There is no more marvellous story in human history than that of Napoleon I., Emperor of the French. His career is one long demonstration of the reality of the proverb, "Truth is stranger than fiction." So fascinating are the details of a life in which so much was attempted and accomplished that many thousands of volumes have been published dealing with its various phases. The demand is by no means exhausted, the supply continuous, as witness the present work.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
Napoleon the Boy(1769–1778)
The Schooldays of Napoleon(1779–1784)
Napoleon as Officer and Author(1784–1791)
Napoleon and the Corsican Volunteers(1791–1792)
The Eve of the Reign of Terror(1792–1793)
Napoleon’s First Fight with the English(1793)
Napoleon the Soldier of Fortune(1794–1796)
“The Spark of Great Ambition”(1796)
The Italian Campaign(1796–1797)
The Expedition to Egypt(1798)
From Cairo to Fréjus(1798–1799)
How Napoleon Seized the Reins of Government(1799)
The Passage of the Alps(1799–1801)
Blessings of Peace(1801–1803)
The Dawn of the Empire(1803–1804)
The Threatened Invasion of England and its Sequel(1804–1805)
The War of the Third Coalition(1805–6)
The Prussian Campaign(1806)
The Polish Campaign(1806–7)
Friedland and Tilsit(1807)
Napoleon’s Commercial War with Great Britain(1807)
The Genesis of the Peninsular War(1808)
Glory at Erfurt and Humiliation in Spain(1808–1809)
The Austrian Campaign(1809)
The Austrian Campaign—continued(1809)
The War in Poland and Tyrol(1809)
A Broken Friendship and what it Brought(1810–1812)
The Russian Campaign(1812)
The Triumphal Entry into Moscow—and after(1812)
The March of Humiliation(1812)
The Beginning of the End—The Leipzig Campaign(1813)
The Conquest of the Conqueror(1814–1821)
Whenever we hear the name of Napoleon mentioned, or see it printed in a book, it is usually in connection with a hard-fought victory on the battlefield. He certainly spent most of his life in the camp, and enjoyed the society of soldiers more than that of courtiers. The thunder of guns, the charge of cavalry, and the flash of bayonets as they glittered in the sun, appealed to him with much the same force as music to more ordinary folk. Indeed, he himself tells us that “the cries of the dying, the tears of the hopeless, surrounded my cradle from the moment of my birth.”
We are apt to forget that this mighty conqueror, whom Carlyle calls “our last great man,” had a childhood at all. He was born nearly a century and a half ago, on the 15th August 1769 to be exact, in the little town of Ajaccio, the capital of picturesque Corsica. This miniature island rises a bold tree-covered rock in the blue waters of the Mediterranean, fifty miles west of the coast of Italy. It had been sold to France by the Republic of Genoa the previous year, but the inhabitants had fought for their independence with praiseworthy determination. Then civil war broke out, and the struggle finally ended three months before the birth of the boy who was to become the ruler of the conquering nation. The Corsicans had their revenge in time, although in a way very different from what they could have expected.
Letizia Bonaparte, Napoleon’s mother, was as beautiful as she was energetic, and her famous son never allowed anyone to speak ill of her. “My excellent mother,” said he, not long before his death, “is a woman of courage and of great talent ... she is capable of doing everything for me,” and he added that the high position which he attained was due largely to the careful way in which she brought him up.
“It is to my mother, to her good precepts and upright example, that I owe my success and any great thing I have accomplished,” he averred, while to a general he remarked, “My mother was a superb woman, a woman of ability and courage.” A truly great man always speaks well of his mother.
Napoleon was Letizia’s fourth child, two having died in infancy, while Joseph, the surviving son, was still unable to toddle when the latest addition to the family was in his cradle. His father was a happy-go-lucky kind of man of good ancestry, a lawyer by profession, who on the landing of the French had resigned the pen for the sword. He enlisted in the army raised by Pascal Paoli to defend the island, for the Corsicans were then a very warlike people and much sought after as soldiers, and it is supposed by some that he acted as Paoli’s secretary. It is certain that the patriot showed him marked favour, which was never repaid.
When Paoli and his loyal band were forced to make their escape to the hospitable shores of England, Charles Bonaparte meekly accepted the pardon offered to those who would lay down their arms and acknowledge Louis XV. of France as their King. After events proved the wisdom of his choice, but scarcely justified his action.
The house in which the Bonaparte family lived at Ajaccio is still standing, but has been patched up and repaired so frequently that probably little of the original fabric remains. It now belongs to the ex-Empress Eugénie, the consort of Napoleon’s ill-fated nephew who is known to history as Napoleon III. You would not call it a mansion, and yet it contains a spacious ballroom, a large square drawing-room, Charles Bonaparte’s study, a dining-room, a nursery, several bedrooms, and a dressing-room. Some of the old furniture is left, namely the Chippendale sofa on which the future Emperor was born, his mother’s spinet, and his father’s desk. There is also a little etching of Napoleon on horseback by the late Prince Imperial, and one or two statuettes and portraits. In the Town Hall near by is a picture of Letizia which testifies to her good looks—she was known as “the beauty of Ajaccio!”
