Research Subjects: Napoleon Himself



APOLEON was ten years old when his father, who went to Versailles as a Deputy of Corsica, took him along to France, and led him to the School of Brienne, which was then the most famous in Europe.  It was the policy of the French government to facilitate in this establishment, the admission of the children of the principal families of Corsica, unified for only a short time with the kingdom.  A totally French education was to necessarily inspire in them the feelings of affection and devotion to their new fatherland.  Napoleon always showed himself faithful to this first education. [1]

The tiny monks of the Saint-Benoit Order had the direction of the School of Brienne.  Strange thing!  Monks were charged with the training of young officers!  But why not? Wasn't it a Saxon monk who invented gunpowder?  Wasn't it a monk of the Benedictine Order who first, improved the mechanism of the batteries of rifles which have proven itself so useful today?  Lastly, are we not indebted to a dervish mahatma who discovered the hardening of steel with which one manufactures the best blades of sabers?  It thus should have been appropriate that the Saint-Benoit monks would not do too badly with discharging the work, which was entrusted to them, since they raised Napoleon.

              It was on one of his missions to Versailles that Charles Bonaparte, father of Napoleon, took ill from the disease of which he died: cirrhosis of the stomach.  He consulted the most famous doctors of the kingdom in vain, and expired in Montpellier, at the age of approximately thirty-nine, in the arms of his brother-in-law Fesch and his elder son Joseph, who had accompanied him.  He was buried in one of vaults of the Reverend Fathers Cordeliers of the city, on February 24, 1785.

Napoleon was joyful at the School of Brienne.  He made himself noteworthy to his Masters by strong and constant study; but he was the recluse of the school, so to speak.  When he was able to approach the other pupils, their relationship with him was of a singular nature: his equals yielded instinctively to his character, whose superiority, sometimes to their chagrin, exerted on them an absolute empire.  He himself, whether he dominated them, or that they remained strangers, seemed to inspire more fear in them than respect and friendship.  But however the affections of this kind to which he remained faithful, in later higher fortune, proved rather thereafter that he had likely nobler feelings which embellished and honored his youth.

His name, that the Corsican accent made him pronounce Napaillonné, bought for him, due to some of his comrades, shortly after his arrival among them, the nickname of the straw to the nose (la paille au nez); but also, from this time, one noticed a notable change in his character.  While yielding to the common discipline, he became a dreamer and morose.  His recreation was passed in the library of the school, with reading Polybius, Plutarch and Ossian.  The reading of these former historians and the Scottish bard was an imperative need for him.  There was already the need for a strong food for this powerful spirit, with this imposing imagination.  Facts of another nature also betrayed his military inclinations.  When he condescended to join the exercises of his companions, the plays that he proposed to them, borrowed from antiquity, were always actions in which one fought with fury and always under his orders.  Impassioned in the study of sciences, he only dreamed of the means of applying the theories of the art to the practice of the fortification and defense.  During the rigorous winter of 1783 to 1784, snow, having fallen with abundance, covered the gardens and the paths of the school.  That was not seen and there were only entrenchments, bastions and redoubts of snow.  All the pupils contributed to these works with ardor.  Napoleon had ordered, directed and led the work himself. Hardly were they completed, that the engineer became general.  He prescribed the order of attack and the system of defense, regulated the movements of the two parties, and, placing himself sometimes at the head of besieging, sometimes at the head of besieged, he excited the admiration of the pupils and the foreign spectators at the school, having come to enjoy this spectacle.  He astonished everyone by fruitfulness by his resources and the precision of his command.  This day he became a type of hero for the Masters as for the pupils.

During the great festivals of Brienne, with the solemn distribution of prizes, where the inhabitants of the surroundings were allowed, it was usual that the posts for the maintenance of the order inside were entirely made up of pupils.  Those who had been distinguished in the course of the year by their good conduct were chosen for officer-commandants.  Napoleon never failed to deserve this honor.  However, during one of these solemnities, he commanded the post of the comedy.  The pupils were to represent the Death of Caesar, and a crowd pressed itself at the doors of the room of the spectacle.  According to instruction, one could only enter there with tickets.  The wife of the caretaker of the School did not have any.  She presented herself nevertheless:  Napoleon filled with this new dignity, knowing only military discipline, and knowing that one never allows a breach in an instruction, refused the entry to this woman.  This refusal violently irritated the latter who leveled insults.  The crowd took up her cause. The sergeant of guard hastened to warn his chief; Napoleon showed himself on the threshold of the door, and, passing an assured glance on this assembled multitude:

—Remove this woman who brings the licentiousness of the camps here!  He exclaimed in a brilliant a voice.

