“Death is Nothing”: The 7 Stages of Napoleon's Rise to Power
“Death is Nothing”: The 7 Stages of Napoleon’s Rise to Power

“Death is Nothing”: The 7 Stages of Napoleon’s Rise to Power

Alexander Meddings - July 14, 2017

To some he’s the greatest leader France ever had; to others he’s a warmongering tyrant. Very few figures from history polarize opinion like Napoleon Bonaparte. He can be credited with upholding some of the best ideals of the French Revolution (preserved in his Napoleonic Code which still forms the backbone of many legal codes worldwide) and he offered the perfect example of meritocracy outperforming aristocracy in the modern age. Yet his name is also associated with brutality; his wars resulting in hundreds of thousands of death. To further tarnish his reputation there’s the small fact that he earned the admiration of a far more notorious 20th century figure with whom comparisons have been made—Adolf Hitler. As regards his character, there’s surprisingly little consensus across the 3,000 biographies that have been written about him. But where historians do agree is that his rise to power was as unlikely as it was incredible.

“Death is Nothing”: The 7 Stages of Napoleon’s Rise to Power
A Young Napoleon at his desk. Pinterest

Napoleon’s Early Life

Napoleon was born in Corsica’s capital of Ajaccio on August 15 1769. He was racially Italian, but Corsica’s recent capitulation to France made him nationally—and reluctantly—French. Later critics would ridicule the low birth of this “coarse Corsican”: in 1800 the British journalist William Cobbett labeling him as “a low-bred upstart from the contemptible Island of Corsica.” But this assessment was completely untrue. Napoleon was in fact born to recent minor nobility. His father, Carlo Bonaparte, was Corsica’s representative at the court of Louis XVI. But it was his mother, Letizia Ramolino (who he later credited as having “the head of a man on the body of a woman”) who exerted greater influence on the young Napoleon.

In May 1779 he took advantage of a military bursary to study at the academy at Brienne-le-Château. His heavy Corsican accent earned him the enmity of his overwhelmingly French aristocratic cohort. And, feeling isolated yet also driven to prove himself as being better than them, he devoted himself to his studies. He excelled in some of the more practical subjects: mathematics in particular, but also geography and history—counting among his heroes figures of antiquity like Alexander, Hannibal and Julius Caesar. Five years later, aged just 15, he would graduate with distinction and become the first Corsican ever to be awarded a place at Paris’s École Militaire.

It was during his time at the École Militaire that France had its Revolution: an event that would prove crucial in Napoleon’s career, replacing aristocratic privilege with meritocratic possibility and, for men like Napoleon, opening up the way to the upper echelons of politics and the military. The tumultuous times following the French Revolution also radically shifted the young Napoleon’s political allegiances. As second lieutenant of an artillery regiment, he would take the (lack of) opportunity while on garrison duty to return to Corsica in 1789. There he became involved in the complex politics of the island, taking command of a battalion of volunteers and alienating the separatist leader Pasquale Paoli.

Remarkably, despite leading a riot against French forces on the island, he was made a captain of the French regular army in 1792; a role he would take up upon his return (or rather exile at the hands of Paoli) in June 1793. Back in France, among the bloody carnage of the Reign of Terror, it became clear he had backed the right political horse in aligning himself with Revolutionary Jacobinism rather than Corsican nationalism. It was the Jacobins—under the fearsome leadership of such figures as Maximilien Robespierre— who held the reigns of power in the French National Convention. He further ingratiated himself by publishing a pro-republican political pamphlet “Le Souper de Beaucaire“. Robespierre’s brother, Augustine, approved of its pro-revolutionary content. And he would reward the political aspirations of the man who wrote it by dispatching him to Toulon.

“Death is Nothing”: The 7 Stages of Napoleon’s Rise to Power
Napoleon commanding the artillery at the Siege of Toulon. Pinterest

Napoleon’s First Taste of Action

Revolutionary France had made lots of enemies. Rather wishing to avoid Louis XVI’s fate, other European monarchs were desperate to ensure that the revolution wouldn’t be allowed to succeed and its ideas able to spread. The British, Prussians, Austrians and Spanish entered into war with the French Republic. And when the royalist-sympathizing southern French town of Toulon offered to open its port to a combined British and Spanish naval force, they gracefully accepted. For the sake of power and prestige, the revolutionary government couldn’t allow this to happen. They would have to drive them out and make an example of the rebels. And one of the men assigned to the task was Napoleon.

The Siege of Toulon (August – December 1793) was the first defining moment of Napoleon’s career. He was initially under the command of two officious but incompetent commanders. But they were soon replaced, and Napoleon was put under the charge of General Jacques Dugommier, a man who recognized his immense talents. After months of careful preparation,on December 17 Napoleon assaulted the forts around the city. He managed to storm them, taking a bayonet wound to the leg in the process compliments of an unknown British soldier. He turned the forts’ guns against the British and Spanish fleets forcing them to withdraw. They took with them as many Royalist citizens from Toulon as possible. Those left in the city were mercilessly massacred by Republican troops.

