OREALD.COM - An Old Electronic Library
eng: a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

Napoleon Bonaparte

Pages: <1> 2 3 4 5

The island of Corsica, in the Mediterranean, over -which the Genoese exercised an ineffective and decaying sovereignty, had for many years been coveted by the governments of France. At length the shadowy rights of the Genoese were purchased for a large sum, and French troops landed to enter on possession. But the high-spirited islanders indignantly refused to acknowledge the shameful bargain by which they had been sold to a foreign power. They rose in arms, and for many months, under incredible hardships, maintained a heroic resistance. But at length they were crushed by the overwhelming power of France, and were forced to reconcile themselves as they best could to the hated yoke.

In due time they had their revenge-the strangest, the most signal which a wronged people ever enjoyed. They furnished to France a despot who poured out her blood and treasure during twenty long years to serve the ends of his own ambition; who led her to depths of humiliation and misery unknown before in modern Europe.

Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Corsica shortly before that island was subdued by the French. When he became Emperor of France, it was a painful reflection that he had been born a foreigner. With that marvellous excellence in falsehood which distinguished his whole career, he changed the date of his birth, and gave it to be believed that he had been born after the conquest. His father was a lawyer of small income and large family, whose life, ending prematurely, was a continuous struggle with insufficient means. Napoleon's own inclination destined him for a military career, and while a child of eleven, he began his training in the school of Brienne. When the revolution broke out he was found on the popular side. He received his commission, and greatly distinguished himself at the siege of Toulon, the successful issue of which was indeed mainly owing to his genius. Not long afterwards he was intrusted with the defence of the Convention against a formidable insurrection of the National Guard. His eminent skill and success in this task gave him fame, and opened for him his wonderful career. He was immediately appointed to the command of the army of Italy. Napoleon, put himself at the head of forty thousand ill-clad and imperfectly fed men, who were contending in a somewhat heartless manner against superior forces of Sardinians and Austrians, and were making no progress in the enterprise. In four weeks he so defeated the Sardinians that they hastened to conclude with him a humiliating peace. In less than two years he defeated the Austrians in eighteen pitched battles, destroyed their armies by slaughter or surrender, and laid firm hold of their Italian territory. When he assumed command, Austria was preparing with a large army to cross the Rhine and invade France. The success of Napoleon in Italy utterly baffled this project, and Austria was fain to accept a peace whose terms were dictated by the conqueror. The pope raised a considerable army, and embarked in warlike operations, which ended in instant defeat, and the punishment of his ill-judged boldness by exactions which the finances of his holiness- were not very well prepared to meet. A number of small potentates in the north of Italy were effaced, and their territories were grouped into a republic under the fostering care of France. Venice fell, surrendering to the youthful conqueror her ancient but sorely decayed glories. Napoleon had completed the conquest of Italy, and returned to Paris, a young man of twenty-nine, with the first military reputation in Europe.

When the early fervours of his reception in Paris had passed, it became obvious to Napoleon himself that he must find some field for new exploits, and to the Directory that they must remove from the capital so formidable a rival in the public regard. Already the idea of an invasion of England was freely discussed; already Napoleon announced it as indispensable to the welfare of mankind that the English monarchy should be abolished. But the time for gravely meditating this arduous enterprise had not yet come. Napoleon, who emulated the glory of Alexander, resolved upon the conquest of Egypt, from which the Indian possessions of England could be threatened. The Directory entertained no lively hope of accomplishing so large an undertaking; but the shame of defeat would fall upon their rival, and meantime they were delivered from the presence of a soldier whose success was too brilliant for their tranquillity.

Napoleon possessed himself easily of Alexandria, and intimated to the Egyptians that he had come to punish their tyrants and restore the true religion of Mohammed. After a trying march across the desert, he fought and destroyed the Egyptian army within view of the Pyramids, from the summit of which, as he reminded his soldiers, forty centuries contemplated their achievements. Lower Egypt was in his power, and Napoleon governed it with wisdom and justice.

But all the while an enemy-sleepless, terrible, inflexibly devoted to his overthrow-was ranging the seas in quest of Napoleon. An English fleet under Admiral Nelson commanded the Mediterranean, but a gale of wind had blown it off the coast, and the French squadron accomplished in peace its voyage eastward. Nelson's pursuit was vehement, but, for a time, fruitless. Once he was, unknowingly, so near that the sound of his guns was heard in the French ships. Twice he sailed past them in the eagerness of his search. At length he found them anchored in the Bay of Aboukir. Elated by the approach of battle, he told his officers that tomorrow he should have gained a peerage or a place in Westminster Abbey. His victory was so complete that the splendid French fleet was almost literally annihilated.

