Following his victory at Bautzen, Napoleon ordered Marshal Nicolas Oudinot to continue the operation against Berlin with the three divisions of his Twelfth Corps. The emperor instructed Oudinot to drive Bülow across the Oder and take the Prussian capital. On 25 May the vanguard of the Twelfth Corps began the march from Bautzen toward Berlin, followed by the main body on the next day. By no means could Oudinot’s force be compared to the impressive army that Ney had led against the Prussian capital only one week earlier. Oudinot’s corps had dwindled during the campaign to a mere 20,000 men. Although equal in numbers to Bülow’s mobile troops, Oudinot’s men possessed one advantage: experience. They had fought at both Lützen and Bautzen.
Oudinot himself may have been the weak link. By 1813 the forty-six year-old marshal, who was brave and fearless to a fault, had received the majority of the thirty-six wounds that marked his career. Oudinot’s real skill lay in commanding a division rather than a corps or an army. Like most of Napoleon’s senior generals, he lacked a true grasp of strategy and did not understand his master’s art of war. When the emperor was not present, Oudinot succumbed to indecision and melted into mediocrity. While in exile on Saint Helena Napoleon once commented that although Oudinot was “a decent fellow, he was not very bright.” Had he realized this in 1813, the campaign in North Germany-and the war itself-might have taken a completely different turn.
Bülow contemplated shifting his forces eastward to the Oder, but events drew his attention back to Saxony. On 26 May the French drove his Cossack outpost from Hoyerswerda. The French force that attacked Hoyerswerda was Oudinot’s advance guard: the Thirteenth Division under Gen. Michel-Marie Pacthod. This northward thrust both concerned and puzzled Bülow. He still placed Victor at Rothenburg, poised to advance down the Oder. His spies around Wittenberg discovered that French troops had recently entered the fortress. These movements made it difficult for Bülow to predict the road or roads the French might take to Berlin. He decided that since Borstell’s and Oppen’s brigades probably equaled the French force at Hoyerswerda, he would have them probe southward but hold his main body in reserve. Borstell received orders to attack the French force at Hoyerswerda by 28 May.
Borstell believed that the French force in Hoyerswerda numbered no more than 7,000 men and 20 guns. He began the advance on the night of 27 May and united with Oppen on the left bank of the Black Elster. During the march Borstell dispatched Colonel von Krafft to create a diversion on the right bank of the Black Elster with 1,800 men and 4 guns. Borstell planned to lead his main force of five and one-half battalions, six squadrons, one and one-half Cossack regiments, and twelve guns on the open terrain along the river’s left bank.
Around 9:00 a. m. two separate combats commenced when the Prussians converged on Hoyerswerda. On the right bank Krafft’s force surprised Pacthod’s eight battalions and eight guns between Neuwiese, Bergen, and the Wasserburg Mill. Borstell’s plan appeared to work perfectly. A surprised Pacthod retreated to Seydenwinkel, chased by Prussian skirmishers. Krafft stormed Seydenwinkel and prepared for Pacthod’s inevitable counterattack. After a Bavarian division arrived, Pacthod recovered from the initial confusion and used his superior numbers to drive the Prussians from Seydenwinkel shortly after 12:00 p. m. Krafft learned that Borstell’s attack had failed and so ordered a retreat; Pacthod only pursued to Bergen.
Meanwhile Borstell had led his 4,500 men to Hoyerswerda. While on the march he received word that an additional 7,000 French troops and 20 guns had moved north through Königswartha on the way to Hoyerswerda during the previous day. Although much exaggerated, this news took some of the fight out of Borstell. As the Prussians neared Hoyerswerda they found an estimated 8,000 French soldiers arranged in battle order on the plain northwest of the village. Borstell unlimbered his artillery on the hills north of the town and ordered a cavalry charge to slow the advance of the French infantry. The Prussian gunners opened fire and found their mark thanks to the charging cavalry that forced the French into squares. According to Oudinot’s chief of staff, Louis-François Lejeune, the Prussians “poured a murderous fire upon us, which mowed down our ranks, and soon compelled Marshal Oudinot himself to take refuge in one of the many squares into which he hastily formed his troops, and in which the grapeshot was working terrible havoc.”
Oudinot had left Lejeune at Hoyerswerda’s southern gate with two battalions, a Hessian cavalry brigade, and all of his artillery, while he led the infantry through the narrow streets to deploy on a wide meadow northwest of the town. Leading his infantry from the front, Oudinot found himself pinned down by Borstell’s artillery. A few staff officers reached Lejeune, who released the reserve. He directed eight twelve-pounders and two battalions to move west around Hoyerswerda and attack the Prussian right wing; a Hessian cavalry brigade covered the advance. Concerned by the estimates of French strength, Borstell convinced himself that this small force was in fact the French reinforcements. He feared that a fresh enemy force of 7,000 infantry was advancing from Klein Neyda to envelop his right wing. Although Borstell was wrong, Oudinot’s corps still doubled the number of Prussians on the field. Oudinot’s heavy artillery had just unlimbered when Borstell ordered a retreat. The two Prussian detachments withdrew northward, but Oudinot did not pursue because he thought that Bülow’s entire corps was present. In the combat the Prussians lost 360 men, while French losses were slightly higher at 450.