Through his success at Toulon, Napoleon announced himself as a man of incredible ability, both to his immediate military superiors and to his remote political superiors back in Paris. His efforts didn’t go unnoticed, and at the age of just 24 he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. Luck had certainly played its part. Napoleon had been in the right place at the right time taking part in an artillery-based offensive (as he was, by training, an artillery specialist). He had also been in the right place at the right time politically. The de facto revolutionary government, the Committee of Public Safety, championed merit over noble birth: any man who displayed it had the opportunity to rise through the ranks. And Napoleon had it in abundance.

The victor of Toulon now found himself commanding the artillery of the French Army of Italy. The army arrived in northern Italy in April 1794 and, at the Battle of Saorgio (24 – 28 April), Napoleon put his strategy into effect, directing French canon against the Austrians and Sardinians, driving them back first to Ormea in the mountains and then Saorge on the coast, and winning a decisive victory. But while he was enjoying a great deal of personal success in his Italian campaigns, his political masters were faring considerably worse. The government fell in July; Robespierre accused of harboring aspirations of tyranny. He was duly beheaded, along with 82 of his supporters over the coming days, bringing the Reign of Terror to an end. Back in Paris, Napoleon was briefly imprisoned, believed to be a supporter of Robespierre. But his services would soon be called upon again.

“Death is Nothing”: The 7 Stages of Napoleon’s Rise to Power
Napoleon commands revolutionary forces at “13 Vendémiaire”. Pinterest

Defender of the Revolution

The second most defining moment of Napoleon’s career was a battle known as 13 Vendémiaire (the name the revolutionary calendar gave to 5 October 1795). The Convention had tasked him with crushing a revolt among a Royalist group called the Sections, acquiescing to his demands to be allowed to use “whatever means necessary”. In command of a small artillery regiment, he spent three hours from 6 a.m. – 9 a.m. setting up his canons in defense of government headquarters at the Tuileries Palace, lining up his infantry behind and assigning the his cavalry to what is today’s Place de la Concorde. Instead of round shot, he had set upon using grapeshot—a particularly nasty projectile consisting of small metal balls packed tightly into a canvas sack.

His forces were outnumbered by around six to one, but he held firm as the mob marched towards him. As soon as he heard the first musket shot being fired, however, he began unleashing barrage after barrage of grapeshot into the crowd. His “whiff of grapeshot” tore through them, and maiming volleys of musket fire from the patriot battalions caused the royalists to waver. At this moment he directed a counterattack of Chasseurs—led by one of Napoleon’s up-and-coming favorites Joachim Murat—who cut them down and put them to flight. Three hundred civilian rebels lay dead in Paris’s streets, while Napoleon had lost around half a dozen men. Napoleon himself had only narrowly escaped danger, however, at one point having his horse shot from under him.

The brutality of Napoleon’s response has to be explained in the context of his prior experience. He had been in Paris during the September massacres of 1792 and during this time he had seen half of Paris’s prisoner population—some 1,200-1,400 people—summarily executed by a rabid, unrestrained mob. The “Times of London”, in fact, had described the streets of Paris as being “strewn with the carcasses of the mangled victims”. Napoleon understood the destructive potential of the mob; food riots scared him more than battles in fact. And he had no compunction in using whatever means necessary to contain it.

In recognition of his exemplary service Napoleon received a promotion. But his decision to use Grapeshot on civilians—a first in France’s history—was broadly condemned among his critics. General Jean Sarrazin, upon whom Napoleon had passed the death sentence, described how Napoleon had “set [his soldiers] the example of inhumanity”. But the Directory showed gratitude to the man who had saved the revolution and, quite possibly, prevented civil war. And, again, they would show their gratitude by offering him a promotion.

“Death is Nothing”: The 7 Stages of Napoleon’s Rise to Power
The Battle of Rivoli (January 1797). Philosophers Guild

The Italian Campaigns

In March 1796, two days after getting married to Josephine, Napoleon was named commander in chief of the French Army in Italy. He was just 26. He led a haggard army of 40,000 soldiers; an experienced group, but poorly supplied and badly demoralized. But Napoleon’s trademark leadership turned them into a ruthlessly efficient fighting force. He promised them booty (all the captured gold they could carry), cracked down on deserters and made a point of leading his men in person. He also employed the blitzkrieg tactics for which he would become famous, dividing Austrian and Piedmontese forces. And he didn’t play by the conventions of warfare: one Piedmontese general writing: “They send a young madman, who attacks right, left, and to the rear. It’s an intolerable way of making war.”

