On This Day in Napoleonic History – 17 August 1812

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17Battle of Smolensk

Smolensk was the first major battle of Napoleon’s Russian campaign. Because the city was well protected by walls and ravines, the Russian army under the command of Barclay de Tolly was able to retreat eastwards after suffering losses of around 6,000 men.

During the battle Smolensk caught fire, which Napoleon observed from his headquarters. Comte de Ségur said that ‘the Emperor contemplated in silence this awful spectacle.’ French troops entered the city on the 18th to find it deserted. When Napoleon heard that the Russians had sung Ta Deum in celebration of their supposed victory at Smolensk, he said, ‘They lie to God as well as to men.’

At the counsel of war Napoleon held in the city, he exclaimed, ‘Scoundrels, abandoning such a position. Come on, we have to march on Moscow.’ Everyone but Davout was in favour of stopping at Smolensk. Davout argued that ‘it is only in Moscow that we would sign a peace treaty.’ Napoleon agreed, even though he would years later admit that marching on Moscow was a mistake. ‘I should have put my soldiers in quarters at Smolensk for the winter,’ the former Emperor would say on Saint Helena.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 16 August 1798

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16Marriage of Jean-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte and Désirée Clary, ex-fiancée of Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon met Désirée in Marseilles in 1793 and they became engaged. He broke off the engagement when he met and fell in love with Josephine.

Even though she never married Napoleon, Désirée would still be a queen. In 1798 she married Bernadotte, who would become a Napoleonic marshal and the king of Sweden.

Marrying Désirée made Bernadotte brother-in-law to Joseph Bonaparte, who was married to Désirée’s sister Julie. Bernadotte and Désirée had one child, King Oscar I of Sweden and Norway. It is ironic that Bernadotte, who was an ardent Republican, would be the only one of Napoleonic marshals and Imperial family to create a lasting royal dynasty.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 15 August 1769

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andrea-the-elder-appiani-napoleon-bonaparte-1769-1821-as-king-of-italy-1805Napoleon is born in Ajaccio, Corsica

‘She was on her way from church when she felt labour pains,’ Napoleon would later say of his mother Leticia, ‘and had only time to get into the house when I was born, not on the bed but on a heap of tapestry.’ The name his parents chose for the future Emperor was unusual but not unknown, appearing in Niccolò Machiavelli’s History of Florence and being the name of one of his great-uncles. He was born to a relatively modest family of Tuscan aristocrats whom he would raise to kings, princes and princesses.

‘What a novel my life has been,’ Napoleon once said. More books have been written about Napoleon than anyone else in history and with good reason. His rise, his fall and 15 years in between are all part of Napoleonic legend that has captivated and will continue to captivate historians and general public alike. Through his sheer ability and true to his words, ‘In every soldier’s knapsack is a marshal’s baton’, Napoleon rose to the rank of brigadier general at the age of 24, became First Consul of France at 30 and the Emperor of the French at 34. He instituted a meritocracy in France, surrounding himself with people of talent from all classes of society. At the height of his power Napoleon controlled most of Continental Europe and installed his siblings on various European thrones. Religious toleration, army and educational reforms, balanced national ledger and equality before law are only a few examples of what Napoleon had given France. And now, 200 years on, Napoleon’s legacy lives on – parts of Code Napoleon still remain in legal codes of 40 countries on five continents, including America and Japan.

Napoleon’s military ability is the stuff of legend. His sworn enemy, Duke of Wellington, thus answered the question of who he considered the best captain of his age: ‘In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon.’ He would add that Napoleon was worth fifty thousand men on the field of battle. Napoleon’s foreign minister, the treacherous Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, thus described Napoleon: ‘His career is the most extraordinary that has occurred for one thousand years. He was clearly the most extraordinary man I ever saw, and I believe the most extraordinary that has lived in our age, or many ages.’

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 12 August 1800

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12A commission is set up to write the Civil Code

The members of the commission included the country’s leading jurists and politicians, such as Préameneu, Tronchet, Portalis and Maleville. Napoleon was heavily involved in the creation of the Code, chairing no fewer than 55 out of its 150 preliminary sessions and frequently intervening on matters of particular interest, such as divorce, adoption and the rights of foreigners. The two questions he most often asked about any new piece of legislature were: is this fair and is this useful? The Code reflected many of Napoleon’s believes, as well as his hard work. It truly deserved being called the Code Napoleon.

The new Code helped cement national unity by unifying the laws of France for the first time, providing stability after the chaos of the Revolution, and simplifying 40,000 decrees and laws that have been passed by various revolutionary governments. 42 regional laws were enforced into a single unified body. Essentially a compromise between Roman and common law, the Code confirmed the end of ancient class privileges and the ecclesiastical control over all aspects of French society except primary education. ‘Law must do nothing but impose a general principle,’ Napoleon said. ‘It would be vain if one would try to foresee every possible situation.’ The Code ensured that all were equal before the law and free from arbitrary arrest. Religious toleration was established, all adult men were allowed to engage in any occupation of their choosing and to own property.

