Gateway to the Classics: The Struggle for Sea Power by M. B. Synge
The Struggle for Sea Power by  M. B. Synge

The Empire at Its Height

"I have touch'd the highest point of all my greatness."


H AVING made peace with Austria and suppressed the restless Tyrol, Napoleon returned to Paris. His great ambition was still unsatisfied, and he now made up his mind to take a further step to improve his wonderful position.

"I and my house," he said grandly to his French subjects, "will ever be found ready to sacrifice everything, even our dearest ties and feelings, to the welfare of the French people."

This was the first time he had hinted to the world, of the great step he was about to take, in divorcing his faithful wife Josephine, in order to marry a royal princess of Europe. Josephine, the widow of a French general, had married Napoleon in the days when he was a lonely young Corsican, making his way upwards in Paris. She and her two children had been loved by him for fourteen years. To her son, Eugene, Napoleon had given important posts; her daughter, Hortense, had been married to Louis Bonaparte, and was now Queen of Holland. Josephine had shared Napoleon's humble fortunes; she had been crowned Empress of the French but six years before.

One November evening, in the palace of the Tuileries, where they lived, Napoleon told Josephine of the step he intended to take. It was for the good of the empire, he told her. Was she willing to make this sacrifice?

It was a scene that left its mark on the stern Emperor. Josephine pleaded and entreated until, quite overcome, she fell fainting at his feet. Tenderly he raised her and carried her down the narrow staircase leading to her room. But Josephine had received a wound past healing, and she disappears from history—a heart-broken woman.

Napoleon now turned to Russia to ask the hand of Alexander's sister, but this was refused him. He then turned to Austria, and was accepted by the Emperor Francis, for his daughter Maria Louisa, who was just eighteen. Her journey from Vienna to the French capital is not unlike that of her great-aunt Marie Antoinette forty years before, as she drove with her Austrian ladies to meet the bridegroom, she had never yet seen. Napoleon rode forth to meet her, and they were married with great splendour in Paris.

Napoleon was now at the height of his greatness and glory. He had extended the French Empire far and wide. The rich lands beyond the Rhine owned his sway, in the person of his youngest brother Jerome. His brother Louis, having abdicated the throne of Holland, that country had just been formally annexed to France. The Pope had been carried captive to France, and the Papal States now belonged to the French Empire. Paris, Rome, and Amsterdam were the three great capitals of the world-empire. Sweden was not strong enough to resist his power, Austria was at peace. For the throne of restless Spain, Joseph Bonaparte was still contending, but Napoleon had no fears in that quarter. As yet Russia was following his lead, but it was evident she was fast "slipping out of the leading-strings of Tilsit."

When Alexander of Russia had heard of Napoleon's marriage with Maria Louisa, he had exclaimed, "The next thing will be to drive us back into our forests."

He was not far wrong. Russia had not been active enough in closing her northern ports to British trade. To press yet closer this "Continental system," as it was called, was Napoleon's only hope of still crushing England. If Alexander would not submit, Alexander must be made to submit.

Napoleon was feeling more secure than ever just now. A son had been born to him in March 1811, and he had presented the baby Napoleon to his people, as King of Rome. For this child of the great empire was reserved the saddest of fates.

"Now begins the finest epoch of my reign,'' the Emperor had cried in his joy, at the birth of a son.

He did not know, that it was the moment of his decline.

It was August 16—the day after his birthday when the little Napoleon was six months old—that Napoleon sketched to his ministry his whole plan of the great Russian campaign, which had long been occupying his mind. He was going to invade Russia with an overwhelming force, and compel her to close every port to English ships. Now was the time to strike, for the Peninsular war was at its height, and England was already at war with the United States.

A tremendous force was collected, numbering 600,000 men. There were Austrians, Italians, Poles, Prussians, as well as French—all the soldiers of the empire. There were crowned heads in command, and tried generals. Such a host had never been seen before in modern history.

On May 16, 1812, Napoleon himself arrived at Dresden, with his wife Maria Louisa and the little child-king of Rome. Here the Emperor of Austria came to meet them, and various crowned heads paid court to the man who, for the last time, was figuring as the "king of kings."

A fortnight later, he was on his way to Russia at the head of his Grand Army. Arrived at the banks of the Niemen—the river forming the boundary between Russia and Prussia—Napoleon stopped. He was not very far from Tilsit, where he had made peace with Alexander on the raft in this same river. Would it be peace again with the Tsar or war? He issued a proclamation to his soldiers.

"Soldiers," it ran, "Russia is dragged on by her fate: her destiny must be fulfilled. Let us march, let us cross the Niemen; let us carry war into her territories."

In a very different spirit Alexander was addressing his troops on the farther side.

"Soldiers," he was saying, "you fight for your native land. Your Emperor is amongst you. God fights against the aggressor."

Alexander spoke truly when he said, "I have learnt to know him now. Napoleon or I: I or Napoleon: we cannot reign side by side."

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The Peasant Hero of Tyrol  |  Next: The Shannon and the Chesapeake
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.