Research Subjects: Napoleon Himself




One of the first acts of Napoleon, on arriving in power, was to apply a general governmental system on public education.  Later, he established four major colleges in Paris, under the classification of Lycée: the Imperial Lycée, the Lycée Napoleon, the Lycée Bonaparte, and the Lycée Charlemagne.

Wanting to visit himself these institutions, he began with the one he had given his name and for which, incidentally, he still showed some preference.  He arrived one day without any one being advised of his visit because he did not want his arrival to cause any inconvenience, in the house.  The presence of the Emperor in the midst of our schools still produced a marvelous effect.

Followed by the headmaster of Lycée, the censor and deputy directors, Napoleon crossed the classes and interviewed several students, then entering the dining hall while they were at dinner, he wanted to taste the soup and its heartiness. Having taken the cup of a student, he brought it to his lips and gave it back to him saying:

—My children, while not intoxicating, it's fit; but I assure you that in my time at Brienne, they put in even more water.

The visit lasted an hour and a half.  On withdrawing, very satisfied with everything he saw, he testified to the headmaster the desire that all the punishments of students were lifted, and that an extraordinary leave was granted for the remainder of the day.  For their part, wanting to commemorate the memory of this visit, they decided unanimously that the cup from which Napoleon had drunk would now be used by no one. It was exhibited in the boardroom, having been placed under a curved glass on the base of which was elegantly engraved this inscription: The Emperor Napoleon drank from this cup in this ... 1805, then all students collected money to buy another cup for their comrade, forced, although against his wishes, to abandon an object that would have been a genuine relic.

On the evening of that day, telling to Josephine and to those who were with her in the salon, the details of the visit he had made in the morning to his little pupils, Napoleon said:

—Do you know, my dear friend, I acted as the teacher this morning?

—I am not surprised, replied the Empress.

—And that I did not do badly? Imagine, gentlemen, that I remembered enough of my Bezout and of my Legendre to demonstrate them on the blackboard.  I will have the interior police look very seriously at my lycées.  I want all students to have the same dress: I found that some were very well dressed, but others were very badly.  This is absurd!  It is in college, more than anywhere else, there should be equality.  Above all, these small young people gave me great pleasure to see.  I said to Duroc to give me the names of those I interviewed; I want to reward them, although they do not seem to me much stronger. And then I will return to see one of these days; this will give them something to emulate.  All these little lads there are seeds of officers. They should be planted to be harvested.

This promise was to be realized seven years later: and it was nothing less than the birth of the King of Rome that reminded him.  With the explosion of enthusiasm that was created by such a great event, the offerings of poetry had been cold and petty: the voice of the people is so resounding that it stifles all the others.  Nevertheless, the Academy (that is to say the Institute) proposed to take this opportunity to give two awards, a first and a second, and six runner-ups, the top eight pieces in French, Latin, Greek, Italian, German, Spanish, Portuguese and even Dutch, that the birth of the King of Rome was bound to inspire. More than five hundred pieces were printed, signed and published in two volumes entitled: Poetic Tributes to Their Imperial and Royal Majesties, on the birth of their August son His Majesty the King of Rome. None of these competitors, however, got the prize for French poetry, because they were both awarded to young students: the first was won by Barjaud de Montluçon, aged sixteen years, and the second by M. Casimir Delavigne, about the same age, and both students of the Lycée Napoleon.

When the emperor learned the outcome of this contest and the position of the two winners:

—Really! He cried rubbing his hands; two students of my Lycée have done it? ... I want to do the presentation to these two little men there! Then after a moment of reflection, and searching his memory, he added: but haven’t I visited them? ... Yes, I remember now ... A long time ago it was after my return from Milan ... My faith, if that is the case; I go tomorrow.

The next day, when unaccustomed noise of carriages and horses signaled the arrival of Napoleon in the courtyard of the college, all the students had been placed in a large room that had been prepared for this purpose, clapping and with sudden red faces when a voice announced: The Emperor ... A vivat was the deafening salute.

—Good morning, good morning, gentlemen, Napoleon said, visibly moved by this reception.

Having then approached the two winners, as presented to him by the headmaster, and after having reassured them by a look full of kindness, he told Barjaud Montluçon:

—So you, my young friend, have managed to earn the first prize?

—Yes, Sire, replied Barjaud with downcast eyes.

—I congratulate you sincerely. I could read your verse; but if you recite it to me, I will hear it with even more pleasure. You must remember them easily ... Come on, a little strength, I listen.

