On This Day in Napoleonic History – 20 March 1811

The birth of Napoleon’s son

20Napoléon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte was born at 9.20 in the morning in the Tuileries. There was a great commotion in the palace as the court and functionaries of state waited with impatience, none more so than Napoleon himself. The Emperor was in a state of great agitation. He was overheard saying to Marie Louise’s obstetrician, ‘Pretend that you are not delivering the Empress but the bourgeois from the Rue de St Denis.’ It wasn’t an easy delivery and when asked who he would want to save in the event of an emergency, the mother or the child, Napoleon replied, ‘Save the mother,’ despite everything he had to go through for an heir.

It had been announced that the birth of a daughter would be saluted with 21 guns and that of a son by 101. When the people heard the 22nd boom of the cannon, there were great celebrations in Paris. The infant was proclaimed the King of Rome, a title of the Holy Roman Empire, and was nicknamed the Eaglet by the Bonapartist propagandists. ‘My son is big and healthy,’ Napoleon wrote to Josephine. ‘I hope he will grow up well. I trust that he will fulfill his destiny.’

Napoleon was a very loving father, who was inordinately proud of the boy’s bloodline, pointing out that the boy was related to the Romanovs through his mother’s brother-in-law, to the Habsburgs through his mother, to the Hanoverians through his uncle’s wife and to the Bourbons through his mother’s great-aunt. The fact that all four families currently longed for Napoleon’s overthrow didn’t seem to lessen his joy.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 19 March 1798

Siege of Acre

19Napoleon begins his assault on Acre, surrounding the town with fortifications and trenches. Defending the port were 4000 Afghans, Albanians and Moors, as well as Commodore Sir Sidney Smith with 200 marines. Napoleon launched no fewer than nine major and three minor attacks on Acre over the next nine weeks.

Sir Sidney Smith suggested to Napoleon to decide the fate of the city between the two of them, challenging Napoleon to a duel by the city walls. Thinking he was dealing with a lunatic, Napoleon refused with contempt, saying that he didn’t see Smith as his equal. The French were never successful in taking Acre. Soon Napoleon was describing Acre to his chief-of-staff, Louis-Alexandre Berthier, as a mere grain of sand, an indication that he was considering abandoning the siege.

On May 11 the siege was lifted by Napoleon as he decided to return to Egypt. In a deceptive letter to the Directory Napoleon wrote, ‘The season is too far advanced. The end I had in view had been accomplished. My presence is required in Egypt. I have reduced Acre to a heap of stones. I shall recross the desert.’ All the way in France, the Directory had no way of knowing the true state of events.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 18 of March 1815

Marshal Ney joins Napoleon’s side during Hundred Days

18Although only a short while previously Michel Ney had told Louis XVIII, ‘I will bring you Bonaparte in an iron cage,’ he deflected to Napoleon’s side with almost all his troops except for a few royalist officers. Ney’s loyalties were torn and it was by no means an easy decision. When Napoleon sent a message to Ney that read, ‘Should you decide to change sides, I will receive you like I did at the morrow of the Battle of the Moskova,’ the marshal couldn’t resist following his heart instead of his head.

Although he fully intended to fight Napoleon when he left Paris, he had no wish to start a civil war and the Bonapartist sentiment among his men was too strong. He later said that he couldn’t hold off the sea with his hands. Similarly, Marshal Soult stated that only a traitor would join Napoleon. And yet, the only two marshals to fight on Napoleon’s side at the Battle of Waterloo were Ney and Soult. ‘Only the Emperor Napoleon is entitled to rule over our beautiful country,’ Ney told his men. For his loyalty to his former commander Ney would face a firing squad when the royalists returned after the fiasco of Waterloo.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 17 March 1798

Josephine is accused of war profiteering

17Napoleon and his brother Joseph subjected Josephine to a tough interrogation that left her tearful, distressed and resentful but as deceitful as ever. Alongside her current lover Hippolyte Charles and her former lover Barras, Josephine was an investor in a firm that had long been accused of invoice manipulation, providing substandard equipment, rotting provisions and even direct horse thieving from peasants. The involvement of his wife in such shady dealings affected Napoleon’s strongest appeal to the populace – his integrity.

In her panicked letter to Charles, Josephine wrote, ‘I replied that I knew nothing about what he was saying to me. If he wished to divorce, he had only to say. He had no need to use such means and I was the most unfortunate of women and the most unhappy. Yes, my Hippolyte, they have my complete hatred. You alone have my tenderness and my love.’

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 13 March 1815

The War of the Seventh Coalition begins

13At the Congress of Vienna, following Napoleon’s return from Elba, the Great Powers of Europe (Austria, Great Britain, Prussia and Russia) and their various smaller allies declared Napoleon an outlaw. It was the first time in history that war was declared against a particular person rather than a nation.

Over the next few weeks Napoleon would write many letters to various monarchs of Europe, asking for peace and assuring them that he had no other intention than to concentrate on his internal reforms: ‘After presenting the spectacle of great campaigns to the world, from now on it would be pleasant to know of no rivalry but that of the benefits of peace, of no other struggle but the holy conflict of the happiness of peoples.’

