By Phillip Bloom
Napoléon Bonaparte was and still is one of France’s most revered heroes. Though born a Corsican in 1769, Napoléon journeyed to France for schooling at the age of nine. He remained fiercely patriotic towards his homeland throughout his life, though he visited Corsica infrequently after leaving. He often tried to help the island, but was persecuted for his efforts. Napoléon never returned to Corsica willingly, though once he was forced to land on the island in a gale.
After an interesting and quiet childhood Napoléon joined the French artillery at the age of sixteen. Through hard work, bravery, political connections, and being born in a turbulent age, Napoléon rose to the rank of general. In 1799 Bonaparte was elected First Consul of France and Her Dependencies for Life and began his astonishing political career. Later he proclaimed himself France’s emperor.
Napoléon reformed much of European law and spread the idea of republicanism throughout much of Europe. His ideas continue to be incorporated into Switzerland’s law. Napoléon also reformed schools and strengthened Paris’ reputation as one of the cultural capitals of the world.
Napoléon’s life was not without setbacks. In 1814, the Allied armies of Britain, Spain, Portugal, Russia, Prussia, and Austria captured many French possessions and some of France herself. Napoléon was forced into exile on the island of Elba and Louis XVIII was restored to power.
Napoléon returned the following year to a beach near Marseilles. From this small area he advanced towards Paris, throngs of his soldiers following behind. King Louis XVIII fled France and Napoleon resumed his post as Emperor. Over the next one hundred-thirty-six days Napoléon advanced into Belgium with more than one hundred thousand troops. There the combined armies of Prussia, Britain, and Belgium won a narrow victory at Waterloo, Wavre, Ligny, and Quatre Bras. These battles caused the demise of Napoléon’s military and political careers, as well as his second exile to St. Helena.
Napoleon lived in confinement at Longwood on the island of St. Helena surrounded by British guards. He lived with two trusted generals, far from his wife Marie Louise. He died on May 5, 1821 thinking of his former wife Josephine de Beauharnais.
Napoléone di Buonaparte was born to Carlo Maria and Letizia Maria Ramolino di Buonaparte on August 15, 1769. The Buonapartes were prominent noblemen in Corsican society. They lived in Corsica for about two hundred years and had born a line of successful lawyers. The family originated in Florence, Italy in 1122. Ugo Buonaparte was one of the Duke of Swabia’s most fearless knights, and consequently, became a noble. The family was forced to move to Tuscany several centuries later. During the sixteenth century Franceso Buonaparte sailed to Corsica, establishing the family on the island.
The Ramolinos, on the other hand, were a line of noble soldiers. Letizia’s father had commanded the garrison of Ajaccio, Corsica. Later he became the Inspector General of Roads and Bridges in Corsica. The family had two hundred fifty year old roots in Corsica and were widely respected.
An Interesting Youth
Napoléone had a very exciting life from the day he was conceived. His father, Carlo, was active in the Corsican independence movement against the Genoese, and consequently, was often riding through the hills with Genoese firing at him. Letizia carried Giuseppe, Napoléone’s older brother (his French name was Joseph), and Napoléone in her womb throughout these adventures with Pasquale Paoli’s forces. Paoli had made Carlo a lieutenant, and was greatly involved in the movement.
Napoléone was born during the Feast of the Assumption on a couch in the living room of his parent’s lavish house (by Corsican standards). He was the second of eight living children. Letizia was able to attend Mass very often and named Napoléone after an Egyptian religious figure.
Napoléone’s parents were very considerate towards their children. As a young child Napoléone and Giuseppe were given an undecorated room in their house in which they could play. They could wrestle, draw on the walls, and play games to their hearts’ desire. Napoléone also received a nickname as a child, Rabulione, which means “he who meddles in everything.”
Napoléone was a very small, fiery, hot tempered youth. Though small, he often beat his brother when fighting, even though Giuseppe was more than a year older than he. He retained this fiery temper throughout his life. He also retained his small size, both weight and height, until marrying Marie-Louise of Austria in 1810. Before marrying her he had eaten very simple foods, although he controlled much of Europe. After marrying her he began to eat much more elegant and rich foods causing an increase in weight. He also may have had hypogonadism, causing bloating.
Napoléone’s mother, Letizia, was an extremely religious woman. An impeccably pious Catholic, she attended mass every day she was in a town. She enforced her religious beliefs on Napoléone throughout his childhood. She made him attend High Mass every Sunday by slapping his face should he not attend. Throughout the rest of his life Napoléone gradually became less and less pious. One of the causes for this change may have been the compulsory religious education (which caused him to think often about religion) in school at Brienne, France.
