It is frequently a misfortune to have very brilliant men in charge of affairs. They expect too much of ordinary men. — Thucydides

Josephine - John S. C. Abbott




Josephine in Italy


1796-1797


On the 9th of March, 1796, Josephine was married to Napoleon. The Revolution had swept away every thing that was sacred in human and divine institutions, and the attempt had been made to degrade marriage into a mere partnership, which any persons might contract or dissolve at pleasure. According to the Revolutionary form, Josephine and Napoleon presented themselves before a magistrate, and simply announced their union. A few friends attended as witnesses of the ceremony.

Napoleon had, in the mean time, been appointed commander of the French forces in Italy. In twelve days after his nuptials, he left his bride and hastened to the army, then in the lowest state of poverty and suffering. The veteran generals, when they first saw the pale-faced youth who was placed over them all, were disposed to treat him with contempt. Hardly an hour elapsed after his arrival ere they felt and admitted that he was their master. He seemed insensible to mental exhaustion, or fatigue, or hunger, or want of sleep. He was upon horseback night and day. Almost supernatural activity was infused into the army. It fell like an avalanche upon the Austrians. In fifteen days after he took command, he proclaimed to his exulting and victorious troops,

"Soldiers! you have gained in fifteen days six victories, taken one-and-twenty standards, fifty-five pieces of cannon, many strong places, and conquered the richest part of Piedmont; you have made fifteen thousand prisoners, and killed or wounded ten thousand men."

Paris was perfectly intoxicated with the announcement, day after day, of these brilliant achievements. The name of Napoleon was upon every lip, and all France resounded with his praises. "This young commander," said one of the discomfited veteran generals of the Austrian army, "knows nothing whatever about the art of war. He is a perfect ignoramus. He sets at defiance all the established rules of military tactics. There is no doing any thing with him."

Napoleon, after a series of terrible conflicts and most signal triumphs, drove the Austrians out of Italy, pursued them into their own country, and at Leoben, almost within sight of the steeples of Vienna, dictated a peace, which crowned him, in the estimation of his countrymen, with the highest glory. Josephine now went from Paris to Italy to meet her triumphant husband. They took up their residence at the Castle of Montebello, a most delightful country seat in the vicinity of Milan.

And here Josephine passed a few months of almost unalloyed happiness. The dark and tempestuous days through which she had recently been led, had prepared her to enjoy most exquisitely the calm which ensued. She had been in the deepest penury. She was now in the enjoyment of all that wealth could confer. She had been widowed and homeless. She was now the wife of a victorious general whose fame was reverberating through Europe, and her home combined almost every conceivable attraction. She had been a prisoner doomed to die, and her very jailer feared to speak to her in tones of kindness. Now she was caressed by nobles and princes; all the splendors of a court surrounded her, and every heart did her homage. Josephine presided at all her receptions and entertainments with an elegance of manner so winning as perfectly to fascinate the Milanese. "I conquer provinces," said Napoleon of her at that time, "but Josephine wins hearts." The vicinity of Montebello combines perhaps as much of the beautiful and the sublime in scenery as can be found at any other spot on the surface of the globe. Napoleon sympathized most cordially with Josephine in her appreciation of the beautiful and the romantic; and though he devoted the energies of his mind, with unsleeping diligence, to the ambitious plans which engrossed him, he found time for many delightful excursions with his fascinating bride. There is not, perhaps, in Italy a more lovely drive than that from Milan, along the crystal waters of Lake Como to Lake Maggiore. This romantic lake, embosomed among the mountains, with its densely wooded islands and picturesque shores, was a favorite resort for excursions of pleasure. Here, in gay parties, they floated in boats, with well-trained rowers, and silken awnings, and streaming pennants, and ravishing music. The island of Isola Bella, or Beautiful Island, with its arcades, its hanging gardens, and its palace of monkish gloom, was Napoleon's favorite landing-place. Here they often partook of refreshments, and engaged with all vivacity in rural festivities. It is stated that, while enjoying one of these excursions, Josephine, with one or two other ladies, was standing under a beautiful orange-tree, loaded with fruit, with the attention of the party all absorbed in admiring the beauties of the distant landscape. Napoleon, unperceived, crept up the tree, and by a sudden shake brought down quite a shower of the golden fruit upon the ladies. The companions of Josephine screamed with affright and ran from the tree. She, however, accustomed to such pleasantries, suspected the source, and remained unmoved. "Why, Josephine!" exclaimed Napoleon, "you stand fire like one of my veterans." "And why should I not?" she promptly replied, "am I not the wife of their commander?"

