On This Day in Napoleonic History – 21 November 1806

gerhard_von_kugelgen_napoleon_i_fassung1_1806Napoleon signs the Berlin Decree

The Berlin Decree was aimed to force Great Britain to the negotiating table but would eventually lead to Napoleon’s own downfall, since the desire to enforce it led him to undertake his disastrous Russian and Peninsular campaigns. Berlin Decree created the Continental System, a retaliation on Britain, as Napoleon called it. It imposed a blockade, forbidding the import of British goods into European countries allied with or dependent upon France.

The articles of the decree were as follows:

1. The British isles are in the state of blockade.

2. All trade and all correspondence with the British Isles are forbidden.

3. Every British subject of whatsoever state or condition he may be will be made a prisoner of war.

4. All warehouses, all merchandise, all property of whatever nature it might be belonging to a subject of England will be ceased.

7. No ship coming directly from England or the English colonies or having been there since the publication of the present decree will be received in any port.

Since Britain depended commercially on exports to Continental Europe, Napoleon believed the decree would force the British government to restart the peace negotiations broken off in August. Writing to his brother Louis in December, he explained: ‘I will conquer the sea through the power of the land.’ Later he stated: ‘It’s the only way of striking a blow to England and obliging her to make peace.’ Since French fleet had been destroyed at Trafalgar, there was no direct way to damage Britain other than commercially. However, the decree had an even greater effect on France, hurting its trade badly. Nor could the Continental System be universally imposed. Even Louis and Murat turned a blind eye to smuggling in Holland and Naples. Josephine herself bought smuggled goods on the black market. If Napoleon couldn’t force his own entourage to follow the Continental System, what could be expected from the rest of his territories?

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 20 November 1801

211.5_Les_Tuileries_vues_du_LouvreNapoleon appoints the first functionaries for the Tuileries Palace

When Napoleon moved to the Tuileries, he had become the first ruler to live there after the unfortunate Louis XVI. He created a large entourage of chamberlains, chancellors, almoners, equerries, footmen and even meat carvers. These courtiers received instruction in etiquette from Marie-Antoinette’s former first lady of the bedchamber.

Within six months the Prussian ambassador to Paris noted that ‘everything around First Consul and his wife is resuming the general character and etiquette of Versailles.’ It got to a point when some people were wondering why France had bothered to decapitate Louis XVI only to get another monarch.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 15 November 1796

15Battle of Arcole

The battle was fought between the French under General Bonaparte and the Austrians under József Alvinczi, 25 kilometres southeast of Verona during the War of the First Coalition. The first two attacks on strongly held and barricaded Arcole by Pierre Augereau were repulsed. When Napoleon ordered another attack, Augereau seized the flag and, advancing in front of his soldiers, cried, ‘Grenadiers, come and seek your colour.’

Napoleon followed his example with another flag, determined to lead the charge himself and inspire his men by his bravery. His plan didn’t work. According to Napoleon’s aide-de-camp Joseph Sulkowski, the men displayed extraordinary cowardice. A number of officers were killed by Napoleon’s side. The general himself had to be pulled into the marshy ground behind the bridge, which in all probability saved his life.

The bridge at Arcole was captured two days later by Augereau and Massena. Although Napoleon wasn’t there when Arcole fell, the image of the brave Republican general storming the bridge under the enemy bombardment was used widely as propaganda by the Directory, the Consulate and the Empire. ‘It took good luck to defeat Alvinczi,’ Napoleon later admitted.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 14 November 1812

14The first day of the Battle of Krasnoi

A desperate and bloody battle of Krasnoi was fought between November 14 and November 18 on Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, as Eugene’s, Davout’s and Ney’s severely depleted corps tried to smash through Kutuzov’s army to reach the Berezina. Some 13,000 French were killed and 26,000 captured, including 7 generals. The battle left Napoleon virtually without cavalry or artillery. Kutuzov also suffered many casualties.

Napoleon believed that Marshal Ney’s entire corp had been destroyed on the way back from Krasnoi. When on November 23 Ney caught up with the main army at Orsha with only 800 survivors of what once was a regiment 40,000 strong, Napoleon was overjoyed. ‘I have more than 400 million francs in the cellar of the Tuileries,’ he said, ‘and would gladly have given the whole for the ransom of my faithful companion in arms.’

