On This Day in Napoleonic History – 17 October 1815

17Napoleon disembarks on Saint Helena

It is with good reason that Saint Helena has been described as further away from anywhere than anywhere else in the world. It is nothing but a spec in the South Atlantic Ocean, 4,000 kilometres east of Rio de Janeiro and 1,950 west of the southern coast of Africa. ‘It is not an attractive place. I should have done better should I have stayed in Egypt,’ remarked Napoleon sadly, possibly foreseeing that he was going to die on the island.

For the first seven weeks of his stay on Saint Helena Napoleon resided at the Briars, with the family of East India company superintendent William Balcombe. This was the happiest period of his exile. He stroke up an unlikely and innocent friendship with 14-year old Besty Balcombe that lasted until she left the island with her family. Although she was brought up to believe that Napoleon was a two-headed monster who breathed fire and ate little children, the deposed Emperor soon won her over with his charm, as he often did with most people he met. ‘I never met anyone who bore childish liberties so well as Napoleon. And even though I often tried his patience severely, I never knew him to lose his temper,’ she later wrote. Napoleon and Besty were both heartbroken when the Balcombes were banished from the island for having become too close to Napoleon.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 16 October 1796

16Napoleon creates Cispadane Republic

With minimum input from the Directory, Napoleon proclaimed the establishment of Cispadane Republic, formed from the provinces south of the Po, including Modena, Bologna, Ferrara and Reggio Emilia. In Cispadane Republic, whose name translated as ‘By the banks of the Po’, Napoleon implemented all the usual reforms he would carry out in all the territories he was to conquer later. Feudalism was abolished, civil equality was decreed and a popularly elected assembly was instituted.

Napoleon, who was actively involved in the writing of the Constitution, was bringing political unity to the region that hadn’t known it for centuries. This was the first step towards Resurgimiento, which would eventually create a unified Italy three quarters of a century later. Cispadane Republic was short-lived, however. The following year it would be merged with the Transpadane Republic (until recently the Duchy of Milan) to form the Cisalpine Republic.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 15 October 1785

17Napoleon meets Joséphine de Beauharnais

Some historians believe the future Emperor met his wife-to-be at the house of Paul François Barras, the member of the Directory and Josephine’s former lover. Napoleon’s secretary Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, however, tells a completely different story in his memoirs. According to Bourrienne, Josephine’s son Eugene presented himself to General Bonaparte in order to solicit his father’s sword. Napoleon liked the boy and granted his wish. When Josephine learnt of the kindness the young general showed to her son, she called on him to thank him in person.

Napoleon fell in love with Josephine during this first meeting and the couple soon married. Meneval, who became Napoleon’s secretary after Bourrienne, recalled that ‘Josephine was irresistibly attractive. Her beauty was not regular but she had la grace.’ Although it was true love for Napoleon, it wasn’t quite the case with Josephine, who married for security and would very soon embark on a passionate affair. Despite her initial lack of emotion towards her husband, the couple would later settle into a comfortable marriage and everyone, especially his army, would see Josephine as Napoleon’s good luck charm.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 14 October 1809

events-war-of-the-fifth-coalition-1809-treaty-of-schnbrunn-14101809-ag2ax6Treaty of Schönbrunn is signed between Austria and France

The Treaty of Schönbrunn ended the War of the Fifth Coalition, imposing harsh penalties on Austria. Defeated Emperor Francis was forced to cede Salzburg to Bavaria, West Galicia to the Duchy of Warsaw, Tarnopol district to the Russian Empire and Trieste and Croatia south of the Sava River to France. Austria recognised Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte as King of Spain, promising to pay a large indemnity to France and reduce its army to 150,000 men. The last promise would remain unfulfilled.

The Treaty of Schönbrunn was something of a Carthaginian peace. Its harsh terms would ultimately force the Austrians to declare war on Napoleon once again following his catastrophic defeat in 1812. In 1809, however, the peace was welcomed in Austria despite its conditions. Metternich, who became Austrian foreign minister on October 8, stated that the only way for their nation to survive was to adapt to the triumphant France and become its junior partner.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 13 October 1815

13Marshal Joachim Murat is executed

Murat landed at the Calabrian port of Pizzo five days earlier, attempting to rally support in the hope of regaining his kingdom. Instead, he was arrested and condemned to death by Procurator General. When his sentence was read out to him, Murat exclaimed, ‘How does Ferdinand IV wish my death? What have I done? It displeases me much to find the violence with which the Court of Naples has treated this affair.’

Murat told the confessor who came to take his confession, ‘My sins are so heavy that none but God himself can pardon them.’ When the confessor insisted upon confession, Murat took a pen and wrote, ‘I have lived a Christian and die a true Christian.’ When the time for his execution arrived, he refused to be blindfolded and gave the command to fire himself.

