The year 1809 overflowed - with events as well as letters: from Madrid to Vienna, Rome to Antwerp, all of Europe was in motion. In total, no fewer than 3,265 letters(1), which means Napoleon wrote twelve a day. This alone is not very telling: firstly because averages are often misleading and secondly because the letters, as numerous as they are, probably do not represent more than a portion of those that were written or dictated by Napoleon that year. The main body of the correspondence with general Clarke published in this volume has never been seen before, whilst numerous other letters did not feature in the edition of the correspondence published under the second Empire, even if they were known by those who wrote later editions, such as those compiled by Léonce de Brotonne or Léon Lescetre.
The chronology of this correspondence does not coincide with that of the history books:Napoleon did not dictate during the days that he spent in a carriage or on horseback. The same applies for the days of battles. But before the battles of Wagram, before Essling and Eckmuehl, before joining the army, there are hundreds of letters, orders, injunctions, instructions, calls to order, reprimands, encouragements and congratulations which were dispatched to the four corners of Europe; letters preceding these events and those following them. A word or two to the woman who was, for a few weeks, the Empress, to tell her that all was well; a few letters of protocol and the Napoleon was on to the next stage of planning. He was still in Spain at the beginning of 1809, when he launched the offensive against the Austrians; he had not left Vienna, but his imagination was in Spain and he dreamt of finishing in January 1810 what the preparation of the Austrian campaign had not let him achieve in 1809; that which his generals could not, or did not know how to do in his place: expelling the English from the peninsula and recapturing control of Spanish territory.
There is nothing particularly new in this deployment of energy and this attention at every moment to a wide range of affairs. 1809 also marked the fifteenth anniversary of the day in 1794 when the young general Bonaparte received his first important command at the head of the artillery of the army in Italy. The correspondence of Napoleon also records, like a seismograph, the oscillations and the episodes of this permanent expenditure of energy which was the Emperor's life. It would be exaggerated to say of this ‘autobiography', written every day, that it was written ‘intus et in cute'. It was above all political and military, and principally military in 1809. The intimate letters are rare, their recipients even fewer. They belong to his family: Josephine of course, to whom he wrote letters which did not say much, nothing in any case regarding the decision to divorce her as soon as he returned from Austria; Pauline, arranging the meetings of his brother and her reader, Christine de Mathis, who makes a brief appearance in the life of the Emperor at the end of the year; his brothers, too, but even when addressing the kings of Spain, Holland or Westphalia rather than Joseph, Louis or Jerome, one can sense the nevertheless the emotions creep into his letters- deception, bitterness, anger, disgust, even shame - in these letters addressed to monarchs incapable of keeping their status. Joseph always complaining about the burden he bore, who did not know how to make the Spaniards obey him or his own generals and who unwillingly struck back, Jerome who behaved like an irresponsible heir, Louis the worst of all whose pretence of making his Dutch subjects happy served as a pretext for exercising the wickedness and evil passions which lurked in his soul. Of the members of this pitiful tribe to whom Napoleon entrusted responsibilities, Eugene alone escaped his wrath and emerges praised from the letters that his stepfather wrote to him nearly every day. Like the other servants of the Emperor, even the best were not free from reprimands. Napoleon complained that he did not receive news from Eugene often enough, he criticised the arrangements taken for the army in Italy which was supposed to rejoin Vienna via Friuli and the Alps, he suffered the storm after the defeat at Sacile on 16 April, a little after the opening of the campaign; but the tone is more often than not affectionate, Napoleon taking his time to give Eugene lessons in the art of war. When the viceroy of Italy finally joined the army in Austria and killed the Archduke Jean at Raab on 14 June, one feels in the Emperor's letters a real emotion of pride for his stepson who was, at heart, the only member of his family to honour him. Of all the actors of the imperial era that the reader crosses throughout this correspondence, Eugene is without a shadow of a doubt the most endearing. The other great figures in this volume: fromthe military, are Davout, Masséna, Oudinot, Lannes and of course the leader of the cavalry, Bessières