Napoleon Bonaparte, the Emergence of an Icon Essay Sample

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Napoleon Bonaparte has become a worldwide cultural icon who symbolises military genius and political power, an image which he himself cultivated during his reign through close control of the press and artistic communities. These contemporary representations, and the collective memory which has evolved through countless historical studies of Napoleon since, have contributed to this iconic status. Indeed some writers have gone much further in describing him not just as an icon in military and political terms, but rather as a symbol of humanity itself, ‘So many were his interests, so all-embracing was his genius, so massive were his defects that he can be said to represent on a gigantic scale almost all the qualities and foibles of the human race.’[1]

The historic lenses through which ‘icons’ are viewed often belie the humble and unremarkable backgrounds from which they emerged and take as predetermined the key characteristics which later moulded their iconic status, without adequate consideration of important seminal events and chance opportunities. This essay will demonstrate that the circumstances of Napoleon’s early life, his educational opportunities, the local politics of his native Corsica, and his experiences in revolutionary France, played an important role in the evolution of his character and the military and leadership traits which later defined his career. Particular attention will be paid to his first creditable military victory at The Siege of Toulon in December 1793, which, it is asserted, was a seminal event in his career and ultimately provided the platform for his incredible ascension to power.

Napoleon Bonaparte was born on the fifteenth of August 1769, on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, as Napoleon Buonaparte. He was born the second son of a noble family which advocated Corsican independence. The family resided on the west coast of Corsica in the town of Ajaccio. The Buonapartes were a family of eleven children which, as a result of the clannish system of politics on the island, made them quite influential. Napoleon’s father Carlo was a lawyer and the family enjoyed a relatively wealthy existence, contrary to the self-image of childhood Napoleon would subsequently perpetuate. In 1756, after four hundred years of rule by The Genoese Republic, Corsica won its effective independence through an insurrection led by Corsican revolutionary Pasquale Paoli. Napoleon’s father acted as secretary for Paoli during this period.[2] However, just three months before Napoleon’s birth, the Bourdon monarchy of France found the island to be strategically important enough to invade and annex; thus ending Corsica’s brief independent existence. As a result, Napoleon was born on French soil and as such a subject of King Louis XVI. Under French rule Corsica was run as a colony.

This meant that talented and ambitious individuals, such as Napoleon, had very little option but to travel to main land France in search of opportunity.[3] In later years, Napoleon’s family name would be changed from Buonaparte to Bonaparte in order to make it more French sounding, as would some of his sibling’s first names. At the age of nine, with the endorsement of the Compte de Marbeuf, the French military Governor in Corsica, Napoleon entered military school in Brienne; a town in the Champagne region of France, southeast of Paris. The Governor’s endorsement ensured that Napoleon qualified for a royal educational bursary on the basis of being from an impoverished aristocratic family; and also illustrated how his father Carlo was pragmatic enough to befriend his new French masters in endeavour to ensure the best future for his offspring.[4]

It should be mentioned in this context that the affair which Napoleon’s mother Letizia had with the aforementioned Governor is likely to have also helped Napoleon’s candidacy.[5] Napoleon endured a somewhat lonely and frustrating education in Brienne as he was set apart by difficulty with learning the French language and ostracization from his mainly French classmates, who viewed him as a ‘Corsican savage.'[6] However, Napoleon had a distinct aptitude in mathematics and in 1784 he became the first Corsican to pass through the prestigious Ecole Militaire in Paris; finishing in one year an artillery course which normally took students up to three years to complete. Napoleon then took up his first post as a Second Lieutenant and was assigned to his regiment, at Valence in southern France.[7]

As Napoleon took up his first commissioned military position, revolution was brewing throughout France. To describe the onset of the revolution in basic historical terms: French nobles were attempting to counteract the decline in their income by squeezing the utmost out of their very considerable feudal rights to exact money from the French peasantry; and by encroaching on positions traditionally held by the non-noble middle class. The reasons for the decline in the noble’s income stemmed from a reduction of their own powers by the higher court nobility of Louis XVI. Nobles who behaved in this rather contemptuous way became known as The Feudists.[8]

