The Reign of Napoleon Bonaparte

The Reign of Napoleon Bonaparte

by Robert Asprey

"Robert Asprey's biography bids fair to become the standard work in English on the most prominent avatar of the 'great man' theory of history."--Boston GlobeSee more details below


"Robert Asprey's biography bids fair to become the standard work in English on the most prominent avatar of the 'great man' theory of history."--Boston Globe

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The Reign of Napoleon Bonaparte

By Robert Asprey

Basic Books

Copyright © 2002 Robert Asprey
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0465004822

Chapter One

Peace is not obtained by shouting Peace ... Peace is a word devoid of meaning; we must make a glorious peace.

Napoleon to Prince Joseph Bonaparte, Schönbrunn,

Napoleon deemed Austerlitz a "decisive victory" without perhaps realizing that decisive is a finite adjective with a limited lifespan. Victory did leave him in a powerful position vis-à-vis wavering Prussia and the members of the now moribund Third Coalition, but it would not provide the answer to potentially dangerous political problems. This was a task for intelligent and astute diplomacy not fully appreciated by the French emperor.

Dead and dying soldiers still littered the battlefield when Napoleon met with Emperor Francis. Although the victor agreed to an armistice and the opening of peace negotiations, he excoriated Austrian duplicity in having sent peace envoys to the French camp while simultaneously preparing to attack. He also scorned Austria's foreign minister, Count Johann Cobenzl, who "sold himself to England to pay his debts and who has ruined his master and his nation." Although Cobenzl was soon to be dismissed, the price of his misjudgment was suggested in an earlier letter from Napoleon to Talleyrand: the enemy having gambled and lost everything "must now expect harsh conditions," an early one of which was a levy of an enormous sum, 100 million francs, in "contributions".

The Russians had already paid their contributions, so to speak, in the form of heavy losses of men, all of their huge artillery park, supply and baggage trains along with much of their pride. Before sneaking off with the wounded General Kutusov in tow, Czar Alexander had asked Francis to request an armistice from Napoleon on his behalf. Informed that Alexander had agreed to evacuate all Russian troops from Germany and Galicia and that he wanted a separate peace devoid of English participation, Napoleon called off his pursuit.

Napoleon's gentle if contemptuous treatment of Czar Alexander is curious, as if regarding the Russians as visitors from another planet. He disparaged Russian arms, having noted even before Austerlitz that the cavalry although splendidly turned out had not yet learned to use sabers effectively. "The Russian troops are brave," he commented after Austerlitz, "their generals inexperienced, their soldiers ignorant and sluggish which in truth makes their armies to be little feared." He regarded Alexander as an ambitious but inexperienced and impetuous young man surrounded and controlled by firebrand courtiers such as Prince Dolgoruky who were in English pay. Alexander's participation in the Third Coalition was a temporary aberration, an unwise intrusion in European affairs. "Russia is the sole power in Europe able to make a war of fantasy," he wrote. "After a battle lost or won, the Russians vanish; France, Austria, Prussia, to the contrary, must live a long time with the results of the war."

Napoleon's desire to obtain a "glorious peace", by which he meant a profitable but permanent peace with Austria, was not a simple matter. One Austrian army had been decimated but there remained Prince Charles with some 90,000 troops not far distant. There also remained a Prussian army 190,000 strong, elements of which were reportedly in Silesia. Napoleon's past experience with these courts had taught him to trust neither ruler, weak men who bent too easily under the weight of anti-French advisers. "Until the peace," Napoleon warned corps and division commanders, "the armistice should be regarded only as a moment of repose, a means of preparing for new battles." Commanders were to repair the ravages of battle as quickly as possible while keeping their units on the alert, ready to march within two hours.

Peace negotiations dragged on through most of December. Those with the Prussian envoy, Count Haugwitz, proceeded rapidly and favorably. Unlike Prussia's foreign minister, Prince Karl von Hardenberg, Haugwitz was an admirer of Napoleon, a Francophile who proudly wore the cordon of the French Legion of Honor. Haugwitz had arrived in Vienna shortly before the battle of Austerlitz to convince Talleyrand of Prussia's desire to cooperate with France, even going so far as to deny the validity of Prussia's recent treaty with Russia. "I am very content with Count Haugwitz," Talleyrand informed his master at the time.

