Prince Aleksandr Ivanovich Chernyshev
General-of-Cavalry, Minister of War
His Part in the Napoleonic Wars Early in His Career.
(From Voennyi Entsiklopedicheskii Leksikon, 1859, Vol. XX, pages 707-715)
Chernyshev, Serene Prince Aleksandr Ivanovich, general-adjutant, general-of-cavalry, former minister of war and chairman of the State Council, born December 1786. His father, Lieutenant General Ivan L’vovich, served in the military, retiring due to wounds he received in several wars. He died in Moscow holding the rank of senator. Upon his father’s death the young Aleksandr Ivanovich was left with two sisters and his mother, née Lanskaya and formerly a lady-in-waiting for Empress Catherine II. Not wanting to part with her only son, she entrusted his education to the French émigré and abbot Perren, a wise and learned man. Chernyshev, thanks to his rapid development, entered society when he was sixteen and was well received in all of Moscow’s most exclusive homes.
At Emperor Alexander I’s coronation Chernyshev caught the new sovereign’s attention with his intelligence. He was offered the title of cadet of the bedchamber (kammeryunker) at an immediate class 5 rank, but he declined as he explained his desire to enter military service, and so was directly appointed a page of the bedchamber (kammerpazh) at His Imperial Majesty’s court. At the time, this was the first and only instance that this had been done.
In 1802 Aleksandr Ivanovich was promoted to cornet in the Cavalier Guards Regiment and within two years advanced to the rank of lieutenant. Then in 1805, when he was adjutant to the honorary colonel (shef) General Uvarov, he benefited from Emperor Alexander’s special kindness and was allowed to take the field in the campaign against the French. On 20 November of that year he took part in the bloody battle at Austerlitz in which he carried orders for the emperor, who for a long time was in the very center of the Russian forces and under enemy fire.
When decorations were distributed for those who had distinguished themselves in the battle, the sovereign himself named Chernyshev to receive the order of St. Vladimir 4th class with bow.
Later, in the rank of staff-captain and still carrying out these same duties, Chernyshev took part in the war of 1806-07. Here he again had the opportunity to distinguish himself a number of times, taking part in the battles at Laune on 19 February 1807, Ankendorf and Deppen on 25 May, Wolfsdorf on 26 May, Heilsberg on 29 May, and Friedland on 2 June. He rendered exceptional service at the battle of Friedland by searching out a ford that made it possible for an infantry column with its guns and all the cavalry on the right flank to cross to the right bank of the Alle River.
His superiors’ highly favorable reports on his conduct won Chernyshev even more of the sovereign’s attention and trust. In spite Aleksandr Ivanovich’s junior rank and youth, the emperor began to use him for very important assignments, which in turn provided reason for further promotions.
When Graf Tolstoi was appointed ambassador to Paris, Chernyshev was supposed to assigned to the embassy suite, but the emperor kept him with himself, intending to use him for the most important missions. At the age of 21, Chernyshev was chosen by Emperor Alexander for communications with Napoleon. In February 1808 he traveled to Paris with Emperor Alexander’s letter to Napoleon, and had a rather long audience with the French ruler. In less than two months Chernyshev was again dispatched to Napoleon with the news of the start of military operations in Finland and a description of the measures being taken in Russia to curtail trade with England. Having carried out his mission in Bayonne, Chernyshev returned to St. Petersburg carrying a letter in which Napoleon informed Emperor Alexander of his intention to elevate his brother Joseph to the Spanish throne.
In May 1809, following a rift between Austria and France, Chernyshev was sent to Napoleon for a third time and placed at his full disposal. From this time on he was constantly with Napoleon, witnessing the capture of Vienna and taking part in the battle of Aspern, which the French lost. For the affair at Wagram, Chernyshev, who was almost always at Napoleon’s side, received from his hands the gold cross of the Legion of Honor.
Just how difficult Chernyshev’s position could sometimes be, and how much a flexible and agile mind was necessary in stressful situations can be seen from the following episode. When crossing the Danube after the fighting at Aspern, Chernyshev was in the same boat with Napoleon, Berthier, and Generals Savary and Duroc, and Napoleon gave him the task of informing Emperor Alexander of the unsuccessful battle. This mission was all the more difficult since it had to be foreseen that that the letter would be opened and read. After describing the battle in an honest manner, Chernyshev wrote in conclusion: “In a word, the French army’s defeat was such that if the Austrians had had Emperor Napoleon at their head, the destruction of the French would have been inevitable!” All signs indicated that this letter earned Napoleon’s approval, and from this time on the French ruler began to show particular consideration to the young officer. A consequence of his letter about the battle at Aspern was Chernyshev’s appointment as an aide-de-camp to the tsar. The first to inform him of this new expression of his monarch’s benevolence was Napoleon himself, who learned of it in a letter from Emperor Alexander.
