Napoleon by General Foy

With his passions, and in spite of his errors, Napoleon was, taking him all in all, the greatest warrior of modern times. He carried into battle a stoical courage, a profoundly calculated tenacity, a mind fertile in sudden inspirations, which, by unlooked-for resources, disconcerted the plans of his enemy. Let us beware of attributing a long series of success to the organic power of the masses which he set in motion. The most experienced eye could scarcely discover in them any thing but elements of disorder. Still less, let it be said, that he was a successful captain because he was a mighty Monarch. Of all his campaigns, the most memorable are the campaign of the Adige, where the general of yesterday, commanding an army by no means numerous, and at first badly appointed, placed himself at once above Turenne, and on a level with Frederick; and the campaign in France in 1814, when, reduced to a handful of harrassed troops, he combated a force of ten times their number. The last flashes of Imperial lightning still dazzled the eyes of our enemies; and it was a fine sight to see the bounds of the old lion, tracked, hunted down, beset—presenting a lively picture of the days of his youth, when his powers developed themselves in the fields of carnage.

Napoleon possessed, in an eminent degree, the faculties requisite for the profession of arms; temperate and robust; watching and sleeping at pleasure; appearing unawares where he was least expected: he did not disregard details, to which important results are sometimes attached. The hand which had just traced rules for the government of many millions of men, would frequently rectify an incorrect statement of the situation of a regiment, or write down whence two hundred conscripts were to be obtained, and from what magazine their shoes were to be taken. A patient, and an easy interlocutor, he was a home questioner, and he could listen—a rare talent in the grandees of the earth. He carried with him into battle a cool and impassable courage. Never was mind so deeply meditative, more fertile in rapid and sudden illuminations. On becoming Emperor he ceased not to be the soldier. If his activity decreased with the progress of age, that was owing to the decrease of his physical powers. In games of mingled calculation and hazard the greater the advantages which a man seeks to obtain the greater risks he must run. It is precisely this that renders the deceitful science of conquerors so calamitous to nations.


Napoleon, though naturally adventurous, was not deficient in consistency or method; and he wasted neither his soldiers nor his treasures where the authority of his name sufficed. What he could obtain by negotiations or by artifice, he required not by force of arms. The sword, although drawn from the scabbard, was not stained with blood unless it was impossible to attain the end in view by a manoeuvre. Always ready to fight, he chose habitually the occasion and the ground: out of fifty battles which he fought, he was the assailant in at least forty. Other generals have equalled him in the art of disposing troops on the ground; some have given battle as well as he did—we could mention several who have received it better; but in the manner of directing an offensive campaign he has surpassed all. The wars in Spain and Russia prove nothing in disparagement of his genius. It is not by the rules of Montecuculi and Turenne, manoeuvring on the Renchen, that we ought to judge of such enterprises: the first warred to such or such winter quarters; the other to subdue the world. It frequently behoved him not merely to gain a battle, but to gain it in such a manner as to astound Europe and to produce gigantic results. Thus political views were incessantly interfering with the strategic genius; and to appreciate him properly, we must not confine ourselves within the limits of the art of war. This art is not composed exclusively of technical details; it has also its philosophy.

To find in this elevated region a rival of Napoleon, we must go back to the times when the feudal institutions had not yet broken the unity of the ancient nations. The founders of religion alone have exercised over their disciples an authority comparable with that which made him the absolute master of his army. This moral power became fatal to him, because he strove to avail himself of it even against the ascendancy of material force, and because it led him to despise positive rules, the long violation of which will not remain unpunished. When pride was bringing Napoleon towards his fall, he happened to say, "France has more need of me than I have of France." He spoke the truth: but why had he become necessary? Because he had committed the destiny of France to the chances of an interminable war: because, in spite of the resources of his genius, that war, rendered daily more hazardous by his staking the whole of his force and by the boldness of his movements, risked, in every campaign, in every battle, the fruits of twenty years of triumph: because his government was so modelled that with him every thing must be swept away, and that a reaction, proportioned to the violence of the action, must burst forth at once both within and without. But Napoleon saw, without illusion, to the bottom of things. The nation, wholly occupied in prosecuting the designs of its chief, had previously not had time to form any plans for itself. The day on which it should have ceased to be stunned by the din of arms, it would have called itself to account for its servile obedience. It is better, thought he, for an absolute prince to fight foreign armies than to have to struggle against the energy of the citizens. Despotism had been organized for making war; war was continued to uphold despotism. The die was cast—France must either conquer Europe, or Europe subdue France. Napoleon fell—he fell, because with the men of the nineteenth century he attempted the work of an Attila and a Genghis Khan; because he gave the reins to an imagination directly contrary to the spirit of his age; with which, nevertheless, his reason was perfectly acquainted; because he would not pause on the day when he felt conscious of his inability to succeed. Nature has fixed a boundary, beyond which extravagant enterprises cannot be carried with prudence. This boundary the Emperor reached in Spain, and overleaped in Russia. Had he then escaped destruction, his inflexible presumption would have caused him to find elsewhere a Bayleu and a Moscow.

General Foy.