What did I get myself into?
Fig. 1: Yes, he fought in that getup.
It's bewildering. First off there's the ranks. In the French army a brigadier did not command a brigade--he was a corporal in a cavalry troop. Similarly one must not confuse a maréchal des logis -- supply sergeant -- with a Marshal of the Empire.
And speaking of marshals, mon général Grouchy would appreciate it if everyone would pronounce his name correctly and stop intimating that he wears green fur and lives in a garbage can.
But I wouldn't doubt that somewhere, somewhen, there was a regiment of hussars, or chasseurs-à-pied, or mameluke lancers clad in green fur of exactly Oscar's hue.
These guys wore anything -- especially the cavalry. No two hussar regiments had the same uniform. And the hats! You've got shakos, busbies, cocked hats, square-topped Polish headgear I can't remember the name of right now... Napoleon's big bicorne seems rather staid when you line him up against a regiment of grenadiers with two foot of bearskin bonnet per man.
How did they fight in all that kit? I've been reading personal accounts of Napoleon's soldiers and not one has mentioned a man being killed because of the ridiculous outfit he had to fight in. But there are several accounts of men being shot through the hat and being unharmed. One tells of a man who lost his hat in a cavalry action but was able to get it back from the enemy for a small 'ransom' the next day.
An excellent and comprehensive reference is Swords Around a Throne by American officer John R. Elting. He provides uniform guides and in-depth looks at each branch of service. I'm also reading diaries of a couple of Imperial Guard infantrymen and a cavalryman named Marbot who rose from the ranks to command a regiment of chasseurs at Waterloo.
My biggest surprise so far? The number of horses involved. The poor animals are much less durable than men, and it was easy to wear them out. Officers had several and used them in rotation... or ride each into the ground in turn. Many regiments had no idea how to care for their horses, and got them killed by letting them graze too freely (or not enough). Some soldiers knew what they were doing, but not the French... a Polish lancer regiment came back from Russia with two hundred horses out of a thousand while many French cavalry managed only to save a few mounts for their officers.
Next up, I need to get a better idea about contemporary life in civilian France at that time. Unfortunately the bulk of novels in English from that time are set in, well, England. And I will do a lot of things for my craft but I'm not reading a raft of crappy Regency romances. So next on my plate is to learn enough French to read Balzac (although his novels are set after the wars), Paul Adam and Emile Zola... I've already been plowing through the daily Paris newspapers of the period, helpfully scanned and available online at gallica.fr.
Next, I think I'll write something set in the modern era. In Schenectady. It worked for Vonnegut!