Heroes of Modern Europe - Alice Birkhead

Napoleon—the Man from Corsica

Born on August 15th, 1769, Napoleon Buonaparte found himself surrounded from his first hours by all the tumult and the clash of war. Ajaccio, on the rocky island of Corsica, was his birthplace, though his family had Florentine blood. Letitia Ramolino, the mother of Napoleon, was of aristocratic Italian descent.

Corsica was no sunny dwelling-place during the infancy of this young hero, who learned to brood over the wrongs of his island-home. The Corsicans revolted fiercely against the sovereignty of Genoa, and were able to resist all efforts to subdue them until France interfered in the struggle and gained by diplomatic cunning what could not be gained by mere force of arms. This conquest was resented the more bitterly by the Corsicans because they had enjoyed thirteen years of independence in all but name under Paoli, a well-loved patriot. It was after Paoli was driven to England that the young Napoleon wrote, "I was born when my country was perishing, thirty thousand Frenchmen vomited upon our coasts, drowning the throne of Liberty in waves of blood; such was the sight which struck my eyes."

Corsican Napoleon declared himself in the youth of poverty and discontent, when he had dreams of rising to power by such patriotism as had ennobled Paoli. Charles Buonaparte, his father, went over to the winning side, and was eager to secure the friendship of Marboeuf, the French governor of Corsica.

Napoleon, the second of thirteen children, owed assistance in his early education to Marboeuf for it was impossible for his own family to do more than provide the barest necessities of life. Charles Buonaparte was an idle, careless man and the family poverty bore hardly on his wife Letitia, who had been married at fifteen and compelled to perform much drudgery.

Napoleon entered the military school at Brienne in April 1779, and from there sent letters which might well have warned his parents that they had hatched a prodigy. All the bitterness of a proud humiliated spirit inspired them, whether the boy, despised by richer students, begged his father to remove him, or urged, with utter disregard of filial piety, the repayment by some means of a sum of money he had borrowed.

"If I am not to be allowed the means, either by you or my protector, to keep up a more honourable appearance at the school I am in, send for me home and that immediately. I am quite disgusted with being looked upon as a pauper by my insolent companions, who have only fortune to recommend them, and smile at my poverty; there is not one here, but who is far inferior to me in those noble sentiments which animate my soul. . . . If my condition cannot be ameliorated, remove me from Brienne; put me to some mechanical trade, if it must be so; let me but find myself among my equals and I will answer for it, I will soon be their superior. You may judge of my despair by my proposal; once more I repeat it; I would sooner be foreman in a workshop than be sneered at in a first-rate academy."

In the academy Napoleon remained, however, censured by his parents for his ambitious, haughty spirit. He was gloomy and reserved and had few companions, feeling even at this early age that he was superior to those around him. He admired Cromwell, though he thought the English general incomplete in his conquests. He read Plutarch and the Commentaries of Caesar and determined that his own career should be that of a soldier, though he wrote again to the straitened household in Corsica, declaring, "He who cannot afford to make a lawyer of his son, makes him a carpenter."

He chose for the moment to disregard the family ties which were especially strong among the island community. "Let my brothers' education be less expensive," he urged, "let my sisters work to maintain themselves." There was a touch of ruthless egotism in this spirit, yet the Corsican had real love for his own kindred as he showed in later life. But at this period he panted for fame and glory so ardently that he would readily sacrifice those nearest to him. He could not bear to feel that his unusual abilities might never find full scope; he was certain that one day he would be able to repay any generosity that was shown to him.

The French Revolution broke out and Napoleon saw his first chance of distinction. He was well recommended by his college for a position in the artillery, despite the strange report of the young student's character and manners which was written for the private perusal of those making the appointment. "Napoleon Buonaparte, a Corsican by birth, reserved and studious, neglectful of all pleasures for study; delights in important and judicious readings; extremely attentive to methodical sciences, moderately so as to others; well versed in mathematics and geography; silent, a lover of solitude, whimsical, haughty, excessively prone to egotism, speaking but little, pithy in his answers, quick and severe in repartee, possessed of much self-love, ambitious, and high in expectation."

