On This Day in Napoleonic History – 19 October 1799

9Napoleon confronts Josephine

Napoleon had a hero’s welcome on his return from Egypt and was celebrated as France’s saviour, with plays staged in his honour and cries of ‘Hurrah for Bonaparte, he will save the country’ resounding everywhere he went. But Napoleon was too unhappy about his wife’s very public affair with Hippolyte Charles, of which he became aware in Egypt. Josephine tried to end her affair in February, writing to her lover, ‘You can be assured after this interview, which will be the last, that you will no longer be tormented by my letters or my presence.’

Josephine didn’t want a divorce and nor did Napoleon, for all his promises to leave her as soon as he returned to Paris. Politically Josephine was very useful to him with her social skills and connections. When Napoleon arrived home, Josephine wasn’t there. Assuming she was with her lover, he was furious. Unbeknownst to him, she had set out to intercept him on the road but the couple missed each other. When she finally arrived, she found him locked in his bedroom and refusing to speak to her, no matter how much she cried. When nothing else seemed to work, Josephine, who knew Napoleon’s love for his step-children, recruited Hortense and Eugène to appeal to him. Her cunning plan worked and there was a dramatic reconciliation. ‘God did not give me a heart to see tears shed without feeling moved myself,’ said Napoleon. When Lucien arrived the next morning, he was shown into the bedroom where the couple were sitting up in bed together.  Afterwards, Josephine would remain faithful to Napoleon, despite his many affairs.

Although he was heartbroken over his wife’s infidelity, when Napoleon came to power, he made no attempt to punish Hippolyte Charles.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 18 October 1812

18The Grande Armée begins its withdrawal from Moscow

Napoleon stayed in Moscow for six weeks, waiting to hear from Alexander and hoping to make peace. But winter was fast approaching and there was no word from the Russian Emperor. On the 13th, Napoleon finally gave the order for evacuation. As the Grande Armée began withdrawing from Moscow on the 18th, they were taken by surprise by an attack from Kutuzov at Taroutino, also known as Winkowo, in which Murat lost 2000 killed and wounded. Napoleon himself left Moscow on the 19th, taking the Southern route towards Kaluga, which he nicknamed Caligula. His plan was to reach the fertile Ukraine, while receiving reinforcements from Smolensk

Thus, the retreat from Moscow would look like strategic withdrawal rather than a retreat. Unfortunately for Napoleon, it wasn’t to be. General Dmitry Dokhturov blocked the Grande Armée at Malo-Yaroslavetz, which became the third largest battle of the campaign. The French successfully captured and held the town while the Russians withdrew. When Napoleon described Malo-Yaroslavetz as a victory, one of the officers said, ‘Two such victories and Napoleon would have no army left.’ Indeed, the ultimate consequences of this battle were disastrous for Napoleon, who became convinced that the Russians would contest the Southern route bitterly and decided to withdraw northwards towards the supply depots of Moscow/Smolensk route along which they had come the previous month. ‘Things are getting serious,’ he told his master of the horse, Armand-Augustin-Louis de Caulaincourt. ‘I beat the Russians every time and yet never reach an end.’

Choosing this route was to be a fatal decision for the Grande Armée. The only explanation for one of the most fateful decisions of Napoleon’s reign is to be found in the letter he told Berthier to write to Junot: ‘We marched on the 26th to attack them but they were in retreat. Davout went in pursuit of them but the cold and the necessity of offloading the wounded made the Emperor decide to go to Mozhaysk and from there to Vyazma.’ This explanation makes little sense. Never before had the needs of the wounded determined the strategy of the campaign. And if the Russians were indeed retreating, then why not take the Southern route? Comte de Ségur would later say that Malo-Yaroslavetsk was the point at which the great Empire began to crumble to the ground.

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.