And his gestures, as much as his words, imposed themselves on this mutinous crowd, which withdrew itself at once without uttering the least murmur.

Napoleon remained in Brienne until he was fourteen years old.  In 1783, the Chevalier de Kéralio, Inspector of the Military Academies of France, which had conceived a very particular affection for this pupil, granted a waiving of age limit to him, and similarly a favor of an examination, to be allowed into the Military Academy of Paris; because Napoleon had made progress only in the study of the history, geography and mathematics, and the monks of Brienne wished to still keep him a year to improve him in the Latin language.

— No, Mr. de Kéralio answered, I see in this young man a faculty which one could not cultivate too much.

A handwritten collection, which belonged to Marshal of Ségur, then the Minister of War, contains the following note:


List of the pupils of the king, eligible, by their age, to enter the service, or to pass to the Royal Military School of Paris; namely:

And, following several names:

“Mr. de Buonaparte (Napoleon), born in Ajaccio ( Island of Corsica), August 5, 1769.  Standing four feet ten inches, rank eleven; good constitution; excellent health; subdued, honest and grateful character towards his superiors; very-regular conduct. He is always distinguished by his application to mathematics; he knows passably well his history and his geography; he is rather weak in the exercises of amusement and Latin, where he made only his fourth.  He will be an excellent sailor.

 Deserves to ascend to the School of Paris.”

This note of Mr. de Kéralio was taken into account by Mr. Regnault, his successor, and decided the admission of Napoleon into the Military Academy of Paris.

It was on October 17, 1784 that Napoleon entered there.  He soon obtained the same superiority there as in Brienne, especially for what related to mathematics.  The Abbot Raynal, was struck by the extent of his knowledge, and appreciated him enough to invite him to his science lunches on Sundays.  Finally Paoli, who, inspired in him a type of worship, found in him following the head of a party against him when he wanted to support the English, had the habit to say: “This young man is cut from antiquity: he is a man of Plutarch.”

At this school, Napoleon had as comrades Lariboissière, whom he named, on becoming an Emperor, Inspector General of Artillery; Sorbier, who succeeded this last at the same position; d’Hédouville the younger, who was an plenipotentiary ambassador in Frankfurt; Mallet, the brother of whom led the scuffle of Paris in 1812; Rolland de Villarceaux, who he named Prefect of Nimes; Mabille, of who’s ambition was limited to becoming dance master at the Opera, and who indeed became it under the restoration; Marescot, which was disgraced and passed in judgement, with General Dupont, after the affair of Baylen, in Spain; Bussy, that he brought back in the campaign of 1814, and who he named his aide-de-camp; and, finally, Desmazis the younger, the companion of his first years at Brienne, to whom he entrusted the administration of the royal jewels of the crown, and that he never called anything but my faithful Desmazis.

Mr. d’ Éguille, the history professor of Napoleon, claimed that while sorting the papers in the files of the Military Academy, one would find evidence there that he had predicted a beautiful career for him.  “He had exalted in his notes, he said, the depth of the reflections and the sagacity of the judgment of his pupil.”  Of all exemplifications that the wise historian had given of Napoleon, the one which had left the greatest impression on the spirit of this last, was the subject of the revolt of the constable of Bourbon.  According to the paper of Napoleon, the greatest crime attributable to the constable was not to have fought against his king, but to have come, with foreigners, to attack his fatherland.

Domairon, professor of fine literature, had always been struck by the bizarre exaggerations of Napoleon.  He called them heated granite of the volcano.

Only one of his professors was mistaken:  he was the one named Bauer, his German Master.  Napoleon made no progress in this language, which had inspired in the professor, who did think anything above German, the deepest mistake of this pupil.  One day, this last, did not find him in his place on the hour of the lesson, Mr. Bauer was informed as to where he could be.  He was had been told that he had undergone his examination for artillery.

— But, does he know anything? The professor retorted ironically.

—What!  Sir, he was answered; are you unaware that he is the in mathematics of all the pupils of the school?

— But in fact, I already intended to say; this leads me to think that mathematics is only easy for idiots.

And as the pupils still declaimed against this judgment:

—You may say all that you want, began again the German Master, but your Napoleon Bonaparte will never be never anything but stupid!