The young student began.  Each moment, Napoleon nodded approvingly1; and when Barjaud had finished, despite the recommendations made to students by teachers, to maintain absolute silence, yielding to their training and their friendship for a comrade for whom they were proud, one heard a triple salvo of applause that Napoleon himself had started. Once calm was restored, the Emperor told Mr. Casimir Delavigne:

—You, my little friend, who have won the second prize, what can I do for you?

The young poet, who had no fortune and would have to one day to support his family, said a timid voice:

—Sire, I ask Your Majesty to be exempted from conscription.

At these words Napoleon frowned slightly and, after shaking his head, he replied rather tersely: Granted! Then, turning to Barjaud, he repeated:

—And you, young man, what do you ask?

His chest pounding, his eyes on fire, Barjaud  replied in a loud and confident voice:

—Sire, the honor of being admitted early into your brave army!

—Good! good! young man! cried Napoleon seizing the hand of Barjaud, he shook it several times; yes, my friend, soon, I do not forget, that at your age, Homer also asked for a sword!

We know how the talented M. Casimir Delavigne went on to later interpret the pain of France after the disaster of Waterloo.  As for Barjaud Montluçon, memories of the visit and words of Napoleon had left in his soul one of these impressions which could not be erased.  At the beginning of 1813, he wrote to the Emperor and asked for him to carry out his promise.  Admitted to the infantrymen of the Young Guard with a certificate of lieutenant, he was covered in glory at Lutzen and Bautzen; where also he obtained, for his bravery, the rank of captain with the decoration of the Legion of Honor, but then in a bayonet charge in which he was at the head of his company in Leipzig, he fell dead with two bullets that passed through his chest. Upon learning this news, said Napoleon painfully:

—My poor Barjaud!  Perhaps France is losing a great poet, but I certainly have I lost a friend and a brave officer.

The effect of Napoleon's alliance with the House of Lorraine had been to produce a cooling between him and the Emperor of Russia.  From 1810, the latter, which saw the Empire of Napoleon, approach him like an ocean that rises, had increased the size of his military and resumed his relations with Great Britain.  All year 1811 was spent in negotiations which, as they failed, made the coming war increasingly more likely, but on 9 March 1812, Napoleon having left Paris after ordering to the Duke of Bassano to restore the passport of Prince Kourakin the Czar’s ambassador, it could no longer be mistaken: the war had begun even before it has been declared.  Empress Marie-Louise joined Napoleon at Dresden, where he had gone to visit her family.  After remaining two weeks in the capital of Saxony, and having planned to see a play, according to the promise he had made in Paris, to Talma and Mademoiselle Mars before an audience of kings, he left Dresden, and came to Thorn June 2 , announcing his arrival in Poland by a proclamation dated from the headquarters at Wilkowski, 22 of the same month.

The vast army that Napoleon was to lead in person was the most beautiful, the largest and most seasoned in the world.  It was divided into fifteen corps, each commanded by a king, a prince, or at least a duke.  It formed a mass of four hundred thousand men of infantry, eighty thousand horsemen and twelve thousand guns.  It took three days to cross the Niemen. This operation completed, Napoleon stopped for a moment, pensive and motionless on the river, where four years earlier Alexander had vowed eternal friendship, thence crossing in turn:

—Fate brought this on the Russians, he said, let that destiny be fulfilled!

His first steps, as always, were those of a giant.  After two days of marching skillfully, the Russian army, caught in a compromising position, was crushed, and saw an army corps totally separated from them. So Alexander returned to Napoleon after these swift and terrible blows, to tell him that if he wanted to evacuate the flooded ground and cross the Niemen, he was ready for a treaty.  Napoleon replied that he would not until entering Wilna. There he remained twenty days, set up a provisional government and then, after having left an ambassador, M. de Pradt he gave pursuit to the Russians.

After a few days of marching, Napoleon began to become worried by the defensive system adopted by Alexander.  His army had destroyed everything in his retreat: harvest, chateaus, cottages, while another army of over five hundred thousand men, advanced in the deserts that had once supported Charles XII and his twenty miles of Swedes . From Wilna on the Neiman, he marched in the glow of the fire from corpses and smoldering ruins. In the last days of July, the French came to Witepsk already surprised by a war that did not look like any other, where one does not face any enemies, and it seemed that the affair had a genius for destruction.  Napoleon himself, amazed at this campaign, which did not enter into his forecast, saw before him the great deserts which would take a whole year to reach the end of, and where every step he made was a step away from France and his allies, and then all of his resources. Arriving at Witepsk, he threw himself prostrate in a chair and calling the Count Daru, Commissariat (Intendant) General of the Army:

—I stay here, he said, I am willing to reconnoiter, rally and, even rest my army, and organize Poland. The 1812 campaign is over; that of 1813 will have to wait. For you must consider, that we cannot live in this country because we do not share the madness of Charles XII.

