Napoleon - An Intimate Portrait

It is said that Napoléon is second only to Jesus Christ in the pages of material written about him. This section explores, in an abbrieviated format, some debates, myths and little-know facts about Napoléon.

A Napoleonic Era Timeline

15 August 1769 - Napolione di Buonaparte born in Ajaccio, Corsica

15 May 1779 - Napoléon (now using the French spelling) enters the Military College of Brienne in France

17 October 1784 - Napoléon enters the Royal Military College of Paris and graduates 21 October 1785 as a Second Lieutenant

1789-99 - The French Revolution

1793 - The Siege of Toulon, where Napoléon is promoted to Brigadier General

5 October 1795 - At the request of Director Barras, Napoléon crushes a royalist upraising, is promoted to General-in-Command - Army of the Interior and first meets Joséphine Beauharnais

9 March 1796 - Napoléon marries Joséphine

March 1796 - October 1797 - First Italian Campaigns, which include victories over the Austrians at Lodi, Arcola and Rivoli and the signing of the Treaty of Campo-Formio

May 1798 - October 1799 - Egyptian Campaign, which ends with Napoléon’s hasty return to Paris

9-10 November 1799 - Napoléon seizes power in the Coup of 18 Brumaire, is elected First Consul of the Republic and declares the end of the Revolution

May-June 1800 - Second Italian Campaign, where Napoléon defeats the Austrians on 14 June at the Battle of Marengo

24 December 1800 - Napoléon survives bomb plot

25 March 1802 - Treaty of Amiens signed with England

4 August 1802 - Adoption of the new constitution and Napoléon made Consul for life

3 May 1803 Sale of the Louisiana Territory by France to the United States

16 May 1803 - Peace of Amiens breaks down

21 March 1804 - The Napoléonic Code established

18 May 1804 - Napoléon proclaimed Emperor of the French and a new constitution creates an imperial monarchy

2 December 1804 - Napoléon is crowned as Emperor by Pope Pius VII in Notre-Dame Cathedral

17 May 1805 - Napoléon crowned King of Italy in the Milan Cathedral

April-December 1805 - The Third Coalition of England, Naples, Russia and Austria formed against France, with Admiral Nelson destroying the French Fleet on 21 October at the Battle of Trafalgar

2 December 1805 - Coalition dissolves with Napoléon’s victory at the Battle of Austerlitz

1 April 1806 - Napoléon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte becomes King of Naples

October 1806 - Fourth Coalition of England, Prussia and Russia formed against France but Napoléon gains victories at Jena and Auerstadt and enters Berlin on 27 October

21 November 1806 - The Continental Blockade begins, closing continental ports to British ships

14 June 1807 - The Russians are defeated at Friedland and the Treaty of Tilsit is signed between Czar Alexander I of Russia and Napoléon on 7 July

22 July 1807 - Grand Duchy of Warsaw created

16 August 1807 - Napoléon’s brother Jerome becomes King of Westphalia

30 November 1807 - The French occupy Portugal and seize Lisbon on 1 December

20 February 1808 - Occupation of Spain begins under the command of Murat and Joseph becomes King of Spain on 4 June (Murat replaces him in Naples)

April-October 1809 - Napoléon defeats Austria on 5 July at the Battle of Wagram and then enters Vienna

15 December 1809 - Napoléon divorces Joséphine in order to remarry and conceive an heir

2 April 1810 - Napoléon marries Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria in religious ceremony

31 December 1810 - Russia breaks with Napoléon

20 March 1811 - Napoléon and Marie-Louise’s son, the King of Rome, is born

19 June 1812 - United States declares war with Britain

June-December 1812 - The Russian campaign, where Napoléon is forced, for the first time, to retreat and the Grand Army is decimated

March-November 1813 - Sixth Coalition of England, Austria, Prussia and Russia formed against France, with Wellington taking Madrid on 12 August, victory at Leipzig on 15 October in the Battle of Nations, Napoléonic Germany collapsing and Holland being lost

