On This Day in Napoleonic History – 21 April 1795

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21Napoleon gets engaged to Désirée Clary in Marseille

Napoleon was introduced to Désirée by his older brother Joseph, who was considering marrying her himself. Napoleon, however, who by then had been promoted to Brigadier-General, had other ideas: ‘You, Joseph, are of an undecided type, and it is the same for Désirée, whereas Julie and I know what we want. You would do better to marry Julie. As to Désirée, she shall be my wife.’

Joseph married Désirée’s sister Julie on 1 August 1794, and Désirée and Napoleon became engaged. He would soon break off the engagement, however. In 1795 he would meet Josephine and fall madly in love.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 20 of April 1814

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20Napoleon leaves for Elba

At the bottom of the horse-shoe-shaped staircase of Château de Fontainebleau, after shaking hands with the soldiers, Napoleon addressed his Old Guard, his voice shaking with emotion: ‘Officers, non-commissioned officers and the soldiers of the Old Guard, I bid you farewell. For twenty years I have constantly led you along the road to honour and glory. In these later times, as in prosperity, you have been models of courage and fidelity. With men such as you our cause would not be lost, but the war would have been interminable. I have sacrificed all my interests to those of the country. Her happiness is my only thought. It will still be the object of my wishes. Do not regret my fate. If I have consented to survive, it is in order to serve your glory. Adieu, my friends! Would I could press you all to my heart!’

He then ordered the eagles to be brought to him, and, having kissed them, added, ‘I embrace you all in the person of your general. Adieu, soldiers!’ Even the most seasoned warriors had tears running down their faces. Cries of ‘Vive l’Empreur’ were heard.

Many of his marshals and generals remained faithful to Napoleon after his downfall and followed him into exile. Although loyalty is rare in political defeat, Napoleon was able to successfully inspire it.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 18 April 1802

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18The Concordat is formally proclaimed

Anti-clericalism was a driving force during the French Revolution. Napoleon himself was skeptical about Christianity, even though he once told his doctor, ‘Wishing to be an atheist does not make you one.’ On Saint Helena he would ask Gaspard Gourgaud, ‘Did Jesus really exist?’ His pragmatic view on religion was common among the Enlightenment thinkers. ‘The idea of God is very useful, to maintain good order, to keep men in the path of virtue and to keep them from crime,’ Napoleon once said.

Yet, Napoleon knew that the majority of French citizens were still very Catholic at heart. His natural supporters – labourers, artisans and rural workers – were deeply religious and yearned for the return of the Catholic faith to France. As early as 1796 Napoleon had told the Directory that ‘it would be a big mistake to quarrel with that power’, referring to the Pope. Now he was in a position to force some sort of reconciliation that might just remove the main cause of the uprising in the Vendee and the discontent of the Catholics in Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and the Rhine.

The Concordat stated that the Catholic faith could be freely exercised in France, as long as it conforms to the regulations which the government would judge necessary for the public tranquility. There would be new dioceses and parishes, ten Arch-bishops and 50 bishops would be appointed by Napoleon and the Pope. All divine services would include the prayer for the Republic and the Consuls. The Concordat cemented the land transfers of the Revolution – all former church property would belong to those who had acquired it during the Revolution. Ten day week was suppressed and Sunday was restored as the day of rest. The government would pay the clergy’s salaries and the Church would be responsible for primary education. On April 8, without prior consultation with the Pope, restrictions and regulations were appended to the Concordat, protecting the rights of France’s 700,000 Protestants and 55,000 Jews. Although the Concordat was unpopular with the army, the former revolutionaries and the Jacobins, it was generally welcomed in France and won Napoleon the nickname Restorer of Religion. It had healed the deepest wound of the Revolution and remained the basis of the relationship between France and the Papacy for a century.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 15 April 1821

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Napoleon_saintheleneNapoleon writes his will on St Helena

In his will, Napoleon stated that the duplicity of Marmont, Augereau, Talleyrand and Lafayette were to blame for the 1814 and 1815 invasions of France: ‘I forgive them. May the posterity of France forgive them as I have done.’

He also urged his son to adopt his motto: ‘Everything for the French people.’ His fortune and possessions were divided among his family, servants and former generals.

The will gave away a number of belongings that weren’t his, such as Fredreck II alarm clock that he removed from Potsdam. Not relinquishing his penchant for arranging marriages even on his death bed, he gave orders for Bessier’s son to marry Duroc’s daughter. Bracelets of his hair were to be sent to Marie Louise, Madame Mère, each of his siblings, nephews and nieces, and his son, the King of Rome.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 13 of April 1814

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Map_of_ElbaSoldiers want Napoleon reinstated

Following Napoleon’s unconditional abdication, the troops revolted, demanding the Emperor’s return and wanting to march on Paris. White flag of the Bourbons was burnt, whole regiments were close to mutiny and officers who attempted to restore order were fired upon. In the words of Charles de Gaulle, ‘those he made suffer most, the soldiers, were the very ones who were most faithful to him.’