Shocked by the suddenness of his arrival and put to flight, the Piedmontese signed the Treaty of Cherasco in April 1796. The Austrians, having been in Italy for less than a year, retreated, conceding Lombardy and then its capital Milan to Napoleon’s forces. In one battle (the Battle of Lodi), Napoleon earned a reputation for audacity by storming a well-defended bridge head on. In a later battle (the Battle of Arcola) Napoleon would lead the charge himself, carrying the revolutionary standard against the Austrians. In February 1797 he captured Mantua. He snowballed across the Alps and, stationed 60 miles away from Vienna, forced the Austrians into signing the Treaty of Campo Formio on October 17 1797. But he wasn’t done yet, and before returning to France also brought Venice and Genoa under French control.

Returning to Paris after the successful conclusion of his Italian campaigns, Napoleon was welcomed as the country’s most famous general. A personally cult sprung up around him; his swelling group of supporters (and sycophants) organizing dinners, balls, processions and other event that only added to the propagandistic potency of his image. But restless as always, Napoleon wouldn’t spend long in the capital. At least not while France was under threat from its neighbors and the future French Republic—so hard fought for with the blood of soldiers and citizens alike—was in jeopardy.

France’s bitterest enemy, Britain, had just joined with other European powers—Russia, Prussia and Austria—to form the Second Coalition. The British represented a real threat; not only did they rule the waves, but the prosperity of their empire meant that, for the foreseeable future, they could continue to fund the allies in the war against France. Napoleon’s plan was to invade Egypt. In doing so he would not only gain territory for France, he could use Egypt as a base from which to attack the jewel in the British Empire’s crown: India. His campaign, however, would not go according to plan.

“Death is Nothing”: The 7 Stages of Napoleon’s Rise to Power
The Battle of the Pyramids. July 21 1798. Wikipedia Commons

The Egyptian Campaigns

Napoleon landed in Alexandria in 1798 with an expeditionary force composed of soldiers and scholars. It was, in part, a scientific expedition, and among the numerous discoveries was that of the Rosetta Stone which paved the way for the discipline of Egyptology. Primarily, however, it was a military campaign. And at the beginning everything went just as expected. Napoleon won a series of victories, the most important being at the Battle of the Pyramids on July 21 1798. It was during this battle, which saw the almost total annihilation of the Mamluk-led Egyptian Army, where Napoleon first put into practice his infantry square formation—a tactic allowing infantry to defend themselves more effectively against cavalry under the constant cover of tightly-packed fire.

But Napoleon’s victory on land would be completely overshadowed by his defeat at sea. After days of hunting for the French fleet, the formidable British admiral Horatio Nelson finally spotted it docked in the Bay of Abukir on August 1. Through a masterful series of maneuvers Nelson managed to surround the fleet, and for three days he set about destroying the French Republic’s Navy. Only two of the 17 French ships escaped, with the French suffering up to 5,000 casualties. By contrast no British ships were sunk and only 218 men were killed (though many more, including Nelson, were wounded).

The Battle of the Nile consolidated British naval superiority; not just for the remainder of the “Napoleonic Era” but for the remainder of the century. It also irreversibly jeopardized Napoleon’s campaign. When Napoleon besieged the Syrian city of Acre between March and May 1799 the Ottomans put up a staunch resistance; foiling Napoleon’s artillery attacks by building reserve defences behind the city walls. But they were also assisted by a British flotilla under the direction of Commodore Sidney Smith, which provided additional firepower from the coast. And to make matters even worse, a plague started to spread around the French camp; one that would claim the lives of over 2,000 men by the campaign’s conclusion.

Acre was the site of one of Napoleon’s few losses. But it was a significant one. Lifting the siege he retreated to Egypt with a wilted, demoralized force. Determined to save face, however, he entered Cairo triumphantly, oversaw a final victorious land battle at Abukir (for which credit really should go to Murat) and organized a “voyage down the Nile” with a handful of companions. In reality, the voyage was a mere ruse, and deciding that his work in Egypt was done he took the opportunity to escape back to France. In late August 1799 he boarded a ship with a small retinue of officers and scholars, leaving his 20,000 men behind. Fortunately for him, dead men tell no tales.

“Death is Nothing”: The 7 Stages of Napoleon’s Rise to Power
Napoleon addresses the Council of Five Hundred at the coup of 18 Brumaire. Wikipedia Commons

Turning Tragedy into Triumph

Napoleon landed back in France in October 1799. He might have expected an acrimonious response from the Directory (who, if they had been more powerful, would in all likelihood have punished him for desertion). But as it stood Napoleon returned home a hero. To some extent his exploits in Italy still very much carried his reputation. But, as had been the case upon his triumphal procession into Cairo earlier that year, it was more Napoleon’s gift of spin—being able to portray a tragedy as a triumph—that won the day.