Soon after the fall of the Bastille, Napoleon placed himself at the head of the revolutionary party in Ajaccio, hoping to become the La Fayette of a National Guard which he tried to establish on the isle of Corsica. He aspired to be the commander of a paid native guard if such could be created, and was not unreasonable in his ambition since he was the only Corsican officer trained at a royal military school. But France rejected the proposal for such a force to be established, and Napoleon had to act on his own initiative. He forfeited his French commission by outstaying his furlough in 1792. Declared a deserter, he saw slight chance of promotion to military glory. Indeed he would probably have been tried by court-martial and shot, had not Paris been in confusion owing to the outbreak of the French war against European allies. He decided to lead the rebels of Corsica, and tried to get possession of Ajaccio at the Easter Festival.

This second attempt to raise an insurrection ended in the entire Buonaparte family being driven by the wrathful Corsicans to France, which henceforth was their adopted country. The Revolution blazed forth and King and Queen went to the scaffold, while treason that might, in time of peace, have served to send an officer to death, proved a stepping-stone to high rank and promotion. It was a civil war, and in it Napoleon was first to show his extraordinary skill in military tactics. He had command of the artillery besieging Toulon in 1793 and was marked as a man of merit, receiving the command of a brigade and passing as a general of artillery into the foreign war which Republican France waged against all Europe.

The command of the army of Italy was offered Napoleon by Barras, who was one of the new Directory formed to rule the Republic. A rich wife seemed essential for a poor young man with boundless ambitions just unfolding. Barras had taken up the Corsican, and arranged an introduction for him to Josephine Beauharnais, the beautiful widow of a noble who had been a victim of the Reign of Terror. He had previously made the acquaintance of Josephine's young son Eugene, when the boy came to ask that his father's sword might be restored to him.

Josephine pleased the suitor by her amiability, and was attracted in turn by his ardent nature. She was in a position to advance his interests through her intimacy with Barras, who promised that Napoleon should hold a great position in the army if she became his wife. She married Napoleon in March 1796, undaunted by the prediction: "You will be a queen and yet you will not sit on a throne." Napoleon's career may then be said to have begun in earnest. It was the dawn of a new age in Europe, where France stood forth as a predominant power. Austria was against her as the avenger of Marie Antoinette, France's ill-fated Queen, who had been Maria Theresa's daughter. England and Russia were in alliance, though Russia was an uncertain and disloyal ally.

Want of money might have daunted one less eager for success than the young Napoleon. He was, however, planning a campaign in Italy as an indirect means of attacking Austria. He addressed his soldiers boldly, promising to lead them into the most fruitful plains in the world. "Rich provinces, great cities will be in your power," he assured them. "There you will find honour, fame, and wealth." His first success was notable, but it did not satisfy the inordinate craving of his nature. "In our days," he told Marmont, "no one has conceived anything great; it falls to me to give the example."

From the outset he looked upon himself as a general independent of the Republic. He was rich in booty, and could pay his men without appealing to the well-nigh exhausted public funds. Silently, he pursued his own policy in war, and that was very different from the policy of any general who had gone before him. He treated with the Pope as a great prince might have treated, offering protection to persecuted priests who were marked out by the Directory as their enemies. He seized property everywhere, scorning to observe neutrality. Forgetting his Italian blood, he carried off many pictures and statues from the Italian galleries that they might be sent to France. He showed now his audacity and the amazing energy of his plans of conquest. The effect of the horror and disorders of Revolutionary wars had been to deprive him of all scruples. He despised a Republic, and despised the French nation as unfit for Republicanism. "A republic of thirty millions of people!" he exclaimed as he conquered Italy, "with our morals, our vices! How is such a thing possible? The nation wants a chief, a chief covered with glory, not theories of government, phrases, ideological essays, that the French do not understand. They want some playthings; that will be enough; they will play with them and let themselves be led, always supposing they are cleverly prevented from seeing the goal toward which they are moving." But the wily Corsican did not often speak so plainly! Aiming at imperial power, he was careful to dissimulate his intentions since the army supporting him was Republican in sympathy.

