In siege warfare, as in the open field, it is the gun which plays
the chief part… it is with artillery that war is made.
From the time of Napoleon’s departure for Corsica in October 1792 until his return in June 1793, much had happened in his adoptive country. In the aftermath of their success at Valmy, French forces had advanced eastward to the Rhine, establishing the country’s long-sought “natural frontiers” and giving the revolution new credibility in the eyes of Europe. At the same time the Jacobins had come to dominate the National Convention, as the former National Assembly was now called, prevailing over the Girondin on the critical issue of the fate of the king. In January 1793, Louis XVI met his death on the guillotine, at which point there could be no turning back; with the king’s execution, the new French Republic was irrevocably bound on a largely uncharted course toward popular democracy. In the absence of a unitary executive, however, all constitutional authority resided with the Convention, where the reputations of influential legislators would rise and fall in a gathering storm of political infighting.
One such legislator was Jean-Paul Marat, a largely self-made scientist and doctor who in 1789 abandoned both pursuits in order to publish a series of incendiary newspapers in which he accused a long list of public figures of betraying the cause of Liberty. Driven into hiding by official reaction to his slanders, he spent much of the years 1791-92 living literally underground in the Paris sewers, where he kept up his relentless diatribes in print despite contracting a disfiguring skin disease. Indeed, the hardships of his life underground enhanced his reputation as a firebrand among the revolutionaries of Paris, eventually leading to his election to the National Convention. His rise to power would be clouded by allegations of involvement in the recent September Massacres, however, for which he was placed on trial in April 1793. Even so, the court proceedings only increased his fame and popularity among the people. Ultimately acquitted, he would be carried through the streets of the capital in triumph.
Not all French citizens shared the enthusiasm of the Paris mob, however, and on the evening of 13 July 1793 a well-dressed, attractive young woman arrived at Marat’s lodgings and asked to speak with him. She had visited the same neighborhood earlier that day with the same request and been turned away by locals suspicious of her motives. On the second try, however, she reached the door of his apartments and explained to a housekeeper that she brought news of events in the countryside. The exchange was overheard by Marat in the next room, where he was soaking in a bathtub, a daily treatment for his skin condition during which he often received visitors. Dismissing the housekeeper’s initial reservations, he called for the stranger to be shown in. The young woman entered and showed him a list of purported Girondin sympathizers in her district. The two were interrupted briefly by Marat’s common-law wife, who received assurances that all was well and left to fetch more water for his bath. Then, while the controversial journalist was busy copying down the names, the young woman drew a six-inch knife from the folds of her dress and struck him a single blow to the chest. Awash in the warm bath, her victim bled out and died in a matter of moments.
The murderous young woman was one Charlotte Corday. Twenty-four years old, she had traveled to the capital from Normandy, where her father was a member of the lesser nobility whose prospects had diminished considerably since the revolution. Charlotte, meanwhile, had been living in Caen with a wealthy relative, whose fortune she stood to inherit. Unlike the rest of her family, however, she harbored no royalist sentiments. Schooled at a local convent, she had been inspired by the writings of Voltaire and Rousseau and more particularly by the high-flown oratory of the now-eclipsed Girondin, several of whose leaders she had met during speaking tours in Caen. These same leaders would be publicly reviled and calumniated by Marat, a man she was convinced was bringing about the ruin of the country.
“I knew that he was perverting France,” she explained during her trial. “I killed one man to save a hundred thousand.”
Sentenced to death on the guillotine, she would confront her fate, according to one newspaper account, with “imperturbable calm.” Like Joan of Arc, she seemed possessed of a messianic resolve, and like Joan, she would go to her death a maid. In the end, however, the martyrdom she sought would fail of its purpose, for her bloody act would only serve to advance the cause of her enemies, lending credence to Marat’s many warnings of counter-revolutionary plots, and thereby helping instigate a dark period known as the Reign of Terror.
It was against this backdrop that the Bonapartes took up residence in Toulon, now more dependent than ever on Napoleon, whose fortunes were, in turn, the more closely linked to those of the French Republic. Happily for all parties, despite his recent debacle in Corsica and extended leaves of absence, Napoleon was welcomed back without incident to his old regiment, which was then stationed in Nice, another of the border regions recently won by French troops. His return was timely, for the regiment would soon be engaged in a mission that would solidify the republic’s military gains and propel Napoleon onto the national stage.
