Oh. So that’s why he was called “the Corsican Ogre”

I am coming off a four-day weekend, and I had decided I needed to get my mind off things, so my project was to read a book about a period of history I know very little about, a distraction from this period of history that is so thoroughly fucked up. I’ve missed out on the early 19th century, just a little gap in my education, so I picked up this free book via Kindle Unlimited, Napoleon Bonaparte: A Life, by Alan Schom.

As a book, it was OK: it tended to plod a bit, as it was a condensed biography that nevertheless tried to cram in as many details as it could, but I learned a fair bit. It didn’t take my mind off the current situation, though, because the early 19th century may have been even more fucked up than the early 21st.

I have a complaint, though. The author keeps telling me Napoleon is brilliant, a genius, a general impression I had from my pop culture understanding of the Great Man: that he was a great general. Reading what he actually did, though, it’s obvious he was a narcissistic psychopath who was a terrible general. He basically took the great wealth and manpower of France and threw it wastefully at grandiose campaigns that allowed him to loot entire nations, at the cost of great loss of life.

To give him his due, though, he was aggressive and would fight to the last man: he won battles because his opponents would hesitate and back off when they lost tens of thousands of men, while Napoleon would just hurl another corps into the fray, and afterwards, write back to Paris and order another levy of 80,000 men.

Often, that wasn’t enough. His Egyptian campaign was logistically incompetent and a total failure. Do I need to even mention his ill-fated Russian campaign?

That was a moment for me. I’m reading this book, I’d gotten up to 1811, and his Spanish adventure was floundering, the French people were rioting, Austria was mobilizing, and I suddenly realized that I did know a bit about Napoleonic history — wasn’t there going to be a huge catastrophe at the walls of Moscow in 1812? I heard a symphony about that. There was no real prelude to those events, one month he’s flailing about in his fracturing and fractious empire, and the next he’s marching off to frolic in the Russian winter wonderland. It was insane.

Also appalling: he lost, was banished to the island of Elba, and then…he came back, and the enthusiastic French people, whose young men he’d slaughtered in futile, fatal wars, elevated him again in patriotic fervor, and sent him off to Brussels with another army. The masses promoting a lying boob against their own self-interest is not a novel behavior, I guess. End result: 25,000 Frenchman rotting in a field near Waterloo.

What I learned is that the Great Leaders of nations can easily be greedy, self-serving monsters who will sacrifice the lives of their supporters for their own gain, and there will always be historians who look at the body count and conclude that they must be a genius. My cynicism has risen again.

But it’s not all negative news. I also learned how to deal with petty tyrants: banish them to a small island in the south Atlantic (far enough away that he’s not going to be able to row back), and give them a nice house and a small party of their sycophantic supporters and let them cheat at cards (Napoleon was notorious for cheating disgracefully at games of chance, which says a lot about his character) together. Give them five years to grate on each other’s nerves, and also, for one or more of the party to slowly poison the unpleasant ex-dictator. It was a little pocket of hell on Earth. The British dealt with him generously, and it was the most unkind torture they could have performed.

At least I got a little pleasure from fantasizing about the banishment party I’d ship my least favorite modern monsters to. If I were to exile Donald Trump, for instance, who would I send to accompany him? His own children, for sure, and Rudy Giuliani, and maybe Sydney Powell and a few Fox News hosts. It’s easy to imagine a true hell-hole made up of his own most persistent supporters.


  1. remyporter says

    So many “great tacticians” in history were idiotic psychopaths who succeeded because, when they encountered a ditch or crevasse, they’d throw the bodies of their soldiers into it until the ditch was full and they could walk over as a “hero”. That, actually, seems to be the formula for being a “great man” of history: move through the world without compassion, and sacrifice or murder everyone else to get your way. The ethos always seems to be “power for its own sake”, not to any specific end.

    But an island in the Atlantic isn’t far enough away. Let’s bundle Trump, Musk, Guiliani, Bannon and the other grasping, lying, murderous, fascist kleptocrats and billionaires into a rocket bound for Mars. Let that be our first Martian colony. We can cover the costs by live-streaming (with a delay, obvs.) the daily life of that colony.

  2. wzrd1 says

    Well, in his “company’s” favor on the island, the leading evidence is that the arsenic wasn’t from them, it was from a medication that was high in arsenic being self-administered. Medicine didn’t have a concept of safety and efficacy at the time, they had the ancient Greeks and conventional wisdom of humeral theory. And miasma theory.
    You know, medicine was not even wrong at that time.
    George Washington died 20 or so years prior – of being bled to death to treat influenza. At his own insistence.