These letters went unanswered and often unopened. European monarchs were not interested in Napoleon’s promises but he did mean every word. After all, the people of France were exhausted after decades of constant conflict and Napoleon knew that, to stay in power, he would need to pursue a more pacific form of government.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 12 March 1814

Napoleon is jealous of his brother Joseph

12Napoleon was told that his older brother Joseph, who was entrusted by Napoleon with the defense of Paris, was trying to seduce Napoleon’s wife Marie Louise, who acted as a regent in his absence. ‘King Joseph told some wearisome things to me,’ Marie Louise wrote to her husband. To which Napoleon replied, ‘Do not be too familiar with the King. Keep him at a distance. Do not allow him to enter your private apartments. Mistrust the King. All this depresses me rather. I need to be comforted by the members of my family but as a rule I get nothing but vexation from that quarter. On your part, however, it would be unexpected and unbearable.’ To Joseph he wrote: ‘If you want to have my throne, you can have it. But I ask you one favour: to leave me the heart and the love of the Empress.’

Was Napoleon being paranoid in his foreboding of not only a political but also personal catastrophe? He probably didn’t have reasons to worry on that particular occasion, even though Joseph stopped visiting his mistresses at the time and Marie Louise would betray him within a year with the dashing Count Adam Albert von Neipperg, whom Francis I would send to accompany her and prevent her from joining Napoleon on Elba.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 11 March 1798

Napoleon visits the sick in Jaffa

11After the French army took Jaffa during the Egyptian campaign, many soldiers became infected with the plague. Napoleon visited the hospital and, according to one of the officers, picked up and carried a plague victim who was lying across the doorway. ‘This action scared us a lot because the sick man’s clothes were covered in foam,’ wrote the officer.

Napoleon spoke to the sick, trying to comfort and raise their morale. The incident was immortalised in 1804 in Antoine-Jean Gros’ painting ‘Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims in Jaffa’. Napoleon later said that, as general-in-chief, he believed it was part of his duty to give the sick soldiers confidence and reanimate them by visiting frequently. He claimed he had caught the disorder himself, recovering quickly, but there was no evidence to support this.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 9 March 1796

9Marriage of Napoleon and Josephine

The future Imperial couple married in a civil ceremony with Barras, Eugene and Hortense as witnesses. Having just been appointed commander of the Army of Italy (the best wedding present he could ever wish for), Napoleon arrived to his wedding two hours late, having lost track of time studying the maps of Italy and planning his campaign.

They both lied about their age to minimise six year difference between them. Napoleon claimed in the marriage registry that he was born in 1768 and Josephine that she was four years younger, so that they could both be 28. Napoleon would always tease his wife about her insistence on hiding her true age. ‘According to her calculations, Eugene must have been born aged 12,’ he would say.

As a wedding gift, Napoleon gave her a gold medallion engraved ‘To destiny’. Their honeymoon, during which he was bitten by her dog Fortune, only lasted two days. Soon he left for his Italian campaign, where he would miss Josephine terribly. ‘I win nothing but battles but Josephine by her kindness wins all hearts,’ he said about his wife.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 7 March 1815

7Napoleon encounters soldiers of the 5th on his return from Elba

Napoleon met the battalion of the 5th Line a few hundred yards south of the town of Laffrey, on what today is known as La Prairie de la Rencontre. For Napoleon, it was the moment of truth. It was his first encounter with the French army since he left Elba. Were they still loyal to him? He was about to find out.

The commander ordered the troops to fire on Napoleon but no one obeyed. Standing within musket shot, Napoleon opened his iconic overcoat and addressed the troops: ‘Soldiers of the 5th! I’ve come back to see you. Do some of you want to kill me?’ The troops threw down their muskets and embraced their Emperor. This incident demonstrated Napoleon’s incredible bravery, since a single shot from a royalist officer could have brought everything to an end. There is a monume

Napoleon reached Grenoble at 11 PM, after having travelled 119 miles in 6 days on foot and on horseback. When the town officials refused to open the city gates, the townspeople tore them down and presented them to Napoleon as a sign of their loyalty. Napoleon was deeply touched. ‘On my march from Cannes to Grenoble, I was an adventurer. In Grenoble, I once again became a sovereign,’ he said.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 5 March 1798

Napoleon prepares for the invasion of Egypt

5The Directory gave Napoleon cart-blanche to organise full scale invasion of Egypt with the strategic aim of destroying British influence in the Eastern Mediterranean and replacing it with the French. It was in the Directory’s best interests to send Napoleon as far away from Paris as possible. His popularity was growing, while theirs declined. Fearing a coup, the feeble Directory was anything but secure in its position. If Napoleon went to Egypt, he might conquer it for France, which would be good, and he might die in the process, which would be even better. And were he to be defeated, the public opinion might turn against him.

For Napoleon, the invasion of Egypt was an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of his heroes, Caesar and Alexander. He didn’t rule out using Egypt as a stepping stone for further contest of the East. He described Egypt as a geographical key to the world, saying, ‘Egypt is but a molehill. All the great reputations have come from Asia.’

Egypt was officially ruled by the Ottoman Turks, who conquered it in 1517. However, in reality the control was in the hands of the Mamluks, a military cast originally from Georgia in the Caucasus. Their rule was unpopular among the Egyptians, not only because the Mamluks were foreigners but also because of the high taxes they imposed. The idea of invading Egypt appealed to the revolutionary idealists who could think of nothing nobler than freeing the oppressed peoples. Napoleon, however, saw the main reason for the invasion in countering the British trade interests in the Mediterranean. ‘To destroy England thoroughly, the time is coming when we must seize Egypt,’ he said.