Napoleon Bonaparte. Born of a provincial small nobility in the city of Ajaccio, Corsica, he would become one of the most successful generals of France during the French Revolution. Eventually he became the first Emperor of the French, and his armies would dominate Europe for over a decade. He would be defeated for good in 1815 against a Coalition of Allies, led by his indefatigable nemesis, the British Empire. Was Napoleon a dictator? Or was he the champion of the French Revolution’s principles, fighting to shed off the rotting skin of the Ancient Regime? Was he as short as hearsay tell us? All the answers below.

1The ‘Italian’ Origins

Napoleon Bonaparte, born Napoleone di Buonaparte 15th August 1769, son of Carlo Buonaparte and Maria Letizia Ramolino. That very same day a comet passed on the sky. On 1821, a few days before he died in St Helena, another comet pass. His family, of Italian ancestry, resided in Ajaccio, capital of Corsica, which back then, was mired in a struggle of independence lead by Pasqual Paoli, first against the Republic of Genoa, and then against France, who claimed control of the island in 1769.

Albeith pysically part of Corsica, Ajaccio had a different character, in stark contrast with the insular inhabitants. Author: wejphotos. Source

His father, a lawyer, supported Paoli’s failed campaign, but was later ingratiated with the French authorities thanks to his wife and her family. In fact, it is rumoured than she had an affair with Marbeuf, the French family’s patron, but be as it may be, this provided for Napoleon and his siblings to better their status.

2Carrer in the army

In Ajaccio he quickly befriended the garrison and took an interest in soldiering, therefore, in France he was send to study at Brienne-le-Château to become a soldier. He set out in December 1778, initially struggling due his poor command of French, an issue that would mark him out to his mocking peers, since such strong accents were unusual in the nobility, the only class allowed in the officer’s ranks.

In the academy he learnt the usefulness of self-discipline, a habit that would never leave him, and a taste for frugality thanks to the Spartan lifestyle of Brienne-le-Château. Due his isolation he quickly came to reject everything French, and to admire Paoli, his hero, and his failed struggle for independence against France.

In 1784, his application for the Navy, the most prestigious branch of the military, was rejected, and applied instead for artillery, a field where he would excel. He moved to Paris to further his studies, graduating in a year but suddenly facing dire prospects with the death of his father Carlo in 1785, of a stomach cancer, and then of his patron Marbeuf a year later. He was a brilliant student with bright prospects, but now he had reluctantly became the bread-winner of the family, a task that would keep him too busy and half-distracted from military duties.

3# The French Revolution

All changed in 1789, when the French Revolution broke. From the beginning he was a staunch supporter, he, a believer of unrestricted access to careers for men of talent like himself, and which the revolutionaries demanded through the equality in front of the law and the abolishing of privileges for the nobility. His brothers Joseph and Lucien became spokesmen for political clubs in Tolouse and Marseille, while Napoleon, who supported these Jacobin political clubs, was given command of a battalion of Corsican volunteers for the Revolution.

Napoleon in 1792, aged 23. Lieutenant-Colonel of a batallion of Corsican Republican volunteers. Source

His childhood hero, Paoli, was granted amnesty to return to Corsica, and instead of pushing for the independence of the island, he united forces with the National Constituent Assembly to fight against the restoration of the Ancient Regime. Napoleon and his family quickly threw their lot with him.

Napoleon’s enthusiasm and hopes for the Revolution however, were dashed during a trip to Paris on the 10th of August, when he witnessed the savagery of the unruly mob, when they killed the King’s Swiss guards and dragged him out of the palace of the Tuileries, to place him under the protection of the Assembly. He didn’t discarded the noble ideas of freedom and equality, but became convinced that the lack of order and a weak executive would become the ruin of the people.

The storming of the Tuileries Palace, known as Insurrection of 10 August 1792. Source

On his return to Ajaccio, Paoli, then mistrusted by the National Convention (new government), was ordered to take Sardinia, in fears that the British, would use it to resupply their fleets. The adventure ended in fiasco and the National Convention moved against Paoli. In a life-changing event, Lucien Bonaparte denounced Paoli as a traitor to the Revolution in his club, and Corsica rallied behind his favourite son. As a result, the Bonapartes had to flee in exile on April 1793, fearing Paoli’s retribution.

