On This Day in Napoleonic History – 28 April 1814

Map_of_ElbaNapoleon leaves France for Elba

At Saint-Raphael, Napoleon embarked on the British frigate the Undaunted bound for Elba. Leaving from precisely the same jetty he had arrived at when returning from Egypt 15 years previously, Napoleon insisted upon and was given the sovereign’s twenty gun salute when he went on board, despite the Royal Navy’s convention not to fire salute after sunset.

Napoleon’s exile would be short-lived, however. He would be back 11 months later for a brief but triumphant return to power known as the Hundred Days.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 26 April 1976

26Napoleon curtails pillaging in Italy

The young General Bonaparte made a stirring proclamation to his army in Carasco: ‘Today you equal by your services the armies of Holland and the Rhine. Devoid of everything, you supplied everything. You won battles without guns, passed rivers without bridges, accomplished forced marches without shoes, bivouacked without brandy and often without bread. Today you are amply provided for. I promise you the conquest of Italy but on one condition. You must swear to respect the people you deliver and repress the horrible pillage in which scoundrels excited by the enemy have indulged.’

Pillaging was something a victorious but hungry army would invariably engage in but Napoleon was having none of it. He attempted to put a stop to any activity that brought dishonour to the army and tarnished the French reputation. Although he authorised generals to shoot the officers who allowed looting, there was no evidence of this actually happening. A few days later Napoleon wrote to the Directory: ‘I will restore order or will cease to command these brigands.’

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 25 April 1786

25Napoleon authors his first surviving essay

Napoleon’s essay on the right of the Corsicans to resist the French wasn’t written for publication and with good reason. It was a curiously treasonous document for a young French officer to write but one characteristic of Napoleon’s early years. The cause of Corsican independence was very dear to his heart and he had idolised Paoli since youth.

Napoleon was a prodigious writer, penning around 60 essays, novellas, philosophical pieces, pamphlets and open letters before the age of 26. These works demonstrate his intellectual and political development, painting a curious picture of his transformation from a committed Corsican nationalist in 1780s to an avowed anti-Paolist French officer who by 1793 wanted the Corsican revolt to be crushed by Jacobin France. In later years, Napoleon would call Paoli a great character who had neither betrayed England, nor France, while remaining a loyal Corsican and a great friend of the family. He also claimed that Paoli once said about him: ‘That young man will be one of Plutarch’s ancients.’ There is no evidence to support this.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 22 April 1794

17Josephine is imprisoned

Josephine was arrested as a suspected royalist and detained until July in the crypt of the church of St Joseph. She had lived those three months in daily fear of the guillotine, enduring truly inhumane conditions. The crypt was freezing cold and many prisoners were too ill to be executed, which might have been the case with Josephine. If it wasn’t for Robespierre’s death, Josephine would have probably followed her first husband to the guillotine.

It is ironic that the events which saw Napoleon imprisoned were the very same that liberated his future wife. This horrendous experience would leave a dark shadow over her for life. Some historians believe that Josephine suffered with what’s now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, which explains why she spent more money than Marie-Antoinette, engaged in military profiteering and married for stability rather than love.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 21 April 1795

21Napoleon gets engaged to Désirée Clary in Marseille

Napoleon was introduced to Désirée by his older brother Joseph, who was considering marrying her himself. Napoleon, however, who by then had been promoted to Brigadier-General, had other ideas: ‘You, Joseph, are of an undecided type, and it is the same for Désirée, whereas Julie and I know what we want. You would do better to marry Julie. As to Désirée, she shall be my wife.’

Joseph married Désirée’s sister Julie on 1 August 1794, and Désirée and Napoleon became engaged. He would soon break off the engagement, however. In 1795 he would meet Josephine and fall madly in love.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 20 of April 1814

20Napoleon leaves for Elba

At the bottom of the horse-shoe-shaped staircase of Château de Fontainebleau, after shaking hands with the soldiers, Napoleon addressed his Old Guard, his voice shaking with emotion: ‘Officers, non-commissioned officers and the soldiers of the Old Guard, I bid you farewell. For twenty years I have constantly led you along the road to honour and glory. In these later times, as in prosperity, you have been models of courage and fidelity. With men such as you our cause would not be lost, but the war would have been interminable. I have sacrificed all my interests to those of the country. Her happiness is my only thought. It will still be the object of my wishes. Do not regret my fate. If I have consented to survive, it is in order to serve your glory. Adieu, my friends! Would I could press you all to my heart!’

He then ordered the eagles to be brought to him, and, having kissed them, added, ‘I embrace you all in the person of your general. Adieu, soldiers!’ Even the most seasoned warriors had tears running down their faces. Cries of ‘Vive l’Empreur’ were heard.