Napoleon had achieved the conquest of Italy when only twenty-seven. In 1796 he entered Milan amid the acclamations of the people, his troops passing beneath a triumphal arch. The Italians from that day adopted his tricolour ensign.

The Directory gave the conqueror the command of the army which was to be used against England. The old desperate rivalry had broken out again now that the French saw a chance of regaining power in India. It was Napoleon's purpose to wage war in Egypt, and he needed much money for his campaign in a distant country. During the conquest of Italy he had managed to secure money from the Papal chests and he could rely, too, on the vast spoil taken from Berne when the old constitution of the Swiss was overthrown and a new Republic founded. He took Malta, "the strongest place in Europe," and proceeded to occupy Alexandria in 1798. In the following February he marched on Cairo.

England's supremacy at sea destroyed the complete success of the plans which Napoleon was forming. He had never thought seriously of the English admiral Nelson till his own fleet was shattered by him in a naval engagement at Aboukir. After that, he understood that he had to reckon with a powerful enemy.

The Turks had decided to anticipate Napoleon's plan for securing Greece her freedom by preparing a vast army in Syria. The French took the town of Jaffa by assault, but had to retire from the siege of Acre. The expedition was not therefore a success, though Napoleon won a victory over the Turkish army at Aboukir. The English triumphed in Egypt and were fortunate enough to win back Malta, which excluded France from the Mediterranean. Napoleon eluded with difficulty the English cruisers and returned to France, where he rapidly rose to power, receiving, after a kind of revolution, the title of First Consul. He was to hold office for ten years and receive a salary of half a million francs. In reality, a strong monarchy had been created. The people of France, however, still fancied themselves a free Republic.

War was declared on France by Austria and England in 1800, and the First Consul saw himself raised to the pinnacle of military glory. He defeated the Austrians at Marengo, while his only rival, Moreau, won the great battle of Hohenlinden. At Marengo, the general whom Napoleon praised above all others fell dead on the field of battle. The conqueror himself mourned Desaix most bitterly, since "he loved glory for glory's sake and France above everything." But "Alas! it is not permitted to weep," Napoleon said, overcoming the weakness as he judged it. He had done now with wars waged on a small scale, and would give Europe a time of peace before venturing on vaster enterprises. The victory of Marengo on June 14th, 1800, wrested Italy again from Austria, who had regained possession and power in the peninsula. It also saved France from invasion. Austria was obliged to accept an armistice, a humiliation she had not foreseen when she arrayed her mighty armies against the First Consul. Napoleon gloried in this success, proposing to Rouget de Lisle, the writer of the Marseillaise, that a battle-hymn should commemorate the coming of peace with victory.

The Treaty of Luneville, 1801, settled Continental strife so effectually that Napoleon was free to attend to the internal affairs of the French Republic. The Catholic Church was restored by the Concordat, but made to depend on the new ruler instead of the Bourbon party. The Treaty of Amiens in 1802 provided for a truce to the hostilities of France and England.

With the world at peace, the Consulate had leisured to reconstruct the constitution. The capability of Napoleon ensured the successful performance of this mighty task. He was bent on giving a firm government to France since this would help him to reach the height of his ambitions. He drew up the famous Civil Code on which the future laws were based, and restored the ancient University of France. Financial reforms led to the establishment of the Bank of France, and Napoleon's belief that merit should be recognized publicly to the enrolment of distinguished men in a Legion of Honour.

The remarkable vigour and intelligence of this military leader was displayed in the reforms he made where all had been confusion. France was weary of the republican government which had brought her to the verge of bankruptcy and ruin, and inclined to look favourably on the idea of a monarchy.

Napoleon determined that this should be the monarchy of a Buonaparte, not that of a Bourbon. The Church had ceased to support the claims of Louis XVI's brother. Napoleon had won the noblesse, too, by his feats of arms, and the peacemaker's decrees had reconciled the foreign cabinets. It ended, as the prudent had foreseen, in the First Consul choosing for himself the old military title of Emperor.