As a child Napoleon was impetuous, self-confident, and apt to be bad-tempered. If a playmate did something which displeased him the culprit was rewarded with kicks, bites and scratches. Letizia did her best to break him of this bad habit, with little success, for he resented interference to the end of his days. When he was Emperor he used to tell an anecdote of his early life which proves that his mother did more than scold him when he got into mischief.
There were some fig-trees in the garden attached to his home, and Napoleon was very fond of climbing them. Letizia, fearing an accident, forbade him to do so. “One day, however,” he relates, “when I was idle, and at a loss for something to do, I took it in my head to long for some of those figs. They were ripe; no one saw me, or could know anything of the matter. I made my escape, ran to the tree, and gathered the whole. My appetite being satisfied, I was providing for the future by filling my pockets, when an unlucky gardener came in sight. I was half-dead with fear, and remained fixed on the branch of the tree, where he had surprised me. He wished to seize me and take me to my mother. Despair made me eloquent; I represented my distress, promised to keep away from the figs in future, and he seemed satisfied. I congratulated myself on having come off so well, and fancied that the adventure would never be known; but the traitor told all. The next day my mother wanted to go and gather some figs. I had not left any, there was none to be found: the gardener came, great reproaches followed, and an exposure.” The result was a thrashing!
Probably the busy housewife taught Napoleon his letters, assisted by his uncle Joseph Fesch, who was but six years his senior, while from his great uncle, Archdeacon Lucien Bonaparte, he learned a little Bible history. The three “R.’s” were drilled into him by nuns, and as the establishment admitted girls as well as boys, Napoleon took a fancy to one of the former, thereby incurring the ridicule of some of his schoolfellows. They were never tired of jeering at him with a little rhyme, specially composed for the occasion, to the effect that “Napoleon with his stockings half off makes love to Giacommetta.” The translation, of course, does not jingle as in the Corsican patois. It must not be inferred that he was a good-looking or attractive boy. On the contrary, he had a sallow complexion, was invariably untidy, and inclined to be moody.
Later, he went to a more advanced school, and from thence to the seminary of the Abbé Recco. If he was not a brilliant scholar he was certainly more interested in mathematics than is the modern boy in locomotives, and that is admitting a good deal. He also excelled in geography. Both studies proved useful aides-de-camp when Napoleon began to master the intricate arts of strategy and tactics. It is on record that when Napoleon was very young he rode on a high-spirited pony to a neighbouring windmill, and after persuading the miller to tell him how much corn it ground in an hour, quietly sat down and worked out the quantity used per day and week. The tyrant then returned to his panic-stricken mother, who had convinced herself that the boy had probably fallen off his fiery steed and been trampled to death.
When opportunity occurred, the youthful Napoleon scribbled sums on the nursery walls and drew crude outlines of soldiers marching in regimental order. A fondness for the open air early manifested itself, and the earnest student would remain out-of-doors for hours at a stretch, provided he was allowed to follow his favourite pursuits without being disturbed. Should his brother dare to interfere when he was working in the little wooden shanty which his thoughtful mother had caused to be erected for him, Napoleon’s hasty temper would get the upper hand, and the intruder would be forced to beat a hasty retreat, perhaps in a shower of sticks and stones.
“My brother Joseph,” he tells us, “was the one with whom I was oftenest in trouble: he was beaten, bitten, abused. I went to complain before he had time to recover from his confusion. I had need to be on the alert; our mother would have repressed my warlike humour, she would not have put up with my caprices. Her tenderness was allied with severity: she punished, rewarded all alike; the good, the bad, nothing escaped her. My father, a man of sense, but too fond of pleasure to pay much attention to our infancy, sometimes attempted to excuse our faults: ‘Let them alone,’ she replied, ‘it is not your business, it is I who must look after them.’ She did, indeed, watch over us with a solicitude unexampled. Every low sentiment, every ungenerous affection was discouraged: she suffered nothing but what was good and elevated to take root in our youthful understandings. She abhorred falsehood, was provoked by disobedience: she passed over none of our faults.”
Napoleon’s father had no difficulty in deciding what profession to choose for his second son. As for Joseph, he determined that he should enter the priesthood. Napoleon was positive his brother would make a good bishop, and said so.
In this matter of settling the life-work of his boys Charles Bonaparte was helped by the kindly-disposed Marbœuf, one of the two French commissioners appointed by the King to govern Corsica, who frequently visited the house in the Rue St Charles. Napoleon, although only nine years old was now about to enter a larger world, to have an opportunity to appreciate the benefits of education on sounder lines, and to tread the soil of the country which received him as a humble pensioner of the King, and elevated him twenty-five years later to the Imperial throne.
