Bessières was born in Prayssac near Cahors in southern France. He served for a short time in the "Constitutional Guard" of Louis XVI and as a non-commissioned officer took part in the war against Spain.
In the Army of the Eastern Pyrenees and in the Army of the Moselle he repeatedly distinguished himself for valour, and in 1796, as captain, he served in Napoleon Bonaparte's Italian campaign. At Rovereto his conduct brought him to his chief's notice, and after the Battle of Rivoli he was sent to France to deliver the captured colours to the Directory. Hastening back to the front, he accompanied Napoleon in the invasion of Styria in command of the "Guides," who formed the nucleus of the later Consular - and Imperial Guards.
As chef de brigade he next served in the Egyptian expedition, and won further distinction at Acre and Aboukir.
Returning to Europe with Napoleon, he was present at Marengo (1800) as second-in-command of the Consular Guard, and led a brilliant and successful cavalry charge at the close of the day, though its effect on the battle was not as decisive as Napoleon pretended.
Promoted general of division in 1802 and marshal of France in 1804, he made the most famous campaigns of the Grande Armée as colonel-general of the Guard Cavalry (1805, 1806 and 1807).
In 1805 he had received the Grand Eagle of the Legion of Honour, and in 1809 was created duke of Istria, or rather duc d'Istrie, for it was a duché grand-fief -a rare, nominal but hereditary honor (extinguished in 1856) in Napoleon's own kingdom of Italy.
With the outbreak of the Peninsular War, Marshal Bessières had his first opportunity of an independent command, and his crushing victory over the Spaniards in the Battle of Medina del Rio Seco (1808) justified Napoleon's choice. When disaster in other parts of the theatre of war called Napoleon himself to the Peninsula, Bessiêres continued to give the emperor the very greatest assistance in his campaign.
In 1809 he was again with the Grande Armée in the Danube valley. At Essling his repeated and desperate charges checked the Austrians in the full tide of their success. At the Battle of Wagram he had a horse killed under him. Replacing Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte in the command of the Army of the North, a little later in the same year, the newly-created duke of Istria successfully opposed the British Walchere expedition, and in 1811 he was back again, in a still more important command, in Spain. As André Masséa s' second-in-command he was present at the battle of Fuentes d'Onoro, but Napoleon never detached him for very long, and in 1812 he commanded the Guard Cavalry at the Battle of Borodino and in the retreat from Moscow. Wherever engaged he won further distinction, and at the beginning of the 1813 campaign he was appointed to the command of the whole of Napoleon's cavalry.
Jean-Baptiste Bessières, Marshal of France
Three days after the opening of the campaign, while reconnoitering the defile of Poserna-Rippach, Bessières was killed by a cannon ball which ricocheted off a wall and hit him in the hand. He died from shock and blood loss. Napoleon, who deeply felt the loss of one of his truest friends and ablest commanders, protected his children, and his eldest son was made a member of the Chamber of Peers by Louis XVIII.
As a commander, especially of cavalry, Bessières left a reputation excelled by very few of Napoleon's marshals, and his dauntless courage and cool judgment made him a safe leader in independent command. He was personally beloved to an extraordinary extent amongst his soldiers, and (unlike most of the French generals of the time) amongst his opponents. It is said that masses were performed for his soul by the priests of insurgent Spain, and the king of Saxony raised a monument to his memory.