On This Day in Napoleonic History – 7 December 1815

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marechal_neyExecution of Michel Ney

One of Napoleon’s most talented marshals was executed by the royalists for his loyalty to the Emperor after Napoleon’s return from Elba. The crime with which Ney was charged was high treason. From his trial it became apparent that Ney was ignorant of Napoleon’s escape from Elba until 7 March 1815. When he found out about it, he told the king that ‘should Buonaparte be taken, he would deserve to be conducted to Pairs in an iron cage.’ He remained loyal to the royal cause for some days until he realised how Bonapartist the general feeling in the army was. He then issued a proclamation stating that ‘the cause of the Bourbons is forever lost’ and soon joined Napoleon’s army.

The unanimous verdict of the trial was guilty. Out of 160 peers who voted, 139 demanded a death sentence, 17 voted for banishment and 4 refused to give their opinion. The Bravest of the Brave remained composed until the end of the proceedings and was executed by the firing squad soon after. There is a minority of historians who believe Marshal Ney had escaped his execution and settled in America, becoming a school teacher. It is not a popular view, however.

Although Napoleon loved Ney, he would say on Saint Helena that the marshal was good for the command of ten thousand men but beyond that he was out of his depth.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 4 December 1805

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hgm_kupelwieser_portrat_kaiser_franz_iNapoleon meets with Emperor Francis of Austria

After the decisive French victory at Austerlitz, Napoleon and Francis had a 90-minute interview by the fire on the road to Hungary. ‘He wanted to conclude peace immediately,’ Napoleon told Talleyrand. ‘He appealed to my finer feelings.’

Mounting his horse, Napoleon told his staff: ‘Gentlemen, we return to Paris. Peace is made.’ He then rode to Austerlitz, where he visited the wounded. Curious onlookers found it a peculiar sight – an Emperor of Austria humbling himself before the son of a small Corsican family, not so long ago a sub-lieutenant of artillery, who rose to ultimate power through his sheer talent and ability, and who now held the destinies of Europe in his hands.

In the letter to Josephine, Napoleon said about Francis: ‘He showed neither talent, nor bravery.’

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 3 December 1812

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2Napoleon issues the most famous of all his bulletins

In his 29th bulletin of 1812 campaign, dictated shortly before he left his army in Russia to return to Paris, Napoleon blamed the Russian winter for the catastrophe that had befallen his troops: ‘With temperatures unexpectedly down to -27 degrees Centigrade, the cavalry, artillery and baggage horses perished every night, not only by hundreds but by thousands. The army so fine on the 6th was very different on the 14th.’

By holding the weather responsible for his defeat, Napoleon gave no credit to the Russian army, calling the Cossacks ‘this contemptible cavalry, which only makes noise.’

When this bulletin was published in Paris on December 16, it caused a shock among the French society unaccustomed to see bad news so clearly spelled out for them. They were outraged by the final sentence of the bulletin that was seen as insensitive and self-centered: ‘The health of His Majesty has never been better.’ In reality, this phrase was nothing but habit, since Napoleon had used it 30 times in his letters to Marie Louise before he reached Moscow and 12 more during his stay there and the retreat. Napoleon’s 29th bulletin is significant because it was the first time Napoleon would officially admit that he had suffered a catastrophic defeat.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 2 December 1805

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12Napoleon is crowned Emperor of the French

The question of legitimising Napoleon’s rule and establishing a dynasty had come to the fore after a number of assassination attempts against the First Consul. It was also believed that, for Napoleon to be seen as an equal by the monarchs of Europe, he needed to become one of them. ‘A hereditary principle alone could prevent a counter-Revolution,’ Napoleon said. 27 out of 28 councillors approved Napoleon’s becoming an Emperor, and so did the majority of French citizen in a plebiscite.