As the assassination of Marat would suggest, the rise of the radical Jacobins had been accompanied by growing disenchantment with the revolution in many parts of the country, especially the South, where resistance to Parisian authority–be it Bourbon or Republican–had a long history. So it was that when repressive new measures were passed in May and June of 1793, the cities of Marseilles and Avignon rose up in revolt. The Paris regime responded by assembling some 3,000 men at Valence under the command of Jean Francois Carteaux, a former painter and policeman with no military training whatsoever. Marching first on Avignon, the hastily-assembled Republican army defeated a force of counter-revolutionaries in a desultory action on 24 July, and within a month Marseilles capitulated. Having witnessed some of the fighting, Napoleon was thoroughly disgusted with Carteaux’s tactics as well as the political “cleansing” that followed (in a scene that would be repeated again and again in the coming months, the arrival of republican forces had been accompanied by the appearance of a guillotine in the public square). Even if such operations were not the sort of military glory Napoleon imagined for himself, he clearly saw in the royalist uprisings an opportunity to advance his career, and it was during this period that he undertook to write a propaganda leaflet in support of the republican regime. Titled The Supper at Beaucaire, it detailed a dinner conversation between a young army officer (himself) and a small gathering of citizens of various occupations in a village along the coast. In the course of the conversation, the officer makes an impassioned plea for the republican cause and castigates those who would foment civil war, eventually winning his dinner companions over to his point of view. The article was circulated freely and brought Napoleon’s name to the attention of a number of Paris officials, providing assurance of its author’s political loyalty at a time when such assurance would prove highly advantageous to his career.
Meanwhile, the crisis in the Midi was by no means over; within days of the surrender of Marseilles, royalists in nearby Toulon invited an Anglo-Spanish fleet under Lord Hood to enter the harbor and take charge of the city’s defenses. Home to the French Mediterranean fleet and its arsenal, Toulon was strategically vital, and its capture by the enemy represented the most serious threat to the Republic since the Austro-Prussian invasion of the previous year. The nearest forces with which to respond were those of General Carteaux, who was ordered to the scene from Marseille. Meanwhile, General Lapoype, commanding the Army of Italy, approached Toulon from the vicinity of Nice. Complicating the situation, the heights of Mount Faron would effectively keep the two armies from combining forces, forcing them to establish separate headquarters and operate for the most part independently of each other. This left the lion’s share of the tactical challenge to the inexperienced Carteaux, who managed to seize the outlying town of Ollioules, but not without the loss of his chief artillery officer, who was seriously wounded in the process.
As fate would have it, Napoleon arrived on the scene shortly thereafter, escorting a supply of gunpowder bound for the Army of Italy. Stopping at Carteaux’s headquarters, he called on an old acquaintance from Corsica, Cristoforo Saliceti, who was even then engaged in efforts to find a replacement for the unit’s former artillery officer. Given the scope of the career it was to launch, the encounter was indeed fortunate, an observation Saliceti sensed at once. Quickly appointing Napoleon to the vacant post, he would write to officials in Paris: “Fate has sent us a miracle.” Likewise, it was the break Napoleon had been waiting for, and with his mother and siblings now safely removed to Marseille, he lost no time in making the most of it. As for his friendship with Saliceti, it would prove something of a miracle in return, for his old acquaintance was now a representative of the National Convention with direct ties to the all-powerful Committee of Public Safety.
Even so, the recapture of Toulon would be no easy task, its logistical challenges compounded by the manifest ineptness of Carteaux. From the first, Napoleon was convinced that the key to the position lay in control of two enemy-held forts on a promontory that jutted into Toulon’s twin harbors from the west. Take these forts, he insisted, and the enemy fleet must either evacuate or be destroyed at its anchorage. By the time Carteaux got around to ordering an assault, however, the enemy, alerted to his intentions, had reinforced the position with an additional redoubt, Fort Mulgrave, situated on an all but impregnable hilltop. At this point, both sides settled in for a prolonged siege during which Napoleon grew increasingly frustrated. Forced to defer to a political appointee with little understanding of military affairs, he took to referring to Carteaux as “King Log.” The object of his scorn, meanwhile, responded in kind, calling his new artillery officer “Captain Cannon” and “the Greenhorn.”
