JC Scull often writes about historical events and historical figures.
The Colossus of the Nineteenth Century
Not since Joan of Arc has there been a greater champion of French cultural nationalism than Napoleon Bonaparte. He accomplished this by justifying French expansionism and military campaigns through the ideals of “liberty, equality and fraternity” which the French Revolution espoused. He rationalized his actions by claiming France had the right to spread these enlightened paragons across Europe. Principles he betrayed by becoming an emperor and dictator.
Notwithstanding his tyranny and insatiable appetite for conquest he brought about wide reaching social, economic, and political changes throughout Europe and perhaps the world. He managed this by giving the common people the rights they deserved, meanwhile pushing the nobility out of power. Napoleon granted the commoner the right to private property, a privilege reserved to the aristocracy. He also guaranteed the people would not be governed through oppression or fear; a positive impact that lasted well beyond his reign.
Napoleon entered the public stage in 1789 at the onset of the French Revolution. Propelled by numerous battlefield victories in Italy and Egypt, he rose to national prominence in 1799. Upon his return to Paris he noticed the waning influence of the The Directory and seized the opportunity to arrogate power and declared himself First Consul. This action gave him dictatorial authority over France.
Shortly after, Napoleon instituted numerous governmental reforms, including his famous Napoleonic Code which forbade government positions to be awarded based on birth or religion. The code also gave France its first sound and cogent set of laws concerning property, family and individual rights. Napoleon’s reforms also improved the French economy through the building of infrastructure.
By 1804, he had crowned himself his country’s first emperor, not only dominating France but also most of Europe until 1815.
Today Napoleon is considered one of the greatest military generals in history. His copious accomplishments and victories make him an enduring historical figure. To those who wish to know more about this legendary world leader, the following are but a few facts about Napoleon Bonapart, every history devotee should know.
- Napoleon Was Italian. Not French
- He Wasn't Short
- He Once Wrote a Short Romance Novella
- His First Wife Josephine de Beauharnais Was Imprisoned and Almost Executed During the Reign of Terror
- It is Doubtful He Was Afraid of Cats
- He Didn't Conceal His Hand in His Shirt Due to Stomach Ache
- A Soldier in Napoleon's Army Discovered the Rosetta Stone in Egypt
- He Would Disguise Himself and Walk the Streets of Paris
- Napoleon Wore Poison Around His Neck and Consumed It Prior to Being Exiled to the Island of Elba
- Napoleon Sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States of America
- He Left Elba - Reclaimed His Throne - Exiled Again in St. Helena
- The British Monarchy Worried Napoleon Would Win the Hearts of the British People
- Napoleon Likely Died of Stomach Cancer, Not Arsenic
#1 — Napoleon was Italian. Not French.
Napoleon was born in Corsica; a large island off the coast of Italy. This occurred a year after it became French territory. While today, Corsicans primarily speak French, with a small percentage of the population speaking Corsu (an Italian dialect), during Napoleon time this was not the case. During his childhood the locals spoke either Genoese or Corsu.
His true name was “Napoleone di Buonaparte,” which he changed as a young adult in order to sound more French. While his parents were not part of the elite rich, they did have enough money to send him to the prestigious École Militaire in Paris. Unfortunately, His father died during his first year there and the young Napoleon was forced to graduate early to help his family financially. This, earned him the distinction of being the first Corsican to graduate from this distinguished institution. At 16 years old, Napoleon became an officer in the French army.
Although we think of Napoleon as a consumate builder of the French empire, as a young man he had a burning desire to see Corsica free of France’s rule. His parents, also opposed French rule since before he was born. This led him to write a series of treatises on the history and government of Corsica in which he called the French “monster” and the enemy of free men.”
#2 — He Wasn’t Short
The rumor about Napoleon’s supposed short stature was originated by English propagandist as a way of embarrasing and diminishing him in front of Europe. They did this by depicting him as comically diminutive in critical cartoons during the Napoleonic Wars. This belief became so regnant that the 20th century psychological affliction known as ‘Short man syndrome’ has become also known as the ‘Napoleon complex.’
The truth of his height, however, is otherwise as it is today believed he was five feet six inches tall; an average stature for men of that time period. One posibility for this misinformation could have originated from a physician’s note at the time of his death saying he was five-foot-two “from the top of the head to the heels.” An additional note specifies this to have been French measurements equal to five-foot-six in English terms.
#3 — He Once Wrote a Short Romance Novella
Before he met and married Josephine in 1795 and at a low ebb in his personal and professional life, Napoleon wrote a somewhat fragmentary twenty plus page love story. In the narrative, triumphant soldier Clisson turns his back on worldly success, falls in love and marries Eugénie. They live a simple life until Clisson is called back into battle.
While the story reveals how the destined great general and emperor of France viewed love, women, and military life, it has received mixed reviews. It is believed to be autobiographical, depicting Napoleon’s love affair with Bernardine Eugénie Désirée Clary before she became Queen of Sweden. It is obvious the character of Clisson describes Napoleon’s dreams of grandeur and heroism in battle.
