On This Day in Napoleonic History – 30 March 1806

12Joseph is crowned King of Naples

One of the biggest mistakes Napoleon made was to install his brothers in key positions. As a Corsican, Napoleon valued family and believed he would get loyalty and support from his brothers that he wouldn’t get from anyone else. However, more often than not his brothers proved a liability to Napoleon. Throughout Joseph’s reign in Naples and, subsequently, Spain, Napoleon would bombard his brother with constant letters that outlined the way Joseph ought to behave. ‘You must be a king and talk like a king’ he would write.

Unfortunately, Joseph, just like the rest of Napoleon’s siblings, lacked the leadership gene. ‘There are thousands of people in France who have given greater service to France than them,’ Napoleon said of his brothers. Not only would Joseph lose his throne of Spain but he would also give up Paris to the invading Allies.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 29 March 1796

29Louis-Alexandre Berthier becomes Napoleon’s chief of staff

Napoleon was the first commander to use a chief of staff in its modern sense. And he couldn’t have chosen a better man. Just like Napoleon himself, Berthier was indefatigable when it came to working long hours, without a break and often through the night. On one occasion in 1809 Berthier was summoned no fewer than 17 times in one night. He could keep his head clear after taking dictation for twelve hours, possessed prodigious memory and was one of the few who could decipher Napoleon’s atrocious hand-writing. A born diplomat, he managed to convince his wife, Duchess Maria Elisabeth of Bavaria, whom he was forced to marry by Napoleon, to share the château with his mistress, Madame Visconti, whom he had loved passionately for many years before his marriage. Berthier put together an efficient team that ensured that Napoleon’s every wish was quickly put into action.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 28 March 1814

12Joseph Bonaparte gives up Paris to the Allies

Joseph, who completely lost his nerve, convinced the regency council that Napoleon wished for the Empress and government to leave Paris and move to Blois, using as evidence a letter that was a month old and was twice superseded by different orders. He was supported by Talleyrand, who was already drawing up lists of ministers who would serve in his post-Napoleonic provisional government.

Hortense tried to convince Marie Louise to remain, saying, ‘In leaving Paris, you lose your crown.’ She was unsuccessful, however, and the next day the imperial convoy left the capital. Paris capitulated.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 27 March 1810

27Napoleon meets Marie Louise for the first time

Napoleon was pleased with his choice of a bride. Not only the marriage with Marie Louise would link his new dynasty with one of the oldest monarchies of Europe, but the Habsburg women were well-known for having many children. It was good news for Napoleon, who wanted an heir more than anything. ‘When I heard Marie Louise was fair, I was very glad,’ he recalled.

Unfortunately, his future wife’s sentiments couldn’t be more different. It was bad enough that she was only 18, while he was 40. But also, Austria had been at war with France for most of her life. As an Austrian princess, she had played with a ferocious effigy of Napoleon in her nursery when she was a child. At 14 and 15 she had been forced from her palace to escape Napoleon’s armies. ‘I pity the poor princess he chooses,’ she wrote to a friend before she had any suspicion that it might be her. Once she realised that it was her who was chosen for his future bride, she said, ‘I resign my fate to the hands of the Divine Providence.’

Napoleon and Marie-Louse married by proxy in the Capuchin chapel of Habsburg Palace in Vienna on March 11, with Arch-Duke Charles standing in for Marie Louise and Louis-Alexandre Berthier for Napoleon. Their first meeting was to take place after the proxy marriage but before the civil ceremony. Instead of meeting her at the arranged location, the impatient groom rode to intercept her carriage. ‘Madame,’ Napoleon told her on seeing her for the first time. ‘It gives me great pleasure to meet you.’

They traveled together in Napoleon’s coach to his Palace at Compiègne, where they arrived at 9.30 PM and defied protocol by not only dining together but also spending the night. ‘She liked it so much that she asked me to do it again,’ said Napoleon later. It started out as a happy marriage. They spent every night under the same roof from July 1810 until September 1811 and Napoleon even stopped seeing his Polish mistress Marie Walewska. Marie Louise was not the love of his life, however. ‘I think,’ he was to say years later, ‘although I loved Marie Louise very sincerely, that I loved Josephine better. That was natural. We have risen together and she was a true wife, the wife I have chosen.’

