On This Day in Napoleonic History – 18 December 1812

Napoleon arrives at the Tuileries Palace after the fiasco of his Russian campaign

When the Emperor told his marshals he was leaving the army to return to Paris, he presented his decision as absolutely unavoidable. It had to be done ‘if I am to overhaul Europe and tell her to choose between war and peace.’ He appointed Marshal Murat as the overall commander of the army. Flamboyant Murat failed to hold the line of the Vistula after Napoleon left, and soon abandoned the command to Eugène, leaving for Naples to try and save his throne. Napoleon was furious. He told Eugène, ‘It would take very little for me to have him arrested by way of an example. He’s a brave man on the field of battle but he is totally devoid of intelligence and courage.’

Napoleon was right to return to Paris as quickly as possible. ‘French are like women, you can’t stay away from them for too long,’ he said to his master of the horse, Armand-Augustin-Louis de Caulaincourt. What was left of the Grande Armée was only two days march away from Vilnius and in relative safety. Napoleon was needed in Paris to try and mitigate the disastrous effect that the news of his defeat would have on the French, his allies and his enemies. Napoleon summed up his Russian campaign perfectly when he told Dominique-Georges-Frédéric Dufour de Pradt, his ambassador in Warsaw, ‘There is but a step from the sublime to the ridiculous.’

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 17 December 1798

Napoleon sends Lieutenant Fourès away from Egypt

Alexander Berthier gave Lieutenant Fourès his orders to go back to Paris with allegedly important dispatches. It took three months for the round trip from Egypt to Paris, which suited Napoleon perfectly, since he was conducting a very public affair with Fourès’ wife Pauline.

Napoleon met the beautiful 20-year old blonde on 30 November when he opened the Tivoli Egyptien gardens in Cairo. She had been smuggled to Egypt by her husband dressed as Cavalry Chasseur. It was 6 months since Napoleon found out about Josephine’s infidelity, and he was still heart-broken about it. When he saw  Pauline, he knew it was a perfect opportunity for revenge. Within days of their meeting the couple embarked on a relationship and the army began to call her his Cleopatra.

Unfortunately for Napoleon, Pauline’s husband’s ship was intercepted by the British the very next day and he was sent back to Alexandria. He reappeared in Cairo ten weeks before he was expected only to find his wife living with Napoleon at his palace. There was nothing for Fourès to do but divorce his wife, whom he only married a few months previously.

Soon Pauline became Napoleon’s official mistress in Cairo, acting as a hostess in his palace and sharing his carriage. Josephine knew what was going on but in view of her own infidelity she couldn’t complain. When Napoleon left Egypt, Pauline became Junot’s mistress and later Kleber’s mistress. She would eventually make a fortune in a Brazilian timber business and finally settle in Paris. She lived until she was 90.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 13 December 1799

3consulsThree Consuls named

Napoleon proposed to Abbé Sieyès to name the three consuls who will be presented to the nation as part of the Constitution of Year 8. The three consuls appointed by Abbé Sieyès were General Bonaparte, Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès and Charles-François Lebrun. The two provisional consuls, Sieyès and Ducos, became president and vice-president of the Senate respectively.

After the events of the Brumaire Coup, Napoleon never doubted that he was destined to rule France. ‘A newly born government must dazzle and astonish. When it stops to do that, it fails,’ he told his secretary Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 10 December 1815

270px-longwood_houseNapoleon moves to Longwood

For the first seven weeks of his stay on Saint Helena, Napoleon resided at the Briars with the family of East India company superintendent William Balcombe. This was the happiest period of his exile. When Longwood was finally ready for him, he took up residence with a heavy heart. ‘Do not call it my palace but my tomb,’ he said. He clearly foresaw that Longwood would be his last residence.

