Voyage to America by Monsieur J P Bechaud

A letter from J P Bechaud, a French officer, as he travels through Switzerland to Milan to take up his assignment as commander of a battalion of foreigners being sent to the West Indies. This letter was written to his mother on Wednesday 15 December 1802:


Letter 3, to the same, Milan, the 24 frimaire, Year 11.
My dear mother, I arrived at Basle on the 8th and lodged at The Swan. I was a little tired. I was not a little surprised the next day when the innkeeper brought the bill, so I went to the castle to ask the commandant for a pass which would exempt me, as it exempts all French officers, from paying for food and lodging.  The commandant was, I discovered, one of my old colleagues from the 88th and he welcomed me warmly, granted my request and had Commissioner Blanchard from Hunningues organise a coach, drawn by two horses, and all my accommodation and food provided for, all for free and covering my journey as far as our Italian territories. This was some recompense for the fatigues and perils that being a soldier usually involves. I stayed in Basle for 36 hours, and made the acquaintance of Saisenfeld, scion of one of Frankfurt’s great banking houses. He gladly accepted my offer of a place in my coach to Milan as he was going there to purchase silk.

We slept at Harrebourg on the 9th and, a little further on, visited the chateau belonging to the Counts of Hapsburg who, since Rudolph of that name, have, from the 13th century onwards, also been emperors of Austria. Two German actresses we encountered in our inn amused us a great deal. On the 10th we arrived at Lucerne very early in the morning. I took my companion to see a Swiss baron who owned an astonishing collection on Natural History as well as maps detailing the Swiss cantons and allied territories. This worthy baron talked with enthusiasm about the famous Lavater and his work on Physiognomy, and quoted from the works of that great nature lover. With our souls satisfied by meeting such a venerable old man, we then went off to meet General of Brigade Seras (Jean-Mathieu Seras, 1765 to 1815), then commanding the French troops at Lucerne who were operating against the rebels from the cantons of Zug, Glarus and Unterwalden. The general asked me whether I knew Commandant Weiland who had served with distinction in the Vaud territories and had dispersed a body of rebels from Lausanne. On hearing that that brave officer had indeed been my friend and comrade, General Seras showered kindnesses upon us, and went to the trouble of providing us with two additional horses to enable to get us through the Gothard pass.  We might not have been able to without such help. On the morning of the 11th, we visited some of the area around Lucerne and studied, with some awe, and some horror, the sheer walls of rock which surround the town and the lake. Two bridges have been built over the lake in such a way as to form an angle in front of the town. It was at noon that we embarked on a little boat to take a tour of the lake. After some three hours of very pleasant sailing the sky suddenly grew overcast and a strong northerly wind began to blow, the mountains making the wind howl terribly. Then the storm broke loose, just as we were close by William Tell’s chapel, as though nature wanted to remind us that it was just such a storm that had permitted the Swiss hero to escape from Gessler’s henchmen, and go on to liberate his countrymen from the Austrian yoke.

The waves were now of Atlantic proportions and they were pushing us to the far shore, despite our efforts. Our pilot, sensing that discretion was the better side of valour, put in at a sparsely-populated village. From there it was a six-mile walk through the mountains until we reached another village, this time on the easterly shore of the lake. Here we were lodged and delighted to find ourselves amongst men who, despite being humble men of the mountains, had a perfect understanding of politics, and of geography.

On the 12th the village clerk and my adjutant were kind enough to fetch the boat so that we were able to get to Altdorf, the Canton of Uri’s principal town. We found that two thirds of it were still in ruins following the battle between General Lecourbe [1771-1816, Claude-Jacques] and Suvorov who had arrived too late to save Korsakov from being chased out of Zurich by Massena. From there, using a coach and two horses, which were to take us as far as Wassen, which we were to reach that evening, although not without difficulty and without having made it as far as the Devil’s Bridge before nightfall. We spent the night on the night struggling to keep our horses alive. At Wassen we met with a number of travellers who intended to form up in a kind of caravan so that they could cross the Gothard Pass together. They did this for added security, and also to more easily overcome any obstacles.  The mayor of the place delayed my departure, so but on Sunday the 13th we set off, making our way through mountains of snow. As we passed through Andermatt I realized I had lost my wallet and so stopped the convoy. I found it, after staggering through snow which was up to my knees. Truly, no mortal would have survived alone in such a place, the cold would have killed him or he would have succumbed to some other danger, the sheer drop on one side of the road was enough to fill one with horror. It had been the fate of a party of 40 travellers who, some days before, had been swept away by some high winds, with two thirds of them being killed. We put in at a horrible inn by the monastery to eat some bread and cheese then set off once again, heading for Airolo, which we reached on the 14th. We slept at Bellinzona, a grey but busy little town, on the 15th. I recognized we were following the route taken by generals Loison and Lecourbe as they came out of Switzerland to blockade Milan and the Milanese who were, at that time, under Austro-Russian rule. After having passed through more ice, we had a splendid view of the lake before descending to the commercial centre of Lugarno. We lodged at Lugarno with a relative of General Mainoni [Joseph-Antoine-Marie-Michel] and spent several hours admiring the beautiful houses which formed a kind of amphitheatre overlooking the lake. We then set off, by the light of the moon, and traveling at a sedate pace, until we reached Capo di Lago. We spent the night in a poor hostelry, it was so bad that we were even woken in the middle of the night by some dregs of humanity. I got out of bed angrily, and set about them with my cane, as one should. I spoke French to them, as one can in Italy even to such trash. They fled like the rascals they were, and left us in peace.

