Who was Napoleon Bonaparte?
Napoleon Bonaparte is regarded as one of the greatest military commanders in history, changing the map of Europe and developing new laws, civil codes, and educational systems that continue to the present day. He is recognized as one of the most famous men in history, being the subject of countless biographies, with one writer suggesting that only Jesus and Adolf Hitler have had more biographical studies written about them. Napoleone Buonaparte, as his name was known in Italian, was born on August 15, 1769, at Ajaccio, Corsica, shortly after the island was ceded to France by Genoa. He was the fourth child, and the second surviving one, of Carlo Buonaparte, a lawyer, and his wife, Letizia (née Ramolino). The Buonapartes were descended from Tuscan nobility who had moved to Corsica in the 16th century, with Carlo Buonaparte marrying his wife when she was 14. In an interesting twist, Carlo Buonaparte disliked the idea of French rule over Corsica and joined the nationalist resistance movement of Pasquale Paoli. When Paoli fled after his defeat at the Battle of Ponte Novo on May 8, 1769, ending Corsica’s brief experience of independence, the Buonapartes made an accommodation with the French, and Carlo became the assessor for the judicial district of Ajaccio in 1771. Seven years later, he managed to get his eldest two sons, Joseph and Napoleon, into the Collège d’Autun. Napoleon was nine years old.
EDUCATION AND EARLY CAREER
Although Napoleon Bonaparte was a Corsican by birth and ancestry, in later life he never felt a huge affinity for the island; indeed he only visited it once after his rise to power. After the Collège d’Autun, Bonaparte spent five years at the Brienne Military College and then a year at the military academy in Paris. While he was at the military academy his father died, on February 24, 1785, leaving the family in difficult financial straits. Bonaparte graduated in September ranked 42nd in a class of 58, having assumed the position as head of the family, although he was not the oldest son. Bonaparte had become interested in mathematics and science. His first military posting was as a second lieutenant
in the artillery, being sent to Valence. There he became extremely interested in military strategy, writing his first book, Lettres sur la Corse, which expressed some of his early feelings for the island of his birth. He returned to Corsica soon afterward and in June 1788 rejoined his regiment. By this time he had also become fascinated by many of the ideas of the Enlightenment, especially those of Rousseau and Voltaire. With the calling of the National Assembly in Paris in 1789, Pasquale Paoli had been allowed to return to Corsica, and Bonaparte wanted to go and join him. The Corsican nationalist, however, was upset that Bonaparte’s father had deserted his cause, and Bonaparte returned to France, where, in April 1791, he was appointed first lieutenant of the 4th Regiment of Artillery at Valence. He also became active in politics, joining the Jacobin Club. However, his emotional attachment was still with Corsica, and he returned there but had a falling out with Paoli, returning to metropolitan France, where he had been briefly listed as a deserter. In April 1792 war with Austria broke out, and Bonaparte’s skills were needed by the artillery. Although he was promoted to captain, Bonaparte went back to Corsica yet again. There he sided with the Corsican Jacobins who were trying to prevent Paoli from getting Corsica to break away and become independent. Condemned by Paoli, the entire Buonaparte family fl ed to the French mainland, adopting the spelling “Bonaparte.” Bonaparte went to Nice, where the Jacobins had gradually come to dominate the republican movement. The monarchy had been abolished, and Bonaparte went to Marseille with his soldiers from the National Convention. To get to Marseille, he took them to Toulon, where he was appointed commander of the National Convention’s artillery with the support of Antoine Saliceti, who was also from Corsica and a longtime family friend. In September Bonaparte was promoted to major and in October became adjutant general. He was involved in fighting at Toulon in December and forced the British troops there to evacuate the city. On December 22, 1793, at age 24, Bonaparte became a brigadier general, one of the youngest generals in modern history,
a feat subsequently bettered only by Francisco Franco.
