Monday, January 12, 2015

Napoleon, “Man of Destiny”

Featuring Sir Walter Scott

Previously on Napoleon’s First Campaign. And now Sir Walter Scott.

Time: 1796
Place: Northern Italy

Crossing the Bridge at Arcole.
In reality Napoleon was behind his lines.
Public domain image from Wikipedia.
Thus Fortune, in the course of a campaign of scarce a month, placed her favorite in full possession of the desired road to Italy, by command of the mountain-passes, which had been invaded and conquered with so much military skill. He had gained three battles over forces far superior to his own; inflicted on the enemy a loss of twenty-five thousand men in killed, wounded, and prisoners; taken eighty pieces of cannon, and twenty-one stands of colors; reduced to inaction the Austrian army; almost annihilated that of Sardinia; and stood in full communication with France upon the eastern side of the Alps, with Italy lying open before him, as if to invite his invasion. But it was not even with such laurels, and with facilities which now presented themselves for the accomplishment of new and more important victories upon a larger scale, and with more magnificent results, that the career of Bonaparte's earliest campaign was to be closed. The head of the royal house of Savoy, if not one of the most powerful, still one of the most distinguished in Europe, was to have the melancholy experience, that he had encountered with the "Man of Destiny," as he was afterward proudly called, who, for a time, had power, in the emphatic phrase of Scripture, "to bind kings with chains, and nobles with fetters of iron."

The shattered relics of the Sardinian army had fallen back, or rather fled, to within two leagues of Turin, without hope of being again able to make an effectual stand. The sovereign of Sardinia, Savoy, and Piedmont had no means of preserving his capital, nay, his existence on the Continent, excepting by an almost total submission to the will of the victor. Let it be remembered, that Victor Amadeus III was the descendant of a race of heroes, who, from the peculiar situation of their territories, as constituting a neutral ground of great strength betwixt France and the Italian possessions of Austria, had often been called on to play a part in the general affairs of Europe, of importance far superior to that which their condition as a second-rate power could otherwise have demanded. In general, they had compensated their inferiority of force by an ability and gallantry which did them the highest credit, both as generals and as politicians; and now Piedmont was at the feet, in her turn, of an enemy weaker in numbers than her own. Besides the reflections on the past fame of his country, the present humiliating situation of the King was rendered more mortifying by the state of his family connections.

Victor Amadeus was the father-in-law of "Monsieur" (by right Louis XVIII), and of the Comte d'Artois, the reigning King of France. He had received his sons-in-law at his court at Turin, had afforded them an opportunity of assembling around them their forces, consisting of the emigrant _noblesse_, and had strained all the power he possessed, and in many instances successfully, to withstand both the artifices and the arms of the French Republicans. And now, so born, so connected, and with such principles, he was condemned to sue for peace on any terms which might be dictated, from a general of France aged twenty-six years, who, a few months before, was desirous of an appointment in the artillery service of the Grand Seignior!

An armistice was requested by the King of Sardinia under these afflicting circumstances, but could only be purchased by placing two of his strongest fortresses--those keys of the Alps, of which his ancestors had long been the keepers--Coni and Tortona, in the hands of the French, and thus acknowledging that he surrendered at discretion. The armistice was agreed on at Cherasco, but commissioners were sent by the King to Paris, to arrange with the Directory the final terms of peace. These were such as victors give to the vanquished.

Besides the fortresses already surrendered, the King of Sardinia was to place in the hands of the French five others of the first importance. The road from France to Italy was to be at all times open to the French armies; and indeed the King, by surrender of the places mentioned, had lost the power of interrupting their progress. He was to break off every species of alliance and connection with the combined powers at war with France, and become bound not to entertain at his court, or in his service, any French emigrants whatsoever, or any of their connections; nor was an exception even made in favor of his own two daughters. In short, the surrender was absolute. Victor Amadeus exhibited the utmost reluctance to subscribe this treaty, and did not long survive it. His son succeeded in name to the kingdom of Piedmont; but the fortresses and passes which had rendered him a prince of some importance were, excepting Turin and one or two of minor consequence, all surrendered into the hands of the French.

Viewing this treaty with Sardinia as the close of the Piedmontese campaign, we pause to consider the character which Bonaparte displayed at that period. The talents as a general which he had exhibited were of the very first order. There was no disconnection in his objects, they were all attained by the very means he proposed, and the success was improved to the utmost. A different conduct usually characterizes those who stumble unexpectedly on victory, either by good-fortune or by the valor of their troops. When the favorable opportunity occurs to such leaders, they are nearly as much embarrassed by it as by a defeat. But Bonaparte, who had foreseen the result of each operation by his sagacity, stood also prepared to make the most of the advantages which might be derived from it.

His style in addressing the Convention was, at this period, more modest and simple, and therefore more impressive, than the figurative and bombastic style which he afterward used in his bulletins. His self-opinion, perhaps, was not risen so high as to permit him to use the sesquipedalian words and violent metaphors, to which he afterward seems to have given a preference. We may remark also, that the young victor was honorably anxious to secure for such officers as distinguished themselves the preferment which their services entitled them to. He urges the promotion of his brethren-in-arms in almost every one of his dispatches--a conduct not only just and generous, but also highly politic. Were his recommendations successful, their General had the gratitude due for the benefit; were they overlooked, thanks equally belonged to him for his good wishes, and the resentment for the slight attached itself to the Government who did not give effect to them.

This ends our series of passages on Napoleon’s First Campaign by Sir Walter Scott from his book The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte published in 1827. This blog features short and lengthy pieces on all aspects of our shared past. Here are selections from the great historians who may be forgotten (and whose work have fallen into public domain) as well as links to the most up-to-date developments in the field of history and of course, original material from yours truly, Jack Le Moine. – A little bit of everything historical is here.

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