All that I am waiting for is a chance to take part in a battle, to snatch the laurel crown from the hands of fortune or to die on the field of glory.
–Napoleon, to his brother Joseph
Situated off the east coast of Italy, with few harbors and a mountainous interior, the island of Corsica has long been something of a world unto itself, a place where would-be conquerors have struggled to overcome the island’s natural defenses only to confront the stubborn self-reliance of its people. Since 1284, the island was a dominion of the Republic of Genoa, which lay some 150 miles to the north, but the island’s relative isolation made it a difficult place to govern. In 1755 Pasquale Paoli, a native whose military experience included service in the army of the King of Naples organized a resistance movement and drove the Genoese out. At 29, Paoli went on to establish an independent republic with its own constitution, and for the next twelve years, he and a small army of freedom fighters struggled to maintain the island’s precarious independence against repeated attempts at reconquest.
Nor did the islanders’ heroic struggle go unnoticed. In 1762 Jean Jacques Rousseau, author of The Social Contract, a hugely popular book whose precepts would help set the stage for the French Revolution, wrote of Corsica: “I have a presentiment that one day this small island will astonish Europe.” Several years later another noted man of letters, British biographer James Boswell, sought to arouse British public opinion on behalf of the islanders with the publication of Journal of a Tour to Corsica. Like Rousseau, Boswell seemed to recognize in the island’s struggle for independence the nascent forces that were about to plunge Europe into a long and extremely bloody period of conflict. Despite the encouragement of such influential men, however, the freedom of the islanders was short-lived. In May 1768, having failed in their efforts to subdue Paoli’s guerillas, the Genoese revenged themselves on their former subjects by selling the island to the French, which quickly sent troops to take possession. Determined to continue the fight for independence, Paoli and his troops withdrew to the island’s mountain fastnesses and undertook a series of hit-and-run attacks, thwarting an initial effort to occupy the strategic city of Bastia.
Another French expedition soon followed, however, and when Paoli was defeated in a pitched battle at Ponte Nuovo (May 1769), he and a sizeable portion of his force were sent into exile in England. Among those rebels who remained on the island were Carlo Buonaparte and his wife, Letizia, who, though pregnant and with an infant in arms, accompanied her husband throughout the resistance. Hiding out in the island’s interior even after the defeat at Ponte Nuovo, the couple would be among the last to give up the fight, yet when the time came to choose between exile and submission to French rule, they chose the latter, and were to receive remarkably lenient treatment from the island’s new rulers. Returning to his home in Ajaccio, Carlo went on to become a lawyer, and, after establishing his descent from Tuscan nobility, was accorded privileges similar to those enjoyed by French noblemen, including exemption from taxation. Later, Carlo (or, as he was now a French citizen, Charles) sought the help of the island’s French administrator to win another perquisite normally reserved for French nobility: the opportunity to send his children to French religious or military schools at the expense of the state. For the eldest son, Joseph, the choice was religious training, but for the second son, whose mother had braved whistling bullets while pregnant with him, every indication seemed to point to a career as a soldier. (If ever a child’s pre-natal experience portended the life he was to lead, his did.) Exceptionally strong-willed and energetic, Nabolione, as he was known within the family, would attend the military school at Brienne, some hundred miles east of Paris. At the age of nine, the boy left his island home for the first time; he would not return for another eight years.