and La Riboisière who directed the preparations of the crossing of the Danube before the battle of Wagram; in Spain, Suchet, nearly the only one to shine, as well as a number of generals of the division, less well known, whom Napoleon rarely addressed, from Morand or Friant to Saint-Hilaire and Espagne; from the civil side, there were the aides de camp, the servants burdened by work and of whom Napoleon always demanded more: Berthier, Champagny, the minister of exterior relations; Clarke, the minister of War; the minister of the interior Crétet, who died of exhaustion before the end of the year; Daru and Dejean who were in charge of questions of supplies; and the second rate Fouché, whose bravure is acclaimed because he was the only one in Paris who took the initiative when news reached them at the beginning of August that the English had landed at the gates of Antwerp. Historians often forget to mention that in mobilising the garde nationale beyond the threatened regions he staged a ridiculous parody of the raising of troops in 1793; another weak lieutenant, Marmont who failed to help the army in Italy with his troops from Dalmatia; most of the marshals and generals who served in Spain, Ney and Soult at their head, who squabbled and despite their weak track record, imagined a grand future: Soult's officers wanted to proclaim him the king of Portugal. There were also those who proved themselves unworthy, Gouvion Saint-Cyr who abandoned his command in Catalonia without even waiting for his replacement and Bernadotte to whom the campaign of 1809 offered a new opportunity to illustrate his military incompetence.
Then there are the angry letters from Napoleon to Jerome and Louis; so much so that the commissioner charged by Napoleon III with the publication of the correspondence of his uncle decided to omit some of them. An imperial decree was also issued to justify this decision. It was dated 28 November 1866:
“Because of article 4 of our decree of 22 December 1855 regarding the organisation of the Imperial archives, which states that the documents which are deposited there may not be removed unless by decree submitted by our minister of state;
Regarding the event of the publication of the correspondence of Napoleon I, occasioned for the first time by a complete analysis of the collection of the official records of the letters of the Emperor conserved at the Imperial Archives;
This collection formed from Napoleon I's study and the former Secretary of State contains a small number of official documents of an intimate nature, true family letters with little or no historical or political import and nothing that is not detailed anywhere else but in the letters of the Emperor.
Regarding these records, which would have been destroyed or conserved in the archives of our family, have not been classified with the papers of the former Secretary of State, reported by our Minister of State, we have decreed the following:
First article. The thirty 5 letters designated in the state which annexed by the present decree, will be taken from the Imperial Archives and placed in those of our family, to be treated as deemed appropriate.
Second Article. Our Minister of State and the Minister of our Household and the Arts are charged with the execution of the present decree, which will not be printed.”
Eleven of these thirty five letters are from 1810, two from 1811, sixteen from 1813, only six from 1809, and are all addressed to Jerome (2). The severer correspondence of Napoleon with Louis was not included in this decree.
The correspondence of an official party, of the head of state, of the head of the army. The figure of Napoleon the man appears though behind that of the Emperor, by digression of a sentence, or a remark, an angry word, a sense of passing emotion, such as when he announces the death of Lannes or made allusion to the victims of Essling. Put end to end, these 3,265 letters would make up a portrait of Napoleon quite different from that of the one which we readily paint today : Napoleon who would have been nothing, or not a great personage without his ministers and his councillors of state, a Napoleon gnawed by doubt, in short, human, very human perhaps, by our standards. They certainly stand in contrast to the image of Napoleon that Goethe had:
“Napoleon was great, because he was always constant. Before and during a battle, after a victory or a defeat, he was always solid on his feet, he was always decisive and clearly saw what needed to be done. He was always in his element, always on top of things. (...) Always animated, always clear and resolved, and blessed at every hour with the sufficient energy to put into work immediately that which he saw advantageous and necessary. (...) one could see of him that he found himself in a perpetual state of enlightenment: it was also the reason his destiny was of a brilliance that the world had never seen before him, and may well never see again after him (3).”
