As autumn drew near, a division of the Prussian army was quartered at Halle. They were altogether too blustering and self-confident for my taste; and the talk of the officers was really disgusting. Instead of respecting, not to say fearing, that wonderful military genius [Napoleon], before whom all obstacles had been as mist before the sun, they talked loudly about the Seven Years’ War, and evidently thought that the name of the dead and immortal Friedrich was to vanquish the living Napoleon.
Meanwhile rumors came in of the approach of the great enemy, and a stillness, depressing our spirits and increasing our anxiety, rested upon all the inhabitants of Halle. It was now plain that we should see fearful sights in a few days. . . . We were as children, and our protection was entrusted to these boastful, over-confident soldiers, who were quartered in our houses.
Nearer and nearer approached the foe, and more intense grew the feeling of the whole town. The tidings of the reverses at Jena and Auerstedt came in and increased our fears.
[Ignaz Heymann , PostKarte von Deutschland und den angrenzenden Laendern, 2nd ed. (Triest 1806); Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Cartes et plans:]
At length we could hear the distant cannonade, and see the clouds of flying dust. The day of our trouble was just at hand. . . .
Very early came Schleiermacher, accompanied by his sister, the most intimate confidant of my wife. They sought our house because of the fine view that it commanded. But we very soon saw that we should improve our position for observation were we to go to the garden by the Freemasons’ Hall. So, mounting to a part of the wall where the descent to the Saale River was very steep, we could overlook the whole scene.
[Map from Iohann Baptistae Homann, Darstellung des Grundrisses und Prospectes der Königl, Preussisch-Magdeburgischen und des Saal-Crayses Haupt Stadt Halle (Nürnberg 1724); Bibliothèque nationale de France; département Cartes et plans:]
[A closer view of the Freemasons garden location along the town wall; Genzmer, “Anlage einer inneren Ringstrasse in Halle a. S.,” Deutsche Bauzeitung 33 (1896) 6 (18 January 1896), 33–35, here 33:]
[The Freemasons’ building (center) atop the town wall at Moritzburgring 10 in Halle in 1800 (Moritzburg at left); C. Helmuth, colorized lithography; Stadtarchiv Halle (Saale):]
Several servants and professors were standing there, and the Prussian troops were rapidly passing the Long Bridge. We could see the onset, the firing on both sides, the plunging charges of the cavalry, but all seemed indecisive to an unskilled observer, who could only follow the separate movements.
[Matthäus Merian, Halle (1653), showing the approach to Halle from the west across the Saale River with the Long Bridge (also: High Bridge) in the foreground and smaller branches up to the town wall, where the Steffens and Schleiermachers were initially positioned:]
So strangely blinded by Prussian prestige, and so confident in Prussian valor, were the most, that victory on the French side seemed impossible. “The poor French,” said a fellow professor at my side, “I almost pity them; they are worn out, it is plain; poor fellows, a sad fate awaits them falling into the hands of our victorious soldiers.”
But this hallucination did not last long. The enemy pressed on in yet greater numbers, while our troops were flying before them. Soon all were in motion among us, and, full of fear, every one hurried to his home. My house, situated in a remote and not much frequented part of the city, was regarded by us all as unsafe, and we resolved to spend the time of greatest danger in Schleiermacher’s house, in the middle of town. . . . Although we could hear the shots in town, otherwise in the streets there was perfect stillness. No one was to be seen, the houses were all locked . . . When we came to the well-known turn in Great Ulrich’s Street, just before it opens into the Market Place, we saw at a glance the danger confronting us.
[Map from Iohann Baptistae Homann, Darstellung des Grundrisses und Prospectes der Königl, Preussisch-Magdeburgischen und des Saal-Crayses Haupt Stadt Halle (Nürnberg 1724); Bibliothèque nationale de France; département Cartes et plans; Collection d’Anville:]
The flight of the Prussian reserves was directly across the town; the whole Market Place was filled with cannon and with ammunition wagons, and in the streets which led from the Market Place down to the river we could hear the incessant firing. Our course was directly across this retreating mass. How we came through I cannot tell. . . .