Many accounts of Napoleon’s life at school tend to focus on his isolation from his schoolmates and the ridicule to which he was subjected as a foreigner and a scholarship student. Clearly, the transition from comfortable family life in Corsica to the rough-and-tumble of boarding school in a country whose language he had yet to master (his native tongue being Italian, the accents of which he would never quite lose) was not without difficulty, especially for someone with his proud and fiery disposition. For the most part, however, he thrived at school, doing reasonably well in his studies, particularly mathematics, and forming lasting friendships with several of his peers. Even so, from an early age, he showed a remarkable degree of self-sufficiency and unflagging confidence in himself and his destiny, confidence that, while itself a source of ridicule, seemed to render him impervious to the tauntings of his fellow students. After five years at Brienne, having failed in his efforts to pursue a naval career, Napoleon entered l’Ecole Militaire in Paris, moving into his new quarters in October 1784 at the age of fifteen. Here, in the heart of the French capital, the routines and amenities of his daily life improved considerably, yet the same circumstance that had dogged him at Brienne–his status as a scholarship student with limited means–only became more pronounced in the socially-conscious world of the capital, where many cadets could afford lavish meals and personal servants. No doubt such reminders of his own relative poverty played a part in Napoleon’s strong identification with Corsica, where his family enjoyed a measure of social elevation. In any case, he would soon have a powerful reason to reflect on home, for his father had by this time developed chronic stomach pain, and during a trip to the French mainland in search of treatment, the former freedom fighter suddenly collapsed. Diagnosed with stomach cancer, he died in February 1785 at the age of 38.
Despite or because of the loss of his father, Napoleon applied himself all the harder to his studies, completing a difficult course in artillery and passing his exams in one year instead of the usual two. Receiving his commission shortly after his sixteenth birthday, he elected to be stationed at Valence, some 50 miles south of Lyon, where he eagerly pursued his training at a nearby artillery school and began to develop wider interests. Now an officer in the French army (he received his lieutenant’s epaulets in January 1786), he was a nominal member of the French upper class, and, embarking on a course of self-improvement, he began to read as much and as widely as possible, developing a growing appreciation for French culture. As for his personal life, there was little to speak of. A friend and former roommate at L’Ecole Militaire, Alexander des Mazis, had also been posted to Valence, and the two continued to share confidences, but apart from this one acquaintance, Napoleon remained something of a loner throughout much of this period of his life. Having rented his own living quarters in town, he took meals with his fellow officers in a local inn and, when not engaged in formal studies or regimental business, spent much of his time reading or walking about on his own.
His circumstances changed in September 1786, when news of illness and financial difficulties at home prompted him to return to Corsica for the first time since departing for school eight years earlier. Having arranged a leave of absence from his regiment, he journeyed to the Mediterranean coast and made the short voyage to his homeland, where he received a warm homecoming in Ajaccio and reacquainted himself with the people and scenes of his youth. Here too, however, he seems to have spent much of his time alone, embarking on a variety of literary pursuits, including initial efforts at an ambitious history of Corsica. Viewed from the perspective of a subsequent career of unprecedented activity and exertion, this extended leave–pleading health issues, he would manage to stretch it out to a full year–presents historians with a period of almost incomprehensible calm. Even more incomprehensible by today’s standards, perhaps, is the fact that in addition to his original extension he was able to wrangle another six months vacation out of the war ministry. As historian David Bell explains, due to “an absurd level of overmanning at the higher ranks” extended leaves among the officer corps were commonplace at the time, and “the army was delighted to see them go.”
Upon his return to active service in the spring of 1788, Napoleon, now 19, was stationed in Auxonne, in Burgundy, home to a prestigious artillery school where he immersed himself in war studies and first took part in the handling and firing of cannon. His social life, however, remained as uneventful as it had been at Valence, and his living conditions were even more spartan. Restricting himself to one meal a day, he spent much of his small savings on books, a practice that seriously eroded his health. Meanwhile, France itself seemed to have reached a low ebb, and when the severe winter of 1788-9 led to substantial losses in livestock and agricultural production, isolated incidents of rioting began to break out across the country. In one such case, Napoleon’s regiment was involved in restoring order, spending the better part of a month maintaining the peace in a nearby town. No stranger to want, Napoleon was largely sympathetic to the plight of the lower classes, and his policing experience–along with his voracious reading–would help shape his political sensibilities, leading him to the conviction that a constitutional monarchy like that in England provided the best model for France. Even as he contemplated needed reforms, however, on the streets of Paris a new government was about to be born in a firestorm of revolution.