In France there were twelve royal military schools to which a certain number of sons of the poor aristocracy were admitted without payment. Marbœuf was successful in securing this benefit for Napoleon, although his father had to prove to the satisfaction of the authorities that he was without fortune and to present a certificate to the effect that his family had belonged to the nobility for at least four generations. This done, the way was made clear for the boy to begin his first serious studies in the art of warfare. As the Corsicans spoke Italian and knew very little, if anything, of the French language, it was decided that Napoleon should stay for a time with his brother Joseph at the College of Autun so that he might acquire some knowledge of the language both were henceforth to speak. To the end of his days Napoleon never learnt to spell correctly, his pronunciation was oftentimes peculiar, and his writing invariably abominable.
Charles Marie de Bonaparte, duly accompanied by Joseph, Napoleon, Uncle Fesch, and a cousin named Aurelio Varese, set off for the land of their adoption in the middle of December 1778. The good Letizia sobbed bitterly when she parted with her two sons, but there were now several other children to be cared for, which must have consoled her to some extent. The travellers passed through Tuscany, where the beautiful city of Florence left an impression on the plastic mind of the embryo soldier, and a momentary sight of the Grand Duke afforded him intense pleasure. They were fragmentary foretastes of things to come, when Napoleon’s troops would overrun the land of the Medici and the scions of royal houses would appreciate a nod or a glance from the now unknown lad whose eyes opened wide with astonishment at the sights and scenes of pre-Revolutionary Europe.
On the 1st January 1779, Autun was reached, and the boys had their first experience of what it means to be hundreds of miles from home and in a country where rugged little Corsica, if mentioned at all, was sneered at, and its inhabitants regarded as scarcely better than savages. Another separation came towards the end of the following April, when Napoleon left for Brienne, now inseparably associated with his name and fame. Tradition has it that Joseph wept copiously at the moment of departure, but down his brother’s cheek there coursed a solitary tear. In the opinion of the Abbé Simon, who held the important post of sub-principal of the College, this was proof that Napoleon felt the wrench none the less keenly. Joseph allowed his emotions to govern him; Napoleon controlled his heart by his will, then as always.
It may be thought peculiar that Brienne, like the other military schools, was controlled by monks. The arrangement was really not so extraordinary as it would appear. Religion, up to the time of the Revolution, had always played an important part in the State, and that great epoch-making volcano had done nothing more than rumble at the period with which we are dealing. The Superior was, of course, the head of the establishment, the various Fathers having particular subjects to teach in which they more or less excelled. Occasionally a member of the laity assisted in a subordinate capacity. Pichegru, who was to become famous in the profession of Napoleon’s choice, taught the elementary class at Brienne.
The pupils lived in almost monastic seclusion. They were not allowed to leave the precincts for the whole of the six years which were allotted to them for education, and during the holidays were never quite free from lessons. What seems a most exacting régime in some ways was, however, neutralised to some extent by rules judiciously forgotten.
St Germain, the energetic Minister of War who had advised the King to found the military schools, had spent much time and thought in drawing up elaborate regulations for their government. The studies included geography, history, grammar, mathematics, Latin, French poetry, German, drawing, music, and eventually English. Special attention was paid, as was only natural, to the art of war, “the trade of barbarians,” as Napoleon once termed it in a capricious moment. Although rich in promise the colleges fell far short of the high ideals which St Germain had hoped for them, as do so many plans for the improvement of the existing order of things.
Notwithstanding all that has been written of Napoleon’s morose and sullen disposition during his student days, it must not be forgotten that the young cadet was at a decided disadvantage in making friends. The matter of language alone was a sufficient barrier to intimate intercourse at this stage of his scholastic career, and his habit of diligent study ill-accorded with the frivolous frittering away of time indulged in by so many of the King’s scholars. Napoleon was a hard worker, but only in subjects which most appealed to him, such as history, geography, and mathematics, all of which had a special bearing on his future career. Latin he despised as being of no practical value to a soldier; translations he positively loathed. He early learned to eliminate the non-essential and trivial, and the easy mastery of details became almost second nature to him.
His patriotism for his own country burned like a consuming fire. It is related that one day Napoleon came across a portrait of Choiseul, the hated Minister of Foreign Affairs under Louis XV. who had been the main instigator of the seizure of Corsica by the French. The most insulting remarks were hurled at the painted presentment of the man he so detested. On another occasion it is said that he averred he would do the French as much harm as he possibly could. If the story is not legendary, the statement was doubtless made in a moment of anger; perhaps after some thoughtless fellow student had taunted him about the poverty of his family, or the downfall of Paoli, the Corsican patriot whom he so much admired. His hot Southern blood boiled with indignation when anything was said which gave offence, and he scarcely, if ever, endeavoured to curb his hasty temper. He went so far as to challenge a cadet to a duel. To Bourrienne alone, a lad of his own age, did he show a marked attachment, and a warm friendship was cemented between them. Napoleon did not forget his school-chum in later years, and when a General appointed him to the important position of his private secretary. In his “Memoirs” Bourrienne gives us several intimate glimpses of the obscure lad who was to make Europe his footstool. He tells us that Napoleon frequently meditated on the conquest of his native island; that the unworthy part played by his father was never forgiven; that he spent much of his time in solitude. Bourrienne also confesses that in exchange for assistance in Latin the future Emperor would lend him a helping hand with his mathematics, the calculations being made with extraordinary clearness and rapidity.