Because Napoleon and Josephine only married in a civil ceremony, the church didn’t recognise their marriage. In order for Josephine to be crowned as Empress, the couple were married on 1 December in the Tuileries Palace by Cardinal Joseph Fesch, with Talleyrand, Berthier and Duroc as witnesses. The coronation led to many family squabbles. Joseph argued against Josephine being crowned. He was jealous of Louis and Hortense, whose children would be grandchildren of an Empress, while his own children only those of a bourgeois. All three of Napoleon’s sisters refused to carry Josephine’s train. Lucien didn’t attend the ceremony at all, and neither did Madame Mère, who stayed with Lucien in Rome, even though Napoleon bought a large house for her in Paris. She is present, however, in the famous painting of Napoleon’s coronation by Jacques-Louis David, who was told to paint her in. Later she would say about her family’s elevation, ‘Let’s hope that it lasts.’ Napoleon wasn’t impressed by his family’s attitude. He stood by Josephine: ‘My wife is a good woman who doesn’t harm them. I’ve never loved her blindly. If I make her Empress, it’s only an act of justice.’

The coronation was a magnificent affair. ‘If only our father could see us now,’ Napoleon whispered to Joseph as they stood in the majestic Notre Dame de Paris. ‘I swear to maintain the integrity of the territory of the Republic, to respect and to cause to be respected the laws of the Concordat and of freedom of worship, of political and civil liberty,’ promised Napoleon in his coronation oath. Napoleon’s coronation was the ultimate triumph of the self-made man who wasn’t born to power but attained it through merit and popularity. The title Napoleon was to assume – Emperor of the French rather than Emperor of France – illustrated that very well.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 30 November 1809

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9Napoleon tells Josephine he wants their marriage annulled

Although the Imperial couple had developed a close and comfortable relationship, staying married to Josephine had become a road block in Napoleon’s political and dynastic ambitions. It couldn’t have been an easy decision for Napoleon, after all, he loved his wife very much, despite her affair with Hippolyte Charles and his own subsequent infidelities. However, he convinced himself that divorcing Josephine was in the best interests of France.

Josephine must have known what was coming. Napoleon ordered the connecting door between their bedrooms to be walled up long before he mentioned the divorce. ‘All tenderness on the Emperor’s part, all consideration towards my mother has vanished,’ wrote Hortense. ‘He became unjust and vexatious in his attitude.’

For his young dynasty to survive, Napoleon needed an heir and 46-year old Josephine couldn’t give him one. ‘You have children. I have none. You must feel the necessity that lies upon me of strengthening my dynasty,’ he told her. It was a bitter blow to Josephine, who cried and begged him to change his mind, saying she couldn’t live without him.

To be able to remarry in church, Napoleon needed his marriage to Josephine annulled. Absurdly he argued it had been clandestine, there were insufficient witnesses and that he was forced into it by Josephine. The loyal Josephine went along with it, confirming everything he said. No one was duped by this comedy however, and 13 out of 27 of France’s cardinals refused to attend Napoleon’s next wedding.

Napoleon was very good to Josephine in the divorce settlement. He gave her Élysée Palace, Malmaison and another chateau in Normandy. She kept her rank of Empress, and when Napoleon married Marie Louise, there were two Empresses of France in Paris. Josephine’s debts of 2 million francs were paid off and she received 3 million francs per annum income for life. Their marriage was dissolved on 16 December.

Although Napoleon divorced his wife for an heir, ironically it would be Josephine’s grandson who would become the next Emperor of France. It is her direct descendants and not his who still rule Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Luxembourg.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 27 November 1812

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27Napoleon crosses the Berezina

The first units of what was left of the Grande Armée reached the 300-foot wide river a week earlier only to find the Russian army under Pavel Chichagov occupying the West bank. The only bridge across Berezina was destroyed. Napoleon’s aim was to cross the river and evade the Russians, who outnumbered him 3 to 1. The situation was so desperate that the army burnt its Eagles on November 24 to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.

‘The weather is very cold,’ Napoleon wrote to Marie Louise. ‘My health is very good. Kiss the little king for me and never doubt the sentiments of your faithful husband.’ The temperatures plunges to -33 C and the army struggled with cold and fatigue. When the first units crossed the pontoon bridges safely, Napoleon exclaimed, ‘My star returns,’ a bit of an exaggeration considering the high number of French casualties at the crossing of Berezina, possibly as many as  22,000.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 22 November 1809

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portraitannapavlovnaNapoleon asks for Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna’s hand in marriage

Even before telling Josephine he wanted a divorce, Napoleon asked his ambassador to Russia, Armand-Augustin-Louis de Caulaincourt, to mention to Tsar Alexander that he desired to marry his fifteen-year old sister, the Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna. ‘I do not make a formal request. I solicit the expression of your opinion,’ he said to Caulaincourt.

