Amid French Revolution turmoil, an ambitious, unknown artillery captain takes his first stride toward greatness.
How did Napoléon Buonaparte rise so rapidly from Corsican outsider to emperor of France? It is one of history’s most beguiling questions, one that has prompted legions of authors faced with a lifetime’s worth of facts and myths to write whole shelves of explanatory volumes.
One key episode in Napoléon’s early military career unfolded in the port city of Toulon in the fall of 1793. Following a counterrevolutionary Royalist victory, the city was occupied by a combined British, Spanish, Neapolitan and Piedmontese force, including a fleet under Vice Adm. Samuel Hood. Republican General Jean François Carteaux’s army arrived in September to undertake a siege of Toulon.
Carteaux’s chief of artillery was wounded in the early fighting, and as fortune, fortuitous timing and excellent political connections would have it, a well-trained young artillery captain named Buonaparte was available. In taking charge of a chaotic and maladministered military force, Napoléon took his first serious command—and his first steps on the path to power.
The town of Toulon was on the verge of revolt. In the summer of 1792, the Jacobin club of Toulon had gained control of the municipality through violence and intimidation. One year later, however, the tide had turned. In what amounted to a bloodless coup, disaffected bourgeois, riding on the wave of discontent caused by Jacobin policies, won a popular majority in the district sections and welcomed “persecuted patriots” from the rest of the region. It was part of a tide of reaction sweeping the Midi.
On Feb. 1, 1793, the [National] Convention voted, unanimously, to declare war on Britain. The British government, it has to be said, left the French little choice: shipments of grain and raw material to France had been halted the previous December; and in January 1793, [British Prime Minister William] Pitt [the Younger] expelled the French envoy to London. The British responded in the only way they could to a declaration of war: by mobilizing the Royal Navy and by putting its considerable financial resources behind the Continental coalition. From this time on until Waterloo and the end of the conflict with France—a period sometimes referred to as the final phase in the second Hundred Years’ War—Britain bankrolled all the anti-French coalitions, providing considerable subsidies to all its allies to keep their armies in the field. As for the navy, it attacked French merchantmen on the high seas, blockaded French ports and seized a number of French colonies.
All of this explains what the British were doing in Toulon, but Buonaparte’s presence was due more to one of those chance occurrences that would later convince him that Fate had reserved a special place for him. The revolutionary army commanded by Carteaux had received the order to reduce the rebel city of Toulon. Carteaux was the son of a sergeant major who had lost his leg during the Seven Years’ War, in Hanover, and who died of his wounds at the hospital of the Invalides in Paris. Carteaux had donned the military uniform at the age of 9. He was first a dragoon, then a foot soldier, but he turned to portrait painting when he left the army in 1779. One of his paintings, which represents Louis XVI on a horse, earned him the sum of 6,000 livres.
With the outbreak of Revolution, though, he sided not with the monarchy but with the revolutionaries. He was named lieutenant in the national gendarmerie, storming the Tuileries with his men on Aug. 10, 1792, in defense of the popular cause. He was eventually sent to the Army of the Alps and was later used against the Federalists, whom he easily defeated, claiming that he had pre vented the Federalists from Lyons and Marseilles from joining up. It was this feat that gave him an unwarranted reputation. He was, in fact, a vain, proud man with little military competence.
On September 7, Carteaux’s army managed to take a village called Ollioules, a few miles from Toulon. In the process, however, a man was killed and two others were wounded, including the commander of the artillery, Captain [Elzéar-Auguste Cousin de] Dommartin. Dommartin had to be replaced and by a man who, according to the expression used by the representatives-on-mission, was distinguished and full of talent. At that time (September 16), Buonaparte was in Nice, where he paid a visit to his friend, compatriot and protector, [Convention deputy Antoine Christophe] Saliceti. Saliceti, convinced that Buonaparte was the man for the job, offered him the position without even bothering to consult the generals in command. Buonaparte accepted on the spot. “Chance has been wonderful to us,” wrote Saliceti. “We stopped Citizen Buonaparte, a learned captain who was on his way to the Army of Italy, and we ordered him to replace Dommartin.” Saliceti knew what he was talking about. He had been present during Carteaux’s initial attack on Toulon and complained that neither the general nor his entourage had “the least understanding of either the men they led, or of military machines, or of their effects.” It was great good luck that one of the two representatives keeping watch over operations at Toulon was Corsican and knew Buonaparte.