The French victory over England in the American War of Independence had bankrupted the country and the subsequent financial troubles of the monarchy brought matters to a point of crisis. In response, the Third Estate, which represented middle class subjects who were neither nobles nor clergy, introduced the nationalist idea of liberation from gentry and oppression.[9] An impoverished, starving and riotous peasantry stood behind the deputies of the Third Estate and thus The French Revolution ensued. The storming of The Bastille, a symbol of royal authority, on July fourteenth 1789 marked the beginning of the national revolution in earnest.[10]

The propagandist cartoon above, drawn in the summer of 1791, illustrates the sentiment of the peasantry and The Third Estate in the two years after revolution began. The print offered its audience a satirised image which befits the peasantry’s rising political status and the monarchy’s diminished political role. It shows King Louis XVI as a diseased pig, inferring that his monarchy was representative of an overweight and useless parasite. In contrast, the youthful peasant confidently prods the King while wearing the revolutionary colours of blue, white and red.[11] The monarchy would be abolished in September 1792 and Louis XVI would be executed in January 1793 when The National Convention, the newly formed executive power of The First French Republic, ruled that he was guilty of collusion with enemies of France.

Napoleon had been in Corsica from September 1786 on eighteen months paid leave and did not return to service until 1788. He had managed to solicit this generous amount of leave in order to organise the affairs of his family after his father’s death.[12] When he returned he was stationed for a further eighteen months at Auxonne, in eastern France, and as such did not witness the beginnings of the revolution. However, this eighteen month period did mark the first time in Napoleon’s life that he showed genuine interest in purely military matters, as evidenced by numerous exercise books which he filled with notes on gunnery. His applied military learning was facilitated by the excellent courses on artillery and higher mathematics offered at the Auxonne military base.[13]

In late 1790, the removal of French military rule in Corsica had allowed former revolutionary Pasquale Paoli to return from exile and reassume his role as head of the island state. Initially, both Napoleon and his older brother Joseph assumed that Paoli’s return would pave the way for the Bonapartes, still loyal to Corsica, to play a massive role in the foundation and direction of a new, independent Corsican Republic. Though technically Corsican nobles themselves, the Bonapartes subscribed to the revolutionary approach to change advocated on mainland France by The National Convention, and believed Corsican independence could be achieved in a similar fashion. This did not prove to be the case as Paoli did not share the brother’s Jacobin enthusiasm and secretly favoured making Corsica into an independent state under the protectorate of the French or British crown.[14] The term Jacobin, first used in 1790, described members of the republican French Revolutionary Club which met at the former Dominican or Jacobin convent in Paris.[15]

In February 1793, after three years floundering in French garrisons and dabbling ineffectively with Corsican politics, Napoleon got what he thought would finally be his first opportunity to showcase his strategic military talent. The opportunity came about when the King of a group of islands off the coast of Sardinia had declared war on the French Republic. Napoleon and other Corsican patriots had lobbied for a retaliatory operation to be performed, primarily because of political ties to The National Convention in Paris. The expedition was to be led by Colonna Cesari, a friend of Paoli. Just as Napoleon had landed his troops on the Sardinian islands and set up his batteries, Cesari ordered the troops to retreat from their positions and return to Corsica.

Cesari was acting on Paoli’s instruction, in order to humiliate Napoleon militarily.[16] Though Napoleon himself could not voice his frustration at this embarrassment, it did not stop his impressionable eighteen year old brother Lucien from protesting at Paoli’s behaviour. Lucien accused Paoli of harbouring pro-English sympathies and ambitions to rule Corsica as a dictatorship once independence had been achieved with England’s assistance. Though this was probable, the accusation ultimately resulted in the Bonaparte family being forced to leave for Marseille in June of the same year, along with hundreds of other Corsican Francophile republicans from the port towns of the island. Subsequently Paoli collaborated with the British Royal Navy to set up the Anglo-Corsican kingdom.[17]

