Introduction to volume eight of the General Correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte: southern expansion and resistance

Author(s) : MADEC Gabriel
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Gabriel Madec's introduction to volume eight of the General Correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte, published by the Fondation Napoléon and Fayard.

Volume eight of the General Correspondence sees us cross the halfway point of our project to publish the epistolary heritage of Napoleon Bonaparte. Unlike the previous two releases, this particular volume does not cover a single calendar year, but rather thirteen months, from January 1808 to January 1809. There is a very simple reason for this: it seemed judicious to keep Napoleon's lightning Spanish campaign whole.

This latest release contains 3,021 letters,1 1,690 more than the Second Empire publication contained for the same period, of which nearly twenty-five percent is previously unpublished.2 Unsurprisingly, affairs on the Iberian Peninsula – including the riots in Aranjuez and Madrid, the Bayonne ambush, the Bayonne assembly, and the surrender at Bailén – dominate. The meeting in Erfurt and the papal conflict also represent stand-out events in a volume which once again highlights the diverse nature of the emperor's as-ever energetic activity. 1808 is also the year which saw cracks appear in Napoleon's European creation.
In any case, and as with just about every introduction written for this project, one cannot help but marvel at the emperor's creative imagination and prodigious activity in addressing every topic. This activity also reveals – implicitly – the flaws in his ambition and character, which see him committing at least two errors which would later prove fatal to his reign. First mistake: his decision to overthrow the Bourbons in Spain, the result of a lack of understanding of realities in the Iberian peninsula, and partly attributable to stand-in ambassadors and courtiers,3 spies and short-sighted envoys,4 and finally 5 His second mistake was the occupation of Rome by troops under the command of Miollis, which preceded the annexation of the Papal States. As with Spain, Napoleon failed to anticipate the trouble his conflict with Pius VII would cause him within the Catholic community, nor the impact that this would have on a Spanish people heavily influenced by its clergy.

Tilsit appeared to have ushered in a new era of widespread peace. Continuing difficulties with Britain and the Continental Blockade however led Napoleon to turn his attention towards the south. His “system”, applied without measure or restraint, would lead to a new era of resistance and retaliation, with 1808 marked by armed insurrection in Spain and Portugal, Austrian rearmament, the awakening of nationalism in Germany, and the opposition of a Holy See dispossessed of its territories. To this already long list can be added fierce hostility to the creation of an imperial nobility, resistance to conscription (no fewer than forty-five letters to Lacuée bear witness to this opposition), plots engineered by Fouché and Talleyrand, increasing reluctance to obey orders amongst Napoleon's maréchaux, and finally his rebellious brother-kings. Here on, external conflicts would be joined by a new form of internal resistance.
By the beginning of 1808, Franco-Spanish troops under Junot had occupied Spain for a month. The invasion was preceded by the extraordinary Treaty of Fontainebleau,6 which outlined the future partition of the country. For the time being, however, Napoleon had decided against its application.7 The first infringement of the Franco-Spanish agreement was hardly likely to reassure Charles IV, even less so Godoy, the inspiration behind the project. Nor was Napoleon's persistence in advancing his troops deeper into Spanish territory, the pretexts for which became ever more untenable,8 both in the eyes of the country's rulers and its population, which found itself subject to the French invaders' requisitions and pillages.
Napoleon continued to work towards his grand project: waging commercial warfare against Britain by controlling the Iberian Peninsula and the Adriatic and Mediterranean coastlines. At the same time, he contemplated the little matter of his revenge on the Royal Navy! Thus, Decrès, Napoleon's Naval Minister, is the recipient of some 212 letters in which the emperor gradually refines – in great technical detail – his plans for naval reconstruction and various maritime expeditions. However, the most curious of his “maritime” letters is the one sent to Cretet, Interior Minister, outlining trade developments with the colonies.9 Early results were limited: Admiral Ganteaume did succeed in resupplying Corfu, but did not even attempt the expedition against Sicily.10
The backdrop to the Continental Blockade was Napoleon's project to overthrow the House of Bourbon in Madrid and seize Spanish American riches. After seven disappointing years, Spain had become a dysfunctional ally, distrusted and troublesome, with little hope of improvement under the direction of a moth-eaten monarchy and Godoy, who was hated by the aristocracy. The decision to do away with them altogether was probably made during the Tilsit period, but the method and means to achieve this would be driven by circumstance.