Toulon was considered to be one of the most impregnable fortified cities in the world. When the British arrived at the end of August, they augmented the system of defense around the port by attempting to render inaccessible any point that might be used to attack their fleet. Despite a few minor victories at the beginning of the siege, the revolutionaries’ efforts had pretty much petered out by the time Buonaparte arrived. Carteaux was a good choice when it came to brutal reprisals against local populations in revolt, such as at Avignon, but he was incompetent in matters of siege warfare. He especially came under attack in the letters of the representatives-on-mission to the Committee of Public Safety. In one letter, for example, after complaining about Carteaux’s incompetence, Saliceti and another representative-on-mission, Thomas Gasparin, extolled the virtues of “Buona-Parte,” the only artillery captain, they believed, able to plan operations, and suggested that he be promoted. This was about two weeks after he had first arrived, and it was undoubtedly part of a concerted effort by the representatives-on-mission to move competent people into positions of authority. The reports they sent back to Paris tell of the incredible disorder that existed in the army, composed for the most part of recruits from Marseilles who, according to the representatives-on-mission, had only enlisted in order to avoid suspicion of being counterrevolutionaries. The lack of available experienced officers was undoubtedly the main reason the Committee of Public Safety took note of Saliceti’s request and promoted Buonaparte on October 18 to the rank of chef de bataillon (major). In short, Buonaparte was not only technically competent—he obviously knew a great deal more about siege warfare than Carteaux—but he also had political support. It was this combination of political connections, ability and luck that allowed Buonaparte to advance as quickly as he did.
Buonaparte’s first task when he arrived at Toulon was to organize the artillery. It was less than impressive, made up of four cannon, two mortars and only a few companies of volunteers to man them. There was also a total lack of command; everyone from the general-in-chief down to his lowliest aide-de-camp gave orders and changed siege dispositions at will. Buonaparte established an artillery park, put some order into the service and employed all the noncommissioned officers he could get his hands on. Three days after he arrived, as a result of his own zeal and organizational skills, the army had adequate artillery—14 cannon pieces and four mortars with all the necessary equipment. He produced a stream of orders for the cannon, horses, draught-oxen and stores necessary for the effective prosecution of the siege. He ordered 5,000 sacks of earth a day from Marseilles to build ramparts. He created an arsenal at Ollioules where 80 blacksmiths, cart – wrights and carpenters worked, manufacturing and repairing muskets and incendiary cannonballs. He requisitioned skilled workers from Marseilles to make equipment for the artillery and took over a foundry in the region so that he could produce case shot, cannonballs and shells for his mortars. He reorganized the artillery company, obtained powder that was sadly lacking on his arrival, fought with suppliers and scrounged more cannon from the surrounding region. Within a relatively short space of time, he had managed to gather almost 100 guns and mortars, which worked 20 hours a day.
After having established two batteries—they were given good revolutionary names like La Montagne and the Sans-Culottes—Buonaparte persuaded Carteaux to attack a position known as Mount Caire. By taking Mount Caire, Fort Eguilette would fall. The plan made perfect sense, but Carteaux only designated a small number of troops and cannon to the task. As a result, the attack (launched on September 22) failed miserably. Worse, the English realized the strategic importance of Mount Caire and immediately set about building an impressive earthwork, equipping it with 20 heavy cannon and four mortars. Once this was complete, Fort Mulgrave, as it was baptized by the English, would be very difficult to take.