By the time we had fairly entered one of the side streets the French came up. The shots whistled through the air close by us, and Bernadotte’s advance guard rode by at full speed along one of the great streets in full view. The paid no attention to us; the retreating Prussian army was their sole object of pursuit. We reached the house; in the street all was empty and still; the door opened and received us, was closed and locked again, and for a little while we were safe. 
Yet not for long. The street lay too near to the course of the pursuing army, and parties of cavalry and infantry distributed themselves for purposes of plunder. This movement took us all by surprise. The street is small, and we saw a plundering party had effected an entrance into the house opposite. An instant after, three or four cavalrymen thundered at our door. They called out to us they would be satisfied with a glass or two of wine if we would pass it out.
In our folly we resolved to give it to them, and, as I opened the window to reach it to an officer, he held his pistol to my head and threatened to blow my brains out if the door was not opened. So we had to yield, and in a moment they rushed in. I had to give up my watch, but happily I had no money with me. They took Schleiermacher’s linen and his ready money, and were in a little while off for plunder elsewhere. . . .
It was plain that city and university were in the hands of the enemy. The whole course of our life would now be changed. . . . Reports of dreadful doings in the suburbs got round, and in the streets lay the bodies of slain Prussians, yet in full uniform, and one still with his weapon at his side. No one had entered my dwelling. I could now save my money and conceal my valuables. . . .We were in the full power of the enemy.
The first part of our night was a sad one. We fancied a reign of horror, and saw in our vision the destruction of everything hallowed by sacred associations. The people in the nearest neighborhood seemed separated from us by an unfathomable abyss, and rumors of unspeakable cruelties floated in upon us from hour to hour. We were in momentary expectation that the torch would be applied to the city, and that the ruled of license and rapine would begin. . . .
The night passed away, and we learned how groundless our fears had been. Bernadotte’s troops took possession of the city, and it is but simple justice to record that they were kept in perfect discipline. A proclamation was soon published that the studies of the university would not be interfered with, and that no troops would be quartered with the professors. The treasury of the institution would not be touched, all excesses on the part of his troops would be repressed, and all the rights of the citizens would be respected. I hastened to nail this proclamation to my door.
But in a few days we found new cause for alarm. Troops were constantly passing through the city. We heard that Napoleon would soon be present in person. It was said that he was fired with rage at the city, and especially at our university. In truth, we had much to fear. The students were intensely excited, and we heard that they were insisting upon the right of the whole sidewalk, driving even the officers into the street, and they were purposing to constitute themselves a body-guard for the protection of their teachers. . . .
Napoleon came. He took possession of the house of Professor Mickel, one of the most attractive in the city, and standing on Great Berlin Square. His guard, when drawn up in parade, made an imposing appearance. Napoleon inspected them personally, and made a speech to them in praise of their conduct during the taking of the city. That he was full of bitterness against the Prussians, we knew well. Halle was the first Prussian city that he had taken, and while his troops were following the enemy, he determined to rest in Halle. I was still with my family in Schleiermacher’s house.
A member of Napoleon’s bureau of war was quartered there, who naturally took the best chambers, so that Schleiermacher, with his sister and his friend Gass, as well as myself with my wife and child, were miserably lodged. . . . The official remained, however, polite as ever. Once he talked unreservedly of the unbridled ambition of the emperor. It was, he maintained, his object to restore the old Roman empire of the middle ages, and should he succeed in this he would be able in a short time to advance the welfare of the nations that he should conquer, for a lasting peace must ensue. The culture of France would be a universal bond of union, and there would be no power that would dare disturb the reign of peace that would follow. . . . Napoleon remained, if I mistake not, three days in Halle. . . .
