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8: The Ambition of Louis Napoleon

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The Final Overthrow of Napoleonism

The name of Napoleon is a name to conjure with in France. Two generations after the fall of Napoleon the Great the people of that country had practically forgotten the misery he had brought them, and remembered only the glory with which he had crowned the name of France. When, then, a man who has been designated as Napoleon the Little offered himself for their suffrages, they cast their votes almost unanimously in his favor.

Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, to give this personage his full name, was a son of Louis Bonaparte, once king of Holland, and Hortense de Beauharnais, and had been recognized by Napoleon as, after his father, the direct successor to the throne. This he made strenuous efforts to obtain, hoping to dethrone Louis Philippe and install himself in his place. In 1836, with a few followers, he made an attempt to capture Strasbourg. His effort failed and he was arrested and transported to the United States. In 1839 he published a work entitled "Napoleonic Ideas," which was an apology for the ambitious acts of the first Napoleon.

The growing unpopularity of Louis Philippe tempted Louis Napoleon to make a second attempt to invade France. He did it in a rash way almost certain to end in failure. Followed by about fifty men, and bringing with him a tame eagle, which was expected to perch upon his banner as the harbinger of victory, he sailed from England in August, 1840, and landed at Boulogne. This desperate and foolish enterprise proved a complete failure. The soldiers whom the would-be sovereign expected to join his standard arrested him, and he was tried for treason by the House of Peers. This time he was not dealt with so leniently as before, but was sentenced to imprisonment for life and was confined in the Castle of Ham. From this fortress he escaped in disguise in May, 1846, and made his way to England.

The revolution of 1848 gave the restless and ambitious claimant a more promising opportunity. He returned to France, was elected to the National Assembly, and on the adoption of the republican constitution offered himself as a candidate for the presidency of the new republic. And now the magic of the name of Napoleon told. General Cavaignac, his chief competitor, was supported by the solid men of the country, who distrusted his opponent; but the people rose almost solidly in his support, and he was elected president for four years by 5,562,834 votes, against 1,469,166 for Cavaignac.

The new President of France soon showed his ambition. He became engaged in a contest with the Assembly and aroused the distrust of the Republicans by his autocratic remarks. In 1849 he still further offended the democratic party by sending an army to Rome, which put an end to the republic in that city. He sought to make his cabinet officers the pliant instruments of his will, and thus caused De Tocqueville, the celebrated author, who was minister for foreign affairs, to resign. "We were not the men to serve him on those terms," said De Tocqueville, at a later time.

The new-made president was feeling his way to imperial dignity. He could not forget that his illustrious uncle had made himself emperor, and his ambition instigated him to the same course. A violent controversy arose between him and the Assembly, which body had passed a law restricting universal suffrage, thus reducing the popular support of the president. In June, 1850, it increased his salary at his request, but granted the increase only for one year - an act of distrust which proved a new source of discord.


Louis Napoleon meanwhile was preparing for a daring act. He secretly obtained the support of the army leaders and prepared covertly for the boldest stroke of his life. On the 2d of December 1851 - the anniversary of the establishment of the first empire and of the battle of Austerlitz - he got rid of his opponents by means of the memorable COUP D'ETAT, and seized the supreme power of the state.

The most influential members of the Assembly had been arrested during the preceding night, and when the hour for the session of the House came the men most strongly opposed to the President were in prison. Most of them were afterwards exiled, some for life, some for shorter terms. This act of outrage and alleged violation of plighted faith by their ruler roused the socialists and republicans to the defense of their threatened liberties, insurrections broke out in Paris, Lyons, and other towns, street barricades were built, and severe fighting took place. But Napoleon had secured the army, and the revolt was suppressed with blood and slaughter. Baudin, one of the deposed deputies, was shot on the barricade in the Faubourg St. Antoine, while waving in his hand the decree of the constitution. He was afterwards honored as a martyr to the cause of republicanism in France.

