Napoleon Our Last Great Man
Book I - The Man
He was known in France not as General, or Consul, or even Emperor, or even by his name, but simply as The Man.'
— Lord Roseberry
Why does Napoleon fascinate us, why does his name lend scope to the imagination? Because he is so multifarious, so bountiful in mind and action; so salient, so luminous, so inexhaustible. Having accomplished so much, nothing seems beyond the compass of his possibilities; the world when face to face with him seems to contract, seems under the spell of his titanic intellect.
He is everywhere. Europe all dotted with his victories is his manoeuvre camp. His activity is never localised; he enters all the capitals of Europe and thence dictates to kings and emperors. He fights his battles in all lands, finds no obstacle in man or nature to his onward march. At his behest mountains shrink and rivers roll back their waters, as it were. He scales the Alps with his artillery,
leads his army across the desert, bridges the Danube in the face of the enemy. Palaces are his headquarters, his high tribunals; Schoenbrunn, Sanssouci, the Kremlin, so many resting-places, where only God's anointed rest.
We see him as in a dream mesmerising the kingdoms of the earth into submission.
From the obscurity of lieutenancy he rose, as by magic, to the dizziest heights of human power, raising France from a state of political chaos and unrest to the proud position of arbitress of Europe.
His rapid rise to power, through obscurity and poverty, is unprecedented.
He is General of Artillery at 24, and Lord of Italy at 27. It seems but the transition of a day from the miseries of penury, when we see him in the bare, cheerless little room at Auxonne, a solitary figure, poring over his treasured books, his eager, encyclopaedic mind feasting voraciously on the history of antiquity, to the semi-regal splendour of Montebello and Passeriano.
We wonder if at times, in the solitude of his humble sanctum, before Fortune had lavished upon him her smiles and favours, did visions of future renown and supremacy in Europe haunt the secret recesses of his impenetrable soul? Or, did he foresee (when in command of the artillery of the Army of Italy, two years before his wonderful campaign of 1796-7), when for the first time he beheld the Alpine regions of Italy, that eleven years later the crown of the Lombard kings, united with the diadem of Imperial France, would encircle his brow?
He sails for the Orient. In the Plain of Embabeh, where the immutable pyramids point to the sky, he evokes the Spirit of the Ages as witness of an army's heroism. He fords the Red Sea - marches into Syria for the conquest of the East, a dream, alas ! never realised in its entirety. Before the walls of Acre he is brought to bay, his first reverse, that shatters all his hopes of an Asiatic Empire. He retreats into Egypt, sets sail for France, where he is hailed as a deliverer. He overthrows the Government - is proclaimed First Consul. Like a thunderbolt he falls upon the Austrians from
the snowy defiles of the Great Saint Bernard, and on the field of Marengo wrests Italy from Austria's grasp.
Yet the Consulship fails to cloy the world-embracing ambition of this enigmatical genius; he now aspires to still higher flights of Omnipotence, and with the sang-froid of the conqueror we see him place the Imperial Diadem upon his brow, thus reviving, over the embers of the Revolution, Charlemagne's Empire of the West.
Now begins a succession of wars on a stupendous scale - a cataclysm, that overwhelms the impotent monarchies of Europe, whose tide rolls with unbridled fury from the Guadalquivir to the Dnieper.
He, like the genius of arbitrary war, impels its frenzied course; we see the world upheaved, we hear the crash of falling empires, the resonance of the blows dealt by the Titan at coalesced Europe - Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena, Friedland, Wagram, Borodino, Dresden, were the felling blows under which the universe oscillated.
Then comes his fall, imprisonment and agonising death on the isle, immured in the wastes of the Atlantic; the whole is replete with the grandeur of the tragedy that belongs to Greek mythology. His overthrow, that cost the world such a terrible effort, seems rather to enhance than lessen his greatness, for, if ever human might was tested to the utmost limit of its capabilities, then it assuredly was when Christendom banded itself in a crusade for his undoing.
We have the harrowing story of his martyrdom and torture on the rock. Despite the lurid colouring which so hideously depicts his captivity and lingering death under the relentless tyranny of his despicable jailors, he seems, there in Saint Helena, in the lowering evening of his momentous life, if anything, perhaps greater than at any other period of his astounding career - his captors, beside him, appear like pigmies guarding a giant, scarce discernible in the empyreal blaze of his personality and genius.
Napoleon is so modern; he is so near to us; his greatness reaches out to us and affects us potently; the vigour of his personality still casts its spell upon us. It is not so long since his legions marched and counter-marched through Europe, since every hamlet from
Calabria to Lithuania saw the watchfire of a French bivouac, since every goatherd from the Brocken to Mulhacen heard the measured beat of French drums, since the blare of French bugles echoed in every valley from Andalusia to Moravia, since his victorious banner waved over every capital between Moscow and Lisbon, since his artillery thundered at Borodino and Leipzig, since his cavalry charged on the Pratzenberg and over the field of Waterloo.
The great interest manifested in everything Napoleon ever did, be it for good or for evil, is due to his modernness combined with his prepollent genius - besides, he was a century ahead of the times. Is it therefore surprising that his wrongdoings loom forth with a sinister imminence, just as his extraordinary exploits still bewilder the intellect, that we are apt, owing to their flagrancy, to forget his many acts of magnanimity or the beneficence to the world of some of his apparently most despotic deeds? We forget that if he conquered Italy it was only to infuse among her people a spirit of unity that eventually germinated into a liberty loving and united Italy, for in a great measure to Napoleon is due the unification of Italy; that if he conquered Egypt it was only to lay the corner-stone of her prosperity; that if he conquered Germany it was only to sweep from her face the cobwebs of mediaeval institutions with his immortal Code, and by the weight of his depotism to unite all Germans into that mighty confederation of states, the present German Empire; that if he twice subjugated Austria he yet spared her from annihilation; that if he utterly shattered Prussia he yet allowed Frederick William to occupy the throne of the victor of Rosbach; that if he misled the Poles in their hope of an autonomous government and shed their life-blood on many a battlefield, it was only to emancipate them from the hated yoke of Prussia and in the Grand Duchy of Warsaw to give them a foretaste of a regenerated independence.