Golden Nuggets from U. S. History

The Blue Quill Series
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Napoleon Bonaparte, His Life and His Waterloo

[See The French Revolution for how Napoleon became ruler of France.]

As First Consul of France, Napoleon, in May 1800, led a famous march across the Alps, through the Great St. Bernard Pass and into the Po Valley of northern Italy. In June, his army surprised and defeated the Austrians in the Battle of Marengo. In 1801, the Austrians signed the Treaty of Luneville, which reaffirmed the Treaty of Campo Formio. With Austria defeated, the war-weary British agreed to peace in 1802 in the Treaty of Amiens. Russia had dropped out of the coalition against France in 1799 and for the first time in 10 years, Europe was at peace.

Napoleon proved to be a superb civil administrator. One of his greatest achievements was his supervision of the revision and collection of French law into codes. The new law codes--seven in number--incorporated some of the freedoms gained by the people during the Revolution, including religious toleration and the abolition of serfdom. The most famous of the codes, the Code Napoleon or Code Civil, still forms the basis of French civil law. Napoleon also centralized France's government by appointing Prefects to administer regions called departments, into which France was divided.

Napoleon was not content simply to govern France. His thoughts soon turned to conquest. At first, he sought to extend French influence in the Western Hemisphere. In 1800, he forced Spain to cede to France the Louisiana Territory in North America. But the army that he sent to take possession of the territory was destroyed in the French colony on Haiti by a slave revolt and by tropical disease. Frustrated, Napoleon abandoned his plans for the Western Hemisphere and turned his attention to Europe. By 1803, France had annexed the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy and Napoleon had become president of the Italian Republic, which bordered Piedmont on the east. Also, fearful of Britain's naval power, Napoleon had tried to stop British trade with the rest of Europe. He anticipated war with Britain and in 1803 sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States to raise money for the war which began later that year.

The five-feet-two Napoleon was an inspirational and dramatic leader. He could also be cynical and demanding, though this side of his character was usually hidden from the public. In addition, he had great energy and ambition. He personally directed complex military maneuvers and at the same time controlled France's press, police system, foreign policy, and domestic affairs. He chose capable subordinates and rewarded them generously with medals, wealth, military rank, and titles of nobility.

One such man emerged although he had not served directly under Napoleon. Michel Ney, son of a barrel cooper and blacksmith, had been apprenticed to a local lawyer but ran away in 1788 at the age of 19 to join a hussar regiment. Ney's opportunities had come during the revolution as he fought early battles in 1792 at Valmy and Jemappes and on to a major battle at Hohenlinden in 1800 when he was a 31 year old general of a division.

Ney was personified by two traits: Great courage under fire and a strong aversion to promotion. Willing to hurl himself into battle at critical moments to inspire his troops by personal example, he was unwilling to accept higher rank, protesting each time his name was put forth to his military and political superiors. In every instance he was overruled. In May 1801, (probably because of his lack of political ambition and, therefore, he was not a threat to anyone), Ney was summoned to be presented to the First Consul at the Tuileries, where Napoleon and Josephine had surrounded themselves with the ceremony and splendor of a court. The army in which Ney had served had been disbanded, and Ney had bought a modest farm in Lorraine. His first encounter with Bonaparte was formal and unremarkable, for Napoleon regarded Ney's former commander, General Moreau, as a military rival and political opponent and viewed close associates of Moreau with suspicion. However, Josephine took to the young officer and matched him with a young lady who became his wife. Ney, with his influential new connections, became, at 33, part of the social and military world of the Consulate.

When peace with England broke down and Napoleon was assembling armies along the Channel coast, Ney asked for an assignment and was given command of the VI Army Corps. Early in 1804 police uncovered a plot by émigré Royalists to kidnap or murder Napoleon and found that General Moreau was involved. Out of deference to Ney, Napoleon commuted Moreau's sentence to banishment and Moreau was shipped off to the United States. On May 18, 1804, the French Senate and people voted Napoleon their emperor. The following day Napoleon revived the ancient military rank of Marshall, and 14 generals, including Ney, were named Marshalls of the Empire. On December 2, in ceremonies at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, Napoleon formally crowned himself emperor.

By 1805, Austria, Russia, and Sweden had joined Britain in a new coalition against France. In September 1805, Napoleon led his troops into Germany. In October, the first battle was won by Marshall Michel Ney at Elchingen. Also in October, Napoleon captured an Austrian army at Ulm. In December, he demolished the Austrian and Russian armies at Austerlitz. But earlier that year Lord Nelson had destroyed the fleets of France and Spain, France's ally, near Trafalgar, a cape on Spain's southern coast. This victory gave Britain control of the seas and ended any chance of Napoleon invading Britain.

