NAPOLEON, THE STORY OF AN UNCOMMON DESTINY

Translated by Jonathan House from
the French magazine
« LES CHRONIQUES DE L'HISTOIRE»


These Frenchmen are a gang of sub-humans!
They have invaded my country, my land,
and they have forced us to flee.

NAPOLEON, THE STORY OF AN UNCOMMON DESTINY

The man who would later be known as “the little corporal” was one of the greatest conquerors known to French history. His journey brings to mind that of the Emperor Alexander the Great.

Childhood

Napoléon Bonaparte was born at Ajaccio, Corsica, on August 15, 1769. The Bonaparte family was originally from Florence and Corsica. His father, Charles Bonaparte, the product of a good family that originated in Italy, was close to the Corsican patriot Pascal Paoli, who had struggled against both the Genoese and the French and who later exiled himself in Britain. Charles Bonaparte remained in Corsica and became a supporter of France. An intelligent and amiable man who was both educated and spiritual, he was nonetheless ostentatious and prodigal.

His wife, the beautiful Laetitia Ramolino, possessed an intrepid and resolute character. Her sense of economy bordering on greed permitted her to properly raise the eight children born of this union. She spoke in a Corsican dialect and never expressed herself in correct French. She named her second child Napoléon, a name that was quite rare in Corsica. His mother, whom he called “the Corsican,” brought Napoléon up strictly. She would not tolerate any misbehavior, yet Napoléon loved her tenderly.

Around his cradle, and again later around his first steps, he was surrounded by female figures, including his grandmother, Maria Saveris Bonaparte, who was very indulgent and devoted and who loved him well. From a very early age, Napoléon exhibited a character that was difficult, willful, and sometimes inflexible. He was attracted to a military career and wished to possess what he saw soldiers wearing in Ajaccio : a plumed hat, epaulets, sword, musket, and bayonet. He began in a school conducted by nuns. He showed himself to be studious and eager to work, especially at calculations. He was nicknamed “the mathematician.” He continued his studies at a Jesuit school where, at the age of eight, he had such a passion for mathematics that the family built him a tiny shed behind the house, where he could isolate himself to work. In a course taught by the Abbot Recco, all students were divided into two groups, the Romans and the Carthaginians, and encouraged to compete against each other to stimulate their efforts. Napoléon, angered at being placed among the Carthaginians, insisted that he be transferred to the Romans, the conquerors.

Napoleon was brought up strictly by
his mother, who would not
tolerate any misbehavior
.

In 1778, Charles Bonaparte enrolled him in the College of Autun, operated by ordinary priests rather than a monastic order. Joseph was destined for the clergy and Napoleon for a military career. The young man was pensive and very irritable, especially on the subject of his tiny country.

After three months at Autun, Napoleon obtained admission as a royal student at the military school of Brienne. One morning in May, 1779, the young Napoléon, arriving direct from Ajaccio, reported to the lieutenant-instructor at Brienne with his father. He was somewhat intimidated by the stern face of the officer, but attempted to conceal this as much as possible. This was even more important because his father had made repeated efforts, all to advance his career, during a previous trip to France. Napoléon had too much respect for his father, and would never wish to disappoint him. There followed a difficult goodbye. He realized that he was completely alone, more so than he could have imagined. He decided to go outside for a moment, entering the courtyard. There comrades of the same age stared at him. The young man ignored them and began drawing sketches in the sand. He sensed that they were approaching him. “I hate them,” he thought. “These Frenchmen are a gang of sub-humans! They have invaded my country, my land, and they have forced us to flee.” (The Bonaparte family was protected by Pascal Paoli, the Corsican nationalist of that era.)

His idol was the Corsican patriot Paoli,
who had delivered his country from
the Genoese and struggled gloriously
against the king of France.

From the moment of his arrival at school the young Bonaparte was seized by extreme homesickness. He missed Corsica, the beauty of its sky and the soft warmth of its climate. “To be deprived of my childhood room,” he wrote, “and of the garden where I used to stroll as a child, to no longer have my family residence is to no longer have a country.” Moreover, he suffered numerous mortifications of his self-respect: he was the butt of anti-Corsican chauvinism. His geography professor described Corsica as being part of Italy, while his comrades declared it to be subject to the Genoese republic. Napoléon was outraged, defending the valor and fidelity of the Corsicans to their tiny country. When someone declared it to be enslaved to France, he fiercely replied that “I hope someday to liberate it. Why knows? The destiny of an empire often depends on one man!” For Napoléon, his idol was the Corsican patriot Paoli, who had delivered his country from the Genoese and struggled gloriously against the king of France. Yet Paoli would eventually become a moral enemy...

Even at that time, the student Bonaparte was aware of his military aptitude. He declared: “The military is the finest of all bodies. I sense that my will must triumph over that of others and that what I wish must come to me.” He wanted to be great, to have a place in history and to attract contemporary attention to himself. He admired Sparta : “The emotions of a Spartan,” he said, “are those of a strong man.” Thus his comrades referred to him as “the Spartiate,” which explains much about his attitude. His studies were also brilliant, and in July 1783 he was authorized to report to the royal military school in Paris to complete his education for the army. He was sixteen years old, and sought a future in the navy or the artillery, learned arms where favoritism and riches would never take the place of merit.

One day in September 1785, the great mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace came to the school to supervise the examinations that would determine whether students were qualified for promotion or graduation. Napoléon came forward. He was still somewhat distraught by the death of his father on February 24, 1785, but the professor, a great man, was merciful. Out of the corner of his eye, Napoléon saw the imposing face of the savant. He traced the figures, his equations were resolved without difficulty, geometry was somewhat lacking. But, these were only minor mistakes. On September 28, the results were posted. Napoléon celebrated: he was a second lieutenant assigned to Auxonne. “This is for my father,” he thought. He arrived at Auxonne on November 14, 1785, dressed in his new uniform as a second lieutenant. The headquarters of la Fere was rather large, and he carefully explored its buildings. He took up his quarters and began to follow the instruction to become captain of artillery. Napoléon finished reading each treatise in at most one night. He studied particularly the new writings of Jean-Baptiste de Gribeauval, theoretician of modern warfare.

Napoléon therefore lived an industrious and studious life that was also totally strict and uncomfortable. Above all, he was determined to acquire all the knowledge that one day might serve him well. Poverty imposed this strict life upon him. His father, who had died in 1785, had left his cherished family, which remained in Corsica, in the most straitened of circumstances. Unable to help his family, Napoléon was nonetheless determined not to become a burden to them. In 1787, he considered himself ready to pass his examinations, which were only given every two years. Thus he worked and studied endlessly. His goal was before his eyes, and he had sworn to reach it. In 1789 he was ready to pass his examinations. One month before this, he had heard of the fall of the Bastille, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen... a new era, the Revolution. “Revolutions are a good time for soldiers, because they develop courage and patriotism.”

He passed, and became captain of artillery. He would later write that “I would never again be the same man.”