Chapter 2

(1786 - 1793)

Lieutenant in the Artillery - Baptism of Fire


Young Napoleon Bonaparte remained on the mainland from the ages of 9 to 16, never once revisiting Corsica. He spent most of the next seven years making up for lost time. He in fact obtained fives leaves that would have permitted him to return there for a total of almost four years.


Inspired by the "spirit of Saint-Cyr", that is, of the good, generous person who is always ready to sacrifice himself for the widow and the orphan, he wrote:


"The way to discover happiness for oneself is to work toward the happiness of others. What a joy it must be to die surrounded by children, able to say: I have ensured the happiness of hundreds of families; I have had a laborious, difficult life but the nation will draw benefit from my work; I have had worries;  my comrades have had serenity; I have been anxious, they have been happy; I have had pain and they have had joy."


Napoleon maintained this mode of conduct throughout his whole life and applied it to the best interests of all those for whom he would later be responsible. At the time he wrote this, however, he believed that his field of action would be limited to Corsica, which is why he strove, under the authority of the old leader, Pasquale Paoli, to participate in the reforms that needed to be implemented on the island during the turbulent period of the French Revolution.


It was there, observing the intrigues of men who were often more concerned with their personal interests than those of the people, that he gained a degree of political maturity. He learned that it is not enough to come up with good ideas, but that you must have the power necessary to put them into practice.



 Young Bonaparte

January 1, 1786

Napoleon, who had been at Valence since the end of October 1785, was continuing his practical apprenticeship in the trade of artillery officer. The life at the garrison, with its exercises and manoeuvres, and the warm feeling of esprit de corps of the La Fère regiment, suited him perfectly. He was happy and proud to belong to such a specialized branch of the army, and certainly appreciated the affection shown by the people of the town.


Nevertheless, he never demonstrated the slightest trace of laziness. He subscribed to the municipal library, and in line with his already established habit, spent whole nights feeding his mind. To his best friend, des Mazis, who reproached him for having very little fun, he replied in verse:


"The stronger a man’s mind is, the more he needs to use it;

If he lets it fall asleep, there’s a danger he will lose it."


September 15, 1786

After an absence of seven years and nine months, Napoleon arrived in Ajaccio on six-months’ leave. Aside from gifts for his family and for Severina, his old governess, his luggage was composed almost exclusively of a huge trunk of books.


September 20, 1786

Death of the Marquis de Marbeuf. Since the construction of his chateau in Cargèse was completed in 1780, the governor had received Letizia there with her children - and sometimes her husband, Charles - several times a year.


The loss of their powerful benefactor was very deeply felt.


Letizia and Napoleon inscribed "Vive Marbeuf" in seashells on the door of the family home. Even today, a large portrait of Marbeuf still holds pride of place in the family drawing room.


September 16, 1787

Napoleon is now 18 years old. He sets off for Toulon and Paris where he attempted to obtain compensation owed to his family by the government as a consequence of blackberry plantation work carried out at Salines d'Ajaccio. In Paris, he stayed at the Hôtel de Cherbourg, where in the free time between his business on behalf of his family, he wrote numerous articles, illustrated with maxims that betray his Republican sentiments:


"Kings go to war for their personal glory; republics fight for the defence of their citizens."


"I only breathe the truth; I feel within me the strength to speak it."


He also worked at mathematics and discovered a geometric theorem that is still known as Napoleon’s theorem: 


"If equilateral triangles are erected externally on  the sides of any triangle, their centres form an equilateral triangle."


January 1, 1788

Napoleon arrived in Ajaccio for a second stay in Corsica.


June 1, 1788

He rejoined the La Fère regiment, now garrisoned at Auxonne. He distinguished himself there, using his exceptional talents to improve the ways of employing artillery in battle. He succeeded so well that the Marshal of the camp, Baron Jean-Pierre du Teil, totally impressed, made him responsible for the entire study curriculum, placing under his command officers of higher ranks than his own.


His comrades put him in charge of "La Calotte", the review put out by the lieutenants of the regiment. In its pages, he expressed Republican sentiments that did not please everyone. It should be remembered that in the ancien régime, all the officers were noblemen.


April 1, 1789

Napoleon, at the head of a detachment of three companies, was sent on a mission to the village of Seurre. Peasants there had burned down granaries and molested the inhabitants. For three months, he succeeded in maintaining order and calming down the rebels, through argument rather than force. In fact, although he sympathized with their grievances, he would not tolerate violence.


July 19, 1789

Five days after the storming of the Bastille, the Revolution broke out in Auxonne. Napoleon participated in the maintenance of order, but always with the soul of a Republican.


August 4, 1789

After the abolition of privileges, he wrote "This year promises to be favourable to good people after so many centuries of oppression and slavery."


September 25, 1789

Napoleon left for Corsica for a third time. He arranged for the soldiers who were still wearing the white cockade to change it for the “tricolour” cockade. "We are patriots”, he told them. He wanted to work on consolidating the integration of Corsica into Republican France.


