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Sunday, January 8, 2017

A Brand Apart...

Editor's Note
This is the first in a series on Napoleon Bonaparte—a small man who was simply too large to cover with a single entry. 

Napoleon crossing the Alps: Jacques-Louis David -  c1803
Napoléon is a name imbued with no small amount of brand attributes. Indeed, this French leader of subtle stature was anything but subtle, and he is the source of what is referred to as, the Napoleon complex. Both celebrated and criticized, he rose to power amidst the French Revolution, and so successful were his military campaigns that he became emperor in 1804—and held it until 1814 (although there was a short, unsuccessful resurgence in 1815).

Napoleon dominated European and global affairs for more than a decade, while leading France against a series of coalitions in the Napoleonic Wars. These wars were an amalgamated effort composed of assaults from allied forces or individuals standing firm in order to subdue Napoleon and French power in Europe. Out of 60 battles, he won 53. His military dominance allowed Napoleon to build a large empire that ruled over most of continental Europe—at least until 1815 when he was defeated at Waterloo. Outside of modern-day France, the average person might not know much beyond the fact that Napoleon is considered one of the greatest commanders in history. Yes, his wars and campaigns are studied at military schools worldwide. Interestingly, however, he was also quite a reformer, whose civic legacy is just as far reaching as his military conquests. Therefore, submitted for your approval....

The French Connection
Corsica is in red, lower corner.

European lineage is, well, often convoluted. Borders in the old world sometimes seemed as fluid as water, washing over regions and towns at the whim of rulers, or the result of conquests or treaties. One minute you live on an island owned by the Republic of Genoa (on the northwest Italian coast), the next it's handed over to the French, making you French. And so it was with Napoleone di Buonaparte. Yep, the boy was Italian—not French. Some time during the 16th Century, the di Buonapartes, a minor noble family, migrated from Tuscany, through Genoa, and on to Corsica. It was there that Napoleon was born on 15 August 1769. His father, Carlo Buonaparte, was an attorney—which no doubt provided some later inspiration to his son for the Napoleonic Code. The elder di Buonaparte was also appointed Corsica's representative to the court of King Louis the XVI in 1777. This all means that Napoleon had a leg up from the start, albeit a small one, but still, he started off better than his average contemporaries.

As a boy, Napoleon was described as "rambunctious," requiring the firm hand of discipline—primarily his mother's. Nevertheless, his family's position allowed him to attend better schools, including the military academy at Brienne-le-Château. Originally it was a convent where young children were educated, but by the time Napoleon was admitted in 1779, the institution had become a branch of the Military School of Paris. He spent nearly six years at the school, completing his studies in 1784, and moving on to the main Military School of Paris.

Napoleon's first language was Corsican—which was a sub-tongue of Italian, more or less. He spoke French, but with an obvious non-French accent. Moreover, history records that his spelling in French was awful. Although schoolmates teased him for his Franco-linguistic shortcomings, he nevertheless read considerable amounts and, he was observed as more than competent in mathematics. That observation was made by the influential French scholar mathematician, Pierre-Simon Laplace.

Carlo di Buonaparte died a year after Napoleon arrived in Paris. Such family events have far-reaching impacts beyond emotional. In Napoleon's case, the loss of his father caused a significant downward adjustment in family revenue sources, and it forced Napoleon to complete his studies in a single year. In doing so, he became the first Corsican to graduate from the institution.

Rise of the Little Corporal

The spark igniting the Napoleon firestorm over Europe began in 1789 with the outbreak of the French Revolution. He was in Corsica and saw French forces assault his island. Napoleon wanted independence for Corsica, and he was willing to fight for it against the nation that educated him—at least to a point. The next two or three years revealed the futility of striving for Corsican sovereignty. His home island was destined for occupation and ownership by outside powers. Napoleon ceased his efforts and returned to the fold of the French army. Because he was an anti-royalist (go figure), Napoleon was given a command of "republican" volunteer forces and promoted from second lieutenant to captain. This was in spite of the fact the he had been on unauthorized leave and led a revolt against French forces on Corsica. Nevertheless, Napoleon was now all in with the republican French Army; and his first major test would come at the Siege of Toulon, France, which itself deserves a little set up.

A slight preamble to Toulon comes from Le souper de Beaucaire, which is a pamphlet that Napoleon published in mid 1793—four years into the civil war. It is based on his actual experience of discussing politics with four merchants over dinner. The gist is that one character expresses his pro-republican views, mirroring Napoleon's own. It was a hit with the pro-republican/Jacobins elite, and it earned Napoleon the favor of the Robespierre brothers, two influential republican leaders. That favor was translated into appointment as artillery commander of the republican forces at the Siege of Toulon

Map of forts near Toulon; see note below.
Toulon was the site of an insurrection by revolutionaries, but ones that favored Jacobins. The royalists moved in to replace the anti-Jacobins. The royalists forces in Toulon, those who wanted to keep a French monarchy, happened to include allies from conservative England, Spain, and a few other European monarchies. Here's the thing, Toulon sits on the southern coast of France, between Marseille and Monaco. It is a protected harbor and was of strategic naval value. To help maintain a naval force, any future France needed Toulon. Moreover, losing the port would open the door to other challenges of French ports.

Napoleon settled on a plan to put his guns on a hill overlooking the city. although he had to first capture that hill. The siege lasted from July to December of 1793. It was bloody, and Napoleon overcame incompetent officers and gunners, personal feeling about and from other officers, as well as the opposing forces. Still, the young Napoleon's assault on the hill earned him three prizes—the hill and Toulon. As a result, the 24 year old received promotion to brigadier general, and given charge of the artillery of France's Army of Italy.

Of Napoleon it was said by a fellow officer, "I have no words to describe Bonaparte's merit: much technical skill, an equal degree of intelligence, and too much gallantry ..."

Clearly, France had a new hero on the rise, and he would bring more victories and an empire.

--more to come--

Note: Source: Gregory Fremont-Barnes (main editor) - The Encyclopedia of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, page 994. Adapted from Chandler 1966.