“At Brienne,” his school-fellow adds, “Bonaparte was remarkable for the dark colour of his complexion, which the climate of France afterwards very much changed, as well as for his piercing and scrutinising glance, and for the style of his conversation, both with his masters and companions. His conversation almost always gave one the idea of ill-humour, and he was certainly not very sociable. This I think may be attributed to the misfortunes of his family during his childhood, and the impressions made on his mind by the subjugation of his country.”
In these trying days Napoleon’s reticent disposition served him in good stead. He preferred the library of the school to the playground. While the other boys were enjoying a game Napoleon was usually poring over the pages of Plutarch, and deriving inspiration and encouragement from the deeds of old-time heroes who figure in the “Lives of Illustrious Men.” Greek poetry had a fascination for him not evident in many lads of his tender age. “With my sword by my side,” he writes to his mother, “and Homer in my pocket, I hope to carve my way through the world.” Cæsar’s “Gallic War” was also a favourite. Although Napoleon was by no means generally popular, and certainly never inclined to be genial, the majority of the students gradually began to respect him. It is on record that he was never a sneak, preferring to bear punishment himself rather than to divulge the name of a miscreant.
The love of monks for the soil is proverbial; this may have been the reason why a small portion of ground was allotted to each student at Brienne. Whatever healthy exercise Napoleon was supposed to derive from his garden was speedily discounted. He set to work with feverish activity, transformed the desert into an oasis, planted trees and shrubs, and surrounded the whole by a palisade in true military fashion. This done, he troubled no more about agricultural pursuits but was content to sit in his bower and read with little fear of disturbance.
In the winter of 1783–4, an abnormally severe season, the anchorite had an opportunity to show his military powers. Napoleon suggested to the students that they should build a fort of snow complete in every detail. The school was then divided into two armies, Napoleon sometimes directing the assault, at others defending the fortifications. It was rough play, and several serious accidents befel the cadets, who entered into the spirit of the thing with more alacrity than the peace-loving monks approved. Day after day this mock warfare was kept up, and Napoleon was usually the hero of each encounter.
You can imagine him standing there in his picturesque costume: blue coat with red facings and white metal buttons, blue breeches, and a waistcoat of the same colour faced with white. Horace Vernet has depicted the scene in one of his many Napoleonic paintings. The young commander, erect and defiant, is directing the storming of the fort by cadets who, for the most part, have taken off their coats in order to secure a better aim. An attacking party is climbing the ramparts, some of the units with success, others with disaster. The picture has been reproduced many times, and is one of the few dealing with the early period of the Conqueror’s career.
Without question these were the happiest days of Napoleon’s youth. He was not a brilliant scholar, and there are no records to show that he won particular distinction beyond sharing a first prize for mathematics with Bourrienne, which goes to prove that the latter profited by the teaching of his chum. Napoleon however, was made commander of a company of cadets which amply atoned, from his own point of view, for all the “ploughing” he underwent at examinations. The opinion of M. de Keralio, one of the inspectors of the military schools, as to Napoleon’s efficiency is as follows:
“School of Brienne: State of the King’s scholars eligible from their age to enter into the service or to pass to the school at Paris; to wit, M. de Buonaparte (Napoleon) born the 15th August, 1769, in height 4 feet 10 inches 10 lines, has finished his fourth season; of good constitution, health excellent; character submissive, honest and grateful; conduct very regular; has always distinguished himself by his application to mathematics; understands history and geography tolerably well; is indifferently skilled in merely ornamental studies and in Latin, in which he has only finished his fourth course; would make an excellent sailor; deserves to be passed on to the school at Paris.”
In the light of after events this diagnosis of his character is peculiar; it may be added that he had a deep-rooted affection for those at home in the far-off little island in the Mediterranean. He took upon himself the burden of thinking for the family, and provided them with plenty of gratuitous advice not altogether without wisdom.
A few months before Napoleon placed his foot on the next stepping-stone to fame and fortune he was joined at Brienne by his brother Lucien, who had been at Autun. In a note to one of his uncles Napoleon expresses his satisfaction with the newcomer, “for a beginning,” but pours out a fierce diatribe against Joseph’s wish to give up his idea of becoming a priest and entering the army. In reality there were more difficulties in the way than those mentioned by the writer, and eventually the eldest son was taken home to Corsica by his father. Neither was it destined that Napoleon should become a sailor. Another inspector named Reynaud de Monts visited the school in 1784, and decided that the promising cadet should enter the Military School of Paris, for which institution he left on the 30th October. To the certificate which was forwarded, a brief but sufficiently comprehensive note was added: “Character masterful, impetuous and headstrong.” A complete contradiction of M. de Keralio’s statement.