Napoléone was had a very large superego and was very conscientious. As a child his mother often had him follow his father when he went to the local tavern. He did this because his father had a great love of gambling and unfortunately was not especially lucky. He would then report to his mother the happenings of the evening. Napoléone hated this job because of its dishonesty. He also would tell his mother any bad things he ever did.
Napoléone formed many habits and routines as a child that he continued throughout his life. Firstly, he bathed daily. As Emperor he bathed for an hour each morning before dressing. Secondly, he was very generous. As a child he shared his toys with other playmates and continued to exhibit this characteristic by bestowing awards and honors (titles and ranks) to many as Emperor and First Consul of France.
Training and Schooling
Napoléone started school at the age of five. He was enrolled in a school run by nuns in 1774. He had a very relaxed routine in this school and often took leisurely strolls in the afternoons. During these strolls Napoléone would sometimes hold a girl named Giacominetta’s hand while they walked. Napoléone’s schoolmates noticed this loving behavior and created a rhyme about them. They said, “Napoléone di mezza calzetta, fa l’amore a Giacominetta.” This little rhyme means, “Napoléone with his socks half down, makes love to Giacominetta.” Whenever this rhyme was said, Napoléone would chase the hooligan and fight him.
Napoléone was nevertheless serious about school. He loved arithmetic and kept this love throughout his life. In 1777, three years after starting school, Napoléone went to a farmer’s mill and calculated the production of the mill. His love of mathematics caused him to become an artillery officer in the French army for the angles of trajectory, weight of shot, and amount of powder used when firing at various distances require a complete understanding of mathematics.
In this environment Napoléone enjoyed a happy childhood. His parents were supportive and very proud, producing a good impression on Napoléone. He also developed his fiery nature as a child which ultimately caused him to become a soldier. With that, the seeds of a hero were sown.
In 1778 Napoléone family was blossoming and resources were becoming somewhat scarce. His father decided his oldest boys were ready for more comprehensive schooling and decided to enroll them in one of the two schools for French nobility. Napoléone, it was decided, should become a soldier for he was very rambunctious and loved history and mathematics. Giuseppe was the reverse of Napoléone and was enrolled to become a priest.
At the age of nine Napoléone, Giuseppe, and a cousin were taken from Ajaccio to Calvi to embark on a ship that would take them to France. Letizia said goodbye to the entourage and murmured “courage” in Napoléone’s ear before he left. Napoléone was to return to Corsica several more times.
The three arrived on the southern coast of France where Carlo Buonaparte met them and escorted them to the school at Aix. Afterwards he left his boys and journeyed to Paris to have his nobility verified by the government.
Meanwhile, Napoléone was left in a foreign land without knowing the language. For four months he spent much of his time trying to master French and understand what he was being taught. He became proficient enough in French to speak and understand the basics of the language, but was unable to completely master the language even by the time of his death.
After attending the Autun Academy, Napoléone left for the military school at Brienne. Here he spent nearly six years. Giuseppe (he was called Joseph after arriving in France) stayed at Autun and was taught religious basics until he was sixteen, when he could leave for Aix where he would train as a priest.
Napoléone now found himself among many of Europe’s richest children. They were like kings compared to him, although he too was a noble. However, Napoléone was a subsidized student, while most of the others were paying students. Napoléone certainly must have felt odd for he was in an environment very different from that of Corsica. His troubles with the French language cannot have helped either. He was not the only foreigner, however. Several Englishmen attended Brienne, although Napoléone was the only Corsican.
The Ecole Militaire was a continuation of Napoléone’s previous education. In this school he was able to narrow his studies to a specific arm of the military. During his year at the school he was treated much more like a soldier and began to learn more about tactics. For instance, while there Napoléone helped to organize the defense of a town during a mock battle. He continued to read and may have begun to form his own ideas about warfare. Books on famous military figures such as Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, and Frederick the Great held Napoléone’s interest. This reading would prove immensely helpful later in life.
Napoléone completed the artillery course at the École Militaire in only one year. Ironically, this was the hardest of the courses at the school. However, he finished only forty-second out of fifty-eight in his graduating class. Three students were younger than he which is quite amazing for most students took several years to finish the course. With this training Napoléone was prepared to become a French artillery lieutenant and later to become one of the greatest military heroes ever.
At the age of sixteen Napoléone was commissioned a second lieutenant in the French army. While still a lieutenant Napoléone served in Valence, Douai, and Auxonne where he spent much of his time reading about the tactics of history’s most famous generals. In Auxonne he was a member of an experimental artillery battery where he experimented with tactical theories developed in France. The man commanding this operation was the Baron du Teil, one of the leading gunners of the eighteenth century. During this period with du Teil, Buonaparte continued to form many of his maxims for war.
