Marshal Joachim Murat, 1767-1815

Early Career
Italy 1796-7
The Consulate
War of the Third Coalition
War of the Fourth Coalition
Russian Campaign
Germany, 1813

Marshal Joachim Murat (1767-1815) was one of Napoleon's most flamboyant and dashing cavalry commanders, but he was less impressive later in the wars, when he was promoted beyond his abilities.

Early Career

Murat was born on 26 March 1767, the son of an innkeeper at La Bastide-Fortunière in Gascony. His family planned for him to enter the church, and entered him into a seminary. This didn't appeal to him, and in 1787 he ran away and joined the Royal Army (partly to avoid his creditors), serving in the cavalry for two years before being dismissed for idleness in 1790.

Marshal Joachim Murat
Marshal Joachim Murat

After the Revolution he rejoined the Army, joining Louix XVI's Constitutional Guard. This unit was formed late in 1791 but only lasted for a few months before being disbanded. Murat spent a short spell in the National Guard, and then rejoined the cavalry, where he was appointed a sous-lieutenant in the 21st Chasseurs.

During this period Murat gained a reputation for his swagger and his violent revolutionary beliefs. He served with distinction in the Army of the North, but his beliefs almost got him purged as an extreme Jacobin in 1794.

Murat's career was saved by his association with Napoleon. In 1795 he was serving as a major in a cavalry regiment posted in Paris when the Directory decided to alter the French Constitution to allow it to retain power in the new French Convention. The Constitution of the Year III gave power to a Directory of Seven, and transferred two thirds of the members of the Convention to the new National Assembly. This triggered mass opposition in Paris, the same sort of scenes that had led to the fall of the Monarchy. The Directors turned out to be more ruthless than Louis XVI. Napoleon was ordered to clear the crowds from the streets. Early on 5 October he asked Murat to capture the National Guard artillery depot at Sablons. By 6am Murat had provided Napoleon with forty field guns, which Napoleon then turned on the Parisians, killing or wounded around 300 people. Napoleon later described this as the 'whiff of grapeshot'.

Italy 1796-7

In the aftermath of this affair of 13 Vendémiaire Napoleon was returned to favour, and in the spring of 1796 he was given command of the Army of Italy. Murat accompanied him to Italy as an aide-de-camp, with the rank of Colonel. He began to earn his reputation as a cavalry commander at the battle of Dego (14 April 1796), where he first led a cavalry charge. After Piedmont sued for peace Murat was given the honour of taking their captured flags and news of the armistice terms to the Directory. He soon rejoined the army, and was sent on a diplomatic mission to Genoa (believed to be behind some anti-French revolts elsewhere in northern Italy) to force the city's Senate to dismiss the Governor of Gavi, expel some Neapolitan diplomats and ensure that the Senators knew who was in charge. On 17 July he commanded one of the assault parties during an unsuccessful assault on Mantua, which failed partly because Murat's party was stranded by falling water levels. During the Austrian attempts to raise the siege of Mantua he fought at the battle of Cassano (8 September 1796), where his cavalry pursued the defeated Austrians and helped capture 4,000 prisoners. He repeated this at the battle of Rivoli (14 January 1797), where on the day after the battle his cavalry seized a number of gorges and thus blocked the Austrian lines of retreat. By the time the Italian campaign ended early in 1797 Murat had been promoted to général de brigade.


In 1798 Murat was chosen to take part in Napoleon's expedition to Egypt. He and d'Hilliers gathered just over 7,000 men at Genoa, while Murat also had the task of providing good Italian wine for Napoleon's table. During the voyage he caused Napoleon some anxiety. One of the convoys didn't meet up with the main fleet as expected, and so Napoleon sent out frigates to find them. Murat's frigate found the missing fleet, but he and General Desaix then decided to go ahead to Malta. Napoleon was unaware of their fate until the main fleet reached Malta. In the meantime Murat carried out a daring but rather ill judged reconnaissance of the Grand Harbour.

Once again he enhanced his reputation while in Egypt, in particular at the battle of Aboukir (25 July 1799), where he led a cavalry charge against the weakened Ottoman centre and then captured the Turkish commander, Mustapha Bey, in a single combat (one of the few genuinely documented examples of this happening). He also took part in the unsuccessful campaign in Palestine, which ended with the failure to capture Acre (early 1799). Murat won a minor victory on 15 April, surprising an Ottoman encampment north of Lake Tiberias. He was badly wounded in Egypt, but also promoted to général de division for his efforts.