No one seeing the dwarfed figure of the lad of fifteen, as he passed through the entrance of the École Militaire, would have cared to prophecy that in a few years the King’s scholar would be sitting as Emperor of the French on the throne of his benefactor. Time reveals its own secrets.
Without waiting to see if he would like the school and the tutors at Paris, or making the hundred and one excuses which usually crowd a schoolboy’s brain before definitely settling down to work, Napoleon applied himself to the various subjects necessary to enable him to enter the artillery. This branch of the service held out most possibilities from the point of view of sheer merit, and he chose wisely. At the examination held in September 1785, his name appears as forty-second on the list of candidates, which is neither particularly good nor particularly bad, and would suggest that a certain portion of his time was devoted to studies outside the immediate radius of the official course.
Napoleon had the good fortune to find a friend in Alexandre Desmazis, who shared his room with him and became Administrator of the Crown Buildings during the Consulate. Many other instances might be given of Napoleon’s kindness of heart to those who were not so successful in the race of life as was their benefactor. It is a point, and an important one, lost sight of by many of his biographers. There was certainly a better side of the mighty Corsican—he was not all blood and iron.
Apparently the studies of the chums at the École Militaire were successful, for they were appointed in the succeeding October, to the regiment of La Fere, stationed at Valence, Napoleon as second lieutenant. The two newly-fledged officers had so little money that they were forced to tramp a considerable distance on foot. It was very ignominious and humiliating, but pride is best swallowed quickly and forgotten, like a blue pill. Napoleon was now fatherless, and he felt his responsible position very keenly. Although not the head of the family in reality, he was nominally, for Joseph was far behind his brother in every material respect.
Besides his ordinary military duties Napoleon had to attend lectures on many subjects connected with his profession, including fortifications, chemistry, and mathematics. He seems to have worn off some of the rugged corners of his character. We find him with many friends, including one or two members of the fair sex. Upon one lady in particular, namely Mme. Grégoire de Colombier, he made a most favourable impression, and he received many invitations to her country house at Basseaux. She flattered him, but also tendered much practical advice. Napoleon was too young to fall in love seriously, but he passed many bright hours with Caroline, the daughter of his hostess, and a warm attachment sprang up between them. He ate fruit with her in the garden, and afterwards remarked that those days were some of the happiest in his triumphant but pathetic life. “We were the most innocent creatures imaginable,” he says, “we contrived little meetings together; I well remember one which took place on a midsummer morning, just as daylight was beginning to dawn. It will scarcely be believed that all our happiness consisted in eating cherries together.”
Bonaparte also visited the Permons; and Madame Junot, afterwards Duchess of Abrantès, has left us a witty pen-picture of him as he appeared in full regimentals at the age of sixteen.
“There was one part of his dress,” she writes, “which had a very droll appearance—that was his boots. They were so high and wide that his thin little legs seemed buried in their amplitude. Young people are always ready to observe anything ridiculous, and as soon as my sister and I saw Napoleon enter the drawing-room, we burst into a loud fit of laughter. Buonaparte could not relish a joke; and when he found himself the object of merriment he grew angry. My sister, who was some years older than I, told him that since he wore a sword he ought to be gallant to ladies, and, instead of being angry, should be happy that they joked with him. ‘You are nothing but a child, a little school-girl,’ said Napoleon, in a tone of contempt. Cécile, who was twelve or thirteen years of age, was highly indignant at being called a child, and she hastily resented the affront by replying to Bonaparte, ‘And you are nothing but a Puss in Boots!’ This excited a general laugh among all present except Napoleon, whose rage I will not attempt to describe.” A few days later the young officer went to a bookseller’s shop, purchased a dainty edition of “Puss in Boots,” and presented it to the culprit. This was his way of apologising.
For a time he relaxed his close application to study without neglecting his books altogether, and turned author. There is a pessimistic strain in all his literary efforts at this period, due no doubt to home-sickness, overwork, and perhaps lack of means, his income certainly never totalling more than twenty shillings a week. He even contemplated suicide, evidence of which is found in a manuscript dated the 3rd May, 1786.
“Always alone in the midst of men,” he complains, “I come back to my rooms to dream with myself, and to surrender myself to all the vivacity of my melancholy. Towards which side is it turned to-day? To the side of death. In the dawn of my days I can still hope to live a long time, but I have been away from my country for about six or seven years. What pleasures shall I not enjoy when in four months’ time I see once more my compatriots and my relations? From the tender sensations with which the recollections of the pleasures of my childhood now fill me, may I not infer that my happiness will be complete? What madness leads me, then, to wish my death? Doubtless the thought: What is there to do in this world?”
