After a disastrous military campaign in which he had seen only defeats since the Franco-German War began on July 19th, 1870, French Emperor Napoleon III (1808-1873) on September 1st, 1870 was encircled in the small town of Sedan on the Meuse River in the French department of Ardennes.
With him, General Patrice de Mac-Mahon (1808-1893) and 120,000 men with nearly 600 cannons had been cut off by the Germans, numbering 200,000 troops and 800 cannons from Prussia, Baden, Bavaria, Hesse-Darmstadt, Saxony and Württemberg under the Prussian Commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke (1800-1891).
The French Army had been split in two, leaving General François Achille Bazaine (1811-1888) alone in the fortress of Metz, where he and 140,000 men would capitulate on October 27th, 1870.
King William I (1797-1888) of Prussia and “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck (1815–1890) were prepared to follow the fighting from their headquarters on the heights of Frénois.
Mac-Mahon positioned himself close to the town’s 17th-century citadel, where the Prussian attack started. Almost simultaneously, Bavarian troops under the command of Ludwig von und zu der Tann-Rathsamhausen (1815-1881) surrounded and successfully infiltrated the French at nearby Bazeilles.
Meanwhile, the men commanded by Prince Frederick III of Prussia (1831 -1888) and Prince Albert of Saxony (1828-1902) broke through the first French line of defense at La Moncelle.
They advanced towards the Plateau d’Illy, where General Jean Auguste Margueritte (1823-1870) and his Cavalry were positioned. During a charge with his horsemen, he would be mortally wounded and die on September 6th.
General Mac-Mahon also suffered serious wounds by shrapnel, which forced him to abandon his command. His replacement, senior officer General Auguste-Alexandre Ducrot (1817-1882) immediately ordered his forces to retreat to Mézières to remove themselves from the German pincer and to organize a counteroffensive.
At this point, General Emmanuel Felix de Wimpffen (1811-1884), citing a directive from the newly-appointed War Minister, Charles Cousin-Montauban (1811-1884), demanded interim command. Confused by three successive commanders, the French marched almost blindly and simply following the most recent orders.
De Wimpffen himself launched a bloody large-scale counterattack on Bazeilles, where he received help from armed civilians, to open the road to Metz. Though his actions were undermined by many tactical errors. Severe disorganization meant that the French even lacked proper maps.
Disoriented, their troops lost ground and came under constant shellfire. The Bavarians breached another defense line and the remnant French got trapped in two pockets. The fierce fighting at Bazeilles went on until ammunition began to dwindle.
The Prussians were able to successfully surround and capture the French in a funnel-like formation as De Wimpffen didn’t notice the movement of enemy troops at his rear.
An outbreak by General Félix Charles Douay (1816 -1879) near the commune of Floing failed miserably. More French ended up trapped in a little forest called Bois de la Garenne, where they were decimated by German artillery.
Panic-stricken, the French tried to take refuge in Sedan. Shells wreaked havoc on those entrenched in the fortress and those attempting to get in. Napoleon III had joined the battle line, seeking death to avoid the approaching humiliation, but a chronic urologic illness kept him from staying there.
By the end of the day, with no hope of breaking out, the Emperor decided to raise the white flag. Shortly afterwards, his aide-de-camp, General André Charles Victor Reille (1815-1887), conveyed the following message to King Wilhelm I: “Not having been able to die in the midst of my troops, it only remains for me to place my sword in your Majesty’s hands.”
The Prussian King read the letter at the same position where he had stayed since the fighting began and, after consulting with his general staff, accepted the surrender.
As his representative, von Moltke drew up the corresponding treaty. Early on September 2nd Napoleon III went to meet William I, but Bismarck set out to meet him halfway and to take him as a prisoner of war.
In the presence of both monarchs, De Wimpffen and von Moltke signed the act of surrender around noon at Bellevue Castle in Donchery. The original French plan of surrendering just the fortress under the conditions of an “honorable capitulation” was rejected by von Moltke.As a result, the defeated had to deliver all their flags, cannons, equipment, weapons and ammunition.
While 3,320 French soldiers had been killed and almost 15,000 wounded, more than 100,000 went into captivity, the Germans lost 1,310 men and reported around 6,500 wounded, with more than 2,000 missing.
The last French Emperor left his homeland on September 3rd, 1870 and never returned. He soon went into exile in England, where he died less than two and a half years later.
Sedan had become to him what Waterloo had been to his uncle, Napoleon I. France suddenly became a republic, which would fight on another five months without him. Nevertheless, at the end it suffered the same defeat: total defeat.