N & E
Napoleon & Empire

From Bonaparte to Napoleon I.

Battle(s) of the month

May 10, 1796: Battle of Lodi

At the start of the Italian campaign, once the Sardinians had been defeated, Bonaparte set out in pursuit of the Austrian army. He crossed the Po at Plaisance but the Adda, a tributary of the left bank of the river, then blocked his path. He had to quickly cross this river if he wanted to avoid the escape of the enemy, who had already evacuated Milan towards Cremona. Having been unable to cross at Zorlesco, the French discovered a still passable bridge at Lodi. The Austrian rearguard defended access but Bonaparte wanted to pass at all costs.

May 30, 1796: Battle of Borghetto

Once the Adda was crossed by the French, the Austrian general in chief Johann von Beaulieu took shelter behind another tributary of the Po, the Mincio, whose course connects Lake Garda to Mantua. From the position of Valeggio, located approximately halfway between these two points, he attempted to protect both his line of retreat, which passed by the Adige, and the bridges which spanned the river. The French, lacking equipment, could only rely on these or possible fords to cross. Bonaparte set his sights on the Borghetto bridge.

May 21 and 22, 1809: Battle of Aspern

The capture of Vienna by Napoleon, which occurred very early in the campaign, did not convince the Austrian authorities to sue for peace.

The French position, in fact, could very quickly become perilous if Archduke John managed to bring together the 40 to 50,000 men he brought from Italy with the still more or less intact forces of his brother Archduke Charles.

Napoleon therefore decided to provoke a decisive battle before this junction. To do this, he had to cross the Danube, since Charles was pushed back to the north bank of the river after the battle of Eckmühl. The chosen site was located east of Vienna, where the crossing was made easier by the presence of the island of Lobau which divides the Danube into several arms. To hasten the passage of the army, makeshift solutions were favored in the construction of bridges. This bet will prove to be a losing one...

May 2, 1813: Battle of Lützen

When the Saxon campaign began, among the forces available to Napoleon I, only the artillery was satisfactory. The infantry was inexperienced and the cavalry almost non-existent.

However, faced with a coalition that Prussia reinforced in March, the Emperor took the offensive and marched his army towards Leipzig. Three columns, preceded by an advance guard, walked in parallel. The southern one was attacked by the combined forces of Blücher and Wittgenstein, whose gathering was not spotted by the French cavalry, which was too poorly supplied and too inexperienced.

Napoleon rushed to the rescue at the head of the rest of his troops.

May 20 and 21, 1813: Battle of Bautzen

Following their defeat at Lützen, the Allies had to retreat to the Spree. Napoleon intended to continue his offensive towards the Oder and capture Berlin.

But, after having sent Ney in this direction, he understood that his adversaries were determined to impose an immediate battle on him, in order to interrupt a retreat whose consequences on the morale of their troops and the intentions of Austria worried them.

Russians and Prussians therefore took refuge together at Bautzen, a site close to Austria and where possible reinforcements could easily reach them.

Napoleon advanced towards them with the army corps of Oudinot, Macdonald, Marmont and Bertrand.

Events of the day

30 may

1806

An assembly of one hundred-eleven chiefs of the nation Jewish is convened in Paris.

1808

Insurrection and massacre at Granada.

Birth of the day

May 30, 1773

Emmerich Joseph Wolfgang Héribert DE DALBERG


The "raison d'être" of the Napoléon & Empire website

A Google search for "Napoleon Bonaparte" brings up over ten million results. The idea of adding a drop to this ocean can therefore only come from enthusiasts, determined as they are to bear witness to their fascination for a character endowed, according to Chateaubriand, with "the most powerful breath of life that ever animated human clay".

The "Napoleon & Empire" website claims no other legitimacy.

In our opinion, Napoleon's will, intelligence, daring and achievements make him the prototype of the "great man". Even if this concept is viewed with suspicion today, the fact remains that from a relatively modest lineage and a peripheral province recently united with France − Chateaubriand described his family as "half-African" − he rose to power in one of the oldest and most important countries in Europe, before carving out an empire for himself on a continent then made up of the most prosperous, developed and powerful nations on the globe. Not even Caesar, a patrician born in the capital of the Roman Empire, or Alexander, heir to the kingdom of Macedonia, could compare with him in this respect. He owes his dizzying ascent to his talent, of course, but also to his energy and, above all, his activity − he will always speak of his genius in a somewhat mocking tone, but will take great pride in his capacity for hard work. In this way, his career is positively revolutionary.

