I was recently reading the memoirs of my wife’s late grandmother, and noticed a line that mentioned an ancestor who had fought with Napoleon’s army. Intrigued, I decided to go looking for him, and found a tremendous resource for anyone whose ancestors fought in the French army during the Napoleonic wars, which took place between 1792 and 1814.

Geneanet’s “Napoleon’s Soldiers” is a collection of muster rolls from the period. Considering it’s all in French, I’ve produced a guide to understanding what the columns say, and some clues as to what the handwritten notes within contain.

Reading French Muster Records

The rolls have a series of columns. The following sections outline what is in each column, starting from the left and moving right. You can use Google, DeepL, or ChatGPT to translate the information in your ancestor’s record.

Registration Numbers & Signals of Non-Commissioned Officers and Soldiers

Within this column is data about the soldier, including:

  • N. : Registration number followed by surname
  • Prenoms: First name
  • Fils de­: The names of the soldiers parents
  • a________canton d_________: The soldier’s home district and county
  • taille d: height
  • visage: face
  • front: forehead
  • yeux: eyes
  • bouche: mouth
  • menton: chin
  • cheveux: hair
  • sourcils: eyebrows
  • marques: marks

particulieres: particular features

Dates of the arrival of the recruits to the Corps, Their last residence, and their profession.

  • Arrived at the Corps on:
  • Incorporated, coming from:
  • Their last residence was in:
  • Department of:
  • Profession of:
  • Married on:
  • To:
  • Native of:
  • Residing in:

Numbers of the battalions or squadrons, and of the companies.

There is no pre-filled form here, so you’ll have to deal with the handwriting. However, this is usually also noted in the Geneanet index for the individual.

Ranks and dates of appointments to these ranks.

This field will give you more information about what your ancestor did while fighting in Napoleon’s army. Here are a few of the common ranks I’ve seen in the records, along with some other potential ranks.

  • Fusilier: refers to a soldier armed with a fusil, which is a type of musket or rifle. In the context of Napoleon’s army, a “Fusilier” would be an infantry soldier armed with a musket and would serve as the primary frontline combatant.
  • Voltiguer: a type of light infantryman who was trained to move quickly and engage the enemy at a distance. They were skilled marksmen and played a crucial role in skirmishing and reconnaissance.
  • Grenadier: a Grenadier was an elite infantry soldier who was typically larger and stronger than the average infantryman. Being a Grenadier was considered prestigious, and these soldiers were often at the forefront of major battles, demonstrating exceptional bravery and skill.
  • Caporal (Corporal): A junior non-commissioned officer responsible for leading a small group of soldiers and assisting higher-ranking officers.
  • Sergent (Sergeant): A non-commissioned officer responsible for leading squads or sections of soldiers, providing leadership and guidance.
  • Sous-Lieutenant (Second Lieutenant): A junior commissioned officer responsible for leading platoons and assisting higher-ranking officers in tactical planning and execution.
  • Lieutenant: A mid-level commissioned officer responsible for leading larger units, such as companies or battalions, and assisting in command and control.
  • Capitaine: A senior commissioned officer responsible for commanding companies and leading troops in combat, as well as administrative duties.
  • Major: A senior officer responsible for overseeing the administration and discipline of the battalion or regiment.
  • Colonel: A high-ranking officer responsible for commanding regiments or brigades, making strategic decisions, and liaising with higher command.
  • Général de Brigade (Brigadier General): A general officer responsible for commanding brigades and assisting higher-ranking generals in planning and executing operations.
  • Général de Division (Divisional General): A high-ranking general officer responsible for commanding divisions, playing a crucial role in strategic planning and command.

Dates and reasons for leaving the corps. Deaths, previous services. Wounds, and war campaigns.

Here you can see what happened to your ancestor. Some common entries here are:

  • Deserte: Your ancestor was a deserter. While there’s often a stigma around this, I’ve seen quite a few desertions in 1814 and 1815, which is when the wheels really came off the bus for Napoleon and the coalition troops occupied Paris.
  • Décencié: This term typically refers to a soldier being discharged or dismissed from the military. It indicates that the individual has been separated from the military service, possibly due to the end of their service period, medical reasons, or other administrative reasons.
  • Retraité: This term refers to a soldier who has retired from active military service. It implies that the individual has completed their military career and has opted for retirement, often after serving a full term or reaching a certain age.
  • Mort au combat: Your ancestor was killed in action. This column will sometimes describe some details about the place and circumstance of death.
  • Blesse: Sometimes “blesse au combat,” this means your ancestor was wounded in combat. Again, there will often be some accompanying description.

Learning More About Your Ancestor & the Napoleonic Wars

Okay, so now you know the basic details about your ancestor’s service in Napoleon’s army. But that’s just the start. Pairing these facts with the history of the Napoleonic wars will give you some idea of what your ancestor might have endured. There is an absolute wealth of literature about the Napoleonic wars, more than I could even summarize here. However, allow me to give you a brief summary of the Napoleonic wars, and some suggested media.

Now that you know the years of your ancestor’s time in the army, this will give you a starting point.

  • War of the First Coalition (1792-1797): This war began amidst the French Revolution. The other European powers were appalled at the overthrow of the monarchy and the violence that ensued. But they lost to the French, and the war ended with the Treaty of Campo Formio.
  • War of the Second Coalition (1798-1802): France under Napoleon was making an attempt at expanding, and another coalition of European powers failed to stop it, with this war ending in the Treaty of Luneville.
  • War of the Third Coalition (1803-1806): Third time’s a charm? No. Another coalition of European powers was defeated at one of Napoleon’s most notable victories – Austerlitz.
  • War of the Fourth Coalition (1806-1807): Prussia and other European powers sought to challenge Napoleon’s growing influence and control on the continent. The coalition included Prussia, Russia, and Saxony, among others. The conflict saw significant French victories, including the battles of Jena-Auerstedt, and ended with the Treaties of Tilsit in 1807
  • Peninsular War (1808-1814): Napoleon invaded Portugal. This provoked the ire of Spain. The rest of Europe joined in in a prolonged conflict. A small aside – if you have ancestors from the Grand Duchy of Baden (Germany), they participated in this war on the French side.
  • War of the Fifth Coalition (1809): The War of the Fifth Coalition was a brief conflict following Austria’s refusal to recognize the Treaties of Tilsit and saw the French Empire facing renewed Austrian resistance. It culminated in the French victory at the Battle of Wagram and ended with the Treaty of Schönbrunn later that year.
  • War of the Sixth Coalition (1812-1814): This war began with Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812 (Tchaikovsky calling), and ended with the allied European powers invading France and ultimately occupying Paris.

Along with any reading you might do, I highly recommend this Epic History YouTube series on the Napoleonic wars. These videos, at least in the military sense, will help you understand your ancestor’s experience.

Questions? Comments?

I hope you’ve found this guide to finding ancestors in Napoleon’s army helpful. If you have more questions about the records, or would like help finding your ancestors, contact me!