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Napoleon's defeat in Russia 200 years ago was local family's tragedy as well

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Mar 16 2012 04:36:50 PM CDT
Updated On: Mar 19 2012 05:15:33 PM CDT

Napoleon's defeat in Russia 200 years ago was local family's tragedy as well

Allentown attorney Charles Osinski is not a morose person who dwells in the past. But as Lehigh County celebrates the 200th anniversary of its creation on March 6, 1812, he'll be marking a different occasion.

When Osinski thinks of 1812, this Upper Milford Township resident sees a painting that hung on his grandmother’s wall of a young man in a fancy uniform, the kind soldiers wore into battle when, in Winston Churchill’s words, war was “cruel and magnificent” rather than “cruel and squalid.”

I thought he was one of the coolest looking guys anywhere, at least in my family,” Osinski says of his childhood memory. When he asked his grandmother who this was he was told it was Stanislaus Osinski, his distant ancestor who in 1812 had served as a lancer in a Polish regiment that marched with the French emperor Napoleon on his ill fated invasion of Russia. The 23 year old never returned. He was one of the members of the “Grande Armee” that had become, according to U.S. envoy to Russia, John Quincy Adams, son of founding father John Adams, "food for worms," thanks to Napoleon’s lust for conquest.

His ancestor’s fate led Osinski to find out more. Among the things he discovered was Stanislaus was already a veteran by 1812. “He had joined up at age 17 as a blacksmith and fought in Spain and Austria before the invasion,” says Osinski. He notes that the records of his ancestor’s regiment are among the items archived by the French Army.

N_on_grave As a result of his research Osinski began to study all things Napoleon. He became so knowledgeable on the French emperor that he established a local chapter of the Napoleonic Historical Society. For a number of years it held events in the Hotel Bethlehem with colorfully uniformed re-enactors on hand.  For two years- 2009 and 2010- Osinski served as the national president of the society, today headquartered in Chicago.

At least in part Osinski sees his ancestor as a freedom fighter for the Polish people. In the late 18th century the Polish nation was divided up by several European powers, Russia most prominent among them.

Some historians believe Napoleon never had any plans of restoring the Polish nation as an independent state. But Osinski strongly disagrees. At a 2004 event at the Hotel Bethlehem he stated his belief that if he had been successful in Russia the emperor would have established “a politically full and free Poland.”

In truth Napoleon’s comments on the subject suggest he thought different things at different times. But judging from his track record in the Europe, where he allocated sections of Italy and the entire kingdom of Spain to his family members, there are reasons to be doubtful.

Kafka_grave There are other links between the Lehigh Valley and Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.  In God’s Acre Moravian cemetery in Bethlehem are the graves Karl Matthew Kafka, (1770-1857) and George Henry Woehler (1790-1868).

Both men began their early lives as soldiers and were with Napoleon in many battles including the invasion of Russia.

And both died as peaceful Moravians.

cemetery Thanks to the Moravian Church’s policy of having new members record an account of their lives, it is possible to know some of the details of Kafka and Wohler’s military service. Osinski requested that these documents be translated from the 19th century German script in which they were written. “If half the stuff that this guy says is the truth, he was remarkable,” said Otto Dreydoppel, archivist for the Moravian Theological Seminary who worked on the translation of Kafka and Wohler’s documents.

Both Kafka and Woehler were ethnically German but nationality meant less in the 18th century Holy Roman Empire, which was made up of at least 1,800 states, principalities, free cites, etc., and so the primary loyalty was to the ruler or ruling family.

paperwork Kafka joined the French Army in the 1790s. He was on Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt and fought at the battle of Pyramids in 1798. “Remember from those monuments,” Napoleon said, pointing to the tombs of the Pharaohs, “forty centuries look down on you.”  Till the end of his life Kafka would recall the thrill he and the rest of the army got hearing those words.

Woehler did not join the French Army until 1807. He claimed to have been in numerous battles, probably in Spain, which the French were never able to completely conquer.

By 1811 it was already clear Napoleon had set his sights on Russia. One close aide who knew the Czar did not want war brushed off the justifications Napoleon tried to give for the invasion.  He accused the emperor of doing it merely to “satisfy his fondest passion.”

“What passion is that?” asked Napoleon

French_army “War, sire” was the reply.

Napoleon’s response was to tug gently on his aide’s ear, a simple gesture that the aide knew meant he had uncovered the French leader's true motivation.

And so on June 25, 1812 the invasion of Russia by the 500,000 man French Army began. It would witness titanic battles that savagely decimated the invaders and led eventually to the capture of Moscow.

Soldier_of_Napoleon_on_grave But the Czar would not admit he was beaten. By the fall what the Russians had come to call “General Frost” and “General Famine” were haunting Napoleon’s men. Fleeing in a retreat where the living would envy the dead, only 30,000 of Napoleon’s 500,000 troops staggered back into Poland. By 1815 Napoleon would be in exile on St Helena and his empire gone.

Several years ago when Osinski learned that Kafka had no gravestone in God’s Acre he purchased one in the name of the society and had it placed there. It honors Kafka, Stanislaus Osinski and the thousands of other now nameless men who died in a far-off war 200 years ago to satisfy a proud ruler’s passion for war.