  3. seversky says

    There is certainly sufficient historical precedent for exporting political troublemakers and religious malcontents to distant parts – aka colonies. And there’s virtually no chance of rowing back from Mars. Send Elon and their anthem could be Muskrat Ramble.

  4. wzrd1 says

    remyporter @ 1, planetary protection protocols won’t permit anyone to litter like that on Mars. Might I recommend Venus?
    Perpetually as bright as an overcast day on Earth, pressure cooker like 90 PSI atmosphere, hot enough outside to melt lead. Perfect environment that’s well suited to handle any contamination, especially given the cleansing acid bath enjoyed on atmospheric entry.

  5. wzrd1 says

    Oh, an added bonus for Venus, whereas one might find hydrogen or methane for fuel on Mars and row back, there isn’t any of note available on Venus. They’d need an awfully long ladder and make one hell of a walk to get back to Earth.

  6. outis says

    Well of course he was an idiot, and a dangerous one. If you go to Paris and visit that monument to violence, the army museum in the Invalides, you get a pretty good sense of how he managed to turn the whole of France in a war machine. And thinking about his popularity you gotta wonder, were they crazy? The fella was nothing but death on wheels.
    And about his undeservedly luxurious sojourn in St.Helens, there’s a very interesting theory about the arsenic poisoning. Not from deliberate intent, but the Brits decorated several rooms with new-fangled wallpaper which was quite the craze back then, as the chemical industry was bringing wonderful new colors in everyday life. And some of them papers were green, as in arsenic green, which in humid conditions releases AsH3, arsine, toxic. So it may be that ol’ N died because of that, along with a certain number of people in Europe, all of them victims of the absence of quality control.

  7. laurian says

    From lyrics from Pink Floyd’s criminally under-rated album The Final Cut

    Take all your overgrown infants away somewhere
    And build them a home, a little place of their own.
    The Fletcher Memorial
    Home for Incurable Tyrants and Kings.

    Safe in the permanent gaze of a cold glass eye
    With their favorite toys
    They’ll be good girls and boys
    In the Fletcher Memorial Home for colonial
    Wasters of life and limb.
    Is everyone in?
    Are you having a nice time?
    Now the final solution can be applied.

  8. submoron says

    Are there any French people reading this? In my experience most of them don’t take kindly to criticism of Boney.

  9. euclide says


    The sentiment on Napoleon is mixed in France.
    On one hand, he’s the most “successful” ruler the country has had, and he was instrumental to our current legal system (with some awful parts on woman rights or slavery), on the other, he killed the first republic, made some terrible mistakes (Russia), killed millions and was a megalomaniac.
    Most of his “positive” role is to have restored order after the revolution chaos and protecting France from the neighboring monarchies’ meddling, England first of them.

    For the left, he was a tyrant, for the (far) right a hero (except for the royalists). Bonapartism in France today is very close to your GOP politics.

    He’s seen as a brilliant general anyway, and an example of political and military ascension that would have been impossible under the French monarchy.

    The criticism of Napoleon by English (and Anglo-Saxon in general) people is part of the popularity of Napoleon

  10. lumipuna says

    So many “great tacticians” in history were idiotic psychopaths who succeeded because, when they encountered a ditch or crevasse, they’d throw the bodies of their soldiers into it until the ditch was full and they could walk over as a “hero”.

    I’m vaguely reminded of the Lord Rust school of military tactics, as described by Sir Terry Pratchett. The following is my own interpretation/elaboration from memory.

    The main goal – or at least one of the main goals – in military leadership is to show bravery against the odds of getting killed in a battle, as measured by how many of your men get killed in your battles. Now, if you manage to kill mostly enemy troops instead, that’s less an indication of bravery, but might get you substantial credit for other reasons, particularly if destroying the enemy force serves some worthwhile strategic or political goal. In this framework, you can’t really lose trying to slaughter an enemy force, if the alternative outcome is slaughtering your own force. Except in the latter case, the likelihood of actually getting killed becomes a major obstacle for your career advancement and future accomplishment.

    Thus, the most notorious generals tend to be those with enough foolhardy bravery to repeatedly charge into highly dangerous battles, and enough personal dumb luck to repeatedly survive such battles.

  11. wonderpants says

    “If I were to exile Donald Trump, for instance, who would I send to accompany him? His own children, for sure, and Rudy Giuliani, and maybe Sydney Powell and a few Fox News hosts.”

    Just pack them off somewhere without any phones or TV. They’d be fighting like rats in a sack within a day.