The conditions in which the deposed Emperor was to spend six years before his death in 1821 were barely livable. Longwood is elevated and lies in cloud for most of the year. Humidity is typically 77%. It would leave everything slightly damp, and even Napoleon’s playing cards had to be dried in the oven to stop them from sticking together. Because of the dampness Napoleon and his entourage would suffer from constant colds and bronchitis. In addition to its unhealthy climate, Longwood was infested with termites, rats, mosquitoes and cockroaches. In his final years the Imperial prisoner became so depressed, he refused to leave the house to get some fresh air he needed. His health deteriorated rapidly.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 7 December 1815

marechal_neyExecution of Michel Ney

One of Napoleon’s most talented marshals was executed by the royalists for his loyalty to the Emperor after Napoleon’s return from Elba. The crime with which Ney was charged was high treason. From his trial it became apparent that Ney was ignorant of Napoleon’s escape from Elba until 7 March 1815. When he found out about it, he told the king that ‘should Buonaparte be taken, he would deserve to be conducted to Pairs in an iron cage.’ He remained loyal to the royal cause for some days until he realised how Bonapartist the general feeling in the army was. He then issued a proclamation stating that ‘the cause of the Bourbons is forever lost’ and soon joined Napoleon’s army.

The unanimous verdict of the trial was guilty. Out of 160 peers who voted, 139 demanded a death sentence, 17 voted for banishment and 4 refused to give their opinion. The Bravest of the Brave remained composed until the end of the proceedings and was executed by the firing squad soon after. There is a minority of historians who believe Marshal Ney had escaped his execution and settled in America, becoming a school teacher. It is not a popular view, however.

Although Napoleon loved Ney, he would say on Saint Helena that the marshal was good for the command of ten thousand men but beyond that he was out of his depth.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 4 December 1805

hgm_kupelwieser_portrat_kaiser_franz_iNapoleon meets with Emperor Francis of Austria

After the decisive French victory at Austerlitz, Napoleon and Francis had a 90-minute interview by the fire on the road to Hungary. ‘He wanted to conclude peace immediately,’ Napoleon told Talleyrand. ‘He appealed to my finer feelings.’

Mounting his horse, Napoleon told his staff: ‘Gentlemen, we return to Paris. Peace is made.’ He then rode to Austerlitz, where he visited the wounded. Curious onlookers found it a peculiar sight – an Emperor of Austria humbling himself before the son of a small Corsican family, not so long ago a sub-lieutenant of artillery, who rose to ultimate power through his sheer talent and ability, and who now held the destinies of Europe in his hands.

In the letter to Josephine, Napoleon said about Francis: ‘He showed neither talent, nor bravery.’

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 3 December 1812

2Napoleon issues the most famous of all his bulletins

In his 29th bulletin of 1812 campaign, dictated shortly before he left his army in Russia to return to Paris, Napoleon blamed the Russian winter for the catastrophe that had befallen his troops: ‘With temperatures unexpectedly down to -27 degrees Centigrade, the cavalry, artillery and baggage horses perished every night, not only by hundreds but by thousands. The army so fine on the 6th was very different on the 14th.’

By holding the weather responsible for his defeat, Napoleon gave no credit to the Russian army, calling the Cossacks ‘this contemptible cavalry, which only makes noise.’

When this bulletin was published in Paris on December 16, it caused a shock among the French society unaccustomed to see bad news so clearly spelled out for them. They were outraged by the final sentence of the bulletin that was seen as insensitive and self-centered: ‘The health of His Majesty has never been better.’ In reality, this phrase was nothing but habit, since Napoleon had used it 30 times in his letters to Marie Louise before he reached Moscow and 12 more during his stay there and the retreat. Napoleon’s 29th bulletin is significant because it was the first time Napoleon would officially admit that he had suffered a catastrophic defeat.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 2 December 1805

12Napoleon is crowned Emperor of the French

The question of legitimising Napoleon’s rule and establishing a dynasty had come to the fore after a number of assassination attempts against the First Consul. It was also believed that, for Napoleon to be seen as an equal by the monarchs of Europe, he needed to become one of them. ‘A hereditary principle alone could prevent a counter-Revolution,’ Napoleon said. 27 out of 28 councillors approved Napoleon’s becoming an Emperor, and so did the majority of French citizen in a plebiscite.