Driven to despair by the incompetence of his superior officers, Buonaparte reported them to the Committee of Public Safety. “The first measure I propose,” he wrote on October 25, “is that you send to the army, to command the artillery, a general of artillery who will be able, if only because of his rank, to command respect and impose himself on the bunch of fools on the general 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 experience have shown to be axiomatic to any trained officer of this corps.” Another denunciation; this time he included a plan to take Toulon by attacking Fort Eguilette. Topographically, Toulon and the surrounding countryside bear a remarkable resemblance to Ajaccio, something that Buonaparte would have realized shortly after arriving. The key to controlling Toulon was Fort Eguilette; it dominates both the Inner Road and the Outer Road. From there, the French could bombard Toulon as well as the fleet in the harbor. With the fleet gone, Toulon, cut off from the outside world, would fall. Buonaparte did not originally think up this plan—it had been discussed and decided on by other generals and the representatives-on-mission well before he arrived at Toulon, but he, quite sensibly under the circumstances, adopted it and passed it off as his own.
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Carteaux’s lack of willingness to support Buonaparte’s efforts resulted in Saliceti making the artillery independent of the army. Buonaparte was thus able to continue making his own preparations, with the support of the representatives-on-mission. His letters from this period are authoritative, not to say haughty, which suggests that he did not consider himself subordinate to Carteaux. Over a period of about six weeks (between October 15 and November 30), he spent his time trying to counter the two most important British emplacements—Forts Mulgrave and Malbousquet—by setting up 11 new batteries to bombard them and Toulon itself. By this stage, Hood had a combined force of about 17,000 troops (British, Spanish, Piedmontese, Neapolitan and French émigrés) at his disposal under the command of Maj. Gen. [Charles] O’Hara. When the new commander in chief of the French siege forces, François-Amédée Doppet, a doctor by profession, did arrive, he proved even more unfit for command than Carteaux. It was, in part, because of Buonaparte’s intriguing behind the scenes, along with Saliceti, that Doppet was replaced after only three weeks by a real soldier, the 65-year-old General Jacques Dugommier.
On November 25, Dugommier summoned a council of war; Buonaparte was present as secretary. Three plans were presented for consideration, but Saliceti’s arguments convinced the others that Buonaparte’s plan to take Fort Eguilette was the best. Indeed, Dugommier may have left everything up to Buonaparte. Before it could be implemented, however, the Allies made a sudden and determined sortie from Fort Malbousquet, threatening Ollioules. Dugommier, Saliceti and Buonaparte all led the counterattack, incurring heavy casualties on both sides; it had led to the capture of Maj. Gen. O’Hara. (Decades later, on Saint Helena, Napoléon would claim that he captured O’Hara himself, but it is more likely that two volunteers from the Isére and two soldiers from the 59th captured him.) Two more weeks of preparations under the direction of Buonaparte went by, including the arrival of new forces under the command of [Brig. Gen.] André Masséna (future marshal of the empire, who met Buonaparte for the first time at Toulon). On December 17, under the cover of a bombardment and in pouring rain, the final assault began. Six thousand men stormed Fort Mulgrave and succeeded in taking it at about 3 o’clock in the morning, at the cost of over 1,000 casualties. During this time, Buonaparte was given the order to take the lesser forts of Eguilette and Balaquier and, in the course of the operation, had a horse killed from under him and received a bayonet wound to the thigh.
After these successful attacks, it was clear that the fleet’s position was no longer tenable, and Admiral Hood ordered the evacuation of the port. He gave two other orders. The first was that those in fear of reprisals and wishing to flee Toulon should be taken on board British ships as refugees. An estimated 7,500 people took up the offer. Many more, it was said, would have liked to flee, but there was no more room on the ships. There were harrowing scenes at the quaysides as panic took hold of the crowds trying to get on boats to take them away. [N.A.M. Rodger described one such scene in his history The Command of the Ocean:]
The rafts that had been placed around the boats and vessels that had served as barracks sank under the weight of the masses crowded on them. In a moment the harbor was covered with the ill-fated struggling against death. Hearts were closed to pity: Those still swimming and who asked to be received into the boats were pushed away with blows from oars or swords. Fear took hold of the Neapolitan soldiers who…waiting to be transported onto their vessels, opened fire on those coming out of the port, to force them to give way.