  12. jonmelbourne says

    Greatest General of all time. You should have seen the size of the crowds at his coronation. Biggest crowds in history.

  13. nomdeplume says

    Add Bannon and MTG to Trump’s exile party. And give him a fake enternet connection so he can continue his all caps raves in the mistaken belief that the world is listening.

    Napoleon should have died alongside his soldiers in the snows outside Moscow. That he escaped tells you all you need to know.

    And domestically the restructure of French laws and society was a good thing, the restoration of the monarchy a bad one.

  14. submoron says

    Thank you Euclide. It sounds a little bit like Cromwell in these isles.
    Some laud him as a republican anti-monarchist but to others he was a bigoted anti-Catholic military dictator who saw himself as much ‘divinely appointed’ as the Stuart monarchs believed themselves (never praise him to an Irish Catholic) .
    Re ‘Anglo Saxons’; where do the other races of British isles stand in these matters if we admit ‘race’ in these thing? It’s nearly a thousand years since we had an Anglo Saxon monarch! Sorry if this is a bit odd; I shouldn’t have had that second Fine Marne!

  15. Pierce R. Butler says

    The “Code Napoleon” came from the work of a large committee aspiring to replace the pre-Revolutionary hodge-podge of French law by a rational system; Bonaparte just pasted his name on it (dunno enough to say about his alleged military genius – how do you balance great wins and huge losses? – but as a self-promoter he won just about every battle and skirmish).

    And he did humiliate the Pope, so we shouldn’t call him all bad.

  16. anthrosciguy says

    I can never forgive him for pushing his way in front of that little kid at that San Dimas waterpark.

  17. says

    Never trust a single source if you are reading history. There are a lot of different interpretations, there is a study in and of itself called: historiography. Now to really understand you must immerse yourself in different interpretations.

  18. Rich Woods says

    banish them to a small island in the south Atlantic (far enough away that he’s not going to be able to row back)

    One of the reasons St Helena was chosen was because the winds and the currents for most of the year made it very difficult to leave without being noticed and end up anywhere safe. If any Bonapartists had managed to sneak ashore in a low-profile rowing boat or skiff to rescue Napoleon, it would have taken an extremely talented sailor and navigator to reach South-West Africa, 1250 miles away, rather than end up in Brazil 2500 miles away. Make sure you carry enough food and water.

    But St Helena was a major stopping-off point for friendly ships crossing the Atlantic with the help of the trade winds, at the rate of as many as a thousand vessels per year. Any ocean-going ship which might have accepted Napoleon being smuggled aboard would have quickly been run down by one of the British frigates stationed there as soon as the news of his non-appearance at breakfast was announced.

  19. birgerjohansson says

    At first I thought “Port Stanley”, but the Falkland Islands are too close to Argentina.
    If the Murdochs, the remaining Koch, BoJo, Marine Le Pen, Bannon, Musk, Trump and his family are exiled there it will be too easy to escape to the mainland.
    And we know Argentine’s record of giving asylum to monsters.

    There are several bases on Antarctica. Set aside an old base that is getting too worn for scientific research, and let the outcasts have it as their new home. They will be like lords of the realm, with no other humans for hundreds of miles in any direction.

  20. says

    Most of his “positive” role is to have restored order after the revolution chaos and protecting France from the neighboring monarchies’ meddling, England first of them.

    Post-revolutionary chaos is a pretty terrible thing when it happens. Whoever finally manages to put an end to it tends to get lionized as a country-saving hero no matter what he does either before or after.

  21. pacal says

    During his lifetime Napoleon was boosted by a state supported cult of personality of truly massive proportions. After he was overthrown the cult continued to flourish and in the 200+ years since his death Napoleon has become in so many people’s eyes. St. Napoleon of Bonaparte, The Messiah, Son of God, in fact God incarnate destroyed by Satan and the spawn of Satan, i.e., the English and their lackeys. The grovelling, adulation given even know by so many the Napoleon is to a large extent motivated by sheer power worship and frenzied need to suck up to powerful men. Thus generation after generation genuflects in craven subnmission to the delusion of the omnipotent, “perfect” autocrat whose every decision, action, etc., is Godlike and muyst be accepted has divine.

    The urge and desire of so many to submit to the all kinowing, all wise autocrat is deep and long lasting in so many and so is the sexual mashocistic desire to submit to the all powerful holy one.

