The 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death is approaching (he died on May 5th) and in France a lot of celebrations are planned for the occasion. I wanted to mark the day by doing an episode about Napoleon to share with you the big picture about Napoleon as I understand him. And for that I’ll get the help of Kurt Weihs, who is not a historian either, but loves to read about Napoleon. Bonjour Kurt and welcome to Join Us in France!
Thanks for having me on your show Annie! I really am excited that I get a chance to talk about one of my favorite topics.
I went to school in France, and I have no memory of learning about Napoleon at that time. Was it like that for you Kurt?
For me? No. This is odd because Napoleonic history is not something that we really focus on in the U.S. outside of the Louisiana Purchase. As a teen I enjoyed playing military wargames. Many of these focused on the Napoleonic period and required a pretty good knowledge of the bigger events and battles. So, I approached Napoleon from more of a military history angle.
One reason schools don’t teach much about Napoleon is that it’s such a complicated topic. But it is undeniable that he had a big impact on France.
I’ve published two episodes about Napoleon before. One was with a tour guide who specializes in giving Paris tours around the theme of Napoleon (that was episode 58), and the second is where I tried to explain why Napoleon is buried at the Invalides in Paris (episode 135).
There is so much we could say about Napoleon (there are hundreds of thousands of books written about him), but today we just want to get an idea of the man, what he accomplished, and some of the major turning points in in life.
Let me warn you that we’re going to paint with a broad brush, but hopefully by the end of this you’ll have an idea of who Napoleon was and why you’ll see his mark in a lot of places in France.
Kurt, I asked you to think of 5 words that you think best define Napoleon. What are they and why?
I happen to know already what your five words are and I’d pick many of those same words! It’s very easy to come up with more, though.
- Romanticist – People hear this and promptly groan and think about every bad Napoleon and Josephine miniseries that has made it to cable, but, really, Napoleon was a romanticist. He structured an entire military campaign around a romanticized notion of what Egypt was while ignoring some of the hard truths of trying to conduct military operations in a desert. At St Helena he admitted to having had 7 affairs in his lifetime, but it’s fairly easy to count higher than that if you track his romantic associations with the women in his life. Napoleon’s letters to Josephine are quite romantic.
- Fairness – Napoleon continually expected to be treated fairly as a monarch of Europe. In fact, this was a bit of a blind spot for him as he tended to enter into negotiations trusting the other side to honor their agreements. While Napoleon had a reputation for keeping Europe on a war footing the ten years of his empire, most of the time he was responding to provocation and broken agreements. The heart of Napoleon’s feud with Hudson Lowe during his exile on St Helena was rooted in Napoleon’s unhappiness over the unfair treatment he received at the hands of the English.
- Order – This goes hand in hand with Law. Napoleon loathed disorder and chaos. A good example of this is when he commanded cannon to be fired directly into an insurrectionist mob. This was the infamous ‘Whiff of Grapeshot’ that occurred during the attempted royalist revolt on 13 Vendemiaire. Napoleon detested the ongoing insurrection in the Vendee and went to great lengths to avoid having his armies fight in France where he feared the possibility of civil war.
- Image – Like most authoritarian dictators, Napoleon used propaganda, controlled media posts through Le Moniteur, and outright lies to shape his public image. As he gained more power his control over his narrative became more absolute. This wreaks havoc with historians trying to understand the period. Even Napoleon’s dictated memoirs from St Helena are unreliable.
5. Endurance – While on campaign Napoleon would spend long hours in the saddle with little rest. At home Napoleon was known for getting up after only a few hours of sleep and working actively most of the day. Even in his late 40’s he was able to march from Gulf Juan (Antibes) through the Alps to Paris in 20 days. Tres rapide! Some historians have questioned whether Napoleon was ill on the day of the Battle of Waterloo because he was moving a little slower. This might have been the case, but even so he had spent the last 4 days fighting at Ligny and marching through torrential downpours.
