Soldier & Emperor: Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon (Courtesy Library of Congress)

On 15 August 1769 Napoleone di Buonaparte was born to Carlo and Leticia (Ramolino) Buonaparte in Ajaccio, Corisca. The fairly influential family of Italian heritage was of some substance. As a result Carlo was able to send Napoleone to study in France. There the boy would prepare for a future in the military. Napoleone was apparently an adept student who enjoyed his studies. Five years after leaving Corisca he entered École Militaire. Napoleone excelled at the military academy. In 1786 he received a second lieutenant’s commission in the La Fère artillery regiment. His duties came to a stand still, however, when his father died. Carlo had been a big spender and when he died the family was left in financial straits. Napoleon returned to Corisca to help out.

The Buonaparte family’s loyalties had been leaning towards France despite their Italian background. It was evidenced in the use of their name; the spelling was changed to Bonaparte. Napoleone would eventually change the spelling of his name to Napoleon. Over the next few years Napoleon’s loyalties too became more solid. Like his family, his allegiances leaned more towards France. With the influence of the Enlightenment Napoleon formed radical opinions. As the French Revolution gained momentum Napoleon remained on in the military. It wouldn’t be long before he was making a name for himself. In 1793 after being promoted to captain Napoleon joined troops at the Siege of Toulon. It was here that he proved his worth. In the ensuing victory Napoleon was promoted to brigadier general. But even Brigadier General Bonaparte could earn the wrath of the people. Napoleon found himself aligned with the names of men who had fallen from the public favor. This led to his arrest. Fortunately for the 24 year old, while others were literally loosing their heads left and right he kept his and was cleared of charges of treason.

Josephine (Courtesy Wikipedia)

On 9 March 1796 Napoleon married Josephine de Beauharnais. While Napoleon was a smitten newlywed the same could not be said of Josephine. It would seem she married him for the prestige that came with her new husband. She showed little interest in communicating with Napoleon when he was away and was involved in a host of scandals. Napoleon too had loose morals.

In quick succession the promotions came. Napoleon was on the road to fame and glory. As a leader he was a popular fellow. Even with his soldiers Napoleon cultivated friendly relationships. By the late 1790s Napoleon was mastering the art of propaganda. When away from home he liked to make sure his name appeared in the newspapers so that his memory remained fresh in the minds of the folks in France. A prime example of Napoleon’s propaganda was Egypt. In 1798 Napoleon shipped out for Egypt. It was an altogether different experience—and not necessarily a good one either. Napoleon who had known so much victory found defeat in Egypt. That’s not to say that there were not victories, because there were. But there were also setbacks. His troops were coping horribly. Death and illness were all too common. And the brutalities awful. In the aftermath of the Egyptian fiasco Napoleon didn’t allow it to get his image down. Instead he spread the word that the French had once again triumphed.

In 1799 Napoleon returned home to a hero’s welcome. The Coriscan relished the fame. But the political changes that had taken place were not up to snuff in the officer’s opinion. The Directory was a weakling. Already plans were being made to bring it down. Conspirators turned to Napoleon as their leader. He would replace the Directory. It was hoped that in the aftermath he would bow out gracefully and allow the politicians to continue running the government. Not! After replacing the Directory Napoleon quickly set to work reconstructing the government and building up his image. Much went off without a hitch. Napoleon became one of three members of the newly-formed Consulate.

Napoleon (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Napoleon (Courtesy Library of Congress)

In 1802 Napoleon was voted First Consulate for life. It was noted that France’s new leader didn’t act much different from previous Bourbon kings. He lived in luxury and had a taste for finer things. But he was “kept on” nontheless. On 2 December 1804 Napoleon was named Emperor of France. With this new title came the need for an heir. By this time Josephine had reformed her ways. But it was too late for that now. Much to Josephine’s sadness the couple divorced due to Napoleon’s need for an heir. Shortly after he remarried to Marie-Louise (ironically the niece of Marie-Antoinette). The couple went on to have a son, Napoleon II. In the midst of this Napoleon did not forget his family but appointed many members to government positions.

On the battlefield Napoleon was still an able commander. With his powerful French army he went conquering. Enormous amounts of territory were amassed for France. Even when outnumbered at the Battle of Austerlitz the French carried the victory. But not all was glory. Many losses were suffered in the battles.