In 1806, Prussia joined Russia in mounting a new campaign against France. In October, Napoleon's forces overwhelmed the Prussian army at Jena and at nearby Auerstedt. Also in 1806, in an attempt to use French control of continental ports to blockade Britain indirectly, Napoleon issued the Berlin Decree, by which ships passing to French-controlled ports after calling at British ports were liable to seizure. The Continental System, as this policy was called, later failed. However, in June 1807, Napoleon demolished Russian armies at Friedland and Ney was instrumental in each victory. In 1809, Napoleon defeated the Austrians again at Wagram, near Vienna.

After each victory, Napoleon enlarged his empire. In 1806, he had created the Confederation of the Rhine, made up of a number of western German states, and placed it under his protection. He also carved provinces of Germany and Italy into principalities and dukedoms, and gave them to friends and relatives. In 1806, he made his brother Joseph, king of Naples, and his brother Louis, king of Holland. In 1807, Napoleon made his brother Jerome, king of Westphalia and added to France the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. In 1808, he bestowed the title Duc (duke) D'elchingen on Marshall Ney for his victory three years earlier. In 1809, he gave his sister Elisa, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and annexed to France the Illyrian Provinces, which covered much of what are now Slovenia and Croatia. In 1810, he brought his empire to its height by annexing Holland and much of Germany.

By 1809, Napoleon had grown concerned about what would become of his vast empire after his death. He and the 46 year old Josephine had no children, and Napoleon had no heirs. In December, he divorced Josephine and in April 1810, he married the 18-year-old Archduchess Marie Louise, daughter of Emperor Francis I of Austria. In 1811, the couple had a son, also named Napoleon, who was given the title "King of Rome," and Napoleon Bonaparte was dubbed with the more aristocratic Napoleon I.

On Dec. 31, 1810, Czar Alexander I of Russia withdrew from the Continental System and Napoleon felt that the czar's withdrawal threatened France, and so he assembled a new army to attack Russia. Many years of war had weakened France, but Napoleon raised about 600,000 men. His allies and subject nations furnished many of these soldiers by conscription. The Russian army had about 200,000 men.

In June 1812, Napoleon's army crossed the Neman River into Russia. The Russians retreated, denying Napoleon a decisive battle. In September, Napoleon fought the Russians at Borodino, near Moscow. The battle resulted in many casualties on both sides but produced no clear winner. Again, the Russians withdrew but Marshall Ney, Duc D'elchingen, who had again demonstrated exceptional leadership, courage, and fidelity, was granted the additional title, Prince de la Moskowa.

Napoleon pushed on to Moscow only to find the city nearly empty of people. Soon after the French army entered Moscow, large parts of the city were destroyed by fires that had been set by the retreating Russians. With the bitter Russian winter approaching, Napoleon waited in Moscow for Alexander to offer peace, but no such offer came. In mid-October, Napoleon, unable to supply his troops, began the long retreat from Moscow. His soldiers struggled against snow storms and freezing temperatures. Soldiers and horses died of starvation and exposure. Russian soldiers called Cossacks killed many of the stragglers. Of the 600,000 men in Napoleon's army, about 500,000 died, deserted, or were captured during the campaign and the retreat from Russia. On the retreat, Ney was in command of the rear guard, a position in which he was exposed to Russian artillery fire and to numerous Cossack attacks. He rose to heights of courage, resourcefulness, and inspired improvisation that seemed miraculous to the men he led. "He is the bravest of the brave," said Napoleon when Ney, for weeks given up as lost, at last joined the main body of the frozen and shrunken Grand Army.

Returning to Paris, Napoleon now faced a hostile alliance of Austria, Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Sweden. In April 1813, Napoleon again invaded Germany with a new army and took the offensive against the allies. He won initial victories at Lutzen, Bautzen, and Dresden, but his forces were vastly outnumbered. In October, the two sides fought at Leipzig in the Battle of the Nations. In the battle, Napoleon was defeated, and he retreated into France. The allies pursued him and captured Paris in March 1814.

At Fontainebleau, on April 11, 1814, Napoleon abdicated (gave up) the imperial throne. The allies called for the return of a king of the Bourbon family and placed Louis XVIII, the brother of Louis XVI, on the French throne. Napoleon was exiled from France and made ruler of the tiny island of Elba off the northwest coast of Italy. His wife and son were sent to his wife's father, the emperor of Austria, and Napoleon never saw them again.

On Elba, Napoleon planned his return to France. In February 1815, he sailed from the island with about 1,100 followers who had shared his exile. He landed at Cannes on March 1 and began marching to Paris, gathering supporters along the way. Troops led by Marshal Michel Ney were dispatched from Paris to arrest Napoleon. But when they saw their old leader, the men, still led by a tearful Ney, gladly joined him and hailed him as their emperor. Louis XVIII fled Paris as Napoleon approached. On March 20, Napoleon entered Paris and was carried on the shoulders of cheering crowds into the Tuileries.

Napoleon immediately proclaimed a new constitution that limited his powers. He promised the allies that he would not make war. But the allied leaders considered Napoleon an "enemy and disturber of the peace of the world." Once again, both sides prepared for battle.