After the conclusion of peace Chernyshev remained assigned to Napoleon in the position of Emperor Alexander’s confidante and military and diplomatic agent in Paris. While residing in the French capital, his cleverness and pleasant personality combined with an excellent knowledge of the French tongue enabled him to become well known in the highest Parisian circles, which significantly facilitated the carrying out of his complex duties. In the meanwhile, Chernyshev was promoted to captain in October 1809 and at the end of the following year to colonel. In 1811, when Napoleon had already decided on invading Russia, Chernyshev was recalled from Paris. Subsequently was sent to Stockholm and the Swedish crown prince on an important diplomatic mission.
After returning from Stockholm during Russia’s difficult time as she prepared to enter into battle with Napoleon, Chernyshev was constantly with Emperor Alexander I, commencing from his stay with the army at Vilna to his return to St. Petersburg.
After the Battle of Borodino and the French occupation of Moscow, Chernyshev was sent by the sovereign to Field Marshal Prince Kutuzov and Admiral Chichagov to announce to them the approved plan for a general advance to the Berezina. Soon after arriving at the Army of the Danube, Chernyshev received orders from Admiral Chichagov to go from Brest (the headquarters of the Army of the Danube) with a light horse column to the Duchy of Warsaw and operate in the rear of Prince Schwartzenberg, who was being reinforced with 2000 Austrians. He first went to Biala where he spiked 15 guns, and then to Mendzyrzew and Siedlec to cut the Austrian column’s route, forcing it to return to Modlin. Prince Schwartzenberg, concerned by the Russian appearance in his rear, was obliged to cross over the Bug River. Leaving an observation post facing Schwartzenberg, Chernyshev himself with his small force moved toward Warsaw to threaten it, but before he reached the Vistula, he received an order from Admiral Chichagov to return.
In these operations Chernyshev was for the first time a commander of a partisan column. His actions were appreciated by the Army of the Danube’s commander-in-chief, and Chernyshev, who from this time began to receive from him various similar missions, definitely consolidated his glorious reputation as an swiftly acting officer with initiative. On 25 October, when Chichagov reached Slonim on his march to the Berezina and was informed that Prince Schwartzenberg was several marches ahead of Lieutenant General Sacken, he immediately sent Chernyshev with a cossack regiment to the town of Zelwa in order to delay the enemy. Upon arriving at the named location, Chernyshev learned that General Mohr was coming with a small enemy column to join Prince Schwartzenberg and intended to cross the Nieman River at Mosty and that at the same time bridges over the Zelwa River were already built for the crossing by Prince Schwartzenberg’s troops. Chernyshev destroyed all means of crossing the Neiman and Zelwa rivers and delayed the march of the Austrians and thus gave Chichagov the chance to arrive at the Berezina sooner, to which place various Russian units were heading to block Napoleon’s retreat. After this Chernyshev was given a new mission—to open communications between the Army of the Danube and Graf Wittgenstein. This assignment was carried out in brilliant fashion. Crossing the Nieman at the village of Kolodzinaya, Chernyshev’s force quickly went through the length of Lithuania. On the way he captured four enemy couriers with important papers and freed General-Adjutant Wintzingerode from captivity, along with Major General Svechin, Major Naryshkin, and others. With these persons he arrived at Chashniki where Graf Wittgenstein was, having covered about 300 miles in four and a half days. Such successful actions by Chernyshev could not remain unnoticed, and by a Highest order of 22 November he was promoted to major general with assignment as a general-adjutant to His Imperial Majesty.
When Emperor Alexander I arrived in Vilna, Chernyshev was sent to General Platov to help pursue the enemy. He led the vanguard, and on 31 December with ten cossack regiments he attacked the viceroy of Italy, located at Marienwerder, and forced him from the town and captured 15 guns, one general officer, and 1200 prisoners and sick. This operation ended Chernyshev’s activities in the 1812 campaign. In spite of the short time he was involved in it, his actions succeeded in earning him the sovereign’s appreciative attention plus fame within the army. In this manner, during his eleventh year of service and at the age of twenty-seven, Chernyshev, in the rank of general-adjutant and decorated with many medals, was one of Emperor Alexander I’s companions in the Patriotic War.
