Napoleon’s Wars

May 11, 2012 at 3:54 am (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Title: Napoleon’s Wars: An International History

Author: Charles Esdaile

Publisher: Penguin

Length: 622 pages (including appendices and index)

Its amazing to me how history is so often rewritten.  Like the American Civil War and the issue of slavery, history textbooks would have you believe that the French Revolutionary Wars were about liberty alone.  It’s only when you dig deeper into fascinating works like Esdaile’s that you learn better, just like that moment you discover that the Civil War was about State’s Rights.  Esdaile’s book is enlightening, gracefully walking you through power struggles, political schemes, battles, marriages, and all sorts of human conflict.  Silly, I know, as there is always political drama behind the scenes of any war, but I was completely unaware.

I blame this on my childhood education as well as my idealist nature, which begs to believe that things are always done for moral principle and meaning.  I like to root for the underdog and weep for the wronged.  Yet, scholarly study and reality steps in and I discover that Abe Lincoln was not this amazing and caring man elementary schools brain washed us into believing, that the Union was not so kind they fought a war over slavery, rather they were controlling and greedy and wanted to dictate laws on a Federal level rather than celebrate the spirit of our unique existence by allowing States to make their own decisions, much like the war on drugs now.  See, even here I see my brain and heart leaning towards the idea that the South were fighting for their rights with ‘free spirits’!  Also emotionally driven and not entirely accurate.  There’s no winning with me.

I need work like Esdaile’s in my life, to keep my brain on straight.  He writes a beautiful historically accurate reality check, without casting blame or being cruel about the events of our past.  He doesn’t bash nor celebrate Napoleon, he just explains the world that surrounded him.  I picked this book up to help me wrap my brain around Hugo’s Les Miserables world, as the characters are living in the aftermath of the wars.  I needed to comprehend the world at large at that time in order to really understand the characters’ world view, and to help me decide whether or not I even like Valjean! (Stay tuned for further updates on my Les Miserables reading, join my readalongs via the “Readalongs!” page on the right.)

What I found most astounding was the statement by Esdaile that “Napoleon came to power as a peacemaker. “(pg.75)  Clearly, I didn’t know much about Napoleon, the history of France, the Revolution, any of it, before reading this book.  Before, I always thought of Napoleon as a tyrant with a short man syndrome attitude.  But in reading Esdaile’s work, I am reminded that people have to have something going for them to gain that much power.  According to this history, it took quite awhile for Napoleon to acquire his ‘demon-like qualities’ and that ‘among the educated classes, he was widely admired.’  “[…] the emperor himself later remarked that the regime was ‘never afraid of him’ and ‘looked on him as a defender of royalism.’ ”  So how do we get from there to Hugo’s Les Miserables?  Esdaile gives us an answer with a quote from a pamphlet published in 1808:

“Napoleon… may be compared to the vine, a plant that if it is not pruned, throws out its branches in all directions and ends up by taking over everything.  He wants peace, but at the same time wishes to dethrone kings… create new monarchies and destroy old republics… to undo the very globe and remake it in accordance with nothing other than his own will.” (pg. 344)

I love history, but I haven’t studied much of it in depth.  My interests range through all of time and all over the globe, so at best I know a little of this and a little of that, but nothing thoroughly, nothing well.  Prior to this book, if you had mentioned Mustafa, I probably would have said, “Oh, I love the Lion King.” Even that tidbit of ‘knowledge’ is wrong as the Disney cartoon lion’s name is Mufasa, which I didn’t realize until I went browsing for images to use in this blog post!

As a budding amateur historian, I still get excited when my history overlaps.  Charles James Fox has a role in this time period of Europe and when I saw his name my heart leaped for joy.  Someone I recognize, someone I’ve learned something about! Just last year or so, I read Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, where he had a huge role.  As a huge supporter of the French Revolution, I was breathlessly proud of myself and the one little tidbit of something I knew while reading through a few pages of Napoleon’s Wars.

It also means that, even though I already have a book on the subject (but haven’t read it yet), I nearly fell out of my chair when I read that Napoleon went to Egypt (I didn’t realize that he actually went there, I thought maybe he just sent people there the way most rulers do).  I’ve had a long-time obsession with Egypt, King Tut exhibits, Archeological Bibles, Nefertiti, Hapshepsut, the whole shebang.  Even Amelia Peabody inspires me.  So to see that I would have an opportunity to thoroughly study something that so heavily overlaps something I’ve studied, excites me.

I’ve taken so many notes on this book, its so fascinating (if you’re friends with me on facebook or in real life, you’re probably tired of hearing me rant about how awesome it is).  Among my notes are scribblings about how these wars are shockingly worldwide.  Why wasn’t this called a World War?  I am baffled at how many wars (not just battles, but WARS) were fought, overlapping each other in years and on continents, during this time.  Before Napoleon even steps into the picture there’s the 1st and 2nd Coalition Wars (1792-1797, 1798-1802), which I had never heard of because they are always just called the French Revolutionary Wars, which should have given me pause and realization that wars was plural, therefore there was more to the story than just the word “Revolution.”  I’m still not 100% clear on how it all works, as more research is needed, because the Revolutionary Wars are dated as 1789-1802.  Then, there’s a War between Britain and France during 1803 to 1814, but not the same as the Coalition Wars… Third in 1805, Fourth from 1806-07, Fifth in 1809, and the 6th overlaps the Invasion of Russia from 1812-1814 – but apparently is separate from the War of 1812 which was between the U.S. and Britain.  Finally, things wrap up a bit after the War of the Seventh Coalition in 1815.  Not to mention, I totally skipped the Peninsular War from 1808- 1814 which was between France and the allied powers of Spain and only ended when the Sixth Coalition defeated Napoleon in 1814.  Again, I ask you, why was this never referred to as a World War?  Why wasn’t the debate about this being called a World War addressed in school?  Why has this whole ordeal always been flippantly glossed over with literature like The Scarlet Pimpernel, Horatio Hornblower, and then wrapped up with Jane Austen and Les Miserables., not that I have a problem with that literature (they are all wonderful and personal favorites of mine).  Because I read too much fiction, ok, ok, I get it.

Now, more than ever, I want to know more.  I want to take classes at the University of Liverpool where Charles Esdaile teaches.  He’s a professor there with a BA and PhD and a FRHistS (Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, I had to look that up, its so cool).  But, alas, I am not in Liverpool.  Also, I am not in college anymore.

Reading this book made me go do some research that I desperately needed to do.  Not just historical research, but personal research.  I’ve been wanting, planning, gabbing about going back to school for some time now.  But finally, I went to some websites and looked into what that would take.  Instead of dreamily telling people I’d like to go back to school and get a second Bachelors from a state school (I currently have a BBA in Marketing and Management: Entrepreneurship) I can now say: I’d like to join the Post-Baccalaureate program at Univeristy of Houston.  My first class, when I finally get the finances to go, and the nerve to go up to the school and not worry about the fact that I’d be 10 years older than the traditional students (not that anyone would notice my five foot nothing – I get carded everywhere- self), I’d like my first class to be ANTH 1300: Introduction to Anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences.  There, it’s out there, and you guys are now encouraged to keep me accountable to my dreams.

Until then, I plan to read more books by Esdaile and a number of other historians.  Reading this has been a fabulous experience.


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