He started with an occupation in disguise, involving the seizure of key points – by surprise or by trickery – in order to secure the primary communication routes between the Pyrenees, Madrid and Barcelona. The emperor initially envisaged achieving his goal without having to mobilise the majority of his forces still posted in Germany, choosing instead to rely on reserve legions. These motley troops, known as provisionary or marching units,11 were made up essentially of poorly trained and poorly equipped conscripts. The wider empire was also tapped up for contributions: Italian, Neapolitan, and Polish troops, as well as soldiers from the Confederation of the Rhine, all participated. The improvised nature of the Armée d'Espagne,12 dispersed and quickly exhausted, was one of the reasons behind the occupation's initial failures and Dupont's defeat at Bailén (19 July 1808).13 The brilliant commander in chief was finally obliged to take over, but not before a call for reinforcements had been issued, with veteran troops shipped in from elsewhere more than doubling his force strength. These strategic missteps, his first serious errors of judgement, point to Napoleon's growing short-sightedness.

A great deal of the correspondence during the first semester of 1808 concerns the growing momentum of the “regeneration” project the emperor sought to impose on Spain. These efforts were initially ignored by the letters' recipients, Champagny, key members of the War Ministry (Berthier, Clarke, Dejean and Lacuée), and subsequently Murat in Madrid and Bessières in Burgos. Despite numerous letters announcing his intention to oversee Spanish matters in person, Napoleon abruptly changed his mind the day of Murat's arrival in the Spanish capital (23 March). Informing the latter of his decision, the emperor wrote: “Circumstances have forced me to delay my departure. Russia has declared war on Sweden”.14 What was the reason behind this incredible u-turn, the basis of which was a downright lie? It appears even less comprehensible in light of his general reluctance to offer Bernadotte's troops stationed in Scania as support for his ally, Alexander.15 Was he already aware of the Aranjuez riot and its consequences (17 – 19 March)? It seems unlikely: even the fastest messengers still took five to six days, minimum, to travel the Madrid-Paris route. Not everyone could be as good as Moustache!16 It has also been suggested that Napoleon deliberately misled Murat regarding his arrival, thereby sowing doubt about his intentions in order to reassure or indeed even frighten the individuals involved in the intrigue taking place at the Spanish court. Was it Napoleon just blowing hot and cold? On 27 March, Napoleon finally played his hand, unveiling his secret dynastic project in a letter to his brother Louis, offering him the Spanish throne. The younger Bonaparte refused.17
A few days later and the emperor had moved his capital south. Between 14 April and 21 July, he was stationed at the Château de Marracq, near Bayonne, which became the command and logistical hub for all operations taking place in the Iberian Peninsula. It would later serve as the stage for the unfolding tragicomedy that would enable the emperor to seize the throne and give it to his brother Joseph, who in turn ceded his own throne in Naples to Murat. During his stay in the south, Napoleon dictated about a thousand letters, a wealth of information which allows us to recreate the atmosphere and the events of the period.18 On the night of 21 July, he left Bayonne and proceeded to take a tour of the western départements, before returning to Paris. He appears encouraged by the situation in Spain, in particular by the success enjoyed by Bessières at Medina de Rio Seco (14 July). This victory would nevertheless pave the way for Don José Primero's arrival in Madrid on 20 July. Yet it was the events of 19 July, Dupont's defeat at Bailén, which would prove decisive. Ten days later, the new king felt obliged to flee the capital and retire to Ebro. It was not until 2 August that Napoleon, by now at Bordeaux, received the disastrous news that would leave Europe stunned: the imperial army was not invincible after all.19 His pride deeply wounded and his carefully laid plans in tatters, Napoleon was forced to bring forward his meeting with the tsar. Napoleon's postponement of this rendezvous had greatly disappointed – not to say angered – Alexander, who had been assured of support against Sweden and for a future expedition in the near east.20 The catastrophe at Bailén proved to be a turning point, the event on which the next thirteen months (and indeed beyond) would hinge.
The drama would subsequently be transported to the Erfurt (27 September – 14 October), where – at Napoleon's behest – a sumptuous stage had been set with the intention of dazzling the assembly of kings, princes and dukes who – for better or for worse – bustled about him.21 Despite this mise-en-scene, it was Napoleon who had all the requests: he now needed Russia to keep an eye on Austria whilst France was tied up in Spain. Talleyrand, who had been sent on ahead, promptly betrayed his master and preached resistance to the tsar. Having conquered Finland, Alexander could devote his attention to dismembering the Ottoman Empire, by now severely weakened by internal strife. Caulaincourt and Romanzov had already discussed this issue at length in St Petersburg, with the Russian minister demanding Constantinople and the Dardanelles on behalf of his sovereign. Such a move was unacceptable to Napoleon, who was only prepared to budge on the Danubian Principalities. As far as his desired Franco-Russian alliance was concerned, he left Erfurt with only vague assurances. He nevertheless felt secure enough to focus his attentions on the matters at opposite end of the continent.