In 1813 Chernyshev’s scope of military activities was further widened when having come under Graf Wittgenstein at the beginning of the year, he was assigned as commander of one of his dismounted columns. After successful operations against Polish cavalry under Graf Gedroits at the village of Zirke, at the beginning of February Chernyshev crossed the Oder at Küstrin and at Werneichen joined Colonel Tettenborn’s flying column in order to attack Berlin and force out the 8000 French troops who were there under Marshal Augereau. On 8 February both columns broke into the city from two sides, but the enemy’s numerical superiority obliged them to retreat. Nevertheless, the presence of allied forces near the Prussian capital and their daily attacks forced the French to evacuate Berlin on 20 February, and the city was then occupied by Chernyshev’s and Tettenborn’s columns. Beyond the moral effect of this success, it also had the important consequence of forcing the French to retreat from the Oder to the Elbe. The victory at Marienwerder and the taking of Berlin won the order of St. George 3rd class for Chernyshev.
Coming afterward under the command of General Walmoden, Chernyshev, used to being always in motion, suffered under Walmoden’s long period of inactivity, asking him repeatedly for permission to cross the Elbe and conduct a raid on Hanover where the French reserve artillery under General Brusse was located. It consisted of 150 guns with insignificant covering forces since the enemy considered it safe from attack due to Hanover’s distance from the operational front. Finally receiving permission after many requests and having reinforced his force of 4 hussar squadrons, 6 dragoon squadrons, 5 cossack regiments, and 2 field guns (a total of 2000 men) with two battalions and two squadrons, Chernyshev crossed the Elbe at Ferkland, but on his third march stage he was recalled when the enemy advanced from Magdeburg onto Berlin. On the return march to Demits, Chernyshev learned from an intercepted letter that on 17-18 March an enemy military transport train was moving from Hanover to Magdeburg with a strong escort commanded by the Westphalian General Ochs. Chernyshev quickly hurried to Halberstadt, covering 15 miles in 30 hours [sic] and achieving a decisive victory, the trophies of which were 14 guns, 80 ammunition caissons, and more than 1000 prisoners, including the commander General of Division Ochs and 16 officers. Arriving at Rosslau after the affair at Halberstadt, Chernyshev, formed a plan for a combined attack on Leipzig together with Graf Vorontsov who had been blockading Magdeburg. Chernyshev adroitly deceived the enemy with various false maneuvers and joined Graf Vorontsov at Delitzsch, from where both columns headed to Leipzig. The two generals were already under the walls of the city and preparing to carry out an attack when they received from General Arrighi, the commander in Leipzig, the news that an armistice had been signed, and this obliged our generals to put aside their plans and withdraw to Dessau. During the period of the armistice Chernyshev’s force (15 dragoon squadrons and hussars and 5 cossack regiments with 4 guns, a total of about 4000 men) joined the Army of the North under the command of the Swedish crown prince, and was settled around Wittenberge.
Upon the end of the armistice, Chernyshev was in Belzig to keep Magdeburg, occupied by General Gérard, under observation. On 11 May he took part in the defeat of the French at Gross-Beeren, and four days later during the affair at Hagelsberg his 1200 cossacks successfully moved against the flank of Gérard’s corps of 10,000 as it left the occupied city towards Tsizar, which greatly contributed to the enemy’s complete defeat. After this battle Chernyshev was given the mission of blockading Wittenberge.
While the Army of the North was deployed around Zerbst after the battle of Dennewitz on 25 August, Chernyshev obtained the Swedish prince’s permission to seize Cassel, the capital of the Kingdom of Westphalia, and crossed the Elbe at Aken. At his disposal were 8 squadrons of regular cavalry, 5 cossack regiments, and 6 guns, totaling 2300 men.
On the march to Rosslau Chernyshev learned that at Heiligenstadt was a 2000-strong force under General Bastineller, and he turned left toward Sonderhausen and Mühlhausen. Making a final march of 35 miles, he suddenly appeared at dawn within sight of Cassel, where King Jerome was at the time. After an failed first attack on the city, Chernyshev undertook another on 19 September which was crowned with success. The commander of the French force in Cassel surrendered the city. King Jerome himself barely managed to escape being taken prisoner. The capture of Cassel resulted in the fall of the Kingdom of Westphalia. Such a victory was very important for morale reasons, and raised dampened spirits in Germany everywhere between the Weser and the Rhein. For his taking of the Westphalian capital, Chernyshev was awarded the order of St. Vladimir 2nd class by Emperor Alexander I.