For me, the 5 words that define Napoleon are FAMILY, AMBITION, DICTATOR, LAW, and INSTITUTIONS
1. FAMILY – Let’s start with FAMILY. Napoleon’s family is from Corsica, an island in the Mediterranean. I’ve done 2 episodes about travel to Corsica, episode 173 and episode 267. It’s a gorgeous place and a fantastic island to visit.
Over the centuries Corsica changed hands between France and Italy. The local dialect is Corsican and it sounds more like Italian than French. When Napoleon’s father (Carlo) was born, Corsica belonged to Genova.
A few months before Napoleon was born Corsica became French but the family continued to speak Corsican at home. Napoleon learned French as a second language.
Little Napoleon, or Nabulio as they called him, was one of 8 children. His mother (Letizia) was pregnant 16 times, gave birth to 12 children but only 8 survived into adulthood (5 sons and 3 daughters).
Letizia was 13 and Carlo 18 when they married. Napoleon’s father trained in the law but soon became involved in politics and fought for Corsican independence from Genoa. But when the French won Corsica, he decided to remain on the island and work with the new French rulers.
Napoleon’s father was ambitious, he was interested in politics, and he wanted to make a name for himself. Louis XVI made Carlo a nobleman and then he was elected as a representative for Corsica.
The family was neither rich nor poor, but they weren’t wealthy old money nobility either. Carlo’s untimely death at age 38 caused great financial trouble for Letizia and that’s one of the reasons why Napoleon went to military school in France. As a young military officer Napoleon made a steady wage which he shared with his family.
The Buonaparte family worked like a clan, as did all Corsican families. After he became Emperor, Napoleon placed his brothers in high positions and married his sisters to influential men. He surrounded himself with siblings and spouses of siblings.
As soon as Napoleon graduated from military school, he began to make a name for himself. At the time he was serving under the leaders of the French Revolution. As a reminded, the Revolution started in 1789 and ended 10 years later with Napoleon taking power. Can you summarize Napoleon’s early victories? First campaign of Italy and Egypt.
Napoleon earned early renown with his command at the siege of Toulon and the intervention at the 13th Vendemiaire insurrection. While Napoleon was very popular with the general public the men ruling France, The Directory , weren’t nearly as enamored of him. He was ambitious and annoying.
At this time France was fighting against a Prussian and Austrian coalition in the east along the Rhine and in Italy. To meet the demands of the public they gave Napoleon a command, but instead of the very important and active German border, they ordered him to the Italian border where it was hoped he’d be forgotten.
Napoleon found the army poorly supplied, unpaid, and had horrible morale. Napoleon immediately addressed the troops letting them know that if they followed him they would earn riches and supplies. Napoleon strategy was simple. He focused on moving his armies quickly and attacked his opponents separately before they could congregate into a large army. He attacked and defeated the Italian Army first. He then used the spoils (gold and silver) to pay his troops and equip them. Napoleon was generous and the troops loved him.
He then carried the war to the Austrians where he was able to siege and eventually take the city of Milan. The Austrians were forced out of Italy and the Austrians eventually signed the Peace Treaty of Campo Formio. Napoleon’s Victory helped take attention away from the Rhine frontier where the Prussians succeeded in defeating France. Unfortunately for the Directory, Napoleon was now more popular than ever.
Egypt was another story. Following Campo Formio in 1797 the Directory attempted to find something to keep Napoleon busy. While considering sending him into the Vendee, Napoleon presented an alternative plan. He wanted to take on a dream project that France had had for some time.: The annexation of Egypt.
Egypt appealed to Napoleon’s and France’s fascination with the ancient world. Unfortunately, the plan ignored the realities of the extended supply lines required to keep the endeavor going and the complications of fighting in desert terrain.