Then addressing Murat:

—Plant our eagles here, he said, 1813 will see us in Moscow and 1814 in Saint Petersburg. Russia's war is a war of three years.

But all these resolutions soon yielded to his natural impatience, and it was his destiny, which led him on the road to Moscow.  The 14th, we beat the Russians at Krasnoe; took possession of Viazma the 30th, and prelude, September 5, to the most bloody Battle of the Moskowa, which was fought on 7th.  The day before, Napoleon had found at his camp M. de Beausset, prefect of the palace, which brought him a letter from Marie-Louise and the portrait of the King of Rome, portrayed by Gérard.  This portrait was presented to the Imperial tent, around which had formed a circle of princes, marshals and generals.

—Remove this portrait; Napoleon said to one of his servants, it is too early for my son to see a battlefield!

Returning to his tent, Napoleon had dictated his orders for the following day at three o'clock in the morning; Rapp had found his forehead supported by his two hands, but on the arrival of his aide-de-camp he raised his head by asking:

—Well! Are the Russians still there?

—Yes. Sire, always.

—I trust this will be a terrible battle ... Do you predict victory?

—Yes, sir, but it will be bloody.

—I know; but I have 80,000 men; and if I lose 20,000, I will enter Moscow with 60,000; the baggage train will join us, with the battalions demarche, and we will be stronger than before the battle.

The next day, from the break of the day, the cheers resounded with the cry of Vive l’Empereur! running along all the lines, and as soon as the sun was showing on the soldiers, the following proclamation was read, one of the most concise, and therefore the most sublime of Napoleon:

“Soldiers! he said. This is the battle that you have desired! Victory now depends only on you, it is necessary: it will bring abundance, and provide us good winter quarters and a speedy return home. Be men of Austerlitz, Friedland, of Witepsk and Smolensk, and the most remote posterity say of you: He was at this great battle under the walls of Moscow!”

As soon as the cheering have ceased, Ney, always impatient, called for an attack. All arms were taken up, everyone was ready this great scene that would decide the fate of Europe; a swarm of aides-de-camp shot out like arrows in all directions.  Murat divided his cavalry.  It was six o'clock in the morning, everything was put in motion, everyone marches, and everything was carried to the front. Davoust launches forward with his army corps; the divisions of Compans and Desaix follow ... The whole enemy line is caught in a wildfire.

Compans is wounded, Rapp hastens to replace him: when he reaches the redoubt of the Russians, he falls shot; it is his twenty-second wounding.  Desaix replaces him and is wounded in turn.  Davoust's horse is killed by a cannonball. The Prince of Eckmühl rolled in the dust, was believed killed, but rises and remounts another horse. Rapp is brought before the Emperor:

—What! Always wounded?

—Sire, what do you want?  This is a bad habit that I tried unsuccessfully to defeat.

—How is it going there?

—Wonderfully, Sire; but we would need the Guard to complete it.

—I shall keep them safe, Napoleon responded with an involuntary movement; I do not want them to be demolished. We will win the battle without it.

At that moment, our redoubts erupt with eighty four new guns ignited at the same time; shrapnel follows the solid shot.  Crushed by the hurricane of iron, the Russians are sought to reform. The fatal rain redoubles: they stop, not daring to move, and yet they do not want to take a step back ... 40,000 men there are allowed to be crushed by this thunder for two hours; it is a terrible massacre, a slaughter without purpose, however, leaving Napoleon master of most horrible battlefield ever: 60,000 men, with a third of what we had, were lying on it!  We had 9 general killed and thirty-four wounded.  Our losses were immense and without commensurate results.

On 14 September 1812, Napoleon and the Grand Armée entered Moscow.  But everything would be dark in this war, including our triumphs. Our soldiers were accustomed to come into capitals rather than in cemeteries. Moscow seemed a vast tomb, everywhere deserted and everywhere silent. Napoleon was in the Kremlin, and the army spread throughout the city.

In the middle of the night, Napoleon was awakened by the cry Fire!  Bloody glimmers penetrate up to his bed.  He ran to the window ... Moscow was a blaze.  He was to escape this sea of flames that rose like a tide ... Meanwhile, the winter arrived.  The 23rd, the Kremlin was astir, and the retirement started happening without too many disasters, when suddenly, on 7 November, the thermometer drops from 5 to 18 degrees below the freezing; and the 29th bulletin, dated the 14th, brought to Paris the news of calamity hitherto unknown, and which the French could not believe unless they were told it by the Emperor himself.

