General Louis-Vincent-Joseph le Blond, comte de Saint-Hilaire (1766-1809) was one of Napoleon’s best divisional commanders and died just after being promised promotion to Marshal.
St. Hilaire first entered the French army in 1777, and was posted to the West Indies. He fought in the War of American Independence, and was commissioned as an officer in 1783.
St. Hilaire remained in the army after the revolution, and continued to rise in rank. He fought on the Alpine front during the War of the First Coalition, and in September 1795 he was promoted to general de brigade. Throughout his military career St. Hilaire was often found in the thick of the action and he was often wounded. He lost two fingers at the battle of Laono (24 November 1795), but was still with the Army of Italy when Napoleon took command. St. Hilaire fought at the battle of Bassano (8 September 1796) but several days later he was wounded in both legs and had to return to France.
After his recovery St. Hilaire was assigned to the Army Napoleon took to Egypt, but he returned to France before the disastrous end of that invasion. He was promoted to general de division in 1799, and joined the army on the Channel coast in 1803.
He was thus in the right place when that army became the Grande Armée in preparation for Napoleon’s dramatic advance into Austria that ended at Austerlitz (War of the Third Coalition). He commanded the 1st Division in Soult’s IV Corps during that war. His division took part in the attack on the Pratzen Heights that split the Allied army at Austerlitz (2 December 1805). St. Hilaire was wounded during this attack, but was able to return to the army in time for the campaign against Prussia (War of the Fourth Coalition)
At Jena (14 October 1806) St. Hilaire’s division took part in the advance on the French right that helped push part of the Prussian left wing away from the main battle. It then took part in the general attack on the Prussian centre that forced them into retreat. His division then took part in the pursuit across Prussia.
At the battle of Eylau (7-8 February 1807) St Hilaire’s division took part in Marshal Augereau’s disastrous attack on the Russian centre. Augereau’s men became disoriented in a blizzard and advanced into the Russian guns, suffering heavy losses. St. Hilaire’s division wasn’t quite as badly mauled, but his attack also failed. His division was also heavily involved in the battle of Heilsberg (10 June 1807), another costly clash between the French and Russians.
In 1808 St. Hilaire was ennobled as a Comte. His division was posted in Germany with Davout’s III Corps and thus missed the invasion of Spain. This also meant that it was one of the more experienced divisions during the war against Austria of 1809.
St. Hilaire’s division took part in the battle of Teugn-Hausen (19 April 1809), the first battle of the Bavarian phase of the War of the Fifth Coalition. It performed well at the Battle of Eggmuhl (22 April 1809). After the battle St. Hilaire’s division paraded before Napoleon who promised St. Hilaire his marshal’s baton.
St. Hilaire didn’t survive to collect his promotion. During the battle of Aspern-Essling (21-22 May 1809) his staff was hit by grapeshot during Lannes’s retreat. St. Hilaire was badly wounded in the foot, but he refused to let the doctors amputate. An operation to repair the foot failed, infection set in and St. Hilaire died at Vienna on 5 June 1809.
Marbot carried the news of St. Hilaire’s wound to Napoleon and Lannes, both of whom admired St. Hilaire. Napoleon felt his loss keenly, and he was one of an increasing number of Napoleon’s generals who were killed in action, slowly reducing the quality of the French general officer pool.