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Napoleon Bonaparte - Ride the Revolution (Part 3)

Revolutions are a messy business. The French Revolution was one of the messier ones. Ideals of liberty, equality, and democracy were tried out on a country destabilized by monarchic mismanagement.

The French national Assembly wanted to flex their statehood. War is one of the surest ways to show the world that you mean business. So they went to war with Austria, Prussia, Spain, and then Great Britain.

France soon found itself surrounded by powerful monarchies, all opposed to this democracy thing. Their only hope was for a savior to rise, but they weren't quite done revolting yet.

But what did France do to turn the entire continent against them?

The French Revolution Begins

The storming of the Bastille was the first act in the decade long drama that was the French Revolution. It was also the first time that revolutionaries executed an authority figure.

Heavy taxation of the poor was about to be repaid in blood. Nobles began fleeing France en masse. They probably weren't lamenting their reluctance to tax the rich (themselves), although that would have ensured the longevity of their society. It's great that there are no parallels to modern society here.

The National Assembly signed a document declaring the abolition of the feudal system on 4 August 1789. Georges Lefebvre, a historian, describes this as the "death certificate of the old order".

They set out to create a new constitution, based on ideals of the Enlightenment. Free speech, representative government, and popular sovereignty became the basis of the new constitution.

The new constitution proved to not be to the liking of the people. Napoleon, and most of the French subjects, were heavily influenced by Maximilien Robespierre, the president of the Jacobin faction.

Revolution Within a Revolution

The Jacobins weren't fans of the Girondins. Although the Girondins weren't ever a united faction, just a loose affiliation of politicians. Maximilien wanted to avoid war with Prussia and Austria. The Girondins were desperate to spread the ideas of revolution by force.

Jacques-Pierre Brissot, the leader of the Girondins and the government, was a complex figure. He was pro-republic, pro-war, and somehow also pro-monarchy. So in April 1792, his government declared war on Austria and Prussia.

Napoleon was promoted to the rank of Captain in 1792. The Jacobin leadership read his political manifesto disguised as a short story. Power vacuums left by the fleeing nobles left a clear path to promotion open for the young Napoleon Bonaparte.

Robespierre wanted a more radical reform. His Jacobin faction attacked the royal residence and arrested the king and queen on 10 August 1792. The war with Austria and Prussia distracted the Girondin government.

Spurred on by the Jacobin takeover, the public went into a frenzy of murder. Violence swept through Paris like a biblical flood, suspected counterrevolutionaries were executed without trial.

France's government was replaced by the National Convention, and France was declared a republic. The Jacobin faction took over from the Girondins. Maximilien Robespierre was at the helm of the French Revolution, and things would become so much worse.

In January 1794, King Louis XVI was publicly executed for treason. Marie Antoinette followed her husband to the guillotine nine months later. Their deaths marked the beginning of what is known as the Reign of Terror.

Robespierre called for more executions and violence. His reign of Terror saw the execution by guillotine of between 40,000 and 17,000 suspected counterrevolutionaries. France drowned in blood for ten months.

The Siege of Toulon

Southern France revolted against the revolution. Pro-monarchy insurrections, funded by the British, Spanish, Prussians, and Austrians, took over a series of cities. The most important of which was the port of Toulon.

Without Toulon, the French navy was unable to resupply. They were cut off from France and powerless to stand against the British and Spanish naval forces.

Toulon was opened to the British and Spanish, who occupied the fortified city. It wouldn't be an easy nut to crack. In fact, the French commanding officers believed it to be impossible, so they were replaced by General Jacques Dugommier. The six-month siege would end in December 1793.

The newly appointed captain of the artillery, Napoleon, was given the nigh impossible task of capturing forts around the city. Not only did he manage to capture them, but he led the charge personally, even taking a bayonet to the thigh as a memento. He captured an influential British officer, adding to his renown.

Toulon fell, largely thanks to Napoleon's brilliant strategic mind and his bravery. As a reward, he was promoted to Brigadier General at the tender age of 24. He was now an indispensable part of the French army, and the Jacobin government.

Napoleon was given command of the French Army of Italy's artillery.

The fall of Toulon left an indelible mark on the young Bonaparte. He saw the chaos of soldiers let loose on the Royalist population of the city. Civilians flung themselves into the sea to escape the violence on shore, even as the British ships exploded in the dockyard.

