Born August 15, 1769, Napoleon Bonaparte was an incredibly ambitious politician and political leader who rose to power during the French Revolution, shaping the nation and successfully leading several military campaigns. His leadership and military prowess led to him becoming the Emperor of France and dominating the vast majority of Europe for over a decade. Take a look at the kind of man Napoleon was, his strengths, weaknesses, and what made him one of the most controversial yet revered leaders in human history.
He Didn’t Grow Up Wealthy
While Napoleon’s parents, Carlo Maria Bonaparte and Letizia Ramolino Bonaparte, were members of minor Corsican nobility, Napoleon’s family wasn’t affluent like most might assume. Although Napoleon attended French military academies, he wasn’t admitted due to his parent’s wealth but was admitted through scholarships.
This made Napoleon significantly less privileged compared to his other classmates who came from rich and well-connected families. Furthermore, having grown up in Corsica, Napoleon’s first language was Italian, not French. Supposedly, he was teased by his classmates for sounding like a peasant.
The Truth About His Height
One of the most common known “facts” about Napoleon was that he was short. It was reported that Napoleon stood at 5’2″ at the time of his death, which might seem small in stature, but was the average height of a French male at the time.
However, he was measured in French units, which were smaller than today, so it’s assumed that he was around 5’6″ or 5’7″, which would have made him above average height. This would also make him taller than Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin, as well as the same height as Winston Churchill and Benito Mussolini.
He Oversaw An Impressive Architectural Achievement
Between 1801 and 1857, Napoleon was involved in the building of a large fort in the Atlantic Ocean on the west coast of France. Named Fort Boyard, the structure stands 65-feet tall out of the ocean and stands as its own island. Although the building was originally used as a defense fort, it was eventually turned into a prison.
The Boyard was also considered to be an incredible architectural feat. When the idea was originally proposed in 1692, Louis XIV was told, “Your Majesty, it would be easier to seize the moon with your teeth than to attempt such an undertaking in such a place.”
He Helped Invent Canning
During his military campaign into distant regions such as Russia and Egypt, Napoleon understood that he needed a better way of preserving his army’s food. So, he offered a reward to anyone that could come up with a solution.
Then, in 1908, Nicolas Appert discovered that if you cooked food inside of a sealed glass jar, it wouldn’t spoil unless the jar leaked. Little did Appert or Napoleon know it, but Appert had invented the process of canning and was paid 12,000 francs for his work. It wouldn’t be for another 50 years until Louis Pasteur understood the scientific reasoning behind how canning works.
An Emperor And A Writer
During his time in exile, Napoleon published a series of memoirs, as well as a book about the life of Julius Caesar. However, this was by no means a new hobby. Before his life became dominated by his military career, and before he even married his wife, Napoleon dabbled, as a romance novelist.
Around 1795, he wrote a romantic novella titled Clisson et Eugénie, a fictional story about a soldier and his lover, which is believed to reflect Napoleon’s relationship with Eugénie Désirée Clary. Although the book was never published during his lifetime, it was translated in 2009 and is available today.
He Emancipated Numerous Religious Groups
Under his rule, Napoleon emancipated several religious groups, including Jews, Protestants in Catholic countries, and Catholics in Protestant countries. He abolished laws that restricted oppressed religious groups to ghettos and gave them rights to property, worship, and work.
He was met with resistance when it came to integrating Jewish people into French society but pushed back hard. He stated, “I will never accept any proposals that will obligate the Jewish people to leave France because to me the Jews are the same as any other citizen in our country.” However, this all came crumbling down just one year later.
Beethoven Planned To Dedicate His Third Symphony To Him
Earlier in Napoleon’s life, composer Ludwig van Beethoven greatly admired the general, even when he was First Consul after overthrowing the government. When he began working on Symphony 3, he claimed that the music was inspired by Napoleon’s military exploits and the ideals that he had in terms of government.
Yet, in 1804, after naming himself First Consul for life and crowning himself the emperor of France, Beethoven was devastated. According to Beethoven biographer, Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven “flew into a rage and cried out: ‘Is he too, then, nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he, too, will trample on the rights of man, and indulge only his ambition!'”
He Attempted To Take His Own Life Before Exile
After Napoleon’s disastrous campaign in Russia, and being forced to abdicate as part of the Treaty of Fontainebleau on April 11, 1814, he was sentenced to exile on the island of Elba. Yet, at first, Napoleon decided that he would rather die than be forced to live in exile.
Ever since his failure in Russia, he began carrying a poisonous pill with him in case he needed to take his own life. He then took it on April 12, 1814. It’s assumed that the pill lost its potency over time and made Napoleon incredibly ill, although it did not kill him.
There Were Elaborate Plans To Rescue Napoleon From St. Helena
Napoleon’s final exile location was the South American island of St. Helena. The sheer cliffs of the island were heavily guarded with around 2800 men at arms and around 500 cannons. On top of that, the surrounding sea was heavily patrolled by a Royal Navy squadron of 11 ships, with an island 12000 miles away prepared in case of an attempted escape.
The British were justified in their security, however. In Napoleon’s last six years of his life on St. Helena, escape plans consisted of boats, balloons, and even possibly early concepts for submarines. In 1820, British smuggler Tom Johnson claimed he was approached with the offer for £40,000 to rescue Napoleon using a pair of submerged boats with collapsible masts.
