On This Day in Napoleonic History – 12 May 1803

12President Thomas Jefferson signs the Louisiana Purchase

For 80 million francs, at the cost of less than 4 cents an acre, the United States doubled its size, acquiring from France 875,000 square miles of territory that today comprises all or some of 13 states from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border. Napoleon wrote to Talleyrand, ‘I renounce Louisiana. I know the price of what I abandon. I renounce it to the greatest regret. To attempt obstinately to retain it would be folly.’

The First Consul knew that hanging on to Louisiana might later draw him into the conflict with the Unites states and it was something he wanted to avoid. By helping the United States to continental greatness and enriching French treasury in the process, Napoleon was able to achieve an objective that had always been important to him. ‘I’ve just given to England a maritime rival that sooner or later will humble her pride,’ he said. He was right – within a decade the war of 1812 between the United States and Britain was to draw off British forces that were still fighting in 1815 and which otherwise might have been present at Waterloo.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 10 May 1796

10Battle of Lodi

The Battle of Lodi was fought during the War of the First Coalition between French forces and an Austrian rear guard led by Karl Philipp Sebottendorf. Lodi can be described as a watershed moment of Napoleon’s career, the point when the first spark of high ambition was born. ‘I no longer regarded myself as a simple general,’ Napoleon later said of his victory. ‘But as a man called upon to decide the fate of peoples. It came to me then that I really could become a decisive actor on the national stage.

Even though Napoleon only faced the Austrian rear-guard and both sides suffered similar losses, the storming of the bridge at Lodi quickly became an integral part of the Napoleonic legend. It is true that it took tremendous courage to charge down the long, narrow bridge faced with cont
inuous grapeshot cannonade.

Several of the officers who led the attacks at the Battle of Lodi, including Louis-Alexandre Berthier, André Masséna and Jean Lannes, became Napoleon’s greatest commanders. Berthier was acting as a chief-of-staff, an artillery captain and a column commander on the day. He would never lead troops in a tactical capacity again as he was rightly considered to be too valuable to be risked in battle.

At the Battle of Lodi, Napoleon was dubbed Little Corporal by his men, the nickname he liked and encouraged as it emphasised his Republican origin and closeness to his troops.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 9 May 1812

9Napoleon embarks on his Russian campaign

Napoleon left St Cloud with Marie Louise and the baby King of Rome to make his way to the front. The Emperor didn’t want war with Russia any more than he wanted the war with Austria and Prussia in 1805 and 1806. He was not about to avoid it through concessions, however, even if his ambassador to Russia, Armand-Augustin-Louis de Caulaincourt, spent long hours trying to dissuade him. Caulaincourt told Napoleon about the harshness of Russian winter and of Tsar Alexander’s words: ‘The Frenchman is brave but long privations and bad climate will wear him down and discourage him. Our climate, our winter will fight on our side.’ Napoleon replied to Caulaincourt, ‘One good battle will see the end of your friend Alexander’s fine resolutions and of his sand castles as well.’

As always, Napoleon moved fast. The Imperial family passed the Rhine on the 14th, the Elbe on the 29th and the Vistula on June 6th, travelling 530 miles in 7 days. When Napoleon left Marie Louise in Dresden, he wrote to her: ‘I will be back within two months. Thus our absence from each other would be but a short one.’ It would be seven months before they saw each other again.

Napoleon reached the banks of the Niemen by June 23 and crossed the river into Russia on June 24. As they were crossing, Napoleon’s horse shied at a hare and threw him onto the sandy river bank, leaving him with a bruised hip. ‘This is a bad omen. A Roman would recoil,’ someone exclaimed, possibly Napoleon himself. Whoever said it was right – Russia was a disaster from which Napoleon had never recovered.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 8 May 1795

23Napoleon leaves for Paris in a bid to find a better posting

Although Napoleon was posted to the Vendée, he refused to take the post. Not only was there no glory in civil war but he didn’t like the idea of shedding French blood. He returned to Paris with the aim of finding a better command, taking with him his 16-year old brother Louis and 2 of his aides-de-camp – Marmont and Junot.

Napoleon claimed illness, enjoying his pay as an unemployed general and doing his best to ignore the War Ministry’s demands to report for his post in the Vendée, provide proof of illness or retire altogether. These were uncomfortable months for him but he was philosophical about his lot, telling his brother Joseph in August: ‘Me, I’m very little attached to life.’

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 6 May 1800

6Napoleon leaves Paris on his Second Italian Campaign

Napoleon’s crossing of the Alps and his surprise attack on unsuspecting Austrians are among the most audacious endeavours in history. In proclamation to his soldiers, Napoleon said: ‘Frenchmen! You have been anxious for peace. Your Government has desired it with still greater ardour. Its first efforts, its constant wishes, have been for its attainment. The English Ministry has exposed the secret of its iniquitous policy. It wishes to dismember France, to destroy its commerce, and either to erase it from the map of Europe or to degrade it to a secondary power. England is willing to embroil all the nations of the Continent in hostility with each other, that she may enrich herself with the spoils and gain possession of the trade of the world. For the attainment of this object she scatters her gold, becomes prodigal of her promises and multiplies her intrigues.’

