On This Day in Napoleonic History – 13 September 1771

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13Bonaparte family is admitted into nobility

Napoleon’s father Carlo could now legally sign as de Buonaparte for the first time and sit in the Corsican assembly. And most importantly, he could apply for royal scholarships for his sons, whose education he wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise. To receive the scholarship, each pupil had to prove that he was noble, that his family couldn’t pay the fees and that he could read and write French.

Napoleon, whose native language was a Corsican dialect not unlike Genoese, didn’t speak a word of French until he was 9 years of age. In order to remedy the situation, in January 1779 Napoleon would be sent to Autun in Burgundy. He would speak French with a heavy Corsican accent for the rest of his life.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 7 September 1812

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18The Battle of Borodino

Borodino was the bloodiest single day battle in the history of warfare until the twentieth century. It was a major engagement during Napoleon’s Russian campaign fought under the walls of Moscow. ‘Soldiers, here is the battle that you have so long desired,’ Napoleon declared in his proclamation. On the eve of the battle he told General Jean Rapp, ‘Fortunate is a liberal mistress. I often said so and now begin to experience it. This poor army is much reduced, but what remains of it is good. My guard besides is untouched.’ Just before the battle, Napoleon exclaimed, ‘It’s a little cold but here comes a nice sun. It’s the sun of Austerlitz.’ Although Borodino was technically a French victory, it was far from the triumph Austerlitz had been.

The Russian general Pyotr Bagration was mortally wounded during the battle. Under the cover of darkness, Kutuzov withdrew, having suffered an immense number of casualties, probably around 43,000. The Russian commander promptly wrote to the Tsar, claiming a glorious victory. His claim was false. After all, Napoleon remained in the possession of the field of battle and was able to advance to Moscow. However, the French Emperor failed to gain the decisive victory he needed, partly because of his reluctance to deploy his Old Guard to pursue the Russians. In that sense, both commanders had lost Borodino. Kutuzov was unsuccessful at protecting Moscow and Napoleon did not destroy the Russian army as he absolutely had to in order to force Emperor Alexander to the negotiating table. ‘I’m reproached for not getting myself killed at Waterloo,’ Napoleon later said at Saint Helena. ‘I think I ought rather to have died at the Battle of the Moskova.’

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 6 September 1812

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6Napoleon receives a painting of his son

Napoleon was on the field of battle at Borodino when the portrait arrived, painted by François Gérard and depicting the King of Rome, Napoleon II in his cradle. ‘Napoleon received the painting with an emotion that he could hardly contain and set it up on a chair outside his tent, so that his men could admire their future Emperor,’ reminisced one of the officers.

Napoleon was a doting father and incredibly proud of his son. ‘Gentlemen,’ he told everyone who would listen, ‘if my son was 15, believe me he would be here in place of that painting.’ The next day he said, ‘Take it away, keep it safe. He’s too young to see a battlefield.’ Napoleon II was indeed only 18 months old. The painting was lost on the retreat from Moscow but Gérard had made copies.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 1 September 1814

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1Marie Walewska arrives on the island of Elba

Marie Walewska, who divorced her husband in 1812, remained loyal to Napoleon but only stayed with the deposed Emperor for a couple of nights. Although Napoleon was happy to see Marie and their son Alexandre, he was still hoping that his wife Marie Louise and his legitimate son would join him on the island. Therefore, he didn’t think having Marie on Elba was a good idea, especially since everyone on the island thought Marie was in fact the Empress, and even the mayor came to pay his respects.

Napoleon set aside and decorated rooms for Marie Louise and the King of Rome in both of his residences but they would never arrive. The Empress soon wrote to Napoleon, telling him she was forced to return to Vienna. By then she was already involved in a passionate relationship with the dashing one-eyed general Adam Albert von Neipperg, who was sent by Francis I to escort Marie Louise and prevent her from joining her husband. Neipperg promised Francis: ‘In six weeks, I will be her best friend and in six months her lover.’ They married shortly after Napoleon’s death.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 29 August 1812

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18French army enters Vyazma to find it empty of its 15,000 inhabitants

At the start of his Russian campaign, Napoleon was pursuing the Russian army to force a decisive battle. He was hoping to catch up with the Russians at Vyazma but found it had retreated once more.

When Napoleon was told that a Russian Priest had died from shock at the news of his approach, he ordered him to be buried with all military honours. One possible reason of the priest’s shock was the fact the Russian Orthodox Church issued a proclamation, in which it declared Napoleon an anti-Christ form the Book of Revelation.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 24 August 1798

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24First meeting of Institut d’Égypte

Institut d’Égypte was inaugurated by Napoleon, with himself as vice-president and Gaspard Monge as president. The Institute was divided into 4 sections: mathematics, physics, political economy and the arts. It met every 5 days.

