Seizing on the debacle the French Revolution became, Napoleon Bonaparte made himself one of the most influential men in history. If you want a bit of evidence to joust with Karl Marx or any other historical determinist who says economics or geography alone drives events, use Bonaparte. Napoleon, by his talent for opportunism, caused the most catastrophic wars the continent of Europe had yet seen. More than any other European conqueror before him he mastered economics and geography rather than being mastered by them, at least for fifteen years. In doing so he laid the groundwork for all of the totalitarian regimes that have plagued the modern world since. He modeled himself after Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, but a roll call of those who modeled themselves after him reads like a Most Wanted list of 20th-century war criminals. Even Feodor Dostoevsky’s masterpiece Crime and Punishment borrows this theme: What happens when an individual becomes convinced that he is the all-important man of his generation? Both the novel and the life story of Napoleon Bonaparte provide the same answer—great evil.
To understand Napoleon you have to understand both continents and islands. He was born on the island of Corsica off the coast of Italy in 1769. When his rampaging across continents was nearly over, he was imprisoned on the island of Elba. After one last sallying forth he was forced to stay on the island of Saint Helena until he died in 1821. In between, he accomplished feats of such daring that there are more books written about him than about any other person with the exception of Jesus Christ. Even the timing of his birth was auspicious because Corsica had just been taken over by France. For the rest of his life the fate of his adopted nation, France, was tied up in his fate yet his nature was Italian and insular. His family was what is known as impoverished nobility and could barely send the Bonaparte boys to school in France with financial aid from the Bourbon monarchy. He learned French and went to military school where he excelled in three subjects that would serve him well—mathematics, artillery, and cartography. These combined disciplines eventually made him a formidable and calculating military strategist, the best of his age. Napoleon, however, was pale, thin, and only five foot five inches tall. He is said to have had the hands of a woman. He hung to himself and during his whole life never truly befriended anyone. He did not seem to have the makings of a Great Man.
In Napoleon’s rise opportunism matched perfect opportunity. The chaos in revolutionary France in the 1790s was the perfect arena for his energy and ambition. Unburdened by ethical or patriotic urges, he viewed everything and everyone with detachment. From Rousseau he borrowed the notion that a shrewd member of the elite could embody the General Will of the people, and from the beginning Napoleon believed in only one doctrine, his coming greatness. He worked in the army putting down mobs as the French Revolution commenced. Once the royalists were on the run, Napoleon served the revolutionary government and was commended by Robespierre himself. When Robespierre fell, Napoleon was thus arrested but as France began to grow tired of slaughter via guillotine he was released. His first attempts at attaining high command were rebuffed, but Napoleon proved himself a patient and skillful political gamer. He had the good fortune to win the favor of a Jacobin military officer and member of the Directory by marrying the man’s discarded mistress, Josephine. His reward was to be placed in command of some troops and cannon when a mob numbering 30,000 surged around Paris in 1795 looking for something to destroy. As at previous engagements he exposed himself to great danger to position his cannon at point-blank range, and then he gave the mob what he later reported as, “a whiff of grapeshot.” The crowd was maimed and dispersed, and Napoleon was launched on his ever-rising series of promotions.
First he was given the task of humbling Italy. In doing so he perfected his strategies of ruthless command and attack. The Enlightenment and the French Revolution had made Christianity, shall we say, unfashionable, and Napoleon had given up on religion since he was nine and heard a preacher say the his hero, Caesar, was burning in hell. Bonaparte became, therefore, a conqueror without a conscience. He told his troops as they commenced the campaign into Italy, “Soldiers, you are naked, ill-fed. . . .But rich provinces and great towns will soon be in your power, and in them you will find honor, glory, and wealth.” Thereafter Napoleon’s troops were free to plunder, and he wisely created a system for the loot to be sent back to their families. War became lucrative business. As larger and larger sums were sent as tribute back to the Directory for France, more and more restrictions were removed from Napoleon’s absolute freedom of command.
