Historical Shorts: Napoleon


I’ve found that people hate history.  I’m not sure why, but nearly everyone I know hates reading it, hearing about it, and thinking about it.  I personally blame the way history is taught rather than the subject itself.  I’ve found far too many history instructors spend too much time on minutia and specifics rather than informing students on the STORY part of history and allowing them to hear the interesting tales that make up the rich tapestry of human experience.

I love history and have spent years of my life studying it.  I think of most people could hear some of the stories I’ve heard, they might change their opinions on it and maybe even spark an interest in studying history on their own.  It’s more than just kings and battles, names and dates!

In this series I’ll share some brief bullet points the average person may not know about a specific historical concept, and one of my favorite stories.  I’ll cover historical figures, events, eras, and even a few historical movies (those will be fun…)

I hope it inspires people to maybe be more open-minded about history and find it more a fascinating journey into our shared past than a boring slog through dreary timelines.

I’ll start with one of my favorites: Napoleon Bonaparte.

Historical Shorts: Napoleon

  • NapoleonNapoleon wasn’t French but a Corsican, born Napoleone Buonaparte in 1769, the same year the island was conquered by France.  He spoke French with an accent throughout his life.  He despised the French (and his father for his complacency with the French government) until he was rejected by Corsican patriot Pasquale Paoli and driven from his home island.
  • Napoleon was trained in artillery and put cannon to good use during his many campaigns.  During his earliest battles the young general won the respect of his men by sighting and positioning cannons with their crews.  This was the duty of a corporal and no other officer would have done such a menial task.  It earned him the nickname “The Little Corporal.”
  • Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt 1798-1799, though strategically unimpressive, laid the foundations for the modern study of Egyptology and his army was accompanied by scholars, scientists, engineers, and architects.  The most important discovery on this expedition was the Rosetta Stone, which became the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.
  • He was wildly popular amongst his own men and used his popularity and charisma to good effect.  He often awarded medals himself (taking the medal off of his own uniform and pinning it on “the bravest man of the unit”) and is quoted as saying, “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.”
  • He was often noted as being personally courageous in battle, having no fewer than 10 horses shot from under him while on campaign.

The Return from Elba

Following the disastrous campaign in Russia, Napoleon returned to France to find the greatest powers of Europe arrayed against him.  Despite fighting one of the most remarkable campaigns in military history, the overwhelming odds eventually took their toll and the Emperor was defeated.  The Coalition powers removed Napoleon from power and reinstated the Bourbon monarchy (which had been violently overthrown by the French Revolution prior to Napoleon’s rise to power) under Louis XVI and banished Napoleon to the island of Elba.  He was named the ruler of the tiny island, but he soon became bored with his new life and managed to get himself smuggled back to France in February of 1815.  News of Napoleon’s return from Elba spread quickly and Louis XVI immediately took action, sending his new royal army, many veterans from Napoleon’s campaigns, to intercept and arrest the upstart.  Bonaparte’s growing army met the King’s army at Lyon and rather than engage them in combat, Bonaparte stepped forward to meet them and shouted, “If any of you wishes to shoot your emperor, you may shoot him now!”  The King’s troops erupted in a cheer of Vive l’Empreur hoisted Bonaparte up on their shoulders and immediately joined his cause.  Upon hearing this Louis XVI fled Paris and Napoleon once again took control of the nation.

To his credit, he immediately sued for peace with England, Prussia, Austria, and Russia (his greatest enemies) but this was rejected without contemplation.  His return to France after exile in Elba is known as “The Hundred Days” and ended with Bonaparte’s defeat at Waterloo.  Despite fighting reluctantly in a campaign he never wanted he very nearly even pulled off a victory over the combined British-Prussian armies.  Archduke Wellington, commander of the British army, citing it as “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.”

Napoleon was sent to, St. Helena, a volcanic rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, circled by ships of the Royal Navy to ensure he never again could escape.

The Emperor died in exile in 1821, leaving behind a legacy, both positive and negative that has few comparisons in history.

Napoleon returns from Elba

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