Boys' Book of Famous Soldiers - J. W. McSpadden


The Friendless Boy Who was to Sway Mighty Armies

"Hayseed! Hayseed!"

Thus mocked a group of schoolboys of a mate who stood moodily by and glowered upon them.

Although their words were not English, "Hayseed!" was what they meant by the punning French phrase. This boy from the South who did not speak as they did, or act as they did, and wore cheaper clothes, was the butt of their ridicule.

"He calls himself 'Napoleone,'" they said. "He means 'La paille au nez' (straw-nose)."

And the way they rattled it off sounded like his name turned round. No wonder the Southerner glared.

How this moody and unpopular schoolboy grew from childhood without intimate friends—without being understood—into a masterful leader of men is one of the strange puzzles of history. It totally upsets that other paradox, "The child is father of the man," for there was little to indicate in the child Bonaparte, the man Napoleon.

He was not even born on the land with which his name is forever associated, France. He first saw the light of day upon the isle of Corsica, a rocky point in the blue waters of the Mediterranean, some fifty miles west of Italy. By treaty, this island passed from Genoese into French control in 1769; and it will always be a disputed question as to which flag Napoleon was born under. He always claimed the date of August 15, 1769, as his natal day, which would make him nominally of French birth. But the boy Napoleon spoke Italian.

Charles Bonaparte, the future Emperor's father, was not a remarkable man, although he stood well in his home town of Ajaccio. He practised law, and must have worked early and late trying to provide for his large family. His wife, Letitia, a woman of great personal beauty and force of character, was the mother of thirteen children, Napoleon being the fourth.

In a family of this size, it was a case of every fellow shift for himself, which rule Napoleon followed out with a vengeance. He himself said in later years: "I was self-willed and obstinate, nothing awed me, nothing disconcerted me. I was quarrelsome, exasperating; I feared no one. I gave a blow here and a scratch there. Every one was afraid of me. My brother Joseph was the one with whom I had the most to do. He was beaten, bitten, scolded. I complained that he did not get over it soon enough."

His mother alone was able to manage him, but she had other things to do as well; so it is not strange that he escaped from the leash. He relates one amusing incident where he was caught red-handed.

In the garden behind their house was a clump of fig trees, which Napoleon was fond of climbing. His mother forbade him to do so, both for fear of damage to himself and to the fruit, but the self-willed boy persisted. "One day when I was idle; and at a loss for something to do," he relates, "I took it in my head to long for some of those figs. They were ripe; no one saw me, or could know anything of the matter. I made my escape, ran to the tree, and gathered the whole. My appetite being satisfied, I was providing for the future by filling my pockets, when an unlucky gardener came in sight. I was half-dead with fear, and remained fixed on the branch of the tree, where he had surprised me. He wished to seize me and take me to my mother. Despair made me eloquent; I represented my distress, promised to keep away from the figs in future, and he seemed satisfied. I congratulated myself on having come off so well, and fancied that the adventure would never be known; but the traitor told all. The next day my mother wanted to go and gather some figs. I had not left any, there was none to be found. The gardener came, great reproaches followed, and an exposure." The upshot of it was a sound thrashing!

But despite all the trials that the boy gave his mother, there always existed between them a strong affection. Napoleon never spoke of her in after years, except in words of praise. "It is to my mother, to her good precepts and upright example, that I owe my success and any great thing I have accomplished." And again: "My mother was a superb woman, a woman of ability and courage."

The boy's first regular schooling was obtained at a small village school kept by nuns. We have a picture of him there as a small thin boy with a shock of unruly hair, a face not always clean, and "stockings half off." But how many other boys have been guilty of such conventional sins—only they do not get immortalized in the sober pages of history!

He next went to a more advanced day school, and then to a seminary conducted by the Abbe Recco. While not a prize student, he was fond of geography, history, and mathematics, and even as a lad his wonderful memory for names and dates began to assert itself. He had what is known as a photographic mind. When once it had received an impression, the record was permanent.

One other bent early asserted itself. It was for warlike scenes. The boy not only read greedily of Csar and Alexander and other great conquerors of the past—he drew pictures on the walls, of regiments of soldiers, which in fancy he commanded.

His brother Joseph would jeer, and then there was more trouble. Joseph generally got the worst of it both bodily and mentally. No sooner was the fight over, than the conqueror made good his vantage.

