Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIX, 9

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XIX, 8 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XIX, 10

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XIX, chapter 9

Toulon had recognised Louis XVII and opened its harbours to the English fleet. Carteaux on one flank, and General Lapoype on the other, approached Toulon on the orders of Representatives Fréron, Barras, Ricord and Saliceti. Napoleon, who had chanced to serve under Carteaux at Avignon, called to a military council, maintained that it was essential to seize Fort Mulgrave, constructed by the English on Caire hill, and to set up batteries on the two promontories of L’Éguillette and Balaguier which, firing on the larger and smaller harbour, would compel the enemy to abandon them. All turned out as Napoleon had predicted: a first view was to be had of his destiny.

Madame Bourrienne has added a few notes to her husband’s Memoirs; I will cite a passage from them which shows Bonaparte before Toulon:

‘I remarked,’ she says, ‘that at this time (1795, in Paris), his manner was cold and often sombre; his smile was hypocritical and often misplaced; and, regarding that comment, I recall that at that time, a few days after our return, he had one of those moments of savage hilarity which upset me, and which disposed me to dislike him. He was telling us, with an exalted gaiety, that being before Toulon, where he controlled the artillery, one of the officers who happened to be under his command was visited by his wife, to whom he had not long been married, and whom he tenderly loved. A few days afterwards, Bonaparte ordered another attack on the town, in which this officer was to be engaged. His wife came to General Bonaparte, and with tears entreated him to dispense with her husband's services that day. The General was inexorable, as he himself told us with a sort of savage and exalted gaiety. The moment for the attack arrived, and this officer, though he had always shown himself to be a very brave man, as Bonaparte himself assured us, felt a presentiment of his approaching death; he turned pale, he trembled. He was stationed beside the General, and during an interval when the firing from the town was very heavy, Bonaparte called out to him, ‘Take care! There is a shell coming!’ The officer, he added, instead of moving to one side, stooped down, and was literally cut in two. Bonaparte laughed loudly while describing in detail the parts of him which were blown away.’

Toulon re-taken, the scaffolds were erected; eight hundred victims were brought to the Champs de Mars; they were gunned down. The commissioners advanced, shouting: ‘Those who are not dead stand up; the Republic shows them mercy’, and those wounded who rose to their feet were then massacred. The scene was so fine that it was presented on stage at Lyons after the siege.

What think you? Perhaps some guilty one
has yet escaped the first sharp lightning bolt:
Announce a pardon, and if, fooled by hope,
some quivering wretch rises once again,
let the flames redouble, let the fire reclaim.’

Did Bonaparte order the executions in person in his role as artillery commander? A feeling of humanity would not have stopped him, though he was not cruel by nature.

This note to the commissioners of the Convention is extant: ‘Citizen Representatives, from the field of glory, treading in the blood of traitors, I announce to you with joy that your orders have been executed and France is avenged: neither their age nor sex has saved them. Those who were only wounded by the Republican cannon have been dispatched by the sword of liberty and the bayonet of quality. Greetings and respects,

BRUTUS BUONAPARTE, citizen sans-culotte.’

This letter was printed for the first time, I think, in La Semaine, the news sheet published by Malte-Brun. The Vicomtesse de Fars (pseudonym) gives it in her Memoirs on the French Revolution; she adds that the note was written on the casing of a drum; Fabry reprints it, in an article on Bonaparte, in Biographies of Living Men; Royou, in his History of France, declares that no one knows which mouth uttered the fatal command; Fabry, already cited, says, in Les Missionnaires de 93, that some attribute the order to Fréron, others to Bonaparte. The executions on the Champ de Mars in Toulon are described by Fréron in a letter to Moïse Bayle of the Convention, and by Moltedo and Barras to the Committee of Public Safety.

Who in fact was responsible for the first bulletin of Napoleon’s victories? Was it Napoleon or his brother? Lucien, abhorring his mistakes, confesses, in his Memoirs, that he had at first been an ardent Republican. Appointed as head of the Revolutionary Committee at Saint-Maximin in Provence, ‘we sent no end of words and speeches,’ he says, ‘to the Jacobins in Paris. As it was the fashion to employ classical names, my former monk adopted, I believe, that of Epaminondas, and I that of Brutus. A pamphlet has attributed this borrowing of Brutus’ name to Napoleon, but it belonged to me alone. Napoleon sought to elevate his own name above those of ancient history, and if he had wanted to take part in these masquerades, I do not think he would have chosen that of Brutus.’

There is courage in this confession. Bonaparte, in the Memorial of St Helena, maintains a profound silence regarding this part of his life. That silence, according to Madame La Duchesse d’Abrantès, is explained by something improper in his situation: ‘Bonaparte was more visible,’ she says, ‘than Lucien, and though he has since often sought to substitute Lucien for himself, at that time there could be no mistake about it. “The Memorial of St Helena,” he must have thought, “will be read by a hundred million people, among whom one might count perhaps scarcely a thousand who know the facts that trouble me. Those thousand individuals will preserve the memory of those facts, in a manner unlikely to disturb anyone, by oral tradition: the Memorial will thus become irrefutable.”’

