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Bicentenary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte – May 5, 1821, on remote St. Helena following the former Emperor of France’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812 that led to his forced abdication and exile in 1814.

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, 1812, Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Major facts of the life of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) are well known. Known as Napoleon I, the French Emperor who died two centuries ago was a shrewd, ambitious and skilled military leader who conquered much of Europe in the early 19th century.

Born on the island of Corsica that had recently handed authority from Italy to France, Napoleon rose rapidly in the French military during the unsettled period of the French Revolution after 1789 and until 30-year-old Napoleon seized power in a coup d’état in 1799.

In 1804 Napoleon crowned himself emperor in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in the presence of the pope. In the next decade Napoleon successfully waged war against various coalitions of European nations and expanded his empire. Following his disastrous French invasion of Russia in 1812 explored in some detail in this post, Napoleon abdicated his throne in 1814 and was exiled to the island of Elba not far from his native Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea near Italy.

In 1815, he escaped Elba and returned to France where he briefly returned to power in his Hundred Days campaign. He received a crushing defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in today’s Belgium and was exiled until his death on May 5, 1821 to the remote island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean. Napoleon Bonaparte was just 51 years old at the time of his death stemming from mysterious circumstances, though likely something such as stomach cancer.1

Napoleon on St. Helena, Franz Josef Sandmann (1805-1856), c. 1820. Musée national des châteaux de Malmaison et de Bois-Préau.

The bicentenary of the death of Napoleon I is commemorated in 2021. The former French emperor died on May 5, 1821 on the island of Saint Helena in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean nearly halfway between the continents of Africa and South America. Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled there in 1815 following his defeat at Waterloo. The British government selected it for the former French emperor’s place of exile after he escaped from Elba, the initial location of his forced exile. Napoleon lived on St. Helena for about 6 years; a hunk of rocky mass reachable only by sea. He died there at Longwood House, his permanent residence that was completed for him in December 1815. Today there is an airport on St. Helena built in 2011. Napoleon was 51 years old at his death and was buried on St. Helena. In 1840 his remains were transferred, not without controversy, to France. Napoleon’s tomb is in Les Invalides, the military hospital in Paris whose construction was begun by Louis XIV (1638-1715).

Napoleon’s plaster death mask, known as the Malmaison mask, May 1821.

The death mask was made on Saint Helena about two days after the former French Emperor’s death there on May 5, 1821 at his permanent residence of Longwood House. (see – http://www.lautresaintehelene.com/autre-sainte-helene-articles-malmaison2.html – retrieved May 5, 2021).

Longwood House on the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic.

In 1858, French emperor Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon I, purchased the house and various other lands associated with Napoleon I on the island in the name of the French government. Though Napoleon’s remains had been returned to France in 1840 – they rest today in Paris at Les Invalides – Napoleon III’s purchase remains the property of France and is administered by a French representative under the authority of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Photo: “Longwood House (c) St Helena Tourism” by sthelenatourism is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

(see – https://fondationnapoleon.org/en/activities-and-services/preserving-heritage/operation-st-helena/retrieved May 5, 2021).

DISASTROUS INVASION OF RUSSIA BY NAPOLEON IN 1812

Three years earlier, during the War of 1812, world domination by Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) was done within a sagging, uncooperative economy in Europe. France had 300,000 French troops and a rafter of French generals occupying Spain to keep the blockaded British from invading. Napoleon, in a near constant state of war since 1793, had created an Empire whose subjected parts didn’t fully cooperate. With competing objectives—had he finally overextended his capacities?—Napoleon had to choose between potentially losing his blockade in Spain or in Russia.

Since the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807 following the Battle of Friedland where Napoleon defeated the Russian army, Russia had still been trading with England. It was this violation of the treaty that was the pretext for Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Though fifteen hundred miles away, Russia’s autonomy from the French dictator—along with a temptation to dominate some of Russia’s vast territory for future ventures—beckoned Napoleon to shut it down and take firm control. For Russia, Napoleon’s invasion required the defense of their homeland.

