Gateway to the Classics: The Story of France by Mary Macgregor
 
The Story of France by  Mary Macgregor

Napoleon Bonaparte

During the Reign of Terror the armies of the Republic had gained success after success over its foreign foes.

They had, indeed, won more for their country than had Louis xiv., who, you remember, spent most of his long reign trying to gain new dominions for France.

At home, too, the Republicans won a great victory at Toulon, a port near to Marseilles. The citizens of Toulon were Royalists and determined, with the help of English and Spanish fleets, to hold the town against the Republican troops. They might have succeeded had it not been for a young lieutenant of twenty years old, who was with the Republican troops.

This lieutenant was given the place of the commander of the artillery, who had been wounded. He placed his cannon in the best available positions, and soon ball after ball came crashing down upon the fleets, the enemy's forts, and into the town itself, striking ships and buildings alike with deadly skill.

It was impossible for the citizens to stay longer in the town, and as many as were able took refuge on board the English fleet.

But wherever the ships moved the cannon-balls still followed them, until at length the commander was forced to withdraw, and Toulon was in the hands of the Republican troops.

The young man, whose quick eye had seen what should be done, was no other than Napoleon Bonaparte. This, his first great success, took place in 1793.

His next feat was in Paris, on the Day of the Sections, as it was called.

The scattered Royalists had, you remember, joined the Girondists. They, two years later, marched toward Paris, their armies divided into bands or sections. Their aim was to overthrow the Government.

Napoleon Bonaparte was not given the actual command of the Republican troops, which was in the hands of Paul Barns, but Barns knew the young man's ability and made him his lieutenant.

Once again a glance from his keen searching eyes showed the young general what it was necessary to do to win the day. Sending for guns, he placed them in a position to command the streets and bridges leading to the Tuileries.

As the army of the Royalists advanced in sections along the streets toward the palace, followed by the rabble, Napoleon ordered his cannon to fire.

Down the crowded streets crashed the deadly shot, killing both armed men and terrified unarmed men and women. No escape was possible, and the Royalists and Girondists were soon mown down as grass. In a few hours the Royalist plot to take Paris was completely crushed, and to Napoleon Bonaparte belonged the glory of the Day of the Sections, as it was called.

Napoleon reaped promotion as well as glory, for in a short time the young soldier was given the command of the French army in Italy.

A few days after his promotion Napoleon married Josephine, a beautiful and fascinating woman. In days to come her charming manners and wonderful gift of conversation were a great help to her famous husband.

"I conquer provinces," Napoleon was used to say, "but Josephine wins hearts."

From this time, 1796, the story of France is really the story of the life of Napoleon Bonaparte.

But before I tell you of his wonderful adventures, let me tell you something about his boyhood.

Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Corsica in August 1769. Corsica is a little island covered with trees, lying about fifty miles off the west coast of Italy.

As Napoleon grew up he learned to love his island home and to hate the French who had conquered his nation. For many years, indeed, he hated the very name of France.

From the time he was quite a little boy, Napoleon wished to be a soldier. He liked, too, to imitate soldiers in every possible way, playing mimic battles with his playmates and drilling his elder brother Joseph, as though Joseph were the recruit, he the officer.

When Napoleon went off to school in the morning his mother gave him a slice of white bread to eat by the way.

But the boy would have no dainties. He wished to have only the coarse brown bread which was all that real soldiers had to eat. And the first soldier the little fellow met was given the slice of white bread in exchange for a hunch of brown bread.

The lad's favourite lessons were geography and arithmetic, and he would often scribble sums on his nursery walls as well as draw rough figures of soldiers marching to battle.

Even in play-hours Napoleon was haunted by his love of arithmetical problems.

Once, while he was quite young, he mounted a pony and rode off to a windmill. When he reached it he jumped gaily from his little steed, and then, with the gravity of a sage, asked the miller how much corn the mill ground in an hour. Being told, he sat down to find out how much could be done in a day, in a week. Having solved his problem he hastily mounted and rode home again, to be welcomed with joy by his mother.