In this extremely short novella (perhaps more of a short story), Clisson is injured in battle. His comrade Berville, travels to inform Eugénie her husband is safe, however seduces her. Heartbroken and at the end of his marriage, Clisson writes one final letter to his unfaithful wife and engineers his death at the front lines.
Fortunately for Napoleon, he never pursued the career of novelist.
#4 — His First Wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais, Was Imprisoned and Almost Executed During the Reign of Terror
Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie (23 June 1763–29 May 1814), was born into a rich plantation family in Martinique and wed politician and general Alexandre de Beauharnais at the age of 16. Her marriage was fraught with problems since its beginning as Alexandre, Viscount of Beauharnais was known for being a womanizer and frequenting houses of prostitution.
As she was shunned by her husband, Joséphine went about seducing and having well publized affairs with other high society men. As the Revolution swept through France, her husband was imprisoned at the infamous Carmes prison and sent to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. He was charged with poorly defending Mainz during the siege of 1793 and considered an aristocratic suspect.
In April of 1794, Josephine was jailed in the same prison as Aexandre. She would have met the same fate as her husband had it not been for the trial and eventual execution of Maximilien Robespierre — the architect of the Reign of Terror. Fortunately for her, the day before her trial, the government was deposed and all executions halted. She was released from prison shortly after.
#5 — It Is Doubtful He was Afraid of Cats
While it has been claimed by many that Napoleon suffered from “ailurophobia,” the fear of cats, no record exists to support this assertion. It is likely this averment stems from similar claims made about other famous leaders, such as Hitler, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan and Mussolini. However, some historians claim this depiction was most likely promulgated by his enemies; in particular the British who constantly attempted to portray Napoleon as weak.
#6 — He Didn’t Conceal His Hand in His Shirt Due to Stomach Ache
Over the years, Napoleon has been depicted in portraits and other paintings with one of his hands (right or left) concealed inside his shirt or vest. As with everything Napoleon, speculation and wild conjectures have abounded. However, the question still remains as to why he seemed to take on this gesture so often.
Concealing a hand, however, has long been considered a display of gentlemanly restraint and was often associated with nobility. This bit of body language goes back to ancient Greece when famous orator Aeschines claimed restricting the movement of one’s hand was the proper way to speak in public.
The fact is, the “hand-in-coat” pose appeared often in scultures of ancient Romans who were portrayed as orators. The stance supposedly gave them an air of refinement, breeding and boldness. Obvious qualities an emperor such as Napoleon would want to exhibit.
#7 — A Soldier in Napoleon’s Army Discovered the Rosetta Stone in Egypt
In July 1799, near the town of Rosetta — some 35 miles east of Alexandria — a French soldier with Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, discovered what we know today as the Rosetta Stone. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he brought along a group of scholars whose job was to seize all important cultural artifact and expropriate them to France. Aware of this order, Pierre Bouchard, one of Napoleon’s soldiers found the four by two-and-half foot basalt stone and turned it over to his superiors.
The stone contained fragments of passages written in three different scripts: Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphics and Egyptian demotic. When the British defeated Napoleon in 1801, they took possession of the Rosetta Stone. After several attempts by both British and French scholars to decipher the stone, French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion was able to crack the code in 1822.
#8— He Would Disguise Himself and Walk the Streets of Paris
Sometime after becoming emperor, Napoleon would occasionally dress in commoner’s clothing and walk the streets of Paris incognito. He would engage people in conversation seemingly to ascertain what they thought about him. Whether he truly wished to assess how well he was doing as a leader or merely due to his insecurities, we’ll never know.
#9 — Napoleon Wore Poison Around His Neck and Consumed It Prior to Being Exiled to the Island of Elba
With a European coalition occupying Paris, Napoleon was forced to abdicate as part of the Treaty of Fontaineblea on April 11, 1814. This followed his disastrous military campaign in Russia and the pressure coming from the countries forming the Sixth Coalition which France had been actively fighting. His initial sentence was to live the rest of his life confortably as a sovereign in the island of Elba. Napoleon’s first reaction, however was to attempt suicide.
Napoleon wore a vial of poison around his neck which he planned to digest in case he was ever captured. While he never had the need to go to such extremes while in battle, he did consume it once the prospect of exile became apparent. By then, the poison had lost most of its potency and only made him extremely ill.
#10 — Napoleon Sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States of America
Had Napoleon not sold the vast Louisiana Territory to the U.S., the dream of Manifest Destinity might have not come to fruition. At least not without a war.
The Louisiana Purchase, a staple of American history, included modern Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Southern Minnesota, most of North Dakota, all of South Dakota, North Eastern New Mexico, Montana, part of Wyoming, Northern Texas, half of Colorado and part of Louisiana.
Napoleon sold the land as he needed money for the Great French War. The British had re-entered the war and France was losing the Haitian Revolution and could not defend Louisiana. Thomas Jefferson took the French offer, consequently allowing the U.S. to go from “sea to shining sea.”
#11— He Left Elba — Reclaimed His Throne — Exiled Again in Saint Helena.