FRESH CONSCRIPTS FOR A NEW WAR-AND THE NEED TO SUPPLY A MILITARY HOST OF 700,000 SOLDIERS

To animate Napoleon’s newest military campaign, he needed more fresh conscripts—but nearly a third of Napoleon’s French draftees failed to appear. Many of Napoleon’s generals advised the dictator to stay home, in Paris, and enjoy his spoils. An ambitious and autocratic Napoleon refused. He explained that rest was not possible if he was to fulfill the dream to form a United States of Europe.2

Overcoming the lay-abouts, Napoleon assembled a military host of nearly 700,000 men and faced the exponentially monumental task to supply it. For years Napoleon stockpiled materials along the route to Russia. He also arranged for supplies to be delivered once into Russia. But Napoleon’s vision of universal dominion had been stretched to the breaking point—and the French Emperor, if not those who served him, realized the risk.

Napoleon left St. Cloud for Moscow in June 1812 for a high stakes gamble which involved not only the rise and fall of one man but the many inhabitants of the Empire.

Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891), Campaign of France, 1814, 1864. Oil on wood, 51.5 x 76.5 cm, Paris, Musée d’Orsay.

Ernest Meissonier’s Campaign of France, 1814, was his first painting produced in a cycle of Napoleon’s conquests. Though the episode Meissonier depicts was painted for the fiftieth anniversary of Napoleon’s invasion of France from Elba in 1814, it captures the overall desolation that surrounded the former French Emperor by the time of his invasion of Russia in 1812.

The series made by the 49-year-old artist, an admirer of Seventeenth-century Flemish and Dutch small-format painting, captures the desolate landscape the Grande Armée endured and their solitary, unusually unkempt, and virtually tenuous figure of Napoleon leading the General Staff and troops in an over-extended military campaign that spelled defeat.

For the painting, the artist’s imagination was informed by historical documentation including interviews of surviving eyewitnesses, including the detail of, in 1814, the Emperor’s grey coat. The realist style was a prevailing aspect of mid-19th century artistic taste in the Second Empire headed by Napoleon III, a nephew of Napoleon I, from 1852 to 1870.

(see https://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/collections/works-in-focus/painting/commentaire_id/campaign-of-france-1814-8947.html?tx_commentaire_pi1%5BpidLi%5D=509&tx_commentaire_pi1%5Bfrom%5D=841&cHash=41368ad16b#:~:text=Campagne%20de%20France%2C%201814%20%5BCampaign,demonstrates%20his%20nimble%2C%20polished%20style. – retrieved May 5, 2021.

From Paris to Vilna in Lithuania was a 1200-miles march. Yet the object of Napoleon’s campaign, the Russian army, had retreated. It was another 550-mile march towards Moscow. French troops found themselves unexpectedly suffering from distant or nonexistent supply lines. The reluctant new conscripts and battle-hardened veterans were sick and exhausted.

In the battle of Smolensk, the French invaders—viewed by some to be battling for strongman Napoleon’s united liberal Europe over petty church and small state autocrats—set the town on fire. Yet Napoleon’s criminal reputation preceded him: he murdered without mercy and often donned the smock of treachery. Not only royalists criticized him but articulate liberals like Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) and Chateaubriand (1768-1848) who saw in the emperor an enemy of liberty. Chateaubriand wrote: “Les Français vont indistinctement au pouvoir, ils n’aiment pas la liberté, l’égalité est leur idole. Or l’égalité et le despotisme ont des liaisons secrètes” (“The French go to power indiscriminately, they don’t like liberty, equality is their idol. But equality and despotism have secret links.”) Reactionary French historian and journalist Jacques Bainville (1879-1936) assessed Napoleon’s legacy in this way: “Sauf pour la gloire, sauf pour l’art, il eut mieux valu qu’il n’eut pas existé.” (“Except for the glory, except for the art, it would have been better if he did not exist.”)

With casualties for one battle climbing to around 15,000 for both sides, the Czar appointed Mikhail Kutuzov (1745-1813) as commander of all Russian forces to coordinate efforts.

Portrait of Mikhail Kutuzov, 1829, George Dawe (1781–1829). Oil on canvas, State Hermitage Museum, Winter Palace War Gallery, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Napoleon called Kutuzov, “The sly old fox of the north“ (cited in Roger Parkinson, The Fox of the North, 1976).