At the beginning of November, he arrived in Spain and took over command of the army (5 November 1808 – 16 January 1809). The correspondence from this period is dominated by military operations, interspersed with one or two brilliant successes (Burgos, Espinosa, Tudela, Somosierra and Madrid's surrender). The “lightning strike” that would decide the conflict – announced at Erfurt22 – failed to hit. The intervention of the emperor resolved nothing: the regular forces remained unbroken, resistance endured amongst the guerrillas and in towns (of which Saragossa would become the symbol), and the imperial pursuit of the British army petered out. Finally, in January 1809, the situation hit rock bottom. The Austrian threat solidified, whilst the extraordinary alliance formed by Talleyrand and Fouché (in concert with Murat) had more than a hint of conspiracy about it. Napoleon had to get out of Spain. Having issued his final instructions to Berthier, he left Soult to continue alone in his pursuit of Moore's troops, with strict orders to destroy the British army before it reached Coruña. The overly cautious Duc de Dalmatie failed in his mission. At the same time, Napoleon finally authorised Joseph to take back his capital and, in an attempt to reassure him, promised to be back by “the end of February”.23 This promise would not be kept. Even after the victory at Wagram, Napoleon showed no interest in returning to Spain and finishing what he had started. He left Valladolid on 17 January and after a fantastic, six-day sprint, he arrived in Paris the morning of the 23 January. Five days later, the imperial fury rained down on Talleyrand, who had already the day before been directed to hand in his key, symbol of office of the Grand Chambellan. On this occasion, Fouché was spared, but was instructed in no uncertain terms to concern himself only with affairs relating to his ministry (the letter draft more likely than not contained a few choice insults that were subsequently edited out).24
External policy issues did not however distract Napoleon from his own empire's government. Indeed, he – and he alone – was the government. Cambacérès received his letter close to cover the period of his master's absence.25 All matters (ministerial councils, Conseil d'Etat, the Corps Législatif and the Senate) were to be reported on, which Cambacérès duly did, in regular if summary accounts to the emperor. In return, the arch chancellor received nearly one hundred letters relating not only to this interim government but concerning other diverse subjects as well: the Code d'instruction criminelle, confirmation of Légion d'honneur recipients, refining the tribunals, the imperial high court,26 drop-ins for the Moniteur, monuments and ceremonies, the banks, and many more besides.
Public order remained a constant concern, as can be seen in the 140 letters addressed to Fouché, who was also on the end of frequent criticism from the emperor: failing to send regular copies of the bulletin, rumours regarding the imperial couple's divorce, and failure to maintain proper surveillance of the press and territorial borders – in the case of this latter surveillance, Napoleon considered it imperative to extend it to “every point in the empire”. The Minister of Police even found himself sharply reprimanded for his quarrel with Dubois, the Prefect of Police, regarding the first Malet affair.
As Michel Kerautret has pointed out, “amongst the many characters to be found in Napoleon's complex soul, there was without a doubt an accountant or a solicitor”.27 This volume returns on numerous occasions to matters of money, with nearly two hundred letters distributed to Mollien, Gaudin, and Daru. Napoleon followed closely any affair relating to the subject of finance or property. He handed out rewards to his military leaders and regiments that distinguished themselves. Loyal servants of the state were not forgotten; nor were the Spanish Bourbons, whom Napoleon guaranteed a comfortable retirement (see the treaties of Bayonne signed by Charles IV and Ferdinand). Elsewhere, Germany is subjected to a financial audit, with Jerome coming in for criticism regarding the territories that the two brothers had split between them. Daru is subsequently invited to resolve the issue; he also finds himself ordered to re-evaluate the contributions made by Prussia in favour of his master. Marmont, for his part, is scolded for having financed a number of road-works using money taken from funds managed by the Armée de Dalmatie's paymaster, who would be left penniless. A financial agreement is signed with the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, Napoleon and Eugène agree a commercial treaty and trade boundaries for Italy…
1808 saw the beginning of a long, incredibly ferocious war which would be immortalised by Goya. In his attempt to lock the “tyrant of the seas” out of Europe, Napoleon's violation of Spain simply offered Britain a focal point on the continent and facilitated their trade with the American colonies. Of more grave concern in the long run, Spain would become a drain on the Grande Armée, leaving them stretched in theatres of operation elsewhere. And thirdly, the successive reversals suffered during the Guerra de la Indepedencia would end up ruining the Tilsit alliance. In 1808 no-one could predict such a result, but the seeds were sown.