Napoleon had previously sought to gain the approval of the people by liberal and charitable acts, and to win the good will of the civic authorities by numerous progresses through the interior. He now stood as a protector and promoter of national prosperity and the rights of the people, and sought to lay upon the Assembly all the defects of his administration. By these means, which aided to awaken the Napoleonic fervor in the state, he was enabled safely to submit his acts of violence and bloodshed to the approval of the people. The new constitution offered by the president was put to vote, and was adopted by the enormous majority of more than seven million votes. By its terms Louis Napoleon was to be president of France for ten years, with power equal to that of a monarch, and the Parliament was to consist of two bodies, a Senate and a Legislative House, which were given only nominal power.


This was as far as Napoleon dared to venture at that time. A year later, on December 1, 1852, having meanwhile firmly cemented his position in the state, he passed from president to emperor, again by a vote of the people, of whom, according to the official report, 7,824,189 cast their votes in his favor. That this report told the truth, many denied, but it served the President's purpose.

Thus ended the second French republic, by an act of usurpation of the strongest and yet most popular character. The partisans of the new emperor were rewarded with the chief offices of the state; the leading republicans languished in prison or in exile for the crime of doing their duty to their constituents; and Armand Marrast, the most zealous champion of the republic, died of a broken heart from the overthrow of all his efforts and aspirations. The honest soldier and earnest patriot, Cavaignac, in a few years followed him to the grave. The cause of liberty in France seemed lost.

The crowning of a new emperor of the Napoleonic family in France naturally filled Europe with apprehensions. But Napoleon III, as he styled himself, was an older man than Napoleon I, and seemingly less likely to be carried away by ambition. His favorite motto, "The Empire is peace," aided to restore quietude, and gradually the nations began to trust in his words: "France wishes for peace; and when France is satisfied the world is quiet."

Warned by one of the errors of his uncle, he avoided seeking a wife in the royal families of Europe, but allied himself with a Spanish lady of noble rank, the young and beautiful Eugenie de Montijo, dutchess of Teba. At the same time he proclaimed that, "A sovereign raised to the throne by a new principle should remain faithful to that principle, and in the face of Europe frankly accept the position of a parvenu, which is an honorable title when it is obtained by the public suffrage of a great people. For seventy years all princes' daughters married to rulers of France have been unfortunate; only one, Josephine, was remembered with affection by the French people, and she was not born of a royal house."

The new emperor continued his efforts as president to win the approval of the people by public works. He recognized the necessity of aiding the working classes as far as possible, and protecting them from poverty and wretchedness. During a dearth in 1853 a "baking fund" was organized in Paris, the city contributing funds to enable bread to be sold at a low price. Dams and embankments were built along the rivers to overcome the effects of floods. New streets were opened, bridges built, railways constructed, to increase internal traffic. Splendid buildings were erected for municipal and government purposes. Paris was given a new aspect by pulling down its narrow lanes, and building wide streets and magnificent boulevards - the latter, as was charged, for the purpose of depriving insurrection of its lurking places. The great exhibition of arts and industries in London was followed in 1854 by one in France, the largest and finest seen up to that time. Trade and industry were fostered by a reduction of tariff charges, joint stock companies and credit associations were favored, and in many ways Napoleon III worked wisely and well for the prosperity of France, the growth of its industries, and the improvement of the condition of its people.


But the new emperor, while thus actively engaged in labors of peace means lived up to the spirit of his motto, "The Empire is peace." An empire founded upon the army needs to give employment to that army. A monarchy sustained by the votes of a people athirst for glory needs to do something to appease that thirst. A throne filled by a Napoleon could not safely ignore the "Napoleonic Ideas," and the first of these might be stated as "The Empire is war." And the new emperor was by no means satisfied to pose simply as the "nephew of his uncle." He possessed a large share of the Napoleonic ambition, and hoped by military glory to surround his throne with some of the luster of that of Napoleon the First.

Whatever his private views, it is certain that France under his reign became the most aggressive nation of Europe, and the overweening ambition and self-confidence of the new emperor led him to the same end as his great uncle, that of disaster and overthrow. He was evidently bent on playing a leading part in European politics, showing the world that one worthy to bear the name of Napoleon was on the throne.