Mutual enmity between the two persisted until the middle of November when Jacques Dugommier arrived in Toulon to replace Carteaux as field commander. A soldier of proven ability, Dugommier favored a more aggressive approach to the siege and quickly approved a plan conceived by Napoleon to seize Fort Mulgrave, from which French guns would be able to sweep the enemy fleet. Preparations were undertaken for an attack in which Dugommier’s main force would lead the way, followed by a reserve under Captain Buonaparte, who by this time had assembled over a hundred guns from forts throughout the coastal region, ringing the harbor with a series of batteries from which he could deliver a deadly cross-fire. Though one of these batteries was captured and its guns disabled in a surprise Allied raid, a republican counter-attack led by Napoleon not only succeeded in recapturing the lost position but swept onward to take a key redoubt overlooking the northern end of the bay, capturing the English commander, General O’Hara, in the process. In addition to his technical expertise, the young artillery commander, it seemed, was also an inspired leader of men.
Its flank now protected, the French attack on Fort Mulgrave went forward despite heavy rains on the night of 16 December. Advancing under cover of darkness, the attackers drove the enemy from a pair of outlying redoubts and proceeded to storm the main walls of the enemy’s formidable defenses. Several attempts to scale the walls were turned back, however, and as the main assault began to lose momentum the reserve force was ordered to advance in support. Once again showing a remarkable ability to lead by personal example, Napoleon rushed over a palisade and through a series of narrow gun ports in the main wall, receiving a wound in a sharp, hand-to-hand fight with enemy cannoneers. Meanwhile, his men had been right behind him, and inspired to fresh effort by the bold action of the reserve, the main force went forward again with a will. By dawn, Fort Mulgrave was in French hands, and as Napoleon had predicted, the capture of the fort proved decisive. The next day masses of enemy troops, as well as a good many royalist sympathizers, could be seen crowding aboard the Allied ships, preparing to abandon Toulon. For his role in the victory, Napoleon was promoted to brigadier general and placed in command of all French coastal defenses between Marseille and Nice.
Given the volatile politics of the times, however, notoriety and success could quickly turn to disgrace and prosecution. With conspirators, real and imagined, scheming to destroy the Republic and restore Bourbon rule, the leaders of the National Convention in Paris had begun a ruthless campaign to suppress any and all resistance. By this time the triumph of the Jacobins had brought to power a former country lawyer named Maximilien Robespierre, whose rise to leadership of the grotesquely misnamed Committee of Public Safety would mark the beginning of the Reign of Terror. In speeches full of high-minded moralizing and tacit threats Robespierre made it clear that no one was safe from summary judgment and death. Not even the great hero of the Republic, Georges Danton, would escape Robespierre’s vengeance. Born into peasantry on a farm in the Champagne region, Danton had studied law and risen to prominence in the Convention, employing a Rabelaisian wit that celebrated the life of the common man in all of its earthiness. Robespierre, by contrast, was a life-long bachelor whose fastidious appearance and prudish manner belied a hidden ruthlessness that would send Danton to the guillotine for reasons having more to do with his red-blooded lifestyle than anything else. With the Convention’s ruling committee firmly under his influence, Robespierre gave free rein to his own paranoid fears, orchestrating a series of political purges in which all recourse for accused persons was conveniently ignored. Unencumbered by legal constraints, the Committee proceeded with bureaucratic efficiency to send as many as sixty people a day to the guillotine, until the streets of the capital ran with blood and reeked with the stench of a slaughterhouse.
Nor was the country at large spared the hard hand of terror, as loyal Jacobins of the Convention–who crossed its ruling committee at risk of their own lives–spread its ruthless practices throughout the countryside. Known as representatives-on-mission, they would be responsible for implementing a remarkably forthright program of wholesale executions specified in an edict of 5 September 1793,. which read:
It is time that equality bore its scythe above all heads. It is time to horrify all the conspirators. So legislators, place Terror on the order of the day! Let us be in revolution, because everywhere counter-revolution is being woven by our enemies. The blade of the law should hover over all the guilty.
The blade referred to, of course, was no mere figure of speech, but a real device of wood and steel which took the human element out of executions, making them more efficient and relatively painless. As to its being reserved for the guilty, such would hardly be the case, as the people’s representatives set about rounding up thousands of their fellow countrymen under the flimsiest of charges, parading them before ad hoc tribunals and delivering them to the killing machines, in many cases all in the course of a single day. When it came to large numbers of suspects–in some cases whole villages or neighborhoods–the guillotine would scarcely suffice, and the Committee’s executioners were obliged to come up with new and innovative means of wholesale murder. In some instances, masses of hapless victims were simply tied together and herded onto rafts which were then towed into open water and sunk. An even grislier method involved standing such groups up in front of cannon and blasting them to pieces with grapeshot.