Against the Italian and Austrian forces Napoleon proved his military genius. He carefully calculated all the supplies for his troops down to the last can of food (canned food was invented to supply his armies). Beyond logistics, Napoleon’s genius lay in being able to read a map with a perception and imagination for terrain beyond that of any of his enemies or subordinates. This advantage almost always allowed Napoleon to seize the best position from which to attack and to do so by surprise. When his army moved, it traveled in three columns, expanding his ability to see. Semaphore had just been invented so Napoleon could send messages back and forth to his generals at the speed of around 150 miles per hour on a clear day. He moved the army rapidly as he did everything else in his life, including bolting his food at meals and walking extremely quickly everywhere he went. If his troops were ever attacked they were highly trained and could quickly combine all their force to both rescue the column attacked and then overcome the enemy. In set battles, Napoleon’s favorite strategy was to engage the enemy at the front with a small portion of his force while scouting out the weakest point in the enemy’s lines. The majority of his forces would then be applied at this weak point while another portion of his troops were sent to attack the enemy from the rear. The attack from the rear prevented re-supply but also retreat. This sophisticated encirclement annihilated whole armies from numerous nations. Oh, and Napoleon is famous for teaching his troops that the bayonet is an offensive weapon, not just a defensive one. War was an offensive operation for Napoleon. His motto was “Audacity, audacity, always audacity.” With audacity he combined the first sophisticated use of infantry, artillery, and cavalry together.
Having turned Italy into a puppet-state of the French regime, Napoleon was only 28 years old and the most famous man in France. His next target was pure romance in his inner image of himself as Alexander the Great. He set out with 30,000 French troops, planned to acquire mercenaries along the way, and calculated that he could go all the way to the Indus River where Alexander turned around. He told the Directory that he could accomplish this feat in four months, and he showed them the math all the way down to the last round of ammunition. They said he could go ahead as long as he financed the whole thing himself (something they thought impossible). Having conquered Italy, Napoleon plundered the Vatican and then stole all the money from the Swiss government. He set off toward Egypt and was in Cairo by 1798. In July he fought the Battle of the Pyramids where he said to his troops the line referred to at the beginning of our course, “Forty centuries look down upon you!” His small army won some brilliant victories against the Turks, but failed to take Acre. Napoleon had met his first defeat, and he was unnerved. While retreating across Egypt, cultural experts stole a great deal of Egyptian artifacts including the Rosetta stone, but their acquisitions merely enlarged Napoleon’s reputation as a champion of the Enlightenment. When news of instability in the Directory reached him, Napoleon for the first time lived out his dictum, “Never reinforce failure.” He abandoned his army and returned to France.
Napoleon had learned the French people’s great weakness. With the proper propaganda, the frivolous and volatile people could be distracted from setbacks by transient excitement. Paris, he said, suffered from a short attention span and was thus easily manipulated. In an amoral nation, every sin could be forgiven. Napoleon marched into the Directory with only two guards to take up the position as commander of all the troops in Paris. When inside the actual chamber, the 500 Directors seized upon Napoleon shouting “Outlaw!” and “Kill him.” The two guards were beaten and Napoleon himself was “shaken like a rat,” the only time in his entire career when hands were laid on his person. He stumbled from the room with someone’s blood covering his face and said to his troops waiting in the hallway, “There are men armed with knives, in the pay of England, who are inside the chamber.” He ordered the whole Directory arrested and called for a new constitution.
This new constitution dissolved the Directory and created a Consulate. Like a victorious Roman general, Napoleon was made First Consul. While pursuing glory in Egypt, however, the Austrians had taken much of Italy back. In response, like Hannibal, Napoleon led a new army over the Alps as the nineteenth century dawned. He said, “We have fallen on the Austrians like a thunderbolt!” Although the second Italian campaign proved to be more hazardous than the first, the French were victorious again. In the wake of this new success, Napoleon made peace with the Pope and allowed Roman Catholicism to return to France. Even irreligious men can sense the social importance of religion in creating cohesion and moral purpose. Plus, the Pope was a convenient spectator to add legitimacy to Napoleon’s crowning of himself Napoleon I, Emperor of the French. To add further credence, Napoleon I then held a plebiscite, or vote. The results reveal that Napoleon was the first dictator to produce fake election returns: 3,571,329 yes votes to 2,570 no votes.