His coronation on December 2nd, 1804, was a ceremony of magnificence, unequalled since the fall of the majestic Bourbons. Napoleon placed the sacred diadem on his own head and then on the head of Josephine, who knelt to receive it. His aspect was gloomy as he received this symbol of successful ambition, for the mass of the people was silent and he was uneasy at the usurpation of a privilege which was not his birthright. The authority of the Pope had confirmed his audacious action, but he was afraid of the attitude of his army. "The greatest man in the world" Kleber had proclaimed him, after the crushing of the Turks at Aboukir in Egypt. There was work to do before he reached the summit whence he might justly claim such admiration. He found court life at St Cloud very wearisome after the peace of his residence at Malmaison.

"I have not a moment to myself, I ought to have been the wife of a humble cottager," Josephine wrote in a fit of impatience at the restraints imposed upon an Empress. But she clung to the title desperately when she knew that it would be taken from her. She had been Napoleon's wife for fourteen years, but no heir had been born to inherit the power and to continue the dynasty which he hoped to found. She was divorced in 1809, when he married Marie Louise of Austria.

Peace could not last with Napoleon upon the throne of France, determined as he was in his resolution to break the supremacy of the foe across the Channel. He had not forgotten Egypt and his failure in the Mediterranean. He resolved to crush the English fleet by a union of the fleets of Europe. He was busied with daring projects to invade England from Boulogne. The distance by sea was so short that panic seized the island-folk, who had listened to wild stories about the "Corsican ogre." Nelson was the hope of the nation in the year of danger, 1805, when the English fleet gained the glorious victory of Trafalgar and saved England from the dreaded invasion. But the hero of Trafalgar met his death in the hour of success, and, before the year closed, Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz destroyed the coalition led by the Austrian Emperor and the Tsar and caused a whole continent to tremble before the conqueror. The news of this battle, indeed, hastened the death of Pitt, the English minister, who had struggled nobly against the aggrandisement of France. He knew that the French Empire would rise to the height of fame, and that the coalition of Russia, Prussia, and Austria would fall disastrously.

"The Prussians wish to receive a lesson," Napoleon declared, flushed by the magnificence of his late efforts. He defeated them at Jena and Auerstadt, and entered Berlin to take the sword and sash of Frederick the Great as well as the Prussian standards. He did honour to that illustrious Emperor by forbidding the passage of the colours and eagles over the place where Frederick reposed, and he declared himself satisfied with Frederick's personal belongings as conferring more honour than any other treasures.

By the Treaty of Tilsit, concluded with Alexander of Russia on a raft upon the River Niemen, Prussia suffered new humiliations. The proud creation of Frederick's military genius had vanished. There was even undue haste to give up fortresses to the conqueror. The country was partitioned between Russia, Saxony, and Westphalia, created for the rule of Jerome Buonaparte, Napoleon's younger brother. He set up kings now with the ease of a born autocrat. His brother Joseph became King of Naples, and his brother Louis King of Holland.

A new nobility sprang up, for honours must be equally showered on the great generals who had helped to win his victories. The new Emperor was profuse in favour, not believing in disinterested affection. He paid handsomely for the exercise of the humours, known as his "vivacites," entering in a private book such items as "Fifteen napoleons to Menneval for a box on the ear, a war-horse to my aide-de-camp Mouton for a kick, fifteen hundred arpens in the imperial forests to Bassano for having dragged him round my room by the hair."

These rewards drained the empire and provided a grievance against the Corsican adventurer who had dared to place all Europe under the rule of Buonaparte. The family did not bear their elevation humbly, but demanded ever higher rank and office. Joseph was raised to the exalted state of King of Spain after the lawful king had been expelled by violence. The patriotism of the Spanish awoke and found an echo in the neighbouring kingdom of Portugal. Napoleon was obliged to send his best armies to the Peninsula where the English hero, Sir Arthur Wellesley, was pushing his way steadily toward the Pyrenees and the French frontier.