[Illustration] from Josephine by John S. C. Abbott
ISOLA BELLA.


Napoleon, during these scenes of apparent relaxation, had but one thought—ambition. His capacious mind was ever restless, ever excited, not exactly with the desire of personal aggrandizement, but of mighty enterprise, of magnificent achievement. Josephine, with her boundless popularity and her arts of persuasion, though she often trembled in view of the limitless aspirations of her husband, was extremely influential in winning to him the powerful friends by whom they were surrounded.

The achievements which Napoleon accomplished during the short Italian campaign are perhaps unparalleled in ancient or modern warfare.

With a number of men under his command ever inferior to the forces of the Austrians, he maneuvered always to secure, at any one point, an array superior to that of his antagonists. He cut up four several armies which were sent from Austria to oppose him, took one hundred and fifteen thousand prisoners, one hundred and seventy standards, eleven hundred and forty pieces of battering cannon and field artillery, and drove the Austrians from the frontiers of France to the walls of Vienna. He was every where hailed as the liberator of Italy; and, encircled with the pomp and the power of a monarch, he received such adulation as monarchs rarely enjoy.

The Directory in Paris began to tremble in view of the gigantic strides which this ambitious general was making. They surrounded him with spies to garner up his words, to watch his actions, and, if possible, to detect his plans. But the marble face of this incomprehensible youth told no secrets. Even to Josephine he revealed not his intentions; and no mortal scrutiny could explore the thoughts fermenting in his deep and capacious mind. His personal appearance at this time is thus described by an observer of his triumphal entrance into Milan:

"I beheld with deep interest and extreme attention that extraordinary man who has performed such great deeds, and about whom there is something which seems to indicate that his career is not yet terminated. I found him very like his portrait, small in stature, thin, pale, with the air of fatigue, but not in ill health. He appeared to me to listen with more abstraction than interest, as if occupied rather with what he was thinking of than with what was said to him. There is great intelligence in his countenance, along with an expression of habitual meditation, which reveals nothing of what is passing within. In that thinking head, in that daring mind, it is impossible not to suppose that some designs are engendering which shall have their influence upon the destinies of Europe."

Napoleon was fully confident of the jealousy he had aroused, and of the vigilance with which he was watched. His caution often wounded Josephine, as he was as impenetrable to her in reference to all his political plans as to any one else. While she at times loved him almost to adoration, she ever felt in awe of the unexplored recesses of his mind. He appeared frequently lost in thought, and, perfectly regardless of the pomp and the pageantry with which he was surrounded, he gave unmistakable indications that he regarded the achievements he had already accomplished as very trivial—merely the commencement of his career. She once remarked to a friend, "During the many years we have now passed together, I never once beheld Bonaparte for a moment at ease—not even with myself. He is constantly on the alert. If at any time he appears to show a little confidence, it is merely a feint to throw the person with whom he is conversing off his guard, and to draw forth his real sentiments, but never does he himself disclose his own thoughts."

Napoleon now deemed it expedient to visit Paris; for he despised the weakness and the inefficiency of those who, amid the surges of the Revolution, had been elevated there to the supreme power, and already he secretly contemplated the overthrow of the government, as soon as an opportunity promising success should be presented. Josephine, with her children, remained in Milan, that she might continue to dazzle the eyes of the Milanese with the splendor of the establishment of the Liberator of Italy, and that she might watch over the interests of her illustrious spouse.

She gave splendid entertainments. Her saloons were ever thronged with courtiers, and the inimitable grace she possessed enabled her, with ease and self-enjoyment, to preside with queenly dignity over every scene of gayety. She was often weary of this incessant grandeur and display, but the wishes of her husband and her peculiar position seemed to afford her no choice. Napoleon unquestionably loved Josephine as ardently as he was capable of loving any one. He kept up a constant, almost a daily correspondence with her. Near the close of his life, he declared that he was indebted to her for every moment of happiness he had known on earth. Ambition was, however, with Napoleon a far more powerful passion than love. He was fully conscious that he needed the assistance of his most accomplished wife to raise him to that elevation he was resolved to attain. Self-reliant as he was, regardless as he ever appeared to be of the opinions or the advice of others, the counsel of Josephine had more influence over him than perhaps that of all other persons combined. Her expostulations not unfrequently modified his plans, though his high spirit could not brook the acknowledgment. Hortense and Eugene were with Josephine at Milan. Eugene, though but seventeen years of age, had joined Napoleon in the field as one of his aids, and had signalized himself by many acts of bravery.

