All posts by Fred Michmershuizen

Thoughts after reading about Napoleon

Reading about Napoleon makes me appreciate George Washington even more. And James Madison! It was not long after the United States Constitution had been ratified and Washington inaugurated as our first President that the French people took matters into their own hands. The French Revolution was long, complicated and violent, and it’s hard to comprehend even today. The Jacobins and Girondins fought one another. The French overthrew their Bourbon King, Louis XVI, who incidentally had not long before supported the American Revolution by sending us money, ships and troops! King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette eventually lost their heads to the guillotine, and later a “Committee on Public Safety” controlled by Maximilien Robespierre took over. There was a “Reign of Terror” in which political enemies were beheaded left and right. Eventually Robespierre himself was beheaded, and a five-person “Directory” took over.

Napoleon: A Life

It was in the middle of all this chaos that Napoleon came to power. He eventually declared himself Emperor and conquered most of continental Europe. He even held a coronation in Notre Dame Cathedral, in which he crowned himself and his wife, Josephine, in the presence of the Pope. Along the way he wrote laws called the Civil Code or Napoleonic Code, established a school system, supported the arts and directed large public works projects. He also was a brilliant military commander, whose troop movements and strategies changed forever the manner in which battles were waged and won. Napoleon’s battles would be studied at West Point for generations, including by Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and many others.

Napoleon, who had been trained in artillery, started out early in his military career by invading what is today northern Italy. He then led an army through Egypt and Syria, returning to Paris to help stage a coup in which a three-person “Consulate” took over. But Napoleon controlled everything, and by 1804 he got powerful enough to crown himself Emperor. Europe’s other “crowned heads” frowned on this because they feared they could be overthrown themselves. They formed alliances against him and the wars continued. Napoleon racked up wins all over the place, bringing his reforms and his civil code with him wherever he went.

But he also made mistakes. His invasion of Spain did not go well, meeting with much resistance. His biggest blunder was to invade Russia. He brought 400,000 troops all the way to Moscow, only to have it burned down by the locals before he could do anything there. He was forced to turn back just as a brutally cold winter was beginning. Most of his soldiers died of starvation, disease or frostbite. By the end of the Russian campaign, his army was down to just 40,000. It would be the beginning of the end for Napoleon. (More on his demise in a moment.)

The Bonaparte family tree is broad and complex. Napoleon had seven brothers and sisters. He was second oldest. As he conquered more and more of Europe, he named his siblings and their husbands and wives to rule as sovereigns of the various kingdoms. He named Joseph, his older brother, King of Naples and King of Spain. He made younger brother Louis the King of Holland. Lucien became Prince of Canino, Jerome King of Westphalia. He made his sister Caroline and husband the Queen and King of Naples, and so on.

In 1796 Napoleon married Josephine, a widow who had two children, Eugene and Hortense. Immediately after their marriage, Napoleon went away to war and Josephine cheated on him. He had been sending her a bunch of sappy love letters, but when he found out about his wife’s infidelity he began cheating on her. Napoleon took many mistresses over the years, often paying them large sums of money. He fathered illegitimate children with at least two of the women.

As the years went by and Josephine did not bear Napoleon any children, he decided he needed to divorce her. He asked Tsar Alexander to let him have his younger sister but the Russian ruler said no, so he married Marie Louise, who was the daughter of the Emperor of Austria. Marie Louise bore Napoleon a single child, a son, Napoleon II, also known as the “King of Rome,” who died at age 21. Marie Louise would later cheat on Napoleon with an Austrian general.

Napoleon liked to arrange marriages of his relatives and close associates. He got his brother Louis to marry Josephine’s daughter, Hortense, and they had three children, including Napoleon III, (Napoleon’s nephew, also his step-grandson!) who would later become Emperor of France.

Here are a few additional facts about Napoleon:

  • He was not French! He was born on the island of Corsica, in the Mediterranean.
  • He was born Napoleon Bonaparte, but went by just Napoleon when he became Emperor. Sovereigns go by just their first names. He considered himself to be peers with the other monarchs, but they did not see him that way. Unbeknownst to Napoleon, Tsar Alexander in particular saw him as a nuisance and was waiting for the right moment to get rid of him.
  • In paintings and drawings, Napoleon appears lean and good-looking when he is young, and short and fat when he is old.
  • He was sexist.
  • He admired Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. He aspired to be like them.
  • When he met someone, he had a way of asking the person a number of quick questions in a rapid-fire, matter-of-fact manner.
  • Wherever he went, he plundered artworks and artifacts and sent the loot back to be exhibited in the Louvre.
  • In Egypt he traveled with a group of “savants” who put together an extensive report on the geography, culture and artifacts of the ancient civilization. They also discovered the Rosetta Stone, which would later fall into British hands.
  • Napoleon did not hold deep religious beliefs, but he would often adopt the religious customs of the local population of whatever country he happened to be invading. In Egypt he told those he met he was interested in converting to the Muslim faith. In northern Italy, Catholicism.
  • One of his closest deputies, Jean-Jacques Cambaceres, was gay.
  • Although Napoleon was not an evil dictator bent on genocide (he was not a Hitler), he was responsible for a number of atrocities including a massacre in the Middle East.
  • Because Napoleon needed money for his wars, in 1803 we got the Louisiana Purchase! James Monroe and Robert Livingston negotiated directly with Napoleon during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. It doubled the size of the United States.