A deputation of three professors, of whom the distinguished educator Niemeyer was one, had requested and received an audience with Napoleon. While they were with the emperor, a number of the students gathered upon the square, and when the professors came from the imperial presence, one of them made a brief address to the students, which they loudly applauded. But to the French the purport of the speech and occasion of applause were equally unknown.
Added to this, when Napoleon was taking his daily ride through the streets, a number of students thronged around him without giving any salutation. This discourteous way of German burschen [young university students], who had not learned to show hypocritical respect to a victorious enemy with humility and slavishness, must have been provoking to him, and this was, doubtless, considered intentional. One student, whom Napoleon addressed, replied, probably more out of a embarrassment than contempt, with a simple “Monsieur.”
Napoleon is also alleged to have made remarks concerning the hostile mood regnant at the university even before his arrival. On this, people began to fear that the emperor’s hostility to the university would be made fully manifest. The report passed around that a number of the students were in arms against him; but in truth there was no foundation for such a rumor. Two young noblemen, who, doubtless, hesitated between military service and the continuance of their studies, did eventually join the army.
But Napoleon might reasonably have thought that so large a number of young German men at the university from the best families might be able to stir up much rebellious feeling after he had passed on. Unacquainted with the methods of conducting German universities, he supposed that the students lived under supervision in commons, and was angry that they were so freely allowed to roam at large.
Thus understanding affairs, he dismissed the university, and ordered the students to depart at once to their homes. That this threw the students into trouble was natural; but what they especially feared, and what had so alarmed the one who fled to our house [in an earlier account], was the thought that Napoleon’s plan was to follow them out upon the roads and murder them unarmed.
The whole of the great house occupied in part by Schleiermacher was crowded with soldiers. Towards morning, during an unquiet sleep, we perceived an unusual stir, a tramping on the stairs, loud words of command in the courtyard,, and the tread of horses. When we were fairly awake the town was empty. The troops had left, and the students would be driven out of the town over the course of the day. We, the teachers, remained in the deserted town, our profession made worthless, our “occupation gone,” our future employment uncertain. A few of the older students ventured to remain.
In the town, all was apparently peaceful. The council of professors met, and we learned that the funds of the university had not been spared. A document had arrived from Dessau stating that we were in disgrace with the emperor. Scholars, it stated, ought not to trouble themselves with politics; their business was to cultivate and diffuse the sciences; the professors at Halle had mistaken their calling, and the emperor had resolved to break up the university. The entire faculty of the university was now dismissed and most, along with their families, now faced want and poverty. . . .
It was urged by a few that we try to justify ourselves with Napoleon, and convince him that we never cherished hostile feelings towards him. Such an expression would have been with me a deliberate lie. Our feelings towards Napoleon before the capture of the town, I said, should be of no concern to the enemy. He had no right to demand an account of those feelings, we no obligation to provide one. All that we could plead was that, since we came under his power, we had done what we could to promote a patient subjection on the part of the students, and merit no reproaches from our conquerors.
The position of Schleiermacher and myself was bad enough. Our salary was due the first of November, and that which had been received was already fully spent. We had, indeed, received from the students themselves a large sum in advance for the lectures that were about to commence. I had in my possession about 80 louis d’or. I had not, of course, expected to be in any want of money, and was relying on the usual receipt of my salary.
But with the departure of the students I was compelled to return the money they had paid me in advance for my lectures, and it was fortunate for me that I had made no encroachment upon it. After adjusting all my accounts I found that I had 10 Rthlr. left. Schleiermacher had no more than I. It was impossible to receive any from distant friends. An army was between them and us, and all communication was cut off.
We resolved to unite the little capital that was at our command, and to keep house in common. Schleiermacher removed into my little tenement. My wife and child and Schleiermacher’s sister occupied one small chamber, he and I another, and we all worked and studied in one room. In a corner of that room, Schleiermacher wrote his commentary on the first Epistle of Paul to Timothy [Über den sogenannten ersten Brief des Paulus an den Timotheus: ein kritisches Sendschreiben an J.C. Gass (Berlin 1807)]. . . .