Ruinous as this blow must prove to the hopes of Napoleon in the East, he still allowed himself to entertain vast projects of Oriental conquest. He marched into Syria, stormed Jaffa, and massacred by cannon-shot four thousand prisoners of whom he could not conveniently dispose otherwise. Then he advanced to the siege of Acre; but here the English anticipated him: Sir Sydney Smith, with two ships of the line, expected his coming. The siege was pressed with extraordinary energy during a period of two months; but the defence was too obstinate, and Napoleon retired baffled from the ruined walls of the ancient city, on whose conquest, as he himself remarked, the fate of the East depended. Long afterwards, when he reviewed the events of his life in the enforced leisure of St. Helena, he said that Sir Sydney's defence of Acre had made him miss his destiny.

Reduced as his forces now were, it could no longer serve any purpose of Napoleon to continue in the East, shut out from the more inviting arena of European warfare. He embarked almost secretly, braved the peril of capture by the English ships, and landed safely in France.

During his absence disaster had overtaken the young republic. Italy had been torn from her grasp. Her armies everywhere had been defeated. Russia, Austria, and England, were leagued for her overthrow. Large armies stood ready to invade her soil. Royalist insurrections weakened her at home. Fierce dissensions raged in the capital. The Directory, under whose rule these disasters had come so thickly, had incurred the contempt of the people. An urgent desire prevailed that a man of capacity should assume the government, and displace the incapables, whose rule brought only shame. All eyes were turned to the conqueror of Italy and Egypt, whose authority over the public mind was undiminished by the failure of his Eastern enterprise. His grenadiers drove the legislative body from its hall, and Napoleon, under the title of first consul, became the supreme ruler of France, with powers which, in his hands, quickly became despotism as absolute as ever France had endured before.

One of the first public acts of Napoleon was to address a letter to the King of England, with proposals for peace between the countries. The English government decisively rejected his overtures, and chose to continue the strife. France, it was held, had declared war against all established governments; her success meant the overthrow of social order, the destruction of religious liberty and even of personal freedom. She was so faithless that treaties would not bind her. England avowed the huge and lawless design of continuing the war till France should give security, by the restoration of the Bourbons, or otherwise, that she had laid aside those principles on which her revolution was founded. It is not probable that Napoleon was sincere in professing a desire for peace; it is certain that he expressed his gratification when England so peremptorily refused to listen to him. He was possessed of an unparalleled talent for war, and his sure path to greatness led through the carnage and agony of battle-fields.

The vast power of Russia was at that time wielded by the lunatic Emperor Paul. Napoleon's first care was to detach him from the hostile alliance, and he did so at no greater cost than a few civil words and polite attentions. Austria and England remained his foes. The burden of the fighting fell chiefly on Austria, for England as yet did little more than contribute money to sustain the military powers of the Continent in their resistance to France. The French army in Germany was commanded by Moreau, and fought successfully against the Austrians, although without results of special brilliancy. In Italy, Napoleon took command in person of the sorely discouraged and ill-supplied troops who, during his absence in Egypt, had been driven out of the peninsula. He advanced into Lombardy, and at Marengo the opposing forces met. It was yet the day of small armies. The troops who fought that memorable battle numbered only thirty thousand on each side.

The Austrians took Napoleon somewhat by surprise, while his troops were yet much scattered. At first the French gave way before the attack of their foes. After many hours of fighting, victory seemed to remain with the Austrians, whose commander, an old man of eighty, yielding to fatigue, and regarding his work as done, retired from the field. Napoleon asked General Desaix what he thought of the situation. "The battle," said that officer, "is completely lost; but it is only four o'clock, and there is time to gain another." The retreating French were rallied for a fresh effort. The Austrians, called to fight where they expected only to pursue, were advancing to the attack, when the French cavalry, concealed from view by thick foliage, burst suddenly upon their flank. This charge decided the battle, and the Austrians, after bravely fighting for twelve hours, fled in utter disorder from the field. Napoleon regained by this decisive victory all that had been lost in Italy during his absence. The Austrian general owned his defeat by a convention in which he yielded all the fortresses held by the Austrians in Lombardy and Piedmont to the conqueror. A few months later the French army, under Moreau, fought the Austrians in the forest of Hohenlinden, and inflicted upon them a crushing defeat. The way to Vienna was now open, and a humiliating peace, which Austria was forced to accept, alone averted disasters yet more extreme.