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 26 March 1796

26Napoleon takes command of the Army of Italy

Napoleon arrived at the headquarters of the Army of Italy in Nice, meeting his divisional commanders. They would be a tough group to impress, let alone inspire. As a contemporary had put it, Napoleon ‘had won his reputation in a street riot and his command in a marriage bed,’ and generals such as André Masséna and Pierre Augereau were more experienced and felt that they deserved the command more.

This is how Masséna remembers Napoleon: ‘At first I didn’t think much of him. His small size and puny face didn’t put him in their favour. The portrait of his wife that he held in his hand and had shown to everyone, his extreme youth made them think that this posting was a work of another intrigue but the moment after he donned his general’s cap and seemed to grow by two feet. He questioned us on the position of our divisions, their equipment, their spirit and active number of each corp, gave us the direction that we had to follow, announced that the next day he will inspect all the corps and the day after that they would march on the enemy to give battle.’

The portrait of Napoleon that Masséna had painted was perfectly accurate – Napoleon’s activity, confidence, obsessive demand for information and his love of his wife were all important features of his character. When General Bonaparte arrived in Nice, he found his army in no state to move anywhere, however. Soldiers had no overcoats, no shoes, no draft horses, no meat and bread only occasionally. They hadn’t been paid for months, prompting mutterings of mutiny. In a short period of time Napoleon was to change all of this.

Napoleon thus addressed his troops: ‘Soldiers, you are naked, ill fed! The Government owes you much; it can give you nothing. Your patience, the courage you display in the midst of these rocks, are admirable; but they procure you no glory, no fame is reflected upon you. I seek to lead you into the most fertile plains in the world. Rich provinces, great cities will be in your power. There you will find honour, glory, and riches. Soldiers of Italy, would you be lacking in courage or constancy?’ He was true to his word and his feats during the Italian campaign are among the greatest Napoleonic legends.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 25 March 1802

25Peace of Amiens between France and Britain is signed

Amiens was chosen for the occasion because Henry VIII and Francois I had signed a peace treaty there in 1527 and it was seen as a good omen. Under the treaty, Britain was to restore to France, Spain and Holland nearly all the territories captured since 1793, including the Cape of Good Hope, Dutch Guiana, Tobago, Martinique, St Lucia, Menorca and Pondicherry, retaining only Trinidad and Ceylon. Britain was also to evacuate Elba, return Malta to the Knights of St John and Egypt to the Ottoman Empire. France was required to evacuate Naples and the Papal States.

The treaty was a triumph for France. The whole of France’s overseas empire was returned at the cost of parts of Italy. The only territories gained by Britain were Trinidad and Ceylon, neither of which had belonged to France. Despite the inequality of the Treaty of Amiens, Britain rejoiced and there were celebrations in the street. There was a great change in the tone of the government papers. Suddenly, the Corsican adventurer was referred to as the August hero and the restorer of peace, which had some truth to it because within a year Napoleon had made peace with Austria, Russia, Turkey and Britain.

On the conclusion of the Peace of Amiens, around 5000 British citizens descended on Paris. Commenting on the numbers of French arriving in Britain, the naturalist James Smithson remarked that, should they continue this way for a little bit longer, the two countries were likely to completely exchange their inhabitants.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 23 March 1801

Paul I23 is assassinated

Assassination of the Russian Tsar Paul III at the hands of a group of Russian nobles came as a blow to Napoleon, who was hoping for a lasting alliance with Russia. Paul was mentally unstable and his policies supporting the middle class threatened the Russian nobility. Although not directly involved in the murder, Paul’s 23-year old son and heir Alexander, who was in the palace at the time, had known about it in advance. This knowledge and the fact that he stood by while his father was being assassinated was a heavy burden he was to carry through his whole life. The nobles demanded Paul’s abdication before they stabbed, strangled and kicked the Tsar to death. Alexander was crowned Tsar later that year. Although he theoretically had absolute power, he knew that he had to work with the nobility if he were to escape his father’s fate. He understood that unpopular policies, including any concessions to France, would endanger not only his crown but his life.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 21 March 1815