This makes strange reading, but it shows that even the greatest men have periods of depression like ordinary folk. He continues in this strain, passes sentence on France for having humiliated his beloved Corsica, and says scarcely less hard things of his own countrymen: “They are no longer those Corsicans, whom a hero inspired with his virtues, enemies of tyrants, of luxury, of demoralized towns.” Towards the end he shows a tinge of enthusiasm; his fighting instinct gets the better of him: “A good patriot ought to die when his Fatherland has ceased to exist. If the deliverance of my fellow-countrymen depended upon the death of a single man, I would go immediately and plunge the sword which would avenge my country and its violated laws into the breast of tyrants.” He again lapses into melancholy, concluding with a disgust for everything.
The second lieutenant did not take his own life; he lived down his troubles instead. Indeed his favourite motto, and one well worthy of note by every reader of this volume, was “The truest wisdom is a resolute determination.” In August 1786, a rift in the cloud showed the proverbial silver lining, and the chance of a little excitement, which was bread and meat to him, came along. A miniature rebellion had broken out at Lyons, and it was deemed necessary to call out the military. The company at Valence to which Napoleon belonged was marched to the seat of the trouble. Before it arrived the insurrection had blown over, thereby shattering the officer’s hope of distinguishing himself.
From Lyons he proceeded northward to Douay, in Flanders, where he contracted malarial fever which tended to undermine his constitution for several years afterwards. Bad news also reached him from Corsica. His mother appealed to him to come home and give her the benefits of his advice and assistance. Archdeacon Lucien—Napoleon’s great-uncle, who had hitherto acted as head of the family—was daily growing more feeble: the good Letizia feared the worst. Her means were distressingly small, her family inordinately large for the scanty resources at her disposal. On the 1st of September 1786, he set out for his beloved island. Passing through Aix, he was cheered by a visit to his uncle Fesch and his brother Lucien, both of whom were studying at the Seminary with a view to entering the priesthood. Exactly a fortnight afterwards, Napoleon landed at Ajaccio with a small trunk of clothes and a larger one of books. The works of Plutarch, Plato, Cicero, Nepos, Livy, Tacitus, Montaigne, Montesquieu, Raynal, Corneille, Racine, Voltaire, and the poems of Ossian were all represented.
Napoleon applied himself with his usual industry to straightening out the tangled skein of family troubles. He found it by no means an easy matter, especially as the French Government was involved. The latter had been anxious to introduce the silk industry in their new dependency, and Charles Bonaparte had been one of the first to seize upon the idea because he thought there was “money in it.” In 1782 he had made a plantation of young mulberry trees for the purpose of rearing silkworms, but instead of handing over the whole of the money which had been agreed upon in advance, 2700 livres still remained to be paid by the State. On the strength of a certificate of ill-health, Napoleon’s leave was extended from the end of March 1787, to the beginning of December, and later until the 1st June 1788. He wandered about the island, visiting his old haunts and companions, but more often finding his greatest consolation in lonely communion with Nature. Sometimes he would turn to his literary pursuits, adding a few paragraphs to a “History of Corsica,” which was occupying some of his leisure moments. He also composed a short story dealing with English history, entitled “The Count of Essex.” A novel having its setting in Corsica followed, and another attempt at fiction, which he called “The Masked Prophet,” perhaps the best of the three as regards literary style.
On the 12th September 1787, he left Corsica for Paris, in order to clear up the matter of the mulberry trees. He found it impossible to exact money from a bankrupt exchequer, and although he pressed the claim no success attended his efforts. Napoleon accordingly returned to Ajaccio, where he spent part of his spare time drawing up plans for the defence of places round the coast, and postponed his departure until the day he was due to join his regiment at Auxonne. Ever of a calculating nature, the young officer rightly surmised that in those days of lax discipline his absence would not be noticed, or if it were that the insubordination would be passed over.
In the following August (1788) it became evident that the serious work he had put in while his companions were lounging about or frittering away their time was beginning to have its due effect. He became a member of a commission appointed to inquire into the merits or demerits of certain pieces of artillery, and one of the duties—no slight one—which fell to his share was the drawing up of the report. Misfortune, however, had not altogether ceased paying him unwelcome attentions, and, for some reason or other, probably a matter connected with some work on the fortifications of which he had the oversight, Napoleon was placed under arrest for a day.
His own scheme of education went on apace, as his manuscript note-books, now in the Lorenzo Medici Library at Florence, abundantly testify. One of the works singled out by him for attention was a French translation of Barrow’s “History of England, from the Times of Julius Cæsar to the Peace of 1762.” His remarks show that he had a special admiration for such men as Hereward the Wake, familiar to all of us in the pages of Kingsley, or in the more recently published historical romance, “The Story of Hereward,” by Mr Douglas C. Stedman; Simon de Montfort, whom Napoleon terms “one of the greatest Englishmen”; and the Earl of Arundel, who “died a martyr for the liberty of his country.” Cromwell, he says, “was in his early days a libertine. Religion took possession of him, and he became a prophet. Courageous, clever, deceitful, dissimulating, his early principles of republican exaltation yielded to the devouring flame of his ambition, and, after having tasted the sweets of power, he aspired to the pleasure of reigning alone. He had a strong constitution, and had a manly but brusque manner. From the most austere religious functions he passed to the most frivolous amusements, and made himself ridiculous by his buffoonery. He was naturally just and even-tempered.” Many of these remarks might be applied not inaptly to Napoleon himself, and if he is not absolutely just to Cromwell, they show that he had a very good understanding of the Protector’s general character, and that he read to learn and not simply to “kill time,” or for amusement.