"I went to complain before he had time to recover from his confusion. I had need to be on the alert. Our mother would have repressed my warlike humor, she would not have put up with my caprices. Her tenderness was allied with severity. She punished, rewarded all alike; the good, the bad, nothing escaped her. My father; a man of sense, but too fond of pleasure to pay much attention to our infancy, sometimes attempted to excuse our faults. 'Let them alone,' she replied; 'it is not your business, it is I who must look after them.'"

The father, a man of happy-go-lucky disposition, would shrug his shoulders and laugh. But when it came to choosing a profession for the two boys, he did not hesitate. Joseph, the brow-beaten, should become a priest, he said, while Napoleon must study soldiering—which decision suited at least one of the boys to a T.

Napoleon was only nine years old when this decision was made, but very precocious. He talked and reasoned like a boy five years older. His unruly disposition probably hastened the choice as well. His parents felt that a school where there was stern discipline would be the best thing for him. Accordingly his father obtained for him an appointment to one of the royal military schools; and on April 23, 1779, he was formally enrolled at Brienne, France, as a student. The die was cast. He was to become a soldier.

The next five years, however, were by no means a joyous period in his life. In the first months he felt like "a fish out of water"; nor did he try very hard to adapt himself to his environment. It was all frightfully strange and different. From the sunny island in the Mediterranean he found himself transported suddenly to the northern gloom of the Champagne region. The very language was different. He must unlearn Italian, and learn French. It always came hard to him. To the end of his days he never could spell correctly—although he did learn in time to express himself with clarity and precision.

He found himself, also, thrown into contact with a group of youngsters who were by no means disposed to put up with his overbearing ways. Many of them were the sons of wealthy parents, while he at times was in straitened circumstances. They were fastidious in dress, while he had inclined to the slovenly. Small wonder that they derided him, or that he withdrew within the shell of his pride—and stayed there. He had no intimates. One schoolmate who perhaps came nearest to making a friend of this stand-offish chap from the South, and who was to enjoy a large measure of his confidence in after life was Bourrienne. The latter wrote his famous "Memoirs of Napoleon," which give us many interesting personal glimpses. Here is one of the earliest:

"At Brienne, Bonaparte was remarkable for the dark color of his complexion, which the climate of France afterwards very much changed, as well as for his piercing and scrutinising glance, and for the style of his conversation, both with his masters and companions. His conversation almost always gave one the idea of ill-humor, and he was certainly not very sociable. This, I think, may be attributed to the misfortunes of his family during his childhood, and the impressions made on his mind by the subjugation of his country."

It is interesting to note that at this time the boy was still far from reconciled to the idea of being French. He resented the fact that his father's sword, at one time, had helped to further the conquest of Corsica by France. It was to this fact, indeed, that Napoleon himself owed his appointment to this military college. But the boy does not let this consideration sway him. "I hope some time to be in a position to restore her freedom to Corsica!" he exclaimed.

Napoleon's isolation from his fellow cadets was not entirely to his disadvantage. Brienne possessed a good library, and here day after day the boy might be found poring over the stories of great exploits of the past, and dreaming his own day dreams. But his sword was not for France. He pictured himself as her conqueror! One of his favorite books was Plutarch's "Lives of Illustrious Men." He devoured the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" whole. "With my sword by my side, and Homer in my pocket, I hope to carve my way through the world," he wrote to his mother. Another well-thumbed volume was Csar's "Gallic Wars."

We read of more than one instance of ill-will showing between Napoleon and a clique of aristocratic classmates. But we do not find that he was ever afraid of them or that he ever acted the sneak or the coward. Morose he often was, and sullen, but it seemed born of the spirit of misunderstanding which still lurked within his breast, against the world at large. He had simply not found himself.

One anecdote related of these school days reveals him as the potential leader, and shows that the other boys, despite their ridicule, recognized his ability. During one unusually severe winter a heavy fall of snow visited the school. Napoleon suggested that they build a fort, and drew up plans for a complete series of fortifications. The others fell in with his scheme, and upon its completion a battle royal ensued which lasted for several days and put more than one of the participants into the hospital for repairs. In charge of one of the two armies, now attacking the fort, and now playing the part of its defenders, was Napoleon Bonaparte. He was in his element at last.

By the time that he had completed his five years at Brienne, he was made commander of a company of cadets. His first official report card is worth reproducing:

"School of Brienne: State of the King's scholars eligible from their age to enter into the service or to pass to the school at Paris; to wit, M. de Buonaparte (Napoleon) born the 15th August, 1769, in height 4 feet, 10 inches, 10 lines, has finished his fourth season; of good constitution, health excellent; character submissive, honest and grateful; conduct very regular; has always distinguished himself by his application to mathematics; understands history and geography tolerably well; is indifferently skilled in merely ornamental studies and in Latin, in which he has only finished his fourth course; would make an excellent sailor; deserves to be passed on to the school at Paris."