    Thus the cult of Napoleon is repeated by so many future despots, big and small. Thus the cult of Mao, and Stalin, of Hitler and Franco of so many others. The hatred of taking responsibility and giving it to the divine and holy one never dies and neither does the stomach turning worship of power. Of course one of the most important signs of how holy, divine and perfect are these holy ones is how many corpses they have piled up.

  22. says

    The key distinction with many of these “great military leaders” during the gunpowder era is that some — a few — actually shared conditions and everything else with those under their command, and when they offered rewards to soldiers for doing semisuicidal things the offered rewards were (a) meaningful and (b) actually paid with a smile. Gustav II Adolph; Friedrich I (“Barbarossa”); and a few others.

    Most, however, are much closer to General Melchitt (Blackadder IV), and his superior Field Marshal Haig, and not just in Europe. With only two exceptions that I’m aware of, the 20th-century “great American leaders” were often worse than Napoleon. After we get done dealing with traitors Confederate place-names and statues, we need to take a very long look at the statuary at West Point and Annapolis and even Colorado Springs… go ahead, ponder the list of names connected to the Bonus Riots. Remember item (b) above? Not so much, eh?

  23. KG says

    A little-known bit of background to Napoleon’s career is the brief history of the Corsican Republic (1755-1769), established by a revolt against Genoa, which ruled the island before 1755, and snuffed out by France in 1769 – as a consequence of which, Napoleon grew up a French subject. The Corsican Republic anticipated many of the features of the early American constitution, and unlike the latter, was not disfigured by slavery. All men over 25 had the vote for the legislative assembly, and women heads of household may also have done so, having traditionally been able to vote for village elders.

  24. birgerjohansson says

    The Nazi Party member Erwin Rommel has retroactively been portraided as “the good German”. He was not.
    He used his armies ruthlessly, he subjected Jewish inhabitants of Libya to confiscation of property et cetera.
    German intelligence intercepted messages by an American officer in the Levant and broke the code, providing Rommel with very useful information, plus the generals facing him in the Western Desert were subjected to Churchill’s micro-management.
    Later, the Americans back-tracked the leak and closed that source of information for Rommel while Montgomery trusted the information provided by Ultra.
    Add that Monty now had many more modern tanks and aircraft to play with, while the Germans had a very bad logistic situation, and you can see that circumstances had a big role in which general was ‘brilliant’ or not.
    The propaganda film about Patton (1970s) should likewise be taken with a grain of salt.

  25. benedic says

    18 Ronald Crouch offers wise advice.
    A fellow American Napoleonist wrote:
    “ In his preface Schom states, “I was astonished to find there was no one volume biography covering all aspects of his [Napoleon’s] life.” Undoubtedly, Vincent Cronin, Emil Ludwig, and Jean Tulard would be surprised by this assertion. This volume is rife with error, innuendo, and slander. Schom bases his study on dubious sources —references that are either inaccurate, have been ghostwritten, or have long been discredited by reliable historians— including the memoirs of Bourrienne, Thiebault, and Madame Junot. The author’s conclusions are often overly simplistic and illogical. They are colored by a too obvious built-in prejudice against the French Emperor and his subordinates, and are not history but fiction.
    Errors of fact are myriad. ”

  26. says

    @26 KH: For me, anyway, the “Gunpowder Era” begins with Korean use of rockets in about 1160. The “conventional narrative” of gunpowder coming west with the Mongols a century or so later goes to mass, organized use (there are several Arabic alchemists of the eleventh and twelfth centuries who remarked on different formulations of gunpowder as both medicine and explosiveness).

    Nonetheless, you’re right that Freddy I died before mass, organized use of gunpowder in the West… which would just reinforce my point. Perhaps Maurice of Orange belongs on this list in Fredy I’s place, but there are other reasons I wouldn’t include him, like the overt and intentional religious bigotry regarding Catholic residents of the Spanish Netherlands.

  27. pacal says

    Re 28 benedic
    The cult of St. Napoleon of Bonaparte, established during Napoleon’s reign and continuing to this day in its abject worship of the holy one who can do no to little wrong and cruely destroyed by the forces of evil makes me very leary of complaints about slandering the French Emperor.
    A lot of the criticism of Schom’s book stem from Napoleonic fan girls and fan boys getting their noses out of joint because Schom dared to not have a positive view of the most holy one. I for one do not have much of an issue about having a bias against self-serving despots like Napoleon.
    Of the three biographers you mentioned Vincent Cronin is a fan boy and his biography is part and parcel of the all to familar hagiography of St. Napoleon of Bonaparte. I found it very amusing.
    As for the Memoirs of Bourrienne lets just say they are not total junk, although devotes of the French Emperor hated the Memoir and wrote tome after tome against it. Thiebault Memoir is used, apparantly it is fairly reliable. As for Madame Junot well her Memoir is not valueless. Although given that she became an anti-Bonapartist the rage of Napoleon’s cult following against her was quite something.
    Since Napoleon’s reign the cultist members of the Napoleon cult have spared little to nothing in their attack on any author, Memoir etc., that casts any shadow on their holy one resorting to all sorts of crap including slander.
    I strongly recommend for a examination of the French historiography concerning Napoleon PieterGeyl’s Napoleon for and Against.