The position of England at the close of this campaign was sufficiently alarming. Of her two great allies, Russia had become hostile, and Austria, humbled by the victorious arms of Napoleon, had made peace with the conqueror. Prussia, availing herself of the unfriended condition of England, had taken forcible possession of Hanover. Italy, Holland, and Spain were in abject subservience to Napoleon. And, finally, the northern powers, Russia, Denmark, and Sweden, entered into a league to suppress the right of search which England valued so highly, and forcibly to establish the doctrine that the goods of an enemy, if under a neutral flag, must be safe from capture. Thus England, in this time of universal war, had no friend but Austria, and she was helpless. But England was true to herself. She promptly despatched to Copenhagen a powerful fleet, of which Lord Nelson, nominally second, was really chief. A battle was fought off the harbour of Copenhagen. Of all the engagements in which Nelson had taken a part, -and they were over a hundred, -he considered this the most terrible. It resulted in the utter defeat of the Danes, and the ruin of their splendid fleet. Thus one limb was struck from the Northern Confederacy. A few days before, the Emperor Paul, who had recently given more decided evidences of insanity, was strangled by some of his nobles, who were of opinion that the empire required a change of policy. His son Alexander hastened to make peace with England, and thus our great danger passed harmlessly away.

But now a brief respite was to be enjoyed by the European powers from the bloody occupation to which for so many years they had given themselves. It was not the expectation-perhaps it was not even the desire-of the governments, that a lasting peace could yet be attained, but it suited the interests of all that at this stage of the war a breathing-time should be afforded. It was true that England, by whom the first overtures were made, had not yet gained any of the ends which she had proposed to herself by the war. But the government frankly admitted that it seemed hopeless to reduce the power of France, and asserted the desirableness of at least attempting to live in peace with their neighbour. The negotiations were attended with considerable difficulty. But the wish to have some interval of peace was strong both in England and France, and at last an agreement was arrived at. The other European powers effected quickly an adjustment of differences. For the first and the last time in his public life, Napoleon found himself without any war upon his hands. The Peace of Amiens, destined to give Europe but a few months of uncertain rest, was hailed with delight in all lands.

Napoleon, although nominally first consul, was in the full exercise of absolute power, and already surrounded himself with the observances of royalty. As a soldier he had no rival. He was still a young man, only thirty-three years of age; he could boast the double conquest of Italy, the conquest of Egypt, the defeat of Austria. Already the Corsican lawyer's son held the destinies of Europe in his hands. The glory which he had gained for them made him supreme in the hearts of Frenchmen. But his greatness was not merely that of the successful soldier. He governed with clemency and wisdom, and returning prosperity obtained for him the joyful submission of a people wearied out by the cruelty and weakness of revolutionary governments. During the months of peace which succeeded the Treaty of Amiens, he gave much thought to the reconstruction of institutions which the revolution had overthrown. Napoleon did not allow religious considerations to exercise any considerable influence over his own life; lout he regarded religion as an indispensable instrument of government, which he would have been constrained to invent had he not found it already in existence. The Roman Catholic religion was now restored, to the joy of the devout peasantry, but grievously to the dissatisfaction of the Parisians and the soldiery. The Sabbath became again the weekly day of rest. Education was promoted, although as yet only in its higher forms; for Napoleon was not sufficiently enlightened to desire that the masses of the French people should receive education. Improved methods of levying taxation were instituted, in place of the system established during the revolution, which was in the highest degree unequal and oppressive. To occupy the attention of the Parisians, and to prevent a too searching discussion of the policy of the first consul, extensive improvements of the capital were originated. In the provinces canals and roads were formed. The families banished by the revolution were permitted to return, and such of their possessions as had not been sold to meet the necessities of the state were restored. Throughout France the laws differed excessively. In one day's journey the traveller encountered several varieties of law. Napoleon formed the grand design of framing a uniform system of law for France. His beneficent conception was in due course of years given effect to, he himself taking no inconsiderable share in the labour involved.

>>> Next page >>>
Pages: <1> 2 3 4 5

Pictures for Napoleon Bonaparte

Home | Privacy Policy | Copyright | About