Ten months after Napoleon was exiled in Elba, he decided to leave. Nothing in the Treaty of Fontainebleau required that he had to stay. As an independent monarch, he was in fact entitled complete freedom of action. This included going anywhere he pleased. On the evening of February 26th, 1815 Napoleon boarded the 300 ton brig the Inconstant and together with a group of other armed ships, left the island of Elba.
Historian Philip Dwyer argues that “Napoleon left Elba not to save France, but to save himself from oblivion.”
At dawn on March 1st, Napoleon and his group of armed ships desembarked somewhere between Cannes and Antibes. Soon after, he made it all the way to Paris without a shot being fired. On March 20th, he entered the capital and began his second term as emperor. By June of the same year, he lost the Battle of Waterloo and was forced to abdicate again.
This time, he was exiled on the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena, from where there could be no escape.
This time, the British made sure this would be Napoleon’s final exile location. St. Helena was isolated, with steep cliffs and guarded by close to 3,000 soldiers and 500 cannons. The Royal Navy patrolled the island with a squadron of 11 ships.
However, in spite of all the precautions taken by the British, several escape plans were concocted but none carried out. Some of these included boats, balloons and even a pair of old-fashion submarines. British smuggler Tom Johnson once boasted that in 1820 we was offered £40,000 to rescue the notorious exiled emperor. He claimed to have put together a plan that included a bosun chair to hoist Napoleon down the cliffs to two primitive submarines waiting by the beach. Johnson made the claim he had designed and built these submersible ships himself. It is unclear if this plan was ever put in place or if it would have even worked.
#12 — The British Monarchy Worried Napoleon Would Win the Hearts of the British People
Following his departure from Elba and return to power, Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo by Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. He was forced to surrender to British Captain Frederick Lewis Maitland of the HMS Bellerophon. Upon his capitulation, he wrote a letter to future King George IV requesting asylum and a “small estate” outside of London. This was a bold move considering the many years he spent trying to conquer Britain.
Any sort of reconciliation between Britain and Napoleon was anathema to the Monarchy and the Parliament. However, what they feared the most was the possibility that Napoleon would endeer himself to the British people. Consequently, he was not allowed to disembark from HMS Bellerophon once he reached the coast of England. However, the anchored ship was exposed to large crowds that flocked to catch a glimpse of the Emperor. He was eventually banished to St. Helena.
#13 — Napoleon Likely Died of Stomach Cancer, Not Arsenic
Napoleon died at the age of 51 on May 5th, 1821, while exiled on St. Helena. His personal physician indicated stomach cancer in the death certificate as the cause of the emperor’s demise. This seemed consistent with the abdominal pain and nausea he had been experiencing in the last few weeks prior to death. His body however, remained remarkably well preserved; a sign of possible arsenic poisoning. This fueled speculations and suspicions Napoleon might have been murdered.
In 1961, elevated levels of arsenic were detected in surviving samples of Napoleon’s hair, further inflaming this supposition. Both the idea of murder and accidental poisoning were floated. However, a 2008 study conducted by scientists at Italy’s National Institute of Physics, invalidated this assertion.
The team of scientist conducted detailed analysis of Napoleon’s hair from four different time periods of his life. These were as a boy in Corsica, during exile on the island of Elba, the day he died at the age of 51 and the day after his death. In all cases the samples consistently showed 100 times the level present in people living today.
These high levels of arsenic could have been caused by archaic medicines of the time, paints or wallpaper. Further proof that high arsenic levels were common during this period of time came when similar hair analysis was conducted on Josephine (Napoleon’s first wife), Napoleon II and his wife. In all cases arsenic levels were astronomically high.
Undoubtedly, all that arsenic could not have been good for anyone. In the case of Napoleon, it could have been a contributing factor of his death.
References and Further Reading
- Napoleon Bonaparte
- French Cultural Nationalism
- Napoleonic Code
- Short Man Syndrome Explained
- The Reign of Terror
- The Seige of Mainz
- Maximilien Robespierre
- Napoleon in Elba
- The Battle of Waterloo
- Napoleon's Exile in St. Helena
- The Death of Napoleon - Cancer or Arsenic?
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on September 12, 2021:
Thank you MG.
MG Singh emge from Singapore on September 12, 2021:
This is a very interesting article on Napoleon who in any case is a very fascinating character. Overall his effect in Europe was limited to less than two decades and that's a pretty short time but he did shake Europe during that period. He was a charismatic figure but I will not rate him very high as a general or military tactician because he lost at Waterloo and his Russian campaign was a total disaster. In fact he destroyed the grand Army during the Russian campaign and that paved the way for his ultimate removal. You have collected some wonderful facts about him which made the article very interesting.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on September 11, 2021:
Thank you John.
John Hansen from Gondwana Land on September 11, 2021:
This was a great read, JC. Napoleon was certainly an interesting man who orchestrated great change in France, Europe, and the world. I can’t help but admire him.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on September 11, 2021:
Thank you Pamela.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on September 11, 2021:
You covered a lot of facts about Napoleon, and this is a very interesting article. I sure didn't know he was actually Italian. That is just one of many facts you presented. Thank you for sharing all this information.