  28. williamhyde says

    In battle, Napoleon was indeed brilliant – Wellington, no slouch himself, said that he’d rather face an extra 40,000 enemy soldiers than fight a smaller army with Napoleon in command.

    But though he wasn’t very old, his star dimmed towards the end – his performance at Waterloo wasn’t worth any extra soldiers and in other late battles he seemed no more than competent.

    He was also very good at maneuvering. Wellington also appreciated this, but was still fooled by the pre-Waterloo campaign (“humbugged, by God”, he said). Napoleon’s gifts hadn’t quite evaporated.

    I hold no brief for him, but he did have these talents.

    He never understood sea power, though, never understood the differences between a fleet and an army. He never understood foreign nations, particularly the Spanish and the British. The Russian campaign was obvious insanity – at least the nazis had trucks and trains. To Moscow on foot? He didn’t seem to grasp the idea that at one point all his enemies might come after him simultaneously, that they might put aside their differences and decide that he was the biggest threat they faced.

    Or maybe he didn’t care. After all, he must have known what would happen after he came back from Elba.

    As a youth, he considered joining the British navy. There’s an alt-hist for an aspiring SF writer, Nelson and Napoleon, fighting for Corsican independence. Among other things.

    William Hyde

  29. Stjepan Pejic says

    I think the battles in 1814 as the Sixth Coalition invaded France do demonstrate his generalship. He was outnumbered badly, but through maneuver and well chosen battles kept winning against far larger, better armies. And it was all incredibly, undeniably stupid. There was no way he was going to win or even just hold on at this point – he had lost most of his army, most of his veterans, most of his guns, most of his generals, all his allies. He was offered peace before the invasion of France began and he turned it down. Every fight to slightly delay the inevitable was just a waste of lives, but he kept doing it anyway. There was no possible purpose to any of it.

  30. says

    @31 William, I’m afraid it’s really easy to look brilliant in battle when your opponents acceded to high command through their ancestry, which very much limits their (collective) competence. Napoleon’s apparent brilliance comes from being graded on a curve composed mostly of men whose greatest qualification for command was the size of their fathers’ landholdings and/or noble titles.

    By the time of Napoleon’s later battles, more “professional” soldiers were in place, so the opposition was stiffer. Yes, Napoleon was also suffering from distracting medical conditions by the time of Waterloo, but it’s just not that hard to appear “brilliant” against any commander the Austrians put in the field (notice who was not present at Waterloo?). “The morale is to the physical as three is to one” didn’t do anyone much good… except, perhaps, the undertakers, as it ensured a steady supply of “customers.”

    Napoleon was not brilliant at maneuver, either, being very much a talking dog at a time that “maneuver” meant “never get more than a single day’s ride from a town large enough to billet the noble officer corps in comfort as they consider they deserve.” Again, it’s not hard to seem brilliant when compared to Alexander I and Francis (whichever one it was at Austerlitz, they were all below the standard for Upper Class Twit of the Year).

  31. benedic says

    Pacal 30:
    Yes the book by Pieter Geyl is a good introduction. He does not hesitate to criticise emotional prejudice leading to Pop denunciations such as:
    “The cult of St. Napoleon of Bonaparte, established during Napoleon’s reign and continuing to this day in its abject worship of the holy one who can do no to little wrong and cruely destroyed by the forces of evil makes me very leary of complaints about slandering the French Emperor.”
    It does not help the argument.

  32. brightmoon says

    @17 I loved that movie 😁
    I remember how freaked I was years ago when I realised that Napoleon was slowly poisoned .

  33. KG says

    there are several Arabic alchemists of the eleventh and twelfth centuries who remarked on different formulations of gunpowder as both medicine and explosiveness – Jaws@29

    Interesting. Do you have a reference handy?

  34. KG says

    The Russian campaign was obvious insanity – at least the nazis had trucks and trains. To Moscow on foot? – williamhyde@31

    Worse than that! He actually made his army march on their stomachs, and they all got frostbite!