Fall of the Jacobins

Napoleon arrived in northern Italy in April 1794. He led his army to a decisive victory at the Second Battle of Saorgio against the Austrian and Sardinian forces. This victory endeared him to the leaders of the military.

The Thermidorians were a faction of the National Convention that were against the warmongering of the Girondins, and the wholesale slaughter of the Jacobins. They rose up to overthrow the Jacobin leadership and to bring an end to the Reign of Terror.

Maximilien Robespierre's behavior earned the ire of the new National Convention, who had him and his allies arrested on 27 July 1794. He managed to escape, and tried taking his life in Paris' Town Hall.

Maximilien failed at suicide, only managing to shoot his jaw off. He was recaptured, and met the guillotine that he so loved. 21 of his allies followed him into death, all executed for their bloodthirsty incitement of violence.

Augustin Robespierre's head rolled as part of the mass execution. He had been Napoleon's most vocal supporter.

This placed Napoleon on a knife's edge. He had built his meteoric rise on the Jacobin cause. He was arrested as a collaborator, but released soon after. It seems that his military successes had bought him a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Crusher of Rebellions - A Whiff of Grapeshot

Napoleon Bonaparte had always despised the chaos of the mob. From his denouncement of the rabble that sacked the King's palace, to the horror of Toulon in the aftermath of the city's fall, he knew the mob well.

The National Convention established a five-person Directory to hold executive power over France. They soon realized that the Parisian public's attitudes had shifted. Several failed governments had led them into nothing but war and suffering.

Attitudes among the people were shifting back to support for the monarchy. Tensions were rising in Paris. Largely due to the Thermidorians' policies that exacerbated the starvation already rampant in France.

The Thermidorians brought in a new law, outlawing Royalist sentiment in the National Convention. As a result, a significant portion of Paris' population rose up against them in revolt on 4 October 1795.

General Jacques-François Menou was given 5,000 soldiers to take on the roughly 20,000 strong revolt. He was reluctant to engage them, and took them at their word that they wouldn't continue the revolt.

The next morning, 25,000 Royalists gathered South of the Seine River. Their plan was to march on the Tuileries Palace to take the National Convention by force. Menou was relieved of his command for being an idiot.

He was replaced by Paul Barras, who hadn't commanded soldiers since 1783. The Thermidorians were in trouble, so they looked to the young general in their prison. Barras had heard about the promising young officer's conduct in Toulon.

Napoleon had no qualms about taking on French citizens. He was summoned in the pre-dawn hours and given command of 6,000 soldiers to defend Tuileries.

Vastly outnumbered, Napoleon set about fortifying his position. He had his artillery outfitted with grapeshot, an ammunition consisting of many small metal balls. Effectively turning his cannons into giant shotguns.

Grapeshot had never been used on civilians before.

He set the infantry up behind the artillery, ready to defend the cannons. Placing his cavalry on the plain where the executions of the Terror had taken place.

Napoleon's attitude to the rabble was clarified when he witnessed the mob storming Tuileries Palace in 1792. Of the event, he wrote:

"why do they not sweep away four or five hundred of them with cannon? The rest would take themselves off very quickly" (Roberts, 39)

The insurrectionists marched to just outside of cannon range, and sent their leaders ahead to parley. Hours passed in fruitless negotiations. By 4pm, the Royalists returned to their, now 30,000 strong, mob.

Napoleon held off firing his cannons until the Royalists had made it clear that their charge wasn't a bluff. The Royalist muskets sounded at 4:15pm, and were met by Bonaparte's artillery.

For just under two hours, the crack of rifles and thunder of cannons rang out in Paris. Royalist bodies lay in a disarray of limbs by the end of the day. The insurrection was put down with brutal efficiency.

He took the fight to the Church of Saint-Roch, where the insurrection had set up its headquarters. They held out until he rolled up the cannons.

The battle of 13 Vendémiaire ended with 300 dead Royalists and hundreds more wounded. Compared with the 30 deaths among Napoleon's men, and the 60 wounded, it was a clear victory.

The French Revolution was over. No more popular uprisings would rise while Napoleon Bonaparte was at the head of France's armies. Which he most certainly was from this point onwards.

He had this to say about his actions on 13 Vendémiaire (5 October):

"Good and upstanding people must be persuaded by gentle means. The rabble must be moved by terror" (Roberts, 66)



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