In April 1789 was heard the distant rumble which heralded the French Revolution, before it broke out in all its hideous extravagancies. Riots had taken place at Seurre, but as in the case of the affair at Lyons, they were quelled before Napoleon or his colleagues put foot in the place. Two months of enforced idleness were spent in the former town before the company was marched back to its headquarters at Auxonne without having had the slightest chance to distinguish itself. When it could have proved useful it broke into open mutiny. This was in July 1789, when a riot took place and the soldiers joined the rebels.
Napoleon had now completed his “History of Corsica,” and on the disgrace of Marbeuf, Bishop of Sens, to whom he had hoped to dedicate it, he decided to ask Paoli to become his patron. He sent him his precious manuscript feeling assured that it would be well received, but the acknowledgment was a rebuff couched in courteous terms. Moreover, the original was mislaid by Paoli, and this unfortunate happening went far to shake the faith of its writer in the great Corsican leader at a later date.
It is now necessary for us to try to understand in some measure the aims and objects of the vast disturbance known to history as the French Revolution. For generations the monarchy and aristocracy of France had refused to listen to the cry of the oppressed people whom they governed. The State was grossly mismanaged; money which should have remained in the pockets of the distressed people was exacted from them and given to unworthy Court favourites, who spent it in a variety of ways which did not benefit the nation. The nobles and titled clergy paid no taxes, the burden thus fell with undue weight on the middle classes—even now the milch-cow of the State—and the peasants, who toiled day and night for bread. Serious reform was always postponed, although it had been attempted by King Louis XVI. in a feeble and half-hearted way.
A bitter hatred of the persons, institutions, and traditions which contributed to this undesirable state of things was the inevitable consequence; as so often happens, those who desired the righting of wrongs carried their measures too far. “Liberty, equality, and fraternity” were the passwords of the leaders of the new order, but obviously the ideal could not be brought about when nearly everybody held a different theory as to how the abuses were to be rectified. The writings of such philosophers as Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau, all of which had been diligently perused by Napoleon, had done much to fan the smouldering embers into flames. Soon the whole land was ablaze, massacres became of daily occurrence, the King and Queen paid the price with their heads, the monarchies of Europe were shaken to their very foundations. And what did the people get in exchange for this giant upheaval? The iron despotism of one man, who continued the Revolution in his own person; made the Continent one vast battlefield; drew from France her best manhood and her treasure, and left her territory smaller than when he first put foot on her soil.
At the moment it was impossible for Napoleon to realise the true meaning of the dreadful events which were approaching with such unrestrained rapidity. He foresaw the end of the old state of affairs, and rightly conjectured that they would be swept away never to return; but Corsica was the centre of his interests rather than France. Rent asunder by conflicting ambitions and civil war, his native island might yet tear herself from her hated conquerors. So at least he told himself in his moments of reflection.
In September 1789, Bonaparte again obtained leave of absence until the 1st June 1790. His health was by no means good when he embarked at Marseilles; a mutiny had occurred in his regiment, and altogether his outlook was as gloomy as ever. Freedom from his irksome military duties, however, and the bracing effect of the sea-air rapidly revived his drooping spirits and failing energy.
The echo of the Revolution had been heard in far-off Corsica; there were disturbances, and serious trouble seemed likely, as soldiers were on the move intent upon restoring the sway of the hated royalist authorities. Napoleon called a meeting of patriots, harangued them, and headed a petition to the democratic National Assembly to restore independence to Corsica. He began to organise a National Guard, which was almost immediately dissolved by Vicomte de Barrin, the French Governor. The ardent young man of twenty thereupon set out for Bastia, the official capital of the island, where a passage of arms took place between the soldiers and the people. The latter won the day, and Barrin was forced to order the arming of the Civic Guard as they wished.
Shortly afterwards news arrived that the National Assembly had decided that Corsica should become a part of the Kingdom of France and enjoy the same constitution. All thought of independence seems to have instantly vanished from Napoleon’s mind. He laid down the cudgels without further ado, saying that France “has opened her bosom to us, henceforth we have the same interests and the same solicitudes; it is the sea alone which separates us.” Joseph being elected a member of the Municipal Council, the Bonaparte family was able to lift up its head again. Further leave of absence on the score of ill-health was again requested by Napoleon and granted. In reality he was taking an active part in affairs, and enjoying it, for Corsica was more or less in a state of anarchy. At Ajaccio he joined a Radical Club called the Patriotic Society, and wrote and printed a “Letter” to Buttafuoco, one of the most hated men in Corsica, who, since the death of Napoleon’s father, had represented the nobility of the island at Versailles. It is full of abuse, the writer in his passionate ardour going so far as to say that, having burnt Buttafuoco in effigy, most of the Corsicans would like to burn him in person. Moreover, Paoli was returning, and he foresaw an opportunity of serving him. Paoli received a magnificent reception at Bastia when he arrived on the 17th July. The time for aiding the General of the Corsicans had not yet come, however, and Napoleon again set sail for France, reaching Auxonne, a picturesque little town on the river Saône, in February 1791.