January-March 1814 - Allied troops enter France with the fall of Paris on 30-31 March

4 April 1814 - Napoléon abdicates unconditionally at Fontainebleau, royal authority under the Bourbons is re-established, returning France to a constitutional monarchy, and Empress Marie-Louise and the King of Rome flee to Bois

4 May 1814 - Napoléon exiled to the island of Elba off the coast of Italy where he is made ruler and retains his title as Emperor

29 May 1814 - Empress Joséphine dies at the Château of Malmaison

March-June 1815 - Napoléon escapes from Elba and lands at Golfe Juan in the south of France, his old armies rally to his side as he marches to Paris, Louis XVIII flees to Ghent on 20 March and Napoléon reigns again for what is known as “The Hundred Days”

18 June 1815 - Wellington and Blücher defeat Napoléon at the Battle of Waterloo

22 June 1815 - Napoléon’s second abdication at the Elysée Palace in Paris which is followed by his surrender to the English on 15 July

17 October 1815 - Napoléon is exiled to St. Helena, a barren island in the South Atlantic

5 May 1821 - Napoléon dies in his home, Longwood, on St. Helena

22 July 1832 - Napoléon’s son, the King of Rome, who became the Duke of Reichstadt in 1816, dies

May-December 1840 - The English Government allows the Emperor’s ashes to be returned to France, his body is exhumed on 15 October and placed in the Invalides in Paris on 15 December

17 December 1847 - Empress Marie-Louise, who was made the reigning Duchess of Parma in 1815 by the Congress of Vienna, dies

15 December 1940 - Adolph Hitler returns the ashes of Napoléon’s son to Paris for internment in the Invalides

The Royal Line

As Emperor, Napoléon was generous to his family, bestowing titles and granting providence over a number of kingdoms. His desire to provide France with an heir would ultimately precipitate his divorce from his beloved Joséphine and marriage to the Austrian Archduchess Marie-Louise. In a twist of irony though, their son, the King of Rome (later the Duke of Reichstadt), would die young leaving no heir of his own. The children of Joséphine, on the other hand, would seat monarchs on the thrones of Europe. Hortense, in her marriage with Napoléon’s brother Louis, would give birth to Napoléon III, Emperor of the French from 1851 to 1870. Eugène’s daughter would marry the King of Sweden and Norway, and the lineage of their sons sits on numerous thrones to this day.

Click here for Emperor Napoléon's Family Tree

Click here for Josésphine's Descendents

The First Victory

When Napoléon was made commander-in-chief of the Army of Italy, he inherited a poorly equipped, hungry and dispirited “ragtag” group of soldiers. The goal of the French was to drive the Austrians, who were eager to dismantle the gains of the French Revolution and its threat to the monarchy, out of Northern Italy and secure peace in the region. Over the course of the ensuing campaign, General Bonaparte would arm and develop a superior and fiercely loyal fighting force, achieve France's political goals in a string of classic military victories and bring much needed riches back to the French treasuries. The now-confident Napoléon would return a national hero.

Educating the Nation

Napoléon believed strongly in the power of education to build the new France he envisioned. In 1802, a new system of education went into law, establishing the foundation for what exists to this day. Elementary schools were a local responsibility, but the secondary were supported and controlled by the state. In his last years, Napoléon wrote, “One of my great objectives was to render education accessible to everybody.”

Did Napoleon Subvert the Ideals of the French Revolution?

It can be said that without Napoléon, the gains of the French Revolution would have disappeared in short order. When he first became a major actor on the political scene in 1796, France was still reeling from the horrors of the Reign of Terror, was massively in debt, and had enemies threatening her borders. During the next two decades, he expanded the French Empire, created economic prosperity, extended the rule of law through the Napoleonic Code, abolished the privileges and tithes of feudalism, and established a bureaucracy that rewarded talent instead of hereditary connections. Yet, he also declared himself Emperor for life, ruling as autocratically as any monarch, employing a large, secret police force; strictly censoring political, literary, and artistic expression; and rewarding his family and cronies with aristocratic privileges. Thus, he both institutionalized the Revolution and subverted its ideals for his own interests and those of France.