Then came the task of deciding upon the future. Schleiermacher resolved to remain in Halle yet a little longer, because the perfect seclusion and the slight cost of living favored him in his scholarly investigations. I felt that I must look elsewhere. My Danish friends recommended me to those in power there, and I was assured of a competent support if I should return thither. Then came the real difficulty of deciding.
I never had felt so strongly bound to Prussia and to my fellow professors as now. Trouble had drawn us together, and the adversities of the land had warmed my heart towards her. Had I had means I should probably have remained. But I was without resources, and so was compelled to accept the offer of Danish friends, and to bid adieu to Halle and Schleiermacher.
My life for the next two years was one of great distress, of great anxieties, and of great privations. I had no income, and was obliged to live upon the hospitalities of friends in Kiel, Hamburg, Copenhagen, and Lübeck. . . . Meanwhile my circumstances were almost desperate. Had I been alone I could have borne it better; but, with a wife and child dependent upon me, the uncertainties of the future and the needs of the present made my situation deplorable.
[*] Henrik Steffens, Was ich erlebte, 5:183–227. The following text is from the condensed, abridged translation Heinrich [Henrik] Steffens, The Story of My Career as Student at Freiberg and Jena, and as Professor at Halle, Breslau and Berlin, with personal reminiscences of Goethe, Schiller, Schelling, Neander, and others, trans. William Leonhard Gage (Boston 1863), 149–63 (trans. altered). Back.
 August Hermann Niemeyer later published an account of these events, Halle im October 1806 (Magdeburg 1808). Back.
 Concerning the overall course of the battle, which Steffens does not recount, see Held and Corvin, “Die Napoleonischen Kriege: Der preussische Krieg (1806–1807),” in Die Gegenwart, vol. 4 of Illustrirte Weltgeschichte: Ein Buch für’s Volk, 4 vols., 687–722 (Leipzig 1850), 695n364:
The skirmish at Halle was almost even more glorious for the French than the battle at Jena, for the positions Prince Eugen [1758–1822] had taken seemed extraordinarily strong. The Long Bridge across the Saale River, which covers the town from the west, had been occupied by infantry, and the small islands in the Saale River itself were set up with cartouche batteries. The town gate had been prepared to be locked, and the streets had been blocked with barricades; and finally, beyond the town, the main corps of Prince Eugen were standing in battle formations.
That is, the French had to cross the bridge amide cartouche and infantry fire, break open the gate, storm the town, and only then begin the actual battle against a strongly positioned enemy.
But they overcame each of these difficulties under the leadership of General Dupont, who commanded the vanguard with an admirable perseverance. After a heated skirmish on the bridge, the French rushed across the bridge with such speed that they reached the gate at the same time as the fleeing Prussian soldiers and thus found it open.
Now, however, a murderous battle commenced in the town’s streets, which ended with the Prussians being in part taken prisoner, and in part thrown out of the town. The French emerged now from the the opposite gates and advanced toward the battle formations of Prince Eugen. Although they were met with a furious hail of infantry fire, they held their ground until General Dupont had circled around one of the Prussian flanks. Now they attacked up the heights against the enemy from two sides, who gave up hope of victory after a tenacious battle and took flight. —
The Prussians lost 1000 men who were either killed or wounded, and the French almost as many. By contrast, the latter took 4000 prisoners, and even more were to fall into their hands during the ensuing pursuit.
Map from Iohann Baptistae Homann, Darstellung des Grundrisses und Prospectes der Königl, Preussisch-Magdeburgischen und des Saal-Crayses Haupt Stadt Halle (Nürnberg 1724); Bibliothèque nationale de France; Collection d’Anville; 03746:
Translation © 2018 Doug Stott