In a strategy meeting prior to the commencement of the campaign Napoleon allegedly asked Bourienne where he thought the decisive battle would take place. ‘How the devil should I know?’ answered his Brienne-educated private secretary. To which Napoleon replied, pointing at the plains of the river Scrivia, ‘Why, look, here, you fool.’ It was precisely there that the Battle of Marengo would be fought in June.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 5 May 1821

5Napoleon dies on St Helena

‘The mightiest breath of life that ever animated human clay has ceased,’ said Chateaubriand on the news of Napoleon’s death.

Napoleon was laid to rest in a beautiful spot a mile from Longwood, under willow trees where he liked to visit when he sought solitude. Even after the former Emperor’s death, Sir Hudson Lowe would not allow his gravestone to feature the Imperial title of Napoleon, while Napoleon’s entourage refused to accept Lowe’s wording of the non-royal Napoleon Bonaparte, and so his grave remained unmarked.

Two decades later, on 2 December 1840, the anniversary of his coronation and the Battle of Austerlitz, his remains were moved to Paris and he was interned at Les Invalides. An estimated one million Frenchmen lined the route of the cortege through Paris. Attending were four of his marshals: Jean Soult, Bon Adrien Jeannot de Moncey, Nicolas Charles Oudinot and Emmanuel de Grouchy. Although Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, Auguste Frédéric Louis Viesse de Marmont and Claude Victor were still living, they did not attend.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 3 May 1814

3Napoleon arrives on the island of Elba

Even though Napoleon was in exile, he didn’t see it as an excuse to be idle. It was true that his Empire diminished to nothing but a small spec in the Mediterranean but he took to the task of reorganising the island’s administration with the same vigour he had once employed when giving laws to all of continental Europe.

During his eleven months on Elba, Napoleon restructured the island’s defenses, gave money to its poorest inhabitants, installed a fountain which still produces drinking water today, lent a huge collection of books to the library at Porto Ferrajo, reformed customs and excise, built a hospital and bridges, repaired the barracks, planted vineyards, paved parts of Porto Ferraio for the first time and irrigated land, organised rubbish collection, passed a law prohibiting children from sleeping five to a bed, set up a court of appeal and widened roads. What little free time he had he spent reading and gardening.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 1 May 1802

13Napoleon establishes lycées in France

Educational reforms were at the top of the list of the First Consul’s priorities, who once said that education was ‘the most important of all the institutions, since everything depends upon it, the present and the future.’ Napoleon knew how important it was to speak French in order to advance, and so he made it the only permitted language of instruction.

While he was conservative when it came to primary education, putting it back in the hands of the clergy, his reforms in secondary education were  revolutionary. Forty-five lycées – state secondary schools – were set up with the aim to produce future soldiers, administrators and technicians.

Greek, Latin, logic, mathematics, physics and rhetoric were taught, as well as some other sciences and modern languages, while religion was kept to a minimum. 6400 full-fee scholarships were offered. By 1813 French education was the best in Europe and some of the Napoleonic lycées are still considered the most elite in secondary education today. The lycées served as a model in Spain and Holland, which accepted French educational ideas even as they rejected the French occupation.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 28 April 1814

Map_of_ElbaNapoleon leaves France for Elba

At Saint-Raphael, Napoleon embarked on the British frigate the Undaunted bound for Elba. Leaving from precisely the same jetty he had arrived at when returning from Egypt 15 years previously, Napoleon insisted upon and was given the sovereign’s twenty gun salute when he went on board, despite the Royal Navy’s convention not to fire salute after sunset.

Napoleon’s exile would be short-lived, however. He would be back 11 months later for a brief but triumphant return to power known as the Hundred Days.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 26 April 1976

26Napoleon curtails pillaging in Italy

The young General Bonaparte made a stirring proclamation to his army in Carasco: ‘Today you equal by your services the armies of Holland and the Rhine. Devoid of everything, you supplied everything. You won battles without guns, passed rivers without bridges, accomplished forced marches without shoes, bivouacked without brandy and often without bread. Today you are amply provided for. I promise you the conquest of Italy but on one condition. You must swear to respect the people you deliver and repress the horrible pillage in which scoundrels excited by the enemy have indulged.’

Pillaging was something a victorious but hungry army would invariably engage in but Napoleon was having none of it. He attempted to put a stop to any activity that brought dishonour to the army and tarnished the French reputation. Although he authorised generals to shoot the officers who allowed looting, there was no evidence of this actually happening. A few days later Napoleon wrote to the Directory: ‘I will restore order or will cease to command these brigands.’