We met General Mainoni at Como and he remembered that I had commanded under him at Mayence and that I had presented him with some bread as well as my purse so that he could purchase a horse he needed ??? He welcomed me warmly and had things arranged so that we would be taken to the gates of Milan.

It was in that famous city that I returned to the place where the fort once stood and which had been demolished to make way for the Forum of Bonaparte. The memory of being one of the last defenders of Milan pleased me greatly. I was warmly received by General Murat and he had drawn up, with General Charpentier, all the documents that were necessary for the organization of the 2nd Foreign Battalion. On the way to Milan, and in the city itself, I made a number of business contacts but I will not bore you with the details. I am going to Cremona now and from there I will write to Francois. I embrace you with all my heart.

Bechaud then spent some time in northern Italy, arranging to sell cloth for his mother, and preparing his foreign legion for an expedition to the West Indies. This letter was written to [Michel] Veilande [1767-1845], Major in the 87th Regiment based at Milan, on 10 February 1803.

Well my good friend, my foreign legion is on the road to Genoa. I will embark with it, without hesitating for a moment. You know that I could live a live free from the military but something draws me to this, the finest of all professions in the world. I must face all the disagreeable aspects of such a life with courage. Will I be recompensed for that? I very much doubt it. You know that has been the case until now, and that in Year 4 I should and could have replaced Nommette as chef du bataillon and in Year 7, following the operations I conducted along the Maine and the Loire I should have been made adjutant-general at least at the fall of the old directory. You, as much as anyone, know that I merited this, as we fought together and you saw me sacrifice much. Well, my dear friend, I place my trust in General Murat who has praised the work I have put in to organising my unit and has given me his word of honour that he will seek to have me promoted to chef du battalion. He said I would have confirmation of my nomination to that rank shortly after our arrival at Saint Domingue. I hope he keeps to his word, but I will preserve that little scrap of paper whilst I wait and, as usual, will continue to try to merit such favour as I do my duty. You can perhaps guess how much work I have when I tell you that I have no adjutant-major or quarter master. I supply, discipline and train the men, all because I have to and feel compelled to, and without costing the government an extra penny.

Leaving Europe means that I am forced to quit the best, the most loyal and bravest of my friends, the one who, even when the times have been the most difficult, has not hesitated to support me. The recollection of you will give me hope, and you will be forever in my hear whatever hemisphere I inhabit. I have had the good fortune to have another loyal friend, someone who resembles you. It is my surgeon, de Dale ….? He is young, intelligent, brave, honest (an enemy of flattery) and open with his friends. He has a sound character and we share the same tastes and enthusiasms, and perhaps the same vices, and he is endowed with a tremendous memory. That’s my portrait of him and he will, no doubt, be my foremost companion on the expedition, and perhaps he will be my only friend, although I will of course remember to think of the others.

Then, that April, whilst the situation in Saint Domingue was already going sour for the French, the dutiful officer and his German and Polish men prepared to set off. They press ganged some Italians before sailing, just out of spite:

Letter 11, on board the Braque 1 April 1803, to mother. So this is the last time I shall write to you, dear mother, from Europe as here I am onboard the ship that will take me to Saint Domingue. Six days ago the ship, the Braque of 400 tonnes, arrived in this port after having been sent from Marseilles under Monsieur Lacomte. The brig the Nourisse, which will take the Poles and 150 men from my battalion whom I was obliged to leave in the rear and who now will have to catch up with us, is expected soon. In addition to my battalion we will take with us 10 women and a number of men who will seek their fortunes in Saint Domingue, amongst whom is Louis Felence who arrived 24 hours ago with his wares and with the leather and calfskin. Your hats which you had sent on from Marseilles will only come later and will probably wait in Genoa, which might be for the good as they will be all the more sought after if they come later.

I must write to all those people from Belfort who forwarded on letters to Nicholas but I have hardly had a minute, so please do excuse my behaviour to them.

Vralier’s wife delivered a fine and strapping son last night. I had the mother brought up from the depths of the ship by means of some pulleys and sent her onshore with her newborn, her husband and the other children.

My final few days in Genoa were marked by a false alarm, which I sparked amongst the Genoese troops. I had placed sentries at the bank, where the merchants gather. But nobody had warned the soldiers of the Doge’s Guard and they very nearly opened fire. I made haste to smooth things over and calmed the Genoese down. That night I had my revenge on those who had done us wrong and insulted my unit. I sent some charlatans onshore and lured some 70 men from the grenadiers and the artillery of the government’s Guard on board. They will come and take a look at the blacks with me.

Bechaud’s full account of his time in the West Indies and America, entitled a Voyage to America, can be seen here in manuscript form.