The very beginning of Louis Napoleon's career of ambition, as president of the French Republic, was signalized by an act of military force, in sending an army to Rome and putting an end to the attempted Italian republic. These troops were kept there until 1866, and the aspirations of the Italian patriots were held in check until that year. Only when United Italy stood menacingly at the gates of Rome were these foreign troops withdrawn. They had retarded, perhaps, for a time the inevitable union of the Italian states into a single kingdom; they certainly prevented the establishment of a republic.

In 1854 Napoleon allied himself with the British and the Turks against Russia, and sent an army to the Crimea, which played an effective part in the great struggle in that peninsula. The troops of France had the honor of rendering Sebastopol untenable, carrying by storm one of its two great fortresses and turning its guns upon the city.


The next act of war-policy by the French emperor was against Austria. As the career of conquest of Napoleon had begun with an attack upon the Austrians in Italy, Napoleon III attempted a similar enterprise, and with equal success. He was said to have been cautiously preparing for hostilities with Austria, thus to emulate his great uncle, but lacked a satisfactory excuse for declaring war. This came in 1858 from an attempt at assassination. Felice Orsini, a fanatical Italian patriot, incensed at Napoleon from his failing to come to the aid of Italy, launched three explosive bombs against his carriage. The effect was fatal to many of the people in the street, though the intended victim escaped. Orsini while in prison expressed patriotic sentiments and a loud-voiced love for his country. "Remember that the Italians shed their blood for Napoleon the Great," he wrote to the emperor. "Liberate my country, and the blessings of twenty-five millions of people will follow you to posterity."

Louis Napoleon, it was alleged, had once been a member of a secret political society of Italy; he had taken the oath of initiation; his failure to come to the aid of that country when in power constituted him a traitor to his oath and one doomed to death; the act of Orsini was apparently the work of the society. That Napoleon was deeply moved by the attempted assassination is certain, and the result of his combined fear and ambition was soon to be shown by a movement in favor of Italian independence.

On New Year's Day, 1859, while receiving the diplomatic corps at the Tuileries, Napoleon addressed the following significant words to the Austrian ambassador: "I regret that our relations are not so cordial as I could wish, but I beg you to report to the Emperor that my personal sentiments towards him remain unaltered." Such is the masked way in which diplomats announce an intention of war. The meaning of the threatening words was soon shown, when victor Emmanuel, shortly afterwards, announced at the opening of the Chambers in Turin that Sardinia could no longer remain indifferent to the cry for help which was rising from all Italy. Ten years had passed since the defeat of the Sardinians by an Austrian army on the plains of Lombardy, and the end for the time of their hopes of a free and united Italy. During that time they had cherished a hope of retribution, and the words of Napoleon and Victor Emmanuel made it evident to them that an alliance had been made with France and that the hour of vengeance was at hand.

Austria was ready for the contest. Her finances, indeed, were in a serious state, but she had a large army in Lombardy. This was increased, Lombardy was declared in a state of siege, and every step was taken to guard against assault from Sardinia. Delay was disadvantageous to Austria, as it would permit her enemies to complete their preparations, and on April 23, 1859, an ultimatum came from Vienna, demanding that Sardinia should put her army on a peace footing or war would ensue.


A refusal came from Turin. Immediately Field-marshal Gyulai received orders to cross the Ticino. Thus, after ten years of peace, the beautiful plains of Northern Italy were once more to endure the ravages of war. This act of Austria was severely criticized by the neutral Powers, which had been seeking to allay the trouble. Napoleon took advantage of it, as an aid to his purposes, and accused Austria of breaking the peace by invading the territory of his ally, the king of Sardinia.

The real fault committed by Austria, under the circumstances, was not in precipitating war, which could not well be avoided in the temper of her antagonists, but in putting, through court favor and privileges of rank, an incapable leader at the head of the army. Old Radetzky, the victor in the last war, was dead, but there were other able leaders who were thrust aside in favor of the Hungarian noble Franz Gyulai, a man without experience as commander-in-chief of an army.

