Fire & Retire !

First hand accounts from
the Napoleonic Wars.

The History of Napoleon Buonaparte.
The History of Napoleon Buonaparte
John Gibson Lockhart.

Chapter 1.

Birth and Parentage of Napoleon Buonaparte - His Education at Brienne and at Paris - His Character at this Period - His Political Predilections - He enters the Army as Second Lieutenant of Artillery - His First Military Service in Corsica in 1793.

Napoleon Buonaparte was born at Ajaccio on the 15th of August, 1769. The family had been of some distinction, during the middle ages, in Italy; whence his branch of it removed to Corsica, in the troubled times of the Guelphs and Gibellines. They were always considered as belonging to the gentry of the island. Charles, the father of Napoleon, an advocate of considerable reputation, married his mother, Letitia Ramolini, a young woman eminent for beauty and for strength of mind, during the civil war - when the Corsicans, under Paoli, were struggling to avoid the domination of the French.

The advocate had espoused the popular side in that contest, and his lovely and high-spirited wife used to attend him through the toils and dangers of his mountain campaigns. Upon the termination of the war, he would have exiled himself along with Paoli; but his relations dissuaded him from this step, and he was afterwards reconciled to the conquering party, and protected and patronised by the French governor of Corsica, the Count de Marbœuff.

It is said that Letitia had attended mass on the morning of the 15th of August; and, being seized suddenly on her return, gave birth to the future hero of his age, on a temporary couch covered with tapestry, representing the heroes of the Iliad. He was her second child. Joseph, afterwards King of Spain, was older than he: he had three younger brothers, Lucien, Louis, and Jerome; and three sisters, Eliza, Caroline, and Pauline. These grew up. Five others must have died in infancy; for we are told that Letitia had given birth to thirteen children, when at the age of thirty she became a widow.

In after-days, when Napoleon had climbed to sovereign power, many flatterers were willing to give him a lofty pedigree. To the Emperor of Austria, who would fain have traced his unwelcome son-in-law to some petty princes of Treviso, he replied, "I am the Rodolph of my race," and silenced, on a similar occasion, a professional genealogist, with, "Friend, my patent dates from Monte Notte."

Rodolph of Hapsburg was the founder of the Austrian family.
Monte Notte was Napoleon's first battle.

Charles Buonaparte, by the French governor's kindness, received a legal appointment in Corsica - that of Procureur du Roi (answering nearly to Attorney-General); and scandal has often said that Marbœuff was his wife's lover. The story received no credence in Ajaccio.

Concerning the infancy of Napoleon we know nothing, except that he ever acknowledged with the warmest gratitude the obligations laid on him, at the threshold of life by the sagacity and wisdom of Letitia. He always avowed his belief that he owed his subsequent elevation principally to her early lessons; and indeed laid it down as a maxim that "the future good or bad conduct of a child depends entirely on the mother."

Even of his boyish days few anecdotes have been preserved in Corsica. His chosen plaything, they say, was a small brass cannon; and, when at home in the school-vacations, his favourite retreat was a solitary summer-house among the rocks on the sea-shore, about a mile from Ajaccio, where his mother's brother (afterwards Cardinal Fesch) had a villa. The place is now in ruins, and overgrown with bushes, and the people call it "Napoleon's Grotto." He has himself said that he was remarkable only for obstinacy and curiosity: others add, that he was high-spirited, quarrelsome, imperious; fond of solitude; slovenly in his dress.

Being detected stealing figs in an orchard, the proprietor threatened to tell his mother, and the boy pleaded for himself with so much eloquence, that the man suffered him to escape. His careless attire, and his partiality for a pretty little girl in the neighbourhood, were ridiculed together in a song which his playmates used to shout after him in the streets of Ajaccio:

"Napoleone di mezza calzetta
Fa l'amore a Giacominetta."

"Napoleon, with his stockings about his heels,
    makes love to Giacominetta."

His superiority of character was early felt. An aged relation, Lucien Buonaparte, Archdeacon of Ajaccio, called the young people about his death-bed to take farewell and bless them: "You, Joseph," said the expiring man, "are the eldest; but Napoleon is the head of his family. Take care to remember my words." Napoleon took excellent care that they should not be forgotten. He began with beating his elder brother into subjection.

From his earliest youth he chose arms for his profession. When he was about seven years old (1776) his father was, through Marbœuff's patronage, sent to France as one of a deputation from the Corsican noblesse to King Louis XVI.; and Napoleon, for whom the count had also procured admission into the military school of Brienne, accompanied him. After seeing part of Italy, and crossing France, they reached Paris; and the boy was soon established in his school, where at first everything delighted him, though, forty years afterwards, he said he should never forget the bitter parting with his mother ere he set out on his travels. He spoke only Italian when he reached Brienne; but soon mastered French. His progress in Latin, and in literature generally, attracted no great praise; but in every study likely to be of service to the future soldier, he distinguished himself above his contemporaries. Of the mathematical tutors accordingly he was a great favourite. One of the other teachers having condemned him for some offence or neglect to wear a course woollen dress on a particular day, and dine on his knees at the door of the refectory, the boy's haughty spirit swelling under this dishonour, brought on a sudden vomiting, and a strong fit of hysterics. The mathematical master passing by, said they did not understand what they were dealing with, and released him. He cared little for common pastimes; but his love for such as mimicked war was extreme; and the skill of his fortifications, reared of turf, or of snow, according to the season, and the address and pertinacity with which he conducted their defence, attracted the admiration of all observers. Napoleon was poor and all but a foreigner among the French youth, and underwent many mortifications from both causes.

