The Library of Nineteenth-Century Photography

Maréchal Niel

Maréchal Niel

A carte-de-visite portrait of Maréchal Niel (1802-1869).

Attaining the rank of marshal on 25 June 1859, Niel replaced Randon as Minister of War in 1867. For several years he had suffered from kidney stones, and the pressure of work at the ministry accelerated the deterioration of his health. Although Nélaton operated, Niel died at his Paris home, surrounded by his family, on 13 August 1869.

An honest and upright man, Niel always performed his duty, even when the mission was an unpleasant one, and he never profited from his position to make himself respected. On one occasion, when he was Minster of War, he caught a train wearing civilian clothes and three military cadets from St. Cyr got into the same compartment. The young men lit their cigars and Niel lit his. When the smoke grew heavy, Niel opened the carriage window. 'It’s cold in here,' said one of the future officers, and raised the window, without asking permission. The marshal lowered it again and the cadet raised it again. With a sharp jab of his elbow, Niel shattered the glass, calmly saying 'When I smoke, I need a little air.' 'Sir, you insult me,' cried the pupil from St. Cyr, and demanded satisfaction. 'Sir,' replied Niel, 'I don’t have a business card on me, but I will bring you one tomorrow and on your next leave I will be at your disposition.' Arriving at Versailles, the train stopped and Niel called the stationmaster. 'You’ll have that window replaced at my expense,' he said, and descended from the carriage accompanied by the respectful stationmaster. The astonished pupils asked a station employee who that man was. 'Don’t you know him? That’s your minister, Marshal Niel.' The following Sunday, Niel, who had to visit St. Cyr, arrived at the school. Reviewing the battalion he recognized his hot-headed adversary. Turning to the commanding officer, he said, in a voice loud enough to be overheard, 'Are your young men particularly sensitive to the cold?' This was the marshal’s only revenge. He later recounted the episode to the school’s commander, but without naming the guilty party.

Photographed by Disdéri of Paris.


Code: 124208
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