After initial successes seizing Malta and Alexandria the expedition suffered a huge setback when their large fleet anchored in Aboukir Bay was defeated by Lord Nelson. Napoleon and the entire expedition were essentially stranded in Egypt. On land Napoleon was able to achieve several early military victories against the local Mamluk forces and, later, against the Ottoman army. Eventually, though, the expedition began to stagnate and Napoleon grew restless.
He had political ambitions and he was getting left behind by events in France. After a little over a year in Egypt Napoleon left the army to return to France. His exit was kept secret and many felt, correctly, that Napoleon had abandoned the army. The campaign continued for two more years but eventually the British Army arrived and the French are ultimately defeated.
Napoleon had brought a large contingent of scientists to Egypt with him and while the military campaign was ultimately a failure, the scientific endeavor was quite successful and birthed the study of Egyptology in Europe. Among the many antiquities taken back to France by Napoleon’s scientists was the Rosetta stone which provided the breakthrough that allowed scholars to translate Egyptian Hieroglyphs.
By 1799 it was obvious to everyone that French people were exhausted by all the killings and upheaval of the French Revolution and were aspiring to something new. The old monarchy tried to come back but failed. Within a month of coming back from the Egyptian campaign, Napoleon orchestrated a coup and put himself in charge of a new type of government for France (Le Consulat). And from the time he established himself as the Premier Consul until he crowned himself 4 years passed. This was gradual but still really fast.
Napoleon was young and blindingly ambitious. He wanted to be the new Charlemagne who ruled over much of Europe. Or maybe was drawn to the idea of being like the new Roman Emperor? What is for sure is that he wanted his son to succeed him so he called him The King of Rome.
He had the support of most people in France who were hungry for stability and progress. Because Napoleon wasn’t just hungry for power. He was also hungry for reform. He instituted the Civil Code that maintained all the things the Revolution made possible. Nobility and Clergy would pay taxes, property rights were strengthened even for small owners, regular people could get a legal deed for their property. He strengthened the civil ceremony of marriage. In France you can marry in a church but it doesn’t count. What matters is your civil marriage. That was fine by French people who didn’t want a return to the days when the Catholic church made all the decisions.
Napoleon created French departments and he put a Préfet in charge of each department. He created the central bank in France and they created new coins made of solid gold (le France Germinal, le Louis d’or) those coins are still worth a lot of money at auction today!
Napoleon encouraged agriculture and food production, commerce and industry. Americans have this image of Napoleon as a warrior. But at home he was busy remaking France and France was quite prosperous under his leadership despite his never-ending wars.
Napoleon built roads, developed canals and river navigation. He created public high schools (for boys only) and a new standard diploma the Baccalauréat. He made a lot of improvements to the city of Paris and they included many buildings to his glory. La Colonne Vandôme, two Arc de Triomphe, La Madeleine church, two new bridges over the Seine river (Austerlitz and Inea named after two of his military victories.)
At the same time, Napoleon was a dictator who only gave lip service to the basic freedoms established by the Declaration of Human Rights created by the French Revolution. Under his leadership the police were all powerful. They read your mail and watched who you hung out with. No more freedom of the press. He rewarded people who served him with a new medal: La Legion d’Honneur.
He believed women should be pretty and make children BUT also that men should respect women and not mistreat them. He encouraged the stereotypical French woman: she overspent on clothes and beauty products and made men wait when they were supposed to go to a party. That’s still the stereotypical French woman btw and that’s one aspect of my culture I don’t like.
Napoleon couldn’t stand a woman who wanted to talk politics with him such as Madame de Stael. Women She should be beautiful and whitty, but should not challenge her husband about anything important. The Code Civil famously says Le mari doit protection à sa femme et sa femme obéissance à son mari. A man must protect his wife and she must obey her husband.
Having laid out the good and the bad that Napoleon did domestically, given that he had many victories and many losses, can you tell us about one of his greatest victories in battle? We’ll get to his greatest loss in a minute.