Because Napoleon and Josephine only married in a civil ceremony, the church didn’t recognise their marriage. In order for Josephine to be crowned as Empress, the couple were married on 1 December in the Tuileries Palace by Cardinal Joseph Fesch, with Talleyrand, Berthier and Duroc as witnesses. The coronation led to many family squabbles. Joseph argued against Josephine being crowned. He was jealous of Louis and Hortense, whose children would be grandchildren of an Empress, while his own children only those of a bourgeois. All three of Napoleon’s sisters refused to carry Josephine’s train. Lucien didn’t attend the ceremony at all, and neither did Madame Mère, who stayed with Lucien in Rome, even though Napoleon bought a large house for her in Paris. She is present, however, in the famous painting of Napoleon’s coronation by Jacques-Louis David, who was told to paint her in. Later she would say about her family’s elevation, ‘Let’s hope that it lasts.’ Napoleon wasn’t impressed by his family’s attitude. He stood by Josephine: ‘My wife is a good woman who doesn’t harm them. I’ve never loved her blindly. If I make her Empress, it’s only an act of justice.’

The coronation was a magnificent affair. ‘If only our father could see us now,’ Napoleon whispered to Joseph as they stood in the majestic Notre Dame de Paris. ‘I swear to maintain the integrity of the territory of the Republic, to respect and to cause to be respected the laws of the Concordat and of freedom of worship, of political and civil liberty,’ promised Napoleon in his coronation oath. Napoleon’s coronation was the ultimate triumph of the self-made man who wasn’t born to power but attained it through merit and popularity. The title Napoleon was to assume – Emperor of the French rather than Emperor of France – illustrated that very well.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 30 November 1809

9Napoleon tells Josephine he wants their marriage annulled

Although the Imperial couple had developed a close and comfortable relationship, staying married to Josephine had become a road block in Napoleon’s political and dynastic ambitions. It couldn’t have been an easy decision for Napoleon, after all, he loved his wife very much, despite her affair with Hippolyte Charles and his own subsequent infidelities. However, he convinced himself that divorcing Josephine was in the best interests of France.

Josephine must have known what was coming. Napoleon ordered the connecting door between their bedrooms to be walled up long before he mentioned the divorce. ‘All tenderness on the Emperor’s part, all consideration towards my mother has vanished,’ wrote Hortense. ‘He became unjust and vexatious in his attitude.’

For his young dynasty to survive, Napoleon needed an heir and 46-year old Josephine couldn’t give him one. ‘You have children. I have none. You must feel the necessity that lies upon me of strengthening my dynasty,’ he told her. It was a bitter blow to Josephine, who cried and begged him to change his mind, saying she couldn’t live without him.

To be able to remarry in church, Napoleon needed his marriage to Josephine annulled. Absurdly he argued it had been clandestine, there were insufficient witnesses and that he was forced into it by Josephine. The loyal Josephine went along with it, confirming everything he said. No one was duped by this comedy however, and 13 out of 27 of France’s cardinals refused to attend Napoleon’s next wedding.

Napoleon was very good to Josephine in the divorce settlement. He gave her Élysée Palace, Malmaison and another chateau in Normandy. She kept her rank of Empress, and when Napoleon married Marie Louise, there were two Empresses of France in Paris. Josephine’s debts of 2 million francs were paid off and she received 3 million francs per annum income for life. Their marriage was dissolved on 16 December.

Although Napoleon divorced his wife for an heir, ironically it would be Josephine’s grandson who would become the next Emperor of France. It is her direct descendants and not his who still rule Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Luxembourg.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 27 November 1812

27Napoleon crosses the Berezina

The first units of what was left of the Grande Armée reached the 300-foot wide river a week earlier only to find the Russian army under Pavel Chichagov occupying the West bank. The only bridge across Berezina was destroyed. Napoleon’s aim was to cross the river and evade the Russians, who outnumbered him 3 to 1. The situation was so desperate that the army burnt its Eagles on November 24 to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.

‘The weather is very cold,’ Napoleon wrote to Marie Louise. ‘My health is very good. Kiss the little king for me and never doubt the sentiments of your faithful husband.’ The temperatures plunges to -33 C and the army struggled with cold and fatigue. When the first units crossed the pontoon bridges safely, Napoleon exclaimed, ‘My star returns,’ a bit of an exaggeration considering the high number of French casualties at the crossing of Berezina, possibly as many as  22,000.