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The Little Corsican Ogre, Part 3.

By Angelo Barthélemy

From humble beginnings in Corsica to Emperor of France.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In Part 1 and Part 2, Angelo looked at questions about the myths that have accrued to Napoléon Bonaparte; in this, he continues with the deconstruction of the sayings - true and not - of the General and Emperor.

Marengo. Big victory or PR triumph?

Marengo and the 1800 campaign have been heavily mythologised by Napoléon himself, and their history was rewritten several times under the Consulate and the Empire (that’s the topic of an entire book). This might seem a bit strange, considering that it’s not even the biggest battle of the year in terms of numbers of men there, or that there were fewer men on the battlefield that day than there were on just the French side at Austerlitz.

It starts with the crossing of the Alps, which looked nothing like David’s famous painting. It was done in May with the cols still partially snowed in, so spare a thought for the nearly invisible men pushing cannons up those slopes in the background. The entire point was to relieve the garrison at Genoa, the one place that the French still clung to, all the Sister Republics in Italy having collapsed and been occupied by troops belonging to the Second Coalition. It sounded grand, bypassing Austrian troops along the coastal plains, like Hannibal had done to the Romans two thousand years earlier.

They're not going to be moving quickly.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The French garrison at Genoa surrendered before the relieving army got to it. So that’s one thing where strategic genius did not save the day.

Then Napoléon advances nearly blind, sending division-sized patrols to try and locate the enemy. He fails and stumbles into the Austrians with a notable numerical inferiority, but thinking they are retreating rather than attacking at first. All through the day, his troops are pushed back until it’s late afternoon and General Desaix brings nine thousand men in reinforcements, having marched to the sound of the guns, disregarding his orders (or, to put it another way, this time Napoléon had luck. Fifteen years later, he didn’t, as Grouchy insisted on following his orders). The Austrians, whose commander had left the battlefield to go announce his victory, were pushed back and then collapsed. Desaix shows good form and dies, thus allowing Bonaparte to claim he had planned those tactics all beforehand, without having someone inconveniently able to claim otherwise.

The morning after, the Austrian commander agreed to an evacuation of most of northern Italy, considerably more than even his rather severe defeat warranted. Having secured this, Bonaparte returned to Paris, but the campaign lasted for six more months before a peace was signed, after two further French victories, one in Italy and one in Bavaria. Thus Marengo can be considered to be a significant turning point but not the decisive climax of the war.

And yet Napoléon considered it one of his finest victories (despite his having done little himself to win it), modified the story of the battle several times, had a monument built, witnessed a recreation of the battle on his way to be crowned King of Italy, named the entire département of Piedmont after it, named several French ships in the Navy after it, even named his horse after it... What gives?

At that time, he had only taken over political leadership for six months in his coup of the 18th Brumaire and he was intended by some of his fellow conspirators to be a mere figurehead. Claiming his victory was the end to the war solidified his grip on power, threatened both by republicans and royalists. It also washed away somewhat the infamy of his failure in Egypt and Syria and his ignominious flight, leaving his entire army stranded. Once again he appeared the young conquerer in Italy, the scene of his first triumphs. The collapse of the Austrian position did lead to that country signing a peace at Liunéville in early 1801, soon followed by the United Kingdom at Amiens. For the first time in nine years, France was at peace in Europe. It should be noted that this did not mean an end to war. Napoléon Bonaparte gave the orders to forcibly reincorporate the colonies that the British had agreed to evacuate in the peace treaty and to reenslave the people who had risen up in Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guyane, and Saint-Domingue and which the First Republic had agreed were free. This victory gave him the freedom on the seas to pursue that goal, which won him large support as Caribbean colonies.

Nevertheless, the legend of Marengo was that it gave France peace and even though hostilities resumed with Great Britain as early as 1803, with French ships seized at harbour and its colonies once more reoccupied, it wouldn’t be until 1805 that French soldiers would fight battles on European soil again: more than five years elapsed between this battle success and Napoléon’s next one. As he owed large parts of his legitimacy to his aura of victory, it was all the more important to make it sound as impressive as it could. And that did translate into political success: those years allowed him to reshape France’s institutions as he pleased and eliminating viable political opposition by whatever means, including kidnapping and assassination in the case of the Duke of Enghien. So Marengo is a big victory because it was a PR triumph.

