Almost nine years of commissioned service already lay behind Citoyen-capitaine di Buonaparte when he penned Le Souper de Beaucaire. A great deal happened to the young Corsican during this considerable period of time, and many of his early experiences were destined to have important repercussions on his later career. Above all, most of his notions on the art of war and military affairs in general were formulated during this period, and it is important to study the early influences if we are to acquire any real insight into his future greatness and ultimate fall.
Napoleon was born on August 15, 1769, at Ajaccio in Corsica, the second surviving son of Carlo and Marie-Letizia Buonaparte. Many generations back the family was of Italian extraction, but by the 1760s the Buonapartes had found a patrician niche in Corsican life and had become regarded as an important and influential -- if not very wealthy -- pillar of local society. Several ancestors had played a part in the chaotic history of the island. His father was rather a restless and extravagant lawyer, with a penchant for poetry, constantly embarrassed for money and forever seeking social advancement, besides being closely associated with the rebel-patriot, Paoli. His mother was a natural beauty with a character of granite, who never forsook the simple ways of her upbringing and took good fortune and bad with the same calm detachment. To the very end of her life Madame Mère was a formidable and dignified figure of noble appearance, ruling her remarkable brood with a rod of iron. No member of the family was allowed to forget the respect due to the matriarch, no matter how exalted his position. A story is told (probably apocryphal) of how Napoleon held out his hand for his mother to kiss shortly after his coronation. One version states that the spritely old dame actually slapped his face; another (less probable) that she bit his hand. Whatever the truth of this tale, there is no doubt that Letizia was a power to be reckoned with and remained so to the very end of her life. She died aged eighty-six in 1836.
Childhood in Corsica could hardly have been lonely for the future Emperor of the French. The family eventually comprised eight children, besides a further five who died in infancy. Of the five surviving boys, four were in due course to wear crowns: Joseph, the eldest -- rather a frivolous character who took up the duties of head of the family after their father's death in 1785 and who always received a degree of deference from his younger brother -- became first King of Naples (1806) and two years later King of Spain; Louis, the fifth born, was made King of Holland (1806); Jerome, the baby of the family, was crowned King of Westphalia in 1807; and, lastly, Napoleon himself, who for good measure combined in his person the Emperor of the French and King of Italy. Only Lucien, the child born next after Napoleon, never received a throne -- but this was not through lack of opportunity or invitation. Of the three girls, one, Caroline, placed herself in line for a future crown as a Queen-consort when she married Joachim Murat, eventually crowned King of Naples in succession to Joseph. The other two, Elisa (whom Napoleon disliked for her bitter tongue) and Pauline (whom he adored), found dukes and generals for husbands.
Even if this grandeur and social importance still lay far ahead in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the Buonaparte ménage in Ajaccio attracted guests of fair importance, perhaps the most significant of them being General de Marboeuf, French governor and military commander of Corsica and a family friend of long standing. Scurrilous gossip has suggested that he was Napoleon's father, but there is no evidence whatsoever to support this theory. Nevertheless, de Marboeuf undoubtedly played an important part in Napoleon's early life by being instrumental in gaining him a place at the school at Brienne in France. It took time to prove that the Buonapartes possessed the necessary four generations of nobility to qualify for entry, but eventually the young Napoleon was notified that a place awaited him. It is interesting to note that education at Brienne was free for most of the students, the state footing the bills, and that Napoleon thus received his first real schooling through the aegis of a kind of welfare state -- albeit one wholly designed for aristocrats. However, local conditions in Corsica had not been particularly favorable so far as education was concerned. Napoleon had learned a little Bible history, and "Uncle Fesch" (later the supremely worldly cardinal) had taught the lad his alphabet. But this was hardly sufficient schooling for an aspirant to the Brienne Academy; and so at the age of nine Napoleon was sent for four-months to attend the College at Autun with his elder brother, Joseph, for some intensive instruction in the French language -- once again owing his entry to the good offices of de Marboeuf, who was the uncle of the current Bishop of Autun.
