Research Subjects: Napoleon Himself




While some historians have portrayed Napoleon as a violent man, they never were close to him.  Without doubt, he was absorbed by the affairs of State, thwarted in his views, hindered in his projects, he had his impatience and his uneven nature, but basically he was generous.  In bad times one could easily calm him down, if, far from seeking to appease, some of his advisers didn’t further excite his anger.

After the conviction of George Cadoudal and his accomplices, all those sentenced to death who were recommended for clemency by the Emperor were pardoned.  George himself had written to Murat, then governor of Paris, a very worthy letter, in which he requested, not pardon for himself, but for his companions.  In this letter, that Napoleon read carefully, George offered to be the first to throw himself on the shore of England.  “It was, he said, changing the method of death, but at least this way would be useful to their homeland.”  This petition was commented on by the Privy Council.  Napoleon, at first, demonstrated his willingness to forgive, but it posed awkwardness, in that it would encourage the killers and demoralize the men responsible for defending the life of the Head of State.  The scaffold was constructed, and George perished with nine of his accomplices.  The bloody execution excited a sense of pity; it was perhaps more keenly felt in Napoleon than in any other.

The following Sunday, while the Princess Louis (Queen Hortense) was occupied in the small green room of Saint-Cloud, watering flowers in the gardens that her mother had always abundantly stocked, the Emperor came into the room without being announced.

—Hortense, what are you doing there all alone and so early in the morning? He asked of his beautiful daughter, whose face, usually so calm and so open, seemed particularly distressed.

—Sire, responded the daughter of Josephine, a little surprised at this sudden appearance, Your Majesty sees well.

Indeed, she still had in her hands the small vermillion watering can which the Empress usually used.

And what is my wife doing?

—Sire, there crying, and mother more than anyone else.

—How! One cries! ... What brought this on? ... I want to know.

Just as soon as Napoleon entered the bedroom of the Empress, Madame de Polignac, who was waiting there with several ladies, fell to his feet and asked for mercy for her husband, sentenced to death in the George conspiracy. The presence of Madame de Polignac at first caused some surprise to the Emperor who, breaking the fall, said:

—I am surprised, Madame, to find your husband involved in such a case.  Did he ever remember having been my comrade at the Military Academy of Paris?

Madame de Polignac, as her tears allowed, tried to remove any hint of her husband’s participation.

—I can pardon M. de Polignac, Napoleon answered, because it wasn’t my life that they wanted.  Come on, Madame, and say that it is I, his former comrade, who spares his life.

And the Emperor left with a gesture that indicated he did not want to be accompanied.

The next day, it was the turn of the sister and aunt of M. de Rivière.  The Empress was again responsible for facilitating their free access to the Emperor, although the day before he had repeated to his wife:

—You know I do not like scenes; I do not want to see any parent of convicted persons.  Those who must seek pardons will only have to address their requests in writing: accordingly I gave orders to the chief judge Regnier, and instructions to Duroc.

This time, having learned from an indiscretion of Josephine that these two ladies were to be waiting for him when he was to chair the State Council, he approved in advance the pardon of M. de Rivière.

General Lajolais was likewise sentenced to death.  His wife and daughter were transferred to Paris from Strasbourg immediately after the judgment.  Upon arrival, Madame Lajolais was conducted to the Conciergerie; and his daughter, without resources, was reduced begging for the hospitality of his family.  It was then that this young person, aged fourteen, and a remarkable beauty, showed a presence of mind that only filial love can give at such a tender age.

One morning, she came out of Paris before the day on foot, alone, without having expressed her resolution to anyone, and presented herself, while in tears, at the gate of the chateau of Saint-Cloud.  It was only with much trouble that she got this far; but not letting herself be put off by any obstacle, she reached a service doorman, who, fortunately for her, was M. Dumoutiers, as dignified a man if ever there was one.

—Sir, she said, I was promised that you could conduct me immediately to Madame Princess Louis; I would ask for this service, do not refuse me!

—Who made you this promise, Mademoiselle? Did you get an audience?

—Alas! No, sir; but I just must ask the Emperor's mercy for my father: he was sentenced to death.

M. Dumoutiers initially refused to interfere in this case, but finally, moved by the tears and prayers of the girl, he takes it upon himself to go find Madame Louis.  The latter, fearing to excite the discontent of her stepfather, went down to seek the advice of her mother, but with her first words she was interrupted by Josephine, who told her:

—I am sorry, my dear child, to be unable to do anything for this poor creature; Bonaparte left for hunting this morning; tell him when he returns.

—But, Mama, by then, her father may be executed.

—Tomorrow, I'm telling you, lead your protégée to me; we will decide how to place her in the path of Bonaparte.  What did you think of her?

—She is charming. I've never seen anybody more interesting.

—I want to see ... You have to keep her safe with you or, either, return her, because if her presence was known here, we could miss out.  Return with her tomorrow at ten o’clock.