After spending three days in Cassel, he was recalled by the crown prince. But when on the return march he learned of the allied victory at Leipzig, he sent his captured artillery to Berlin while he himself on 10 October turned to the Frankfurt road to intercept the retreating French army. At Buttelstet he had a successful night skirmish with enemy cavalry. Afterwards he joined with Colonel Khrapovitskii’s column and made an attack on Gotha, during which, in addition to a large number of officers and soldiers, he took prisoner the French envoy to the Saxon court, Saint-Enghein.
Since the affair at Buttelstet Chernyshev was constantly in front of the French columns, conducting daily skirmishes with French forces. On 17 October, during the affair at Hanau, he unexpectedly fell on the French from the rear. After this Chernyshev joined the Austro-Bavarian forces of Wrede and was located on end of the left flank in a position in front of Hanau. He took part in the battle of 19 October, but when he was cut off from the main force he was forced to withdraw beyond the Nidda. When the Swedish prince was conducting negotiations with Denmark concerning the transfer of Norway, General-Adjutant Chernyshev gave temporary command of his column over to Balabin and was sent by Emperor Alexander I to the crown prince to tell him that the Army of the North needed to make an immediate advance to the Rhine. On the first day of the new year of 1814, when he had returned to the active army from his visit to the Swedish prince, Chernyshev was commanding Wintzingerode’s vanguard and crossed the Rhine. On 12 January he occupied Liege after a hard fought battle that secured the crossings of the Mass behind him.
From Liege Chernyshev moved with Wintzingerode’s vanguard through Namur toward Laon. On the way he took the fortress of Aven. On 29 January he came within sight of Laon, which capitulated after a feeble display of resistance that gave Chernyshev 20 guns and 200 prisoners. The dangerous situation of the corps of Sacken and Yorck who had been forced to cross to the right bank of the Marne River and were between the 10,000-strong corps of Mortier and the 7000 men of the Soissons garrison, made it necessary for Chernyshev to move towards Soissons. On 2 February, he attacked the city, whose commandant, General Rusca, was already preparing to march forth to cut off the allied general. In spite of the enemy’s numerical superiority, the stubborn resistance of the garrison, and General Rusca’s courage, the city was taken by storm. Enemy losses included the capture of 14 guns, 2 generals, 180 field and company-grade officers, and more than 300 lower ranks. Rusca himself was killed. The capture of Soissons made possible the unmolested withdraw of the Army of Silesia and won Chernyshev the rank of lieutenant general.
On 24 February Chernyshev was ordered to cover Field Marshal Blucher’s retreat to Laon. With two brigades and 24 guns he took up a strong position at Etouvelles, the repulsed the enemy vanguard’s commander, Ney, three times, but on the night of 24-25 February he was suddenly attacked from the rear and withdrew in good order to the Laon position. On the following day, in battle at Laon, he twice took the village of Clacy from the enemy, and then pursued him and had a sharp cavalry action with Marshal Marmont at the village of Berry-au-Bac, forcing him to retreat to Château-Thierry with a loss of 500 men.
After joining the leading forces of the main allied army, on 12 March Chernyshev by Highest order was detached with a strong column to discover any enemy movements between the Marne and Aube towards Montierander. Having carried out this assignment, on 17 March he caught three infantry battalions at Villeneuve-l’Archevêque and defeated them, taking more than 250 men prisoner. Afterwards he crossed the Yonne and Loing rivers, and on the 19th, near Malzerb, he fell upon an enemy artillery park and took 22 guns and inflicted about 600 casualties. At this precise moment the capture of Paris put an end to military operations.
Napoleon’s escape from Elba brought our troops to France for a second time. As the Russian forces were crossing the Rhein, Chernyshev was sent with a flying column to raid the enemy lines of communication. He quickly crossed the Moselle and Meuse rivers, penetrated into French territory, and cleared the whole region between the Seine and Marne. With only cavalry under his command, on 19 June he attacked the city of Châlons and took it, seizing 6 guns from the enemy and taking 500 men and 29 officers prisoners.
When the Russian forces returned home in 1819, Chernyshev was first named a member of the committee for organizing the Don Host, and then of the 18 August 1814 Committee for the Wounded. In a short time Chernyshev’s services in the administrative and civil sphere won him the order of St. Alexander Nevsky, the addition of diamonds to this award, and in 1821 the assignment of chairman of the committee for organizing the Don Host. That same year he was appointed commander of the Guards Light Cavalry Division. In this position Chernyshev regularly received expressions of the Monarch’s appreciation for his troops’ appearance and good order.