His mother Letizia took great pains to curb her son's hasty temper.

"She passed over none of our faults," said Napoleon when he was grown up, but he said it without resentment, knowing that she had trained him and his brother with love as well as severity.

All his life Napoleon was proud of his mother and of all that she had done for him. Nor did he fear to say so shortly before his death.

"It is to my mother, to her good precepts and upright example, that I owe my success and any great thing I have accomplished. My mother was a superb woman, a woman of ability and courage." Such was the fine tribute Napoleon Bonaparte paid to his mother Letizia.

When Napoleon was nine years old his parents determined that he and Joseph should be sent away to school, Joseph to be trained as a priest, Napoleon as a soldier. But as the boys, being Corsicans, spoke only Italian, they went at first together to the college of Autun, that Napoleon might learn to speak French before going on to the military school at Brienne.

Letizia wept as she said good-bye to her two elder boys, but they soon forgot the pain of leaving home, there was so much to see and to hear on their journey.

On the first day of the new year, 1779, the travellers reached the college of Autun.

Napoleon was now in France, the country he had learned to hate, and in a college where he and his brother were looked on as foreigners by the French boys, who teased and laughed at them for being Corsicans, for belonging to a conquered country.

Napoleon, young as he was, could ill brook a slighting word about his beloved island home, and his hasty temper made him no favourite with his new companions.

In April, Napoleon left Autun to go to the military school at Brienne. Only those of noble birth and without fortune were admitted to this school, where the expenses of the students were paid by the King of France.

It had been hard to leave home, it was perhaps even harder now to say good-bye to Joseph, the last link with Corsica, and to go away alone to Brienne. For you must remember that Napoleon was still only nine years old.

At Brienne Napoleon did not easily make friends with the boys. He was shy and, they thought, sulky, not joining in their games, but spending his playtime in reading. One of his favourite books was Plutarch's Lives, which he read in French.

The book enthralled the lad. As he read of the heroes of whom Plutarch tells, he dreamed that he was reading of his own Corsican hero, Paoli, who had tried to save his country from the yoke of France.

Although the patriot had been forced to flee to England for safety, Napoleon did not believe he would always have to remain in exile.

"Paoli will return," he would sometimes say, "and as soon as I have strength I will go to help him, and perhaps together we shall be able to shake the odious yoke from off the neck of Corsica."

At Brienne each student had a small piece of ground given to him, for, to dig, to sow, to weed is healthy exercise for boys.

Napoleon dug his little plot with great eagerness, but he did not plant in it seeds, but shrubs, which he surrounded with a paling. To this retreat Napoleon stole to read unseen and undisturbed, while the other boys played games and weeded their gardens.

After he had been at Brienne four or five years Napoleon grew more friendly with the other boys. He even became leader of their games, and when they played at battles their captain.

One severe winter, when snow lay thick upon the ground, Napoleon said to his comrades, "Let us build fortresses of snow."

This was quickly done. Then Napoleon divided the boys into two armies, one to defend, the other to attack the forts.

Day after day, as long as the snow lasted, the battle raged, Napoleon, as captain, directing now the assault, now the defence.

In 1784 Napoleon's training at Brienne came to an end, and he was sent to the military school at Paris.

At Brienne monks had been the boy's schoolmasters, at Paris Napoleon was among real soldiers. He always worked hard, but now he redoubled his efforts, so that soon he might be ready to join the army.

In a year he passed his examinations, and was then made a lieutenant in one of the finest regiments.

The lieutenant was still young, only sixteen, and the army rules compelled him to wear his school uniform, but—and what boy would not have gloried in the fact?—he was now allowed to have a sword buckled to his side.

Then, being in the French army, Napoleon began to think of France as his own country, although he never forgot his love for Corsica.


 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: Marie Antoinette Is Executed  |  Next: The Bridge of Lodi
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2020   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.