On This Day in Napoleonic History – 25 December 1797

Napoleon is elected to Institut de France

The Institute was the foremost scientific society in post-Revolutionary France, and when General Bonaparte was chosen to fill in Lazare Carnot’s seat, which had been declared vacant, he couldn’t be happier. He secured the votes of 303 members out of 312, with the next two candidates only receiving 166 and 123 votes. Napoleon wore his dark-blue uniform of the Institute often, attended science lectures and signed himself as a member of the Institute. In his thank-you letter to the president the next day, Napoleon wrote: ‘The true conquests, the only ones that cause no regret, are those made over ignorance.’

Napoleon deserved the honour accorded him. He was an accomplished writer, a profound reader, a critic of drama, and music and a champion of sciences, who enjoyed meeting astronomers, poets, theologists, and mathematicians. Whenever he travelled on one of his campaigns, he assembled and took with him the most impressive libraries, not only reading himself but also forcing his marshals and officers to read. Later Napoleon would establish Institut d’Égypte and University of France. Many leading intellectuals of the 19th century, such as Goethe, Byron, Beethoven and Hegel, admired Napoleon greatly.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 24 December 1800

Infernal Machine plot

Napoleon and Josephine took separate coaches to the Opéra to listen to Hydn’s masterpiece, the Creation. Suddenly, there was an explosion on the corner of place du Carrousel and rue Saint-Nicaise. 24 people were injured and 5 killed, including the little girl who was paid by the conspirators to hold the horse that was attached to a cart filled with gunpowder.

Fortunately for Napoleon and his entourage, the Infernal Machine, as it became known, exploded after the First Consul’s carriage passed safely but before Josephine had reached it. Only Hortense was lightly cut on her wrist by the glass of the carriage windows.

‘Napoleon escaped by a singular chance,’ recalled his aide-de-camp Jean Rapp, who was in Josephine’s coach. Napoleon’s calmness was observed by everyone at the Opéra that evening. ‘Josephine, those rascals wanted to blow me up,’ he said as she entered the box. When the audience learnt what had happened, they cheered. Of all the plots against him, the Infernal Machine came closest to success.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 22 December 1793

Napoleon is promoted to Brigadier-General

Following his victory at Toulon, Napoleon was appointed Brigadier-General and the inspector of defenses. His conduct at the Siege of Toulon demonstrated that he could be trusted with command and brought him to the attention of senior politicians, such as Paul Barras and Louis-Marie Stanislas Fréron.

Despite having been on leave for most of his service, with and without permission, Napoleon became a general at 24 after less than 4 years of active duty. He had spent 5 and a half years as a Second Lieutenant, a year as a Lieutenant, 16 months as a captain, 3 months as a major and no time at all as a colonel. His rise through the ranks, impressive though it was, wasn’t unprecedented in post-Revolutionary France that was severely depleted by immigration and mass executions.

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.