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Monday, February 20, 2017

Rise of the Little Corporal

Editor’s note: This entry is the second in a series on Napoleon. BIH recommends reading the previous entry, A brand apart, prior to this one. It reviews the origin story of the young Napoleon.

Napoleon at Toulon (1793) by Edouard Detaille
The Siege at Toulon was a key moment for Napoleon. Not only was it an affirmation of his abilities as a commander of the line, it also earned him a place within the sphere of influence by those who sought to lead France into a new era. Toulon was also the beginning of an endearment for Napoleon. During the siege, he helped to place and sight the artillery—a task reserved for the enlisted, not officers. He was also known to talk with men under his command about tactics. Thus, he was affectionately referred to as the little corporal. It signified that while Napoleon outranked men in his command, he did not behave as if her were superior.

For the year following the siege, Napoleon was picky about what he wanted for his next command, and it cost him some brand equity. It didn't help that he refused to serve in the Vendée campaign, a politically complex revolt that Napoleon wanted no part in supporting nor quelling. Indeed, France remained in turmoil. Even by 1795, the royalists hung on to the notion of restoring the monarchy. At the same time, the republicans were infighting for control of the movement. There were other, smaller factions, too. But gist of it is that France's political state was a puree, and the republicans looked to Napoleon. And on October 3rd, things turned for Napoleon and France.

The royalists in Paris revolted against the National Convention, roughly described as a third attempt to republicanize the French Government. Paul Barras lead one of the factions supporting the Convention, and he was aware of Napoleon's leadership at Toulon. Barras assigned Napoleon to command the defense forces of the Convention. That was no easy task because "forces" is a loose term to describe the improvised army Napoleon would lead, although he had an advantage. Napoleon was in Paris in 1792 and saw the defeat of the King's Swiss Guard—he knew the key was artillery.

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The little corporal ordered the seizure of large cannons, which enabled Napoleon to repel attackers led primarily by royalists. The strategy worked, inflicting up to 1,400 dead on the royalist side, and forcing remaining forces to retreat. Napoleon saved the Convention, earning him notoriety and the confidence of the new (republican) government. He was promoted to Commander of the Interior and given command of the Army of Italy—a post he had long sought.

The weirdness in all this is that Napoleon had been romancing Désirée Clary, the sister of his brother's wife. He was even engaged to her at one point. But then, Joséphine de Beauharnai enters the picture and the two were married in March of 1796. It wouldn't last. One might assume it was due to a lack of a honeymoon. Indeed, the Bonapartes' conjugal celebration was limited to two days. Then again, it was likely that it wasn't needed. Joséphine was not a prude. She was a woman reputed to have certain skills in combination with flexible morals. No doubt the marriage was previously consummated—several times, leaving Napoleon free to quickly depart for Italy.

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The Italian Campaign
Napoleon assumed command of the Army of Italy, where he quickly went on the offensive. His victories were swift and serial, besting forces from Sardinia and Austria with weeks. Indeed, his accomplishments lined up—the Montenotte Campaign, Siege of Mantua, and then the battles of Castiglione, Bassano, Arcole, and Rivoli. Austria's foothold in Italy wholly collapsed by January 1797. Napoleon continued deep into Austria and by March, the matter was settled via treaties. France controlled most of northern Italy along with what is now Belgium and the Netherlands.

Napoleon was refining his method. The conventional method served him well, but his understanding of mobile artillery was advanced and gave him the advantage. He also had a little Hannibal Barca in him. Napoleon liked to disguise his numbers and hide his deployments, particularly when they were near an enemy's weak spot. He also had a gutsy habit of fighting two-pronged forces from the center position. The strategy was to focus on one force's weakest line until it broke and retreated; then Napoleon would swing around and envelop the other. Risky, yes. But repeated victories came to Napoleon, earning him political clout and notoriety.

Not unlike Gaius Julius Caesar, Napoleon made it a point to extract funds and treasure from the lands he conquered. Estimates are the Army of Italy captured the modern equivalent of USD 45 million in funds, USD 12 million in precious metals and jewels, not mention the confiscation of hundreds of paintings and sculptures. Napoleon had topped off France's coffers and seized art treasures for her cultural enrichment. And quite like Caesar, his exploits helped Napoleon's swelling power.

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Napoleon was behind a coup d'état that purged the royalists from Paris in early September of 1797. The French Republicans continued building control. However, that control was reliant on Napoleon. And about the same time as the coup, the little corporal negotiated two treaties with Austria. Essentially, that left France with one immediate opponent—Great Britain, although Napoleon knew France wasn't quite ready to take on the British. In the meantime, he had other fish to fry. But first, he returned to Paris in November of 1797.

Napoleon had become a hero of France.

*The Journée of 13 Vendémiaire, Year 4, The Saint Roch Church, Rue Saint-Honoré, Paris - Charles Monnet
**Napoleon at the Bridge of Arcole in November of 1796 - Antoine Jean Gros.
***The coup d'état of 18 Fructidor in Paris (1797) - engraving by Berthault