His Army Discovered The Rosetta Stone
Alongside being an incredibly successful political and military commander, earlier in his life, Napoleon saw himself as a scientist and was even elected membership to the National Institute. During his travels to Egypt to cut off Britain’s trade route, Napoleon brought along over one hundred scientists, engineers, scholars, and historians along with him.
During their expedition, vast amounts of information were recorded regarding Egypt’s typography, history, and culture, along with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. Captain Pierre François-Xavier Bouchard discovered it, who immediately had the artifact shipped to Cairo. It would later help to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.
A House Was Bult For Him In New Orleans
The fifth neighbor of New Orleans, Nicholas Girod, was a Frenchman and a staunch supporter of Napoleon. After Napoleon’s defeat and abdication at Waterloo, Girod assisted in aiding several of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in escaping to the United States. The former mayor also intended to help smuggle Napoleon to New Orleans.
After having retired from his position as mayor, in 1821, he began renovating a house on the corner of Chartres and St. Louis Street, where he planned for Napoleon to live. After Napoleon died that same year, Girod and his family moved into the house, although it is still referred to today as the Napoleon House.
He Was Involved In The Creation Of Braille
While in power, for tactical purposes, Napoleon insisted on the creation of a type of communication that would not require either light or sound. Napoleon’s request was successfully met by Charles Barbier, who invented a tactile military code.
Unfortunately, the method proved to be too difficult for Napoleon’s troops to learn, and the idea was abandoned. Then, in 1821, on a visit to the Royal Institute for the Blind, Barbier met Louis Braille, who was interested in Barbier’s unique form of communication. Together, the two developed the reading and writing system for braille.
He Was Against Torture
Although Napoleon was a fierce and formidable military commander, one military tactic that he did not believe in was torture. Not only did he see it as a barbaric act, but also pointless. He knew that under torture, almost anything that a person says couldn’t be taken as truth.
He explained this when he stated, “The barbarous custom of having men beaten who are suspected of having important secrets to reveal must be abolished. It has always been recognized that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile. The poor wretches say anything that comes into their mind and what they think the interrogator wishes to know.”
The Mystery Surrounding His Death
When Napoleon died on May 5, 1821, on St. Helena, it was concluded that his cause of death had been stomach cancer. Strangely, Napoleon’s body remained unnaturally well-preserved, something that occurs when someone has arsenic poisoning. An experiment was conducted in 1961, in which researchers tested Napoleon’s hair, which demonstrated a high level of arsenic.
An even more in-depth study was performed in 2008 that showed Napoleon had high levels of arsenic in his body throughout his entire life. So, it’s assumed that he had been constantly exposed to lead-based paint and other toxic substances at the time, that might have hastened his death but didn’t kill him.
He Wasn’t Actually Afraid Of Cats
Another common misconception about Napoleon was that he had ailurophobia or was afraid of cats. Although there were rumors that he was attacked by a bobcat as a child, this is most likely a myth. It’s even known that his wife often kept cats in their house.
In reality, it was Napoleon’s nephew, Napoleon III, who had a deep fear of felines. It’s reported that he would jump onto a chair whenever one entered the room.
His Wife Narrowly Escaped Execution
At the age of 16, Napoleon’s future wife, Joséphine, became a member of the French aristocracy after marrying Alexandre de Beauharnais. She was eventually imprisoned in La Carmes as the French Revolution erupted in Paris. Her husband was executed at the guillotine, with Joséphine doomed to the same fate.
However, the day before her trial, the government was overthrown, and the executions ended. Narrowly escaping with her life, she became a well-known socialite, meeting Napoleon at a party in 1795 while she was 32 and he was 26. The two changed their ages on their marriage certificate to make them closer to the same age.
His Army Was Destroyed In Russia Without Losing A Battle
After taking power, Napoleon had countless military victories, slowly taking over Europe. Feeling invincible, in 1812, he invaded Russia after Czar Alexander I refused to comply with his embargo of British trade. He took with him between 450,000 to 650,000 troops, forcing the Russians to retreat deeper into their country. However, in doing so, they also left nothing behind for Napoleon’s army, burning all of the crops, cities, and bridges.
Napoleon continued his pursuit, eventually occupying Moscow. When he realized that his already struggling army wouldn’t be able to survive the winter, he ordered a retreat. By the time he made it out of Russia, the weather and constant assaults by the Russians had decimated his army. This led to Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813.
He Would Disguise Himself And Go Out In Public
As a ruler, Napoleon would often disguise himself in common clothes and other disguises to avoid being recognized. He would then walk among the ordinary people. There, he would gather information about what people really thought of him as well as his policies and ambitions.
This proved to be an effective method because people weren’t afraid to be honest with a stranger. If they had known it was him, they would be more likely to tell him exactly what he would want to hear.
His Brother Settled In New Jersey
Although Napoleon’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte, wasn’t very much like his ambitious and determined younger brother, he was named the King of Spain and King of Sicily by Napoleon.
After the Napoleonic Wars came to an end, in 1817, he moved to the United States, where he settled in New Jersey. There, he lived off of the Jewelry that he had taken with him from Spain. At the end of his life, he moved back to Europe where he was buried next to his brother after his death in 1844.
He Lost A Game Of Chess To What He Thought Was A Machine
Although Napoleon won his fair share of battles, he also lost a decent amount of them as well. One of the most ridiculous losses of his life, however, didn’t come in the form of an army, but an automatic chess-playing machine known as “The Turk.”
Supposedly, Napoleon played multiple games against the machine, losing each one. What Napoleon didn’t know was that the machine wasn’t real. There was actually a human chess master inside of the device that was manipulating the machine.