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 9 November 1799

bouchot_-_le_general_bonaparte_au_conseil_des_cinq-cents18th Brumaire

18th Brumaire was the first day of the bloodless coup that would see General Bonaparte assume power as the First Consul. This is how Napoleon described his rise to power many years later, when he was in exile on a remote island of Saint Helena: ‘I returned to France at a fortunate moment when the existing government was so bad, it could not continue. I became its chief. Everything else followed, of course. There’s my story in a few words.’ The coup was not Napoleon’s idea but the brainchild of Abbé Sieyès. Joseph Fouché, Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord and Napoleon’s brother Lucien were also involved. With the plot underway, the conspirators needed a sword, a popular but not too ambitious general who would ensure everything went smoothly. Their first choice was Barthélemy Catherine Joubert but he had been shot through the heart at the Battle of Novi on Napoleon’s birthday, 15 August 1799. It was Talleyrand who had persuaded Sieyès to turn to Napoleon on the basis of his impeccable Republican record. ‘You want the power and Sieyès wants the constitution. Therefore, join forces,’ he told Napoleon.

The legislative Council of Ancients, under Sieyès, passed a decree  moving the venue of the session of the Ancients and the Council of Five Hundred to St Cloud under the pretext of a Jacobin plot but in reality to place them away from the city and under the intimidation of Bonaparte’s troops. Napoleon delivered a speech for the Elders at the Tuileries Palace, calling for national unity, which was well received. ‘You are the wisdom of the nation. I will faithfully carry out the mission you have entrusted to me. Nothing in history resembles the end of the eighteenth century,’ he said. As Napoleon rode past Place de la Révolution, the scene of so many executions, including those of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, he remarked to his co-conspirators: ‘Tomorrow we will either sleep at the Luxembourg or we will finish up here.’

On day two, 10 November or 19 Brumaire, Napoleon rode to St Cloud with his troops. He blundered his way through his speech to the Ancients. ‘You are on the volcano. The Republic no longer has a government,’ he said. ‘The Directory has been dissolved, the factions are agitating, the time to make a decision has arrived. I want only the safety of the Republic and to support the decisions that you are going to take.’ When a member of the Ancients demanded that Napoleon swore allegiance to the Constitution of Year 3, Napoleon said: ‘The Constitution of the year 3 you have no more. You have violated it on the 18th Fructidor.’  He then proceeded to the Palace Orangery to address the Five Hundred. The deputies were furious at the sight of men in uniform in the democratic chamber and so Napoleon entered on his own to the contemptuous shouts of the assembly. ‘Down with the tyrant! Cromwell, tyrant! Down with the dictator. Outlaw him!’ they demanded. These were the cries that were last addressed to Robespierre.

Napoleon was uncharacteristically but understandably pale, emotional and hesitant. When his physical safety was threatened, he was forced to leave and sent an order for Lucien, who was the president of the Five Hundred, to join him. It was Lucien who saved the day in what was possibly the only time when any of Napoleon’s siblings would prove anything but a liability to him. Addressing the 400-strong legislative guard, Lucien drew his sword and held it to Napoleon’s breast, ‘I swear that I will stab my own brother to the heart if he ever attempts anything against the liberty of Frenchmen.’ He told them that the Five Hundred were threatened by royalists in the pay of English gold. ‘They are not the representatives of the nation anymore but some scoundrels who caused all these misfortunes,’ cried Napoleon, ordering them to disperse the assembly. The soldiers cleared out the orangery and some deputies were forced to jump out the windows. ‘The Directory is no more,’ decreed 50 or so deputies who were loyal to the coup.

Sieyès, Ducos and Napoleon were appointed as provisional consuls. An interim commission of 50 members, 25 from each chamber, would draw up a new constitution. Napoleon was able to seize power without shedding a drop of blood. Not a shot was fired by the population in the defense of the unpopular Directory. That night, Napoleon and Josephine did indeed sleep at the Luxembourg Palace.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 6 November 1812

6Malet conspiracy

Napoleon was at Dorogobush when he received a letter from Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès regarding the attempted coup by General Claude François de Malet in Paris two weeks earlier. Malet attempted to establish a provisional government by forging documents stating Napoleon had died under the walls of Moscow.

With fewer than 20 co-conspirators, Malet was successful in taking control of the National Guard at Trianon on October 23. Savary was arrested and the governor of Paris was shot in the jaw, where the bullet remained, giving him a nickname of bullet eater.