So, serious doubts remain concerning the note which Lucien or Napoleon signed: how could Lucien, not being a representative of the Convention, arrogate to himself the right to give a report of the massacre? Was he deputed by the commune of Saint-Maximin to take part in the carnage? And why would he have taken upon himself the responsibility of recording it, when there were those greater than him at play in the amphitheatre, and witnesses to the execution carried out by his brother? It costs something to lower one’s gaze so far having raised it so high.

Let us concede that the narrator of Napoleon’s exploits was Lucien, President of the Committee of Saint-Maximin: it will remain eternally true that one of Bonaparte’s first bursts of cannon fire was fired against the French; it is at least certain that Napoleon was further called on to shed their blood on the 13th Vendémiaire; he again reddened his hands on the death of the Duc d’Enghien. On the first occasion, those immolations ought to have revealed Bonaparte; the second hecatomb carried him to the rank which made him master of Italy; and the third eased his entry into empire.

He has grown greater on our flesh; he has split open our bones, and fed himself on the marrow of lions. It is a deplorable thing, but it needs to be recognised, if one does not wish to be ignorant of the mysteries of human nature and the character of the age: a part of Napoleon’s power came from being drenched by the Terror. The Revolution is content to serve those who have traversed its crimes; an origin in innocence is an obstacle.

The younger Robespierre was seized with affection for Bonaparte and wanted to summon him to command Paris in place of Hanriot. Napoleon’s family were established in the Chateau de Sallé, near Antibes. ‘I went there from Saint-Maximin’ says Lucien, ‘to spend a few days with my family and my brother. We were all together again, and the General gave us all the time he could. He came there one day, more preoccupied than usual and, walking between Joseph and myself, announced that it was up to him whether he left for Paris next day, with a view to establishing us all there to our advantage. Speaking for myself this news delighted me: to reach the capital at last seemed to me a piece of good news nothing could offset. “They are offering me, Hanriot’s place,” Napoleon told us. “I must give my reply tonight. Well! What do you say to it?” We hesitated a moment. “Oh!” the General resumed, “It’s well worth the trouble of thinking about: it’s nothing to be enthusiastic about; it is not as easy to save one’s head in Paris as at Saint-Maximin. – Young Robespierre is honest, but his brother is no joke. I would have to serve him. – Me: support that man! No, never! I know how useful I would be to him in replacing his imbecile of a commander in Paris; but it is not what I want to do. It is not my time yet. Today there is no place of honour for me in the army: be patient, I will command Paris later.” Such were Napoleon’s words. Then he expressed to us his indignation at the Reign of Terror, whose imminent end he announced to us, and finished by repeating several times, half serious and half smilingly: “What would I do in that galley?”’

After the siege of Toulon, Bonaparte found himself involved in the manoeuvres of our Army of the Alps. He received an order to go to Genoa: secret instructions commanded him to reconnoitre the state of the fortress at Savona, and to gather information on the intentions of the Genoese government regarding the coalition. These instructions, delivered at Loano on the 23rd Messidor Year II of the Republic, are signed Ricord.

Bonaparte fulfilled his mission. The 9th Thermidor arrived: the terrorist deputies were replaced by Albitte, Saliceti and Laporte. Suddenly they announced, in the name of the French people, that General Bonaparte, commanding the artillery of the Army of Italy, had totally lost their confidence due to the most suspicious conduct, above all by the journey he had lately made to Genoa.

The warrant from Barcelonnette, dated 19th Thermidor Year II of the French Republic, one, indivisible, and democratic (6th of August, 1794), reads: ‘that Bonaparte shall be placed under arrest and conveyed to the Committee of Public Safety in Paris, under strong and secure guard’. Saliceti examined Bonaparte’s papers; he replied to those who interested themselves in the detainee that it was necessary to act with rigour after an accusation of espionage by Nice and Corsica. That accusation was in consequence of secret instructions issued by Ricord: it was easy to insinuate that, instead of serving France, Napoleon had served the enemy. The Emperor made great use of espionage accusations; he should have remembered the dangers which equivalent accusations had exposed him to himself.

Napoleon, struggling, said to the representatives: ‘Saliceti, you know me…Albitte, you do not know me at all; but you do know with what cunning slander can hiss. Listen to me; restore the patriots’ esteem; one hour afterwards, if the wretches wish my life…..I value it so little! I have risked it so often!’

A decision to acquit him followed. Among the documents which at that time served to confirm Bonaparte’s virtuous conduct, one should note a certificate endorsed by Pozzo di Borgo. Bonparte was only set free provisionally; but in that interval he had time to imprison the world.