To the title of Emperor Napoleon preferred the phrase, “Head of the Army.” By now Europe was so frightened of the French that the British-financed Third Coalition was formed. First Russia and Austria, then Britain, Sweden, and Prussia joined. The result was Napoleon’s most famous victory, the Battle of Austerlitz. Through the efficiency of the signaling and the speed with which his troops obeyed his orders, Napoleon’s 73,000 forces set to rout the 90,000 combined Coalition forces despite horrible winter conditions (the battle was fought in December of 1804). When the Russian forces attempted to flee over ice, Napoleon ordered his cannon to fire upon them. The ice was shattered and 2,000 Russians simply drowned.
Whereas Napoleon was a great general, one of the true master strategists of all time, he failed as an Emperor. While he could advance aggressively, sweep armies and governments away from the map of Europe, and rapidly write new constitutions, he usually put into power members of his own family or his trusted generals. None of these men (or women, in the case of his sisters) proved adequate to the tasks given them by their benefactor. To further consolidate his power after he divorced Josephine (she did not produce for him a son and heir), Napoleon sought to marry a Russian princess. Czar Alexander I would have none of it, a fact which is thought to be the genesis of Napoleon’s mad plot to conquer Russia. As to a bride, he settled for Marie-Louise, daughter of a Hapsburg emperor and great-niece of Marie-Antoinette.
Lasting legacies of Napoleon’s power in this period include his Code Napoleon, the legal system imposed wherever Napoleon’s armies held power. The Code abolished the last remnants of the feudal system and established the theory, at least, of equality before the law. This system of laws was the single most unifying product of Napoleon’s rule over his empire. Another legacy is said to be a failure of Napoleon’s imagination and a manifestation of his ocean-phobia. He sold the Louisiana Purchase to the United States in order to raise money but also to spite the British whom he could not conquer (the ocean-phobia thing, again). The Louisiana Purchase may have been the most important real estate deal in all history, and we got the land for cheap!
What Napoleon learned was that an empire governed by a military cannot stop conquering (the Mongols could have told him that). His relatives were inferior administrators and his military officers were more interested in looting than in ruling. Only the Emperor possessed the exact balance of administrative skills, vision, and restraint to rule firmly and well. He could not rule at length, however, as long as his personal prestige relied largely on how long it had been since his last astounding victory. These came harder in the last two major fronts, Spain and Russia. Napoleon’s nemesis, the Duke of Wellington (the only British general who could come close to matching Napoleon as a strategist) stood with the Spanish and brought armies with him. Spain, remember, has treacherous terrain and was difficult for even the Romans to conquer. Napoleon placed his older brother, Joseph, on the throne but French culture did not attract the Spanish people and French rule did not stick unless on the point of a bayonet. The generals Napoleon sent were stymied, and then Napoleon broke his own rule and reinforced their failure by going to Spain himself in 1808. By 1811 there was still no decisive victory over the combined British and Spanish forces led by Wellington. Wellington, among other devices, hit upon the tactic of having his army lie down on a reverse slope when under an artillery barrage, thus reducing casualties.
The failure of Napoleon to win a quick victory in Spain is another main reason, along with his own personal humiliation at Czar Alexander’s refusal to ally their families, that Napoleon was compelled to invade Russia. He left his army to slog away in Spain just as he had in Egypt because he needed to protect his reputation back in France. He used as an excuse the fact that the Russians were not in compliance with his Continental System, the economic isolation of Great Britain he had exacted from all his subject states. In January of 1812 Napoleon mobilized an historic European army. Along with his French troops he brought German, Italian, Polish, Hungarian, Austrian, Bavarian, Dutch, and Swiss conscripts. By that summer he marched the 650,000 men into Russia. For twelve weeks the army merely marched east while the Russian forces retreated. The Russians stripped everything that might supply Napoleon as they left. Not until September could Napoleon pin them down to fight a 12-hour battle at a village named Borodino. The Russians lost 40,000 men, but Napoleon lost 50,000. Still, the road to Moscow was left open when the Russians retreated again. Napoleon marched his army into the city where he intended to re-supply and house his troops through the winter. The governor of Moscow, however, ordered the city burned the next morning. Three-quarters of the city was destroyed. By October, Napoleon realized there would not be enough food for his men, so he began a tortuous retreat. As his army marched west tens of thousands died of starvation, exposure to the onset of winter, or to Russian attacks which began in earnest. When Napoleon decided to abandon this army, he had only 40,000 men left in his command. He and some hand-picked servants boarded three horse-drawn sleighs and sped away. He barely escaped in a five-day dash in minus-25 degree temperatures back to Warsaw. He blamed the whole nightmare on the British.