At Napoleon’s suggestion, the Institute discussed various practical matters at its opening session, such as improving the army’s baking, making Nile water drinkable, whether watermills or windmills were better for Cairo, producing gunpowder and the state of the Egyptian law and education. Napoleon tried to use Enlightenment science and reason to win over the Egyptians, even suggesting the construction of an astronomical observatory.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 23 August 1805

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220px-Karl_Mack_von_LeiberichNapoleon executes his famous ‘pirouette’ during the War of the Third Coalition

The newly renamed Grande Armée was positioned at Boulogne, ready to invade England, when Napoleon decided to move his troops south to attack the Allied forces. Napoleon called it his pirouette. He achieved his goal of surprising the Austrians by imposing the total news blackout about troop movements and telling Joseph Fouché to forbid all newspapers from mentioning the army ‘as if it no longer exists.’

The 7 corps of the Grande Armée under Marshals Murat, Davout, Ney, Lannes, Soult and Bernadotte totalling over 170,000 men raced eastwards at record speed, crossing the Rhine on September 25. ‘Finally everything is taking on colour,’ Napoleon said that day. It was the largest single campaign ever conducted by French troops.

Thanks to this swiftness of movement and the element of surprise, on October 16 Napoleon succeeded in encircling Austrian General Karl Mack, who had captured the city of Ulm and was waiting for Russian reinforcements under General Mikhail Kutuzov. This placing of his troops around Mack’s line of retreat without suffering a single casualty and before the Austrian commander even knew what was happening is one of Napoleon’s greatest military achievements.

‘There is no further premise to negotiate with the Austrians except with cannon fire,’ he told Bernadotte. Mack surrendered Ulm on October 20, together with 20,000 infantry, 3,300 cavalry, 59 field gun, 300 ammunition wagons, 17 generals and 40 standards. When asked by a French officer who he was, the Austrian commander replied, ‘You see before you the unfortunate Mack.’ He was indeed unfortunate. He was convicted of cowardice by a court-martial, deprived of his rank and imprisoned for two years.

Napoleon wrote to Josephine, ‘I carried out all my plans, I have destroyed the Austrian army simply by marches.’

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 22 August 1799

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5Napoleon informs General Jacques-François Menou that he is leaving Egypt for France

As early as July, Napoleon had written to the Directory, exaggerating the reality and preparing for his triumphal return: ‘We are masters of all the deserts.’ When he learnt that most of the territory he gained in Italy had been lost to the Allies, Napoleon knew the time had come to leave Egypt. Although he had been often accused of abandoning his troops, in reality he was marching to the sound of the guns. As France’s best general, it made little sense for him to remain in Egypt when France itself was under threat of invasion.

Napoleon left a long letter of instruction to General Jean Baptiste Kléber, leaving him in charge. Kléber was not impressed, telling his staff, ‘That bugger has deserted us with his bridges full of shit. When we get back to Europe, we’ll rub his face in it.’ He wouldn’t be able to do so, however, having been assassinated in June 1800 by a 24-year old student named Soleyman El-Halaby.

Napoleon sailed for France with most of his senior staff, including Louis-Alexandre Berthier, Jean Lannes and Auguste de Marmont. ‘Don’t fear anything. We’ll soon be in Paris and we’ll find a lot of beautiful women and a lot of money. You’ll see, we’ll be very happy,’ he told Roustam, a Mamluk slave boy who was presented to him by Sheikh of Cairo and would be his faithful bodyguard for the next 15 years. It was clear from these words how much Napoleon had missed France.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 20 August 1812

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Kutuzov1Tsar Alexander replaces Pyotr Bagration with 67-year old Field-Marshal Prince Mikhail Kutuzov

The move was popular with the Russian army. Napoleon, too, was delighted. He had already defeated Kutuzov once at Austerlitz and this change of command led him to believe that the decisive battle he wished for wasn’t too far off. He was under the impression that the Field-Marshal had been summoned to command the army on the condition that he stops the retreat and fights.

In reality for two weeks after his appointment Kutuzov continued retreating towards Moscow. He stopped at a village 65 miles to the east of Moscow called Borodino, where he waited for the French. He knew that the Russian people would not forgive him if he gave up Moscow without a battle. Despite the supply difficulties Napoleon decided on August 24 to follow Kutuzov. ‘Peace is ahead of us,’ said Napoleon, believing that Kutuzov would never surrender the Holy City of Moscow, the heart of Russia, and the Tsar would have to sue for peace.

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