All that I am waiting for is a chance to take part in a battle, to snatch the laurel crown from the hands of fortune or to die on the field of glory.
–Napoleon, to his brother Joseph
Possessed of few natural harbors and encumbered by a mountainous interior, the island of Corsica has long been something of a world unto itself, a place where would-be conquerors have struggled to overcome the island’s natural defenses only to confront the stubborn self-reliance of its people. Ever since 1284, the island had remained a dominion of the Republic of Genoa, which lay some 150 miles to the north, but in 1755, Pasquale Paoli, a native islander whose military experience included service in the army of the King of Naples, organized a resistance movement and drove the Genoese out. At the age of 29, Paoli went on to establish an independent republic with its own constitution, and for the next twelve years he and a small army of freedom fighters struggled to maintain the island’s precarious independence against repeated attempts at reconquest.
Nor did the islanders’ heroic struggle go unnoticed. In 1762 Jean Jacques Rousseau, author of The Social Contract, a hugely popular book that would help set the stage for the French Revolution, wrote of Corsica: “I have a presentiment that one day this small island will astonish Europe.” Several years later another noted man of letters, British biographer James Boswell, sought to arouse British public opinion on behalf of the islanders with the publication of Journal of a Tour to Corsica. Like Rousseau, Boswell seemed to recognize in the island’s struggle for independence the nascent forces that were about to plunge Europe into a long and extremely bloody period of conflict. Despite the encouragement of such influential men, however, the newly-won freedom of the islanders would be short-lived. In May 1768, having failed in their efforts to subdue Paoli’s guerillas, the Genoese revenged themselves on their former subjects by selling the island to the French, who quickly sent troops to take possession. Meanwhile, determined to continue the fight for independence, Paoli and his troops withdrew to the island’s mountain fastnesses and undertook a series of hit-and-run attacks, thwarting an initial effort to occupy the strategic city of Bastia.
Another French expedition soon followed, however, and when Paoli was defeated in a pitched battle at Ponte Nuovo (May 1769), he and a sizeable portion of his force were sent into exile in England. Among those rebels who remained on the island were Carlo Buonaparte and his wife, Letizia, who, though pregnant and with an infant in arms, accompanied her husband throughout the resistance. Hiding out in the island’s interior even after the defeat at Ponte Nuovo, the couple would be among the last to give up the fight, yet when the time came to choose between exile and submission to French rule, they chose the latter, and were to receive remarkably lenient treatment from the island’s new rulers. Returning to his home in Ajaccio, Carlo went on to become a lawyer, and, after establishing his descent from Tuscan nobility, was accorded privileges similar to those enjoyed by French noblemen, including exemption from taxation. Later, Carlo sought the help of the island’s French administrator to win another perquisite normally reserved for French nobility: the opportunity to send his children to French religious or military schools at the expense of the state. For the eldest son, Joseph, the choice was religious training, but for the second son, whose mother had braved whistling bullets while pregnant with him, every indication seemed to point to a career as a soldier. Exceptionally strong-willed and energetic, Nabolione, as he was known within the family, would attend the military school at Brienne, some hundred miles east of Paris. At the age of nine, the boy left his island home for the first time; he would not return for another eight years.
Many accounts of Napoleon’s life at school tend to focus on his isolation from his schoolmates and the ridicule to which he was subjected as a foreigner and a scholarship student. Clearly, the transition from a comfortable family life in Corsica to the rough-and-tumble of boarding school in a country whose language he had yet to master (his native tongue being Italian, the accents of which he would never quite lose) was not without difficulty, especially for someone with his proud and fiery disposition. For the most part, however, he thrived at school, doing reasonably well in his studies, particularly mathematics, and forming lasting friendships with several of his peers. Even so, from an early age, he showed a remarkable degree of self-sufficiency as well as an unflagging self-confidence that, while itself a source of ridicule, seemed to render him impervious to the tauntings of his fellow students. After five years at Brienne, having failed in his efforts to pursue a naval career, Napoleon entered l’Ecole Militaire in Paris, moving into his new quarters in October 1784 at the age of fifteen. Here, in the heart of the French capital, the routines and amenities of his daily life improved considerably, yet the same circumstance that had dogged him at Brienne–his status as a scholarship student with limited resources–only became more pronounced in the socially-conscious world of the capital, where many cadets could afford lavish meals and personal servants. No doubt such reminders of his own relative poverty played a part in Napoleon’s strong identification with Corsica, where his family enjoyed a measure of social elevation. In any case, he would soon have a powerful reason to reflect on home, for his father had by this time developed chronic stomach pain, and during a trip to the French mainland in search of treatment, the former freedom fighter suddenly collapsed. Diagnosed with stomach cancer, he died in February 1785 at the age of 38.
Despite or because of the loss of his father, Napoleon applied himself all the harder to his studies, completing a difficult course in artillery and passing his exams in one year instead of the usual two. Receiving his commission shortly after his sixteenth birthday, he elected to be stationed at Valence, some 50 miles south of Lyon, where he eagerly pursued his training at a nearby artillery school and began to develop wider interests. Now an officer in the French army (he received his lieutenant’s epaulets in January 1786), he was a nominal member of the French upper class, and, embarking on a course of self-improvement, he began to read as much and as widely as possible, developing a growing appreciation for French culture. As for his personal life, there was little to speak of. A friend and former roommate at L’Ecole Militaire, Alexander des Mazis, had also been posted to Valence, and the two continued to share confidences, but apart from this one acquaintance, Napoleon remained something of a loner throughout much of this period of his life. Having rented his own living quarters in town, he took meals with his fellow officers in a local inn and, when not engaged in formal studies or regimental business, spent much of his time reading or walking about on his own.
His circumstances changed in September 1786, when news of illness and financial difficulties at home prompted him to return to Corsica for the first time since departing for school eight years earlier. Having arranged a leave of absence from his regiment, he journeyed to the Mediterranean coast and made the short voyage to his homeland, where he received a warm homecoming in Ajaccio and reacquainted himself with the people and scenes of his youth. Here too, however, he seems to have spent much of his time alone, embarking on a variety of literary pursuits, including initial efforts at an ambitious history of Corsica. Viewed from the perspective of a subsequent career of unprecedented activity and exertion, this extended leave–pleading health issues, he would manage to stretch it out to a full year–presents historians with a period of almost incomprehensible calm. Even more incomprehensible by today’s standards, perhaps, is the fact that in addition to his original extension he was able to wrangle another six months vacation out of the war ministry. As historian David Bell explains, due to “an absurd level of overmanning at the higher ranks” extended leaves among the officer corps were commonplace at the time, and “the army was delighted to see them go.”
Upon his return to active service in the spring of 1788, Napoleon, now 19, was stationed in Auxonne, in Burgundy, home to a prestigious artillery school where he immersed himself in war studies and first took part in the handling and firing of cannon. His social life, however, remained as uneventful as it had been at Valence, and his living conditions were even more spartan. Restricting himself to one meal a day, he spent much of his small savings on books, a practice that seriously eroded his health. Meanwhile, France itself seemed to have reached a low ebb, and when the severe winter of 1788-9 led to substantial losses in livestock and agricultural production, isolated incidents of rioting began to break out across the country. In one such case, Napoleon’s regiment was involved in restoring order, spending the better part of a month maintaining the peace in a nearby town. No stranger to want, Napoleon was largely sympathetic to the plight of the lower classes, and his policing experience–along with his voracious reading–would help shape his political sensibilities, leading him to the conviction that a constitutional monarchy like that in England provided the best model for France. Even as he contemplated needed reforms, however, on the streets of Paris a new government was about to be born in a firestorm of revolution.