Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

Napoleon the Soldier of Fortune


France resounded with the tramp of armed men. No fewer than five armies, largely made up of volunteers and probably numbering nearly 700,000, in addition to those on garrison duty, were facing the enemies of the Republic. There was the Army of the North, of the Moselle, of the Rhine, of the West, and of Italy. It is interesting to note that many of those who held important positions in these forces were men who, like Carteaux and Doppet, had followed other trades or professions previous to the Revolution. By adapting themselves to circumstances, exercising ingenuity when their slight knowledge of tactics failed them, and proving their ability in the field, they had risen to positions of power and influence. Jourdan, with the Army of the North, had been a dealer in cloth; with the Army of the Moselle were Roche and Moreau, the former the son of an ostler, the latter once a lawyer in beautiful Brittany; Kleber, of the Army of the West, had been educated as an architect, while Massena, who was with the Army of Italy, had started life as a sailor. The promise of the Revolution to every son of France, "A career open to talent," was not a mere boast, but was realised in many cases. Napoleon himself studied to make his soldiers feel that no rank was beyond their aspiration. There was a marshal's baton in every knapsack.

Although Napoleon received an appointment in the Army of Italy in the dual capacity of General of Artillery and Inspector-General, the opportunity of showing his now recognised abilities as an executant was denied him in this campaign. The chance came from another and an unexpected direction, namely that of diplomacy. It cannot be said that his diplomatic attempts in Corsica had been particularly brilliant; this, however, did not preclude Augustin Robespierre, a Commissioner of the Convention with whom Napoleon had struck up an intimate acquaintance, from placing a difficult problem requiring the greatest political skill and tact in his hands for solution. Genoa, once a great Sea Power, but now in the evening of her decline and decay, was supposed to be neutral, in other words, taking sides with none of the warring nations. But she had allowed enemies of France to pass through her territory, and by so doing had incurred the wrath of the mighty Republic, notwithstanding her excuse that she was not powerful enough to prevent them.

To Genoa, the city of palatial buildings and gorgeous churches, Napoleon accordingly proceeded in July 1794, and so well did he manage his cause that his mission was completely successful. On the 28th of the same month he returned to the headquarters of the Army of Italy in the full expectation of an ample recognition. His hopes were shattered by the astounding news that his friend and patron had been executed in company with his brother 1\Iaximilien Robespierre, the cruel chief of the Jacobins.

During the reign of the "Incorruptible," as the latter was named by his friends and supporters, the streets of Paris ran with blood. By his orders, and those of his satellites, scores of prisoners were dragged daily from gaol and put to death. The flower of the Nobility of France suffered in company with the lowest of the low, for the guillotine was no respecter of persons.

Napoleon found that his diplomatic triumph did not avail to prevent his arrest on account of what was held to be his suspicious conduct in connection with the Army of Italy, his recent mission to Genoa, and his intimacy with the younger Robespierre, whose admiration had gone so far as to prompt a reference to Napoleon in a despatch to Government as "a man of transcendent merit." For a time his destiny hung in the balance. Had Salicetti, Albitte and Laporte, the Commissioners of the Convention who examined his papers, cared to condemn him, the General in all probability would have met the same terrible fate as his friend. There is more than a suspicion that Salicetti now viewed Napoleon with jealousy, but, according to Marmont, he used his influence to procure his release. It is difficult to arrive at the truth in a matter such as this, when contemporary narrators do not agree. In history one must not take too much for granted, and perhaps it may be a reasonable conclusion to assume that Salicetti was not ignorant of the potential powers of his countryman, and that he recognised that no good could be done by condemning such a man, while much advantage might accrue to himself if he supported him.

Meanwhile the enterprising General was deprived of his rank. Instead of bemoaning his fate, Napoleon penned an energetic letter to his judges in which he defended his case on the grounds of his patriotism, his hatred of all tyrants, and his public services. On the 20th August a counter-order was issued in which mention was made of the "advantages which might be derived from his military information and knowledge of localities, for the service of the Republic," and recommending that Citizen Bonaparte be "restored provisionally to liberty, and that he should remain at headquarters pending further instructions from the Committee of Public Safety."