The Consulate

In the autumn of 1799 Napoleon returned to France with a very small party of his closest supports, including Murat. Napoleon's aim was to seize power in France, using the military setbacks of early 1799 as his excuse. His plans were put into effect on 18 Brumaire (November 1799), where once again Murat played a crucial part. Napoleon almost faltered while facing the Council of Five Hundred, but Murat ordered his soldiers to disperse the assembly. Napoleon became First Consul, the first step on his road to the Imperial title. Murat was rewarded with command of the Consular Guard.

In January 1800 Murat gained a more personal connection to Napoleon, when he married the First Consul's sister Caroline.

Murat continued to demonstrate his military ability during the Marengo campaign. He was given command of the entire cavalry force in Napoleon's army and led it across the Alps. On around 20 May his scouts found the first Austrians, the news that that brought Napoleon to the front in person. He defeated the Austrians at the combat of Turbigo (31 May 1800), a victory that secured a crossing point on the Ticino and allowed Napoleon to enter Milan. On 4 June he and Boudet were sent to establish a bridgehead across the Po at Piacenza, part of Napoleon's efforts to guard against any Austrian attack from the east. Murat reached the Po after some hard fighting on 5 June, and managed to get across the river on 7 June and capture Piacenza. However Murat now became the bearer of bad news - amongst the documents captured in Piacenza was a dispatch that announced the fall of Genoa. This meant that Napoleon had to alter his plans in the knowledge that the Austrian army that had been besieging Genoa was now free to act against him, and also had Genoa to fall back on if required. He was commander of the cavalry at the battle of Marengo (14 June 1800), where he helped win a battle that Napoleon had almost lost. At the start of the battle Murat wasn't involved, but by 10am his cavalry had taken a place in the line and played a major role in the eventual French victory.   

After Marengo Murat was sent south into Naples, where he forced King Ferdinand to sign a convention. This was followed by the Treaty of Florence of 28 March 1801 in which Ferdinand agreed to close his ports to British trade, give Taranto to the French and pay for the 15,000 strong French garrison of the port.

In January 1804 Murat was made governor of Paris, and on 19 May 1804 he was amongst the first batch of Napoleonic Marshals. His appointment as governor of Paris did lead to some strain with Napoleon, after Murat was ordered to stage a faked trial for the duc d'Enghien, kidnapped from Strasbourg on 15 March. At first Murat refused to take part, claiming that it would stain his honour but he gave way under heavy pressure from Napoleon.

During this period the relationship between the two men began to come under some strain, as Murat saw other members of the Emperor's close circle gain impressive titles and sizable estates. This isn't to say that Murat was unrewarded - in February 1805 he was made a Prince and Grand Admiral of France.

War of the Third Coalition

In August 1805 Murat was sent on a spying mission into central and southern Germany, in preparation for the upcoming war with Austria. He travelled with Betrand in the area between the River Main and the Tyrol. He then commanded the cavalry as it advanced east from its bases on the Rhine to trap the hapless Austrian commander Karl Mack Freiherr von Leiberich at Ulm.  He had several tasks - most important was to provide a screen between the two armies, but he also had to make the initial feint designed to confuse Mack, harass Mack's line of retreat and protect the French lines of communication. After the early stage of the campaign Murat advanced along the southern bank of the Danube. On the night of 6-7 October he captured Münster, and on 8 October 1805 took part in the first fighting of the campaign at Weringen. By 11 October he had been given temporary command of all of the troops concentrating on Ulm.

