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 depature for Corsica in October 1792 to his return in June 1793, much had happened in his adopted 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 a new credibility in the eyes of Europe. At the same time radical Jacobins, known as the Montagnard, came to dominate the National Convention, prevailing over the Girondists on the critical issue of the fate of the monarchy. In January 1793 the hapless king, well-meaning yet ineffectual 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 turmoil.
One such 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 in the Paris sewers, where he kept up his relentless diatribes in print despite having contracted a disfiguring skin disease. Indeed, his life underground enhanced his reputation as a firebrand among Parisian revolutionaries, and eventually lead 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 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), and, 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 the 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. Marat bled out and was dead in a matter of moments.
Her name was Marie-Anne-Charlotte Corday d’Armont, known to history as 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 murderous 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 the 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 fledgling 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 a 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 a series of repressive new measures was 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 force defeated the 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 would be accompanied by the appearance of a guillotine). But if such operations were hardly the sort of military glory Napoleon imagined for himself, he clearly saw in the royalist uprisings an opportunity to advance his career, for 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 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 assurances would prove most advantageous for 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 from Nice, to the east. 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 the other. This left 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, Dommartin, who was seriously wounded in the process.
As fate would have it, Napoleon arrived on the scene soon after the recovery of Ollioules. Escorting a supply of gunpowder bound for the Army of Italy, he stopped at Carteaux’s headquarters to call on an old acquaintance from Corsica, Cristoforo Saliceti, who was even then engaged in efforts to find a replacement for the wounded Dommartin. Given the scope of the career it was to launch, the encounter would prove historic. Saliceti, at least, seemed to think so. Quickly appointing Napoleon to the vacant post, he would write to officials in Paris: “Fate has sent us a miracle.” It was the break Napoleon had been seeking, 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, and the difficulties involved would only be compounded by the combative 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.” Carteaux, 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 Bonaparte, 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 to 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.
The French flank now protected, the attack on Fort Mulgrave went forward despite heavy rains on the night of 16 December. Advancing under cover of darkness, the assault force drove the enemy from a pair of outlying redoubts and made ready to storm the main walls of the enemy’s formidable defenses. Several attempts to scale them 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 led his men over a palisade and through a series of narrow gun ports in the main wall, receiving a flesh wound in hand to hand fighting with the enemy cannoneers. Meanwhile, inspired to fresh effort by the bold action of the reserve, the main force went forward again, and by dawn Fort Mulgrave was in French hands. As Napoleon had predicted, the capture of the fort proved decisive, and 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.
With advancement came new dangers, however, for in the volatile politics of the times notoriety and success could quickly turn to disgrace and execution. 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 Montagnard 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 Terror. In speeches full of high-minded moralizing and tacit threats Robespierre made it clear that no one was safe from summary judgement and death, not even one of the great heroes of the Republic, Georges Jacques Danton, who was sent to the guillotine for crimes having more to do with his red-blooded lifestyle than anything else. A devoted husband and father, Danton was born on a farm and employed a Rabelaisian wit full of bawdy references to man’s animal nature. Robespierre, by contrast, was a life-long bachelor whose fastidious appearance and prudish manner belied a hidden ruthlessness. With the Convention’s ruling committee firmly under his influence, he gave free rein to a vengeance born of his own paranoid fears, orchestrating a series of political purges in which all legal 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 of corpses.
Nor was the country at large spared the hard hand of terror, as members of the Convention–who crossed its ruling committee at risk of their own lives–spread its awful effects throughout the countryside. Known as representatives-on-mission, they would be responsible for implementing a remarkably forthright agenda of wholesale executions specified in an edict of 5 September, 1793:
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, from a clinical standpoint anyway, essentially 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 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 grape shot.
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. 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 (including Augustin Robespierre, younger brother of the regime’s de facto dictator), but not before Napoleon spent several anxious days under house arrest. Ironically, soon after his release the young general so recently suspected of treason was deemed sufficiently trustworthy to be sent to Genoa on a secret mission of military surveillance. During his absence, however, the events of 9 Thermidor (27 July 1794) toppled the regime, sending both Robespierre brothers to the guillotine, and upon his return from Genoa Napoleon fell victim to a political backlash against the perpetrators of the Terror. Accused of plotting with the Genoese against the interests of France, this time he was arrested and imprisoned at Antibes for two weeks. Though eventually cleared of suspicion, his connection to the discredited regime would do residual damage to his career, leading to his effective demotion to an infantry rather than artillery command.
For a soldier of his training and background this latest development was devastating. Artillery was Napoleon’s area of expertise, and to be relegated to the infantry 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 Vendée. Not only would the assignment take him far from a region with which he was intimately familiar, the fighting there represented a style of warfare 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 a sense of deep disappointment in his prospects, 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 eventually determined to join the long list of fellow officers who had left the country to pursue their military careers in the service of foreign armies. 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 plebescite, 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 another great 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 artillery arm, and was readily accepted.
With no time to lose, the newly reinstated brigadier scrambled to assemble every available gun, enlisting the aid of friend and future King of Naples Joachim Murat, and taking up 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, storming the barricades Barras’ troops had thrown up to stop them. A crescendo of small arms fire announced their advance upon the palace, and when they appeared in front of Napoleon’s hastily-assembled battery–massing in greatest numbers on the steps of the Church of St. Roch–he gave the order to fire. With a deafening roar, dozens of rounds of grape shot, comprised of hundreds of individual projectiles, met 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, the Republic saved, and with it Napoleon’s career. In fact, the incident would do far more than restore him to a post in the artillery. 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 making it happen, 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.