A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring. — Alexander Pope

Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

The Eve of the Reign of Terror


Paris was in a ferment. The King had to be guarded by a double cordon of soldiers, so bitter was the animosity against the Royal Family and all that it stood for. With his usual shrewdness and faculty for penetrating into the probabilities of the future, Napoleon correctly anticipated events, and wrote to his brother Joseph that "everything tends to a revolution." On the 20th June 1792, a wild procession of insurrectionists, accompanied by cannon, made its way to the Tuileries, and intimidated the Guard. The latter opened the gates of the courtyard and the motley mob crowded into the beautiful palace, openly insulting King Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette. A republican Assembly had been forced upon the monarch, who was duty reaping the first-fruits of the harvest. Bourrienne gives a graphic account of what happened and how it affected the ardent politician of twenty-three. Napoleon's remarks clearly show that he had no belief in the aspirations of the rebels, notwithstanding his own ardent republicanism. Throughout his life he always held the canaille  in profound contempt.

"We met," Bourrienne tells us, "by appointment, at a restaurateur's  in the Rue St Honore, near the Palais Royal. On going out we saw a mob approaching in the direction of the market-place, which Bonaparte estimated at from five to six thousand men. They were a parcel of blackguards, armed with weapons of every description, and shouting the grossest abuse, whilst they proceeded at a rapid rate towards the Tuileries. This mob appeared to consist of the vilest and most profligate of the population of the suburbs. 'Let us follow the rabble,' said Bonaparte. We got the start of them, and took up our station on the terrace bordering the river. It was there that he was an eye-witness of the scandalous scenes that ensued; and it would be difficult to describe the surprise and indignation which they excited in him. 'Such weakness and forbearance,' he said, 'could not be excused '; but when the King showed himself at a window which looked out upon the garden, with the red cap, which one of the mob had just placed upon his head, he could no longer repress his indignation: 'What madness!' he loudly exclaimed, 'how could they allow that rabble to enter? Why do they not sweep away four or five hundred of them with the cannon? and then the rest would take themselves off very quickly.' When we sat down to dinner, he discussed with great good sense the causes and consequences of this unrepressed insurrection. He foresaw, and developed with sagacity, all that would follow; and in this he was not mistaken."

In a letter to Joseph written on the 3rd July, Napoleon again reveals himself as a philosopher. "Every one seeks his own interest," he says, "and wishes to rise by means of lying and calumny; men intrigue more contemptibly than ever. All that destroys ambition. One pities those who have the misfortune to play a part, especially when they can do without it. To live quietly, to enjoy the love of one's family surroundings—that, my dear fellow, if one had 4000 or 5000 francs a year, would be the wise thing to do. One should also be between the ages of twenty-five and forty, when one's imagination has calmed down, and is no longer troublesome. I embrace you, and recommend to you moderation in everything—in everything, do you understand?—if you wish to live happily."

A week later Napoleon received a welcome letter from the Minister of War appointing him Captain of the 4th regiment of artillery, and his arrears of pay were also sent. Life seemed to be worth living once more. Promotion is a fine antidote against depression.

It soon became evident that nothing short of civil warfare would satisfy the rioters, and on the 10th August 1792, the long pent-up storm burst with awful fury. The King, Queen, and other members of the royal family made their way to the Assembly, or Parliament, where they sat in a reporter's box listening to a debate as to whether Louis should be deposed or suspended, and which ended in a unanimous vote for the latter course. Meanwhile the mob was quickly gathering, a dozen pieces of artillery were drawn up, and the insurgents assumed a threatening attitude. Many of the Swiss and National Guards, whose duty it was to defend the Tuileries, found it necessary in the face of such overwhelming numbers to withdraw into the palace. Firing commenced, and for a time the royalists triumphed. Probably the crowd would have thinned away had not a foolish message arrived from Louis to the effect that the Swiss were to withdraw to their barracks. While this was being done the rioters rushed into the palace and in their mad frenzy slaughtered indiscriminately nearly every male attendant to be found, shooting wildly at the bodyguard as they retreated. Another order came from the King that the Swiss were to lay down their arms. This the brave fellows did, although they knew what might happen. Those who were not killed by the mob were taken prisoners and put in the Church of the Feuillants, and on the following day many of them were mercilessly massacred. Those of my readers who have been to Lucerne have doubtless seen the noble monument in bas-relief of a dying lion erected to the memory of the brave Swiss. Napoleon himself saved one of the bodyguard, and asserted that "If Louis XVI. had mounted his horse, the victory would have been his—so I judge from the spirit which prevailed in the morning." He always believed in a bold front; the King's action was an unmistakable sign of weakness.