At the age of nine years Napoleon entered the Royal School of Brienne on April 23, 1779, and stayed there for five and a half years. The school was run on military lines by strict and austere Minim priests but was not specifically an officer-cadet school, although a proportion of the well-born young gentlemen did aspire -- like Napoleon -- to the King's commission. Here he studied French, Latin, mathematics, history and geography. It cannot be said that his days at Brienne were particularly happy. Surrounded by polished and courtly sprigs of the French petite noblesse, the gawky and homespun di Buonaparte was socially out of his depth, and many were the fights and altercations he had with his classmates over his supposedly lowly origins, stumbling French and quaint Corsican accent. Even his teachers tended to mock him, and if it had not been for the solace afforded by the neighboring household of a certain hospitable Madame Lomenie and the cultivation of a small garden patch within the school grounds, La Paille-au-nez (as his comrades dubbed him in mockery of his name and peculiar accent) would have been unhappy indeed.
This isolation bred two particular qualities in Napoleon -- a deep love of books and a fierce patriotic pride in Corsica -- and encouraged a third -- leadership. Of the subjects taught he best liked mathematics and history, and he spent countless hours reading every relevant book he could lay his hands on. His revulsion to the taunts of some of his school companions turned him in upon himself and led him to idolize Paoli, the hero of Corsican independence. He continually dreamed of the day when their joint homeland would be free from the yoke of the foreigner. This fixation was to remain with him until 1793 and was destined to play a detrimental as well as a formative part in his early development. Finally, the persecution he received from certain members of the staff gave the Corsican boy a certain degree of inverse popularity with his own year of students, and he was eventually accepted as their unofficial leader. He was constantly devising games based on the wars of antiquity and earned considerable local fame one hard winter by designing and building an elaborate series of fortifications out of snow, from which he and his gang sallied forth to inflict a definite and not altogether bloodless defeat on the senior term. His practical gifts were fast emerging during these schooldays.
Toward the end of his time at Brienne, Napoleon slowly began to stand out from among his fellows. Bourienne was one of the few friends he made there, and according to his future chief secretary's not over-reliable Memoirs, "Father Patrauld, our mathematical professor, was much attached to Bonaparte and he had great reason to be proud of him as a pupil. The other professors, in whose classes he was not distinguished, took little notice of him." Nevertheless, the royal inspector, M. de Keralio, wrote a generally favorable report in 1783 which provides us with a brief impression of him at this time: "M. de Bonaparte (Napoleon), born August 15, 1769. Height five feet three inches. Constitution: excellent health, docile expression, mild, straight-forward, thoughtful. Conduct most satisfactory; has always been distinguished for his application in mathematics. He is fairly well acquainted with history and geography. He is weak in all accomplishments -- drawing, dancing, music and the like. This boy would make an excellent sailor; deserves to be admitted to the school in Paris." The recommendation for a naval career was never carried through, but it is tantalizing to surmise how good a sailor Napoleon might have made.
Passing through the final examinations at Brienne, he announced his choice of the artillery as the arm of the service he wished to join. It was a wise decision. Not only would the artillery service suit his mathematical talents; it was also the one part of the services (apart from the engineers) where talent as opposed to wealth and breeding could earn advancement. Much now depended on his obtaining a cadetship at the École Militaire in Paris -- but in less than a month he received a favorable answer to his application, and on October 30, 1784, he arrived in the French capital. He was now a little over fifteen years old.
L'École Militaire was not at this time particularly distinguished for the attention it paid to the proper preparation of its young aspirants for commissions. Napoleon continued his studies of mathematics, geography and history and added to his attainments a fair knowledge of German, dancing, fencing and fortification, though it appears he did not take up the opportunity for riding instruction. He made a friend in one Des Mazis, and the time seems to have passed pleasantly enough at first. However, in the spring of 1785 his father died, and, besides being a bitter personal loss, this placed a great strain on the already stretched family finances. Joseph and Lucien both abandoned their studies in France and returned to Corsica to help their mother support their brothers and sisters, but Napoleon stayed on in Paris under conditions of real poverty. He read much, ate little and gradually acquired that lean and hungry look which stares out of a dozen portraits painted in the early years of his fame. Perhaps the school authorities deliberately shortened his course to allow him to alleviate his utter destitution with the princely pay of four dollars forty-five a week (1, 120 livres a year), which would be his entitlement as a newly commissioned sous-lieutenant. In any case, in August 1785 Buonaparte was put up for examination and passed out forty-second -- a place of little distinction, though it proved higher than that of his friend Des Mazis, who was fifty-sixth. In due course both young men received orders to report to the La Fère Artillery Regiment, presently stationed at Valence, and accordingly they quitted Paris on October 31, reporting for duty at their unit on the 5th November. It is interesting to note that they finished the journey on foot after enjoying a costly if entertaining dissipation at Lyons; newly commissioned officers are the same the world over, heedless of generation.