France in the latter part of the eighteenth century was ripe for political change, it’s institutions mired in the feudal past at a time when radical new ideas about society and governance lay at the heart of a larger intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment. The idea that hereditary kings ruled by divine right and were subject to no earthly authority, a principle espoused in 1603 by King James I of England, had been subject to broad review in that country, where Parliament which would shortly commit to beheading James’ son, Charles I. In France, meanwhile, the divine right theory that would flourish under King Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, would enter a decline during the reign of his successor, Louis XV, so much so that the latter’s mistress, Madame Pompadour would be credited with one of the era’s more memorable utterances: “Après nous, le Déluge” (After us, destruction), a saying that would be seen as a portent of the revolutionary violence to come. In any case, by the time Louis XVI ascended the throne in 1774, the Sun King’s legacy had become decidedly less sunny, and the idea that kings enjoyed divinely sanctioned authority was subject to changing interpretations of the role, if not the relevance, of hereditary monarchs.
Compounding the problems associated with its increasingly outmoded system of government, France under Louis XVI had amassed enormous debts as a result of the country’s participation in the American Revolution, the burden of which inevitably fell on the middle and lower classes–known as the Third Estate, or Commoners–in the form of increased taxes and fees. Traditionally, the French clergy paid few taxes of any kind while the nobility enjoyed various exemptions based on rank. In the face of a mounting financial crisis both upper classes, or estates, clung to their privileges, while the overburdened Commoners made increasingly strident demands for reform. Such was the magnitude of the problem that in May 1789, amid growing popular unrest, the king was compelled to convene the Estates-General, a representative body that had not met in over 150 years. Even so, the royal concession was little more than an empty gesture, for although the Third Estate represented by far the largest segment of the population (as much as 96% by some estimates), various procedural rules worked to keep the Estates-General firmly under the control of the upper classes. However, neither the king nor the privileged few anticipated the new strength and assertiveness of the French middle class, for when faced with the prospect of being outvoted, the people’s representatives broke with tradition and declared a new National Assembly with broad powers. The king responded by denying the rebellious representatives access to their appointed meeting rooms, whereupon they moved to a nearby hall in which a tennis court served them as an auditorium. Here, amid much excitement, they took an oath not to disband until they had formulated a new constitution. Known as the Tennis Court Oath, the agreement posed a serious challenge to the old order, and when substantial numbers of the two upper estates joined the renegade movement, the continued viability of the French monarchy was suddenly called into question.
Confronted with a popular revolt, the king relented, eventually agreeing to the formation of a new legislative body, but by this time events were moving beyond his control. When rumors began circulating that he was secretly gathering troops with which to restore order, mob violence broke out on the streets of the capital. The crisis came to a head on 14 July 1789, when, following two days of rioting, a large mass of armed citizens surrounded the Bastille, a prison symbolic of royal authority, demanding that its stores of weapons and ammunition be turned over to the people. When these demands went unmet, two members of the mob managed to climb an exterior wall and lower a drawbridge, at which point the mob surged into an outer courtyard, where Royalist defenders of the fortress fired down on the insurgents from its walls, killing as many as a hundred. Next, two detachments of French Guards arrived in support of the people, positioning several cannons in front of the main gate, following which, seeking to prevent further bloodshed, the governor of the Bastille agreed to capitulate. A second drawbridge was then lowered to allow the mob to enter an inner courtyard, and for a moment it seemed the incident was over, as the leaders of the mob embraced the soldiers of the garrison in a spirit of reconciliation. When isolated shots were fired from the parapet by those unaware of the surrender, however, the mob went on a murderous rampage, killing the entire garrison as well as many suspected royalists, and dragging their dismembered bodies through the streets.