Madam Louis guarded Mademoiselle Lajolais until the next day, carefully hiding her from all eyes; she even didn’t confide in Mademoiselle Augué, who was much more her friend than her first maid, and the next morning, coming down from her mother, she warned that Mademoiselle Lajolais has just arrived at Saint-Cloud.

—Bring her into the small gallery, said Josephine; she can espy when Bonaparte enters the Council; he cannot leave his cabinet without being seen otherwise.  For my part, I will make sure to arrive at the same time as him.

Finally, at noon, a doorman announced: the Emperor! ... Madam Louis, standing on the sidelines, meant to hide her eyes from Napoleon, who, surrounded by some officers of his house, moved by slow steps down the gallery.  As soon as Mademoiselle Lajolais saw him, she rushed out to him, and rushing to his feet:

—Mercy! Sire, mercy for my father! she cried to him.

Napoleon, surprised at this sudden appearance, stopped, and casting a harsh gaze on his step-daughter
and Josephine, who had entered the gallery through the door opposite:

—Again! He expressed in a tone of impatience; yet I said I did not want more of these things!

And, crossing his hands behind his back, he turned his head, turning on his steps and prepared to leave; but Mademoiselle Lajolais held onto the knees of the Emperor from behind; and then that started a really heartbreaking scene:

—Allow me, Mademoiselle, first said Napoleon in keeping with the mood.  I know who dared to introduce you here despite my objections.

—Ah! Sire, mercy, mercy! ... For my father!

Then, turning abruptly, Napoleon examined the suppliant with more attention, and said in a curt tone:

—What is the name of your father? Who are you?

—Sire, I am Mademoiselle Lajolais; my father will die.

—Ah! Yes, I know, but Mademoiselle it is the second time that your father is guilty of an attack against the State.  I cannot give him anything!

—Alas! Sire, I know replied the poor child in her ingenuity; but the first time, Papa was innocent, and today, Sire, it is not justice that I ask you: it is mercy.  Mercy for him!

With these words, the Emperor, deeply touched, took the small hands of Mademoiselle Lajolais, and pressing on his own, he said in a broken voice:

—Ah well! Yes, my child, I will grant mercy because of you; but it's enough, raise yourself, Mademoiselle, and now leave me.

It was time that Napoleon retreat.  The emotion that overcame him had peaked, especially when he saw Mademoiselle Lajolais fall heavily on the carpet, facing a violent attack of nerves.  The prodigious care that the Empress and her daughter provided soon brought her back to life; and, although exhausted by fatigue, she still begged Josephine and her protector to allow her to leave on the spot for Paris.  They entrusted it to M. Lavallette, then aide-de-camp of the Emperor and his wife, mistress of finery for the Empress, who accompanied her to the Conciergerie.

Arriving in the cell where the prisoner was locked up, the girl threw herself onto the neck of her father to tell him of the mercy she desired.  Her joy and tears deprived her of speech; she could only utter stifled cries.  Suddenly her eyes closed, her knees buckled, and once again she fell, deprived of her senses into the arms of Madame Lavallette.

Alas! When she came to her senses, she had lost her reasoning: Mademoiselle Lajolais was mad.

The same evening, the Emperor learned this new woe:

—Poor child ... he whispered really low.  Then, furtively wiping a tear which dropped on his cheek, he added: A father who has such a girl is even more culpable: I will care for her and her mother.

Of all the titles, of all jobs created and that Napoleon gave to anyone upon his coming to the Empire, there was none more envied by most general officers of his army than aide-de-camp.  It was not until this crowd of foreign princes who came to assiduously seek to be seen by him, to be heard by him, which didn’t arise from an ambition for the honor associated with it their ability, that the title came to the military household of the Emperor.

“Gentlemen (he said at St. Helena one morning when the conversation had turned to this subject), when I had created the Confederation of the Rhine, the rulers who took part no longer doubted that I intended to renew the manners and forms of the Holy Roman Empire; everyone, including the kings themselves, eagerly wanted to train my house, my cortège, and become my Grand Panetier, another my Grand Cup Bearer, and so on; but what did the greatest number aspire to do for employment and, what do you think? ... It was that of aide-de-camp!  So these princes had invaded the Tuileries: this is the literal truth, said Napoleon looking fixedly at his listeners.  They encumbered my salons, inconspicuously diffused among you.  It is true that at the same time there were Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese; and even more incredible still, it included among them Prince Leopold of Cobourg[1] who asked me to join the numbers of my aides-de-camp.  I do not know what had opposed his appointment.  Then he added shaking his head; that is hour we’re told where misfortune entered the lives of these men!”

It is a fact that Napoleon had thrown onto his aides-de-camp this prestige, he made them so important that sometimes they were represented as ambassadors, often sending them to the rulers of Europe to deal with treaties of agreement with serious interests of peace or war, it was only natural that the rank was considered in the army, as first among all.  In the course of his military career, Napoleon took over forty aides-de-camp, which led Louis XVIII to malignantly say, one day when he conversed with Rapp:  “I do not know in history, ancient or modern, of a monarch, of a hero, of a conqueror, who has made a more prodigious consumption of aide-de-camps than Bonaparte.”  The remark was correct, but none of them ever abandoned that honorable post to become a Marshal of the Empire, minister, ambassador or even king, unless he was killed on the battlefield, which sometimes happened.  A general asking the Earl of Lobau (Mouton) what should be done to become an aide-de-camp of the Emperor:

—The easiest thing, he replied to him there; we must try to get killed at every opportunity, and not succeed.

