Who Was Napoleon?
One day early in 1784, a heavy snowstorm covered the grounds of the military school for boys in Brienne, France. There was so much snow that the students couldn’t get their usual exercise after class. But fourteen-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte had an idea: snowball fight!
This being a military school, however, Napoleon wasn’t thinking about any ordinary snowball fight. Instead, he wanted the boys to put to use what they had been learning in the classroom. They built forts and dug trenches. On Napoleon’s orders, a snowball war began. It lasted two full weeks during the times that the boys weren’t in class. Some days, Napoleon commanded one side. Some days, he commanded the other.
The snowball war wasn’t entirely harmless. After a while, small rocks got mixed in with the hard ice. Those snowballs hurt! So the school put an end to it. Napoleon’s first “war” was over.
The teachers weren’t happy about their students getting hurt. But they were
happy to see Napoleon take charge. Ever since he arrived at the school four years earlier, he had been moody and quiet. He didn’t have a lot of friends. But he seemed happy to lead the school’s snowball battles.
Little did his teachers know that Napoleon would go on to become one of the most famous military commanders in the history of the world. He would lead hundreds of thousands of men into battle. And with a combination of courage and strategy, he won most of the battles he fought.
Napoleon went on to build a vast empire for France. At the height of his career, he ruled over more than seventy million people. To the French people, Napoleon was a good guy. To his enemies, he was not. Late in Napoleon’s life, those same enemies defeated him and sent him to live on a tiny island. There, he had plenty of time to talk about his memories.
“What a novel my life has been!” Napoleon exclaimed one day to the assistant who was writing it all down.
Napoleon’s life had it all: friends and enemies, politics and war, a love story, and so much more. And Napoleon himself—the main character—was famous, clever, and brave. But a novel is a made-up story. Napoleon lived it all for real. Chapter 1: Island Beginnings
Napoleon Bonaparte’s life began in Corsica, a small island in the Mediterranean Sea. Corsica is about fifty miles west of what is now Italy and one hundred miles southeast of France.
For almost five hundred years, Corsica had belonged to Genoa, a city that is now part of Italy. But the Corsican people wanted to be free. They often fought with soldiers from Genoa. When the government of Genoa grew tired of the fighting, they sold the island to the French in 1768.
That upset the Corsicans even more! They didn’t believe they should be bought and sold. And so they started fighting the French. But at that time France was one of the most powerful nations in the world. It easily conquered the island.
When Napoleon was born in Ajaccio, Corsica, on August 15, 1769, he automatically became a French citizen. But the influence of hundreds of years of Italian rule on Corsica didn’t go away overnight: Napoleon, like most of the people on Corsica, spoke Italian.
Napoleon’s father was named Carlo and his mother was named Letizia. Even though they helped Corsica fight the French before Napoleon’s birth, his parents knew there was no use keeping up the fight after the battle was lost. They grew to respect the new French government. Napoleon’s father even changed his first name from Carlo to Charles because it sounded less Italian. He changed the family’s last name from Buonaparte to Bonaparte because it sounded more French.
Life was not easy on the island. Most of the people in Ajaccio were craftsmen or fishermen. Charles was a lawyer, and Napoleon’s family had more money than many in the town, but no one there was very rich.
The Bonapartes lived in a nice house and had a couple of servants. They grew much of their food on their land. Their four-story home even had a mill downstairs that was used to grind flour for making bread. They had a vineyard to make wine and an olive grove to make olive oil. But the family had money to spend only on the basics: clothing for their children and any food that couldn’t be grown on their land.
And there were many children to clothe and mouths to feed! Napoleon had four brothers and three sisters. Napoleon was the second-oldest child. His older brother Joseph had been born in 1768. His other brothers were Lucien, Louis, and Jerome. Napoleon’s sisters were Elisa, Pauline, and Caroline.
Napoleon was the most willful of the large group. He had a terrible temper, and he didn’t always tell the truth. His family called him a troublemaker. Napoleon never was in serious trouble, though. Once in a while, he was punished for fighting, but even that didn’t seem to be a big deal. After all, the grown-ups on Corsica had been fighting battles all their lives. Napoleon fit right in.
Napoleon practiced fighting with a wooden sword. He and his friends in Ajaccio would pretend to be soldiers. They set up battles that lasted all day long. Napoleon was always in charge of his side.
When it was too dark to play outside anymore, they picked up the next day where they had left off. Some of the play battles lasted for days at a time. Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months. Napoleon loved playing war!
When Napoleon was about five years old, he began going to school. Every day, his mother sent him off with some white bread for lunch. And every day on the way to school, he traded his bread to a French soldier for one of his daily rations. The white bread was soft and fresh. The soldier’s brown bread was hard and old. But, Napoleon explained to his mother, “If I am going to be a soldier, I must get used to eating soldiers’ bread.”
In school, Napoleon was good at geography, and he was very good at math. Mostly, though, he loved reading about history. He wanted to know all he could about famous battles and military heroes, such as Alexander the Great. He dreamed of one day becoming a conquering hero just like Alexander.
Copyright © 2018 by Jim Gigliotti. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.