In 1793, the 24 year old Napoleon was in desperate need of money, and any plans for global fame and power were far from his mind. He received a lucky break when one of his contacts, Salicetti, introduced him to General Carteaux, who was commanding the siege of Toulon (which had revolted and was being assisted by the British), and needed to quickly replace his head of artillery who had been wounded. Thanks for Salicetti’s intervention, Napoleon received the posting.
Napoleon embraced the opportunity, and showed what would become a characteristic rigour in his preparations for the siege, rapidly expanding the besieger’s from four guns, to twenty. After receiving a promotion to the rank of Major, Napoleon submitted a plan to the new commander of the siege Dugommier (Carteaux had been removed from command on charges of incompetence). This plan involved capturing Fort Mulgrave, whose guns dominated the harbour, and which would force the British to withdraw the fleet which they were using the supply Toulon’s defenders. Napoleon himself played a crucial role in the eventual attack on Fort Mulgrave. When the first three waves of the attack failed, Napoleon led the reargaurd, of 2,000 men into the city, in vicious hand-to-hand fighting. Napoleon himself was wounded, with a deep bayonet cut to the thigh, and narrowly avoided needing to have the amputated.
With the French now in control of the fort, the British promptly abandoned Toulon, which swiftly fell. 400 civilians who had collaborated with the British were executed. The recapture of Toulon was very significant for the Revolutionary French government, as Toulon’s rebellion had helped to ignite the civil war which gripped the country. Napoleon was highly praised for his role in the attack and received a promotion to brigadier general, though his was still by no means a household name.
Joesphine de Beauharnais
By Francois Gerard
Napoleon received a further promotion to commander of the artillery of the French army in Italy, where he laid plans for a change in strategy that would break the deadlock on the Italian front. However, when Robespierre’s government fell in July 1794, Napoleon was arrested over concerns about his friendship with Robespierre’s brother, which created fears for the new government (the Directory) that Napoleon might have been ‘too revolutionary’. It was a bizarre turn of events in a country where ‘not being revolutionary enough’ had carried the risk of death. However, Napoleon immediately condemned the Robespierre’s, and after a fortnight in house arrest, Salicetti secured his release.
The following year, Napoleon made what appeared to be a peculiar career move. When he was offered a senior position in the Army of the Vendee which was tasked with putting down a rebellion, he simply refused, partly because he thought it lacked the prospect of glory, and partly because his position would be below that of one of his rivals Lazare Hoche.
As a result, Napoleon’s loyalty to the revolution was thrown into doubt, and he was left without a job. He spent the following months in Paris, and became depressed, contemplating suicide.
However, Napoleon’s luck changes again in October 1795. After news emerged of a Royalist landing, Paris rose in revolt against the Directory, despite it being relatively liberal and democratic in comparison to Robespierre’s government. Alarmed at the prospect of a coup, an influential member of the government, Paul Barras, offered him the job of head of the artillery in Paris if he agreed to support the government and put down the uprising.
With his usual energy, Napoleon organised 8,000 troops loyal to the government, and seized forty guns which he used to defend the government in the Tuileries Palace. As the crowd advanced, Napoleon ordered the guns to open fire, clearing the streets with what he called ‘a whiff of grapshot’. In the context of battles, it was nothing more than a minor skirmish, but Napoleon’s actions had saved the government, catapulting him to the status of a national hero.
The following year, Napoleon married Josephine Beauharnais, a widow and the mistress of Barras. Napoleon was besotted, but Josephine, who had had a string of lovers, did not take long to tire of her new husband and took new lovers. In 1796, Napoleon finally received the posting he had craved – command on the Italian front. From relative obscurity, Napoleon was now poised to become the man who would cement his place in history.
Up Next: Napoleon's invasion of Italy
Got a Question? Head to the Forum now
Interested in Learning More?
Robert Harvey, The War of Wars (London: Constable, 2006)
Andrew Roberts, Napoleon the Great (London: Penguin, 2015)