Napoleon would bring the Civil Code to all his conquered territories. ‘The Romans gave their laws to their allies. Why should France not have her laws adopted in Holland?’ Napoleon wrote to his brother Louis. In some places, such as Naples, the Code Napoleon was unpopular. In others it was adopted eagerly and retained even after Napoleon’s fall. It survived in the Prussian Rhineland until 1900. Belgium, Luxembourg, Mauritius, Monaco and France still use it to this day. Aspects of it remain in a quarter of the world’s legal systems as far as Japan, Egypt, Quebec and Louisiana.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 11 August 1812

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11Napoleon gives orders to leave Vitebsk and move on Smolensk

‘His Majesty rides much less quickly these days. He’s put on a good deal of weight and rides a horse with greater difficulty than before,’ reported one of his officers.

And yet, when Napoleon moved at top speed, water had to be poured over the wheels of his carriage to prevent them from overheating. He was hoping to force a decisive battle at Smolensk, certain that Emperor Alexander wouldn’t give up this great Russian city without a fight. Napoleon needed an impressive victory to force Alexander to the negotiating table.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 10 August 1792

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21Napoleon witnesses the assault on the Tuileries Palace during the Revolution

Napoleon’s contempt for the king increased when the mob returned to arrest the royal couple and massacre their Swiss guards.

Napoleon left his lodgings and went to watch the events from a friend’s house on the Place du Carrousel. Seeing a well-dressed young officer, the crowd stopped him and ordered him to shout: ‘Vive la nación.’ Which, as he recalled decades later, ‘As you can imagine, I hastened to do.’

When he moved to the Tuileries Palace seven years later, he had the bullet holes of that day effaced form the building.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 9 August 1794

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9Napoleon is arrested

Napoleon was close to Maximilien Robespierre’s younger brother Augustine, which naturally put him under suspicion after Robespierre’s fall. Napoleon was arrested at his lodgings in Nice. He spent a day in a fortress there before being transferred to Fort Carré in Antibes. He was familiar with both fortresses, having inspected them officially earlier in his career. Napoleon would remain a prisoner for ten days.

Out of self-preservation Antoine Christophe Saliceti did nothing to help his protégé, going as far as ransacking Napoleon’s papers in search of evidence of treachery. ‘He barely deigned to look at me from the mighty height of his greatness,’ said Napoleon, who was in grave danger.

During those dark days of the Revolution, innocence didn’t protect from guillotine. Even Napoleon’s proven heroism fighting for the Republic couldn’t save him. ‘Men can be unjust towards me, my dear Junot,’ he wrote to his faithful aide-de-camp, ‘but it suffices to be innocent. My conscience is the tribunal before which I call my conduct.’

Although Junot was ready to break Napoleon out of jail, Napoleon said to him, ‘Do nothing. It will only compromise me.’ The Thermidorians were not as bloodthirsty and ruthless as the Jacobins, however, and the future Emperor of the French was released for lack of evidence on August 20th.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 7 August 1815

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7Napoleon is transferred aboard the HMS Northumberland

Despite another letter to Prince Regent that read: ‘I’m not a prisoner, I am a guest of England,’ HMS Northumberland, commanded by rear-admiral Sir George Cockburn, was to carry Napoleon to the island of Saint Helena, located in the middle of the South Atlantic.

‘True heroism consists of being superior to the ills of life, in whatever shape they may challenge to the combat,’ Napoleon once said. And he was about to experience the ills of life like never before. He was not alone on his journey, however. He had an entourage of 26 people willing to accompany him to the other end of the earth. Several more, including his sister Pauline and his private secretary Claude François de Meneval, also wished to travel with him but were stopped from doing so by the British authorities.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 5 August 1794

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5Napoleon hears about Robespierre’s death

After Robespierre had been arrested, he tried to kill himself but failed. The bullet shattered his lower jaw. On 28 July Robespierre was guillotined without trial in the Place de la Révolution, along with his brother Augustin, to whom Napoleon was very close, and other followers.

Napoleon had just returned from his brother Joseph’s wedding near Nice when he heard the news. ‘I was somewhat moved by the fate of the younger Robespierre, whom I liked and believed honest, but had he been my own brother, if he had aspired to tyranny, I would have stabbed him myself,’ he said.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 2 August 1802

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2Napoleon is declared Consul for Life

It went against everything the Revolution stood for, and yet, the majority of the French supported Napoleon’s Consulship for Life with the power to appoint his successor.

Although the result of the plebiscite was fixed, with 3,653,600 in favour to some 8,000 against, it was the first time in French history that over half of those eligible to vote had turned up. ‘You judged that I owed the people another sacrifice,’ said Napoleon on being told of the plebiscite results.

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