At 67 years old, Kutuzov was lazy and lecherous, but knew how to fight—and, regarding Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, how to retreat strategically. The grand designs of modern internationalism and unification were ancient and medieval dreams that had proved difficult to implement in geo-political reality and usually led to its own forms of disaster and oppression. In a contest of geopolitical ideas, holing up in eternal Mother Russia provided its military advantages over an invading force set upon international commonwealth by way of military domination. In an address to his troops before the Battle of Borodino in the War of 1812 General Kutuzov observed: “Napoleon is a torrent which as yet we are unable to stem. Moscow will be the sponge that will suck him dry.”3

BATTLE OF BORODINO, SEPTEMBER 7, 1812, WAS A CONTEST OF 242,000 COMBATANTS AND MORE THAN 1000 BIG GUNS

Napoleon was aware of the trap. The years-long planning for an invasion supply chain was no match for the conditions on the ground. The failures of the supply chain left the army and its dictator high and dry. Napoleon ordered the troops to keep marching, telling his generals: “Motion alone keeps this army together.”4

The march from Smolensk to Moscow took 3 weeks. Many soldiers of the Grande Armée died on the march east. Kutuzov was preparing for battle. The Russian general set up a defensive position in Borodino, about 70 miles west of Moscow. On Sept. 7, 1812, French forces engaged the Russians. Both sides were well matched: the French possessed 587 guns and 130,000 troops and the Russians deployed 640 guns and 112,000 troops with the vast expanse of Mother Russia at their back.

Battle of Moscow (or Borodino), the Capture of the Great Redoubt. Engraving by unknown artist, 1820’s. State Borodino Military Historical Museum, Russia.

Battle of Moscow (or Battle of Borodino) in 1812. Attack of the Lithuanian Life Guards Regiment, oil on canvas, 1912, Nikolay Semyonovich Samokish (1860-1944). State Borodino Military Historical Museum, Russia.

General Uvarov at Borodino, Auguste-Joseph Desarnod (1788-1840), State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

In the War of 1812 Fedor Petrovich Uvarov (1769 -1824) commanded the 1st Cavalry Corps and then the Cavalry of the 1st and 2nd Russian Armies. With the Cossacks of Matvei Platov (1753-1818), Uvarov distinguished himself in the Battle of  Borodino when he turned the left flank of the French army and made a raid to its rear. The Russian attack of the main French forces delayed Napoleon’s battle plans for two crucial hours.

Napoleon near Borodino, Vasily Vereshchagin (1842–1904), 1897, oil on canvas, State Historical Museum, Moscow.

The image of a sullen dictator seated on his field chair with boots raised onto a battle drum, as his General Staff views in their spyglasses the men of the Grande Armée in harm’s way at the Battle of Borodino, can be seen as indicative of Napoleon’s exercise of arbitrary power as the first of modern history’s tyrants.

Hanging over the battlefield was the feeling that the destiny of Europe—whether united under Napoleon or giving space to a later attempt at a balance of powers– depended on these warriors. The battle’s outcome was a draw. The French remained master of the field but the Russians retreated to fight another day. It was one more day of immense military slaughter—the combined French and Russians losses was 80,000 soldiers—a full third of the total.

Battle of Borodino, 7th September 1812, 1822, Louis-Francois Lejeune (1775-1848).

In the French invasion of Russia in 1812, Lejeune was made général de brigade and chief of staff to Davout (1770-1823). During the retreat, Lejeune was frostbitten on the face and left his post where he was subsequently arrested on Napoleon’s orders.

During his military service, Lejeune produced a series of important battle-pictures based on his experiences. They were generally executed from sketches and studies made on the battlefield. Known for their lofty perspective which, according to Chase Maenius in The Art of War[s], “offer[ed] a panoramic view of the totality of the battle’s events,” the Battle of Borodino… of 1822 is considered his masterwork.

When Lejeune’s battle-pictures were shown in London, they were met by eager crowds who viewed them for their realistic and detailed depictions of significant contemporary events.

In his Memoirs of Baron Lejeune, aide-de-camp to marshals Berthier, Davout, and Oudinot (translation, 1897), Lejeune related one of the many wretched scenes that the Napoleonic Wars produced. He wrote: “As we were pushing on the next day, we came upon two poor creatures at a turn in the road whose condition tore our hearts. They were a handsome well-built man of about forty and a woman of about thirty, also with a fine figure, both stark naked. They approached us and said to us in very good French, ‘Our home has been sacked by Cossacks, who stripped us of everything and left us as you see us. For pity’s sake help us.’ We could do nothing for them but give them a little food, and we felt very wretched as we turned away. The next day at a bivouac some distance off a fresh irresistible demand was made upon our pity, and our stock of provisions was so much reduced that I don’t know what we should have done but that some German peasants brought us a few sheep, with which we replenished our larder.” (p. 158, https://archive.org/details/memoirsbaronlej01maurgoog/page/n170/mode/2up
—retrieved May 5, 2021.)