Two points are especially interesting in this report—the first that Napoleon had a "submissive character"; the second that he would make "an excellent sailor." The following year when another inspector visited the school, he added a note that was more accurate. "Character masterful, impetuous and headstrong"; and he decided that Napoleon should enter the Military School at Paris.

Accordingly, in the Fall of 1784, he bade Brienne farewell without regrets on either side, and turned his face toward the capital. No one seeing this slender, almost dwarfed, figure with the thin face, high cheekbones and sunken, inquiring eyes, would ever have imagined that Paris was welcoming her future lord. History holds strange secrets within her pages.

At the Military School, he chose the artillery as his particular branch of service. To what good use he put his study of the field guns, we find evidence in his first appearance on the field of actual warfare. At the outset he made few friends; it seemed to be the bitter experience of Brienne all over again. The trouble was that he was one of the students being educated at the State's expense—a perfectly proper system, which we ourselves follow at West Point and Annapolis. But many of these French students came of wealthy families and, like young prigs, looked down upon the King's scholars as "charity patients." Napoleon justly resented this; and even went so far as to indite a memorial against this condition of affairs at Brienne—which did not tend to enhance his popularity.

However he did begin to find himself in a social way. With maturer years and a broader outlook he began to emerge from his shell. He made a few good friends, one or two being among the gentler sex. One lady in particular, Madame de Colombier, took a fancy to this gawky country lad and frequently invited him to her home in the country. Her daughter, Caroline, was also a welcome friend, and the memory of those simple but pleasant hours remained with him all his life as a ray of sunshine among the all-too-gloomy days of youth.

"We were the most innocent creatures imaginable," he says. "We contrived little meetings together. I well remember one which took place on a midsummer morning, just as daylight was beginning to dawn. It will scarcely be believed that all our happiness consisted in eating cherries together."

The young artillery student—now a lieutenant—also visited the Permons; and Madame Junot, then a little girl, gives a clever cartoon of him as he appeared in full regimentals at the age of sixteen.

"There was one part of his dress which had a very droll appearance—that was his boots. They were so high and wide that his thin little legs seemed buried in their amplitude. Young people are always ready to observe anything ridiculous, and as soon as my sister and I saw Napoleon enter the drawing-room, we burst into a loud fit of laughter. Bonaparte could not relish a joke; and when he found himself the object of merriment he grew angry. My sister, who was some years older than I, told him that since he wore a sword he ought to be gallant to ladies, and, instead of being angry, should be happy that they joked with him.

"'You are nothing but a child, a little school-girl,' said Napoleon, in a tone of contempt.

"Cecile, who was twelve or thirteen years of age, was highly indignant at being called a child, and she hastily resented the affront by replying to Bonaparte, 'And you are nothing but a Puss in Boots!'"

Napoleon at this time was hard put to it to keep up appearances as an officer, on his slender income. His father had passed away, and he could not expect further help from home. He was now his mother's oldest adviser, and we find him writing her sage letters which sound like a man of forty. Indeed, his brain matured early. At fourteen he wrote and spoke like a man.

He was subject to fits of depression and melancholy, and even thoughts of suicide—but these, fortunately, were passing whims, and gradually the resolute nature he was to evince in later years began to assert itself. A favorite motto with him, as a man, was: "The truest wisdom is a resolute determination, and already he was putting it into practice.

Soon after obtaining his commission, he left school on his first assignment of active duty. Some riots had broken out at Lyons, and his regiment of artillery was sent there. But things speedily quieted down, leaving to him the monotony of garrison life. In telling about it afterward he remarked:

"When I entered the service I found garrison life tedious. I began reading novels, and that kind of reading proved interesting. I made an attempt at writing some; this task gave range to my imagination. It took hold of my knowledge of positive facts, and often I found amusement in giving myself up to dreams in order to test them later by the standard of my reasoning powers. I transported myself in thought to an ideal world, and I sought to discover wherein lay the precise difference between that and the world in which I lived."

Thus we see in the young soldier the same recluse and dreamer of Brienne. In boyhood parlance today, he "flocked by himself," building air castles which in part were to become reality.

As for his early attempts at authorship, he tried his hand with indifferent success at fiction, essays, and history, but it is said that he destroyed all this work, with the exception of a fragment, "Letters on the History of Corsica," which was to have told the story of his beloved island.