In this arrangement we see an indication of the plans of boundless ambition which were already maturing in the mind of Bonaparte. The Italians hated their proud and domineering masters, the Austrians. They almost adored Napoleon as their deliverer. He had established the Cisalpine Republic, and conferred upon them a degree of liberty which for ages they had not enjoyed. Napoleon had but to unfurl his banner, and the Italians, in countless thousands, were ready to rally around it. The army in Italy regarded the Little Corporal with sentiments of veneration and affection, for which we may search history in vain for a parallel. Italy consequently became the base of Napoleon's operations. There he was strongly intrenched. In case of failure in any of his operations in Paris, he could retire behind the Alps, and bid defiance to his foes.

Josephine was exactly the partner he needed to protect these all-important interests during his absence. Her strong and active intelligence, her sincerity, her unrivaled powers of fascinating all who approached her, and her entire devotion to Napoleon, rendered her an ally of exceeding efficiency. Powerful as was the arm of Napoleon, he never could have risen to the greatness he attained without the aid of Josephine. She, at Milan, kept up the splendor of a royal court. The pleasure-loving Italians ever thronged her saloons. The most illustrious nobles were emulous to win her favor, that they might obtain eminence in the service of her renowned spouse. At the fetes and entertainments she gave to the rejoicing Milanese she obtained access to almost every mind it was desirable to influence. No one could approach Josephine without becoming her friend, and a friend once gained was never lost. A weak woman, under these circumstances, which so severely tested the character, would have been often extremely embarrassed, and would have made many mistakes. It was remarkable in Josephine, that, notwithstanding the seclusion of her childhood and early youth, she ever appeared self-possessed, graceful, and at home in every situation in which she was placed. She moved through the dazzling scenes of her court at Milan, scenes of unaccustomed brilliance which had so suddenly burst upon her, with an air as entirely natural and unembarrassed as if her whole life had been passed in the saloons of monarchs. She conversed with the most distinguished generals of armies, with nobles of the highest rank, with statesmen and scholars of wide-spread renown, with a fluency, an appropriateness, and an inimitable tact which would seem to indicate that she had been cradled in the lap of princes, and nurtured in the society of courts. It seemed never to be necessary for her to study the rules of etiquette. She was never accustomed to look to others to ascertain what conduct was proper under any circumstances. Instinctive delicacy was her unerring teacher, and from her bearing others compiled their code of politeness. She became the queen of etiquette, not the subject.

Thus, while Napoleon, in Paris, was cautiously scrutinizing the state of public affairs, and endeavoring to gain a position there, Josephine, with the entire concentration of all her energies to his interests, was gaining for him in Milan vast accessions of power. She had no conception, indeed, of the greatness he was destined to attain. But she loved her husband. She was proud of his rising renown, and it was her sole ambition to increase, in every way in her power, the luster of his name. Aristocracy circled around her in delighted homage, while poverty, charmed by her sympathy and her beneficence, ever greeted her with acclamations. The exploits of Napoleon dazzled the world, and the unthinking world has attributed his greatness to his own unaided arm. But the gentleness of Josephine was one of the essential elements in the promotion of his greatness. In co-operation with her, he rose. As soon as he abandoned her, he fell.

Josephine soon rejoined her husband in Paris, where she very essentially aided, by her fascinating powers of persuasion, in disarming the hostility of those who were jealous of his rising fame, and in attaching to him such adherents as could promote his interests. In the saloons of Josephine, many of the most heroic youths of France were led to ally their fortunes with those of the young general, whose fame had so suddenly burst upon the world. She had the rare faculty of diffusing animation and cheerfulness wherever she appeared. "It is," she once beautifully remarked, "a necessity of my heart to love others, and to be loved by them in return." "There is only one occasion," she again said, "in which I would voluntarily use the words I will, namely, when I would say, 'I will that all around me be happy.'"

