On This Day in Napoleonic History – 1 March 1815

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Napoleon lands in France on his return from Elba

1Napoleon disembarked in Golfe-Juan, between Cannes and Antibes, on the French Riviera, with a total force of 1,142 men and 2 light cannon. He was about to embark on the most fascinating endeavour in history, an event unprecedented in the past and unlikely to ever be repeated in the future. With the armies of all nations of Europe against him, he would retake Paris without firing a shot. ‘After the fall of Paris, my heart was torn apart but my spirit remained resolute. Frenchmen, in my exile I heard your complaints and wishes. So, amid all sorts of dangers, I arrived among you to regain my rights, which are yours,’ he stated in his proclamation.

Napoleon’s triumphant return was made possible by the support he still enjoyed in France, from soldiers who wanted to return to glory and full pay, peasants who feared the return of feudal dues, land owners who didn’t want to lose their property to nobles and the Church, and imperial civil servants who lost their jobs to the royalists. Napoleon would march to Paris via what is now known as Route Napoleon, a road that was inaugurated by the French government in 1932. It runs from the French Riviera along the foothills of the Alps, marked by impressive stone Imperial Eagles.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 26 February 1815

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Napoleon leaves Elba

26The brig Inconstant, with Napoleon on board and accompanied by a small flotilla of six ships, departed at nine o’clock from the island of Elba. Profiting by the British commissioner Neil Campbell’s absence, Napoleon was able to escape with a little over 1000 men. ‘Paris or death!’ cried the grenadiers, once they were told on board The Inconstant that they were headed for France.
There were many reasons behind Napoleon’s decision to leave Elba. Had Emperor Francis allowed Marie Louise and Napoleon’s son to join him in exile, it is very probable that Napoleon would have been content to stay on the island. Without his wife and son, however, Napoleon was bored. His active nature rebelled against the boredom. There were rumours about his planned removal from Elba and even execution and he was concerned. Australian penal colony of Botany Bay and remote island of Saint Helena in the Atlantic were suggested. And finally, out of inexplicable stubbornness, Louis XVIII refused to pay the pension that was promised Napoleon. Without this pension he couldn’t support the men that agreed to follow him to Elba. Tsar Alexander tried to no avail to convince the king to pay, saying, ‘Why should we expect him to keep his word with us when we did not do so with him?’
Louis XVIII made a number of errors that had turned the public opinion in France against him. Although the king signed a charter guaranteeing civil liberties, it was widely feared that he was going to re-establish the ancient regime. The king’s rule was officially dated from the death of his brother Louis XVI, as if everything in between – the Revolution, the Directory, the Consulate, the Empire – had never happened. The borders returned to those of 1791, Catholic Church regained some of its pre-revolutionary power and prestige, to the greatest chagrin of liberals and republicans, and food prices and taxes were raised. The tri-colour, under which the French had won their most brilliant victories, had been replaced by the while flag and the fleur-de-lis. Large numbers of officers were retired and put on half-pay. The old soldiers longed for the glory days of the French Empire. In defiance to orders, many of them celebrated Napoleon’s birthday in 1814 with cannon fire salutes and cries of Vive l’Empreur.
France was ready for Napoleon’s return and he was on his way!

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 23 February 1798

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Napoleon advises against the invasion of Britain

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A report by General Bonaparte rejected the idea of making a descent on England, recommending to conclude peace instead. After travelling along the coast and evaluating the chances of the invasion, Napoleon reported to the Directory, ‘It’s too hazardous. I will not attempt it. Whatever efforts we make, we shall not for some years gain naval supremacy. To invade England without that supremacy is the most daring and difficult task ever undertaken. We must really give up the expedition against England.’

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 22 February 1806

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Napoleon Issues a Decree Forbidding Import of Cotton

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The decree also banned imports of bleached and printed calico, muslin and hardware, assuring a monopoly for some local manufacturers, who were given concessions. Economic nationalism was a characteristic feature of Napoleonic administration throughout his rule.

 

The decree comes nine months before the Berlin Decree that instituted Continental System in Europe and forbid import of British goods into European nations dependent on or allied to France.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 21 February 1800

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First Consul moves to the Tuileries Palace

21Napoleon moved from Luxembourg to the Tuileries, becoming the first ruler to live there since Louis XVI was taken away to the Temple prison in 1792, an event Napoleon had witnessed as a young officer. The First Consul took Louis XVI’s first floor apartments overlooking the gardens, while Josephine occupied Marie-Antoinette’s suite on the ground floor. ‘I can feel the Queen’s ghost, asking what I’m doing in her bed,’ she told a chamberlain.

Napoleon didn’t share his wife’s apprehensions. Allegedly he picked her up and carried her to the bed, saying, ‘Come on, little Creole, get into the bed of your masters.’ As the Second Consul, Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès also had the right to live in the Tuileries but wisely decided against it. Napoleon and Josephine put the Tuileries to good use, throwing many balls and dinners.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 20 February 1800

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The Count of Provence appeals to the First Consul

20The Count of Provence (future Louis XVIII) wrote to the First Consul, requesting to be allowed to return to France. Louis promised the First Consul any post in the kingdom, if only he restored him to the throne.

 

Napoleon had no intention to play Monk, however. He took more than six months to reply and this is what he said in his polite but assertive letter to Louis XVI’s brother: ‘You must not wish for your return to France. You would have to march over 100,000 corpses. Sacrifice your interests to the peace and happiness of France. History will recognise it. I’m not insensitive to the misfortunes of your family. I will gladly contribute to the sweetness and the tranquility of your retirement.’

 

The finality of Napoleon’s reply resulted in countless plots against Napoleon’s life by the Bourbons from 1800 onward.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 19 February 1797

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Peace treaty signed between France and the Papal States

(c) Burton Constable Hall; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Burton Constable Hall; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The treaty of Tolentino was signed between Revolutionary France and the Papal States during the War of the First Coalition, under which the Pope Pius VI ceded Romania, Bolognia and Avignona to France, closed all ports to the British and promised to send contribution of 30 million to France and one hundred works of art. ‘We will have everything that is good in Italy,’ Napoleon wrote to the Directory.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 18 February 1797

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The Army of Italy Launches a Newssheet Entitled Journal de Buonaparte et des Hommes Vertuex

18Napoleon was highly conscious of the power of propaganda. He dictated various articles to the Journal with the aim to increase his popularity, such as ‘Bonaparte files like lightening and strikes like a thunderbolt.’ In ten days the Journal was criticising the Directory, something it wouldn’t do without General Bonaparte’s instruction.

 

1796 was the year when the first prints and engravings of Napoleon began to appear, with titles such as General Bonaparte at Lodi and Bonaparte in Milan. After Montenotte Napoleon commanded the first medal to be struck. Overall, 150 official medals had been produced by 1815, commemorating battles, treaties, coronations, marriages and other important occasions. This attention to propaganda distinguished Napoleon from other generals and helped influence public opinion, which was already heavily in his favour. The cult of personality had begun.

 

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 17 February 1806

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A decree orders the construction of Arc de Triomphe on Place de l’Étoile

17The Arc was commissioned by the Emperor Napoleon after his brilliant victory at Austerlitz and was to become the symbol of France’s military supremacy, glorifying the Grande Armée.

Although Napoleon and his new wife Marie-Louise passed underneath a full-size model of the Arc made of wood and painted cloth in 1810, unfortunately Napoleon never saw it completed. It would not be finished until more than a decade after his death during the reign of King Louis-Philippe, between 1833 and 1836. Napoleon’s body passed under the Arc on the way from Saint Helena to his final resting place at Les Invalides in 1840.

 

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