The bodies of dead soldiers of Napoleon’s Grand Armée left on the bridge over the River Kolocha after the Battle of Borodino, 1812.  Christian Wilhelm von Faber du Faur (1780-1857), published 1830’s.

Gen. Kutuzov at the conference of Fili deciding to surrender Moscow to Napoleon, Aleksey Kivshenko (1851–1895), 1880, oil on canvas, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Following the Battle of Borodino on September 7, 1812, the Russian army retreated towards Moscow and camped near Fili. A military council led by General Kutuzov assembled in a hut in Fili where, despite objections from younger generals, Kutuzov insisted on his plan to abandon Moscow.

The action not only saved the remains of the Russian army but worked to stymie and ultimately defeat Napoleon’s invasion drive. The personalities in the painting include Prince Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly (1761-1818), who was replaced by Kutuzov on order of the Czar and sits in the corner below the Virgin Mary and Child Jesus icon. Fyodor Uvarov sits near Barclay holding a paper. Nikolay Raevsky (1771-1829) sits by the window with his fingers locked together. Aleksey Petrovich Yermolov  (1777-1861) stands on the far right. The much younger Yermolov resented old general Kutuzov’s plan and demanded to fight the enemy.

When Napoleon and no more 100,000 French troops reached Moscow on September 8, 1812, there were no Russian troops to fight inside the city. Instead, Napoleon found only Russia’s poor, displaced, and underprivileged. Some sex workers stayed there to ply their trade in exchange for limited food. Moscow was Russia’s largest city, its capital, its Holy City—and French troops of liberation took to looting it. As the military forces of western Enlightenment watched Moscow burn for four days, the event in the war was a watershed for the Russian resolve to not surrender.

Napoleon wrote a letter of apology and condolence to the Czar for the wanton destruction in Moscow. The Czar, Alexander I Pavlovich, the Blessed (1777-1825), did not answer. He was concerned with Kutuzov’s army. Russia’s Czar, the commanding general, the troops and people were of one mind: to fight the Western invader to the last Russian man, woman, and child. Moscow’s demise was the turning point for the autocratic world that viewed Napoleon as an atheist and butcher at the head of an international army of mercenary thugs and savages. Only the wealthy in Russia were willing to negotiate with Napoleon mainly from fear that he might try to free their serfs. In this clash of civilizations, Napoleon surmised, “I beat the Russians every time—but that does not get me anywhere.”5 Old general Kutuzov’s inaction attained his objective to defend Russia whereas his 43-year-old French counterpart’s active efforts to rally his men far from home on behalf of his Empire failed.

Posthumous Portrait of Czar Alexander I of Russia, 1826, George Dawe, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Napoleon’s interest now turned back to Paris. Having heard of an impending coup d’état led by Gen. Claude François de Malet (1754-1812), Napoleon had to raise more fresh troops to crush rebellions in Paris. There were rebellions to crush taking place in other lands of the Empire as they squirmed under his dictatorial rule and were emboldened by his latest inglorious defeat.

By late 1812, the weather in Russia turned to ice and snow. Whereas the Russians retreated prior to defeat, the French retreated in defeat. Reports of cannibalism among the retreating combatants is recorded. On Napoleon’s retreat, the French army lost another half of their men. Napoleon’s supply lines had long been sacked and looted by his anti-Empire enemies.

Famous tell-all graph by French civil engineer Charles Joseph Minard (1781-1870) showing the size of Napoleon’s Grande Armée as it marched towards Moscow (top gray line, left to right) in summer of 1812 and its retreat (bottom black line, from right to left) in the late fall of 1812. Frozen temperatures during the humiliating retreat are plotted on the bottom graph.

On the retreat, surviving warriors fought among themselves over any existing supplies. Napoleon’s retreat included the humiliation of being chased out of Russia by Kutuzov’s redeployed 80,000 troops. The old man’s hot pursuit did not allow Napoleon, the once young Enlightenment military figure, to rest.