Who was to blame for the Napoleonic Wars?

The Napoleonic Wars proved to be a battle of Titans, pitting Europe's wealthiest, most populated, and most industrialized countries in a death struggle lasting nearly 20 years. Both sides did everything in their power to insure that their own lands did not bear the scars of war. Both sides repeatedly raised armies numbering in the hundreds of thousands, losing millions of men over the course of two decades of wars. Neither side was willing to compromise. English Prime Minister William Pitt announced to Commons on January 31, 1793, that England's war with France would be a "war to extermination." Napoléon enthusiastically and willingly fought more than 60 battles for what he believed was the French cause. There is no question that he became increasingly callous and that his judgment failed as the years of warfare continued-one need only consider the colossal strategic blunder of invading Spain and the horrible debacle in Russia. It is difficult to determine whether the fault lies in his own ambition and self-delusion or in the unremitting pressure brought to bear by those determined to bring him down.

How Tall was Napoléon?

Napoléon's English detractors often took pleasure in caricaturing him as below average height. What they failed to take into account was that the diminutive height of 5 feet 2 inches he measured was in the French measure of the Paris foot, which is equivalent to 12.789 inches in English measurement. In fact, Napoléon was roughly 5 feet 6 inches which was quite standard for his time.

Impressions of Napoléon before the final exile

General Bunbury was sent to Plymouth in July 1815 to inform Napoléon of the British government's decision to send him to St. Helena. Bunbury later wrote of his personal impressions of the former Emperor.

“Napoleon appears to be about five feet six inches high. His make is very stout and muscular. His neck is short, and his head rather large; it is particularly square and full about the jaw, and he has a good deal of double chin. He is bald about the temples, and the hair on the upper part of his head is very thin, but long and ragged, looking as if it were seldom brushed. In the management of his limbs Napoleon is ungraceful; but he used very little gesture, and the carriage of his head is dignified. He is fat, and his belly projects; but this is rendered more apparent by the make of his coat, which has very short lapels turned back, and it is hooked tight over the breast to the pit of the stomach, and is there cut away suddenly, leaving a great display of white waistcoat. He wore a green uniform with scarlet collar and scarlet edging to the lapels, but without lace or embroidery; small gilt buttons, and gold epaulettes. He had a white neck cloth, white waistcoat and breeches, silk stockings, and shoes with small gilt buckles. A very small old fashioned sword, with a worked gold hilt, was buckled tight to his hip. He wore the ribbon of the Legion of Honour over his waistcoat, and the star, in silver embroidery, on his coat. There were also three very small orders hanging together at one of his buttonholes. His hat, which he carried most of the time under his arm, was rather large, quite plain, and having an extremely small tricolor cockade. Napoleon took snuff frequently during the interview; the box was not showy; it was rather long, and appeared to have four coins or medals set in its top.

I was with him nearly three quarters of an hour; and (excepting about ten minutes at the commencement, while I was translating to him the paper containing the decision of Government), Napoleon was speaking nearly the whole time. He spoke in a low, soft voice, and like one who could command all his feelings. Nothing could be more mild and bland than the countenance he wore, and there was something particularly agreeable in its expression. Yet, in the course of his long talking I observed changes both in his tone and look, which made me suspect that there was a good deal of the fox as well as of the lion in the composition of the great conqueror.

Napoleon's eyes are grey, the pupils large; not much eyebrow; hair brown; complexion sallow and the flesh sodden. His nose is finely formed, his upper lip very short, and the mouth beautiful. His teeth are bad and dirty, but he shows them very little. The general character of his countenance was grave and almost melancholy; but no trace of severity or violent passion was allowed to appear. I have seldom seen a man of a stronger make, or better fitted to endure fatigue.”

-Sir Henry Bunbury, July 31, 1815

Images © Chalençon
A Traveling Exhibition from Russell Etling Company (c) 2011