Years after at St Helena Napoleon related the events of the fatal day as he watched them from a furniture shop belonging to Bourrienne's brother, Fauvelet. "Before I arrived at the Carrousel," he says, "I had been met in the Rue des Petits Champs by a group of hideous men carrying a head on the end of a pike. Seeing me well dressed, and looking like a gentleman, they came to me to make me cry, 'Vive la Nation!'  which I did without difficulty, as you may believe. The chateau  was attacked by the violent mob. The King had for his defence at least as many troops as the Convention had on Vendemiaire 13th (October 15th), when they had to fight against a better-disciplined and more formidable enemy. The greater part of the National Guard was on the side of the King—one must do them this justice. When the palace had been fired, and the King had taken refuge in the bosom of the Assembly, I ventured to penetrate into the garden. Never since have any of my battlefields given me such an idea of death as the mass of the Swiss corpses then presented to me, whether the smallness of the space made the number appear larger, or whether it was because I was to undergo this experience for the first time. . . . I visited all the cafes  in the neighbourhood of the Assembly; everywhere the irritation was extreme, rage was in every heart, it showed itself in all faces, although the people present were not by any means of the lower class, and all these places must have been daily frequented by the same customers, for although I had nothing peculiar in my dress—but perhaps my countenance was more calm—it was easy to see that I excited many looks of hostility and defiance as being unknown and a suspect."

August 1792 was indeed a month of events fraught with far-reaching consequences. The decree went forth that all religious houses should be confiscated and sold. Along with the death-knell of royalty was sounded that of religion. Elise, the most determined and resolute of Napoleon's three sisters, was then at the College of St Cyr, and he felt it would not be safe for her to stay in France a single moment longer than was absolutely necessary. He still put family ties before patriotism; in reality each is part and parcel of the other. His position was difficult, for it would have been foolish to have jeopardized his captaincy, but he thought he saw a way out, and applied for a commission which would insure his going to Corsica, which was not granted. A petition to the Directory of the district of Versailles, requesting that he be allowed to accompany Elise, met with a more favourable response. On the 1st September, the day before the revolutionary Commune of Paris began the massacre of hundreds of citizens because they did not happen to sympathize fully with the Revolution, Napoleon conducted his sister from St Cyr. In October they were in their native town once more, Napoleon resuming his duties as second lieutenant-colonel of the volunteers.

The island of Sardinia, which is separated from Corsica by the Strait of Bonifacio and now belongs to Italy, had cherished dreams of declaring her independence. It was therefore determined that Admiral Truguet and a number of troops and volunteers should sail from Marseilles, call at Ajaccio for additional men, and under the command of Raffaelle Casabianca, endeavour to assist the rebellious islanders. Almost as soon as they had landed in Corsica there was trouble between the sailors and the unruly volunteers, three of the latter being hanged in consequence. Paoli, now President of the Administration and Commander-in-Chief of the National Guards, felt that this was indeed a sorry prelude to an expedition in which loyal co-operation was an absolute essential. The aged patriot therefore wisely decided that only regular troops should be sent. Cagliari, the capital of the island, was deemed the most important point of attack; San Stefano was to be occupied by a second division under the command of Colonel Cesari-Colonna, Paoli's nephew, and accompanied by Napoleon. The attempt on the first place failed miserably owing to a want of confidence on the part of the besiegers, and the troops at San Stefano accomplished little. They certainly effected a landing, and on the night of the 23rd February, 1793, Napoleon and his men hastily erected a battery, from which point of vantage they proceeded to bombard Maddalena. On the following evening, however, the troops showed that they had no more heart for warfare than their compatriots at Cagliari, and a retreat became absolutely necessary. For this Napoleon is in no way to be blamed. There is more than a suspicion of treachery, and it has been suggested that either Paoli or some of his followers had arranged that the expedition should fail in order to humble the too enterprising and over-confident Bonaparte, who was nearly left behind in a disgraceful struggle to get into the boats.