Napoleon himself narrowly escaped such capricious justice on two occasions. In the first instance accusations centered on his efforts to fortify Marseille against another take-over by the townspeople as in Toulon. In an official report he had written of his intention to position his guns “in order to curb the town,” a phrase that was quickly seized upon by the region’s representative in Paris and cited as evidence of an attempt to “rebuild the bastilles put up by Louis XIV in order to tyrannize the South.” The charges were eventually dropped with the help of Napoleon’s friends in Paris, but not before he was obliged to spend several anxious days under house arrest. Shortly thereafter, the young general was deemed sufficiently trustworthy to be sent to Genoa on a secret mission of military surveillance, but during his absence the events of 9 Thermidor (27 July 1794) sent Robespierre himself to the guillotine. Even the death of the dictator was fraught with peril, however, for upon his return from Genoa, Napoleon fell victim to a political backlash in which he was accused of plotting with the Genoese against the interests of France. Arrested and imprisoned at Antibes for two weeks, he was eventually cleared of suspicion, but his connection to the discredited regime would do residual damage to his career, leading to his effective demotion to an infantry rather than an artillery command.
For a soldier of his training and experience, this latest development was devastating. Artillery was Napoleon’s area of expertise, and the move meant the loss of much professional advantage and esteem. To make matters worse, he was assigned to the Army of the West, where he would be obliged to fight French rebels in the notorious Vendée, engaging in a guerilla-style warfare which he found morally repugnant. Resisting the move as long as possible, he requested and received another leave and awaited better fortune amid the diversions of the capital. There was no escaping his deep disappointment, however. From one of the republic’s most promising young officers, it seemed he had slipped back into obscurity, and with little hope of redeeming himself, he grew determined to join the long list of fellow officers who had left the country to pursue their military careers in the service of foreign powers.
After careful consideration, he settled on Turkey, where the opportunity offered to help the Ottoman Empire resist the expansion of both Russia and England. His mind made up, he was in Paris awaiting the chance to take ship when a new constitution won approval in a national plebiscite, igniting another spate of mob violence. At issue was the empowerment of a seven-member executive panel (later reduced to five) to be known as the Directory, and the continuance of fully two-thirds of the old Convention as members of a new Legislative Assembly. Suddenly, with the capital once again in turmoil, Napoleon was presented with yet another opportunity. While attending a political speech, he met with Paul Barras, the newly-appointed commander of the army, and with due urgency, Barras asked Napoleon to serve under him. At stake was the future of the Republic, as even then insurgents with the backing of the National Guard were moving to seize control. Napoleon requested command of the army’s artillery forces and was readily accepted.
With no time to lose, the newly reinstated brigadier scrambled to assemble every available gun and took up a position in the vicinity of the Tuileries. The next day, Thirteen Vendémiaire according to the Revolutionary calendar (5 October 1795), the insurgents attacked about mid-afternoon. A crescendo of small arms fire announced their advance upon the palace, and when they appeared in front of Napoleon’s battery–massing in greatest numbers on the steps of the Church of St. Roch–he gave the order to fire. With a deafening roar, multiple rounds of grapeshot, comprised of hundreds of individual projectiles, struck the advancing crowd with a sudden fury of destruction, killing hundreds of insurgents. The survivors responded with a welter of musketry, but there was no disputing the firepower of Napoleon’s twelve-pounders. Minutes later, with bodies littering the steps of the church and the surrounding streets, the attackers fell back and dispersed, hopelessly outgunned.
The incident would prove a decisive turning point. Suddenly, the royalist counter-rebellion was ended, and with its demise, Napoleon’s devotion to the Republican cause was reestablished. Indeed, some two weeks later Barras was named to a seat on the Directory, and chosen to succeed him in army command was the man who had been instrumental in his advancement, General Bonaparte. Having only a short while earlier made up his mind to leave the country, Napoleon, aged 26, was now Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Interior. Once again his star was on the ascendant, and for much of the next two decades, it was to grow ever brighter.