‘Murat has only had what he deserved,’ said Napoleon when the news of execution reached Saint Helena. ‘It was all my own fault. I ought to have let him stay a marshal and not have made him a Duke of Berg, still less King of Naples.’

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 12 October 1809

220px-interrogatoire_de_staps_4Friedrich Staps attempts to assassinate Napoleon

Napoleon was in Vienna not far from the horse-shoe shaped double staircase of Schönbrunn Palace when Friedrich Staps, the 18 year old son of a Lutheran pastor from Erfurt, tried to stab him while pretending to hand him a petition. Fortunately, Jean Rapp seized the would-be assasin before he had a chance to kill the Emperor. ‘I was struck by the expression of his eyes when he looked at me,’ Rapp recalled. ‘His decided manner roused my suspicions.’ A large carving knife was found on Staps and he was promptly arrested.

Napoleon hoped that the young student was insane and thus could be pardoned, but Staps was pronounced healthy. When asked by Napoleon what he would do if he was released, Staps replied: ‘I would try to kill you again.’ He was executed by firing squad on the 17th, crying ‘Long live Germany’ and ‘Death to the tyrant.’

This incident made Napoleon realise that a strong spirit of nationalism was arising in Germany. ‘I’ve always had a dread of madmen,’ Napoleon told his secretary. The fear of another assassination attempt and desire to produce an heir would soon push him to divorce Josephine and marry the Austrian princess Marie Louise.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 5 October 1795

bonaparte_vendemiaire_pt13 Vendémiaire

Napoleon played a major role in suppressing the Royalist insurrection against the Convention. As the second in command of the Army of the Interior, he was told by Paul François Barras to use all means necessary to disperse the insurgents. Napoleon sent Captain Joachim Murat of the 12 regiment of Chasseurs à Cheval with 100 cavalry men to the plain of Sablons with orders to secure the cannon before the mob got to them. Sending the reserves to defend the Tuileries Palace where the convention sat, he positioned his cavalry on the Place de la Révolution, today Place de la Concorde. Napoleon, who never liked the mob, said, ‘Good and upstanding people must be persuaded by gentle means. The rabble must be moved by terror.’ He was more than ready to resort to terror if the insurrectionists didn’t comply.

Napoleon had 5,5000 men against 30,000 people from the sections. He didn’t want to be the first to open fire, but as soon as the first musket shots were sounded by the rebels, he unleashed a devastating response. The bullet holes from that terrible day can still be seen on the walls of the Church of St Roch in the Rue Saint-Honoré. Napoleon’s ‘whiff of grapeshot’ dispersed the rabble, saving the Republic and preventing the civil war. The Paris mob played no further role in French politics for the next three decades.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 30 September 1799

elternhausajaccioNapoleon arrives in Ajaccio, Corsica, on his way from Egypt

Napoleon’s sudden appearance created a sensation on the island. Batteries saluted and, the populace rushed to welcome him. The room he occupied in the Casa Buonaparte on his return can still be viewed today.

It was the last time Napoleon would see his birth place. On October 6 he left Ajaccio. Only thirty years of age, he was on his way to become the ruler of France and, eventually, most of continental Europe.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 27 September 1793

27Dominique René Vandamme is promoted to Brigadier-General at the age of 22

Vandamme was even younger than Napoleon when he became general. He was a dashing swashbuckler of whom Napoleon had said: ‘Every army needs one but if there were two, I would have to shoot one of them.’

Outspoken and confrontational, Vandamme was an excellent career soldier and division commander. He was rough, proud and ambitious. He had a high opinion of himself and low opinion of others. As a result, he was often at odds with those around him. He quarreled and refused to obey marshals and kings who were placed above him. Napoleon recognised his military ability, as well as the imperfections of his character. Vandamme was never promoted to marshal, an honour he strongly believed he deserved, and it became the greatest disappointment of his career.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 18 September 1812

fireofmoscowNapoleon returns to the Kremlin

After the fire had abated in Moscow, Napoleon had installed himself at the Kremlin once again to wait and see whether Alexander would treat for peace. As soon as he returned, Napoleon distributed plundered roubles to the Muscovites who had lost their homes in the fire. He also visited an orphanage to the greatest surprise of the Muscovites, who were convinced he was going to eat its inhabitants.

Napoleon seemed to regret the destruction of the city greatly and couldn’t understand the Russians’ motivation in burning it. ‘Moscow was a very beautiful city,’ he wrote. ‘It will take Russia two hundred years to recover from the loss she had sustained.’

‘I ought not to have stayed in Moscow more than two weeks at the utmost,’ Napoleon would say years later, ‘but I was deceived from day to day.’ This wasn’t true. Alexander never pretended he wanted peace with the French. By this point Napoleon was so deep into Russia with his lines of communication stretched so thinly, he would probably had accepted as little as Russia’s return to the Continental System as the price of the peace.