Within a few years of his being crowned Emperor, Napoleon’s world was falling apart and there was little he could do. Troops deserted by the droves, military blows were dealt and then Paris fell to the Allies. When Napoleon returned to France in 1814 thoughts of suicide came. His once glorious kingdom was in shambles. In the ensuing negotiations between French officials and the Allies, Napoleon was left in the dark. Napoleon was eventually made to abdicate although he was allowed to keep his title. Then he was sent to the island of Elba which he would rule over. Family came to visit Napoleon with the exception of Marie-Louise and Napoleon II, who were not allowed.

Escape from Elba (Courtesy Library of Congress)

In May 1815, after hearing a great many unhappy rumors from France, Napoleon sailed back to the mainland and marched into Paris practically unchallenged. People readily rallied around their Emperor. But the Allies were not going to sit back and twiddle their thumbs. And so once again Napoleon took to the battlefield. The Battle of Waterloo proved to be Napoleon’s undoing. He was once again dethroned and sent to live out the rest of his life on the island of St. Helena. It was a dreary existence for the fiercely active man. Depression sometimes assailed him. By 1817 he was suffering stomach problems. On 5 May 1821 Napoleon gave up the ghost. A legend had died.

Source: Forrest, Alan. Napoleon: Life, Legacy, and Image.

56 thoughts on “Soldier & Emperor: Napoleon Bonaparte

  1. Amazing post… you taught me so much J.G. Thanks!!! At first I thought the spelling of his name Buonparte was a typo… didn’t know he was or Italian heritage, had no idea he and “Not tonight Josephine” 🙂 divorced and lots of other info you provided.
    By the way, is that quote actually connected to Napoleon and Josephine or??? …


    • Well, how about that… I was on the right track, after all, but seems it was just British propoganda/ satire.
      I know that when we were in our early teens “Not tonight Josephine” was a kind of “raunchy” way of saying no… and believed it was about Napoleon & Josephine, and their great love affair, but none of us really knew what it was all about. Reckon we must have just picked up the phrase, and innuendo, from somewhere and repeated it like little parrots 😀
      Thanks for the link J.G… you’re a gem


    • Yes, you were on the right track. 🙂

      How about that? Napoleon not only left his footprint in history but in language, as well. It is really interesting how his life influenced the English language with such phrases. With your making the connection of “Not tonight, Josephine” plus “To meet one’s Waterloo” that makes two.


    • Yep. Those contemporary cartoons making fun of Napoleon’s height were not very accurate. (At 5’7″ Napoleon was even taller than I am). Plus his nickname “The Little Corporal” is sometimes misinterpreted, or so I’ve read; no doubt you know that the “little” was a literal English translation. It lost something in the translation from French.


    • British cartoons of the time did like to poke fun at Napoleon’s height, but as Roger mentioned above, Napoleon wasn’t short. He was 5’7″. There was some sort of discrepancy between the French and British measuring system (which made Napoleon 5’2″ by French measurements and 5’6″ by British measurements) and from what I’ve heard that helped to feed the myth about Napoleon’s height.


  2. That was very interesting, I always like reading about Napoleon and have a foot high statue of ‘Boney’ on my desk watching everything that I write. I bought it in Paris when I went to see his horse in their National Army Museum which if I remember has his tomb as its centre piece.

    It is interesting how much he is revered both in France and elsewhere for attempting to conquer the whole of Europe and other places whilst later dictators are detested by all.

    Perhaps it is due to his military genius and the romance of 19thC campaigns before dictators were swayed by facism and communism and it is far enough back for everyone to feel comfortable with. Or maybe because he just was genuinely brilliant but luckily for many of us he met his waterloo.

    I am sure much of the greatness of France is down to him.


    • So you clear everything you write with Napoleon, huh? 😉

      Oh, yes. It always seemed a little strange to me how his memory was venerated (even by Hitler!) yet he was, in effect, a dictator. I don’t admire him; find him interesting, but admire Napoleon I do not.

      Reading your thoughts here, I think you are correct. It makes sense. Yep, it was best that Napoleon “met his Waterloo”. Had Napoleon’s regime not fallen I wonder if he could have ever posed a very serious threat to the US?


  3. Interesting – I love the on-the-spot revisionist history Napoleon perpetrated about Egypt. I am disappointed to learn that the Napoleon-Josephine love story was a bit tarnished.


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