Under military surgeon Baron Dominique Jean Larrey (1766-1842), the Grand Army’s medical and sanitary measures were the finest in the world but the retreat route offered no food and no medical care. As a remedy for possible future ills, including his capture, Napoleon convinced his doctor to give him a vial of poison which the dictator could ingest if conditions deteriorated to become inescapably dire.

Portrait of Dominique-Jean Larrey, oil on canvas, 1804, Marie-Guillemine Benoist (1768-1826), Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, France.

Baron Dominique Jean Larrey was a French surgeon and military doctor who distinguished himself during the near endless wars of the French Revolution and under Napoleon. Baron Larrey served as the Grand Army’s medical and sanitation leader and was an important innovator in triage who is considered the first modern military doctor and surgeon.

Napoleon: Retreat, 1812. /Ncrossing The Beresina River In Russia During The Retreat Of The Grand Army Under Napoleon Bonaparte, December 1812; Baggage Carts And Ambulances Have Been Abandoned In The Foreground. Watercolor, c. 1812, attributed to General François Louis Fournier-Sarlovèze (1773-1827).

During the Russian Campaign, Fournier commanded a brigade of light cavalry composed of French, German, and Central European horsemen, and led a noted cavalry charge at the Battle of Smolensk.

Generals Kutuzov and Wittgenstein attacked the retreating remnants of Napoleon’s army at a critical bridge crossing in modern-day Belarus. Hundreds of Frenchmen drowned. To stop the attack, Napoleon ordered the bridges destroyed. He stranded hundreds more of his company to the enemy’s gunfire.

Napoleon now told his aide-de-camp, Armand-Augustin-Louis de Caulaincourt, what the Russian campaign taught him: “I can hold my grip on Europe only from the Tuileries.” In Warsaw, when Napoleon met Abbé de Pradt, his ambassador there, he told the French clergyman: “From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step.”6

Napoleon had led almost 700,000 men into Russia with the intent of conquering the country. By the end of 1812, only about 30,000 had survived. Out of that number, less than 1,000 soldiers returned to active duty after their return to France. 7

NAPOLEON DEFEATED IN PENINSULAR WAR IN SPAIN

Simultaneous with the debacle of Napoleon’s blood-thirsty Russian invasion, French forces lost the long fight in Spain and Portugal (since 1808) to keep the British off the Continent.

Significant losses in the east and west of the Empire were followed in 1813 by the Battle of Leipzig, Napoleon’s penultimate defeat by an international coalition that included Austria, Prussia, Russia and Sweden.

FORCED ABDICATION, EXILE, WATERLOO, AND DEATH

After Napoleon withdrew into France, in March 1814 these allied forces captured Paris. By early April 1814 Napoleon was forced to abdicate as Emperor. Napoleon had to go for his pursuit of glory had become a menace to his country and the world.

With the Treaty of Fontainebleau, Napoleon was exiled to Elba, and, following his brief escape into France in 1814, he was defeated for the final time at the Battle of Waterloo and exiled to St. Helena which held him until his death at 51 years old on May 5, 1821.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps, Jacques-Louis David, 1801, oil on canvas, 102 1⁄3 × 87 in., Château du Malmaison.

NOTES:

1. see- https://www.history.com/topics/france/napoleon

–retrieved May 5, 2021.

2. The Age of Napoleon, Will and Ariel Durant, Simon & Schuster: 1975, p. 698.

3. A Dictionary of Military Quotations, edited by Trevor Royle, Routledge: 1989, Section 105, quote 13.

4. http://www.military-info.com/freebies/maximsn.htm

5. The New York Times, “The Napoleon Legend—A New Look; How can we know the man whose transformation into a myth began long before his death?; Napoleonic Legend,” April 5, 1964. https://www.nytimes.com/1964/04/05/archives/the-napoleon-legenda-new-look-how-can-we-know-the-man-whose.html#:~:text=When%20he%20failed%2C%20he%20never,in%20defense%20of%20their%20country.–retrieved May 5, 2021.

6. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 13th edition, p. 199.

7. https://slate.com/technology/2012/12/napoleon-march-to-russia-in-1812-typhus-spread-by-lice-was-more-powerful-than-tchaikovskys-cannonfire.html 

— retrieved May 5, 2021.