There was something incredible about Napoleon which is readily visible in reading the correspondence. It says much more about the extraordinary person than the battles or the campaigns. Always the same, as Goethe had understood it; having an eye on everything, the very small details of logistics to the larger strategic concepts, drawing on the map the plan for the campaign in Austria and the moment after remarking in a letter to Clarke that three canons left at such and such a depot would be better deployed in such and such a unit, marshalling these thousand small details and finding the time to dictate a long letter denouncing the abuse of the principle of expropriation for the cause of public utilities and demanding a reform of the legislation; launching his orders for a relaunch of the operations in Spain and interrupting himself to tell Fouché about an error of 1,45 francs in his accounts! The correspondence offers a glimpse of dazzling virtuosity without parallel, even if one cites the working habits of Frederick II, which are said to have resembled those of Napoleon.
Without doubt not everything was innate to Napoleon, and his military training accounts for a part of, but only a part, of that which one could call his “style” and which is revealed on every page of the correspondence.
It is that which we must seek, the explanation of the importance which he accorded to the provision of information as sure and complete as possible as an introduction to a decision which, once taken, was no longer to be discussed. We have to look for the reason he gave so much time to the big questions as well as minor details. This obsessive surveillance was obviously part of a desire to be in control of everything, as well as a distaste for relying on his subordinates and a means of not giving them independence. t was the manifestation of a despotic temperament. But Napoleon also was convinced that “details” did not exist, that everything had its own importance and that they were not to be ignored but in fact given as much attention as the conception and execution. If he had patience for details, it was because he knew that war is a serious affair where the realisation of strategic objectives depends on the judicious use of resources which have to be exactly comprehended, because war does not give margin for error. Here the sanction is immediate and potentially fatal, and the responsibility falls on the one who suffers the crush of defeat as well as the benefits of victory. In short, it is the opposite of politics: there, the consequences of a bad appraisal of circumstance are often delayed, they are rarely irreversible and responsibility is often shared. When the sanction is immediate and potentially irreversible, everything becomes important: the very smallest detail could affect the future.
The diversity of these questions which he occupied himself with did not escape Goethe, either. There is a wonderful page in Thiers, one of the first dedicated to Napoleon, in an article published in 1829, before he undertook his Histoire du Consulat et de l'Empire:
“The art of war is that perhaps the one which gives the most exercise to the mind. It puts into action the whole man. In this way, the art of war is nothing like the art of the governor, because one governs and fights with body and soul. A man called to command others on the battlefield, has above all scientific instruction to acquire, engineer, shooter, officer for the troops, he has to become a geographer, who knows the terrain, the lines and their relationships and their value. He must have knowledge of the force, interests and character of his people; he must know their history and their politics, because men at war are not machines; on the contrary, they become more sensitive, more irritable than usual; and the art of managing them, with a delicate but firm hand, has always been a major part of the art of a great captain. To all his superior knowledge, he must add the knowledge of the profane, and that of the administrator. He must have an ordered mind and the detailed one of a civil servant; because it is not just about fighting men, but feeding them, clothing them, arming them and caring for them. All of this vast knowledge must be deployed at once and in the middle of extraordinary circumstances. At each movement, he must think of the next move, of the day after tomorrow, his flanks, his rear; move everything with him: munitions, food, hospitals; calculate at once the mood and morale of his men; and all of these differing elements which change and get more complicated and combine with the cold, the heat, hunger and cannonfire. Whilst he thinks of many things, the rumble of the canon, his head his threatened; but what is worse, the thousands of men are watching him, searching in his features the hope of their salvation; further, behind them, is the fatherland with its laurels and all of these images must be chased, he has to think and think fast because, from one minute to the next the perfect union of circumstances has changed and instead of glory, shame waits in its place. All of this can be done with mediocrity of course, just as poets and orators can be mediocre, but when it is done with genius, it is sublime. Thinking clearly, deeply in his study is by all means noble, but thinking just as clearly and deeply in the middle of battle is one of the most accomplished achievements of the human faculties (4).”