As of today, it was a disaster that equaled our greatest victories. Twenty days pass, and on 5 December, while the remains of the Grand Armée agonized their way to Wilna, Napoleon, at the urging of his principal captains, left in a Smorgoni sledge for France ... The cold had reached 27 degrees below zero.

M. de Pradt, the Ambassador had received a dispatch of the Duke of Bassano, which announced his arrival in Warsaw to the diplomatic corps, who had spent the summer in Wilna. It had been occupied with responding to the head of the Secretary of State, when the doors of its office opened and allowed entry to a man who was supported on one of the secretaries of M. de Pradt.

—Come, follow me, said this kind of phantom in brusquely addressing M. the Archbishop of Malines.

A black taffeta enveloped the head of this man, whose face was lost in the thickness of the fur when it was down; his approach was dampened further by a double insulation filling his boots: it was an image of a ghost. M. de Pradt arose, the met him and taking in some of his profile, recognized him and said:

—How!  Is it you, Monsieur de Caulaincourt?  Where is the Emperor?

—At the Hotel d'Angleterre; he awaits you.

—And the army?

—The army! ... Repeated the grand-écuyer lifting his hands to heaven; there is no army!

So, taking M. de Caulaincourt by the arm, M. de Pradt said in an excited tone:

—Monsieur Duke, it is time to think; it necessary that all true servants of the Emperor to meet to make a rampart of their bodies.

—What fate! ... Come on, start: Emperor awaits you.

The Ambassador rushed into the street, and arrived at the Hotel d’Angleterre; it was one thirty; a Polish gendarme guarded the door.  The master of the hotel examined him, hesitated a moment, and yet left the threshold of his home.  He found in the courtyard of a small carriage body mounted on a sled made from four pieces of pine wood and half broken.  Two other sleds found there were used to transport the general Lefèvre-Desnouettes with another officer, the mameluck Rustan and a foot valet. That is all that remained of so much grandeur and magnificence before the start of this disastrous campaign. The door of a small low room opened mysteriously; a short talk took place; Rustan recognized the visitor and introduced him.  A dinner was served.

Napoleon was in a small low room, icy; and the shutters were half closed to protect recognition.  A poor Polish servant attempted to light some green wood, which resists his efforts, spreading with a lot of noise more smoke in the corners of the chimney than heat in the room. Napoleon, as usual, walked in the room; he came by foot from the Prague Bridge to the Hotel d'Angleterre, wrapped in a pelisse made with green cloth. His head was covered with a kind of thick cap, and his leather boots were wrapped in furs.

—Ah! ah! There you are, M. Ambassador, he told M. de Pradt.

He went to him energetically, and, with that emphasis of feeling that could only apologize for the main topic, said:

—Are you well, Sire? You have given us much of the concern, but finally you're ... I am comforted to see your Majesty again!

In saying these words, M. de Pradt helped him to shed his pelisse and cap.

—How long have you been in this country? He said.

So, returning to his role and placing the distance he had dismissed in an excusable movement under the circumstances, he traced with care the tableaux of the current status of the Duchy; it was not brilliant; five thousand Russians, with the cannon, marched on Zamosk; finally, he spoke of the plight of the Poles.

—Who has ruined it? Asked Napoleon vivaciously.

—Sire, the dearth of last year.

—Where are the Austrians? Continued the Emperor; it has been fifteen days that I have not spoken with them.

—Sire, I did not see anyone during the campaign, said M. de Pradt.

Then he explained why and how the dispersion of the Polish forces had come to make nearly invisible an army of eighty thousand men.

—What do the Poles wish?

—To be French, sire, if they cannot be Polish.

—My intention has always been that they were. It is necessary to raise ten thousand Polish Cossacks: stop the Russians on this.

And when M. de Pradt said he was unfortunate to use foreign men without talent, Napoleon replied by launching a sardonic gaze:

—Where are there people of talent?

Napoleon dismissed M. de Pradt in recommending him to bring, after his dinner, Count Stanislas Potocki and the Minister of Finance. Their meeting lasted about half an hour, and during this time, Napoleon had continued to walk quietly, as usual. When these men came to the Emperor, at three o’clock, Napoleon left the table. As soon as he saw them enter:

—How you do you, M. Stanislaus, and you, M. Minister of Finance? He asked.

And to the protests of these gentlemen, to the satisfaction of having to seen him safe and sound after so many dangers:

—Dangers! repeated Napoleon, no less. Am I not used to living in turmoil? Only lazy people who fatten kings in their palaces; me I am on horseback and in the camps.  But, gentlemen, I find you very alarmed here!

