At the Battle of Austerlitz, 2 December 1805, Rapp led a charge at the head of the Mamelukes and other Imperial Guard cavalry against a counterattack by the Russian Imperial Guard cavalry. Despite receiving several saber cuts, Rapp repulsed the Russians, capturing many of them, including Prince Repnin shown here.
French general Jean Rapp survived numerous wounds and served as one of Napoleon’s most valued aides. His reputation is one of courage and physical resilience, but Rapp was an intelligent and able administrator as well.
Rapp was born in Colmar on 27 April 1771. His father was a devout Lutheran and had hopes that Jean would someday become a pastor. The young Rapp did receive a good education in preparation for a pastoral career, but his physical strength and adventurous nature led him to join a French cavalry regiment in 1788. He worked his way up the noncommissioned ranks while establishing a reputation for toughness in battle. In two separate actions in 1793, Rapp suffered a saber cut and a bullet wound. He was made lieutenant in 1794. At Ligenfeld on 28 May 1795 Rapp received several saber cuts on his head and left arm.
His conspicuous gallantry made him a desirable aidede-camp, and he was soon on the staff of General Louis Desaix. In this role, he was wounded at Kehl in 1797, and was promoted to captain. Later that same year, Rapp accompanied Desaix to Italy and met General Bonaparte. Rapp was part of the expedition to Egypt in 1798, fighting in virtually every engagement there. He was wounded in the left shoulder at Samahoud, 22 January 1799. Promoted to colonel, he helped in negotiations with the British for the evacuation of French troops remaining in Egypt after Bonaparte’s departure in August 1799. Rapp and Desaix returned to France in May 1800, and both men fought at the Battle of Marengo, 14 June 1800. Desaix was mortally wounded in the battle, and died on the field in Rapp’s arms.
Napoleon made Rapp one of his own aides after the death of Desaix. Rapp served in a variety of roles from 1800 to 1805. He was an intelligence officer, a military inspector, and a diplomatic envoy, and he organized a squadron of Mamelukes in Marseilles for service in Napoleon’s Imperial Guard. Rapp was promoted to general in 1803. As part of Napoleon’s inner circle, he was a friend of Josephine, although plans for a marriage with one of her nieces fell through. Instead, in 1805 Napoleon arranged a marriage for Rapp with fourteen-year-old Rosalie Vanlerberghe, the daughter of an important manufacturer of munitions. Later in 1805, Rapp accompanied Napoleon on his famous Austerlitz campaign. At the Battle of Austerlitz, 2 December 1805, Rapp led a charge at the head of the Mamelukes and other Imperial Guard cavalry against a counterattack by the Russian Imperial Guard cavalry. Despite receiving several saber cuts, Rapp repulsed the Russians, capturing many of them, including Prince Repnin.
After Austerlitz, Rapp was promoted to général de division, and continued gathering intelligence and inspecting military formations. He accompanied Napoleon on the Jena campaign of 1806, and led a charge at Schleiz on 9 October. During the campaign in Poland against the Russians, he was wounded at Golymin on 26 December. The bullet wound almost necessitated the amputation of his left arm, but Rapp refused the operation. In 1807 he became governor of Danzig. Rapp’s organizational abilities were put to use in raising the Polish light cavalry regiment for Napoleon’s Imperial Guard. In 1809 the Emperor made Rapp a count and allowed him to leave his duties in Danzig temporarily, in order to serve with the staff in the campaign against Austria. The general distinguished himself at Aspern-Essling. Also in 1809 Rapp helped stop an assassination attempt on Napoleon by a knife-wielding young German named Staps. The following year, Rapp was briefly out of favor with Napoleon. The general feigned illness in order to avoid attending the marriage of the Emperor and his second wife, Marie Louise. As a friend of Josephine, Rapp did not favor Napoleon’s divorce from her. Rapp’s own arranged marriage ended in divorce in 1811, a process facilitated by the general’s relationship with Julie Boettcher, who bore him two children.
When Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, Rapp initially fulfilled his duties as governor of Danzig, but later rejoined the Emperor’s staff at Smolensk. Rapp fought at Borodino on 7 September, and received three minor wounds and one serious bullet wound in his thigh. During the retreat from Moscow, Cossacks ambushed Napoleon and his staff. Rapp’s horse was killed in the ensuing melee, and the Emperor narrowly escaped being killed or captured. Later in the retreat, Rapp, though suffering badly from frostbite, fought alongside Marshal Michel Ney in the rear guard. Rapp resumed his duties at Danzig after the Russian campaign, and prepared to defend it against imminent attack. Prussian and Russian forces besieged Danzig from January through November of 1813. His garrison decimated by disease, Rapp finally surrendered on terms. He and his men were held as prisoners in and around Kiev until Napoleon’s first abdication in the spring of 1814.
Rapp commanded French forces guarding the Rhine during the Hundred Days in 1815. Napoleon had great faith in his former aide-de-camp, for Rapp had less than 30,000 men with which to face a gathering Allied army of around 200,000 troops. While Napoleon took the main French army into Belgium, Rapp organized a remarkably effective defense in Alsace, using a combination of fortified garrisons and limited counterattacks. He was able to claim a small victory at La Suffel on 28 June. Napoleon had already been defeated at Waterloo ten days earlier. Rapp resigned himself to the Bourbon restoration after Napoleon’s second abdication and exile. Rapp remarried (Mademoiselle Rotberg) and had two more children. He was given some ceremonial posts, but developed cancer and died at the age of fifty on 8 November 1821.
References and further reading
Austin, Paul Britten. 1993. 1812: The March on Moscow. London: Greenhill. —. 1995. 1812: Napoleon in Moscow. London: Greenhill. —. 1996. 1812: The Great Retreat. London: Greenhill. Lachouque, Henry. 1997. The Anatomy of Glory: Napoleon and His Guard. Trans. Anne S. K. Brown. London: Greenhill. Rapp, Jean, comte. Memoirs of General Count Rapp, First Aide-de-Camp to Napoleon. Cambridge: Ken Trotman. (Orig. pub. 1823.)