Napoleon spent fourteen days in suspense at Fort Carre, near Antibes, but he was mercifully allowed a supply of books and maps which helped to pass the time. On the last day of his imprisonment an officer came at two o'clock in the morning to announce the pleasing intelligence that his release was ordered.

"What! Are you not in bed yet?" he cried in astonishment as he entered the cell and saw Napoleon poring over the litter of papers on the little table.

"In bed!" was the contemptuous retort. "I have had my sleep, and am already risen."

"What, so early?" the officer replied, amazed beyond measure at so unusual a statement.

"Yes," continued the prisoner, "so early. Two or three hours of sleep are enough for any man."

To use a familiar and expressive simile, Napoleon had now "jumped from the frying-pan into the fire." Although he was restored to his former rank he was not sent back to the army, but remained for a time unemployed, living with his family at Marseilles. While there he fell in love with Mademoiselle Desiree Clary, the daughter of a wealthy soap merchant, whose sister Julie had married Joseph Bonaparte. The enraptured lover went so far as to arrange for the wedding to take place in the following autumn. "Perhaps I am doomed to shine like a meteor," he told the object of his affection, "but I will ensure you a brilliant existence." Love's young dream was soon shattered by the disturbing spirit of ambition, and vowing eternal faithfulness Napoleon left his sorrowful sweetheart and promptly forgot his pledge. An expedition against Corsica, which had passed into the hands of the British, had been decided upon. In company with his brother Louis, now a sub-lieutenant of artillery, he set sail on the 3rd March 1795, and came near to being captured, two of the ships carrying the soldiers falling prey to the "ravening wolves of the sea," as Napoleon called English sailors. The defeat sustained on this occasion added one more to his long list of disasters in connection with Corsican affairs.

At the beginning of May he went to Paris to anticipate or await future events. He now resumed his friendship with Bourrienne, who had been in Germany. Offered an appointment as Brigadier-General of Infantry in the Army of the West, then engaged in putting down the civil war in La Vendee, he refused it on his usual plea of ill-health. In reality he considered it beneath his dignity to accept the command. The Central Committee retaliated by having his name struck off the active list.

This displeasure was not to be of considerable duration. Napoleon turned his attention to the drawing up of a definite scheme of campaign for the Army of Italy, now meeting with rebuffs at the hands of the Austrians. The documents were sent to the Committee of Public Safety in July, and helped him to secure a staff appointment in the topographical department of the War Office, where he worked at plans and operations for the benefit of the various French armies in the field. Incidentally he made the acquaintance of various people likely to be of use to him in the furtherance of his career, and renewing that with Barras whom he had first met at Toulon.

Meantime Paris, well named the Gay City, had assumed something of its former aspect. There was marriage and giving in marriage, the theatres and other places of amusement opened anew, and the infallible barometer of business began to rise. Almost everywhere the half-trained armies had been victorious. Apparently "better times "had begun. The change in the political weather, although clearer, was not so noticeable. To be sure a constitution had been framed by the National Convention and was given to the world on the 22nd September 1795, but it did not give the universal satisfaction hoped for by the more enthusiastic of its supporters. In certain minor respects the Legislative Body upon which they had decided was not unlike our own Parliament, in so far as it consisted of two Houses, the lower chamber being called the Council of Five Hundred and the upper chamber the Council of Ancients. The former drew up the laws, the latter passed, adjusted, or rejected them. From the two Councils a Directory of five men vested with the executive power was to be chosen, one of whom was to retire for re-election every year.