During this campaign Murat first demonstrated his tendency to get over-excited, advancing so fast on the south side of the Danube that General Pierre Dupont found himself isolated on the north side of the river after Murat ordered Ney to move the rest of his corps across the river. Dupont managed to resist a strong Austrian attack (battle of Albeck, 11 October 1805). This incident permanently soured the relationship between Ney and Murat, and also gained Murat a reprimand from Napoleon. His argument with Ney also included the rather revealing comment 'I know nothing of plans except those made in the face of the enemy'. As Napoleon reached the scene Ney and Murat were ordered to move north to aid Dupont. On 13 October Ney forced his way across the Danube at Elchingen, and on 14 October Murat crossed the same bridge and joined Dupont at Albeck just in time to held defeat a fresh Austrian attack. The Austrians then ordered their cavalry to break out of the trap at Ulm. This gave Murat the chance for another of his successful pursuits. Only 11 squadrons from an initial force of 6,000 cavalrymen managed to reach General Werneck, and on 19 October Murat forced Werneck to surrender. This success saw Murat capture 8,000 men and the Austrian field park. He then moved on to Neustadt, where he captured another 12,000 Austrians, including seven generals, 200 other officers, 120 guns and the money.

Mack surrendered at Ulm on 20 October, leaving General Kutusov's Russian army dangerously isolated west of Vienna. The second stage of the campaign thus saw Napoleon's forces push east in an attempt to catch Kutusov before he could join up with fresh Russian troops coming from the east.

Murat repeated his earlier mistake in the aftermath of Ulm, rushing east along the south bank of the Danube towards Vienna. If Kutusov had turned and attacked, Murat might have been dangerously isolated, but the Russians were concentrating on making their escape. The Russians did hold him up for a day at the battle of Amstetten (5 November 1805), where true to form Murat's first plan was for a simple cavalry attack, which failed. Kutusov's aim was actually to escape across the Danube, and he successfully achieved this. This time it was Marshal Mortier who was left isolated by Murat's rapid advance, although Mortier also contributed to his problems. General Gazan almost paid the price, coming close to defeat at Durnstein (11 November 1805) on the north bank of the Danube, before reinforcements saved the day for the French. Once again Murat received a rebuke from the Emperor, but he was then ordered to continue to Vienna, try and capture a bridge over the Danube intact, and then rush north to try and catch Kutusov.

Murat briefly restored his reputation during the fall of Vienna on 12 November, when along with Marshal Lannes he convinced some of the defenders that an armistice had been agreed and managed to capture a vital bridge across the Danube intact. He was then sent north to find the Russians, who were retreating towards reinforcements. When he caught up with them Murat made another mistake, agreeing to an armistice and even beginning peace negotiations. This allowed the Russians to continue their retreat and unite their armies. The French did eventually realise they had been tricked, but the brief combat of Hollabrunn (15-16 November 1805) came too late to stop the Russians from retreating.  Napoleon was furious, but he still needed Murat. In the meantime Kutusov joined up with the Russian reinforcements, under Tsar Alexander and General Buxhowden.

Murat commanded the French advance guard as it moved towards Austerlitz and the decisive battle of the War of the Third Coalition. In the build-up to the battle he was ordered to pull back from Austerlitz itself, in order to help convince the Russians that Napoleon was nervous. On 30 November, as the trap was being set, he was ordered to withdraw from Wischau and to fake panic and disorder. During the battle of Austerlitz itself (2 December 1805), he fought on the northern part of the battlefield, where the Russians had posted more troops than Napoleon had hoped. The fighting was so fierce that Murat and his staff were dragged directly into the fighting.

On 16 March 1806 was given the Grand Duchy of Berg as a reward for his performance during the campaign. This included the principality of Cleve, taken from Prussia even though she hadn’t been part of the Third Coalition.

War of the Fourth Coalition

Murat continued to demonstrate his skills as a cavalry commander during the War of the Fourth Coalition. He commanded the cavalry at the battle of Jena (14 October 1806), but it was his performance during the pursuit that was most impressive. His cavalry flooded out across Prussia, and he captured Freidrich Ludwig Fürst zu Hohenlohe-Ingelfingen, the commander of the main surviving fragment of the Prussian army, on 28 October (after claiming that he had 100,000 men surrounding the Prussians), and then General Gebhard von Blücher, the most effective Prussian commander of the campaign, on 6 November.

The second half of the war saw the French clash with the Russians once again. Murat was the first to make contact with them, brushing up against a force of Cossacks west of Warsaw on 27 November. On the following day Murat took Warsaw without a fight. During Napoleon's first attempt to catch the Russians Murat fought at the inconclusive battle of Golymin (26 December 1806), where the French attacks were poorly coordinated, but superior numbers gave them a minor victory.