The Allies didn’t think it was safe to keep Napoleon in Fontainebleau, so near Paris, surrounded by troops who were still loyal to him. They had to move him somewhere where he would no longer pose a threat. By the Treaty of Fontainebleau they gave Napoleon the island of Elba for life, allowing him to use his Imperial title and making generous financial provisions for the whole family.

They were gravely mistaken in their belief that Elba was a safe place to hold the deposed Emperor, however. Within eleven months Napoleon would be back in Paris in what was the most amazing and miraculous return to power the world had ever seen.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 12 April 1814

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31Napoleon tries to take his own life

Earlier in the 1814 campaign, Napoleon wrote to Joseph about the capitulation of Paris: ‘When it comes, I will no longer exist. I repeat to you that Paris will never be occupied during my life.’ Now that Paris was indeed occupied, Napoleon saw no other way out but to kill himself. He took a mixture of poisons that he had carried in a small silk bag around his neck ever since his near capture by the Cossacks at Maloyaroslavetz. Because his mamluk bodyguard Roustam had good sense to remove Napoleon’s pistols, this poison was the only means of suicide available to him at the time. ‘My life no longer belonged to my country,’ he later wrote. ‘The events of the last few days have again rendered me master of it. Why should I endure so much suffering? And who knows if my death might not place the crown on the head of my son.’

The suicide attempt failed, however. Time had taken away the strength of the poison and medical assistance arrived in time to save the deposed Emperor’s life. The doctor induced vomiting and Napoleon recovered, signing his abdication the next day in Fontainebleau in what is now known as the Abdication Room. Roustam would later flee Fontainebleau, fearing to be taken for an Allied assassin should Napoleon succeed in killing himself. When during the Hundred Days he wrote to the Emperor asking to be reinstated, Napoleon threw the letter into the fireplace, calling Roustam a coward.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 6 April 1804

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Jean-Charles_Pichegru2General Jean-Charles Pichegru dies in his cell

Pichegru was found strangled in his cell, where he was held following his arrest on February 6 for his part in a Royalist conspiracy against Napoleon. The official report stated that it was suicide but there were many who questioned this view. Pichegru’s co-conspirator, George Cadoudal, was captured on March 9 but not before he killed one gendarme in a carriage chase and wounded another. Napoleon told Davout that the news of the capture had made the people touchingly happy.

Cadoudal openly admitted that he had come to Paris to kill Napoleon. He was executed on June 25. ‘They seek to destroy the Revolution by attacking my person. I will defend it for I am the Revolution,’ said Napoleon.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 4 April 1814

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4Marshal Auguste de Marmont betrays Napoleon

With Napoleon in Fontainebleau and the Allies closing on Montmartre, Marmont marched all the remaining French forces to the Allied quarters to capitulate. This led Emperor Alexander of Russia to demand Napoleon’s unconditional abdication.

Marmont’s treachery bothered Napoleon till the end of his life. ‘The ungrateful wretch. He will be more unhappy than me,’ he said on St Helena. Because of this ultimate betrayal, Marmont’s company was nicknamed Judas’ company and Marmont was forever known as a traitor. Even three decades later, when he was an old man living in Naples, children would follow him and shout, ‘There goes the man who betrayed Napoleon.’

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 2 April 1814

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marechal_neyRevolt of the Marshals at Fontainebleau

The Senate declared ‘Napoleon Bonaparte and his family deprived of the throne, the French people and army freed from their oath of fidelity’. Although Napoleon wanted to march on Paris, his marshals refused, demanding his abdication.

‘The army will obey me!’ said Napoleon, to which Ney replied, ‘The army will obey its chiefs.’ They reminded Napoleon that he had once promised to do what was in the best interest of France. Napoleon accused them of wishing his abdication only to enjoy the riches he had given them over the years but even he knew the real reason. Given the strategic position they were in, none of them could see how they could possibly win. Napoleon’s abdication was the only way to end the war.

 

 

 

 

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 31 March 1814

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31Napoleon arrives in Fontainebleau, having become the first French monarch to lose the capital since the 15th century

The day before, Talleyrand had set up provisional government that immediately began peace negotiations. Although the Allies were open to the idea of regency for Napoleon II, with Marie-Louise acting as regent, Talleyrand, who knew that he personally couldn’t expect any benefits from the Bonapartes, persuaded the Allies that brining the Bourbons back was the best course of action for Europe. This was only one of many examples of Talleyrand’s treachery.

Napoleon once said of his foreign minister, who was dishonest to the point of selling French military secrets to Austria behind Napoleon’s back, ‘You are nothing but shit in silk stockings.’ To which Talleyrand replied, once Napoleon was safely out of the room, ‘It’s a pity that such a great man should be so ill-bred.’ Inexplicably, Napoleon forgave him time and time again, giving him important government posts.

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