Saliceti, the accuser, did not hesitate to attach himself to the accused: but Bonaparte never trusted his old enemy. He wrote much later to General Dumas: ‘Let him stay in Naples (Saliceti); he ought to be happy there. It’s full of lazzaroni (idlers); I know him well: he has made them fear him; he is viler than they. Let him know I lack the power to defend the wretches who voted for the death of Louis XVI from public contempt and indignation.’

Bonaparte, hastening to Paris, lodged in the Rue du Mail, the street where I halted after arriving from Brittany with Madame Rose. Bourrienne rejoined him, as did Murat, suspicious of terrorism and having abandoned his garrison at Abbeville. The government tried to send Napoleon to the Vendée as commander of an infantry brigade; he declined the honour, on the pretext that he did not wish to change corps. The Committee of Public Safety removed him, after his refusal, from the list of artillery officers on active service. One of the signatories to this de-registration was Cambacères, who became the second most important person in the Empire.

Embittered by these persecutions, Napoleon thought of emigrating; Volney dissuaded him. If he had executed that resolution, the fugitive court would have known nothing of him; there would moreover have been no crown for him to wear in that case: I would have had a vast comrade, a giant, stooping at my side during my exile.

Abandoning all ideas of emigration, Bonaparte turned his eyes to the Orient, doubly congenial to his nature because of its despotism and its splendour. He busied himself writing a note in order to offer his sword to the Sultan: inactivity and obscurity were mortal ills to him. ‘It would be useful to my country’, he wrote, ‘if I could help the Turkish forces appear more formidable to Europe.’ The government did not reply to this missive from a madman, it seems.

Thwarted in these diverse projects, Bonaparte felt his misery increasing: it was difficult to help him; he accepted aid awkwardly, just as he suffered from having been promoted by royal generosity. He was annoyed with anyone who was more favoured by fortune than he was: in the soul of that man for whom the wealth of nations would be poured out, one detects feelings of hatred that the communists and proletariat show today towards the rich. When one shares the sufferings of the poor, one experiences social inequality; one no sooner rides in a carriage than one shows scorn for the people on foot. Bonaparte had a horror above all of the muscadins and the incroyables, young fashionable types at that time, whose hair was dressed in the mode of those who were guillotined: he liked to upset their complacency. He had meetings with Baptiste the Elder, and made the acquaintance of Talma. The Bonaparte family professed a taste for theatre: idleness when garrisoned often drew Napoleon to its spectacle.

Whatever efforts democracy may make to elevate morals by means of the great goals it sets itself, its practices lower morals; it has a lively resentment of such restraint: thinking to escape it, it poured out torrents of blood during the Revolution; a useless remedy, since it could not kill everyone, and, in the last analysis, it found itself faced by the brazenness of the dead. The necessity of living with petty restrictions makes life somewhat common; a rare thought is reduced to being expressed in a vulgar language, and genius is imprisoned in dialect, as, in the tired aristocracy, low feelings are couched in noble words. If one wishes to evoke a certain inferior side to Napoleon using examples taken from antiquity, one need only mention Agrippina’s son; while the legions adored Octavia’s husband, the Roman Empire shuddered at his memory!

In Paris, Bonaparte again met Mademoiselle du Comnène, who later married Junot, with whom Napoleon was friendly in the south.

‘At this period of his life,’ says the Duchesse d’Abrantès, ‘Napoleon was ugly. Since then he has totally changed. I am not talking about the halo of his glory’s prestige: I mean the physical change merely which has taken place gradually in the space of seven years. Thus, all that was bony, jaundiced, and even sickly, is fleshed out, brighter, more attractive. Those features which were almost all points and angles have become fuller, because they have acquired some flesh where it was mostly lacking. His glance and smile were always admirable; his whole appearance too has undergone alteration. His hair, so remarkable to us now when we see prints of the passage of the bridge at Arcola, was quite usual then, because those same muscadins whom he so decried, wore it much longer still; but his colour was so jaundiced at that time, and then he took so little care of himself, that his hair, badly combed, badly powdered, gave him an unattractive appearance. His small hands have also undergone metamorphosis; then they were thin, long and dark. On that point, as one is aware, he has become vain with just reason since those days. Ultimately, when I think of Napoleon, in 1795, entering the courtyard of the Hotel de la Tranquillité, in the Rue des Filles-Saint-Thomas, crossing it with awkward and uncertain steps, with a wretched round hat tipped over his eyes, allowing his two dog’s-ears, badly powdered to fall over the collar of that steel-grey coat of his, which has since become a glorious banner, at least as well-known as Henri IV’s panache of white feathers; without gloves, because, he said, they were an idle expense; wearing badly fitting, unpolished boots, and then all that sickly whole the result of his thinness, his jaundiced colour; ultimately, when I invoke the memory of him at that time, and what I saw of him again later, I cannot recognise those two images as the same man.’