While a lieutenant and captain Napoléone began to became involved with the Corsican independence movement. He took many sick leaves to stay in Corsica to help his hero Paoli and to continue his involvement as a lieutenant-colonel in the Corsican Volunteers. However, his overexuberance caused him to fall out of favor with Paoli and he and his family were forced to leave Corsica for France. Napoléone experienced his first military action with the Corsican Volunteers. Unfortunately, this engagement with a neighboring island was unsuccessful.
After returning to France Napoléone took part in the siege of Toulon and was one of the main contributors to the French strategy. Napoléone compared the harbor of Ajaccio to the harbor of Toulon and realized that there were elevated points guarding the harbor. Buonaparte then suggested they capture the point in the harbor. This eventually lead to the success of the siege.
During the siege and his later campaigning in southern France and north-western Italy, Napoléone met several important political figures including Paul Barras and a Corsican named Saliceti. These men were representatives of the government and helped to get Napoléone promoted to major. After the siege Napoléone was promoted to brigadier-general. He soon was promoted again and found himself in command of the Army of Italy at the age of twenty-six.
The Army of Italy was comprised of a malnourished, equipment-lacking group of bedraggled men. This army subsisted on anything they could forage and loot from the countryside, which in their present position near Piedmont, was very little. These men therefore would march very quickly when the prospect of food and looting was imminent. Buonaparte then decided upon his attack against the Piedmontese and their allies the Austrians and began his first independent campaign.
Between 1794 and 1797 Napoléone fought a series of campaigns in Italy. He suffered several defeats and narrowly won many battles. He was able to penetrate into Tyrolia and into an area less than one hundred miles from Vienna, but was forced to sign a peace treaty due to a lack of troops. Several important battles occurred during the campaign including the three-day battle of Arcola, the battle for the bridge of Lodi, and the siege of Mantua.
The siege of Mantua was one of the most interesting affairs of the campaign. Buonaparte lifted the siege twice for fear of suffering a defeat in an open battlefield. This city was the last bastion of Austrian influence in northern Italy and was one of the final areas to surrender to the French. Because of this the Austrians expended many troops to help reinforce the city’s garrison. However, when reinforcements did arrive the help was short-lived for the increased number of troops depleted the city’s food supplies. In the end, the French captured the city after a siege of eight months.
The Italian Campaign of 1796-1797 culminated in the French army’s advance into Austria. They then asked for a peace treaty with Austria for their forces were spread throughout all of northern Italy and some of southern Austria. Because Buonaparte couldn’t concentrate enough troops on Vienna he was forced to halt. The treaty divided northern Italy between the French, the native Italians, and the Austrians. Several years later as First Consul, Napoléon (he changed his name to Napoléon Bonaparte in either 1796 or when he came to France) waged another war in Italy.
After the Italian Campaign Napoléon helped to defend the Directory (the highest authority of the French government) from mobs. He later used his political friends to become First Consul. He later added the title First Consul For Life. He and two others functioned as our president does, with the Directory functioning as the Congress. Napoléon was very active in politics and simultaneously managed military affairs admirably.
After nearly four years as Consul Napoléon became Emperor. He was crowned in the Notre Dame de Paris on December second, 1804. He crowned Josephine de Beauharnais, his wife, empress. He also granted titles to his family and other important figures such as Joachim Murat, a dashing cavalry officer who served in the Italian Campaign.
Napoléon instituted many changes in France. He developed the Code Napoléon, a series of laws which are to some extent still used today. He reformed schools and built many more of them to educate the peasants of France. He reopened the churches which had been stifled during the Revolution. He also implemented many of his laws in the rest of Europe.
Napoléon was overzealous and mismanaged his troops, which resulted in the Battle of France, a series of small battles and skirmishes in France that caused Napoléon’s abdication from the throne and his exile to Elba in 1814.
In 1815, Napoléon returned to France and marched upon Belgium. However, the British and Prussians narrowly beat him at Waterloo on June 18, 1815 causing his second exile to St. Helena. On the island he was guarded night and day until his death on May 5, 1821.
Napoléone di Buonaparte was one of the most influential figures in history. Because of his structured, intellectually stimulating youth Napoléon grew up to become one of the world’s greatest heroes. However, he was overambitious which eventually caused the demise of his great empire. Though he died very shortly after being exiled, Napoléon’s ideas, legal code, and maxims on warfare keep his spirit alive throughout the world.