July 17,  1790

Pasquale Paoli (aged 65), returned from England where he had been in exile since 1769. He received a triumphant reception in Corsica and soon resumed power. Napoleon admired the old leader and attempted to put himself at his service. Paoli, however, mistrusted this young officer who wanted to make Corsica part of Revolutionary France. Paoli had never abandoned the idea of Corsican independence. 


February 13, 1791

Napoleon returned to Auxonnes, this time with his brother Louis; with only his meagre wages as a lieutenant, he assumed full responsibility for his brother’s instruction and education.


June 16, 1791

Napoleon was transferred to the fourth artillery regiment, stationed in Valence. It was there that he met up once more with several friends, including his landlady, Mademoiselle Bou. In the 4th regiment, the divisions were the same as in the La Fère regiment: many of the officers were preparing to emigrate while the non-commissioned officers and soldiers supported the Revolution.


September 15, 1791

Upon his return to Ajaccio a fourth time, Napoleon succeeded in being promoted to lieutenant-colonel of the Battalion of National Volunteers. These volunteers supported the French Revolution, and Napoleon, at their head, lived in hopes of seeing his ideas triumph. However, he met with opposition from Paoli, who was supported by the majority of the population and the separatist councillors.  One of these, Pozzo di Borgo, would later betray France by selling his services to Tsar Alexander.


May 28, 1792

Napoleon returned to Paris to find it on the brink of anarchy. Almost all his comrades who had graduated from the military school had emigrated.


June 20, 1792

He was present at the mob that invaded the Tuileries Palace and obliged Louis XVI to don the “bonnet rouge” and drink to the health of the Revolution.


July 12, 1792

Napoleon was promoted to the rank of captain. He was not yet 23.


August 10, 1792

The Tuileries Palace was pillaged by the mob. A thousand Swiss guards were massacred and their corpses horribly mutilated. Women showed themselves to be particularly unrestrained and odious in this macabre exercise. Napoleon was deeply affected by these excesses and promised himself that he would forbid them every time he had the opportunity.


October 15, 1792

Napoleon set off for Ajaccio with his 15-year-old sister, Éliza, whom he had taken from the Saint-Cyr boarding school, where her classmates were girls from the French nobility (Thank you, Monsieur de Marbeuf.) He went to Corte and was given a glacial reception by Paoli who invited him to go back to the mainland. The Bonapartes now led the "French clan" in Corsica that was opposed to Paoli’s "separatist clan."


February 22, 1793

Baptism of fire in the Madeleine Islands in Sardinia.


Since 1791, the French Republic had been at war against Victor Amédée III, the king of Sardinia, Savoie, and Piedmont. At the end of 1792, the Convention decided to attack Piedmont and Sardinia separately, the major action concentrated on Cagliari accompanied by a diversion on the Madeleine Islands, situated 10 kilometres south of the Corsican port of Bonifacio Paoli entrusted this diversion to his nephew, Colonel Colonna Cesari, who commanded a force of 600 men, including a very  modest artillery unit under the command of Napoleon.


On the verge of proclaiming the independence of Corsica one more time, Paoli ordered his nephew to scuttle the enterprise.


On February 22, the fleet arrived within sight of its objective. Napoleon’s mission was to take over the island of Saint Stefano, which was separated from La Madeleine by only a narrow channel.  With only 50 men, he overcame the Sardinian defenses and brought his artillery ashore.


On February 24, at daybreak, Napoleon used precise cannon fire to silence the batteries of the two fortresses controlling the entrance to the port of La Madeleine. The village was soon in flames and the terrified inhabitants fled to the countryside followed by the garrison of 500 soldiers, leaving the way clear for the majority of the forces to disembark.


But instead of disembarking, Cesari set off for Bonifacio, leaving Napoleon on the small island at the mercy of enemy forces who most likely would soon return.


In a great show of mastery, Napoleon brought the mortar and the two cannons up to the shore, but was unable, in the absence of hoisting gear, to drag them onto the Sardinian boats that he had captured. He had to content himself with spiking them before leaving for Bonifacio, where he arrived on the morning of February 27.


This adventure was decisive for Napoleon’s future. It was here that he learned that he could never blindly trust in his superiors. Without the experience acquired at La Madeleine, he most certainly would have not have behaved as he did at Toulon only a few months later.


April 2, 1793

The Convention, following a report from 18-year-old Lucien Bonaparte decreed the arrest of Paoli and Pozzo di Borgo. This represented a total break with Paoli, who not only did not allow himself to be arrested, but soon separated Corsica from France and forged a union with England.


Napoleon and his entire family were obliged to leave for the mainland.


May 31, 1793

In the company of his brother, Joseph, Napoleon boarded the ship that evacuated the commissars of the Convention. In a rowboat, in the most unlikely of circumstances, he rescued his mother, Letizia, Louis, Eliza and Pauline. They were waving at him from a beach north of Ajaccio after managing to escape just in time from the family home before the arrival of an armed detachment sent by Paoli to arrest them. After a few days at the home of Laurent Giubega in Calvi, they set sail for France.


June 13, 1793

Napoleon arrived in France. He was never to see Corsica again except for a brief stop in Ajaccio in November 1799 on his return from Egypt.


He was not yet 24, but he had already acquired political and military experience that would permit him to leave his mark on the increasingly important events that he would soon have to confront.




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