Napoleon’s greatest victory is, unquestionably, the Battle of Austerlitz. It took place six years after Napoleon fled from Egypt and almost a year to the day after Napoleon crowned himself Emperor. It took place near a small town in what is now the Czech Republic but was part of the Austrian (Holy Roman) Empire at the time.
The battle was the climactic final act in the series of battles that made up the War of the Third Coalition. Earlier in 1805 Napoleon had fought several battles against a combination Austrian and Russian force forcing the Austrian/Russian Army to retreat and losing both Ulm and Vienna. The surviving part of the Army was able to retreat and join up with a large Russian relief force being led by Tsar Alexander forming one large mixed force.
Napoleon, on the other hand, kept his army broken up into smaller, more maneuverable corps. What happened next was a mix of excellent poker playing on Napoleon’s part mixed with very precise timing and some good luck.
The Allied strategy was to let the French Army exhaust itself chasing them while avoiding direct confrontation.
They planned to let Napoleon’s extended supply lines and oncoming winter take their toll until the French would be ripe for picking. To avoid this Napoleon had to entice the allies to fight him. He did this by a mix of making fake gestures for armistice and having one of his corps falling back from the Pratzen Heights at Austerlitz. The French appeared on the edge of breaking. They were anything but that.
The young Tsar ignored the advice of his more experienced generals at launched an attack off the Pratzen Heights attempting to bring Napoleons ‘weakened’ forces to battle. The French counterattack was bolstered by the timely arrival of additional troops from a nearby corps and locked the allied force in while another French corps came in on the opposite flank.
The battle was finely choreographed by a Napoleon at the height of his ability with a veteran army that was strong and competent. The allies, on the other hand, were disorganized and suffered from poor communication.
The victory at Austerlitz was responsible for sweeping change in Europe.
• It pretty much ended the war of the 3rd Coalition (there was still minor fighting in Italy but Napoleon’s power was no longer challenged, for now).
• The centuries old Austrian Holy Roman Empire collapsed. Austria survived but the Empire was unable to continue.
• The resulting vacuum allowed the formation of the Confederation of the Rhine. A strong French ally.
• Treaties with Austria and, later, Russia pretty much left Britain on her own to continue the fight against Napoleon.
How about his greatest loss?
Most people agree this is Waterloo.
Napoleon abdicated his throne and was exiled to Elba in 1814. On March 1 of 1815 Napoleon was back in France and headed for Paris. He retook power as Louis XVIII fled north into Belgium seeking protection from the British. In the following three months Napoleon rebuilt the French Army back into a continental fighting force. Despite Napoleon’s protestations for peace it became clear that the monarchs of Europe would not accept Napoleon as ruler of France.
War was inevitable the only question being where it would happen. Napoleon’s nearest foes, the British and Prussians were in Belgium, so Napoleon started there. He planned an audacious campaign to take Brussels and defeat both the British and Prussian armies in the same old way. Divide and conquer.
On June 15th, 1815 the French Army crossed the border into Belgium. They immediately encountered small groups of Prussian troops who began falling back to the northeast. Napoleon split his army into two forces. One, commanded by Marshal Ney, who would continue on to Brussels while his second, commanded by Marshal Grouchy, would pursue the Prussians and hopefully bring them to battle before they could link up with the British.
Both forces soon encountered more resistance. Ney found what he thought was a large force of British (Anglo Allied troops) at Quatre Bras. Grouchy found the heart of the Prussian Army near the town of Ligny. On the 16th both forces fought battles. In both cases the French army won a victory but against the Anglo Allied troops Ney was slow and overly cautious allowing the forces to retreat from the field in good order. In Ligny the Prussians were more soundly defeated, but they were also allowed too much time to retreat.
Napoleon ordered Grouchy to pursue them in hopes that they would cease to be a further problem. Unfortunately, this turned out badly as I’ll explain later.
The next day, June 17th, both Allied armies were in retreat. Instead of doing the sensible thing and retreat east to their supply depot in Namur, the Prussians went north towards Wavre.