Many historians see a turn in 1809. It is true that others argue a different date: some 1808, others, though fewer in number, argue that 1812 was the turning point. So at what moment did the Empire change? At which moment did Napoleon feel abandoned by fickle fortune, which had accompanied him so faithfully to this point? In Spain? At Essling? Or just at Moscow? The correspondence of 1809 is illuminating. It allows us to get a sense of the gravity of the situation in Spain: the ease with which Napoleon took back control of Madrid and a large part of the north of the peninsula at the beginning of the year shows that the matter was far from expected; contrary to the popular opinion (with hindsight) that the war was lost from the beginning. This theory is not original, but the correspondence shows how much those who accuse the rivalries between generals and the lack of Joseph's authority are right : the lamentable case of Soult attests this.
By the same token, the letters allow us to see the importance of the fall at Essling: that of a reverse in the Austrian campaign which remained Napoleon's greatest military success. Without doubt he had underestimated the risk of a rise in the Danube, though an exceptional moment in the season, which was to carry away the bridges that had been hastily erected and would expose the army to terrible enemy fire, but the setback recalls not only that the war is not a science, but that Napoleon never had the prudence which had made Moreau so popular a few years before. The risk was part of his way of making war. He counted on luck: it was often faithful to him, but not always.
From the Austrian Campaign of 1809, we follow the preparation day by day of a German army which, until the fall of Vienna, followed the agenda set by the Emperor. Even the swift Prussian campaign did not show, unlike that of the dazzling victory at the Battle of Wagram, Napoleon at the top of his game.
Dazzling success, but not decisive. Certainly, he constrained Austria at the capitulation, but did not put an end to the war which had pitted France and England against each other since 1793: in this war, 1809 did not mark any great turn, but rather illustrated a new impasse where Napoleon found himself trapped : vanquish England without without disposing the means of a naval victory. The problem was already the same in 1803, and would not change by 1813. The correspondence of 1809 stands testimony: nothing more surreal and pathetic than the letters to the minister of the Marine, the admiral Decrès, planning expeditions by officers that Napoleon calls ”my imbecile sailors”.
1809 marked a turn however a real one: it was the year when the russian alliance began to fray; the year of the rise of nationalist feeling and anti-French sentiments gained ground across Europe; the year in which the fragility and low confidence of Napoleon in the new kingdoms that he had created (Holland, Westphalia...); the year of the annexation of the Papal states and the break with Rome which eliminated the politics of religious pacification, the success of which had been crowned by the Concordat in 1801-1802; the year, finally, when the war changed decidedly in nature, with a growth in the number of troops deployed and the firepower. The correspondence is testimony to all of this. One sees Napoleon dealing with his allies as much as his enemies, with his brothers more than his allies, with the necessity of preparing for the effects of a growing mobilisation, which posed an increasing problem concerning the quality of recruits and control.
This year of all the victories was also one of growing dangers. It finished with a catastrophe, even if the consequences of it were deferred: the divorce from Josephine and the choice of the marriage with the archduchess of Austria. This precipitated the rupture with Russia and led to a reversal in alliances not only comparable with those of 1756, but also detrimental because of its effects. In becoming the son in law of the Habsburgs, Napoleon broke one of the last remaining links with the French Revolution which had brought him to power. The marriage to Marie-Louise and the birth of the King of Rome broke the powerful spell of the Napoleonic era. Until 1809 Napoleon remained the heir of the Revolution, from 1810 he traded this condition for that of “nephew of Louis XVI” - by Marie-Antoinette - and the son in law of the Hapsburgs. Alexander and Caesar had had more luck : the illness of one, the dagger of Brutus for the other, neither had the time to think about the future or the legacy of their deeds. “Caesar was 56 when he died according to Plutarch. For the power and absolute domination that he strove for all his life, at the price of many dangers, and acquired so laboriously, he received nothing but the name and a glory that awoke the jealousy of his co-citizens (5)”. Napoleon would live another 11 years after the triumph of 1809. From the zenith to the nadir, the path was still a long one.
- Patrice Gueniffey (tr. AM)