Many of his marshals and generals remained faithful to Napoleon after his downfall and followed him into exile. Although loyalty is rare in political defeat, Napoleon was able to successfully inspire it.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 18 April 1802

18The Concordat is formally proclaimed

Anti-clericalism was a driving force during the French Revolution. Napoleon himself was skeptical about Christianity, even though he once told his doctor, ‘Wishing to be an atheist does not make you one.’ On Saint Helena he would ask Gaspard Gourgaud, ‘Did Jesus really exist?’ His pragmatic view on religion was common among the Enlightenment thinkers. ‘The idea of God is very useful, to maintain good order, to keep men in the path of virtue and to keep them from crime,’ Napoleon once said.

Yet, Napoleon knew that the majority of French citizens were still very Catholic at heart. His natural supporters – labourers, artisans and rural workers – were deeply religious and yearned for the return of the Catholic faith to France. As early as 1796 Napoleon had told the Directory that ‘it would be a big mistake to quarrel with that power’, referring to the Pope. Now he was in a position to force some sort of reconciliation that might just remove the main cause of the uprising in the Vendee and the discontent of the Catholics in Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and the Rhine.

The Concordat stated that the Catholic faith could be freely exercised in France, as long as it conforms to the regulations which the government would judge necessary for the public tranquility. There would be new dioceses and parishes, ten Arch-bishops and 50 bishops would be appointed by Napoleon and the Pope. All divine services would include the prayer for the Republic and the Consuls. The Concordat cemented the land transfers of the Revolution – all former church property would belong to those who had acquired it during the Revolution. Ten day week was suppressed and Sunday was restored as the day of rest. The government would pay the clergy’s salaries and the Church would be responsible for primary education. On April 8, without prior consultation with the Pope, restrictions and regulations were appended to the Concordat, protecting the rights of France’s 700,000 Protestants and 55,000 Jews. Although the Concordat was unpopular with the army, the former revolutionaries and the Jacobins, it was generally welcomed in France and won Napoleon the nickname Restorer of Religion. It had healed the deepest wound of the Revolution and remained the basis of the relationship between France and the Papacy for a century.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 15 April 1821

Napoleon_saintheleneNapoleon writes his will on St Helena

In his will, Napoleon stated that the duplicity of Marmont, Augereau, Talleyrand and Lafayette were to blame for the 1814 and 1815 invasions of France: ‘I forgive them. May the posterity of France forgive them as I have done.’

He also urged his son to adopt his motto: ‘Everything for the French people.’ His fortune and possessions were divided among his family, servants and former generals.

The will gave away a number of belongings that weren’t his, such as Fredreck II alarm clock that he removed from Potsdam. Not relinquishing his penchant for arranging marriages even on his death bed, he gave orders for Bessier’s son to marry Duroc’s daughter. Bracelets of his hair were to be sent to Marie Louise, Madame Mère, each of his siblings, nephews and nieces, and his son, the King of Rome.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 13 of April 1814

Map_of_ElbaSoldiers want Napoleon reinstated

Following Napoleon’s unconditional abdication, the troops revolted, demanding the Emperor’s return and wanting to march on Paris. White flag of the Bourbons was burnt, whole regiments were close to mutiny and officers who attempted to restore order were fired upon. In the words of Charles de Gaulle, ‘those he made suffer most, the soldiers, were the very ones who were most faithful to him.’

The Allies didn’t think it was safe to keep Napoleon in Fontainebleau, so near Paris, surrounded by troops who were still loyal to him. They had to move him somewhere where he would no longer pose a threat. By the Treaty of Fontainebleau they gave Napoleon the island of Elba for life, allowing him to use his Imperial title and making generous financial provisions for the whole family.

They were gravely mistaken in their belief that Elba was a safe place to hold the deposed Emperor, however. Within eleven months Napoleon would be back in Paris in what was the most amazing and miraculous return to power the world had ever seen.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 12 April 1814

31Napoleon tries to take his own life

Earlier in the 1814 campaign, Napoleon wrote to Joseph about the capitulation of Paris: ‘When it comes, I will no longer exist. I repeat to you that Paris will never be occupied during my life.’ Now that Paris was indeed occupied, Napoleon saw no other way out but to kill himself. He took a mixture of poisons that he had carried in a small silk bag around his neck ever since his near capture by the Cossacks at Maloyaroslavetz. Because his mamluk bodyguard Roustam had good sense to remove Napoleon’s pistols, this poison was the only means of suicide available to him at the time. ‘My life no longer belonged to my country,’ he later wrote. ‘The events of the last few days have again rendered me master of it. Why should I endure so much suffering? And who knows if my death might not place the crown on the head of my son.’

The suicide attempt failed, however. Time had taken away the strength of the poison and medical assistance arrived in time to save the deposed Emperor’s life. The doctor induced vomiting and Napoleon recovered, signing his abdication the next day in Fontainebleau in what is now known as the Abdication Room. Roustam would later flee Fontainebleau, fearing to be taken for an Allied assassin should Napoleon succeed in killing himself. When during the Hundred Days he wrote to the Emperor asking to be reinstated, Napoleon threw the letter into the fireplace, calling Roustam a coward.