A child of the Revolution Rises
When Maximilien Robespierre fell from power in Paris in July 1794, Bonaparte was arrested on a charge of conspiracy and treason. As a Jacobin, Bonaparte had been seen as a follower of Robespierre, and even though he managed to get his freedom, he was not restored to his command but, instead, in March 1795, he was sent to La Vendée, where he was placed in command of the artillery of the Army of the West. Bonaparte was unhappy at the demotion and sought military preferment and even considered, albeit briefly, leaving France altogether and serving under the sultan of the Ottoman Empire. However, Bonaparte decided to stay, and with a new constitution being introduced, royalists hoped that they would be able to seize power in Paris. The National Convention was worried but felt that they could trust Bonaparte. He was placed second in command of the troops in Paris and used them to shoot hundreds of royalists who were trying to storm the National Convention. This move earned him the gratitude of the politicians, and he was hailed as the savior of the French republic. He was immediately appointed commander of the army of the interior and an adviser to the Directory, as the new government was called. It was during this period that Napoleon met Josephine Tascher de la Pagerie, the widow of General Alexandre de Beauharnais, who had been executed during the Reign of Terror. She was from Martinique in the Caribbean, and Bonaparte fell in love with her. Bonaparte was then involved in cracking down on a protocommunist conspiracy launched by François Babeuf and sought to get command of the Army of Italy, the French army that was about to invade the Italian Peninsula. Filippo Buonarroti, an Italian who had known Bonaparte in Corsica, was appointed commander in chief of the Army of Italy in March 1796. It was a great disappointment for Bonaparte, who married Josephine on March 9 and two days later had to leave home to lead the army on March 11.
RISE TO MILITARY PROMINENCE
When Bonaparte took command of his soldiers in Nice, he found that there were only 30,000 soldiers instead of the 43,000 he had been promised. Their morale was low, as they had been badly fed and not paid properly. He managed to turn them around and inspire them in battle. At Lodi he was first given the nickname le petit caporal (the little corporal). In early 1797 Bonaparte led his men to victory over the Austrians, forcing them to evacuate Lombardy. He then crushed the troops of the Papal States but decided against following up the order from Paris to dethrone the pope. As it was, Pius VI, who had condemned the execution of Louis XVI, was to die in French captivity in the following year. Bonaparte invaded Austria and forced the Austrians to sign the Treaty of Campo Formio. This gave France control of the Low Countries (modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands) and also northern Italy and the Rhineland. Bonaparte then captured the city of Venice and forcing the abdication of the doge, Lodovico Manin, on May 12, 1797, ending its independence, and reorganized the map of Europe to create the pro-French Cisalpine Republic in northern Italy. Bonaparte had taken 160,000 prisoners and had captured 2,000 cannons and 170 standards. In March 1798 Bonaparte suggested putting together a military expedition to seize Egypt, then a part of the Ottoman Empire. The Directory were worried about the cost of this expedition but happy that it would take Napoleon a long way from France. On his way to Egypt, the French captured Malta on June 9, 1798, but were unable to find the great treasure they had expected to find. On July 1, the French reached Alexandria, after eluding the British navy. In the Battle of the Pyramids, fought some four miles from the pyramids, a French force of 25,000 held off 100,000 Egyptians. By the end of the battle, the French had lost 300 men, and the Egyptians had lost 6,000. However, although the French were successful on land, the British under Admiral Horatio Nelson attacked the French at sea and destroyed the French navy. Napoleon then moved into Palestine and Syria, where the French captured Gaza, Jaffa, and Haifa. They killed large numbers of people in these attacks, but the French army itself was badly weakened.
RISE TO POWER
Bonaparte had his eye on developments at home, and on August 29, 1799, he suddenly left the Middle East for France. In October he returned to Paris, where people were beginning to be dissatisfied with the Directory. Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, one of the members of the Directory, asked whether Bonaparte would support a coup d’état. On November 9 (18 Brumaire of the revolutionary calendar), Bonaparte led his soldiers into the Legislative Assembly and ejected the members, and Bonaparte, Sieyès, and Roger Ducos were declared the three provisional consuls. Sieyès hoped to run the new government but Bonaparte who had drafted a new constitution managed to make himself the First Consul, and then the First Consul for life. There was no mention in the new constitution of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” The Consulate was a period when Bonaparte tried to introduce many long-lasting reforms, a number of which continue to the present day. In 1801 he negotiated the Concordat with the Roman Catholic Church, leading to a reconciliation between the church and the state. He also introduced the Napoleonic Code, whereby legal experts reformulated the entire legal system, codifying criminal and civil laws. There was also a meritocratic system by which Bonaparte himself appointed ministers, members of the Council of State, generals, and civil servants. It profoundly changed the nature of France forever.