After a considerable delay Napoleon received the Prussian envoy in mid December at Schönbrunn palace, a formal and tense meeting that resulted in the signing of preliminaries to what would become the treaty of Schönbrunn. Once Russian and English troops had evacuated German territory Prussia would occupy Hanover in return for yielding substantial territories in central Germany to Bavaria and France. Napoleon also proposed an offensive and defensive military alliance -- and a satisfied Haugwitz departed for Berlin. "There is nothing to fear from the North," Napoleon informed Joseph Bonaparte (prematurely as it turned out), "our disagreements with Prussia have been cleared up to our mutual satisfaction."

Negotiations with Austria did not progress so smoothly, mainly because of Napoleon's stringent demands. The treaty of Pressburg, signed two days after Christmas, cost the Vienna court all of its Venetian territories (absorbed into the Italian kingdom which Austria now recognized); Istria and Dalmatia in the Balkans which went to France (see map, Chapter 13, Vol. I); all of the Tyrol and Vorarlberg to Bavaria; and all of its diverse Swabian holdings to Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden, thus yielding its dominant role in southern Germany to Napoleon.

That was for starters. A good many millions in cash already had been seized by the French. Under treaty terms another 8 million would be handed over before French troops evacuated Pressburg, and 40 million more would follow. Under the expert tutelage of Vivant Denon, who had perfected his art in the Italian and Egyptian campaigns, museums, libraries and palaces had been stripped of artistic and cultural treasures. Over 2,000 cannon were shipped from the famous Vienna arsenal -- some to Venetian and Dalmatian fortresses, some to Paris to embellish a hall in the Musée Napoléon (later the Louvre) along with "some curious things" also found in Vienna. The land had been stripped of provisions and horses, Murat alone having more than doubled the size of his cavalry corps.

This "glorious peace" was one of vengeance just as had been those of Lunéville and Campo Formio several years earlier. Although justified at least in part by the Austrian court's enduring hostility and duplicity and its failure to heed Napoleon's warning in favor of spearheading the Third Coalition's war against France, it was perhaps not his wisest move -- though this is certainly debatable. Talleyrand had argued against the harsh terms on grounds that Austria instead of being humbled should remain a great power and should be strengthened as "a needful bulwark against the barbarians, the Russians." He even suggested giving Hanover to Austria in order to break the Anglo-Austrian alliance. (In view of subsequent events Talleyrand's advice was perhaps biased -- he was probably in Austrian pay even at this point.)

However, it is clear that Napoleon wanted none of it. A number of reasons have been posited for his stand: that he needed alliance with Prussia and Russia in order to close European ports to British goods (the embryo of what would become his Continental System); that once again he was looking eastward toward Turkey and India (that Charlemagne had again given ground to Alexander the Great in this teeming, fecund mind). More probably it stemmed partly from his understandable distrust of the Austrian court and from his resentment of its invasion of Bavaria which forced him to abandon his cross-Channel expedition. He was also in urgent need of money, owing to the financial crisis that was rocking Paris. Having humbled the Austrian court he could discard it, content that, like Russia, it would remain militarily impotent for some time. He had warned the Vienna court not to make war against him. Having ignored the warning, it would now pay the price.

Napoleon left Vienna at the end of December for a stay of several weeks in Munich in order to await ratification of the treaty and to oversee a dynastic marriage. The electors of Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden had been well paid for their recent alliance with France. Each received new territories, the electors of Bavaria and Württemberg were promoted to kingly status and the Elector of Baden was made a grand duke.

Bavaria was the most important member of the burgeoning edifice and as such saw its territory increased by a third. In gratitude for its military assistance Napoleon awarded the 9 million livres paid in contributions by the Tyrol to the new king, Maximilian I, and gave him 40 places in the Legion of Honor to be divided between officers and men; General Deroy gained a lifetime pension and General Wrede a high rank (with pension) in the Legion of Honor. The alliance was now to be cemented by a propitious marriage.

The bride was Princess Amelia Augusta, young daughter of the Bavarian elector who earlier had attracted Napoleon by her good looks and innate charm. The groom was his stepson, Prince Eugene Beauharnais, viceroy of Italy. Eugene was 24 years old, a soldier and ruler whose competence had considerably increased during the last six years owing in large part to Napoleon's almost constant tutelage.