After his disastrous invasion of Russia Napoleon was more vulnerable than ever, and a “Sixth Coalition” including Russia, Prussia, Austria and Great Britain united to fight him in what is today Germany. Napoleon won in Dresden but was defeated in Leipzig. The “Allies” offered Napoleon peace terms that would have allowed him to stay in power but give up most of the territory France had conquered. When Napoleon refused the deal, the Allies tightened the screws by invading France and occupying Paris. They forced Napoleon to abdicate and leave France, but they let him become king of the somewhat small, somewhat remote island of Elba — located in the Mediterranean off the coast of Italy. This was Napoleon’s first exile. Before being sent away, Napoleon attempted suicide by taking poison but survived.

Napoleon was on Elba for less than a year, during which time he instituted a number of reforms and public improvements there. Meanwhile, back in Paris, Louis XVIII became king. Remember the Bourbon king Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, who had been beheaded during the French Revolution? Their surviving relatives — the Bourbon family — had been hiding in exile all this time! Louis XVI’s son (that’s the Dauphin in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), who would have been King Louis XVII, had died during Napoleon’s reign, and therefore Louis XVIII, who was Louis XVI’s brother, took charge. But he wasn’t much of a leader and made a number of blunders that resulted in taxes and food prices going up. Stupidly, he also put the military on half-pay.

Sensing an opportunity, Napoleon escaped from Elba by boat, landing on the southern coast of France near Cannes (where the film festival is held today). Napoleon had a small band of troops with him, but as he traveled north through France he picked up more and more troops and momentum. By the time he got back to Paris, Louis XVIII and the rest of the Bourbons had run away again, allowing Napoleon to re-form a government, and raise yet another army to go against the Allies — now known as the Seventh Coalition, made up of Austria, Russia, Prussia and Britain. The fighting that resulted culminated in the battle of Waterloo, in what is today Belgium. This period came to be known as the “Hundred Days.” After his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon returned briefly to Paris before fleeing to the western coast of France, where he sought asylum aboard a British warship.

Napoleon wanted to go to the United States or even to London, but the British decided to send him to the island of St. Helena in the middle of the Atlantic — much smaller and much more remote than Elba. This was Napoleon’s second exile. He was allowed to take a small number of followers with him to St. Helena, including a pastry chef and a lamp-lighter. But Longwood House, where he was to reside, was damp and dreary and was infested with rats and mosquitoes. The British named a custodian to watch over him, someone who was unnecessarily mean. Napoleon died six years later of stomach cancer. In 1840 his body was brought back to Paris and entombed in an elaborate monument.

I learned so much reading “Napoleon: A Life,” the 810-page biography by Andrew Roberts. Published in 2014, this book is complete with helpful maps and beautiful color images. I read the paperback edition. I very much enjoyed this book. The author, a British historian, drew on a recently compiled collection of 33,000 letters and referred to tremendous amounts of other source material. The tome is divided into three parts: Rise, Mastery and Denouement.

George Washingon His ExcellencyBack to George Washington. The biography “His Excellency” by Joseph Ellis had me crying on just about every page, but I did not shed a single tear for Napoleon. Washington had been as popular in America as Napoleon was in France, and had he wanted to Washington could have ruled in a similar manner here. But Washington was a bigger man by giving up power and going back to his farm. Another gift Washington gave us was the policy of neutrality when it came to international affairs. Around the time of the French Revolution, many here in America wanted us to go to war with France against Britain. What a horrible error that would have been. I also came to appreciate the wisdom of James Madison and the other Founding Fathers, who wrote a constitution for our own country complete with separation of powers, checks and balances and provisions for peaceful transition of government from one administration to another.

For the past two years almost, I have been reading biographies of the U.S. presidents, but I wanted to take a detour and read about Napoleon. I’m glad I did. I noticed this book while looking through the biography section at Barnes and Noble, and it caught my eye. Learning Napoleon’s story has enhanced my appreciation of our nation’s founders.


Ulysses S. Grant

It was what General Ulysses S. Grant did after the battle of The Wilderness that changed things. By May 1864, the Civil War had been going on for more than three years. The loss of life to this point had been more than anyone could have imagined. It was already apparent that the South was not going to be able to win the war, but the Confederates were trying to drag the war on longer, hoping to make the conflict so costly to the North that the voting public would tire of the war and throw Lincoln out of office, to be replaced by someone who would end the war. The stakes were enormous. More than just the preservation of the Union was at stake. Ending the war at this point would have re-enslaved the 3.5 million people who had been freed on January 1, 1863, by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Grant by Matthew Brady
President Grant, 1870
By Mathew Brady – Library of Congress, Public Domain


By this point Lincoln had already replaced his top generals numerous times. McClellan, Burnside, Hooker and Meade had all failed to prosecute the war with the urgency and vigor that Lincoln wanted. After Grant achieved key victories for the Union at Vicksburg and Chattanooga, Lincoln summoned him to the nation’s capital and named him Lieutenant General. Grant was the first since George Washington to hold the rank.