Napoleon loved his aides-de-camp as a father loves his children; so all of them would have been happy to be killed to prove their devotion.  The Emperor knew this.  Rapp, among others, was perhaps first of all, which expressed this sentiment with most of abandon:  he was sometimes pardoned for his excesses of outspokenness that had won everyone else a complete disgrace.

—What do you want? He said, is a rebel, a bad head; but he has good heart and I think he loves me.

Among other examples, we can recall that of the following: A few days after the Battle of Wagram, Napoleon played one night at twenty-one with his aides-de-camp.  He loved this game; it amused him to cheat and laugh at its frauds; he had before him a large quantity of gold that he spread with complacency on the table.

—Is this not, he told Rapp, showing him this heap of twenty francs pieces, that the Germans love these little napoleons-there?

—Yes, Sire, much more than large one!

To this reply, the emperor looked at his aides-de-camp in a singular manner, and said after a silence:

—So, I hope, that is what could be called Germanic frankness!

Two aides-de-camp were usually served with Napoleon: one did not leave him anymore than his shadow, the other, replacing his friend the next day, received instructions from him.  He always had a horse saddled and a carriage coupled at one of the exits of the palace, to be able to perform on-the-spot orders that the Emperor might give, and when Napoleon was abed, he had the most special responsibility for the guarding his person.  He stood in the room adjacent to where the master was based.  He set up a portable camp bed, which was easily removed in the morning, when he assumed that the Emperor was awake.  We know he often called his secretary and even his ministers during the night; in which case the aide-de-camp called for the carriage, would look for the hotel of the designated person and call on him.

On campaign, the service aide-de-camp slept on a carpet or a bear skin which Napoleon had folded in his travel carriage, or in extremis on a bunch of straw that he was often forced to share with the first chamber valet of the Emperor.  As for Napoleon, he usually relied on his small iron bed (unless he slept on the battlefield, because then he and his aides-de-camp made arrangements as they could), but in the first case, they only would begin to fall asleep when the Emperor called:

—Constant ... Hey! Monsieur Constant ... Wake up!

—Sire, he responded immediately getting to his feet.

—Who is on duty?

—General so and so, sire.

—Tell him to come.

If the aide-de-camp was there, he entered immediately, because his toilet did not take long, since he never undressed; otherwise, Constant would seek him out and lead him back.

—Get yourself to such and such corps, commanded by marshal so and so, he said to him; it must be present at such and such place.  I do not want you to take this or that way.  You will enjoin him to send this or that regiment in this or that position; after which you will go to the front to make sure of the enemy, and you will come back to me to account.  Above all, he said in these sorts of recommendations, be careful you are not pinched (captured).  I will wait for you.

The aide-de-camp mounted his horse, executing those orders to the letter and returned, not without having been shot at few times, which, fortunately, and thanks to the darkness of the night, they were only rarely hit.  Then, when having returned an account of his mission and he had seen Napoleon go off to retire, he would himself lay on his bench, overwhelmed by sleep and fatigue, but one quarter of an hour after:

—Constant ... shouted the Emperor anew.

—Sire! He responded; waking up in a burst.

—So and so (the aide-de-camp) is he there?

—Yes, Sire.

—Tell him to come.

The aide-de-camp presented as the first time.

—Pick up the Prince of Neufchâtel.

The Chief of Staff, whose tent was always prepared a few steps away from that of the Emperor, thrown on a low bed, dressed hastily and came with alacrity.  Often this disturbance took place several times in the same night, but towards the morning, Napoleon almost always slept, and his officers were not slow to follow suit, unless it was the day before or the day after a battle, because on these days sleep was prohibited at headquarters.

In the army, the aide-de-camps of the Emperor were duty chamberlains, which would prevent them from ever achieving, on the battlefield, the share of glory that they all knew could only be gained at the cost of their blood.  Also history will certainly not forget their names, among which included on the frontline Junot, Muiron, Elliot. Eugene de Beauharnais, Marmont, Louis Bonaparte, Guibert, Murat, Lavalette, Julien, Sulkowski, Croisier, Caffarelli, the son of Lacucée, Bertrand, Narbonne, Labédoyère, Reille, Corbineau, Mouton, Bernard Duroc, Savary, Lauriston, de Flahaut, Rapp, etc., etc.  In these two became Kings: Louis Bonaparte and Murat; one Viceroy: Eugène de Beauharnais; three Marshals: Marmont, Lauriston and Mouton, two Grand Marshals of the Palace: Duroc and Bertrand; other two Ambassadors: Junot and Narbonne.  One only became Minister: it was Savary.


[1] Today King of the Belgians.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2008


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