As was customary neither bride nor groom had been consulted. "I have arrived in Munich," Napoleon informed Eugène on the last day of December. "I have arranged your marriage with Princess Augusta ... This morning the princess visited me and we had a long conversation. She is very pretty. You will find her portrait on the enclosed cup, but she is much prettier." In early January, Eugene learned that he was to leave Milan within twelve hours to travel incognito to Munich as rapidly as possible.

Napoleon remained rapturous over the forthcoming marriage, "the union of a princess as perfect as Princess Augusta with a child [sic] for whom everyone knows my tender sentiments," as he expressed it to Prince Cambacérès. A day prior to the wedding he informed the senate in Paris that he was formally adopting Eugène, which constitutionally made him heir to the Italian throne.

The French emperor was very much concerned with Italy's future. Eugène was to establish a new administration in the recently acquired Venetian lands and arrange for the military occupation of the Frioul by General Marmont. The general would also send a division to Istria and Dalmatia which would be governed by General Lauriston. Meanwhile General Junot would put down an insurrection in the duchies of Parma and Piacenza: "Peace in Italy is not maintained by words," he informed Junot. "Do what I did at Binasco [in 1796]: burn a large village, shoot a dozen insurgents and send out mobile columns to seize brigands wherever they may be to give an example to the people."

Napoleon was equally concerned with the situation in Naples. Ruled by King Ferdinand IV and Queen Caroline who were dominated by their prime minister, the Englishman Sir John Acton, that kingdom had become virtually an English colony (under feudal rule), a mainstay in British domination of the Mediterranean. Despite repeated promises of neutrality, the court and particularly its queen had remained under Acton's influence to the extent that a frustrated Napoleon had militarily occupied the country. This led to still another promise of future neutrality in return for the departure of French troops. Early in 1805 Napoleon warned Queen Caroline that "if she were the cause of another war, she and her children would beg their bread all through Europe."

Undaunted, in the autumn of 1805 the good queen had welcomed an Anglo-Russian expedition some 20,000 strong which landed to challenge the French presence in Italy. This was part of England's peripheral strategy which was complemented by an Anglo-Russian-Swedish expedition that was to occupy North Germany simultaneously with Austria's invasion of Bavaria. The French victory at Austerlitz quickly dissolved the southern expedition, the Russians decamping for Corfu and the English across the straits to Sicily, the Naples court having re-established itself in Palermo.

While negotiating the peace with Austria, Napoleon had sent Gouvion St. Cyr with a large force to seize Naples and formally depose its royal rulers: "The dynasty of Naples has ceased to reign ... Its existence is incompatible with peace in Europe and the honor of my crown." The job was to be done by St. Cyr, Masséna and Reynier's corps operating under command of Prince Joseph Bonaparte. "Attach yourself to General Reynier," Napoleon ordered his brother. "He is cold but of the three he is the most capable of making a good plan of campaign and giving you good advice." Joseph should not worry about the Anglo-Russian force: "An army composed of men of different nations will not take long to make some blunders. The art will be to wait and profit from them." If reinforcements should reach the enemy, Napoleon would immediately join Joseph. Finally, he was to "speak seriously to Masséna and St. Cyr, and tell them you do not want thieving. Masséna has stolen plenty in the Venetian countries." Joseph would remain in Naples, eventually to be crowned king. In the interim he was to administer the country with the help of Ségur, Roederer and Saliceti.

While these events played out, the French army began an evacuation from Austria minutely prescribed by its commander. No unit was to march until local contributions had been paid. Marches were to be short so as not to tire the men unnecessarily and create laggards to give the evacuation "the appearance of a disorderly retreat."

Some units had begun the journey home by the time Napoleon left Munich. An indication of future problems appeared when Berthier was informed in late January that "my affairs with Prussia are not entirely terminated, and my intention is to keep forty thousand men at Frankfurt until the Russians have evacuated Silesia."