Cambacérès doubled the guards around Marie Louise, released Savary, reinstated the prefect of police and ordered the arrest of Malet and his accomplices. ‘By 9 AM it was all over,’ recalled Comte de Lavalette.

Napoleon was concerned, and with good reason. No one other than Cambacérès considered a regency for his son in the event of his death. ‘Napoleon the Second, nobody thought about him,’ he cried. At his court-martial, Malet said, ‘Who are my accomplices? Had I been successful, all of you would have been my accomplices.’ Napoleon suspected Malet was right. The plot demonstrated just how fragile his new dynasty really was, prompting him to abandon his army and rush back to Paris.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 5 November 1803

2Napoleon is camped at Boulogne with the Army of England

Boulogne camp stretched along 9 miles of coast as Napoleon appeared to prepare for the invasion of England. He wrote to Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès: ‘I’m housed in the middle of the camp and in the middle of the ocean where at a glance it is easy to measure the distance that separates us from England.’

The Army of England absorbed the men from the Army of the West and the Vendée, and was renamed the Army of the Ocean Coasts. By January 1804 it numbered 70,000 men and by March 120,000. Later Napoleon would claim that he was bluffing all along and that he never actually intended to invade Britain. His aim was to intimidate her, lure Austria into a trap and train his army. While some historians believe that, there are many who don’t.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 3 November 1812

2The battle of Vyazma

The French repelled a Russian attempt to encircle Marshal Davout at the start of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. Although Ney, Eugène and Poniatowski, who was wounded, came to Davout’s assistance, 3000 French were taken prisoner at Vyazma, which illustrated perfectly the level of demoralisation of the Grande Armée. General Armand de Caulaincourt reminisced, ‘This momentary disorder was conspicuous because it was the first time that this gallant infantry broke ranks and compelled their dogged commander to give ground.’

The retreat from Vyazma was also disastrous for the French and a sign of things to come. The first heavy snow fell on November 4 and temperatures plunged. Frozen soldiers would lie down next to a fire and not have the strength to get up. Those who remained often fell into the hands of the Russian peasants, which in itself was worse than death sentence. The tortures inflicted on French soldiers by Russian peasants, such as skinning them alive, were terrible. One Russian priest called for more humane treatment of prisoners, suggesting drowning them in the river instead.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 28 October 1785

23Napoleon graduates from École Militaire with the rank of Second Lieutenant in the artillery

When his studies at École Militaire finished, Napoleon wanted to return to Corsica to attend to family matters but it was impossible. The sixteen-year old officer (the term he much preferred to the lowly Second Lieutenant) was assigned to the La Fère Artillery Regiment at Valence-sur-Rhône, in the south of France, where he reported at the end of October.

He would spend ten months at Valence in relative solitude, rarely going out for the lack of means. He divided his time between learning practical artillery and reading everything he could get his hands on. To afford books he often had to skip meals. He was particularly interested in politics and history but the main area of his concern was the Corsican independence. He missed his homeland and longed to go back. ‘Elsewhere they see you rich, noble or learned but in Corsica you brag about your relatives, they are what makes a man praiseworthy or feared,’ he would say.

In September 1786 Napoleon would receive his first of five prolonged leaves of absence to Corsica. Overall he would spend three out of the next seven years on the island of his birth.


On This Day in Napoleonic History – 26 October 1797

napoleon-115-obvTreaty of Campo-Formio is ratified by the Directory

The treaty was signed on 18 October by General Bonaparte representing France and Count Philipp von Cobenzl representing Austria. It ended the War of the First Coalition.

Having defeated Austria’s most celebrated generals before his 28th birthday, crossed the Apennines and the Alps, signed peace treaties with the Pope, the kings of Piedmont, Naples and now Emperor of Austria, in eighteen months Napoleon went from an unknown moody soldier to a famous general and the talk of all of Europe.

The defeated Austria was to cede Austrian Netherlands, Corfu and other Venetian islands in the Adriatic Sea. Venice and its territories (Venetia) were divided between the two states. Austria recognised the Cisalpine Republic and the newly created Ligurian Republic. Although the Treaty of Campo-Formio wouldn’t bring a lasting peace to Europe, it secured General Bonaparte’s reputation as a peace giver.