Napoleon is in Paris following his return from Elba

21The previous day, his son’s 4th birthday, Napoleon arrived to Paris on his return from Elba 11 months to the day after leaving it. Since Louis XVIII fled the capital, Napoleon entered the Tuileries as de-facto Emperor of the French. He received a triumphant reception from the people.

He had achieved his aim and entered Paris without firing a shot, without spilling a drop of blood. Napoleon walked up the stairs of the Tuileries slowly, with his eyes half-closer, his arms extended before him, as if savouring every step. The headlines perfectly demonstrate the changing public opinion as Napoleon makes his way from Elba to Paris:

‘The Tiger has broken out of his den!’

The Ogre was three days at sea.’

‘The Wretch has landed at Frejus.’

‘The Brigand has arrived at Antibes.’

‘The invader has reached Grenoble.’

‘The General has entered Lyons.’

‘Napoleon slept last night at Fontainebleau.’

‘The Emperor proceeds to the Tuileries today.’

‘His Imperial Majesty will address his loyal subjects tomorrow.’

(source: Napoleon for Dummies)

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 20 March 1811

The birth of Napoleon’s son

20Napoléon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte was born at 9.20 in the morning in the Tuileries. There was a great commotion in the palace as the court and functionaries of state waited with impatience, none more so than Napoleon himself. The Emperor was in a state of great agitation. He was overheard saying to Marie Louise’s obstetrician, ‘Pretend that you are not delivering the Empress but the bourgeois from the Rue de St Denis.’ It wasn’t an easy delivery and when asked who he would want to save in the event of an emergency, the mother or the child, Napoleon replied, ‘Save the mother,’ despite everything he had to go through for an heir.

It had been announced that the birth of a daughter would be saluted with 21 guns and that of a son by 101. When the people heard the 22nd boom of the cannon, there were great celebrations in Paris. The infant was proclaimed the King of Rome, a title of the Holy Roman Empire, and was nicknamed the Eaglet by the Bonapartist propagandists. ‘My son is big and healthy,’ Napoleon wrote to Josephine. ‘I hope he will grow up well. I trust that he will fulfill his destiny.’

Napoleon was a very loving father, who was inordinately proud of the boy’s bloodline, pointing out that the boy was related to the Romanovs through his mother’s brother-in-law, to the Habsburgs through his mother, to the Hanoverians through his uncle’s wife and to the Bourbons through his mother’s great-aunt. The fact that all four families currently longed for Napoleon’s overthrow didn’t seem to lessen his joy.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 19 March 1798

Siege of Acre

19Napoleon begins his assault on Acre, surrounding the town with fortifications and trenches. Defending the port were 4000 Afghans, Albanians and Moors, as well as Commodore Sir Sidney Smith with 200 marines. Napoleon launched no fewer than nine major and three minor attacks on Acre over the next nine weeks.

Sir Sidney Smith suggested to Napoleon to decide the fate of the city between the two of them, challenging Napoleon to a duel by the city walls. Thinking he was dealing with a lunatic, Napoleon refused with contempt, saying that he didn’t see Smith as his equal. The French were never successful in taking Acre. Soon Napoleon was describing Acre to his chief-of-staff, Louis-Alexandre Berthier, as a mere grain of sand, an indication that he was considering abandoning the siege.

On May 11 the siege was lifted by Napoleon as he decided to return to Egypt. In a deceptive letter to the Directory Napoleon wrote, ‘The season is too far advanced. The end I had in view had been accomplished. My presence is required in Egypt. I have reduced Acre to a heap of stones. I shall recross the desert.’ All the way in France, the Directory had no way of knowing the true state of events.