Napoleon's second attempt to catch the Russians began in late January 1807 when the Russians launched an unexpected counterattack against VI and I Corps. Napoleon hoped to trap the Russians at Allenstein, but on 2 February Murat reported that there were no Russians at the town. Murat fought in the inconclusive battle of Jonkowo (3 February 1807), where the Russians avoided a French trap. He also faced the Russians at the rearguard combat of Hof (6 February 1807), where Murat's cavalry defeated the Russian cavalry, but was held up by infantry squares.

He made a major contribution at the winter battle of Eylau (8 February 1807). After a period of hard fighting a gap began to appear in the French line, and Napoleon himself was almost captured. Napoleon ordered Murat to charge the Russians, and he led the 80 cavalry squadrons (just over 10,000 men) of the Cavalry Reserve in one of the largest cavalry charges of the war. The Russian advance was stopped, and the battle ended as a costly draw. Murat was close to the front, leading the second wave of the attack (behind only six squadrons of chasseurs). Murat's men punched their way through the first Russian line, then split into two separate forces to pass through the rest of the army. They reunited behind the Russian lines, then turned back and fought their way back to safety. This was probably the high point of Murat's career (with the pursuit after Jena close behind). The cavalry attack saved the French from defeat, although the battle ended as a costly draw, and marked the end of the winter campaign of 1806-7. On the day after the battle Murat followed the retreating Russians, but for the first time a major battle hadn’t been followed by a pursuit.

In the summer of 1807 the Russians were first to move, but their offensive faded away after a few days. Napoleon then began his own planned offensive. The retreating Russians decided to make a stand at Heilsberg (10 June 1807). The battle began when Murat's cavalry clashed with the Russian advance guard. At this early stage in the battle Murat and Soult came close to defeat after Bagration hit them in the flanks, but they were saved by Savary.  The rest of the battle was largely an infantry affair, in which the French were unable to make any progress. On the following day the French began to outflank the Russian position, forcing them to retreat.

Murat's performance at Heilsberg wasn't impressive. Savary's comments after the battle ended 'it would be better if he was endowed with less courage and with rather more common sense'. Later on Napoleon made his displeasure clear by comparing one of his latest uniforms to that of a circus rider (Murat tended to design his own flamboyant uniforms).

In the aftermath of this battle Napoleon misjudged the Russians, assuming that they would probably head for Konigsberg. Murat and Soult were sent towards Konigsberg with orders to take the port if possible, and as a result Murat missed the battle of Friedland (14 June 1807), the French victory that ended the war. Murat's presence was missed in the aftermath of the battle, when the lack of a vigorous pursuit allowed the Russians to avoid a worse defeat.  Some of Napoleon's senior officers had even suggested delaying the attack until 15 June to give Murat and Davout time to reach the battlefield, but Napoleon overruled them on the valid grounds that the Russians would probably retreat if given enough time.

In the aftermath of the battle Murat's cavalry pushed on towards the Russian border, and by 19 June he had reached the Niemen near Tilset. On the same day Tsar Alexander's envoy reached Napoleon, and the fighting came to an end. The two leaders famously met on a raft in the middle of the Niemen, and the resulting Treaty of Tilset appeared to have given Napoleon control of Europe.


The first French troops entered Spain in 1807, as part of Junot's army sent to invade Portugal. The real invasion came in the following year. In mid-February French troops captured a number of key border fortifications, many occupying them by surprise and at little cost. Late in 1807 Murat had been made overall commander of the French troops in Spain, with the title of Lieutenant of the Emperor in Spain. Murat crossed into Spain on 10 March 1808, and reached Burgos on 13 March. Murat entered Madrid on 24 March, and was greeted by cheering crowds who believed that the French only intended to restore order after the chaos caused by the rivalries between King Charles, his son Ferdinand and his chief minister Godoy. He arrived just as Charles briefly abdicated in favour of his son, who became King Ferdinand VII. A short time later Charles renounced his abdication, and Murat had to decide which of the two monarchs to acknowledge. He decided to stick with Charles for the moment, but he was saved from having to make any further decisions by Napoleon's arrival at Bayonne. The original reason for this visit was a Bonaparte family conference, but Napoleon took the chance of intervening in Spain. Charles, Ferdinand and Godoy were all called to Bayonne, and Murat played a part in convincing Ferdinand to attend. Napoleon then applied constant pressure to the Spanish royals. Ferdinand secretly agreed to abdicate, Charles then decided to return the throne to his father, and Napoleon declared them both deposed.