Napoleon's dream of a free Corsica had long since passed away; he was convinced that without France she might fall a prey to any Power or bold maritime adventurer who cared to risk the attempt upon her. Relations between him and Paoli became more and more strained. Probably he felt in his own mind that the dictator's cause was hopeless, and consequently offered no advantages. France on the other hand, appeared likely to become all-powerful. She seemingly stopped at nothing, and was as bent on "setting Europe to rights "in her fashion as was Pitt in his. But what was of more immediate importance was the startling and unexpected intelligence that the Convention had ordered Paoli's arrest, as well as that of Pozzo, his right-hand man. The author of this ill-service was none other than Lucien Bonaparte, who had acted as Paoli's secretary for several months and was now in France occupying his leisure moments in securing the downfall of the patriot by denouncing him to the authorities at Toulon. This conduct can only be described as infamous, and goes to prove that a keen sense of morality was not a conspicuous trait of the Bonaparte family. Lucien had not taken his brother into his confidence, and no one was more astonished than Napoleon when the truth of the matter was revealed to him. The net result was to embroil more deeply the island in a civil war which had been carried on in a desultory kind of way for some time, breaking out into flame here and there, and dying down almost as speedily.

We now catch a glimpse of Napoleon as a diplomatist. He sent a communication to the Convention glowing with fulsome flattery and pleading that "the patriarch of liberty, and the precursor of the French Republic," might be spared this last ignominy. The young officer was playing a double part. With Salicetti he planned to secure the citadel of Ajaccio by artifice, but without success. He then decided to tramp to Bastia, where the French Commissioners were investigating the condition of affairs and making preparations for resistance against the islanders. Here he hoped to meet Joseph, who had also attached himself to the French cause. One cannot but admire the dogged determination which prompted such a proceeding. His precept that "It is only by perseverance and tenaciousness that any object can be obtained," was not a mere moral maxim, a passing thought to be dismissed as casually as it had entered the brain.

Napoleon's journey across the island was quite an adventurous one. Accompanied only by a poor but sagacious shepherd he traversed rugged ravines and valleys, every recess of which was dangerous and might shelter a band of Paolists. In passing through the village of Bocognano he fell into the hands of the enemy and was locked up in what was considered a safe place. But under cover of night, and by the aid of friends, he effected his escape through a window, and the whole of the following day he was forced to conceal himself in a garden. From this unhappy and insecure hiding place he made his way to the house of a cousin, but on the evening of his third day there a Nationalist brigadier entered and demanded to search the place. Good fortune again attended the fugitive. The unwelcome visitor was cajoled into a belief that Napoleon, against whom an order for arrest had now been issued, had neither been seen nor heard of in that quarter, and he did not persist in his demand. Shortly after he had left the house he was followed by the refugee, who had been sitting in another room with the servants, all of whom were sufficiently well armed to offer a desperate resistance if necessary.

A ship was riding at anchor awaiting him, and, stealthily finding his way to the dinghy on the beach, Napoleon was quickly on board. It was a case of touch and go, for the Nationalists would not have allowed him to escape from their hands a second time.

Eventually he reached Bastia, and made such a good impression on the Commissioners that a naval expedition against Ajaccio was fitted out and he was given command of the artillery. A week later the little band of some four hundred men sighted the harbour. The attempt to make the patriotic citizens surrender was a complete fiasco, for while Lacombe Saint Michel, Salicetti, Napoleon, and Joseph were joined by a few dozen soldiers and citizens, Paoli was being reinforced by people from all over the island. The men were disembarked, captured a fortress known as the Torre di Capitello, which they soon evacuated, and returned. Another failure had been added to Napoleon's record. The Bonaparte family paid dearly for the part they played at this time. Their enemies, and they were many, wrecked Madame Letizia's house. Fortunately her resourceful son had foreseen such an event, and not only warned his mother but arranged for her escape. She and her children were thus enabled to leave the place before the angry Paolists set about their work of destruction, and after a long tramp were taken to Calvi by sea. Eight days after their arrival a small merchant vessel was chartered for a voyage to Toulon, and late on the night of the 11th June 1793, the dispossessed family, including Napoleon, sailed in the direction of France and of Fortune.