Corsica became by law a French department only two months before Napoleon was born.

His temper was reserved and proud; he had few friends - no bosom-companion; he lived by himself, and among his books and maps. M. Bourienne, whose friendship for him commenced thus early, says - "Buonaparte was noticeable at Brienne for his Italian complexion, the keenness of his look, and the tone of his conversation both with masters and comrades. There was almost always a dash of bitterness in what he said. He had very little of the disposition that leads to attachments; which I can only attribute to the misfortunes of his family every since his birth, and the impression which the conquest of his country had made on his early years." One day, at dinner, the principal of the school happened to say something slightingly of Paoli. "He was a great man," cried young Buonaparte, "he loved his country; and I shall never forgive my father, who had been his adjutant, for consenting to the union of Corsica with France. He ought to have followed the fortunes of Paoli."

There is reason to believe that the levity and haughtiness with which some of the young French gentlemen at this seminary conducted themselves towards this poor, solitary alien, had a strong effect on the first political feelings of the future Emperor of France. He particularly resented their jokes about his foreign name Napoleon. Bourienne says he often told him - "Hereafter I will do the French what harm I can; as for you, you never make me your jest - you love me."

From the beginning of the revolutionary struggle, boy and youth, he espoused and kept by the side of those who desired the total change of government. It is a strange enough fact, that Pichegru, afterwards so eminent and ultimately so unfortunate, was for some time his monitor in the school of Brienne. Being consulted many years later as to the chance of enlisting Buonaparte in the cause of the exiled Bourbons, this man is known to have answered: "It will be lost time to attempt that - I knew him in his youth - he has taken his side, and he will not change it."

In 1783 Buonaparte was, on the recommendation of his masters, sent from Brienne to the Royal Military School at Paris; this being an extraordinary compliment to the genius and proficiency of a boy of fifteen.

The report, in consequence of which Buonaparte received this distinction, is in these words: "M. de Buonaparte (Napoleon), born the 15th August, 1769, height four feet ten inches ten lines; good constitution; health excellent; character docile, upright, grateful; conduct very regular: has always distinguished himself by his application to the mathematics. He is passably acquainted with history and geography: is weak enough as to his Latin diction and other elegant accomplishments: would make an excellent sea-officer: deserves to be transferred to the Military School at Paris."

Here he spent nearly two years, devoted to his studies. That he laboured hard, both at Brienne and at Paris, we may judge; for his after-life left scanty room for book-work, and of the vast quantity of information which his strong memory ever placed at his disposal, the far greater proportion must have been accumulated now. He made himself a first-rate mathematician; he devoured history - his chosen authors being Plutarch and Tacitus; the former the most simple painter that antiquity has left us of heroic characters - the latter the profoundest master of political wisdom. The poems of Ossian were then new to Europe, and generally received as authentic remains of another age and style of heroism. The dark and lofty genius which they display, their indistinct but solemn pictures of heroic passions, love, battle, victory, and death, were appropriate food for Napoleon's young imagination; and, his taste being little scrupulous as to minor particulars, Ossian continued to be through life his favourite poet. While at Paris, he attracted much notice among those who had access to compare him with his fellows; his acquirements, among other advantages, introduced him to the familiar society of the celebrated Abbé Raynal. Napoleon, shortly after entering the school at Paris, drew up a memorial, which he in person presented to the superintendents of the establishment. He complained that the mode of life was too expensive and delicate for "poor gentlemen," and could not prepare them either for returning to their "modest homes," or for the hardships of the camp. He proposed that, instead of a regular dinner of two courses daily, the students should have ammunition bread, and soldiers' rations, and that they should be compelled to mend and clean their own stockings and shoes. This memorial is said to have done him no service at the military school.

He had just completed his sixteenth year when (in August, 1785,) after being examined by the great Laplace, he obtained his first commission as second lieutenant in the artillery regiment La Fere. His corps was at Valance when he joined it; and he mingled, more largely than might have been expected from his previous habits, in the cultivated society of the place. His personal advantages were considerable; the outline of the countenance classically beautiful; the eye deep-set and dazzlingly brilliant; the figure short, but slim, active, and perfectly knit. Courtly grace and refinement of manners he never attained, nor perhaps coveted; but he early learned the art, not difficult probably to any person possessed of such genius and such accomplishments, of rendering himself eminently agreeable wherever it suited his purpose or inclination to be so.

