During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, Great Britain was the only country to never appease France. However, despite this enmity between Britain and France, Étienne Jacques-Joseph-Alexandre MacDonald, one of Napoleon’s Marshals – his 26 most trusted and fiercely competent generals – was a Scot. To many, it would seem he was fighting for the wrong side.
MacDonald was the son of Neil MacEachen (later MacDonald) who hailed from the Isle of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. MacEachen was a fugitive of the failed Jacobite rising, as he had supported the ‘Bonnie’ Prince Charles Stuart in his failed attempts to claim the British throne.
Due to his support for the Bonnie Prince, MacEachen was forced to flee to France, leading to the peculiarity of his son having a French first name (Étienne) and a Scottish surname (MacDonald). Such is the bizarre nature of his ancestry that Napoleon himself joked that he dared not let MacDonald within the sound of bagpipes, lest he defect and join the British.
MacDonald pursued a military career from a young age, joining the Irish Legion and later the regiment of General Dillon (a noted Jacobite) in 1786 aged just 21. He was quickly promoted to sous-lieutenant and showed a natural gift for warfare and leadership.
Thanks to the peculiarities of the Revolution, in which thousands of aristocratic officers fled France, there were plenty of opportunities for promotion. MacDonald rose to general in 1793 and then divisional general in 1796. He also took on more political roles: he was appointed Governor of Rome in 1798 and led the occupation of Naples in March of 1799.
Yet MacDonald’s career was not one of unrelenting success. In 1799, he suffered a major defeat to the Russian Suvorov at Trebbia and was forced to retreat, his army decimated, to Genoa. Similarly, he was ostracised by Napoleon due to his association with General Moreau.
Napoleon had seized power in the Coup of 18 Brumaire (1799), becoming First Consul of France, with the help of Moreau. However, he increasingly grew distrustful of his former ally and sent him away to America. MacDonald was greatly affected by these actions due to his association with Moreau: he did not receive a senior command for many years and was not included in Napoleon’s creation of 18 Marshals (the most senior rank in the army) in 1804. As is so often the case, it was MacDonald’s political failures which held him back, rather than military incompetence.
However, five years later, in March of 1809, MacDonald was suddenly recalled to service and sent to the Army of Italy. That May he fought at the Battle of Piave where he was wounded, but still managed to seize Laibach and Graz. When the Army of Italy then linked up with Napoleon’s main force, they took part in the decisive Battle of Wagram. It was here that MacDonald’s career was made.
His use of cavalry when the French were on the backfoot broke the back of the Austrian line and won them the day. As Napoleon told MacDonald, “You have behaved valiantly…On the battlefield of your glory, where I owe you so large a part of yesterday’s success, I make you a Marshal of France. You have long deserved it.” This was a pivotal moment in the now Marshal MacDonald’s career. He was, at the time, one of only 20 French Marshals – at the pinnacle of modern Europe’s most powerful army.
The Marshals were Napoleon’s most trusted and distinguished commanders, a recognition by the Emperor himself of their military prowess. The Marshalate quickly became the most prestigious sign of the supreme military attainment: each Marshal was entitled to their own baton and special coat of arms, whilst all significant commands within Napoleon’s army were held by Marshals.
Indeed, despite Napoleon’s previous enmity for MacDonald, the two forged a close relationship. When Napoleon abdicated for the first time in 1814, MacDonald was chosen to take news of the abdication to Paris – a testament to the respect which the Emperor had for MacDonald. Similarly, Napoleon presented MacDonald with the saber of Murad Bey – the Mameluke leader whom Napoleon had defeated in Egypt whilst he was beginning his military career.
However, when Napoleon returned from exile on Elba in 1815, MacDonald refused to support his old Emperor. Instead, he stayed loyal to the Bourbon regime and continued to do so after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Due to his loyalty to the new regime, he retained his titles, was awarded the honour of a peer of France and enjoyed a peaceful retirement at his country home – the Château de Courcelles-le-Roy – until his death in 1840 aged 74.
That the son of a Scottish immigrant reached the very top of the French army is what makes MacDonald such a uniquely fascinating individual. Whilst he may not share the notoriety of Napoleon’s other Marshals, such as Davout and Ney, MacDonald was nonetheless a superb strategist, who was present at and influential in many of the most consequential historical events of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Chandler, D., 1987. Napoleon’s Marshalls. Macmillan.
Macdonald, E.J.J.A., trans. Hache, J.D. and Stiubhart, D.U., 2010. The French Macdonald: Journey of a Marshal of Napoléon in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland: The 1825 Travel Diary of Jacques Etienne Joseph Alexandre Macdonald. Islands Book Trust.