Napoleon Bonaparte – Hero or Villain?

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Napoleon Bonaparte – Hero or Villain?

Some men are born heroes while others earn the title after their death. Either way, a hero’s life and his achievements are cemented in the history of the world and become timeless. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) is known today as one of the most intelligent and skilled leaders to have ever lived. He is also known as a controversial figure, his reputation however is disputable as many criticize him for being brutal, selfish and delusional. A deeper study of his life and motives dictating it explains whether this accusation of his villainy is true or false. Military Successes

His first actual military feat was in the Siege of Toulon, when he was the captain of the artillery, driving away the British naval and land forces. It was Napoleon’s ingenious plan to place the republican guns strategically atop a hill, in a manner that they could protect the city’s harbor and they would push the British ships out of the city. Napoleon at the ripe age of 24 was known henceforth as Brigadier General and was consequently given the artillery arm of France’s Army of Italy to lead. These events proved his ambitious and speedy progress on the military front and set a parable for time to come.

(Asprey, 2000). In October 1975, he was given command of the forces at the Tuileries Palace where Napoleon had recently seen the massacre of the King’s Swiss Guard. He employed large cannons and used them to repel his enemy. The idea worked like magic, the streets were cleared in what is commonly known ‘a whiff of grapeshot’ as phrased by Thomas Carlyle in The French Revolution: A History. Napoleon had once again used his experience and devised an intelligent solution to hit the nail on the head. (Louis, 1998, p. 40)

Bonaparte was to take command of the Army of Italy so he devised a plan that was entirely unpredictable. The man’s greatness and vision is reflected in how he could be so delicately tactful and roughly aggressive at the same time. First he overtook the Austrian forces at the Battle of Lodi. Then he went on towards the Papal States. The Directory advised him to conduct a march on Rome but as a man of reason would, Napoleon felt that would weaken the state and refused. In March 1797, Napoleon led the army into Austria which being defeated already decided to negotiate for peace in the Treaty of Leoben.

The clauses of this Treaty were such that France got hold of most of northern Italy and the Low Countries. Seizing the opportunity to claim as much of the land as he could, he seemingly awarded Venice to Austria after which he marched into it, ending its 1,100 years of independence with a triumphant invasion. When viewed objectively and for its sheer innovation and creativity, Napoleon’s strategy leaves most people astounded and is certainly admirable. Not only does it take a thorough understanding of conventional military leadership, it also requires a fresh and bright mind to achieve this.

Napoleon thus dedicatedly created for himself a reputation, cooking up military plots that his opponent could not often predict or prevent. (Asprey, 2000) Napoleon was one of a kind when it came to military tactics such as concealment, espionage, envelopment and surveillance. His talent was obvious with the numerous battles he fought and won in a very short span of time. That and the rising popularity inspired him to prepare for invading England which had vast trading interests in India at that time (Louis, 1998).

He had a developing interest in the Middle East, and had the foresight to realize that joining hands with a figure like Tipu Sultan would be Britain’s Achilles Heel. Napoleon told the Directory ‘as soon as he had conquered Egypt, he will establish relations with the Indian princes and, together with them, attack the English in their possessions. ’ (Asprey, 2000, p. 26) Bonaparte sketched out the Constitution of the Year VIII on becoming First Consul and was soon known as the most powerful person in the country. In 1804, he formalized this status by crowning himself Emperor. Following this in 1805 he was crowned King of Italy too.

Even at this exhilarating point in his life, Bonaparte with his quick thinking decided to promote his top generals to ‘Marshals of the Empire’, ensuring their loyalty to him for times to come. He did not take his success for granted. (Louis, 1998, p. 11). One of the most frequently discussed events of that time was the Battle at Austerlitz where, on the first anniversary of his coronation, Napoleon defeated Austria and Russia together. Following this, Austria signed the Peace of Pressburg after which Napoleon was named the Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine (Moore, 1999).

Austria had to also give up its land and Napoleon termed Austerlitz as one of his finest battles (Louis, 1998). Critics argue that at such a prime time in his life, Napoleon lost touch with reality and as Frank McLynn expressed ‘what used to be French foreign policy’ became a ‘personal Napoleonic one’. ’ On the contrary, it seems few remember that the man had noble intentions. Vincent Cronin stated Napoleon was not overly ambitious for himself, that “he embodied the ambitions of thirty million Frenchmen”. (Moore, 1999, p. 2).