By his uncertain and dilatory movements Gyulai gave the Sardinians time to concentrate an army of 80,000 men around the fortress of Alessandria, and lost all the advantage of being the first in the field. In early May the French army reached Italy, partly by way of the St. Bernard Pass, partly by sea; and Garibaldi, with his mountaineers, took up a position that would enable him to attack the right wing of the Austrians.

Later in the month Napoleon himself appeared, his presence and the name he bore inspiring the soldiers with new valor, while his first order of the day, in which he recalled the glorious deeds which their fathers had done on those plains under his great uncle, roused them to the highest enthusiasm. While assuming the title of commander-in-chief, he was wise enough to leave the conduct of the war to his abler subordinates, MacMahon, Niel, and others.

The Austrian general, having lost the opportunity to attack, was now put on the defensive, in which his incompetence was equally manifested. Being quite ignorant of the position of the foe, he sent Count Stadion, with 12,000 men, on a reconnaissance. An encounter took place at Montebello on May 20th, in which, after a sharp engagement, Stadion was forced to retreat. Gyulai directed his attention to that quarter, leaving Napoleon to march unmolested from Alessandria to the invasion of Lombardy. Gyulai then, aroused by the danger of Milan, began his retreat across the Ticino, which he had so uselessly crossed.

The road to Milan crossed both the Ticino River and the Naviglio Grande, a broad and deep canal, a few miles east of the river. Some distance farther on lies the village of Magenta, the seat of the first great battle of the war. Sixty years before, on those Lombard plains, Napoleon the Great had first lost, and then, by a happy chance, won the famous battle of Marengo. The Napoleon now in command was a very different man from the mighty soldier of the year 1800, and the French escaped a disastrous rout only because the Austrians were led by a still worse general. Some one has said that victory comes to the army that makes the fewest blunders. Such seems to have been the case in the battle of Magenta, where military genius was the one thing wanting.

The French pushed on, crossed the river without finding a man to dispute the passage - other than a much-surprised customs official - and reached an undefended bridge across the canal. The high road to Milan seemed deserted by the Austrians. But Napoleon's troops were drawn out in a preposterous line, straddling a river and a canal, both difficult to cross, and without any defensive positions to hold against an attack in force. He supposed that the Austrians were stretched out in a similar long line. This was not the case. Gyulai had all the advantages of position, and might have concentrated his army and crushed the advanced corps of the French if he had known his situation and his business. As it was, between ignorance on the one hand and indecision on the other, the battle was fought with about equal forces in the field on either side.

The first contest took place at Buffalora, a village on the canal, where the French encountered the Austrians in force. Here a bloody struggle went on for hours, ending in the capture of the place by the Grenadiers of the Guard, who held on to it afterwards with stubborn courage.


General MacMahon, in command of the advance, had his orders to march forward, whatever happened, to the church-tower of Magenta, and, in strict obedience to orders, he pushed on, leaving the grenadiers to hold their own as best they could at Bufflora, and heedless of the fact that the reserve troops of the army had not yet begun to cross the river. It was the 5th of June, and the day was well advanced when MacMahon came in contact with the Austrians at Magenta, and the great contest of the day began.

It was a battle in which the commanders on both sides, with the exception of MacMahon, showed lack of military skill and the soldiers on both sides the staunchest courage. The Austrians seemed devoid of plan or system, and their several divisions were beaten in detail by the French. On the other hand, General Camou, in command of the second division of MacMahon's corps, acted as Desaix had done at the battle of Marengo, marched at the sound of the distant cannon. But, unlike Desaix, he moved so deliberately that it took him six hours to make less than five miles. He was a tactician of the old school, imbued with the idea that every march should be made in perfect order.

At half-past four MacMahon, with his uniform in disorder and followed by a few officers of his staff, dashed back to hurry up this deliberate reserve. On the way thither he rode into a body of Austrian sharpshooters. Fortune favored him. Not dreaming of the presence of the French general, they saluted him as one of their own commanders. On his way back he made a second narrow escape from capture by the Uhlans.

