After his shocking defeat at Leipzig, all that stood between a sullen Napoleon Bonaparte and France was a lone Austro-Bavarian army at Hanau.
by Matthew R. Lamothe
Tired, hungry, and typhoid-ridden, the French veterans in the Grand Army of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte staggered through the Fulda Gap in central Germany on October 27, 1813. They and their emperor had suffered a crushing defeat eight days earlier in Saxony at the titanic Battle of Leipzig at the hands of the Allied powers of Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Sweden. Napoleon had reacted to the unaccustomed defeat by withdrawing southwest to the French-held city of Erfurt, which he reached on October 23. While his ever-resolute rear guard kept them at bay, Napoleon intended to counterattack the pursuing Austrian and Prussian armies. He still had 70,000 men under arms and felt that this was more than sufficient to deal the Allies a painful blow.
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The Allied victory at Leipzig had loosened Napoleon’s political control over the Confederation of the Rhine, causing some German member states to break their allegiance to France. It was evident to Napoleon that with each German defection he was in greater danger of encirclement. While in Erfurt the emperor learned that Bavaria, one of the most important former members of the Confederation, was raising an army intent on cutting him off from France. Realizing that he had no other choice, Napoleon gave the order to continue the retreat west toward the Fulda Gap. Despite the typically dreary autumn weather, marauding Russian Cossacks, and constant Prussian pressure on his rear, Napoleon still managed to guide his army through Gotha and Eisenach before finally establishing his imperial headquarters in the village of Hünfeld, just north of Fulda.
Even though victorious, the Allied soldiers pursuing Napoleon were not supermen, and they suffered the same privations that were plaguing their French enemy. The exhausted French soldiers had maintained a marching pace of 20 miles a day, gradually outdistancing the Austrians and Prussians, who maintained a pace just under 19 miles a day. A Prussian cavalry raid conducted on imperial headquarters on October 27 was the last gasp of the Allied pursuit. Not wishing to allow the Allies to catch up, Napoleon issued orders to continue the retreat along a southwesterly route through the Kinzig Valley, eventually ending at Mainz, a vital crossing point on the Rhine River. Once the Rhine was crossed, Napoleon intended to reform the Grand Army on the relative security of French soil.
Following the Kinzig River
Napoleon’s chosen path followed a road along the Kinzig River, which formed the valley bearing the same name. The Grand Army had to pass through the towns of Schlüchtern and Salmünster before reaching a strategic defile located at Gelnhausen. The defile would act as a bottleneck if the Bavarian Army could occupy it before the French Vanguard arrived. Then, if the Bavarians could hold the defile and delay the French long enough, perhaps the Austrian Army of Bohemia could catch up and encircle the French. Otherwise, if Napoleon successfully passed through the Gelnhausen defile, his army could march through the town of Langensebold, eventually arriving at the Lamboy forest. After having gone through the Lamboy forest, the army would follow the road located just north of the French-held town of Hanau and exit the Kinzig Valley. From Hanau, the French would follow the Main River through the city of Frankfurt before reaching Mainz, with France lying tantalizingly on the opposite bank of the Rhine.
While their own troops caught their breath, the Allied commanders were planning their next moves. They realized that Napoleon had two options for reaching France from the Fulda Gap. Either the French would follow a northerly route from Fulda through Wetzlar, eventually reaching the Rhine crossing at Koblenz, or else Napoleon would follow the southerly route through the Kinzig Valley to Mainz. Unbeknownst to the Allies, the emperor had already chosen the second option.
The Veteran Prussian Army Commander
The Prussian Army of Silesia, commanded by 77-year-old Marshal Gebhard von Blücher, was located just north of the French Army between Hünfeld and Bad Hersfeld. Blücher, a determined but tactically challenged commander, predicted that Napoleon would follow the northern route and cross the Rhine at Koblenz. The Prussian marshal also believed that Napoleon would send his sick and wounded soldiers, camp followers, and baggage on the southern route through the Kinzig Valley to Mainz. The commander of the Austrian Army of Bohemia, Field Marshal Karl zu Schwarzenberg, agreed with Blücher’s predictions. As Blücher went chasing French phantoms along the northern route in hopes of attacking Napoleon’s right flank, Schwarzenberg alerted Bavarian General Karl Philipp von Wrede, commander of the Austro-Bavarian Army that was besieging the occupied city of Würzburg on the Main River, of the possible approach of a weak French column north of his location. Wrede’s command was the closest Allied force to the French southern avenue of retreat.
Wrede, an energetic, ambitious officer who possessed a commanding presence, had served in Bavaria’s army in support of Napoleon’s campaigns in Austria and Russia. Despite having been made a Count of the Empire by Napoleon, Wrede felt that he had never gotten due respect from Napoleon’s marshals and developed accordingly into a solidly anti-French politician at the Bavarian royal court in Munich. Prior to the Battle of Leipzig, Wrede had been entrusted by Bavarian King Maximilian I to negotiate a truce with Austria. Under the resulting Treaty of Ried, Wrede created a three-division Bavarian army, which was ordered to march from southern Bavaria to the Main River, placing it in the rear of Napoleon’s army in Saxony. Wrede’s army was reinforced by an Austrian corps under the leadership of Lieutenant Field Marshal Count Fresnel, who placed his men under the Bavarian general’s command as mandated by the recent treaty.
