What most Americans know about the War of 1812 comes from the Star Spangled Banner. They (OK, we) know even less about the OTHER War of 1812, the war which many historians consider our “rockets red glare” one to be a mere minor skirmish when compared to the bloody battles in Europe between France and Russia. If we know anything about Napoleon’s march to the Kremlin with the largest army ever assembled at the time, it’s that ended up in the loss of 500,000 French soldiers and the beginning of the end of Napoleon’s reign. Even worse for the little emperor, he lost his BFF – General Charles-Étienne Gudin – who was hit by a cannonball in the Battle of Valutino near Smolensk. His leg was amputated but the beloved general died three days later of gangrene. His loyal troops removed his heart and brought it back to the devastated Napoleon, who had it buried in a chapel in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. His name is inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe monument in Paris, his bust is in the Palace of Versailles and a street in Paris is named for him, but despite many searches, Gudin’s one-legged body was never found.
Until someone in Smolensk looked under a dance floor.
“My General, I found you with our two French and Russian teams. You Hero who died in 1812 during the battle of valoutina gora. You who have been alongside Napoleon since school. You who had the leg ripped off and who suffered so much for your country. You who have been resting in the land of smolensk for 207 years. Respect to general Charles-étienne gudin, French Hero. One of the greatest days of my life.”
Someone who apparently loves General Gudin almost as much as Napoleon did is Pierre Malinowski, a French historian and former soldier who began searching in Smolensk in May 2019 after reading the memoirs of Louis-Nicolas Davout, Napoleon’s “Iron Marshal” who was eventually disgraced during the retreat from Moscow. According to the BBC, Davout organized the funeral of Gudin in Smolensk and gave a detailed account in his memoirs, including a description of the location. With the help of the Kremlin, gave a detailed description of Malinoski and his team found another eyewitness account which led them to a building in a park where they found a wooden coffin under a former dance floor.
“As soon as I saw the skeleton with just one leg, I knew that we had our man.”
Marina Nesterova, head of the archaeological team, was immediately convinced, but Malinowski wanted unquestionable proof and arranged for the one-legged skeleton to be taken to the Marseille Forensic Institute to run DNA tests.
“My deepest conviction is that it’s him. We hope he can be welcomed back to France with due honours (and be buried alongside Napoleon at the Invalides complex in Paris.)”
Alberic d’Orleans, a descendant of General Gudin, was there when the coffin was opened and will obviously provide DNA samples to the lab, which has already confirmed the skeleton matches Gudin’s size and age.
Will Gudin’s heart be reunited with the rest of him? What would Napoleon do?