The Prussian general, Blucher, was intent on honoring his promise to the British General, Wellington, that he would support his forces. Wellington, in the meantime, retreated north to a small town that he had previously scouted as a place to defend against Napoleon. Waterloo. During the entire day there were thunder showers. All three armies were soaked, the roads were muddy, and progress was slow and miserable.
On the morning of the 18th, the rain had stopped. The British had stopped to offer battle just south of Waterloo. Napoleon was hopeful. He had already defeated the Prussians and today would defeat the British. He was planning dinner in Brussels. The European world held its breath. Neither general had faced off against the other before and they were arguably the best field commanders in Europe. This was the 19th century equivalent to the Thrilla in Manila.
The battle started late because the ground was still soddened from the rain. At 11am things had dried out enough that Napoleon was content to move forward. What followed was a grueling full day of battle. Both sides fought hard with many back and forth attacks. At 1pm, though, Napoleon’s worst fears were imagined as he saw the Prussian Army appear almost like magic on his right flank. By this time both the British and French army were like punch-drunk boxers.
The addition of fresh Prussian reinforcements tipped the scales and gave the allies the strength they needed to pull off the victory. As evening came on Napoleon fled the field while his most precious soldiers, the Imperial Old Guard blocked pursuit in a suicidal rear-guard action.
By the next day, Napoleon was back in France, but the writing was on the wall. France was going to fall, and it was up to Napoleon how this would happen.
Now let’s talk about Napoleon’s end:
#1 The debacle of the Russian campaign led to his first abdication and exile in Elba.
#2Then he came back to power for 100 days, got cocky again and attacked at Waterloo.
#3This second major loss led him to his second abdication and his forced exile to Saint Helena.
#4 What he could have done instead but didn’t: seek refuge in America like his brother.
Napoleon’s abdication on June 22nd, four days after Waterloo, had been a long time coming. The first threads of the end had been stitched together in 1812 during the Russian Campaign. Up until then, Napoleon had experienced very few failures. Like a gambling addict Napoleon continue to up the stakes with each new “game.” With Russia the stakes he wagered was his crack army he had built over the years of 600,000+ troops. As Napoleon approached Moscow in September, he had no idea that a month later he would be fleeing the city.
By the time the French army made it out of Russia and back on German soil it was a shadow of itself. The fine army built by Napoleon over the years was broken. The invasion had cost Napoleon over 400,000 troops. Those that were left were wounded, sick, and starving. Most of their supplies had been lost during the retreat. Napoleon had rushed back to France to shore up his sagging reputation and start rebuilding the army and supplies needed for the coming war. Europe had his number now.
They had learned costly lessons in how to fight the Napoleonic way. In 1813 the rebuilt army fought in several battles attempting to hold onto the German States, but at Leipzig Napoleon was defeated again. He retreated into France where he fought a rapid series of defensive battles. This is really where the genius of Napoleon’s generalship shone, but these were desperate battles and his enemies outnumbered him considerably.
Eventually, his Marshals forced Napoleon to abdicate in favor of his son rather than see Paris burned like Moscow. The allies shipped Napoleon off to exile on Elba and rather than allow his son to rule they brought back the detested Bourbons and Louis XVIII, a man who pretty much personified just about every negative image the French people could come up with regarding monarchy.
The rulers of Europe then set about carving up control of Napoleonic Europe at the Congress of Vienna. Small disagreements festered and became arguments. Europe was starting to devolve again into petty little border wars when Napoleon woke everyone up again.
Napoleon had left Elba. He justified leaving his exile for several reasons. He had not received any of the promised pay from the Bourbon government. Rumors were rampant that the monarchs wanted to find a more secure place for Napoleon. His wife and child had been denied the ability to join him. And, it was rumored that the French people detested Louis XVIII and wanted Napoleon back.