Becoming consul, Napoleon was informed of the not very flattering matter of his former Master, and was avenged a bit by naming him to interpret the spoken language for his particular cabinet, with an annual salary of eight thousand francs.  It was Bourrienne, then his private secretary, who carried to Mr. Bauer the title of this position, and, singular thing!  This favor did nothing but confirm the old professor’s opinion that he had conceived of his pupil, sixteen years before.

The Father Patrault was the professor of mathematics of Napoleon, at the same time that Pichegru was his master of quarter and his private teacher (répétiteur) in arithmetic.

One knows the military fortune of Pichegru, which conquered Holland, and met an end to his days, in 1804, at the Temple, where he had been imprisoned at the time of the conspiracy of Moreau and George Cadoudal.

As for the Father Patrault, being recalled by his pupil when he was named General in Chief of the Army of Italy, he followed him in all the course of this memorable campaign, and naturally demonstrated the totally proper calculations for the curves and ellipses of the projectiles while facing their effects.  After the campaign, Napoleon placed his former professor in the administration of the domain of Milan, where he provided rather good service.  On the return from Egypt, the Father Patrault came to present himself to his pupil.  He was then, no longer the poor tiny one from Champagne, but very large and fat financier, having millions, and living like the members of the Directory.  Two years later, however, he came, in a deplorable state, to find the First Consul at Malmaison.

— What has caused this? Napoleon said to him while examining him with a scrutinizing glance.

— Citizen First Consul, you see man ruined from top to bottom, and which does not have anything more in the world!

—How is that, my dear Master?

— Yes, from amazing misfortunes…

— Ah! ah! This is annoying; return to see me in eight days.

The First Consul wanted to check, by the way of the police force, the sincerity of the words of Father Patrault, and to find those that caused his ruin.  The great calculator had indeed lost everything by bankruptcies, and also by lending his money, at great interest, to people who had found no means to pay him.

— I already discharged my debt, Napoleon told him on his return; I then have nothing more now for you, because I would not have it known that I twice raised the fortune of a man.  However it is a duty to honor for all our lives to those who contributed to our education, and to assist them.  You will receive in the future a pension of  1,200 fr.   With that, one can live quietly.

The Father Patrault lived a long time.

At the time when Napoleon entered the Military Academy of Paris, this establishment, created by Louis XV, was kept with a kind of magnificence which pointed to extravagance of this monarch.  Napoleon was not there a long time without seeing how such a sumptuous and elegant manner of living was contrary to the practices which one should give the pupils, for the majority sons of gentlemen, it is true, but of the poor gentlemen of the provinces, intended to reside in the lower ranks and to live in need .  An education surrounded by all the pleasures of luxury did not seem to him to be appropriate, in any case, for young soldiers.  He found the remedy as soon as he recognized the evil, and addressed, consequently, the Director of the School, in a Report [2] in which he announced the means of making this beautiful establishment worthier of its goal.  Discipline, work, sobriety, economy, such were the basis that he wanted admission to be made.  But he did not have the happiness then in seeing its adoption, later he ordered it, at the time of his power. One appreciates the wisdom and the utility of it.  The ideas of his youth were followed for the creation and in the regulations of these vast breeding grounds for officers, brave and educated, such were the Colleges of Paris and the Military Academies of La Flèche, of Fontainebleau, Saint-Cyr and Saint-Germain. The latter did not survive the Empire.


[1] In Initially there had only been, in France, two Royal Military Schools: that of Paris and that of La Flèche. Later, these two establishments were considered insufficient, a declaration of Louis XVI, of the 1st February 1776, raised from five to six hundred the number of the student grants of the State.  Following this royal decision, on March 28 of the same year, a ministerial regulation, signed by the Count de Saint-Germain, successor of the Duke of Choiseul at the Department of the War, created ten new Royal Military Schools, by indicating, under this title, the Colleges of Brienne, of Point-à-Mousson, of Rabais, of Effiat, Pont-le-Roy, of Vendôme, of Tiron, of Sorrèze, of Beaumont and of Tournon.

[2] "In this place, said Napoleon in this Report, to maintain many servants around the pupils, to give them two meal services daily, to parade in a very-expensive livery, for the horses as for the riders, would it not be better, without however stopping the course of their study, to compel them to serve themselves, without their small kitchen, that which they would not make; to make them eat bread of ammunition, or another approach for some; to accustom them to beat their clothes and to clean their shoes and their boots?  Since they are poor and intended for military service, isn't this the only education which would have to be given them?  Fixed with a sober life, they would become more robust about it, could face the bad weather of the seasons, support with courage the fatigues of war, and inspire a respect and a blind devotion to the soldiers who would be under their orders."

Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2007

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