The drums now beat the charge, and a determined attack was made by the French, the enemy's main column being taken between two fires. Desperately resisting, it was forced back step by step upon Magenta. Into the town the columns rolled, and the fight became fierce around the church. High in the tower of this edifice stood the Austrian general and his staff, watching the fortunes of the fray; and from this point he caught sight of the four regiments of Camou, advancing as regularly as if on parade. They were not given the chance to fire a shot or receive a scratch, eager as they were to take part in the fight. At sight of them the Austrian general ordered a retreat and the battle was at an end. The French owed their victory largely to General Mellinet and his Grenadiers of the Guard, who held their own like bull-dogs at Buffalora while Camou was advancing with the deliberation of the old military rules.

MacMahon and Mellinet and the French had won the day. Victor Emmanuel and the Sardinians did not reach the ground until after the battle was at an end. For his services on that day of glory for France MacMahon was made Marshal of France and Duke of Magenta.


The prize of the victory of Magenta was the possession of Lombardy. Gyulai, unable to collect his scattered divisions, gave orders for a general retreat. Milan was evacuated with precipitate haste, and the garrisons were withdrawn from all the towns, leaving them to be occupied by the French and Italians. On the 8th of June Napoleon and Victor Emmanuel rode into Milan side by side, amid the loud acclamations of the people, who looked upon this victory as an assurance of Italian freedom and unity. Meanwhile the Austrians retreated without interruption, not halting until they arrived at the Mincio, where they were protected by the famous Quadrilateral, consisting of the four powerful fortresses or Peschiera, Mantua, Verona, and Leguano, the mainstay of the Austrian power in Italy.

The French and Italians slowly pursued the retreating Austrians, and on the 23d of June bivouacked on both banks of the Chiese River, about fifteen miles west of the Mincio. The Emperor Francis Joseph had recalled the incapable Gyulai, and, in hopes of inspiring his soldiers with new spirit, himself took command. The two emperors, neither of them soldiers, were thus pitted against each other, and Francis Joseph, eager to retrieve the disaster at Magenta, resolved to quit his strong position of defense in the quadrilateral and assume the offensive.


At two o'colck in the morning of the 24th the allied French and Italian army resumed its march, Napoleon's orders for the day being based upon the reports of his reconnoitering parties and spies. These led him to believe that, although a strong detachment of the enemy might be encountered west of the Mincio, the main body of the Austrians was awaiting him on the eastern side of the river. But the French intelligence department was badly served. The Austrians had stolen a march upon Napoleon. Undetected by the French scouts, they had recrossed the Mincio, and by nightfall of the 23rd their leading columns were occupying the ground on which the French were ordered to bivouac on the evening of the 24th. The intention of the Austrian emperor, now commanding his army in person, had been to push forward rapidly and fall upon the allies before they had completed the passage of the river Chiese. But this scheme, like that of Napoleon, was based on defective information. The allies broke up from their bivouacs many hours before the Austrians expected them to do so, and when the two armies came in contact early in the morning of the 24th of June the Austrians were quite as much taken by surprise as the French.

The Austrian army, superior in numbers to its opponents, was posted in a half-circle between the Mincio and Chiese, with the intention of pressing forward from these points upon a center. But the line was extended too far, and the center was comparatively weak and without reserves. Napoleon, who that morning received complete intelligence of the position of the Austrian army, accordingly directed his chief strength against the enemy's center, which rested upon a height near the village of Solferino.

Here, on the 24th of June, after a murderous conflict, in which the French commanders hurled continually renewed masses against the decisive position, while on the other side the Austrian reinforcements failed through lack of unity of plan and decision of action, the heights were at length won by the French troops in spite of heroic resistance on the part of the Austrian soldiers; the Austrian line of battle being cut through, and the army thus divided into two separate masses. A second attack which Napoleon promptly directed against Cavriano had a similar result; for the commands given by the Austrian generals were confused and had no general and definite aim.

The fate of the battle was already in a great measure decided, when a tremendous storm broke forth that put an end to the combat at most points, and gave the Austrians an opportunity to retire in order. Only Benedek, who had twice beaten back the Sardinians at various points, continued the struggle for some hours longer. On the French side Marshal Niel had pre-eminently distinguished himself by acuteness and bravery. It was a day of bloodshed, on which two great powers had measured their strength against each other for twelve hours. The Austrians had to lament the loss of 13,000 dead and wounded, and left 9,000 prisoners in the enemy's hands; on the side of the French and Sardinians the number of killed and wounded was even greater, for repeated attacks had been made upon well-defended heights, but the number of prisoners was not nearly so great.