Napoleon ruled France from March to June, but France had changed. The people were more cynical and less welcoming. The people of France were more independent and did not need a dictator anymore. Napoleon tried to conform to the new mindset and created a new, more democratic government with the help of the liberal Benjamin Constant. On his return after Waterloo the new government could see the writing on the wall and asked Napoleon to please…just leave. On June 22nd he abdicated (again, in favor of his son) and fled to Malmaison. The allies, again, refused to bargain and insisted on the return of Louis XVIII.
The slowness and lack of initiative that hampered Napoleon’s efforts throughout the Waterloo campaign continued to be an odd problem. There were roving Prussian armies in France who wanted nothing more than to find Napoleon and shoot him. Yet, he seemed reluctant to leave France despite the repeated suggestions that he do so, now.
He complained that he needed a passport to travel to the United States, which appeared to be his favorite option. The French government continually stated “oh, it’s in the mail, you don’t have it yet?” Just before the Prussians got to Malmaison Napoleon finally left for Rochefort where he planned to get on a ship and head to the US. Again, though, this was not a rapid trip. Napoleon dawdled on the way. By the time he arrived at Rochefort the British Navy had blockaded the port. Napoleon considered many various ways to sneak on a ship and get out of France, but ultimately this never happened.
On July 15th Napoleon put his faith in the British and turned himself over to them. He hoped they would either let him proceed to America or at least allow him to settle on a pleasant estate like they had allowed his brother, Lucien. The British government would have none of it, though. They did not trust Napoleon and the last thing they wanted was a Bonapartist uprising in Kent or some other such mischief.
Napoleon was denied any meeting with royalty and instead shipped off to St Helena in exile.
St Helena is a big volcanic rock of an island in the middle of the Atlantic weeks away from the next port. It is approximately 10 miles by 7 miles and well known for its foul climate. Napoleon’s first few months on the island were tolerable. He was not allowed to mingle with the people of the island, but he had the company of the Balcombe family who gave him a place to stay until the Longwood House was ready for him to move in.
After his move to Longwood House, though, things became worse. Restrictions on his movement increased and Hudson Lowe, the governor of the island, insisted that Napoleon remain under constant watch. Rather than allow himself to be watched Napoleon began to lock himself up indoors. The lack of exercise and harsh climate started to impact his health. Hudson Lowe feuded continuously with Napoleon over his access to doctors.
The people around Napoleon began to note an obvious decrease in his health. In 1818, Hudson Lowe forced many of the few friends that Napoleon had to leave the island. He was continually paranoid that Napoleon would escape somehow. In his final months in 1821 Napoleon fought a worsening battle against abdominal pain and what appeared to be stomach ulcers. In his last days Napoleon was delirious most of the time. On May 5th, 1821 Napoleon died from what appeared to be stomach cancer though conspiracy theories abound to this day that he was assassinated with poison.
There are so many what-ifs to consider about Napoleon’s life after his abdication. He could have lived like his brother, Josef, in the USA. Of course, he could have also been imprisoned in a Scottish border fort if the British had wished. Would Napoleon have enjoyed the life of a private citizen?
I don’t think so. Napoleon hated a life of mediocrity. He spent a lot of time talking about his desire to just settle down and relax, but throughout his life anytime things became ‘settled and relaxed’ he found a way to stir things up. I think the English were wise to not let him land and stay in England. Unfortunately, the alternative was not pleasant.
To conclude, I wonder how many listeners had ever heard that Napoleon could have ended up as a plantation owner in the USA! If that had been his fate, I don’t think he would have the sort of greater than life image that he has today.
Napoleon left a huge mark on France and French institutions.
When you visit Paris you could spend a day looking at the major Napoleon sites: Les Invalides, La Madeleine, L’Arc de Triomphe at the top of the Champs Elysées, L’Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel near the Louvre, La Place Vandome, La Madeleine. I should really write a VoiceMap self-guided walking tour that takes you to all of those and gives you some details. One more thing on my to-do list, we’ll see if I ever get to it!
Thank you Kurt, au revoir.