Much later, during a moment of self-appraisal whilst on the island of St Helena, Napoleon would esteem, more in form than substance, Spain to be where he made the fatal mistake that led to his downfall.
(Tr. H.D.W.)


1. The letters addressed to Murat (29 March 1808) and Louis (3 April 1808), attributed to Napoleon in the Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, have not been included and are the subject of a study which features as part of the annexe in volume eight.
2. We should like to thank at this point everyone who has worked with us in the completion of this volume, in particular: Jacques Garnier, Jean-Claude Herry, Patrick Le Carvèse, Jacques Macé, Michèle Masson, and Jean-Pierre Pirat, as well as all the curators at the Archives nationales, the Archives du Ministère des Affaires étrangères, and the Archives du Service Historique de la Défense. This is without forgetting, of course, François Houdecek and Marie Baudouin, key elements in this enterprise, under the ever-watchful gaze of its secretary general, Thierry Lentz.
3. In Madrid: Alquier, Berthier, Lucien Bonaparte, Gouvion Saint-Cyr, Beurnonville, and Beauharnais. In Lisbon: Lannes, Junot, and Rayneval.
4. Blondel, Turenne, Vandeul, and Tournon. Of the diplomats, Herman - a simple chargé d'affaires in Madrid and later Lisbon - appears to have been the most objective in his reports.
5. Murat's conduct and his correspondence have yet to reveal all their secrets for this period.
6. The treaty, signed on 27 October 1807, stipulated that Portugal would be divided up once Franco-Spanish troops had occupied its territory. See also: "Les traités de 1808 avec l'Espagne" (Volume 8 of the General Correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte, annexe).
7. Letter to Charles IV, 10 January 1808 (n° 16,974).
8. Reasons included support for Junot's army in Portugal, and subsequently for Rosily-Mesros' French squadron blockaded by the British in Cadiz.
9. Letter n° 17,613.
10. A decision probably supported by Napoleon; the emperor's correspondence with Joseph relating to this expedition is hardly convincing, and Ganteaume received no reprimand.
11. The first division of Dupont's corps (2e corps d'observation de la Gironde) arrived in Spain on 22 November 1807.
12. The situation was "utter bedlam", according to Belliard, Murat's chief of staff.
13. Napoleon admits as much in his letter to Caulaincourt (6 August), without going so far as to blame himself for it.
14. Letter n° 17,462. See also the reason, which differs somewhat, offered by Napoleon in his letter to Caulaincourt a few days later (n° 17,524).
15. These troops included the Spanish corps serving under La Romana, which would desert shortly afterwards and return to Spain.
16. Esprit Chazals, known as Moustache, had been Napoleon's personal courier since 1797.
17. Letter n° 17,510.
18. Previous correspondence collections for this period offer roughly half that number.
19. Letters from Joseph to Napoleon dated 26 - 31 July, published in Vincent Haegele (Tallandier, 2007). See also by the same author: "La correspondance de Joseph Bonaparte : 1808-1809" (Volume 8 of the General Correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte, annexe).
20. Such a project went against everything Napoleon had worked towards with Turkey and Persia. This volte-face would allow Britain to re-establish its relationship with the two countries. See the letters to Alexander and Caulaincourt dated 2 February 1808 (n°s 17,121 and 17,123).
21. NDT: the terms "plate-bande" and "parterre" are used in sources to describe the assembled royals. In certain contexts, these two words can both mean "flowerbed", an ironic reference (generally attributed to Talleyrand) which presumably refers to the attractive and ordered nature of those assembled, as well as the "gardener" role played by Napoleon.
22. Napoleon to Joseph, 13 October 1808 (n° 19,056): "The war could be finished once and for with a single well-directed manoeuvre, and for that I have to be there."
23. Letter n° 19,855.
24. Letter n° 19,937.
25. South-west France (2 April - 14 August 1808), Erfurt (22 September - 18 October 1808), Spain (29 October 1808 - 23 January 1809).
26. Napoleon mounted an attempt to have those responsible for the convention and surrender at Bailén tried before the court. The matter would only go as far as early trial proceedings.
27. In Les grands traités de l'Empire (1804-1810), Nouveau Monde Éditions/Fondation Napoléon, 2004 (p. 373).
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