The second order was given to Captain William Sydney Smith, whom Buonaparte would meet again in Syria. He was instructed to destroy as much of the French navy as possible. Preparations took place all day on December 18, but the work was bungled by some Spaniards who prematurely set fire to a gunpowder-packed frigate, the Iris, making it difficult to fire the other ships. The action was further hampered by French prisoners, loyal to the Republic, who prevented the English from blowing up the arsenal. The loss was nevertheless substantial: Nine French ships of the line and three frigates were destroyed, while another 12 vessels were towed away. Just as importantly, the timber stocks built up over the years, so necessary for the continued construction of vessels, also went up in flames. To put the magnitude of this naval disaster in perspective—it has been described as the single most crippling blow to the French navy in the second half of the 18th century—as many ships again were destroyed during the Battle of the Nile by [British Rear Adm. Horatio] Nelson a few years later, while only three vessels were destroyed and 18 captured during the Battle of Trafalgar.
When the republicans entered Toulon on the morning of December 19, the reprisals began. Escaped convicts, avenging them selves on a city that had punished them, added to the general carnage. Buonaparte did not take part in the massacres in the town, although he was probably responsible for sinking four ships of fleeing women and children. Was it for that reason, perhaps suffering from a twinge of guilt, that he used his influence to rescue some people in danger of being massacred? He was not the only officer to do so. Most of the officers of the regular army were disgusted by what they saw and attempted to limit the carnage whenever they could.
The representatives-on-mission, however, were inflexible; they had come not to conquer but to terrify. Indeed, revolutionary publicists during this period generally justified terror as a means of defending the nation against its internal enemies. Joseph Fouché, a former Oratorian and the future minister of police during the Consulate and the Empire, wrote to his friend on the Committee of Public Safety, Collot d’Herbois, after taking the town of Lyons in December 1794. At the end of the short missive he wrote:
Goodbye, my friends, tears of joy are running from my eyes and inundating my soul. —P.S. There is only one way to celebrate this victory; 213 rebels are being struck down this evening by a thunderbolt.
The representatives-on-mission at Toulon were just as blood thirsty. In a letter signed by all five representatives present (the vicomte de Barras, Saliceti, Jean-François Ricord, Augustin Robespierre and Louis-Marie Stanislas Fréron) there is the following passage: “The national vengeance has been unfurled. The shooting is constant. All the naval officers have been exterminated. The Republic will be avenged in a manner that it deserves. The spirit of the patriots will be appeased.” According to his own account, Fréron, the corrupt son of a philosophe, toyed with the idea of razing Toulon from the map, and boasted that they would kill 200 a day until there were no more traitors left. Barras, who wrote that, “We shoot conspirators every day,” would have preferred to “take from Toulon the small number of patriots and to shoot all the rest; we would have been finished in a day.” The rhetoric may have been worse than the reality, although the reality was bad enough.
According to tradition, Buonaparte’s military reputation was seen to have begun with the Siege of Toulon. Indeed, some histories emphasize his role to the extent that the reader could be mistaken for thinking he was in charge of operations: the assumption is that Buonaparte thought up the plan of attack when, as we have seen, he did not.
Buonaparte did, how ever, play a key role, and his talent as a soldier and fledgling commander stands out here. According to a number of memoirs he, more than anybody else, was responsible for the disposition of the artillery:
It gives me great pleasure [wrote François Doppet, whose memoirs, written in 1797, have a tendency to marginalize everyone but himself] to say that this young officer, who has since become the hero of Italy, combined a lot of talent and rare degree of courage, and the most indefatigable activity. Whenever I visited the positions held by this army, either before or after my trip to Lyons, I always found him at his post. If he needed a moment’s rest, he took it on the ground wrapped in his cloak. He never left the batteries.
As a result of Toulon, Buonaparte was noticed by powerful men and promoted to brigadier general. But all this could have led to nothing. High military rank was notoriously perilous during this period: Literally dozens of generals, and hundreds of general officers, were executed or sent to the guillotine for failing to perform according to the requirements of their revolutionary masters—17 generals in 1793 and 67 the following year. All would depend on what Buonaparte did next, and on how well he could politically exploit his position.
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.