—Sire, rumblings of the public ...

—Bah! I still have a hundred and twenty thousand men; I always beat the Russians. I will look for three hundred thousand men; in six months I'll still be on the Neiman. Right now it is more pressing that I sit on my throne; than on a horse at the head of my army.  I certainly regret at leaving the army; but should be monitoring Austria and Prussia; everything that happened was a little thing: the effect of climate; the enemy did nothing, I've beaten them everywhere.

So Napoleon spoke to these greatly hardened of souls; then he continued by saying:

—I have seen much worse ... At Marengo, I was beaten until six o'clock in the evening; the next day, I was master of Italy.  At Essling, I was master of Austria. The Archduke had thought to stop me; my army had already made half a league advance; I did not even use all my provisions and we know what it is when I'm there. I cannot be stopped, as the Danube to rise another sixteen feet in one night. Ah! without it, the Austrian monarchy would have been over; but it said that I should marry a archduchess.

And this was said with an air of indifference.

—Our Norman horses, said Napoleon, are less hardy than the Russian, they are not resistant to cold, below fifteen degrees, it is the same for the men: see the Bavarians, it does not stop them. Perhaps it will be said that I stayed too long in Moscow. This may be; but it was beautiful, the season ahead appeared to be ordinary; I expect peace.  I sent General Lauriston to speak with them.  I almost went to Petersburg: I had the time. We held in Wilna. I left the King of Naples. Ah! ah! it is a great political drama that is going on right now in Europe. The Russians have arisen; the Emperor Alexander is loved. They have swarms of Cossacks.  It is something that nation!  I was offered to free the slaves, I did not want to; they would have massacred them all.  Who would have thought of an impressive coup like the burning of Moscow? Now they attribute it to me; but it was really them. Many Poles followed me; they are brave people, those! They will receive me.

Just then M. de Pradt thought to open the forum to the ministers of Poland, who had not pronounced a word.  It was possible for them to join the conversation when they began to pity the plight of the Duchy. Napoleon then gave, as a relief, a sum of three million, which was for three months in Warsaw and another three million in bills arising from the contributions of Courland.  Then the ministers announced the arrival of the diplomatic corps.

—These are all spies, Napoleon said; I do not want them at my headquarters.  All these men there are only occupied with sending notes to their courts.

The conversation would last for almost two hours. The fire was extinguished: the cold won over the visitors; Napoleon alone appeared to be indifferent.

Finally, after having asked if he had been recognized, and have said that all remained the same, he repeated to the ministers the assurance of his protection, and prepared to leave.  The ministers and his ambassador then expressed to him the most affectionate words to maintain his health and the success of his trip.

—Thank you, gentlemen, he answered, I have never been better focused.

These were the last words of Napoleon. Immediately after he got into the humble sled that bore Caesar and his fortune, and disappeared from all eyes.

On 18 December 1812 in the evening, that is to say the day after the publication of the 29th newsletter, which informed France of the disasters of our armies, the Emperor was in a bad horse-drawn carriage, at one of the gates of Tuileries, which hesitated for some time to open the door, but finally, having been recognized, he went to surprise Marie-Louise in her bed, impatient to receive the embrace of a wife and a son that he loved sincerely.1 Here are a few stanzas of this ode, in a way unprecedented since it does not exist in any printed collection:

“What religious billows besiege this place?
For who do the vows of holy prayer climb?
The solemn vault sounds of concerts,
The sacred brass resounds and awakened echoes

Brings to my ear
The voice of bronze cannon fire rumbling in the air.

“O France! What moments of happiness and joy!
What happy future unfolds in your eyes!
The brilliance of the most beautiful day shines on your children ...
While proud of a sprout that grows under the shade,

The cedar green foliage
Let’s see, in the forest, its branches triumphant.


“Rome, is now brighter and more proud,
Throw off your clothes all soiled with dust;
Come back and sit on the throne of the arts.

O Rome, do not say that your glory is gone ...

Your splendor erased
Take back all your glory under new Caesars.

“Lying under the debris of the ancient Capitol,
The Roman eagle roused from lethargic sleep
Who once chained in his deserted temples;

It stirs its wing, it shakes with confidence,

And the eagle of France
Invites it to spring into the empire in of the air.

“We fly both together to fields of victory;
They have combined their growth and glory;
But the eagle of the Romans was surprised, at his awakening,
That another soul was able to withstand the thunder,

And hovering over the earth,
Better support its eyes from the sun!”


Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2009

Napoleon Himself Index | More on A Popular History of Napoleon ]

© 1995 - 2010, The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.

Top | Home ]