The remains of one of Napoleon’s favorite generals appears to have been found in Smolensk, Russia, and it turns out locals may have been dancing on his grave, literally, for years.
Andrew Osborn at Reuters reports that on July 6, a team of Russian and French archaeologists uncovered a casket containing remains underneath the outdoor dancefloor of a Smolensk park with the same unique pattern of injuries ascribed to Charles Étienne Gudin. They believe with a “high degree of probability” that the corpse is that of the French officer.
Napoleon knew Gudin from childhood, and he put a large amount of trust in the man who turned out to be one of his most accomplished generals. “Napoleon was one of the last people to see him alive which is very important, and he’s the first general from the Napoleonic period that we have found,” French historian and archaeologist Pierre Malinovsky told the local newspaper.
The find wasn’t just accidental, according to Maria Katasonova, vice chair of the foundation supporting the dig. The team was specifically looking for his remains.
“He was mortally wounded at a Battle of Valutino and, according to various sources in Russia and in France, he was buried right here,” she told Russian outlet Sputnik News.
Gudin was given his first command in 1799, and was instrumental in Napoleon’s conquest of Europe. But it came at a cost. Over the course the campaigns, he was repeatedly injured, and in his final battle lost one leg and sustained serious wounds to another. Those specific injuries are what make researchers believe the body is the general’s.
To be sure, the archaeologists say, they will test the DNA of the remains, a process which could take months.
So how did a famous general, whose name appears on the Arc de Triomphe, end up buried in a Russian park? Napoleon had no real desire to attack Russia, but in 1810, Alexander I began trading with Great Britain. Napoleon had, by that time, already implemented the Continental System, which included a trading embargo designed to weaken Great Britain, one of Napoleon’s primary enemies. To get the Russian ruler back in line, Napoleon led the Grande Armée across the Nieman River into Russia's imperial territory in June of 1812.
The goal was to win a few quick, decisive victories and force Russia to the negotiating table, but the Russian army of roughly 200,000 kept pulling back, drawing the French forces—numbering an estimated 450,000 to 645,000 soldiers—deeper into its territory. As the Tzar’s forces retreated, they torched military stores; peasants also destroyed crops, making it difficult for Napoleon’s soldiers to find food. As the summer wore on, disease also began to move through the French ranks.
The Russians did make a brief stand at Smolensk, and on August 19, a force of about 30,000 French troops clashed with 40,000 Russian troops at the Battle of Volutino. Gudin led one of the divisions in the assault and was hit by a cannonball, which smashed his legs. He died a few days later of the wounds. His heart was cut from his chest and sent home, where it was interred at the chapel at Pere Lachaise cemetery. The rest of his body, however, was buried in Smolensk.
Fatefully, the campaign continued on, with the Russians making a stand at Moscow before once again retreating, leaving the city to the French Emperor. By October, however, Napoleon’s army had dwindled to just 100,000 troops, and he realized he could not hold the city or continue on in Russia. An early winter had set in by November, and the ragged remains of the French army straggled back toward home, with thousands dying from cold, hunger and disease.
That defeat convinced some nations under Napoleon’s control, including Austria, Prussia, and Sweden to join Russia and Great Britain in opposing Napoleon. Another round of epic battles ensued. Eventually, Napoleon was defeated and forced into exile in 1814 and was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. After that, he was banished to the extremely remote island of St. Helena, where he died in 1821.