Europe saw its chance. Germans acquired the first stirrings of nationalism as they united to attack Napoleon’s new French army he drummed up when he returned. The British and Spanish pressed from the west. The Battle of Leipzig, fought in 1813, was the largest battle of all the Napoleonic wars. Napoleon was driven back and for the first time had to fight on French soil. Wellington correctly guessed that Napoleon did not have the patience to fight a defensive war. The Russians joined this Coalition (the Sixth). Finally, Napoleon was chased to Paris where he had at his disposal only 70,000 men surrounded by over 500,000 Coalition forces. He abdicated the thrones of France and of Italy on April 6, 1814. With a disgusted sigh yet a morbid fascination, Europe gave Napoleon a parody of an empire, the tiny island kingdom of Elba. The brother of the guillotined Bourbon king was put back on the throne of France as Louis XVIII.
In fateful irony, the ship that deposited Napoleon on his island prison was the HMS Undaunted. Elba lay 7 miles off the coast of Italy and was itself only 7 miles wide and 19 miles long. There were 100,000 people on the island which he could rule, and he was allowed a personal bodyguard of 1,000 of his old troops. He might have died peacefully as a sort of tourist attraction for curious European gawkers, but he grew bored. He also heard that the French did not like the fat Louis who fell down during his first parade and couldn’t get up by himself. He refused to be helped up until the particular officer designated under royal protocol for such a task could be found and brought to the scene. All the French could see the difference for themselves. Napoleon rounded up six ships, 700 troops, a million francs in gold, ammunition, four cannon, and three generals and headed back to France. When the French army was assembled to stop him, he walked out on the battlefield, opened his old grey overcoat wide and said, “It is I, Napoleon. Kill your Emperor if you wish.” When no one did, he told an immense lie, “The forty-five wisest men in the Paris government have summoned me from Elba to put France to rights. My return is backed by the three leading powers of Europe.” Another pause, and the army shouted, “Vive l’empereur!”
Wellington had said in his earlier battles that the presence of Napoleon on a battlefield was like adding an additional 40,000 troops. Time fails me, but suffice it to say that in the final showdown between these two generals that grudging respect for his opponent was probably a key factor in Wellington’s victory. Wellington had carefully studied Napoleon’s temperament and talents, and his analysis paid off at the Battle of Waterloo, one of the key battles of all history. Nothing went quite right for Napoleon, and still he almost won.
Still, Napoleon was not hanged as a war criminal. Europe merely picked a more God-forsaken island prison, this time a volcanic one 28 miles in circumference in the South Atlantic, Saint Helena. Napoleon lived there from late 1815 until his death in 1821 surrounded by fewer than 1,000 admirers, banished nobility, and prison guards. A mystery surrounds his death in that arsenic was found in his system in an autopsy. Rumors circulated that he had been slowly poisoned, but the autopsy also revealed stomach cancer, of which Napoleon’s father had also died (and arsenic was then used as a treatment for venereal diseases). Despite having survived numerous superficial wounds and two serious ones, and despite having nineteen horses shot out from beneath him in battle, he died miserably irritated in his bowels. When King George IV of England was told in London, “It is my duty to inform your Majesty that your greatest enemy is dead,” he replied, “Is she, by God!” He thought the ailing Queen Caroline was meant. When Wellington heard the news, he told a lady friend standing nearby, “Now I think I may say I am the most successful general alive.”
The personal ambition of Napoleon altered life on nearly all continents. Not only did his personal actions cause millions of deaths of men (not to mention almost all the good horses in Europe), but there has not been a dictator of the twentieth century that did not model something of his mad plots after Napoleon’s. We must march through them all so listen for echoes of Napoleon’s words from his “Whiff of grapeshot” to his last words on St. Helena, “Head of the army.” You will witness again patterns set by Napoleon Bonaparte: the deification of war, an all-powerful centralized state operating through puppet-rulers, skillful use of propaganda, the cult of personality (some French people still adulate him), and the singled-handed manipulation of the wealth and power of entire peoples for the personal power of ideologues, or worse just demagogues.