One such example of Napoleon’s exceptional foresight and vast vision is that even after a failure to capture Egypt; he pursued his desire to secure a place in the Middle East. His insight that an alliance in that region would give the French the power to pressurize Russia from the South was brilliant. He worked hard to convince the Ottomans to join hands with him against Russia. He gave them incentives like they would regain lost territories and in 1806 Selim III called France a ‘sincere and natural ally’ ready to form an alliance.

Following this feat, the Persian Empire of Fateh Ali Shah also formed the Franco-Persian Alliance in 1807 (Asprey, 2000, p. 23). Personal skill – the exemplary hero Napoleon’s biggest and most undeniable influence has been in warfare – his methods are now referred to as ‘Napoleonic warfare’. The influential military theorist Carl von Clausewitz describes him as a genius in the operational art of war. Wellington, when asked who was the greatest general of the day, answered: “In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon. ” (Moore, 1999, p. 1).

Napoleon was always head first into the battle scene. This not only motivated his soldiers and collegues, it also helped set high standards of dedication and passion on the field. In battles like Montenotte, Mondovi, Arcola and Rivoli, Napolean set great examples often getting wounded himself. He also kept soldiers going by promising those rewards and incentives. (Louis, 1998). ‘Napoleon suffered various military setbacks however: at Leipzig in 1813, in Russia in 1812, and arguably at Aspern-Essling in 1809. He also had to abandon his forces in Egypt’.

Despite the blows he suffered and felt responsible for subjecting his country to, Napoleon was always quick to get back on his feet. His resilient spirit as a fighter lives as an example for all those who search for the determination to achieve high goals. (Asprey, 2000, p. 38). Napoleon’s Strong Foundation Initially, Napoleon had a good opportunity to study and it was because of his dignified and prosperous family background and the strong ties among them. It laid the foundation, and gave him a chance to learn French at a religious school in Autun and later got him to enroll into a military academy at Brienne-le-Chateau.

An examiner his exceptional aptitude in mathematics, history and geography, all of which helped him excel in the battlefield. The potentials map of the world, a desire to change history and the mathematical grid with which to arrange troops for an invasion – the seeds were sown for a new vision of the French Empire (Louis, 1998). Napoleon and other Heroic Achievements Not only was he a keen military man, his humane and artistic side too was alive and kicking. Bonaparte published two newspapers, which were apparently for troops but most of France was reading them under that cover.

He also started Le Journal de Bonaparte et des hommes vertueux, a newspaper to be published in Paris, increasing his influence on the political front in the country. 1798, Bonaparte was elected a member of the French Academy of Sciences, his Egyptian group discovered the Rosetta Stone and their work was published in the Description de l’Egypte (Asprey, 2000). Bonaparte was the one to initiate centralized administration, higher education, tax codes, road and sewer systems and the country’s central bank (Louis, 1998).

He bargained for the Concordat of 1801 with the Catholic Church, which inviting the Catholic population towards himself as he regulated public worship. In 1802, he instituted what is today the highest tribute in France in both military and civilian achievements, the Legion d’Honneur. These won him public support and high regard, and served as a bible for time to come. Multi talented and as much a man of reason as he was of force, Napoleon’s also created the famous Napoleonic code—was an enormous stepping stone in the nature of the civil law and legal systems promoting lucid and accessible laws.

In his own words “My true glory is not to have won 40 battles… Waterloo will erase the memory of so many victories. … But… what will live forever is my Civil Code. ” (Louis, 1998, p. 51). Correctly so, the Civil Code has immense significance, used in over a quarter of the world’s jurisdictions including Europe, the Americas and Africa. It encouraged civilians to own property without fear and helped fight the plague of feudalism. Among his other achievements, Napoleon emancipated Jews from laws which restricted them to ghettos, and helped them win their rights to proper worship places, and work placed.