Napoleon singularly displayed his knowledge of human nature in the course he pursued upon his return to Paris. He assumed none of the pride of a conqueror. He studiously avoided every thing like ostentatious display. Day after day his lieutenants arrived, bringing the standards taken from the Austrians. Pictures, and statues, and other works of art extorted from the conquered, were daily making their appearance, keeping the metropolis in a state of the most intense excitement. The Parisians were never weary of reading and re-reading those extraordinary proclamations of Napoleon, which, in such glowing language, described his almost miraculous victories. The enthusiasm of the people was thus raised to the highest pitch. The anxiety of the public to see this young and mysterious victor was intense beyond description. But he knew enough of the human heart to be conscious that, by avoiding the gratification of these wishes, he did but enhance their intensity. Modestly retiring to an unostentatious mansion in the Rue Chantereine, which, in compliment to him, had received the name of Rue de la Victoire, he secluded himself from the public gaze. He devoted his time most assiduously to study, and to conversation with learned men. He laid aside his military garb, and assumed the plain dress of a member of the Institute. When he walked the streets, he was seldom recognized by the people. Though his society was courted in the highest circles of Paris, his ambition was too lofty to be gratified with shining among the stars of fashion. Though he had as yet reached but the twenty-sixth year of his age, he had already gained the reputation of being the first of generals. He was emulous not only of appearing to be, but also of actually being, an accomplished scholar. "I well knew," said he, "that the lowest drummer in the army would respect me more for being a scholar as well as a soldier."

Napoleon might have enriched himself beyond all bounds in his Italian campaign had he been disposed to do so. Josephine, at times, remonstrated against his personal habits of economy, while he was conferring millions added to millions upon France. But the ambition of her husband, inordinate as it was, was as sublime an ambition as any one could feel in view of merely worldly interests. He wished to acquire the renown of benefiting mankind by the performance of the noblest exploits. His ultimate end was his own fame. But he knew that the durability of that fame could only be secured by the accomplishment of noble ends.

The effeminate figure of Napoleon in these early days had caused the soldiers to blend with their amazed admiration of his military genius a kind of fondness of affection for which no parallel can be found in ancient or modern story. The soldiers were ever rehearsing to one another, by their night-fires and in their long marches, anecdotes of his perfect fearlessness, his brilliant sayings, his imperious bearing, by which he overawed the haughtiness of aristocratic power, and his magnanimous acts toward the poor and the lowly.

One night, when the army in Italy was in great peril, worn out with the fatigue of sleeplessness and of battle, and surrounded by Austrians, Napoleon was taking the round of his posts in disguise, to ascertain the vigilance of his sentinels. He found one poor soldier, in perfect exhaustion, asleep at his post. Napoleon shouldered his musket, and stood sentry for him for half an hour. When the man awoke and recognized the countenance of his general, he sank back upon the ground in terror and despair. He knew that death was the doom for such a crime. "Here, comrade," said Napoleon, kindly, "here is your musket. You have fought hard and marched long, and your sleep is excusable. But a moment's inattention might at present ruin the army. I happened to be awake, and have guarded your post for you. You will be more careful another time."

At the "terrible passage of the bridge of Lodi," Napoleon stood at one of the guns, in the very hottest of the fire, directing it with his own hand. The soldiers, delighted at this very unusual exhibition of the readiness of their general to share all the toils and perils of the humblest private in the ranks, gave him the honorary and affectionate nickname of "The Little Corporal." By this appellation he was afterward universally known in the army. The enthusiasm of the soldiers invested him with supernatural endowments, and every one was ready at any moment to peril life for the Little Corporal.

The government at Paris, rapidly waning in popularity, notwithstanding their extreme jealousy of the wide-spreading influence of this victorious general, was compelled, by the spontaneous acclamations of the people, to give him a public triumph, when the famous treaty which Napoleon had effected in Italy was to be formally presented to the Directory. The magnificent court of the Luxembourg was embellished with the flags of the armies which he had conquered, and the youthful hero of Lodi, of Arcola, and of Rivoli made his first triumphant appearance in the streets of Paris. The enthusiasm of the vast concourse of excitable Parisians overleaped all bounds. The soldiers of the proud army of Italy sang at their encampments, in enthusiastic chorus, a song in which they declared that it was high time to eject the lawyers from the government, and make the Little Corporal the ruler of France. Barras, the friend of Josephine, who had selected Napoleon to quell the insurrection in Paris, and who had secured to him the command of the army of Italy, declared in a eulogistic speech on this occasion that "Nature had exhausted all her powers in the creation of a Bonaparte." This sentiment was received with the most deafening peals of applause.