He advanced into Belgium with about 125,000 men, hoping to defeat the separate armies of Britain's Duke of Wellington and the Prussian Marshal Gebhard von Blucher. On June 16, Napoleon defeated Blucher at Ligny, near Fleurus. On June 18, Napoleon attacked Wellington at Waterloo in what has become one of history's most famous battles. The battle featured spectacular charges by thousands of French cavalry. But just as it seemed the British forces would collapse, Blucher's troops arrived to reinforce Wellington. Badly outnumbered, the French army suffered a crushing defeat.

Fleeing to Paris he abdicated for the second time, on June 22. The period from Napoleon's return to Paris from Elba to his second abdication is known as the 'Hundred Days.' He tried to escape to the United States, but failed and surrendered at Rochefort to Frederick Lewis Maitland, the captain of the British battleship Bellerophon. In August, he was sent to the barren British island of St. Helena, in the South Atlantic Ocean... 1,000 miles West of the African coast.

On St. Helena, Napoleon spent much of his remaining years dictating to friends his version of the events that occurred during his lifetime. He died on May 5, 1821, of a stomach ulcer that was probably cancerous. Most historians label as inaccurate a theory that he died of arsenic poisoning. Napoleon was buried on the island. In his will, Napoleon had asked to be buried "on the banks of the Seine, among the French people I have loved so much." In 1840, the British and French governments had his remains brought to Paris. There, at the Eglise du Dome (Church of the Dome), which is part of the Hotel des Invalides (Home for Disabled Soldiers), the body of Napoleon was laid to rest. Today, the site is a major tourist attraction.

Napoleon was one of the greatest military commanders in history. But also, in France and in the states he created, he granted constitutions, introduced law codes, abolished feudalism, created efficient governments, and fostered education, science, literature, and the arts. Organizational structures, administrative procedures, and governmental bureaucracies pioneered under Napoleon are evident today around the world.

Marshall Michel Ney, Duc D'elchingen, Prince De La Moskowa

Michel Ney was born in Sarrelouis, France on January 10, 1769, in the same year of Napoleon Bonaparte's birth. He was a soldier's soldier, wholly without political ambition or political judgment. He was at his best in the campaigns for France's natural frontiers at the beginning and end of his career, but out of his depth in Napoleon's intricate strategy for the domination of Europe. He showed little interest in external distinctions or social successes.

After the second return of the Bourbons, Ney made a halfhearted attempt to flee the country, but was recognized and arrested for treason in a remote corner of southwestern France. Put before a court-martial, he refused to recognize its competence and insisted on his right as a peer to be tried by the upper chamber. Oddly, this was granted. Ney's reputation still stirred the spirit of the people, including some in high places of the new government.

The tenor of the trial emerged as a low key inquiry but Ney expected the conviction which followed. He was sentenced to death but, surprisingly, the sentence was to be carried out by firing squad instead of the customary guillotine. Furthermore, in December 1815, instead of the usual public notice and public spectacle, Ney was removed from his prison cell and taken to an out-of-the-way spot in the Luxembourg Gardens. There, according to official documents, he was executed, his body secretly sprinted away, and buried in a hidden grave. His soldiers had always regarded Ney as having a charmed life. The dignity with which he met his death effaced the memory of his political vagaries and made him, in an epic age, the most heroic figure of his time.

About 1830, near the small rural community north of Salisbury, Rowan County, North Carolina, a man appeared named Peter Ney. Peter was a 61 year old school teacher who happened to have the same physical characteristics as Marshall Michel Ney and, coincidentally, was the exact same age as the great warrior. Little else is known about Peter Ney, as he kept a solitary life outside the classroom, but his countenance proved to be a dead-ringer for the likeness of Marshall Ney. Peter Ney taught school in Rowan County for many years, earning the respect and admiration of the entire community.

In 1846, at the age of 77, Peter Ney became gravely ill and on his deathbed stated that he was indeed Marshall Michel Ney, Duc D'elchingen, Prince De La Moskowa. Then he died and was buried in the Third Creek Church Cemetery of his adopted community. One year later, a mysterious woman bearing a remarkable likeness to Madam Michel Ney, (born Aglaé Auguié, widow of Marshall Ney), came to Rowan County and visited the grave-site of Peter Ney. Although the visit was witnessed by many local citizens who identified her, the mysterious lady did not linger to be questioned, and she quietly slipped away.

Years past before handwriting analysis emerged as a profession. When comparisons were made between documents left by the two men, most experts agreed that Peter Ney and Marshall Michel Ney were indeed the same person. However, as is typical of historians, most of them disagree with the experts because the historians can show positive proof, through official documents, that Marshall Michel Ney was shot in Luxembourg Gardens in 1815.

During the 1940's Hollywood got into the act and made a short (about 15 minutes) documentary about the mystery. In the film, the question is thoroughly examined but in the end, it leaves the question open for audiences to decide... Who do you believe, the historians or Peter Ney?

[NOTE: The Ney mystery documentary is rerun from time-to-time on TCM, (Turner Classic Movies) cable channel, as a fill-in between movies. Very interesting...]

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