His work is no less so. The period of Napoleon's career, so short in truth, is so full of events that it has no equivalent in French history. It fell to the First Consul, then the Emperor, to preside over the reconstruction of a new society based on new legal, political and social rules, on the ruins of the Ancien Régime destroyed by the Revolution. Less dazzling than his military prowess, this refoundation proved more useful and more profitable to the nation − and more lasting, too, in its effects, for the institutional edifice it built proved to be of rare solidity, and was maintained for the most part well into the 20th century. France built its modern state on this foundation, and many European countries followed suit.

Why, with such a track record, does Napoleon arouse such admiration and fascination in some, and such hostility in others? Why did the French authorities prefer to remain as discreet as an English butler during the years 1996-2015, when so many glorious bicentennials were waiting to be commemorated? The slavery re-establishment lawsuit brought against Napoleon cannot, alone, explain this phenomenon, especially as it only began in 2005, and other opportunities had already been squandered in previous years.

The primary cause certainly lies in the reputation for warmongering that attaches to his name, and the bloodshed for which he is held responsible. But is he really the only one to blame for the incessant conflicts that ravaged Europe during his reign? Is there no doubt that his adversaries were determined to make peace, and especially England, which financed hostilities against France, his main historical rival, for twenty-five years? Admittedly, the man many consider to be the greatest military genius of all time, and who always imposed himself on his enemies on the battlefield, may have abused this superiority. However, it's hard to deny that his warlike ventures had other than political aims. It was Louis XIV who confessed: I loved war too much; Napoleon, on the other hand, used it as a tool, never prolonging hostilities once his objectives had been achieved. It's true that, up to that point, he practices it withour qualms. If time and the evolution of mentalities have spoiled the prestige of great conquerors, let's not forget that Napoleon lived at a time when military glory and heroism were usually ranked among the noblest achievements of the human person, and war was considered a school of virtue. In fact, we don't have to go back very far to recall the days when Hoche, Marceau, Kléber and Desaix were held up as examples to children in french schools.

General Bonaparte, some would argue, was certainly of the same calibre. But he didn't die like them at the turn of the century, and metamorphosed into an entirely different character: Napoleon I. This is the other recurring criticism levelled at him: that he stifled the Revolution. This is forgetting − or refusing to see − that his regime was a worthy heir to the Revolution, when it exhausted itself trying to get European sovereigns to accept its annexations; that the Empire, as a political entity, was part monarchy and part republic; that the much-maligned Napoleonic wars also led to the collapse of large swathes of feudal and absolutist institutions throughout Europe; that the Emperor remained consistently more popular with the lower classes of society than with the upper; that he was always concerned to provide work for the workers and to supply the markets properly!

All this, you may object, at the price of freedom. That's true. It's impossible to deny it. Napoleon's temperament and training combined to make him hate disorder. He saw it as the consequence of excessive freedom during the revolutionary years. He mistrusted it, and compressed it with all his might. In doing so, however, he met with little opposition in French society, which was generally indifferent to the loss, since equality had been proclaimed and secured, while the nation's dazzling grandeur, which came very close to total domination of Europe, flattered the pride of its people. The sacrifice made was, it seemed, amply compensated. And perhaps it was the prerequisite for achieving that synthesis of Ancien Régime and Revolutionary France which, from the 18th Brumaire onwards, was one of the objectives most doggedly pursued by both Consul Bonaparte and Emperor Napoleon. Although he was unable to achieve it for lack of time, and the respective elites of these two groups did not amalgamate, he nevertheless forced them, throughout his reign, to coexist and put their abilities at the service of the state, for the latter's greatest benefit. Indeed, the Consulate and Empire together make up one of those rare periods in French history when our country's successes were achieved exclusively at the expense of foreign powers, and not of a section of its own people.

It's clear, then, that he is such a diverse character that any judgment of him is bound to be reductive. Hence the contradictory accounts of his life, and the divergent assessments givent to him and his work. It's hard to find a place where to put together a young Corsican patriot, a fallen sovereign who was a prisoner and ill, a victorious conqueror, a revolutionary general favored by Robespierre and then Barras, and an authoritarian emperor. Napoleon played all these roles, and many more, in diplomatic, political, administrative and military spheres. He alone is the exception that confirms − or the example that invalidates, each to judge according to his own personal conviction − the view that history can be explained by the general laws of social evolution, and not by the consequences of the choices made by its major players.

In conclusion, Napoleon Bonaparte's life is one of history's most prodigious phenomena, one of its most irreducibly singular yet universal figures. His complexity continues to fascinate people all over the world. Each generation finds in him something to fuel its own problematics. There's no doubt that the day when his story will cease to be written is still a long way off.

Lionel A. Bouchon

Mécène de la restauration du tombeau de l'Empereur