While the Bastille was of little strategic significance, the fall of the royal fortress and the unprecedented orgy of violence that attended it would prove powerfully symbolic, suddenly giving credence to long-suppressed dreams of democratic reforms. At the same time, the success of the mob inspired fears of reprisal and a heightened sense of urgency about the need to secure constitutional protections for the people, in the face of which the king was compelled to make one concession after another in hopes of retaining some measure of control. To no avail. Though the new National Convention was comprised of members of all three estates, it was now the commoners who held sway by means of a faction known as the Girondin (so-called for their identification with the Gironde, a region in the southwest of the country). Known for their high-flown oratory and gauzy idealism, the Girondin initially favored the creation of a constitutional monarchy in which the king would continue to reign, albeit in a highly circumscribed capacity. This position would soon be challenged by the growing influence of more radical elements among the political societies of Paris, chief among them the Jacobin Club (named for its proximity to the Church of St. Jacques in the city’s Latin Quarter). Enjoying wide support among the lower classes in particular, the radical Jacobins, with the backing of the Paris mob, increasingly insisted on the creation of a republic in which the king would play no part.
Indeed, by the spring of 1791, the pervasive threat of mob violence had rendered the king a virtual prisoner in the Tuileries Palace at the center of the city. In June, belatedly taking matters into his own hands, he and the royal family attempted to escape the growing chaos, dressing as ordinary citizens and making a dash for German territory in an inconspicuous carriage. Recognized and arrested at the village of Varennes, some 50 miles short of freedom, they were brought back to Paris in disgrace, their prospects bleaker than ever. While the king had thus far been receptive to many of the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment (naively supposing that they could somehow be reconciled with the precepts of monarchism), his true attitude toward the revolution now stood revealed. Moreover, news of his predicament compelled the monarchies of Europe to prepare for war against the nascent French republic, a development that placed Louis in the middle of a larger struggle that would extend far beyond the borders of France.
In April 1792 French forces invaded Belgium in an effort to preempt plans by the monarchies–chiefly Austria and Prussia–to come to Louis’ rescue. The French incursion was swiftly driven back, however, and in July the Duke of Brunswick, commanding a large Austro-Prussian army at Coblenz, issued a manifesto threatening the invasion of France if the king were not reinstated. A month later, in the absence of any signs of French acquiescence, Brunswick kept his word, crossing the border and heading for the fateful stand-off at Valmy. Meanwhile, in Paris armed bands prowled the streets, shouting “Death to aristocrats!” and in several cases making good on such threats. In August a mob accompanied by National Guardsmen made a full-scale attack on the Tuileries, killing over 500 members of the king’s Swiss Guards and breaking into the royal apartments. Finding them empty, the enraged masses–comprised largely of women–went on a spree of looting and destruction. The royal family, meanwhile, had fled through a secret passageway and placed themselves under the protection of the National Assembly, a legislative body whose ability to control events was becoming increasingly doubtful. Indeed, certain members of the assembly–among them the fanatical populist, Jean-Paul Marat–were actively involved in inciting and orchestrating such violence, including a savage outburst known as the September Massacres, in which hundreds of men, women, and children were systematically murdered on suspicion of membership in or sympathy with the aristocracy.
Napoleon, meanwhile, had spent the early years of the revolution on three lengthy leaves of absence to Corsica, in each case involving himself in the volatile politics of his homeland to a greater and more perilous extent. The first of these visits began in September 1789, a mere two months after the fall of the Bastille, at which point, with the capital still reeling from sporadic mob violence, he quickly threw his support behind an emerging Corsican independence movement, a move that seriously compromised his position as a French officer. Under any other circumstances, such conduct might have led to charges of treason, but in the confusion wrought by recent events in Paris, his actions went largely unnoticed by officialdom. His fellow Corsicans, however, were decidedly less forgiving. A clear majority wanted no part of his peremptory efforts to seize control of the island, and before long he was unable to walk the streets of his hometown, Ajaccio, without fear of attack from those opposed to his plans and outraged by his methods. After a year and a half of agitating for a cause few supported, he succeeded only in damaging his reputation among both his fellow islanders and his army superiors, whose good graces he further offended by overstaying the term of his leave by several weeks.