Bitter at being exiled from his homeland, Napoleon was encumbered with the welfare of his sizeable family and had very little prospects. By sheer chance however, he was offered employment on the sixteenth of September 1793 while in Nice, by his Corsican friend and former representative of The Third Estate in Corsica, Antoine Christophe Saliceti.[18] In August 1793, the French had declared war on Britain as they perceived that Britain was attempting to incite a royalist insurrection in France and was itself preparing for war. As a result of the French declaration of war, Britain sent a fleet of ships to Toulon to force a blockade on the naval port city. Spanish naval fleets allied with Britain and fortified the blockade. Prevention of any military or trade activity by the French Revolutionary republicans and the capture of the strategic port of Toulon were the main objectives of the combined force.[19]

The city of Toulon had proclaimed itself loyal to the Bourdon monarchy and had effectively forced itself to side with the British to avoid starvation.[20] When Napoleon met with Saliceti, the revolutionary fight for Toulon’s recapture was floundering under the leadership of General Jean François Carteaux who, though previously successful in land operations, looked out of ideas when it came to coastal siege manoeuvres. One of Carteaux’s artillery captains, Elzéard August Cousin de Dommartin, had been wounded in a battle at the village of Ollioules, a few kilometres north of Toulon. At their meeting in Nice, Saliceti immediately appointed Napoleon, now a captain himself, to the position made vacant by Dommartin’s incapacitation; without even consulting the generals in command. [21]

Napoleon proved an inspired appointment at Toulon. On arrival, the artillery had just four canon, two mortars and only a handful of volunteer companies to man them. After just three days in the post Napoleon had increased the artillery to fourteen canon, four mortars with all the necessary equipment, and sufficient volunteers to service them. From there, he created an arsenal at Ollioules for the manufacture and repair of muskets. He took over a foundry in the region and requisitioned skilled workers from Marseille to produce case shot, cannon balls and shells for his mortars. At Saliceti’s recommendation, Napoleon was rewarded for his industrious transformation of the artillery with promotion to the rank of Major.[22] Tactically however, his informed ideas were being ignored by an increasingly obstinate Carteaux. It wasn’t until November, when Carteaux was replaced by General Jaques François Dugommier, that Napoleon’s knowledge of applied military strategy, gained from his studies in Auxonne, was given any credence.[23]

The instigation for the change of command came about, in part, as a result of a letter Napoleon sent to the National Convention’s Committee of Public Safety, denouncing Carteaux as incapable of controlling or instructing his subordinates. In the letter he wrote: The first measure I propose is that you should send up to command the guns some general of artillery who will be able, if only by making use of his rank, to command respect and deal with a crowd of fools on the staff with whom one has constantly to argue and lay down the law in order to overcome their prejudices and make them take steps which theory and practice alike have shown to be axiomatic to any trained officer of this corps. [sic][24]

This was a risky move by Napoleon but it was typical of the opportunism and single mindedness he had always displayed, and would continue to display throughout his entire career. Napoleon identified that the key to victory in the siege was to occupy the peninsula to the south of the city. With heavy artillery mounted there, the harbour would quickly become impossible to occupy, and the enemy fleet would have to withdraw. Napoleon began the process of systematically bombarding the enemy forts on the peninsula until their fortifications were sufficiently depleted to be charged by republican troops. True to Napoleon’s strategy, once the peninsula was occupied and his artillery fired the first few canon from their new vantage, the British evacuated, hastily setting fire to French ships as they left. On the twentieth of December, French republican troops marched into Toulon. Napoleon suffered his first wound in the charge on the peninsula, a bayonet stab to the leg. However, the pain would quickly subside when he was rewarded for his strategic success in delivering Toulon to the republican army, with promotion to the rank of Brigadier General at just twenty four years of age. [25]

Napoleon Bonaparte remains one of the most enigmatic and polarising figures in world history. His iconic status was derived from his prodigious military conquests, his strategic brilliance, his ruthless ambition, his opportunism, his complicated politics, his juxtaposing principles, his awkward romances, his magnetism, his self-propagandising, his vanity, his epic ascension from obscurity to become the most powerful figure in Europe and his thunderous defeat at Waterloo. From his obscure beginnings on the island of Corsica, Napoleon rose to rule over the vast French Empire which his military conquests and political manoeuvrings created. He transformed France itself, revising the country’s entire legal, administrative and education systems under what was called The Napoleonic Code; and helped create the Europe of Nations which exists to this day.[26]The victory at The Siege of Toulon was the event from which Napoleon’s military and political career would thrust forward and his enduring historical legacy would emerge.