He returned home on a visit not long after, to help his mother settle up the family estate. Her means were very meagre, and her family unusually large. In addition, his father's affairs had become involved. He had been advanced some money by the French Government to plant mulberry trees, in connection with the silk-worm industry, and a part of this advance was as yet unpaid.

On the score of ill health Napoleon prolonged his stay at Ajaccio for some months, and did not rejoin his regiment until the spring of 1788. He stayed on the island to aid the family from his own pay, and to get a further advance on the mulberry grove; and also as a means of getting away from other people. He was a pronounced recluse, indulging in long rambles over the island, and finding his sole pleasure in authorship. Upon the very threshold of his public career, he still appeared as the most unlikely object upon which Fortune would bestow her favor.

And as if there were not barriers enough to his success, he was still an alien in heart, from France. He wore her uniform and served under her flag, but he was Corsican through and through—still resenting with a Southern impetuosity the means by which the French had conquered Corsica.

But unknown to him and many a wiser head, the hour of destiny was at hand. The dark days of the French Revolution were rapidly approaching, when it seemed as if the whole world would be engulfed in disaster. With the fateful year of 1789, the hour struck—and Napoleon was then just twenty years of age.

On the first echoes of Revolution which reached Corsica, Napoleon was on the alert. He thought he saw a golden opportunity to throw off the shackles of the conqueror. But one of the first acts of the National Assembly was to recognize the full rights of the island as a part of the State of France; and Napoleon, who had already made an attempt to organize a sort of Home Guard, felt himself disarmed.

"France has opened her bosom to us," he said. "Henceforth we have the same interests and the same solicitudes. It is the sea alone which separates us."

With but one lapse, he became a loyal son of France henceforth. The Assembly, builded stronger than it knew, when it recognized Corsica!

After the first mutterings of revolt France became comparatively quiet for nearly two years. Napoleon joined his regiment in 1791, and was promoted to first lieutenant, in the Fourth Artillery, stationed at Valence. It was at this time that the ill-starred king, Louis XVI, tried to flee from the country, but was seized and held a prisoner. The National Assembly was in complete control, and Bonaparte with other officers of the army subscribed to a new oath of allegiance.

It was by no means a compulsory act on his part, but in tune with his own active, impetuous spirit. He became secretary of a club called the "Friends of the Constitution," and composed an Address to the National Assembly.

At the same time occurred an episode which reveals the duplicity of his nature—for Napoleon could be unscrupulous when he had his own ends to serve. Taking advantage of the general state of turmoil he obtained another leave of absence, and returned to Corsica. There, although wearing the French uniform, he again fomented trouble against the authorities. He organized a company of Corsican Volunteers, with which he was to make a bold stroke for liberty. But the movement failed ingloriously, and ended only by getting him into disrepute with both his Government and his neighbors. He saw that his future safety and career lay with the army, so he deserted the popular cause. The Corsicans were so incensed that they declared him an outlaw and his family infamous. In June, 1793, the Bonapartes removed from the island; and only a few short years found him its conqueror in the name of France. The last spark of his Corsican spirit was extinguished.

Only the outbreak of a war with Austria prevented the court-martial which the recreant officer deserved. Instead, such was France's need of trained men, that after a brief interval he was actually promoted to a captaincy. As he himself said: "The beginning of a revolution was a fine time for an enterprising young man!"

His first actual taste of warfare occurred at Toulon, where his regiment was now stationed. Many of the inhabitants of this Southern port were royalists, and they sought to hold the city for the King. The republican troops were ordered to capture the town, which they did after a lively siege and assault. The commander of artillery having been wounded, Napoleon was ordered to take his place. His skill, coolness, and bravery during this engagement are well attested. A soldier serving a gun near him was, killed. At once Napoleon took his place at the gun, and served until relieved.

Aiding the royalists in the harbor was a fleet of ships under the English and Spanish; and here it was that Napoleon was to strike his first blow at his life-long antagonist, England. He submitted a plan for the bombardment of the fleet, and the capture of a fort which they had heavily fortified on shore, called, from its strength, "the little Gibraltar." As a result of a spirited attack at dawn, the shore batteries capitulated, and a few hours later the foreign ships sailed away in haste.

Napoleon's superior officer, Dugommier complimented him highly for his share in the attack, and mentioned him in the official dispatches to this effect: "Among those who distinguished themselves most, and who most aided me to rally the troops and push them forward, are citizens Bonaparte, commanding the artillery, Arena and Cerconi, Adjutants-General."