Still, he was not prepared to give up the fight. Finally returning to Auxonne in February 1791, he was soon transferred with his regiment to Valence, where he set about lobbying for yet another leave in order to return to his homeland. He would not have to wait long. A mere six months after the end of his previous sojourn he arrived back in Ajaccio in September 1791, in time to visit his family’s chief benefactor, Archdeacon Lucien, shortly before the latter’s death. While Napoleon took some comfort in seeing the family provided for in the old man’s will, the new sense of security only spurred his ambition to command the island’s national guard, and soon he was back in the middle of the island’s fractious politics. By this time, in an effort to placate the warring factions, the revolutionary government in Paris had reached out to Pasquale Paoli, offering the former exile the position of president of the department of Corsica, a move that at once disenfranchised local firebrands. Indeed, fully aware of Napoleon’s recent agitation on behalf of independence, Paoli wanted nothing to do with him.
Bitterly disappointed, Napoleon responded by arranging to get himself elected second-in-command of a volunteer militia unit in Ajaccio and mounting an attack on the local French garrison. Needless to say, this was hardly a wise career move, and to make matter worse he had once again overstayed his leave, this time by four months, long enough to compel his regiment to find a replacement. Facing the prospect of deep trouble with the authorities in Paris, he now raced to the capital to defend his actions. Exactly what Napoleon said in his own defense on this occasion is a matter of considerable speculation; in any case, it worked, aided in large measure by the convulsive politics of the times. With the country continuing to come apart at its feudal seams, Napoleon’s gaffe in distant Corsica was of little significance and, far from being prosecuted, he was promoted to captain on condition that he remain in Paris. During this period he witnessed the mob’s advance on the Tuileries (20 June), in which the king was compelled to wear a Jacobin bonnet and drink wine with a drunken rabble. Later, on 10 August, Napoleon was again present during the full-scale attack in which some 600 members of the king’s Swiss Guard were massacred in the palace courtyard. Though disgusted by these increasingly violent signs of incipient chaos, he was in no position to do anything to prevent them. Revolution was “the mistress of the hour,” as he characterized the situation to his former roommate, des Mazis, and a month later the cannonade at Valmy would give further impetus to its progress.
At this point, the king had only five more months to live. Even the intensity of events in the capital could not distract Napoleon from his fixation with Corsica, however, and a month later (October 1792) he arranged to return once again to Ajaccio. That he was able to do so would lead some to suspect that he was sent by government officials for the purpose of spying on Pasquale Paoli, whose loyalty to the revolutionary regime was in question. In any case, upon his arrival, he met with Paoli to request command of national guard forces in a Paris-inspired plan to invade nearby Sardinia, then at war with France. Though Paoli did not favor the plan and continued to harbor the deepest reservations about Napoleon, he reluctantly agreed to a scheme in which Napoleon would join some 800 National Guardsmen on a mission to seize a small island off the Sardinian coast in preparation for a larger assault on the main island. The expedition no sooner made a successful landing, however, than the commander, citing a mutiny among the sailors, ordered an abrupt return to Corsica, very nearly leaving Napoleon behind in his haste. Though furious at the mission’s failure, Napoleon remained largely unaware of evidence that Paoli had orchestrated the entire incident in order to be rid of him.
The young French officer was nothing if not determined, however, and quickly hatched still another scheme to seize power by force. Removing his mother and siblings to a safe place elsewhere on the island, he mounted his own sea-borne attack on Ajaccio in hopes that a sizable pro-French faction would rally to his cause. The town held out against him, however, responding to his ill-conceived attempt at a take-over by officially condemning him and seizing his family home. Bitterly disillusioned, he had little choice but to arrange passage to Toulon for himself and his family, his efforts to play a leadership role in his homeland at an end. In a subsequent career marked by unprecedented military success, Corsica would stand out as one of the few places he had been unable to conquer.