The Wilderness was Grant’s very first battle after being put in charge of all Union armies and his first faceoff with Confederate General Robert E. Lee. It did not turn out well for the Union. But unlike his predecessors who had all retreated north after suffering large casualties in battle, Grant decided to move his army farther south. There was to be no turning back this time. Grant was not one to make excuses, to blame others or to give up. Final victory was still a long way off, but Grant knew it was coming. It came the following spring, when Grant accepted Lee’s surrender at the home of Wilmer McClean, in the town of Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

After the war Grant stayed on as commander of the U.S. Army, serving under President Andrew Johnson. Grant served briefly as Secretary of War during Johnson’s dispute with Congress over the Tenure of Office Act. He was elected President in 1868 and then re-elected in 1872 by wide margins both times in both the popular and electoral votes. He never campaigned. In his first inaugural address, he called for the ratification of the 15th Amendment granting blacks the right to vote, and he spoke out for the rights of Native Americans. He stumbled early on with less-than-ideal cabinet appointments. Grant himself was not corrupt, but some of his cabinet secretaries became involved in various scandals, which got worse in his second term. One of Grant’s best picks was Hamilton Fish as Secretary of State, whom grant had plucked out of retirement. Fish had been governor of New York and a United States Senator and turned out to be an excellent Secretary of State. He served through both of Grant’s presidential terms.

During the late 1860s the Ku Klux Klan emerged. Grant recognized the KKK immediately for what it was — a domestic hate group intent on using terrorism to prevent blacks from exercising their rights as citizens to vote. Grant formed the Justice Department and directed it to fight the Klan. He went so far as to declare martial law and to use federal troops in parts of the South to enforce voting rights.

Here are some additional facts about Grant:

  • He married Julia Dent, and they had four children. Julia’s family owned slaves, but Grant’s family was anti-slavery and his parents boycotted the wedding.
  • He was born in Ohio. After marrying Julia he built a house near her family in Missouri, calling it “Hardscrabble.” They later moved to Galena, Illinois.
  • His given name was Hiram Ulysses Grant, but from birth he was called Ulysses. His mother got the name Ulysses from a French novel about the Greek general Ulysses. When Grant got to West Point with the initials H.U.G. on a trunk, he realized that was not going to work. There was too much teasing from the other cadets. The senator who had appointed Grant to West Point had used Ulysses Simpson Grant (Simpson was his mother’s maiden name) so he went with the initials U.S., which were interpreted as “United States” Grant, and, later, “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.
  • Like Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce and many others, Grant served in the Mexican American War. He was a quartermaster.
  • Several of the groomsmen in Grant’s wedding later fought against him as officers in the Confederate army.
  • Later in life, Grant became friends with Mark Twain.
  • As my cousin Lisa would be pleased to know, Grant loved horses! One of his favorites was named Cincinnati.

After Grant left office, he and Julia went on a grand overseas tour, traveling extensively throughout Europe, the Middle East and the Orient. Upon returning to the United States, he would have run for President again in 1880, but the Republicans nominated James A. Garfield instead. Grant eventually retired to New York City. He and one of his sons later invested with a Bernie Maddow-type swindler, and Grant lost all his money. He spent the final part of his life writing his memoirs, which, thanks to the help of Mark Twain, netted enough money for Julia to live on after his death. He died of throat cancer just days after finishing the manuscript. Today he and Julia rest in a massive mausoleum in New York City.

Grant by Ronald C. White“American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant,” by Ronald C. White (pictured, the book I read) is one of two major biographies of Grant published recently. The other is by Ron Chernow. Both are what are often called rehabilitative, meaning the authors go back and re-examine a person’s reputation that has fallen over the years. Some historians have looked down upon Grant for a number of offenses, both real and imagined. Among them are that he was not as smart as Lee (Grant graduated 21st out of 39 in his class at West Point, while Lee graduated 2nd). Others have postulated that Grant was too indifferent to the large number of troops who were killed, and that he was a drunk. White argues forcibly against these accusations.

Having thoroughly enjoyed White’s previous biography of Lincoln, I decided to read his telling of Grant’s life story as well, and I was richly rewarded. “American Ulysses” was a page-turner, with many helpful maps, photographs and illustrations. He also presents Grant as a complete human being, describing his family life and even the books he read and the things he said to his friends and colleagues. And yes, I cried in the end!

In reading this book I got to know the general quite well. I can therefore say confidently that had a President Grant been in office when a group of white supremacists held a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, the response from the White House would have been quite different.