On the 27th February in this year his father died of a cancer in the stomach, aged forty-five; the same disease which was destined, at a somewhat later period of life, to prove fatal to himself.

While at Valance Buonaparte competed anonymously for a prize offered by the Academy of Lyons for the best answer to Raynal's Question: "What are the principles and institutions by the application of which mankind can be raised to the highest happiness?" He gained the prize: what were the contents of his Essay we know not. Talleyrand, long afterwards, obtained the manuscript, and, thinking to please his sovereign, brought it to him. He threw his eye over two or three pages, and tossed it into the fire. The treatise of the Lieutenant probably abounded in opinions which the Emperor had found it convenient to forget.

Even at Brienne his political feelings had been determined. At Valance he found the officers of his regiment divided, as all the world then was, into two parties; the lovers of the French Monarchy, and those who desired its overthrow. He sided openly with the latter. "Had I been a general," said Napoleon in the evening of his life, "I might have adhered to the king: being a subaltern, I joined the patriots."

In the beginning of 1792 he became captain of artillery (unattached;) and, happening to be in Paris, witnessed the lamentable scenes of the 20th of June, when the revolutionary mob stormed the Tuileries, and the king and his family, after undergoing innumerable insults and degradations, with the utmost difficulty preserved their lives. He followed the crowd into the garden before the palace; and when Louis XVI. appeared on a balcony with the red cap on his head, could no longer suppress his contempt and indignation. "Poor driveller!" said Napoleon, loud enough to be heard by those near him, "how could he suffer this rabble to enter? If he had swept away five or six hundred with his cannon, the rest would be running yet." He was also a witness of the still more terrible 10th of August, when, the palace being once more invested, the National Guard assigned for its defence took part with the assailants; the royal family were obliged to take refuge in the National Assembly, and the brave Swiss Guards were massacred almost to a man in the courts of the Tuileries. Buonaparte was a firm friend to the Assembly, to the charge of a party of which, at least, these excesses must be laid; but the spectacle disgusted him. The yells, screams, and pikes with bloody heads upon them, formed a scene which he afterwards described as "hideous and revolting." At this time Napoleon was without employment and very poor; and De Bourienne describes him as wandering idly about Paris, living, chiefly at his (M. de B.'s) expense, at restaurateurs' shops, and, among other wild-enough schemes, proposing that he and his schoolfellow should take some houses on lease, and endeavour to get a little money by subletting them in apartments. Such were the views and occupations of Buonaparte - at the moment when the national tragedy was darkening to its catastrophe. As yet he had been but a spectator of the Revolution, destined to pave his own path to sovereign power; it was not long before circumstances called on him to play a part.

General Paoli, who had lived in England ever since the termination of that civil war in which Charles Buonaparte served under his banner, was cheered, when the great French Revolution first broke out, with the hope that liberty was about to be restored to Corsica. He came to Paris, was received with applause as a tried friend of freedom, and appointed governor of his native island, which for some time he ruled wisely and happily. But as the revolution advanced, Paoli, like most other wise men, became satisfied that license was more likely to be established by its leaders, than law and rational liberty; and avowing his aversion to the growing principles of Jacobinism, and the scenes of tumult and bloodshed to which they gave rise, he was denounced in the National Assembly as the enemy of France. An expedition was sent to deprive him of his government, under the command of La Combe, Michel, and Salicetti, one of the Corsican deputies to the Convention; and Paoli called on his countrymen to take arms in his and their own defence.

Buonaparte happened at that time (1793) to have leave of absence from his regiment, and to be in Corsica on a visit to his mother. He had fitted up a little reading-room at the top of the house as the quietest part of it, and was spending his mornings in study, and his evenings among his family and old acquaintance, when the arrival of the expedition threw the island into convulsion. Paoli, who knew him well, did all he could to enlist him in his cause; he used, among other flatteries, to clap him on the back, and tell him he was "one of Plutarch's men."

But Napoleon had satisfied himself that Corsica was too small a country to maintain independence, - that she must fall under the rule either of France or England; and that her interests would be best served by adhering to the former. He therefore resisted all Paoli's offers, and tendered his sword to the service of Salicetti. He was appointed provisionally to the command of a battalion of National Guards; and the first military service on which he was employed was the reduction of a small fortress, called the Torre di Capitello, near Ajaccio.

He took it, but was soon besieged in it, and he and his garrison, after a gallant defence, and living for some time on horseflesh, were glad to evacuate the tower, and escape to the sea. The English government now began to reinforce Paoli, and the cause of the French party seemed for the moment to be desperate.

The Buonapartes were banished from Corsica, and their mother and sisters took refuge first at Nice, and afterwards at Marseilles, where for some time they suffered all the inconveniences of exile and poverty. Napoleon rejoined his regiment. He had chosen France for his country; and seems, in truth, to have preserved little or no affection for his native soil.

After arriving at supreme power, he bestowed one small fountain on Ajaccio; and succeeded, by the death of a relation, to a petty olive garden near that town. In the sequel of his history the name of Corsica will scarcely recur.

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Updated: 15th June, 2011.
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