With the ascension of Emperor Nicholas Pavlovich to the throne in 1825, new monarchical favor raised Chernyshev to the level of the government’s highest servitors. On 22 August 1826, coronation day, he was elevated to a count [graf] of the Russian empire. In that same year he was instructed by Highest order to attend the Ruling Senate, and on 3 February 1827 he was appointed deputy to the chief of His Imperial Majesty’s Main Headquarters. On 26 August he was directed to manage the War Ministry until instructed otherwise.
The continuous awards and orders he received showed how much Emperor Nicholas I valued the services and zeal of Prince Aleksandr Ivanovich, who during almost the whole of the late emperor’s reign was his closest collaborator in that branch of government administration which always received his closest attention. As the immediate executor of the monarch’s plans, Chernyshev deserves posterity’s gratitude for the good order and fine development of all parts of the military administration, the improvement of which continued all through the reign of Emperor Nicholas Pavlovich. Chernyshev’s actions while in charge of the ministry were closely aligned with Nicholas I’s state policies, and thus information about them may be obtained in this encyclopedia’s article “Emperor Nicholas.” Here we will only mention the appointments and awards Chernyshev received during the period of his administration.
In 1827 Chernyshev was promoted to general-of-cavalry and appointed to the Committee of Ministers. In 1828 he was named a member of the State Council and received the order of St. Vladimir 1st class. In 1830 he received the order of the White Eagle and named a member of the Siberia Committee. In 1831—the order of Andrew the First-Called. In 1832, following a reorganization of the top levels of the army administration, he was appointed minister of war, a permanent member of the Military Council, and honorary colonel [shef] of the St.-Petersburg Lancer Regiment. In 1833 he received diamonds to the order of St. Andrew the First-Called Apostle. In 1840 he was named chairman of the committee established to introduce a new civil administration to the Caucasus. In 1841 he was elevated to prince [knyaz’] of the Russian empire. In 1842, with the disbandment of the committee to introduce a new civil administration to the Caucasus, he was appointed chairman of the newly formed committee for a preliminary review and evaluation of all general matters concerning the administration of the Trans-Caucasian territory that were receiving Highest attention. In 1843 he was named honorary colonel of the Kabarda Jäger Regiment. In that same year this regiment, as well as the St-Petersburg Lancers, was ordered to incorporate his name in their titles (General-Adjutant Prince Chernyshev’s Jäger Regiment and General-Adjutant Prince Chernyshev’s Lancer Regiment). On 3 November 1848 Prince Chernyshev was named chairman of the State Council while retaining his other posts and duties. The new responsibilities of this position added to Chernyshev’s countless existing tasks that already were too much for any one person. But in spite of this, Prince Aleksandr Ivanovich, with his usual expertise and energy, found the time and opportunity to explore all the details regarding the units and formations under his administration and carried out his laborious duties to the complete satisfaction of the Sovereign Emperor. But such excessive amounts of work had to have an affect on the health of Prince Chernyshev, and his strength began to betray him.
On 26 August 1852, upon his completion of twenty-five years as head of the War Ministry, he submitted a request to be relieved of his position as minister of war. Acceding to the wishes of his servitor who had spent fifty years of his life in state service (Chernyshev had been commissioned as a cornet on 20 September 1802), Emperor Nicholas released him from his duties as minister of war but kept him in all his other positions, including chairman of the State Council. In a statement issued on this occasion to Prince Aleksandr Ivanovich, the following was included:
As a daily witness to your work, I always found true satisfaction in expressing to you my constant appreciation. On the present occasion, in contemplating your long years of glorious service, I cannot help but recall those years when the late Emperor Alexander I, who rests in God, took you in your extreme youth under his guidance and made you one of one of the most dedicated and experienced of my helpers.
Following this example, I wish that your son, Prince Lev, would also be as close to me as you were to my always remembered brother. With this in mind it pleases me to appoint him my aide-de-camp [fligel’-ad”yutant], and I hope that he will be as helpful and devoted in serving his sovereign and Russia, as you unswervingly were. I deeply wish that this appointment serves as new evidence of the heartfelt appreciation and respect that I will always have for you.
From that time Prince Alexander Ivanovich’s health visibly deteriorated and often interfered with his usual energetic carrying out of his duties. Given leave to travel abroad to restore his health, he died on 8 June 1857 in Castellamare, in the Kingdom of Naples.
A.A.V. and N.I.K.
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Translated by Mark Conrad, 2007.