Baldwin, D., Royal Prayer: A Surprising History (Continuum International Publishing Group, London, 2009).

Chandler, D. G., The Campaigns of Napoleon, The Mind and Method of History’s Greatest Soldier (Scribner, New York, 1973).

Chartrand, R., Napoleon’s guns, 1792-1815: Heavy and Siege Artillery (Osprey Publishing Ltd., Oxford, 2003).

Dwyer, P., Napoleon: The Path To Power 1769-1799 (Bloomsbury Publishing Plc., London, 2007).

Herold, J. C., The Age of Napoleon (First Mariner books Ed., American Heritage Inc., New York, 2002).

Hobsbawm, E. J., The Age of Revolution, 1789-1898 (First Vintage Books Ed., Random House, Inc., New York, 1996).

Lyons, M., Napoleon Bonaparte and the legacy of the French Revolution (St. Martin’s Press Inc., New York, 1994).

Nicholls, D., Napoleon, A Biographical Companion (ABC-CLIO, Inc., Santa Barbara, California, 1999).

Pagden, A., People and Empires (Phoenix Press, London, 2002).

Primary Sources:

Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, Satirical Prints of The French Revolution (French Bicentenary Committee, Kilmacud, Co. Dublin, 1989).

[1] David G. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, The Mind and Method of History’s Greatest Soldier, (New York, 1973 ), p. xxvi.
[2] Martyn Lyons, Napoleon Bonaparte and the legacy of the French Revolution (New York, 1994), p.6. [3] Martyn Lyons, Napoleon Bonaparte and the legacy of the French Revolution (New York, 1994), p.6. [4] J. Christopher Herold, The Age of Napoleon (New York, 2002), p. 18. [5] David Baldwin Royal Prayer: A Surprising History (London, 2009), p. 49. [6] J. Christopher Herold, The Age of Napoleon (New York, 2002), p. 19. [7] J. Christopher Herold, The Age of Napoleon (New York, 2002), p. 21. [8] Eric J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution, 1789-1898 (London, 1962), p. 57. [9] Eric J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution, 1789-1898 (London, 1962), p. 60. [10] Eric J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution, 1789-1898 (London, 1962), p. 61. [11] Chester Beatty Library, Satirical Prints of The French Revolution (Dublin, 1989), fig. 51. [12] J. Christopher Herold, The Age of Napoleon (New York, 2002), p. 24. [13] J. Christopher Herold, The Age of Napoleon (New York, 2002), p. 30. [14] J. Christopher Herold, The Age of Napoleon (New York, 2002), p. 37. [15] David Nicholls, Napoleon, A Biographical Companion (Santa Barbara,
1999), p. 131. [16] J. Christopher Herold, The Age of Napoleon (New York, 2002), p. 38. [17] Martyn Lyons, Napoleon Bonaparte and the legacy of the French Revolution (New York, 1994), p.11. [18]Philip Dwyer, Napoleon: The Path To Power 1769-1799 (London, 2007), p. 135. [19]Philip Dwyer, Napoleon: The Path To Power 1769-1799 (London, 2007), p. 133. [20]Martyn Lyons, Napoleon Bonaparte And The Legacy Of The French Revolution (New York, 1994), p. 12. [21]Philip Dwyer, Napoleon: The Path To Power 1769-1799 (London, 2007), p. 135. [22] Philip Dwyer, Napoleon: The Path To Power 1769-1799 (London, 2007), p.136. [23] J. Christopher Herold, The Age of Napoleon (New York, 2002), p. 41. [24] David G. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, The Mind and Method of History’s Greatest Soldier

(New York, 1973 ), p. 24.
[25] René Chartrand, Napoleon’s guns 1792-1815: Heavy and Siege Artillery (Oxford, 2003), pp. 18-19. [26] Anthony Pagden, People and Empires, (London, 2002), p. 199.

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