The French army was not at the peak of its efficiency in the years immediately preceding the Revolution, although there was a leavening of talent and significant new ideas in the process of formation amid the dust of decay. A military career was not, however, regarded as the most promising one available -- certainly not for the rank and file -- and every regiment found difficulty in maintaining its recruiting figures. The Régiment de la Fère was no exception to this, and according to the great historian Sloane, Napoleon's original unit was reduced to putting up advertisements appealing for volunteers in the following terms: "Dancing three times a week, rackets twice, and the rest of the time skittles, prisoner's base and drill. Pleasures reign, every man has the highest pay and all are well treated."
Similar blandishments appear on recruiting posters down to the present day, but at least reality has moved a little closer to the printed word in the 180 years since 1785. A young officer without private means or important friends faced a bleak enough prospect: 720 livres of his pay were deducted for board and lodging and this left little over seven dollars a month for everything else -- including, in Buonaparte's case, sending a little financial aid to his mother and family. Nor were promotion prospects exactly alluring. He could expect to serve fifteen years as a lieutenant, as many more as a captain, if he was lucky secure a majority at the end of his service, and then retire in his early fifties with a decoration and the penury of half pay for the rest of his life.
Nevertheless, Buonaparte threw himself with enthusiasm into the task of learning his new duties. At the time the sensible procedure in the French artillery was to make all newly joined subalterns undergo a three-month probationary period of basic training. Part of this was served as an ordinary gunner, learning the profession from the bottom; part was spent as an acting noncommissioned officer. This experience was very important. He learned how to talk to the men in the ranks and to appreciate the matters they considered to be of importance. Throughout the halcyon days of the Consulate and Empire, and right to the end of his career, Napoleon never lost "the common touch"; he was always able to make himself the idol of the rank and file when he felt so disposed. Part of this knack of man-management was learned in the early months at Valence, as di Buonaparte went through the mill with the rest. But at length the chrysallis period came to an end, and on January 10, 1786, he received the confirmation of his commission.
In all, nine months were spent at Valence. It was generally a pleasant, if impecunious, time. The idea that Lieutenant di Buonaparte was a solitary, withdrawn character is erroneous. There is evidence that he entered fully into the social life of the garrison town, such as it was, taking dancing lessons, attending balls and routs with a fair degree of gusto. If he saw comparatively little of his brother officers at this time, this was due to the fact that they all habitually scattered in pursuit of their various pleasures. However, there are indications that homesickness for Corsica -- still very much his spiritual home -- caused him to go through a period of acute melancholy. Peacetime garrison life held little excitement for the serious-minded young officer, but in August 1786 he was sent with his company to help quell a local disturbance at Lyons occasioned by an unpopular wine tax. Then his regiment was ordered to quit Valence and march to Douai (in the normal course of unit rotation), and from October 1786 to February 1787 di Buonaparte continued his professional and private studies under the darker northern skies.
Then at last the appointed time for his first leave came around. On February 1, 1787, he set out for Corsica, and after a quick journey by way of Marseilles he at last set foot in Ajaccio again after an absence of over eight years. Much of his furlough was spent in trying to sort out his family affairs, but in between visits to lawyers and notaries he continued his reading and began to collect material for a projected history of Corsica. In April, with the end of his leave looming in sight, he wrote to Marshal the Duc de Ségur, Minister of War, begging for an extension of his leave "for five and a half months to date from 16th May next which he needs for the recovery of his health, in accordance with the enclosed certificate of the doctor and surgeon." He went on to suggest that this extra leave should be granted on full pay (!), and in due course an easygoing military administration approved his request. It is uncertain whether our hero was "swinging the lead" and pleading ill health as an excuse to escape from the dull routine of regimental peacetime duty, but he was certainly recovered enough to be able to travel to Paris in November on family business. There he again had the audacity to solicit a further extension of leave -- and almost unbelievably was granted a further six months on compassionate grounds. Indeed, the family problems were pressing -- but it is indicative of the slackness of the last days of the army of l'Ancien Régime that such long periods of absence were permitted. Basking in the sun of Corsica, our absentee lieutenant started to write his History of Corsica.