But how like the phantasmagoria of magic has this change burst upon the bewildered Josephine. But a few months before, her husband, wan and wasted with imprisonment and woe, had been led from the subterranean dungeons of this very palace, with the execrations of the populace torturing his ear, to bleed upon the scaffold. She, also, was then herself a prisoner, without even a pillow for her weary head, awaiting the dawn of the morning which was to conduct her steps to a frightful death. Her children, Hortense and Eugene, had been rescued from homelessness, friendlessness, and beggary only by the hand of charity, and were dependent upon that charity for shelter and for daily bread. Now the weeds of widowhood have given place to the robes of the rejoicing bride, and that palace is gorgeously decorated in honor of the world-renowned companion upon whose arm she proudly leans. The acclamations resounding to his praise reverberate over mountain and valley, through every city and village of France. Princes, embassadors, and courtiers obsequiously crowd the saloons of Josephine. Eugene, an officer in the army, high in rank and honor, is lured along life's perilous pathway by the most brilliant prospects. Hortense in dazzling beauty, and surrounded by admirers, is intoxicated with the splendor, which, like Oriental enchantment, has burst upon her view.

Josephine, so beautifully called "the Star of Napoleon," was more than the harbinger of his rising. She gave additional luster to his brilliance, and was as the gentle zephyr, which sweeps away the mists and vapors, and presents a transparent sky through which the undimmed luminary may shine. Her persuasive influence was unweariedly and most successfully exerted in winning friends and in disarming adversaries. The admiration which was excited for the stern warrior in his solitary, silent, unapproachable grandeur, whose garments had been dyed in blood, whose fearful path had been signalized by conflagrations, and shrieks, and the wailings of the dying, was humanized and softened by the gentle loveliness of his companion, who was ever a ministering angel, breathing words of kindness, and diffusing around her the spirit of harmony and love. Napoleon ever freely acknowledged his indebtedness to Josephine for her aid in these morning hours of his greatness.

But unalloyed happiness is never allotted to mortals. Josephine's very loveliness of person and of character was to her the occasion of many hours of heaviness. No one could be insensible to the power of her attractions. The music of her voice, the sweetness of her smile, the grace of her manners, excited so much admiration, invested her with a popularity so universal and enthusiastic, that Napoleon was, at times, not a little disturbed by jealousy. Her appearance was ever the signal for crowds to gather around her. The most distinguished and the most gallant men in France vied with each other in doing her homage. Some of the relatives of Napoleon, envious of the influence she exerted over her illustrious spouse, and anxious, by undermining her power, to subserve their own interests, were untiring in their endeavors to foster all these jealousies. Josephine was exceedingly pained by the occasional indications of her husband's distrust. A word from his lips, a glance from his eye, often sent her to her chamber with weeping eyes and an aching heart. An interview with her husband, however, invariably removed his suspicions, and he gave her renewed assurances of his confidence and his love.

The plans of Napoleon in reference to his future operations were still in a state of great uncertainty. His restless spirit could not brook inactivity. He saw clearly that the time had not yet come in which he could, with the prospect of success, undertake to overthrow the Revolutionary government and grasp the reins of power himself. To use his own expressive language, "The pear was not yet ripe." To one of his intimate friends he remarked, "They do not long preserve at Paris the remembrance of any thing. If I remain any length of time unemployed, I am undone. The renown of one, in this great Babylon, speedily supplants that of another. If I am seen three times at the opera, I shall no longer be an object of curiosity. You need not talk of the desire of the citizens to see me. Crowds, at least as great, would go to see me led out to the scaffold. I am determined not to remain in Paris. There is nothing here to be done. Every thing here passes away. My glory is already declining. This little corner of Europe is too small to supply it. We must go to the East. All the great men of the world have there acquired their celebrity. We will go to Egypt."

Such was the grandeur of the dreams of a young man who had not yet passed his twenty-sixth year. And these were not the musings of a wild and visionary brain, but the deeply laid and cautiously guarded plans of a mind which had meditated profoundly upon all probable emergencies, and which had carefully weighed all the means which could be furnished for the accomplishment of an enterprise so arduous and so majestic.