Jean-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte (1763 – 1844) was a French Revolutionary general who was granted high rank and honors by Napoleon Bonaparte. Bernadotte returned the favor by switching sides, and at the head of a Swedish army, helped defeat Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, the Napoleonic Wars’ largest and bloodiest single engagement, whose lose effectively sealed Napoleon’s fate.
The son of a prosecutor, Bernadotte enlisted in the French army at age 17. When the French Revolution erupted, he became an ardent supporter. Within two years, between 1792 and 1794, he experienced rapid promotions from sub-lieutenant to brigadier general in the Revolutionary armies. Campaigning in the Low Countries, Germany, and Italy, he developed a reputation as a disciplinarian who kept his troops under tight control, and in 1796 he played a key role in saving the French army in Germany from destruction following its defeat by the Austrians and ensured its safe retreat across the Rhine.
Bernadotte first came in contact with Napoleon in 1797, and the pair developed an early friendship, which eventually frayed and broke as a result of rivalries and misunderstandings. While relations between the two were still good, however, Napoleon recognized Bernadotte’s talents, and in 1804 – following his declaration of empire and Bernadotte’s declaration of loyalty to him – Napoleon appointed him a Marshall of France.
Following the successful 1805 Ulm Campaign and victory at the Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon further rewarded Bernadotte by making him Prince of Ponto Corvo in Italy. Things began to sour between the two, however, during the Prussian campaign in 1806, when Napoleon severely criticized Bernadotte for failing to bring his corps to the fight at the hard-fought battles of Jena and Auerstadt, and barely refrained from court-martialing him for dereliction of duty. The relationship was sundered at the 1809 Battle of Wagram, after which Napoleon relieved Bernadotte of command for his poor handling of his troops during the fight. Napoleon sent him back to Paris under the face-saving guise of “health reasons”.
Things soon looked up for Bernadotte, however, when the childless and ill king Charles XIII of Sweden, a French ally and client state, adopted him in 1810 and made him Crown Prince and heir to the throne. Bernadotte assumed the regency and governance of Sweden, and cast about for an accomplishment to solidify his authority and future dynasty.
The opportunity came when Napoleon was weakened following the destruction of his Grande Armee after his catastrophic invasion of Russia in 1812. In 1813, Bernadotte switched sides, signed a treaty with Britain, and declared war on France. He landed a Swedish army in northern Germany, and in alliance with the Austrians, Russians, and Prussians, got his payback against Napoleon by helping defeat him in the war’s biggest and bloodiest battle, at Leipzig, in 1813. After the war, he returned to Sweden, where he established the Bernadotte Dynasty, whose royal family reigns in Sweden to this day.