4# Jacobin friends

Exile from his native island was the push that Napoleon needed to become wholly French. Devoid of means but not of friends, he was recommended by a fellow Corsican, Saliceti, to Augustin Robespierre. Augustin’s brother, Maximilien Robespierre, one of the main leaders of the Revolution and a prominent Jacobin, appointed Napoleon as artillery commander at the siege of Toulon, whose harbour was in British hands.

Napoleon wouldn’t waste this chance, and his managerial skills and leadership would dazzle the authorities of the new regime, the Committee of Public Safety, presided by Robespierre. By helping to retake Toulon, he earned himself a promotion to brigadier general, being only 24 years old.

Bonaparte at the Siege of Toulon. 1793. Source

Fame is fleeting though. Power even more. Robespierre fell and was executed on 28th July 1794, and the new authorities wouldn’t delay in hunting Robespierre’s allies. Napoleon was arrested after being denounced by Saliceti, after the later tried to save his head from the clean-shave of the guillotine. He would repent and save him last minute, but Napoleon was still demoted to infantry, an affront in his view, and posted to fight counter-revolutionaries in the Vendée campaign. Like a child who refuses to go to school, he likewise alleged poor health. The reply of the government? The hero of Toulon was taken off the list of active generals.

5# Resurrection and marriage

Paul Barras, a prominent member of the Thermidorian Reaction that had ended Robespierre’s period of terror, and who had met Napoleon in the siege of Toulon, summoned him. He decided the latter’s talent as a soldier would be very useful since the Convention, of whom Barras was a member, was besieged in the Palace of the Tuileries by a pro-royalist mob. Once more, Napoleon would pass the test with flying marks, and these events, known as 13 Vendémiaire, saw him successfully defending the palace and ingratiating himself once more with the rulers of the country.

Barras appointed him Commander of the army of the Interior, under the belief he could control him, and it was through him he came to meet Joséphine de Beauharnais, Barra’s mistress. Nonetheless, Napoleon who wasn’t precisely a Casanova, much less confident around women, fell for her, despite her constant infidelities and the loathing all his family felt for her. Nonetheless, they married on 11th March 1796, and two days later he departed to take control of the Army of Italy.  

Joséphine, or Madame Bonaparte in 1801. Source

Again he proved his exceptional skill, by quickly defeated Austrian’s ally Piedmont, and driving the Austrians out of the Italian states, managing to find some spare time to terrorise some convents and even raid the Papal States for funds. After all, the Pope was filthy rich and overtly opposed to the Revolution, so why not?

He kept pushing east, approaching dangerously close of Vienna, enough close to send them in panic and forcing them to sue for peace. The Treaty of Campo Formio on 17th October 1797, ended the War of the First Coalition, and proved a great success for both Napoleon and France.

6Expedition to Egypt

He returned to Paris a hero, but the Directory (government from 1795), fearing his growing popularity, sent him to lead an expedition into Egypt, in spring of 1798. The official goal call was to cut their British enemies from India, and by keeping Bonaparte far from Paris, they killed two birds with one stone. On the 1st of July 1798, after a quick stop to occupy Malta, he landed in Alexandria at the head of a massive fleet, which would nonetheless be splintered to matches by the Viscount Nelson and his fearsome Royal Navy.

The campaign wouldn’t result as expected, despite his famous victory against Ottoman and Egyptian armies in the Battle of the Pyramids. His invasion of Syria would result in disappointment, and his unpopularity as administrator of Egypt increased, due his lack of knowledge of local customs, politics, religion, etc. Despite the political and strategical goals of the expedition elluding him, a comission of experts accompanying him discovered the Rosetta Stone, the key to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs, thus hugely contributing to our modern understanding of the Egypt of the Pharaohs .

The Rosetta Stone, nowadays exposed in the British Museum. By Hans Hillewaert. Source

On 10th September 1799, Napoleon was ordered home by the Directory, forced to leave his army stranded behind.

