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A little known incident in the early days of Napoleon

By John Hussey
Buonaparte at this time was a Lieutenant in King Louis XVI’s Artillery, absent
without authority from his regiment in France, and now living in Corsica as
second Lt-Colonel of a battalion of local volunteer national guards. A street
argument in Buonaparte’s natal town of Ajaccio at Eastertime 1792 turned into
a brawl in which shots were fired. Some national guards intervened and two
(Rocca Serra and Renucci) were struck down. Officers, among them
Buonaparte, were driven off.
With such disorder some reaction was inevitable, but the question is whether
that reaction was proportionate or excessive. What Buonaparte did on his own
initiative was to move his national guard battalion into some buildings and open
fire on the churchgoers on Easter Sunday, killing several civilians. Buonaparte
then laid siege to the town. He tried to make the regular garrison in the citadel
revolt against its commander and support him in the draconian punishment he
sought to inflict. Without any right or permission he used the name of the
national hero Paoli as cover in justifying his actions. The affair lasted three
days, ending with Buonaparte imposing terms on the town. The incident is not
widely known although Correlli Barnett in his interesting character study,
Bonaparte (1978), ‘Prologue’, pp.11-14, concludes that Buonaparte’s tactics
‘could hardly be bettered by any modern political militant, least of all in the
unhesitating assertion of the moral initiative by means of loading his opponents
with the blame for conflict he himself had provoked’.
The account printed here is by the noted Napoleonic scholar Arthur Chuquet
(1853-1925), who with Houssaye, Masson, Sorel and Vandal did much to
develop Napoleonic studies in France at the end of the 19th Century.
In his 3-volume study, La Jeunesse de Napoléon (Paris, 1898), vol 2, pp.290-
92, Chuquet writes as follows of the investigation ordered by the provincial
directory [all words in square brackets are by John Hussey]:
The opinions of the provincial directory were suggested to them by
Napoleon. The Lt-Colonel of volunteers [Buonaparte], ever ready to take
up the pen, had hastened to produce a justificatory report [in Italian]. In
this memorial, skilful but long, verbose and with loaded words and
phrases, Napoleon accused the population of Ajaccio, which seemed to
him “composed of cannibals”, to have on 8 April maltreated, vilified, and
murdered the volunteers. He insisted that the national guards in pay
were forced to defend themselves against people who had for long
premeditated their plot, and that it was the Ajaccians who on 9 April had
fired first, and that three shots fired at a room in the Seminary [held by
the national guards] broke two bottles and damaged a mattress! But he
forbore to say that the volunteers’ fusillade had caused deaths and
injuries. He concluded that the battalion had not obeyed the demands
of the municipality because the latter was in the hands of brigands who
placed the audience chamber under siege with their war cries and
dictated fanatical resolutions, because the procureur-syndic Coti had
ordered the national guards to keep their posts, because the first of laws
was the safety of the country, and the safety of the country required that
the volunteers should stay in their positions while awaiting the arrival of
the Departmental commissioners. “In the terrible crisis facing us we
needed energy and audacity; we needed a man who – if we asked him
after his intervention to swear that he had broken no law – would be in a
position to say with Cicero or Mirabeau ‘I swear that I have saved the
That man was – or would become – Napoleon. He had no fear in breaking
the law to attain his ends, in leading the departmental directory to punish
the fanaticism and superstition of the Ajaccians, in slipping his
volunteers into the citadel [garrisoned by Colonel Maillard and the
monarchy’s regular Limousin regiment]. Thus there is something both
impressive and tragic about this episode in Napoleon’s history. One
senses that, carried away by ambition, this young man of 23 will not draw
back from anything. To incite the Regiment Limousin to revolt, by his
exhortations to make [the abbé] Coti set himself up as head of Police, to
call his adversaries brigands, to fire on the population, kill or wound six
to eight people, lay siege to the town and terrorise it, deprive it of flour
and wood, deliver over its fields to the ravages of shepherds and
peasants, and, sword in hand, impose on the town of his birth his own
wishes and conditions in a formal treaty – that is what Napoleon did
under cover of avenging the death of Lieutenant Rocca Serra and the
wounds of Private Renucci! What had become of the sincere youth who,
six years earlier, had condemned Turenne and Condé for bringing about
civil war [in the 17th Century] and creating disaster? . . .
What indefatigable activity and ability, what resource he deployed in
those days of trouble and conflict, adding audacity to ruse, and violence
to his speech, seeking to mislead Maillard [commanding the Limousin
regulars] and subvert the citadel’s garrison, terrifying the citizens, pulling
together the news from all quarters, writing to his brother, to Coti, to the
town council, to the commandant of the place, drawing after him his
colleague Quenza [his senior, first Lt-Colonel commanding the local
national guard], and despite his youth holding together, whether well or
badly, the mob of volunteers and national guards!
At one place in his memorial he wrote of the municipal officers of Ajaccio
that “their souls were too narrow to rise to the height of great affairs”, but
in so writing he was thinking of himself and the role he had played, the
attitude that he had taken, and believed himself to have attained the
height of great affairs. But these “great affairs” appeared to most people
cruel affairs of “deplorable scenes” and “misfortunes” of which he had
been the author and instigator.

Paoli [the acknowledged national hero and ‘Father’ of Corsica, now a
French general], so soon as he heard the first news of the riot, did not
hesitate to throw the blame on the departmental Directorate. “When the
government”, he wrote, “is led by young inexperienced people, giovani
inesperti, it is not surprising that inexperienced little boys, ragazzoni
inesperti, are destined to command the national guards”. But to
disapprove of Napoleon would mean disapproving Quenza, of whom
Paoli was fond, and after all, the Father was not altogether displeased
with the rude lesson that the Ajaccians had received. What did hurt him
was the misuse of his name by the two Lt-Colonels [Buonaparte and
Quenza]. Had they not, in the letter to the town council demanding the
withdrawal of cannons, claimed that they were sticking to their posts by
the positive orders of the general himself? Joseph [Buonaparte] wrote
to his brother, “I am worried that should that letter become public – and
thus prejudice the good name of General Paoli – he will clear himself,
and then how will you look?” Ajaccio did not pardon Napoleon for the
three days of agony and peril that, in Napoleon’s own words, overturned
the town and almost ruined it.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2017