“Not tonight, Josephine.” Myth?

Is that something common? I must say it isn’t in France. I imagine it goes hand in hand with the jibes about his height.

Napoléon had a weird love life, though his sex life might seem tame by French rulers’ standards, some of whom had so many mistresses (sometimes in the same family) that specific Wikipedia pages are dedicated to listing them.

His first serious attachment was with the Clary sisters. He first courted Julie Clary and convinced his elder brother Joseph to court her younger sister Désirée. Then he had a change of mind or of heart and persuaded Joseph to swap with him which of the Clary sisters they should be engaged to. It speaks to Napoléon’s forceful personality and charisma that all people concerned seem to have acceded to his whims without making much of a fuss.

Joseph went ahead with the engagement and soon married, but Napoleon met Joséphine de Beauharnais (or rather Marie Josèphe Rose; Napoléon renamed her Joséphine) while in Paris, recently widowed with two young children. He got Désirée’s agreement to break off their engagement (she seems to have borne him no ill will but was venomous towards Joséphine) and he soon wed Joséphine. Some have alleged that her relationship, whether it was sexual or not, with Director Barras helped Napoléon win command of the Army of Italy, but Barras had had contacts with him before in Toulon and in repressing the Vendémiaire uprising (when Napoléon didn’t speak about a whiff of grapeshot, despite the myth). Whatever the case, Napoléon was soon away with his troops and complained often... that she didn’t write enough.

Joséphine had several liaisons during her husband’s absences. It should be noted that this did not make her remotely exceptional in French society at the time, but nevertheless, people pointed at her origins from Martinique as an explanation for such behaviour, Creole people having at the time a reputation for particular randiness, with all sorts of racial conotations associated to it. Napoléon himself had extraconjugal relations of his own, though those we know about for certain come later in 1805 (Éléonore de la Plaigne, a former mistress of his brother-in-law Murat) and 1807 (Maria Walewska, who her husband all but put on Napoléon’s bed in order to influence him favourably towards Poland’s rebirth).

Napoléon was keen to establish a dynasty, but his marriage to Joséphine remained childless. He envisioned his brother or nephews inheriting part of his titles, his stepchildren some others. Medical discourse at this time tended to blame sterility on women, but Joséphine had two children whereas Napoléon himself didn’t, making him think that he could be infertile. However, each of his mistresses bore him a son and so, his love for Joséphine having seriously cooled over the years and with the mutual infidelities, he eventually sought and secured a divorce, which is easier when you have an uncle who is a cardinal and you are holding the Pope hostage than it is for other monarchs. Considering his delight over meeting his new wife and his comments after their first night together, it can’t be said French people have ever had much doubt about his libido.

Napoléon and Joséphine – a great and enduring romance?

It sort of started that way, but more on his side than hers. It was not much supported by Napoléon’s family who were not informed or consulted. The two did not elope as they were already away, but they got a quick civil ceremony, in which they both lied about their age. They had relatively little time together in their first five years of marriage. Napoléon later had his uncle marry them religiously the day before he crowned himself emperor (this was probably not a good idea, as it led to complications when divorcing her). Napoléon’s mother objected so much that she refused to be part of the ceremony when Napoléon crowned Joséphine empress. This did not stop Napoléon from demanding that the painter David put her in the monumental painting about it. Napoléon’s sisters and sinsters-in-law objected even more to his remarriage.

Did Napoléon shoot the nose off the Sphinx in Egypt?

Nonsense. Everybody knows Obélix is to blame.

Obélix or Napoléon? You decide.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Pictures made of the Sphinx before the Egyptian expedition show the nose already broken off. There have been examinations and apparently this was done using cutting tools, which current research indicates was done in the late fourteenth century by someone objecting to idols, much like in the twelfth century a sultan tried to demolish the Pyramid of Menkaure.

Napoléon did do damage to an Egyptian monument: the Al-Azhar mosque which he ordered bombarded after an uprising in Cairo against his occupation, along with savage repression against the population.

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