At length, in early June 1788, there was no excuse for any further postponement of his return to military duties, and accordingly di Buonaparte traveled to Auxonne to rejoin his regiment. There followed the most formative fifteen months of his military career. At this time Auxonne was the best artillery training school in France, under the command of the experienced Baron du Teil, whose reputation as a great lover did not prevent him from being a great artilleryist at one and the same time. Under the paternal supervision of the old soldier, di Buonaparte's studies took on a new meaning and depth; besides a fragment of an unfinished novel, thirty-six manuscript notebooks in his precise handwriting have survived from this period, three of them relating to artillery matters, the rest to subjects of history and philosophy. Du Teil's beneficent influence was supplemented by that of the Professor of Mathematics, Lombard, and between them these two men exercised a profound influence on the impressionable young Corsican. Di Buonaparte was soon singled out for special tasks. In August he was appointed commander of the Demonstration Company with responsibility for trying out experiments suggested by his superiors, who were busy trying to devise ways of firing mortar shells from ordinary cannon. This somewhat hazardous occupation had its compensations, for it brought Napoleon into contact with the best gunner brains of the day. Lombard was assisted by a board of experienced officers, including a brigadier, several captains and three first lieutenants. So engrossed did the young officer become in the practical problem under consideration that he wrote a special memoir on the subject to the Baron in March 1789. It is indicative of the helpful attitude of the old gentleman that he encouraged such efforts from lowly subalterns.
During this period Napoleon also took part in his first tactical exercises without troops. Du Teil was in the habit of taking his officers out into the countryside, dividing them into teams for the defense and the attack of a certain selected village or hill, and then setting them loose to devise individual solutions which were afterward discussed and compared. This practical and theoretical experience in handling tactical situations stood di Buonaparte in good stead and complemented his voracious reading of the works of Guibert and du Teil's brother and the many more sources of military lore drawn from the well-stocked shelves of the library. During these months he almost certainly devised the first outlines of the strategical and tactical concepts which were to form the basis of the great campaigns and battles of future years.
Also proceeding apace at this time was his gradual spiritual and moral acclimatization to France as a whole and to French service life in particular. Di Buonaparte was still first and foremost an ardent Corsican nationalist, but he was slowly losing the bitterness against all things French learned at Brienne. He viewed with intense interest the dramatic political events proceeding at Paris and Versailles -- where the embryonic Revolution had commenced with the meeting of the États Général in May 1789.
There was also a darker side to life at Auxonne; the affairs of his family continued to be bad, and consequently Lieutenant di Buonaparte's frugal pay had to go a long way. His health almost broke down under the enforced penury of his life, but he eventually recovered from a long illness that laid him low throughout the last months of 1788. Writing to his mother early in 1789, he revealed the extent of the poverty under which he was laboring: "I have no other resource but work. I dress but once in eight days; I sleep but little since my illness; it is incredible; I retire at ten [to save candles] and rise at four in the morning. I take but one meal a day, at three; that is good for my health."
It was not, however, the ideal regimen for a youthful convalescent. On August 8, 1789, he accordingly applied for six months' furlough; this was his entitlement under the regulations, but he wished it to start at once and not in October when it became due. He pleaded the difficulties of a winter sea passage in justification, but really he was determined to share in the revolutionary ferment that had recently broken out in his beloved Corsica. As usual, his request received favorable attention, and on September 16 he left Auxonne for Corsica.
Once returned to the land of his birth, it was not long before di Buonaparte was in the thick of the local revolution. Within four weeks he was an accepted revolutionary leader and he promptly sent off an appeal to the French National Assembly for aid; a week later he was in Bastia, organizing an attack on the arsenal there in search for arms. Then the National Assembly formally pronounced that Corsica was part of the new France, and requested the veteran patriot Paoli -- Napoleon's hero -- to head the new local government. Our Corsican was ecstatic, but his hopes of preferment received an abrupt douche of cold water when Paoli, newly returned from exile, made a point of ignoring the young fanatic.