Having decreed that one-third of the members of both Councils should also retire in the same way, either to be re-elected or to surrender their places to others, the Convention stirred up a hornet's nest for itself by deciding that two-thirds of its members should be retained in the new Legislature, whereas it had originally assembled for the purpose of drawing up a constitution and not to govern. Girondists and supporters of the Mountain alike clung tenaciously to office, anxious to retain the spoils of victory. The members of the Convention soon found that public opinion was against them. "This measure," says Baron de Frenilly, "aroused general indignation, for nobody, apart from its accomplices, wished that it should possess either power or impunity."

Paris was again in a ferment as serious as it was unexpected. The old battle cry of "Down with the aristocrats!" gave place to that of "Down with the two-thirds!" A rival government called the Central Committee was set up and almost as speedily suppressed by the regular troops, acting on the authority of the Convention. They met with more difficulty in attempting to disperse the insurgent electors of Paris, who had 30,000 National Guards on their side. General Menou, the commander of the troops, was taken prisoner, only to be put under arrest on his release by the party whom he had attempted to defend. The command was then given to Paul Barras, who among others chose Napoleon as a lieutenant. He could not have selected a better man, as subsequent events proved. Barras ordered cannon from the Sablons camp, and the trained eye of his colleague enabled him to place them in the best possible positions to command the various thorough-fares and bridges which led to the Tuileries, the building against which the National Guard and the citizens were marching. Napoleon had certainly not more than 7,000 armed men at his disposal, but his troops were victorious on the ever-memorable 13th Vendemiaire (5th October 1795), and the "whiff of grape shot," as he termed it, helped materially to pave the way to the throne. For the present his skill was rewarded by the rank of second in command of the Army of the Interior, and later, when his friend Barras vacated the senior position, Napoleon received the appointment.

The National Convention could afford to be generous to the beardless young General who had saved the situation. It forthwith settled down to elect five Directors, namely, La Reveilliere-Lepeaux, Letourneur, Rewbell, Carnot, and Barras.

Napoleon now began to take an interest in Society. He frequented the Salons  where wit and beauty gathered for mutual admiration and intellectual entertainment. It is doubtful whether he cared for either to any considerable extent. Certainly he had no mock modesty, and realising more than ever the value of being on speaking terms with those likely to be of service to him, he regarded the precious hours thus apparently wasted as a future asset. He preferred the Salon of Barras to any other. This led to his introduction to his future first wife, the fascinating Josephine de Beauharnais, whose courtier husband had suffered the same fate as Robespierre during the Reign of Terror. Addison, the famous essayist, tells us that "a marriage of love is pleasant; a marriage of interest—easy; and a marriage where both meet—happy." Napoleon's matrimonial venture may be regarded as a judicious combination of the two, and to a certain extent it was happy. The marriage, which was not blessed by the Church, it being a Civil contract, took place on the 9th March 1796. The bridegroom was twenty-six years of age, his bride thirty-four.

[Illustration] from Story of Napoleon by H. F. B. Wheeler


Ten days before Napoleon had been given command of the Army of Italy at the instigation of Carnot. Barras, in his Memoires, insinuates that his influence led the Directory to this decision. In reality the General had largely won his own case. His pen had not lost its cunning, and further plans which he had brought forward for a decisive campaign by the now moribund Army of Italy had attracted considerable attention, although when sent to Scherer, who had succeeded Kellermann in the command, they met with a rebuff at the hands of that worthy. As a direct consequence he was superseded by the soldier who had dared to interfere.

During his exile, when the glamour of his second marriage with the daughter of the Caesars had passed and the memory of better times was the bitter-sweet consolation of his turbulent mind, Napoleon frequently reflected on his affection for the vivacious woman who shared his first triumphs and his throne. "Josephine was devoted to me," he tells Montholon, one of the little band of faithful followers who refused to desert him in the hour of failure. "She loved me tenderly; no one ever had a preference over me in her heart. I occupied the first place in it; her children the next; and she was right in thus loving me; for she is the being whom I have most loved, and the remembrance of her is still all-powerful in my mind."