A biography of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) that avoids the well-established military details and gives us the story of a singular man.
In a lengthy but highly readable narrative, Zamoyski (Phantom Terror: The Threat of Revolution and the Repression of Liberty 1789-1848, 2014, etc.) eschews a standard history of battles and instead describes a brilliant student and voracious reader. Well-trained at the École Militaire in Paris, he became an artillery officer but took leave from his regiment to help establish Corsica’s independence; he showed his talents first at the Siege of Toulon at age 24. He was brave and indefatigable but tended to disregard superiors and bypass instructions, and he escaped discipline with judicious use of flattery. During the Revolution, his well-led troops successfully stopped the mob at the Tuileries, and he was put in charge of the Army of Italy. His soldiers’ best qualities were their abilities to march quickly and live off the land. They succeeded with poor supply lines, operating in small, self-contained units with strong feelings of honor and love of glory. Throughout his life, Napoleon took propaganda to new levels, fabricating battles and enemy losses. As the author shows, he was a master tactician but no strategist. He never had a solid plan and took his daring to the limits of temerity. He was diminutive and projected an awkward manner and complete lack of grace. However, he possessed an extraordinary ability to inspire his armies. With his establishment as First Consul in 1799, he was determined to make France great, with the Napoleonic code, a stable economy, and a state so well-grounded that when his regime ended, the change occurred without chaos. Of course, his military glory and the vast empire he built from 1799 to 1815 went to his head, and the young Republican quickly transformed himself into an imperious emperor.
An illuminating, easy-to-read, warts-and-all biography of one of history’s most significant figures.