7# Napoleon’s Rise to power

The proximity of Austrian armies to France, the loss of most of the Italian gains by Napoleon in 1797, and the victory of the neo-Jacobins in April’s elections, which raised fears of a return to the Terror, convinced many of the dire necessity of a strong hand in the ruling of the country. Talleyrand, ex-minister of foreign affairs, and Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, a member of the Directory, conspired to take power, and Talleyrand chose Napoleon as the military man to provide them with a sword.

Thanks to his brother, Lucien, who was a well-connected member of the Council of 500 (the lower chamber) the coup of 18 Brumaire was successful and both chambers were cowered to accept a change of government. The Republic and the Revolution had passed into history.

Napoleon surrounded by members of the Council of 500 during the 18 of Brumaire. Source

A provisional government of Three Consuls was set, with Napoleon as First Consul, thanks to his ascendancy over the military, Sieyès and Ducos completed the new Triumvirate which reminded of the Roman Republic’s death throes. On 7th February 1800 France got a new constitution, which vested Napoleon with the real power over the other two Consuls, who became no more influential than simple furniture. Napoleon had finally showed his cards after so much self-restraint and intrigue.

Secured at home, he headed for Switzerland to take command of the ragged French armies, and then he thrusted into Piedmont once more, to face the Austrians in the hard-won battle of Marengo on 14th June 1800. The Austrians sued for peace once more, and Napoleon, this time owing more to luck than ever, had delivered the victory he had promised to the French, easing internal tensions and reconquering the Italian toy for France.

Artistic depiction of Napoleon crossing the Alps to invade Italy. The reality would have been more grim. Source

8# Dictator or fair ruler?

After peace with Great Britain, the last remaining enemy, was ratified in Amiens in 1802, the French went out to vote a new constitution, which unsurprisingly made Napoleon First Consul for life, with a totally plausible 99% approval of the electorate. As I said, nothing suspicious with the eerie, overwhelmingly positive result.

Indefatigable, he centralised France and strengthened the administration, by keeping unruly provincials on the leash with the prefects, and the brand new Gendarmerie, the Police force, which tackled the brigandage and rebellion that terrorised the countryside since the Revolution broke in 1789. The Gendarmerie’s successes would be later copied by other states, and it’s still nowadays a stable pillar of power for the modern state.

The First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. Source

His government stabilised the nation’s finances for the first time in a decade, and created the first Bank of France, solving the economic issues which had caused the Revolution on the first place. Especially notable was Napoleon’s inclination for delegating, acknowledging talent on his subordinates and leaving them free hand to work on issues he wasn’t qualified for. Tax collection, that unpopular prerogative of the government, was refined and improved by compiling and updating a cadastre of all properties in France, and its value to be accurately taxed.

Not all was counting bundles of money and scouring rebels though, Napoleon and his pals also set to work on a Civil Code, a single, uniform set of laws for the whole country to oppose customs and local privileges. It enshrined equality before the law, one of the sacred pillars of the Revolution, worshiping the rights of the individual and its accountability only to the state. In a few words, it was a sort of legal framework based on progressive, enlightened ideas. This is considered by many to be Napoleon’s greatest accomplishment, and many modern countries’ civil codes owe to this Napoleonic Code.

9# The Coronation of Napoleon

But the First Consul, despite his political and military successes, didn’t feel quite safe yet on his chair. There had been previous attempts against his life, and since any excuse is as good as any other in politics, it served him as a useful pretext to launch yet another referendum to confirm his new title of ‘Emperor of the French’. He won by an overwhelming 99% of approval. The same result than the other referendum? Coincidence. But on defence of the new, flamboyant emperor, it is worth mentioning that he didn’t shoot, sack, or even demote any members of the government or subordinates opposing the measure. The Corsican spirit of Vendetta and retribution, was simply lacking in Napoleon, who appreciated talent more than he despised opposition.