In exile, in the first few months on Elba he created a small navy and army, developed the iron mines, and reformed and renovated the agricultural systems according to modern ways. He was not only known for ruling loud and mighty but had a much more humane and thoughtful side to him, his vision extended much beyond the war field (Louis, 1998). The Decline The Russians were defeated in a series of battles and Napoleon resumed his advance. But the harsh climatic conditions made the advance a fierce challenge.

The Battle of Borodino resulted in approximately 44,000 Russian and 35,000 French, dead, wounded or captured, and may have been the bloodiest day of battle in history up to that point in time. In Napoleon’s own words was: “The most terrible of all my battles was the one before Moscow. The French showed themselves to be worthy of victory, but the Russians showed themselves worthy of being invincible. ” The French suffered greatly in the course of a ruinous retreat, begun as over 400,000 frontline troops, but in the end fewer than 40,000. (Asprey, 2000, p. 28).

Napoleon won a series of battles in the Six Days Campaign, but could not sustain control in Paris which was captured by the Coalition in 1814. The Allies eventually forced Napoleon to abdicate. He escaped but was intercepted soon. When confronted by a regiment, Napoleon approached them and shouted, “Here I am. Kill your Emperor, if you wish. ” The soldiers, with hidden awe and admiration for him replied with, “Vive L’Empereur! ” and marched with Napoleon to Paris; another example of the respect Napoleon received from those who knew his strengths and forgave his weaknesses.

(Asprey, 2000, p. 64). Conclusion Many ideas demean the man’s reputation today. There is a term called the Napoleon Complex which indicates aggressive behavior of a person who lacks height. (Moore, 1999). He reinstated slavery in French colonies, encouraged looting and often sought to solve problems with brute force rather than by deliberation. His attack on Jaffa was brutal: innocent men, women and children lost their lives sometimes to save bullets, supplies and at other times because they were suffering from the bubonic plague and were a burden.

In 1920 he re-established slavery in France’s colonial possessions. (Asprey, 2000). Critics feel that the brutalities committed during his reign are unforgivable and were entirely unavoidable. However there are those like Vincent Cronin who felt that Napoleon was not ‘responsible for the wars which bear his name, when in fact France was the victim of a series of coalitions which aimed to destroy the ideals of the Revolution’. His was the rule that ended lawlessness in France after the revolution (Louis, 1998). A hero lives as an example to people to believe in good and strive to achieve it.

A hero dies to live on in their minds as a proof of what the human spirit is capable of if the heart is set on it. Today International Napoleonic Congresses are held in which scholars and politicians meet to discuss matters of world wide significance. An icon of ‘military genius and political power’, Napoleon is used to name products, places and characters, all of which speak of his outstanding skills and innumerable successes (Moore, 1999). American journalist Chuck Palahniuk says ‘We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever; the goal is to create something that will’.

Napoleon has emerged a hero, through what he created – an undying inspiration for great leadership, superb administration, unending determination, ruthless loyalty and masterful skills leading to eternal triumph (Louis, 1998, p. 66). He is remembered today in all historical publications as a courageous and able soldier, a man whose tact, craft and vision extended much beyond others. His name has come to symbolize a soldier’s epitome, a leader’s aspiration. His flaws may be many and will remain attached to his exalted but very human condition. As Alexander Pope puts it, ‘To err is human, to forgive is Divine.

’ It is not everyday one finds a story so moving and as passionate as one of Napoleon Bonaparte. A man fuelled with a ferocious desire to be victorious only to see a victorious France. 1799. Napoleon was laid to rest in May 1821 after fighting with persistent ill health. His last words were ‘France, army, head of the army, Josephine’ which he spoke in French (Louis, 1998, p115). There was no doubt that in his dying moments as his life flashed before him, he expressed what was dearest to him, and in it was his first and deepest love – France. Those who judge him for being self absorbed would think again.

He was initially buried in St. Helena but later shifted to Seine as he had requested in his will. He was given a state funeral, respects to a man who was a hero of his time, albeit with inevitable human flaws. (Asprey, 2000). References Books B. Asprey, Robert. (2000). The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. First Edition. New York: Basic Books. Fauvelet de Bourrienne Louis, Antoine. (1998). Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte. Constables Miscellant – Original and Selected Publishing. Websites Richard Moore. (1999). Napolean Guide. May 26, 2010, from www. napoleonguide. com.


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

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  • Date: 13 September 2016

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