Several years afterwards, in 1803 to be precise, when he was planning the invasion of our own fair land, Napoleon thus summed up his youthful days to Madame de Rémusat: “I was educated at a military school, and I showed no aptitude for anything but the exact sciences. Every one said of me, ‘That child will never be good for anything but geometry.’ I kept aloof from my schoolfellows. I had chosen a little corner in the school grounds, where I would sit and dream at my ease; for I have always liked reverie. When my companions tried to usurp possession of this corner, I defended it with all my might. I already knew by instinct that my will was to override that of others, and that what pleased me was to belong to me. I was not liked at school. It takes time to make oneself liked; and, even when I had nothing to do, I always felt vaguely that I had no time to lose.
“I entered the service, and soon grew tired of garrison work. I began to read novels, and they interested me deeply. I even tried to write some. This occupation brought out something of my imagination, which mingled itself with the positive knowledge I had acquired, and I often let myself dream in order that I might afterwards measure my dreams by the compass of my reason. I threw myself into an ideal world, and I endeavoured to find out in what precise points it differed from the actual world in which I lived. I have always liked analysis, and, if I were to be seriously in love, I should analyse my love bit by bit. Why? and How? are questions so useful that they cannot be too often asked. I conquered, rather than studied, history; that is to say, I did not care to retain and did not retain anything that could not give me a new idea; I disdained all that was useless, but took possession of certain results which pleased me.”
It was this skilful combining of the practical and the imaginative which enabled Napoleon to project his vast schemes for the reformation of Europe; it was the elimination of the former and the substitution of an overweening self-confidence which deprived the mighty conqueror of “the throne o’ the world.”
Napoleon again had a companion on his return voyage to France in the person of his brother Louis, a bright little fellow twelve and a half years old. If the latter could not be expected to take any intelligent interest in the many schemes for advancement which were now coursing through Napoleon’s super-active brain, he was at least a living link with the family in Ajaccio. The young lieutenant’s political ambitions which had received so marked an incentive in Corsica were not allowed to sink to zero, as is so frequently the case when one is away from the whirl and excitement of their practical influence. Rather were they nourished and fed by the sights and scenes Napoleon beheld as the two made their way to Auxonne after they had landed. The fact that he had exceeded his leave of absence worried him not at all, the penalty of six months’ imprisonment, should his excuse be deemed invalid, being dismissed from his mind as an unlikely sequel. In his pocket were certificates from the Directory of the district of Ajaccio setting forth in glowing terms the services Napoleon had rendered to Corsica, and stating that his had been an enforced absence from duty owing to the unfavourable weather precluding the vessel from leaving. These credentials proved sufficient; he did not so much as lose a sou of his pay.
Napoleon quickly returned to his old habits of hard work, and his democratic opinions were voiced with greater vehemence to his fellow-officers, many of whom failed to agree with him and were not afraid to say so. Polite discussions frequently led to less gentlemanly arguments.
The room which the two Bonapartes occupied was almost as poorly furnished as was Chatterton’s garret. Facing the window was a table loaded with books, papers, and writing utensils. There was a chair apiece: should a visitor come, either Napoleon or Louis had to sit on the edge of the bed, the younger brother being accommodated at night on a mattress in an adjoining apartment, which was in reality a part of the room and scarcely larger than a cupboard. If at a later period of his career Napoleon showed a desire for lavish display, he certainly was not able to indulge in luxury at Auxonne. He paid for everything required by Louis, clothed him, educated him, and thrashed him when he was disobedient or particularly dense in the matter of lessons. The younger Bonaparte soon became a general favourite, both in and outside the regiment. Napoleon writes with a certain amount of satisfaction that “all the women are in love with him.” His faults seem to be summed up in the comprehensive but cynical phrase, “All he needs is knowledge.”
In the middle of June 1791, Napoleon bade farewell to Auxonne and set out for Valence, where the Fourth Regiment was in garrison, he having been made first lieutenant of the first company of the second battalion. His brother accompanied him, lodging elsewhere, as it was not found convenient for Louis to remain in the same house. By way of recreation, frequent visits were paid to Madame de Colombier, but politics more and more absorbed Napoleon. He entered with great zest into the doings of the Society of the Friends of the Constitution, an avowedly revolutionary and republican gathering, and soon became so popular with its members that he was elected secretary and librarian.
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