His coronation on 2nd December 1804 was officiated by the Pope Pius VII, with whom Napoleon had signed an agreement, the Concordat of 1801, to bring the religious strife caused by the Revolution to an end. However, in an unprecedented gesture Napoleon crowned himself, and then his wife Joséphine. Catholic Church had been established as the majority church in France, and he seek their support to pacify discontentment, but he made sure to show to his revolutionary supporters, that the changes of the Revolution wouldn’t be reversed.

This window dressing wouldn’t ease the anxieties of the European powers, especially Great Britain, who had resumed hostilities in May 1803. Their superiority in the sea, and the predominance of France’s armies in the continent limited both their capacity to harm each other to raids and exchange of insults. Only in 1805, when Russia, Austria, Naples, and Sicily joined Great Britain, than the real fight begun.

The War of the Third Coalition started catastrophically for the new French Empire. On 21st October 1805, a Franco-Spanish fleet was annihilated off Cape Trafalgar, by a British fleet commanded once more by the Viscount Nelson. Napoleon’s miss-management and incapacity to delegate on more technical navy officers  ended his hopes of contesting the British naval superiority at any rate, much less to invade Britain as he had prepared for.

10The Little Corporal and the battle of Austerlitz

Napoleon’s mistrust towards his admirals wasn’t applied to his Field Marshals. In anticipation of an amphibious invasion of England, France’s new army had been bolstered by an improved system of conscriptions and supervised by Napoleon himself to become an impressive fighting force. It was around this time that the legend of him being small begun to take root. Napoleon was 1,69 m (5,5 feet), a perfectly normal height for his time, but some guards and members of the military entourage were exceptionally tall, misleading many to think him small.   

The Grande Armée (Great Army) was divided into corps, each trained and drilled to act independently and fight against the enemy as a single unit. Their training and discipline was unparalleled, and unlike other armies, extreme corporal punishments were abolished, together with the privilege of the nobility to exercise them, or being immune to them. And unlike anything related to ships, Napoleon’s expertise and organisation skills were amongst the finest in military history.

Austria made the first move. On 14th September more than 70.000 troops occupied Munich, the capital of the German State of Bavaria, which Francis, the Holy Roman Emperor and also Austrian emperor, coveted. Tsar Alexander I of Russia, counting on Austria to do the dirty work, promised them to field 75,000 troops by the next month, trusting on linking with their allies before Napoleon’s army could cross the Rhine.

It didn’t go as Alexander planned though. Racing at a mind-blowing speed but suffering extremely low desertions, the Grande Armée crossed the Rhine, enveloping and cutting supply lines and communication of the Austrian army commanded by Mack, who surrendered by late October.

Plan B for Alexander and Francis II was a retreat further northeast to regroup, leaving Vienna opened to the French, who out of respect, didn’t sack the city. Just kidding. They plundered it at ease. Meanwhile Napoleon and another 70.000 men chased the main enemy army north, but suddenly stopped, feigning fatigue to lure the enemy. Alexander and Francis bite the bait, and on 1st December 1805 the battle of Austerlitz begun, on what is nowadays Czech Republic.

Battle of Austerlitz. 2nd December 1805. It became one of Napoleon’s most famous exploits on the battlefield. Source 

The battle is regarded nowadays as a stunning tactical masterpiece, which knocked out Austria and Russia out of the war. As a result Bavaria and northern Italy were liberated from Austrian interference, and Russia retreated eastwards to lick their wounds. Francis would, as a consequence, abdicate his throne of the Holy Roman Empire, effectively bringing it to an end after a thousand years. The War of the Third Coalition would last until the completion of Naples invasion by the French, who in July 1806 installed a puppet king, Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s older brother.

Napoleon was the incontestable master of Europe, commanding the most able state and the mightiest army. Only Britain withstood. From exiled to Emperor, Napoleon was on the height of his power and his Grande Armée seemed invincible, heralding an end to the Ancien Régime of kings, nobles and inequality. But the military glory worthy of Caesar himself couldn’t hide that fact that the French occupation in the new territories, and their demands for conscripts and funds were causing widespread resentment. The fight for Emperor Napoleon and the First French Empire, had just begun.

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