On This Day in Napoleonic History – 8 January 1802

Napoleon and Josephine depart for Lyon

In Lyon the First Consul would be offered presidency of the new Italian Republic, made up of Cisalpine Republic and the provinces of Italy taken from Austria by the Treaty of Lunéville.

Napoleon’s two-week stay at Lyon was marked by parties, parades and receptions. On January 25 he was elected Chief Magistrate of the Italian Republic. Although the Italian nationalists were humbled by the fact that the new Republic had to be founded in France where Talleyrand could keep an eye on the proceedings, it was the first time that the word Italy had appeared in the political lexicon of Europe since the collapse of Rome in the 5th century AD.

Napoleon wrote a constitution for the new Republic with elective power resting in the hands of clergy, merchants, academics and land owners.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 7 January 1813

Sweden declares war against France during the War of the Sixth Coalition

Sweden was ruled by Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, Marshal of France appointed by Napoleon, who was married to Napoleon’s first love, Désirée Clary. Bernadotte, whom Byron called ‘that rebellious bastard of Scandinavian adoption’ and who from the very start had a turbulent relationship with Napoleon, was elected to the throne of Sweden in 1810.

When declaring war on Napoleon in 1813, Bernadotte told him that he was not acting against France but for Sweden and that Napoleon’s seizure of Swedish Pomerania was the cause of the rapture. He added that he would always hold for his old commander the sentiments of the former comrade in arms. It is doubtful that his words were genuine but it couldn’t have been an easy decision for Bernadotte to make. Apart from his natural repugnance as a Frenchman to shed French blood, Bernadotte knew that in doing so he would be giving up his hopes, implausible though they were, of one day finding himself on the throne of France.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 4 January 1802

Napoleon’s brother Louis is married to Josephine’s daughter Hortense

Just like many other marriages Napoleon had arranged, this one soon proved a disaster. Louis was in love with someone else at the time and couldn’t stand to be in the same room as Hortense. Nor did he try to conceal his animosity. The feeling was mutual – Hortense barely tolerated her husband and would have an illegitimate son by her lover, Colonel Charles Joseph, Comte de Flahaut in 1811.

Josephine is as much to blame for the match as Napoleon. She was eager to tie her family closer to that of her husband at any cost, even if it was the cost of her only daughter’s happiness. With heartbreaking sadness Hortense later described her school days as the happiest time of her life. The couple had three children. One of them, Charles Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, was to become Napoleon III, Emperor of the French.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 3 January 1798

Napoleon is confronted by Madame de Staël

Soon after General Bonaparte’s return from Egypt, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand threw a reception in his honour. It was there that Napoleon had his famous exchange with Germaine de Staël.

Madame de Staël was the daughter of the stupendously rich banker and Louis XVI’s finance minister, Jacques Necker. She ran the leading and most celebrated Parisian salon. At the time of Talleyrand’s fête, she hero-worshipped General Bonaparte. Hortense de Beauharnais recalled in her memoirs that the celebrated intellectual followed Napoleon, boring him with incessant questions until he could no longer conceal his annoyance. Clearly expecting a compliment of some sort, she asked: ‘Whom do you consider the best kind of woman?’ To which Napoleon replied, ‘She who’s had the most children.’

For centuries historians criticised his comment as one that revealed much about his fundamental attitude to women. It was more than likely, however, that Napoleon’s words were nothing more than a throw-away remark designed to get rid of his annoying interrogator.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 1 January 1807

Napoleon meets Marie Walewska

The couple met in Blonie, in a posthouse where Napoleon was changing horses on his way to Warsaw.  Although their first meeting was brief, Napoleon, who was anything but faithful to Josephine following her own affair with Hyppolite Charles soon after their marriage, arranged to meet the beautiful blonde 20-year old at a ball.

Although Marie was married to an aristocratic landowner, 52 years older than her, she quickly became the mistress whom Napoleon loved the most. Her husband, just like the rest of her family, encouraged her relationship with the Emperor in the hope of gaining influence over him and advancing the cause of Polish independence.

Soon after making Marie’s acquaintance, Napoleon withdrew his invitation for Josephine to join him in Warsaw. ‘It’s too great a stretch of country to cover between Mainz and Warsaw,’ he wrote. ‘I’ve many things to settle here. I think you should return to Paris where you are needed.’ His letters to Marie were very different. ‘Come to me. All your desires will be fulfilled. Your homeland will be dear to me if you take pity on my poor heart.’ Although Marie was initially driven by motives of political nature rather than affection, they developed a true closeness. In 1810 she would give birth to Napoleon’s son. She stayed loyal to the Emperor throughout his life, even visiting him in exile on the island of Elba.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 28 December 1802

Napoleon loses faith in the Treaty of Amiens

The First Consul wrote to Talleyrand from St Cloud: ‘We do not seem to be at peace but only in a truce. The fault lies entirely with the British government.’

The Treaty of Amiens would break on 12 May the following year. There were many issues between France and Britain that threatened the peace, including the Sébastiani expedition, Cadoudal’s continued residency in London, the émigré press, the compensations for the King of Sardinia and Prince William V of Orange, Swiss independence, the non-evacuation of Holland, Alexandria, Pondicheri, Cape of Good Hope and Malta, and France’s tariff regimes. Even George III described the peace as experimental.

It was soon clear that the experiment had failed. Although Napoleon didn’t want war with Britain, he was not willing to weaken France’s position to prevent it. Britain would formally declare war on 18 May 1803.

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.’