Murat was present in May 1808 when Madrid rose against the French, and took command of the brutal suppression of the revolt. He was then taken ill, so wasn't at his best when widespread revolts broke out across Spain. Napoleon dictated the French response, so Murat can't take the blame for the poor French performance, which reached a low point when General Dupont was forced to surrender at Bailen.

Murat had wanted to be appointed King of Spain, but instead Napoleon chose to move his brother Joseph from Naples to Spain. In return Murat was appointed as King of Naples, officially taking over on 1 August 1808. This was a lucky escape for Murat, who thus avoided any further involvement in the disaster in Spain.


Murat took his role at Naples seriously, but took some time to realise that he wasn't really an independent monarch. He was able to reform the dreadful Neapolitan military, and was able to retake the Island of Capri, then held by the British. However an attempt to recapture Sicily in 1809 failed, at least in part because Napoleon refused to provide French troops to support the invasion.

Russian Campaign

In 1812 Murat was recalled to the army to take part in the invasion of Russia. He was given overall command of the cavalry, a role that didn't suit him. He advanced at great speed, but took very little care of his horses, and the French cavalry began to fall apart well before the famous retreat from Moscow.

Russia 1812 - The Road to Moscow
Russia 1812
The Road to Moscow

At the start of the campaign Napoleon's main aim was to prevent the two Russian armies, under Generals Bagration (in the south) and Barclay de Tolly (in the north), from uniting, and defeating them individually. It was clear that this was going to be harder than expected on the very first day of the invasion, when Murat's cavalry failed to find any evidence of Russian outposts. In the first few days of the invasion Murat advanced at great speed towards Vilna, and after a delay caused by problems on the flanks, he occupied the city on 28 June. He was then sent against Barclay de Tolly, while the main army attempted to intercept Bagration.

Attempts to catch Bagration failed, and so in July Napoleon turned his attention to Barclay de Tolly. At this point Barclay de Tolly decided to retreat from an isolated position at Drissa on the River Dvina and move to Vitebsk, where he hoped to join up with Bagration. He thus ordered General Osterman-Tolstoy to fight a delaying action west of Vitebsk. This triggered the battle of Ostrovno (25-26 July 1812), which saw Murat's cavalry held up for two days, allowing Barclay de Tolly to escape before Napoleon could attack (greatly helped by Napoleon's decision to wait for a day to allow more of his troops to arrive).

Murat didn't perform well at the first battle of Krasnyi (14 August 1812), a key moment in Napoleon's Manoeuvre of Smolensk. The plan was to advance around the southern flank of the Russian army, reach Smolensk, and cut the road to Moscow, but the Russians had left some troops on the south bank of the Dnieper. Murat launched 30-40 small scale cavalry attacks on these Russian troops, and refused to allow Ney's infantry to join the attack. As a result the Russians were able to escape from the trap. As a result the fighting at Smolensk itself (17 August 1812) was something of an anticlimax. Once again Napoleon decided to halt for a day to allow more troops to arrive, and once again this allowed the Russians to escape.

The French didn’t do much better at the battle of Valutino (19 August 1812), where again a stubborn Russian rearguard held up Murat's advance.  Junot's performance here was poor, despite Murat's efforts to get him to attack. 

Murat was in the thick of the fighting at Borodino (7 September 1812), having to take shelter amongst some Wurttemberg troops at one point during the battle for the fleches. Late in the day his cavalry came close to breaking the Russian lines, and Murat sent a message to Napoleon asking him to commit the Guard. Napoleon nearly agreed, but then changed his mind. Murat made a second attempt, sending his chief of staff Belliard to argue his case, but Napoleon stuck to his ground. Towards the end of the battle, when another possible chance to break the Russians appeared, Murat changed his mind, and supported Napoleon's decision not to risk the only intact unit in the army.

In the aftermath of the battle Murat had some success against the Russian rearguard on 10-11 September. At midnight on 14 September, dressed in one of his more flamboyant uniforms, he was one of the first Frenchmen to enter Moscow.