The political circumstances surrounding Napoleon’s ascent made power ripe for the taking. The Directory were corrupt and disliked, their incompetency leading to rapid inflation rates which, for those who the revolution was apparently meant to serve, was making life considerably harder than it had been under the rule of the Bourbon monarchs. A string of recent victories against the Second Coalition had done nothing to pacify public opinion and French society, it was felt, was in desperate search for that elusive, intangible concept that all nations strive after: stability. Napoleon believed that he was the one to provide it.

Historical precedent showed Napoleon that he could only provide strong and stable leadership if he was alone at the helm. Just as Augustus had risen from the ashes of the Roman Republic’s most destructive civil wars to usher in a new golden age, so to would Napoleon by establishing himself at the head of French government. To do this, however, he would need support. And so in collusion with his brother Lucien (at this stage the Speaker of the Council of Five Hundred) and a number of directors Napoleon plotted the coup d’état that would overthrow the Directory and establish him in the dictatorial role of First Consul.

The events that followed (known to history as “18 Brumaire”) so closely mirrored a particular episode in Roman history that they almost seem scripted. Augustus’s predecessor Julius Caesar—a figure Napoleon greatly admired—had declared himself dictator in perpetuum (to his ultimate downfall) during the dying days of the Roman Republic. On the Ides of March 44 BC he was struck down in the Senate, stabbed 23 times by senatorial conspirators including Caesar’s nearest and dearest, Brutus. When Napoleon marched into the Council of the Five Hundred with his grenadier guard and demanded they draw up a new constitution, dissolve the Directory, and establish a Consulate, it momentarily looked like he would share the same fate.

But then, at the pivotal moment, his brother Lucien Bonaparte made a dash towards Napoleon, pointing a dagger at his heart, and swearing that if he thought his brother had aspirations of tyranny he would strike the first blow. Whether it was this theatrical display that won the council over or the armed men under Murat’s command who marched in immediately afterwards is debatable. But in the end the council dispersed and Napoleon had won. Far from falling victim to tyrannicide, as his great hero Julius Caesar had done, he instead emanated his office: that of the supreme, autonomously powerful First Consul.

“Death is Nothing”: The 7 Stages of Napoleon’s Rise to Power
“Napoleon’s Coronation” by Jacques-Louis David. Wikipedia Commons

Emperor of France

At 10 a.m. on Monday 11 November 1799 the 30 year old Napoleon arrived at Luxemburg Palace in the center of Paris to begin with the business of ruling France from the consulate. He had secured the government’s agreement that a new constitution would be drawn up which designated him executive powers. And less than a month later on December 13 it was formally ratified, ensuring Napoleon would keep these powers for 10 years as First Consul. Napoleon claimed to rule by popular vote; in reality he was a dictator, supported by rigged votes. But how he had managed to secure power was of secondary importance to his ability to use it.

Having established his position, what Napoleon needed to do now was secure it. And like the Roman generals of old, he knew that the best way to do this was through doing what he did best and delivering a series of military victories. He campaigned in Austria, Northern Italy, the Austrian-owned Netherlands and Germany. Through waging war, he managed to bring about peace (at least temporarily) with Britain and France signing the Treaty of Amiens in 1802. This enabled him to return to France and focus more on internal politics: reorganizing the educational system, getting himself confirmed as First Consul for life and introducing his civil code. War broke out again in May 1803; the Treaty of Amiens lasting for just over a year. But this wasn’t going to stop Napoleon from fulfilling his ultimate ambition.

Napoleon’s crowning moment came on December 2 1804 in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. In the presence of Pope Pius VII and the rich and powerful notables of French society, he had his coronation. It was a remarkable spectacle, combining Carolingian ritual with symbolism from the ancien régime and the Revolutionary Era. And it was given a coating of sumptuous luxury and unrivalled arrogance with Napoleon—in contravention of any previous tradition—actually crowning himself. Then again, such arrogance was merited given his achievements. From modest beginning on the belittled island of Corsica, Napoleon had risen through the ranks. And, entirely on the basis of his own merit, the 35 year old now stood as the France’s first emperor in over 1,000 years.

Napoleon’s rise to power must be contextualized within fortuitous circumstances, but it must also be explained in terms of his personality. He was clearly a man of immense charisma, ambition and self-conviction. But contrary to what most people think, he was also affable, apologetic and had a sharp sense of humor. The following decade would see his fortunes rise and fall, ending with disgrace after his defeat at Waterloo and banishment to Saint Helena in October 1815. But such were his personal qualities that, when he was finally exiled, a far larger personal retinue of his personal staff fought to accompany him than the British would permit; a powerful testament to the charisma and magnetism of a minor noble from Corsica after whom a historical age has been named.