Although Anna was Russian Orthodox, Napoleon seemed to prefer her to any other candidate. When his divorce was granted, Napoleon ordered Caulaincourt to propose to Anna on his behalf. The Tsar’s family took thirty-eight days to respond, finally asking to postpone the marriage indefinitely on account of Anna’s young age. It was just an excuse – the last thing the Romanovs wanted was a misalliance with the Corsican upstart.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 21 November 1806

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gerhard_von_kugelgen_napoleon_i_fassung1_1806Napoleon signs the Berlin Decree

The Berlin Decree was aimed to force Great Britain to the negotiating table but would eventually lead to Napoleon’s own downfall, since the desire to enforce it led him to undertake his disastrous Russian and Peninsular campaigns. Berlin Decree created the Continental System, a retaliation on Britain, as Napoleon called it. It imposed a blockade, forbidding the import of British goods into European countries allied with or dependent upon France.

The articles of the decree were as follows:

1. The British isles are in the state of blockade.

2. All trade and all correspondence with the British Isles are forbidden.

3. Every British subject of whatsoever state or condition he may be will be made a prisoner of war.

4. All warehouses, all merchandise, all property of whatever nature it might be belonging to a subject of England will be ceased.

7. No ship coming directly from England or the English colonies or having been there since the publication of the present decree will be received in any port.

Since Britain depended commercially on exports to Continental Europe, Napoleon believed the decree would force the British government to restart the peace negotiations broken off in August. Writing to his brother Louis in December, he explained: ‘I will conquer the sea through the power of the land.’ Later he stated: ‘It’s the only way of striking a blow to England and obliging her to make peace.’ Since French fleet had been destroyed at Trafalgar, there was no direct way to damage Britain other than commercially. However, the decree had an even greater effect on France, hurting its trade badly. Nor could the Continental System be universally imposed. Even Louis and Murat turned a blind eye to smuggling in Holland and Naples. Josephine herself bought smuggled goods on the black market. If Napoleon couldn’t force his own entourage to follow the Continental System, what could be expected from the rest of his territories?

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 20 November 1801

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211.5_Les_Tuileries_vues_du_LouvreNapoleon appoints the first functionaries for the Tuileries Palace

When Napoleon moved to the Tuileries, he had become the first ruler to live there after the unfortunate Louis XVI. He created a large entourage of chamberlains, chancellors, almoners, equerries, footmen and even meat carvers. These courtiers received instruction in etiquette from Marie-Antoinette’s former first lady of the bedchamber.

Within six months the Prussian ambassador to Paris noted that ‘everything around First Consul and his wife is resuming the general character and etiquette of Versailles.’ It got to a point when some people were wondering why France had bothered to decapitate Louis XVI only to get another monarch.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 15 November 1796

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15Battle of Arcole

The battle was fought between the French under General Bonaparte and the Austrians under József Alvinczi, 25 kilometres southeast of Verona during the War of the First Coalition. The first two attacks on strongly held and barricaded Arcole by Pierre Augereau were repulsed. When Napoleon ordered another attack, Augereau seized the flag and, advancing in front of his soldiers, cried, ‘Grenadiers, come and seek your colour.’

Napoleon followed his example with another flag, determined to lead the charge himself and inspire his men by his bravery. His plan didn’t work. According to Napoleon’s aide-de-camp Joseph Sulkowski, the men displayed extraordinary cowardice. A number of officers were killed by Napoleon’s side. The general himself had to be pulled into the marshy ground behind the bridge, which in all probability saved his life.

The bridge at Arcole was captured two days later by Augereau and Massena. Although Napoleon wasn’t there when Arcole fell, the image of the brave Republican general storming the bridge under the enemy bombardment was used widely as propaganda by the Directory, the Consulate and the Empire. ‘It took good luck to defeat Alvinczi,’ Napoleon later admitted.

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