The French spent over a month in Moscow, hoping that Tsar Alexander would begin negotiations. Murat was given the task of organising a cavalry screen outside the city, where for some time there was no fighting. When the Russians did decide to attack the French were thus caught totally by surprise (battle of Vinkovo, 18 October 1812). General Sebastiani's camp was overrun by the Russians, but elsewhere the French managed to hold on. The Russian attack did finally convince Napoleon that he couldn't spent any longer in Moscow.

When the retreat did begin Murat wanted the army to return along a southern route through Smolensk. At first Napoleon also wanted to use the southern route, but he changed his mind after a clash with the Russians at Maloyaroslavets, and the army retreated back along the route it had used on the way in. This took them through areas that had already been stripped of any available supplies, and saw the almost total destruction of the army.

In early December Napoleon decided to return to France, leaving the army to its fate. Murat was given command of the remains of the army, but he was deeply reluctant to accept the post. He commanded the army for a short time, without much success, but then handed command over to Eugène de Beauharnais, and returned to Naples.

Germany, 1813

Early in 1813 Murat opened secret negotiations with the Austrians and British, hoping that he could remain king of Naples if Napoleon fell. Rumours of these talks reached Napoleon, but in 1813 he needed every capable commander he could get for the campaign in Germany. Murat was recalled to the army once again, and fought at Dresden, Liebertwolkwitz and Leipzig.

At Dresden (26-27 August 1813) he commanded a temporary corps that was placed on the French right (west of the city). He defeated General Bianchi's Austrian corps, capturing 13,000 prisoners and destroying the entire corps.

Murat was then given command of II, V and VIII Corps and two cavalry forces and sent to intercept the Austrian Army of Bohemia. Murat then found himself facing around 240,000 men under Schwarzenberg and Benningsen, but he managed to conduct a skilful retreat (aided by Schwarzenberg's slow pace). The resulting battle of Liebertwolkwitz (14 October 1813) was the largest cavalry battle of the 1813 campaign. Murat's massive cavalry force clashed with the Army of Bohemia in an encounter battle in which Murat was nearly captured twice, but still managed to hold his own and eventually the French infantry drove off the allied cavalry.

At Liepzig Murat commanded 12,000 cavalry in a massive attack on the Allied centre, originally intended as part of a larger attack (this part of the overall fight is also known as the battle of Wachau). Part of the cavalry got close to Tsar Alexander, but Murat failed to support the attack properly, and the moment passed.


After the massive French defeat at Leipzig Murat returned to Naples, and early in 1814 he officially changed sides, allying himself with the Emperor's opponents. The move was made on 11 January 1814 and reached Napoleon in early February. Murat even led the 35,000 strong Neapolitan army north to threaten Eugène de Beauharnais, Napoleon's regent in northern Italy, but he didn't actually commit to combat, and sent envoys to Napoleon.

In the aftermath of Napoleon's first abdication Murat's position became increasingly shaky. The Austrians had no commitment to the Bourbons of Naples, but the British had supported them. Murat's representatives were refused a seat at the Congress of Vienna, where the future of Europe was being decided.

When Napoleon returned from exile at the start of the Hundred Days Murat decided to try and safe his throne by siding with Napoleon. He marched north, claiming that his aim was to unite Italy and expel the newly returned Austrians. He won one battle at the Panaro River (April 1815), but suffered a heavy defeat at Tolentino (2 May 1815), at the hands of a smaller Austrian force led by General Bianchi. He was forced to abandon Naples, and attempted to seek refuge in France. Napoleon refused to offer him a military command during the Waterloo campaign, a serious mistake that greatly reduced the effectiveness of his cavalry at Waterloo.

After Napoleon's second abdication Murat and his family were offered asylum in Austria, but he decided to make one last bid for power. He raised a force of 250 on Corsica and attempted to cross over to Calabria. A storm scattered his fleet, and he found himself isolated at Pizzo. He was arrested by the Bourbons, condemned by a court-martial and executed for disturbing the peace on 13 October 1815.

Murat was remembered as a handsome, dashing cavalry commander, prone to wearing flamboyant costumes, brave but not too bright. He was idolized by many of his troops, although his performance in Russian didn't win him many friends. He made a surprisingly good king, although his Bourbon predecessors in Naples had been fairly dreadful.

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