Chapter Two

My intention is to place the kingdom of Naples in my family. This will be along with Italy, Switzerland, Holland and the three German kingdoms my federated States, or in truth the

Napoleon arrived incognito in Paris on a night in late January 1806. His first official but secret act was to summon the principals of what had become a serious financial crisis; we noted its first makings in 1804. Finance minister Gaudin's reforms were only beginning to produce satisfactory results at a time when Napoleon needed vast sums for grandiose civil and military projects. To raise the money the treasury minister, François de Barbé-Marbois, had foolishly involved himself with a company of merchant-speculators headed by Gabriel Julien Ouvrard (with whom Josephine and her lover, Hippolyte Charles, had earlier been involved in a series of shady dealings with army contractors). This necessitated borrowing money from the Bank of France and other banks to finance various speculative ventures, the security being the large Spanish debt to France which was to have been paid with gold and silver brought from Mexico. Unfortunately the English blockade nullified this arrangement, to everyone's embarrassment.

That was the situation when Napoleon had gone to war five months earlier. Barbé-Marbois meanwhile kept borrowing and Ouvrard's hold on the treasury kept growing as he siphoned off the cash. Accurate rumors that the Bank of France was running out of gold had brought a rush of withdrawals met by issuing paper money, which soon declined sharply in value. Napoleon had learned details of the growing crisis in mid campaign and had promised to settle matters upon his return.

He did so. He immediately replaced Barbé-Marbois with a no-nonsense state councillor, an experienced financial administrator named Nicolas François Mollien (a man of energy, talent and probity who would serve him well until the end). Although Napoleon deplored Barbé-Marbois' naive stupidities, he did not regard him as criminally involved. Not so with Ouvrard and his cronies whom he forced to return 87 million francs to the treasury, a wise surrender since the emperor otherwise "had resolved to have them shot without a trial." This cash infusion taken with the loot of the recent campaign and other income partially restored financial stability and in a month the crisis had passed though the treasury was anything but full.

Although Napoleon had hoped to continue civil programs begun during the Consulate and carried into the Empire, these were not to regain their former impetus. Neither desire nor imagination was lacking. In early March the minister of interior, Jean Baptiste Champagny, read a lengthy "State of the Empire" paper to the legislative corps. This work included a review of diverse accomplishments in every facet of national life as well as an impressive list of future intentions.

The government would continue to subsidize new factories, encourage such counter-measures to the English blockade as home refining of beet sugar and manufacture of ersatz coffee, saltpeter (necessary for the manufacture of gunpowder) and indigo dye (vital to the textile industry); it would also fund plans for new buildings, erect new statues and monuments, open additional schools, stage another industrial exhibition in Paris, repair old roads, bridges, canals and ports and build new ones. But where once many millions were devoted to such projects, now it was a matter of a few hundred thousand here and there with work to be spread over years to come.

The villain was limited income trying to finance an expansive foreign policy dependent on a large, costly and ever-growing military establishment. We see at this stage an unfortunate transition from a ruler of France to a man intending to rule Europe. Ulm and Austerlitz had dangerously increased the imperial ego, as a study of pertinent letters, decrees and memoirs shows only too clearly.

Napoleon's political position at home was secure enough. He was immensely popular with the ordinary citizen. Minister of police Joseph Fouché kept a careful eye on dissidents conspiring in the cafés of the faubourg St. Germain and in elegant private salons. Editors of journals and newspapers perforce took a careful line as did authors, playwrights, artists and composers. Virtually no overt criticism of the regime was tolerated. Fouché's agents were seemingly everywhere enforcing petty censorships -- one decree ordered newspapers to confine coverage of military affairs to what appeared in the official Moniteur. Napoleon continued to cosset the Catholic clergy and was rewarded with impressive fealty. A cowed and bored tribunate offered hardly any obstruction to his new laws, nor did the legislative corps or the senate, all of which were becoming increasingly moribund. His ministers with one or two exceptions, his councillors of state dared not challenge sometimes imperfect imperial ukases. Those who did, either civil or military, usually regretted their rashness. Infrequent queries or suggestions more often than not drew negative replies and sometimes scoldings. So long as Napoleon was present the machinery of government functioned reasonably well, a matter of extreme vigilance on his part. It was in his absence that major cracks appeared in the structure, owing mainly to the fear of cowed lieutenants who rarely dared to act without imperial orders.


Excerpted from The Reign of Napoleon Bonaparte by Robert Asprey Copyright © 2002 by Robert Asprey. Excerpted by permission.
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