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.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 3 March 1795

Napoleon’s failed attempt to recapture Corsica

3Napoleon set sail from Marseilles with 15 ships, 16,900 men and 1174 guns with the aim to recapture Corsica from his one-time hero Pasquale Paoli and the British. His expedition was soon scattered by a British squadron of 15 ships with fewer guns and half the number of men. Two French ships were captured.


Napoleon never learnt this lesson on challenging the Royal Navy. He never paid much attention to his own navy and maritime aspects had been his weakness throughout his rule. None of his many victories were at sea.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 2 March 1976

2Napoleon is appointed as the commander of the Army of Italy

Paul François Barras, the member of the Directory to whom Napoleon owed this command, later wrote that to persuade his colleagues to choose Bonaparte for the campaign, he told them that, as a Corsican and a highlander, he was accustomed since birth to scale mountains. Barras also said that Napoleon would lift the Army of Italy out of its lethargy. On that last point he was correct. Despite the prevalent opinion at the time that it was nothing but a political appointment received not for military ability but for taking Barras’ mistress Josephine off his hands, Napoleon, who inherited a demoralised, starving and discontented army, turned things around and led it to greatness. Before Napoleon embarked on his Italian campaign, someone mentioned to him that he was too young to lead an army, to which the general replied: ‘I will be old when I return.’

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 1 March 1815

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

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

Napoleon advises against the invasion of Britain


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.’