from my hand. Overwhelmed with grief I dropped to my knees before the coffin, entreating heaven fervently to watch over the days of my brothers. The solemn tolling of a bell suddenly struck my ear, and rising I saw a crowd of  p143 soldiers surrounding the coffin, who sorrowed for their prince. But what especially struck me was an aged French officer who wept profusely. The sight touched me; he looked sadly at me and said, "It is the fatality of one of my comrades that I lament." Much moved I cast a last look on him whom I shall lament all my days, and placed my handkerchief, wet with tears, over his wounds, and covered his coffin with flowers. I went back to the chateau heartbroken, agitated and anxious lest my action should be known, but content with having performed what I regarded as a duty on the part of a daughter of a Prussian general who had tenderly loved the deceased.

We left at once for Coburg at the risk of meeting on the roads all the supply trains of the corps of the French army; for the fear of being exposed to new scenes of war determined their Highnesses to set out with a passport from Marshal Augereau. As we went through the city we were pained to see a number of wounded in the streets and to hear the woeful cries of poor people desolate and despoiled of their meager possessions. Our road took us very near to the battlefield, and we saw many corpses that were not yet buried. At the sight I shivered and covered my eyes to shut out such scenes of horror. I let myself lapse into an actual state of stupidity.

We were accompanied by all the soldiers of Coburg who had been at Saalfeld, and we formed a large convoy. Most of the servants had to go afoot, since there were not enough horses. The pieces of baggage were carried by the cattle, whom we dared not outdistance in spite of their slowness. We stayed together since Count Mensdorff, who had the passport and was our advance guard dared not outdistance us. But he had much trouble keeping us all together. Since all the while carriages became separated, he had assigned six soldiers as escort for each vehicle. We were surrounded like prisoners. As we passed through the woods, across their shelters, their numbers seemed to multiply, and we gave the impression of being escorted by a large body of troops. Soon we met with a unit of French supply wagons. M. de Mensdorff talked to the officer, and showed him the passport. He at once ordered his people to make way for our vehicles as far as possible, and this first mix‑up passed off very well. — In the villages we saw on all sides the spots where the French had pitched camp, and where, lacking straw, they simply spread out the wheat. Terror still stood in the faces of the poor peasants, and some with tears in their eyes showed us their burned houses. Our good Duke gave away all the money he had with him.

It was getting dark when we met the second (and larger) supply train: the road was so narrow that we could hardly pass. The French lighted bundles of straw and came so close to their wagons that we were afraid they might take fire. They complained much of the bad road, and swore incessantly. The many men and wagons that blocked the way, the shouting from all sides, stunned us. The torches that lightened the darkness let us see the rough faces of some Italians that were frightening. It all made an extraordinarily wild scene.

 p144  At last we reached Gräfenthal — but quite fatigued. Poor Princess Sophie was worried lest the journey make her infant ill, but the little blossom behaved beautifully, smiled at us as we entered the inn — and fell asleep at once. We also were early in bed. The hostess told us that two days before thirty French fighters had slept in straw in the same room. The idea was terrifying.

In the morning we could not set out before eight o'clock because of a terrible fog. It was the awful day of the battle of Jena, where everything worked for the defeat of the Prussians. Even nature seemed to hide the enemy, whose position was learned only too late. An overwhelming anguish seized me, especially when I thought that one moment or another might snatch away the lives of my dear brothers, though I was unaware that on that very day there would be a battle that one would remember all one's days.

We went by way of Judenbach where nine houses that had been burned still smoked and infected the air: everywhere we might see the distressing tracks of the enemy. At six in the evening we reached Coburg, where we were impatiently expected.

One seemed to awaken from a sad dream, and yet what we had seen was only a small beginning of the great misfortunes that were in store for the House of Prussia.


The Editor's Note:

1 The Duchess, in her diary (edited by H. R. H. the Princess Beatrice, In Napoleonic Days (1941), pp1‑10) gives a similar account of this battle.

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