In the new year of 1791, after merely sixteen months' leave, Napoleon returned somewhat disconsolately to regimental duty at Auxonne -- posted to the Régiment de Grenoble -- but this spell of service was destined to be even more short-lived than its predecessors. On August 4, 1791, the National Assembly, at a loss for reliable troops, authorized the raising of volunteer battalions in each Department (the eighty-three new administrative districts which had replaced the old provinces); in conformity with the revolutionary principle of égalité, all officers in these units were to be elected by the rank and file with the sole exception of the adjutant major who was to be appointed by the general officer commanding the local military district. Furthermore, the Assembly decreed that serving officers could hold posts in the féderé battalions without forfeiting their seniority and rank in the regular army. This was a golden chance for some promotion, and newly appointed First Lieutenant Buonaparte lost no time in sending in a request for transfer to Corsica. It came as a rude shock to him when his application was refused (perhaps the authorities considered that he had been sufficiently absent from regular duty of late; indeed, over the six years of his commissioned service, no less than thirty-two months had been spent on leave of one sort or another). However, it was not Napoleon's way to be daunted by a single setback. He promptly made his way to visit his old commanding officer, du Teil (now Inspector General of Artillery at Grenoble), and after spending a pleasant few days at the latter's estate at Pommiers, he returned triumphantly with the required permission for three months' absence on full pay.
Back in Corsica for the third time (September 6), he soon managed to secure the post of adjutant major in the Ajaccio Volunteer Battalion. But then, with typical political inconsistency, the National Assembly decreed that officers serving with volunteer battalions must forfeit their regular rank -- although the posts of commanding officer and second-in-command of each unit (both carrying the rank of lieutenant colonel) were permitted to be filled by serving regular officers without detriment to their careers, providing they were freely elected to these positions. This forced Napoleon's hand; he was determined to remain both a regular lieutenant of artillery and an officer of Corsican volunteers, and so he set out to secure the requisite election as second-in-command of the Ajaccio Volunteers. His election campaign was carried out with a cunning and unscrupulous thoroughness which surprised and shocked his family, but it had the desired effect. On April 1, 1792, he was elected lieutenant colonel of volunteers: no mean promotion for a humble first lieutenant aged only twenty-two!
He at once busied himself drawing up a set of Standing Orders for the Corsican National Guard, and this, his first administrative paper, is admirable in its clarity and thoroughness. However, the incalculable sway of the Revolutionary pendulum which had so far generally benefited our Corsican, suddenly swung against him. There were riots in Ajaccio, and Buonaparte was involved in their suppression. Perhaps he acted a trifle too keenly, for his activities earned him the displeasure of Paoli; at the height of the operation, the brash lieutenant colonel had made free and unauthorized use of the supreme patriot's name to get his way. Acts of ill fortune seldom come singly; if he was unpopular on the Corsican scene, he was soon out of favor in France as well. A sudden compulsory muster of officers was ordered at Valence, and those who failed to attend on April I -- including Buonaparte --were immediately struck off the regimental roll. This was too much for Napoleon. Without delay he made his way to Paris in order to challenge the decision.
He returned to the French capital at a critical time. In Paris he remet his school friend Bourienne, and together they followed the activities of the Paris mob. The Revolution was fast getting out of hand as trust in Louis XVI's good intentions evaporated. Buonaparte was a witness of the march on the Tuileries Palace of June 20, occasioned by the King's dismissal of the Brissotin government. According to Bourienne, Buonaparte was both furious and indignant at the poor showing of resistance by the Royal Guards. "What madness!" he exclaimed loudly. "How could they allow that rabble to enter? Why do they not sweep away four or five hundred of them with the cannon? Then the rest would take themselves off very quickly." Shades of Vendémiaire and "the whiff of grapeshot"!
A little under two months later he also witnessed the full-scale storming of the Tuileries and ensuing massacre of the Swiss Guard by the mob, and this tragedy increased his contempt for popular violence and weakly led regular troops. In the following weeks he was a disgusted witness of the September massacres as the mob and the Assembly panicked at the steady approach of the Austrian and Prussian forces. Despite all the chaos he eventually left Paris with the confirmed ranks of regular captain of artillery and lieutenant colonel of volunteers (September 17). It clearly paid to be active in one's own interests during unsettled times.
Traveling by way of Toulon, he reached Corsica once more on October 15. He found an even more ominous situation than when he had left. Paoli was fast tiring of every aspect of the French connection, and a state of cold war with the French Assembly was already in existence. It is revealing that this development did not find approval with Napoleon, once the most ardent exponent of exclusive Corsican nationalism; the processes of French acclimatization were now clearly almost complete. Not surprisingly perhaps, Paoli received the returned colonel of volunteers coldly, and set out to sabotage his attempts to serve as an effective second in command to Colonel Quenza of the Ajaccio Volunteers. This was frustrating enough, but the months that followed were to prove even more irksome.
Copyright © 1966 by David G. Chandler
Copyright © 1966 by Simon & Schuster