As a direct result of this first taste of battle, he became, in February, 1794, a General of Brigade, with charge of the artillery and stores of the "Army of Italy," as the southern expeditionary forces were called. But his feet were by no means firmly fixed on the ladder of fortune. These were the days of the Reign of Terror when no man's life or liberty was assured. At one time, Napoleon was deprived of his command, and was in imminent danger of losing his head. He had incurred the suspicion of the Tribunal, as had many another unfortunate; but he was finally pardoned, not because of any sentiment or justice, but because of the "advantages which might be derived from his military information and knowledge of localities, for the service of the Republic."

In the swift turn of events, it was not many months before this pardon of convenience was actually turned to the advantage of the Tribunal—and of Napoleon himself. A rival government called the Central Committee was set up, and the streets of Paris were in uproar. Something had to be done, and done quickly. Revolutions rise or fall overnight. The command of Republican troops was entrusted to Paul Barras, and one of his staff officers was Napoleon Bonaparte. Barras had the foresight to bring up as much artillery as possible, as his men were few. Napoleon saw that these guns were placed so as to enfilade the principal streets. His experience at Toulon, as well as his natural genius for strategy, stood him in good stead. The "whiff of grape-shot" which he fired on that October day, in 1795, cleared the streets of the opposition—and likewise cleared the pathway for him leading eventually to a throne.

The whole world knows of the later deeds of this slim figure who thus steps masterfully forward to the center of the most troubled stage in Europe. Days of conflict and turmoil were yet to follow for Napoleon, but never days of uncertainty. He had found himself. In six short years the brooding misanthrope, the gawky young man who shunned his fellows, became the self-possessed leader of men, wielding a power of personal magnetism that was almost uncanny.

At twenty-six his larger career may be said to have begun. This slight boyish figure takes command of the Army of Italy and leads that memorable campaign to the conquest of Italy before he was thirty. Promptly nicknamed "The Little Corporal" by his army, the term was speedily turned from one of derision to positive affection. Napoleon himself accepted it as a compliment. He learned to understand his men, to fraternize with them, to bring out the best that was in them.

This was one of the chief secrets of his marvelous career. He was an able strategist, a skilled diplomatist, a man of vision and cunning. But despite all these and other high qualities, he would have fallen short of success if he had not possessed his ability to read and to sway the hearts of men. Whence came this power to one who had been a lonely and derided boy? It was as though a magician's wand had touched him overnight.

We have space to give only one picture from the crowded panorama of this world-conqueror, emperor, and exile. It will serve to show the powerful magnetism of his personality—perhaps serve to explain in some slight degree the magic of the mere name of Napoleon, throughout the ranks of his armies.

Napoleon the mighty had fallen. He had been sent into exile on the Isle of Elba, but had escaped, and now with a little army of a thousand men was marching boldly north to reconquer France. The news spread rapidly, and the King now on the throne sent Marshal Ney, a former General under Napoleon, to capture him. Ney promised his King to bring the fallen leader bound into his presence, and, determined to make his promise good, set forth on the road to Marseilles.

It was a gray day in early Spring. The sky looked forbidding, and a chill of winter was in the air. As the King's army moved forward they descried in the distance a smaller band approaching. At its head rode a familiar figure, the Little Corporal, with shoulders stooped, as though bending toward his horse's mane. He gave no orders to his men who marched forward uncertainly. As the distance narrowed down to a matter of yards, Napoleon seemed for the first time to note the presence of the opposing troops. He saw at a glance that many of the men now confronting him had formerly followed him.

Dismounting, he walked rapidly toward them, tore open his great coat, and offered his breast to their rifles.

"Who among you would fire upon his Emperor?" he cried.

Instantly the army, officers and men, lowered their weapons and tossed their caps high in air.

"Vive l'Empereur!" they shouted; and placing him at their head, they turned and marched back upon Paris.

Important Dates in Napoleon's Life

1769. August 15. Napoleon Bonaparte born.
1779. Entered school at Brienne.
1784. Entered military school at Paris.
1786. Became junior lieutenant.
1791. Made lieutenant.
1792. Made captain.
1794. Made general of brigade for services against English at Toulon.
1795. Cleared the streets of Paris with his artillery, and was appointed to command of Army of Italy.
1796. Married Josephine de Beauharnais.
1797. Completed conquest of Italy.
1798. Egyptian campaign.
1799. Made First Consul of France.
1804. Crowned Emperor.
1807. Won Battle of Austerlitz.
1813. Russian campaign.
1814. Abdicated the throne, and was sent to Elba.
1815. Returned to France.
1815. Defeated at Waterloo, and sent to St. Helena.
1821. May 5. Died at St. Helena.