The expedition to Russia had been partly provoked by the Emperor's marriage with Marie Louise of Austria. There had been talk of a marriage between Napoleon and the Tsar's sister. Then the arrangement of Tilsit had become no longer necessary after the humbling of Austria. Napoleon wished to throw off his ally, Alexander, and was ready to use as a pretext for war Russia's refusal to adopt his "continental system" fully. This system, designed to crush the commercial supremacy of England by forbidding other countries to trade with her, was thus, as events were to prove, the cause of Napoleon's own downfall.

The enormous French army made its way to Russia and entered Moscow, the ancient capital, which the inhabitants burned and deserted. In the army's retreat from the city in the depth of winter, thousands died of cold and hunger, and 30,000 men had already fallen in the fruitless victory at Borodino.

Napoleon was nearing his downfall as he struggled across the continent in the dreadful march which reduced an army of a quarter of a million men to not more than twelve thousand. He had to meet another failure and the results of a destructive imperial policy in 1814, when he was defeated at Leipzig by Austria, Russia, and Prussia, who combined most desperately against him. The Allies issued at Frankfort their famous manifesto "Peace with France but war against the Empire." They compelled Napoleon to abdicate, and restored the Bourbon line. A court was formed for Louis XVIII at the Tuileries, while Napoleon was sent to Elba.

[Illustration] from Heroes of Modern Europe by Alice Birkhead


Louis XVI's brother, the Count of Artois, came back, still admired by the faded beauties of the Restoration. The pathetic figure of Louis XVI's daughter, the Duchess of Angouleme, was seen amid the forced gaieties of the new regime, and Madame de Staeel haunted the court of Louis XVIII, forgetting her late revolutionary sentiments.

Napoleon grew very weary of his inaction on the isle of Elba. He had spent all his life in military pursuits and missed the companionship of soldiers. He thought with regret of his old veterans when he welcomed the guards sent to him. Perhaps he hoped for the arrival of his wife, too, as he paced up and down the narrow walk by the sea where he took exercise daily. But Marie Louise returned to her own country.

Napoleon found some scope for his activity in the government of the island, and gave audiences regularly to the people. He might seem to have lost ambition as he read in his library or played with a tame monkey of which he made a pet, but a scheme of great audacity was forming in his mind. He resolved to go back to France once more and appeal to the armies to restore him.

The Bourbons had never become popular again with the nation which was inspired with the lust for military successes. The life in the Tuileries seemed empty and frivolous, wanting in great figures. There was little resistance when the news came that Napoleon had landed and put himself at the head of the troops at Grenoble.

He had appealed to the ancient spirit of the South which had risen before in the cause of liberty. Feudalism and the oppression of the peasants would return under the rule of the Bourbons, he assured them. They began to look upon the abdicated Emperor as the Angel of Deliverance. The people of Lyons were equally enthusiastic, winning warmer words than generally fell from the lips of Napoleon. "I love you," he cried, and bore them with him to the capital. He entered the Tuileries at night, and again the eagle of the Empire flew from steeple to steeple on every church of Paris.

The Hundred Days elapsed between the liberation from the Bourbons and Napoleon's last struggle for supremacy. The King made a feeble effort against the Emperor. It was, however, the united armies of England and Prussia that met the French on the field of Waterloo in 1815. From March 13th to June 22nd Napoleon had had time to realize the might of Wellesley, now Duke of Wellington. The splendid powers of the once indefatigable French general were declining. Napoleon, who had not been wont to take advice, now asked the opinions of others. The dictator, so rapid in coming to a decision, hesitated in the hour of peril. He was defeated at Waterloo on June 18th, 1815, by Bluecher and Wellington together. The battle raged from the middle of morning to eight o'clock in the evening and ended in the rout of the French troops. The Emperor performed a second time the ceremony of abdication, and, his terrible will being broken, surrendered on board the Bellerophon to the English.

The English Government feared a second return like the triumphant flight from Elba. No enemy had ever been so terrible to England as Napoleon. He must be removed altogether from the continent of Europe. St Helena was chosen as the place of imprisonment, and Sir Hudson Lowe put over him as, in some sort, a gaoler. A certain amount of personal freedom was accorded, but the captive on the lonely rock did not live to regain liberty. He died in 1821 on a day of stormy weather, uttering tete d'armee in the last moments of delirium.