The victories in Italy filled the French people with the warmest admiration for their emperor, they thinking, in their enthusiasm, that a true successor of Napoleon the Great had come to bring glory to their arms. Italy also was full of enthusiastic hope, fancying that the freedom and unity of the Italians was at last assured. Both nations were, therefore, bitterly disappointed in learning that the war was at an end, and that a hasty peace had been arranged between the emperors which left the hoped-for work but half achieved.

Napoleon estimated his position better than his people. Despite his victories, his situation was one of danger and difficulty. The army had suffered severely in its brief campaign, and the Austrians were still in possession of the Quadrilateral, a square of powerful fortresses which he might seek in vain to reduce. And a threat of serious trouble had arisen in Germany. The victorious career of a new Napoleon in Italy was alarming. It was not easy to forget the past. The German powers, though they had declined to come to the aid of Austria, were armed and ready, and at any moment might begin a hostile movement upon the Rhine.

Napoleon, wise enough to secure what he had won, without hazarding its loss, arranged a meeting with the Austrian emperor, whom he found quite as ready for peace. The terms of the truce arranged between them were that Austria should abandon Lombardy to the line of the Mincio, almost its eastern boundry, and that Italy should form a confederacy under the presidency of the pope. In the treaty subsequently made only the first of these conditions was maintained, Lombardy passing to the king of Sardinia. Hw received also the small states of Central Italy, whose tyrants had fled, and ceded to Napoleon, as a reward for his assistance, the realm of Savoy and the city and territory of Nice.


Napoleon III had now reached the summit of his career. In succeeding years the French were to learn that whatever his ability Napoleon III was not a counterpart of the great Napoleon. He gradually lost the prestige he had gained at Magenta and Solferino. His first serious mistake was when he yielded to the voice of ambition, and, taking advantage of the occupation of the Americans in their civil war, sent an army to invade Mexico.

The ostensible purpose of this invasion was to collect a debt which the Mexicans had refused to pay, and Great Britain and Spain were induced to take part in the expedition. But their forces were withdrawn when they found that Napoleon had other purposes in view, and his army was left to fight its battles alone. After some sanguinary engagements, the Mexican army was broken into a series of guerilla bands, incapable of facing his well-drilled troops, and Napoleon proceeded to reorganize Mexico into an empire, placing the Archduke Maximilian of Austria on the throne.

All went well while the people of the United States were fighting for their national union, but when their war was over the ambitious French emperor was soon taught that he had committed a serious error. He was given plainly to understand that the French troops could only be kept in Mexico at the cost of a war with the United States, and he found it convenient to withdraw them early in 1867. They had no sooner gone than the Mexicans were in arms against Maximilian, whose rash acceptance of the advice of the clerical party and determination to remain quickly led to his capture and execution as a usurper. Thus ended in utter failure the most daring effort to ignore the "Monroe Doctrine."


The inaction of Napoleon during the wars which Prussia fought with Denmark and Austria gave further blows to his prestige in France, and the opposition to his policy of personal government grew so strong that he felt himself obliged to submit his policy to a vote of the people. He was sustained by a large majority, and then loosened somewhat the reins of personal government, in spite of the fact that the yielding of increased liberty to the people would diminish his own control. Finally, finding himself failing in health, confidence and reputation, he yielded to advisers who convinced him that the only hope for his dynasty lay in a successful war. As a result he undertook the war of 1870 against Prussia. The story of this war will be given in a subsequent chapter. All that need be said here is that it proved the utter incompetence of Napoleon III in military matters, he being completely deceived in the condition of the French army and unwarrantably ignorant of that of the Germans. The conditions were such that victory for France was impossible, France losing its second empire and Napoleon his throne. He died two years later, an exile in England, that place of shelter for the royal refugees of France.

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