Planning for an Ambush
Wrede marched his combined army north, eventually laying siege to the city of Würzburg on October 24. Within two days Wrede had taken most of the city, forcing the 3,000-man French contingent to seek refuge in the nearby Marienberg fortress. While Wrede’s men secured the city, irregular reinforcements appeared in the Allied camp, namely the Mensdorf Streifkorps, consisting of Russian Cossacks commanded by General Alexander Tshernishev, a Prussian cavalry squadron from the Neumark Dragoon Regiment, and three squadrons of Austrian hussars.
When Wrede received Schwarzenberg’s warning predicting that a disorganized French column, not numbering over 20,000 men, would pass near his location via the Kinzig Valley, the Bavarian general sprang into action. Wrede saw a vulnerable target coming his way and wanted to destroy it—there was no more glory to be had in Würzburg. Wrede planned to set up a cavalry screen between Salmünster and Gelnhausen, which would warn him of the French column’s approach. Another force would be sent to Frankfurt to occupy the crossings over the Main River. Meanwhile, he would take the bulk of his army to Hanau and lie in wait in the Lamboy forest, ambushing the French as they passed through his position.
Frankfurt, then Hanau
Wrede dispatched Austrian Maj. Gen. von Volkmann to the Gelnhausen-Salmünster area in the Kinzig Valley to throw up roadblocks across the main road. Volkmann’s command consisted of the 3rd Jäger Battalion and the 2nd Schwarzenberg Uhlan Regiment. Wrede won the race to Gelnhausen when Volkmann occupied the defile, but the Bavarian commander didn’t seem to realize its significance as a bottleneck. Wrede was more concerned with laying his trap in the Lamboy forest.
Leaving a large enough force to keep an eye on the Marienberg fortress, Wrede took the bulk of his army northwest along the Main River to the city of Aschaffenburg, just to the southeast of Hanau. The march to Aschaffenburg was rapid, causing some weary Bavarian soldiers to fall out. After establishing his camp at Aschaffenburg, Wrede ordered Lt. Gen. Count Rechberg to take his Bavarian 1st Division, numbering approximately 10,000 men, to occupy Frankfurt. The next day, Wrede would occupy Hanau with the rest of his army, numbering 33,000 infantry, 10,000 cavalry, and 100 cannon. In their haste to leave Würzburg, Wrede’s staff had committed a grave error. The officer in charge of the artillery ammunition reserve was not informed of the march to Aschaffenburg and remained at Würzburg, depriving Wrede’s artillery of badly needed ammunition.
The Layout at Hanau
Hanau, a walled town of 15,000 citizens belonging to the Grand Duchy of Frankfurt, was located at the confluence of the Kinzig and Main Rivers, 29 miles from Mainz. The now-swollen Kinzig River formed the northern and western borders of Hanau. The river could be crossed by two vital bridges—the Kinzig bridge located at the northwest corner of Hanau, and the Lamboy bridge in the middle of a soggy plain located between the town and the Lamboy forest. Just north of the Lamboy bridge was a cluster of farmhouses called the Neuhof; to the south of the bridge was another cluster called the Lehrhof. The Main River flowed just south of Hanau before emptying into the Rhine at Mainz. To the northeast of the town was a hill that commanded the plain leading to the forest. The plain itself, approximately half a mile wide, was bordered to the north by the Puppen forest, to the east by the Lamboy forest, and to the southeast by the Bülau forest. The Lamboy forest was passable by the main road from Gelnhausen and by many woodcutters’ tracks that crisscrossed the woods. The main road exited the forest and passed just north of Hanau without actually entering the town itself. Hanau was a busy traffic hub, linking Frankfurt to the roads from Fulda, Friedberg to the north, and Aschaffenburg to the southeast.
The French garrison in Hanau, consisting of a hussar regiment and an artillery battery, had become demoralized as wounded French soldiers passed through town and spread the word about the defeat at Leipzig. The waterlogged fortifications were in a state of disrepair. It was questionable if the garrison would put up much of a fight.
On the morning of October 28, the French vanguard galloped through the town of Schlüchtern on its way to Austrian-held Salmünster. Riding point for the French was the 4th Light Cavalry Division, commanded by General Rémy Exelmans, part of Corsican General Horace Sébastiani’s II Cavalry Corps. Sébastiani was ironically nicknamed “General Surprise” by some of his cavalry troopers due to his perceived lack of tactical skill. On this day, however, General Surprise demonstrated some real tactical know-how as his cavalry pushed through the roadblock at Salmünster and continued on to Gelnhausen.
Upon reaching Gelnhausen, Sébastiani’s cavalry was confronted by Austrian hussars and uhlans supported by the 3rd Jäger Battalion. Realizing that he was at a tactical disadvantage due to a lack of infantry support, Sébastiani ordered the commander of the 23rd Chasseurs à Cheval Regiment, the famed Colonel Marcellin Marbot, to dismount his troopers and attack on foot with their carbines. In short order the Austrian cavalry was chased from the area, while Marbot forced the Austrian light infantry out of Gelnhausen.
This article is from the April 2005 issue of Military Heritage Magazine. If you would like to read the rest of this and other articles, visit our order page to see which digital editions we have on offer.