Joseph Souham was born at Lubersac on 30 April 1760 into the family of nine children of Joseph and Marie Dandaleix de Frémont. His father died when Souham was ten years old. The child developed a pronounced stutter, preventing advanced study, but he did learn to read and write. On 17 March 1782 Souham enlisted as a private in Louis XVI’s elite 8th Cavalry Regiment. He served in this unit, where exceptional height was a prerequisite, from 1782 to 1790. Souham was 6 feet 6 inches tall.
Once Souham realized in 1792 that war was imminent, he joined the 2nd Volunteer Battalion of Correze, which fought against Prussia and Austria. He was promoted to second lieutenant colonel on 16 August 1792 and participated in the Battle of Jemappes on 6 November 1792 and at the siege of Dunkirk in 1793. On 30 July of that year, Souham was appointed as général de brigade. Three weeks later he became commander of a 30,000-strong division under General Jean-Charles Pichegru, who commanded the Army of the North. Souham served alongside General Jean Victor Moreau, who commanded 20,000 men. The two commanders became fast friends.
On 29 April 1794, accompanying Pichegru during the campaign in the Austrian Netherlands (present-day Belgium), Souham showed initiative and audacity at Courtrai. A four-hour battle, ending with a French bayonet charge, secured Souham’s victory over the Austrians. On 16 May the Austrian, British, and Hanoverian forces merged into one large command. Two days later they attacked the French positions near Tourcoing, the town itself being the headquarters of Frederick Augustus, Duke of York. The British were repulsed by Souham’s brilliant strategy, and the Austrian commander Feldzeugmeister Franz de Croix Graf von Clerfayt retreated with 20,000 troops after losing 5,500 men and six guns. Souham lost 3,000 men and six guns. The French went on to take all the areas west of the Rhine. The Austrians were pushed across the river Meuse.
In October 1794 Souham defeated the British at `s Hertogenbosch (Bois le Duc). The following month Pichegru and Souham captured the Dutch fortress of Nijmegen, an encounter during which Souham’s troops fought with distinction. Pichegru and Souham captured the Dutch fleet at Texel, as well as Amsterdam, which in reality was ready to accept the French “liberators.” The Dutch Republic was renamed the Batavian Republic and became a satellite of France. In all, the Army of the North won ten victories in its campaign to occupy the Dutch Republic, in the course of which it took 2,500 prisoners, 2,000 pieces of artillery, a dozen flags, and six fortresses.
Souham joined Moreau and the Army of the Rhine in 1798, and he was instrumental in preventing the treachery of Pichegru from affecting the French cause. He defeated the Allies at Pfullendorf and Stockach in March 1799, but soon thereafter was suspected of involvement in royalist schemes, as a result of which he was exiled to his estate. When the courts found no evidence of complicity, Souham was restored to command in 1800, serving under Moreau in the campaign in Germany, where he acquitted himself honorably at Blaubeuren.
In 1804 Souham fell afoul of Napoleon. He was imprisoned for three days in the Temple (the medieval prison in Paris that had held the royal family) and implicated in royalist intrigues, specifically, as a co-conspirator in the duplicities of Moreau and Pichegru. He endured further disgrace for allegedly participating in the revolt of Chouan leader Georges Cadoudal. After Napoleon had Cadoudal executed, Souham remained on his estates, where he hospitably welcomed anyone who came to visit.
He was reinstated in 1808 and played a notable role in the Peninsular War, serving under Marshal Laurent Gouvion St. Cyr in Catalonia. Souham distinguished himself at Lampoudan in November 1808, the siege of Rosas (7 November-4 December), Cardedeu (16 December), and Molins de Rey (21 December). He fought admirably at Valls and Reus on 25 February 1809, at Vich and San Colona in April 1809, and at the siege of Gerona in December of that year. In 1810 he served at Rippol in January and at Vich on 20 February, where he received a severe wound on the left temple. His participation in so many actions earned him the title of count. In 1812 Souham received command of the army formerly under Marshal Auguste de Marmont after the latter’s defeat at Salamanca in July 1812, and greatly bolstered his reputation when he forced the Earl (later Duke) of Wellington to retreat from Burgos. Souham also recaptured Salamanca.
During the campaign in Germany in 1813, Souham distinguished himself at Weissenfels on 29 April and fought honorably at the Battle of Lützen on 2 May. He was wounded at the decisive Battle of Leipzig (16-19 October). Souham was awarded the title of Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor for his services to France. In the closing period of the 1814 campaign in France, Souham was expected to guard Paris with the 2nd Reserve Division, which had been reduced to a contingent of a mere 500 men, although he had been promised 2,000. He was unfairly held responsible for the ensuing fiasco.
Souham sided with the royalists after Napoleon’s first abdication. Louis XVIII was pleased to welcome Souham to his cause and offered him highly sought-after commands. Souham lost these when Napoleon returned to power; they were reinstituted after Napoleon’s final abdication in July 1815. Souham retired in 1832, and died on 28 April 1837. His name is inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
References and further reading Chandler, David G. 1995. Campaigns of Napoleon. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Connelly, Owen. 1991. The French Revolution and Napoleonic Era. 2nd ed. London: Holt, Rinehart Winston. Glover, Michael. 1978. The Napoleonic Wars: An Illustrated History, 1792-1815. New York: Hippocrene. Hutt, Maurice. 1983. Chouannerie and Counter-Revolution: Puisaye, the Princes and the British Government in the 1790s. 2 Vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Israel, Jonathan I. 1998. The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall, 1477-1806. Oxford: Clarendon. Palmer, R. R.”Much in Little: The Dutch Revolution of 1795.” Journal of Modern History 26 (March 1954): 15-35. Rose, J. Holland. 1911. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Era: 1789-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Schama, Simon. 1992. Patriots and Liberators: Revolution in the Netherlands, 1780 -1813. London: Fontana.