There are many interesting facts about Napoleon Bonaparte. For instance, you may have heard that his favorite card game was ving-et-un (twenty-one), the forerunner to blackjack, and that he liked the game “because it afforded him an opportunity of cheating.” But Napoleon did not cheat to win money because according to Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, a French diplomat, Napoleon cheated because “his pride could not endure that he should lose in a game.” In fact, when playing games, particularly strategic games such as chess, he usually chose to play opponents whom he considered inferior to himself. But Napoleon being a cheat is just one of several interesting facts about this enigmatic man. Here are several more:
Another interesting fact involves Napoleon as a 9-year-old boy. At that age he could barely read or write Italian, let alone French. Unfortunately, that was a problem because he needed to pass an examination in French to obtain entrance into the college at Autun. In order to pass the exam, he was placed in a preparatory school, also in Autun, and studied three months before gaining enough knowledge to pass the exam. Besides being intelligent and a quick study, one of Napoleon’s professors described him as being “a sombre, thoughtful character … interested in no one.” The professor also claimed:
“[Napoleon] was quick to learn, and quick of apprehension in all ways. When I gave him a lesson, he fixed his eyes upon me with parted lips; but if I recapitulated anything I said, his interest was gone, as he plainly showed by his manner. When reproved for this, he would answer coldly, I might almost say with an imperious air, ‘I know it already, sir.'”
Napoleon was not always the most amenable person, and when he died, this started a rumor. It was stated his doctor, Francesco Antommarchi, decided to get even in his post-mortem exam by taking Napoleon’s penis. Claims are that the penis was then given to Father Vignali, who smuggled it into Corsica. It remained in Vignali family’s possession until 1916. That is when the withered or rather mummified penis ended up on the auction block in London. A London bookseller bought it, sold it to a Philadelphia bookseller, and he loaned it to the New York Museum of French Art. From there it supposedly came into the hands of professor of urology at Columbia University. At that time, it was “housed in a glass container inside a velvet-lined case emblazoned in gold with Napoleon’s crest.” The urology professor kept it under his bed until he died in 2007, at which time it went to his daughter. However, the idea that Napoleon’s penis is floating around appears to be nothing more than a myth. One reason is that Napoleon’s valet, Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, never claimed to have received his penis, although he did receive a piece of Napoleon’s ribs, and no one else who was present at the autopsy, reported that his penis was removed or missing.
If you have ever wondered what Napoleon’s favorite drink was, it was Chambertin, a red wine grown in the Chambertin vineyard located within the commune of Gevrey-Chambertin, in the Côte-d’Or department of eastern France. In 1702, a man named Claude Jobert acquired the winery along with Clos de Bèze and united them. Napoleon supposedly diluted Chambertin with lots of water and was said to seldom if ever drink Chambertin pure. However, he liked it so much it that he insisted it be available on his military campaigns and it was the only wine he drank as Emperor.
As an adult, Napoleon was about five feet five to five feet seven inches tall, which at the time was about average height. Yet, the idea that he was short began to circulate. It occurred because the British portrayed him as short and called him nicknames that included “Boney.” Additionally, he was often surrounded by men of the Imperial Guard who were above average height, making him look short. Another thing that may have contributed to the idea that Napoleon was short was that several people reported that he sometimes attempted to make himself taller. He accomplished this by suddenly inclining his head and the upper part of his body to the right. Then he would place his arm and elbow to his side. It was a slight movement and usually not noticed unless he was walking. Because so many people believed he was short, it later contributed to the phrase “Napoleon Complex,” a psychological condition that exists in people of short stature.
When Napoleon became Emperor, he liked to have his breakfast served at 9:30 in the morning. The Prefect announced it and it was served by his principal steward on a small mahogany table covered with a tablecloth. At breakfast, the Prefect stood at the end of the Emperor’s breakfast table with his hat in hand. He usually did not have to stand there long: Napoleon was a quick eater and often ate his breakfast within eight minutes.
The Emperor was also known to love snuff. He adored it so much he would sometimes place it under his nose just to smell it. He liked his snuff rasped large and although “he consumed a great deal, he took but very little. He brought his pinch to his nostrils as if simply to smell it, and then he let it fall.” His snuff habit earned him friends among the local wild gazelles, who became fond of it after he began feeding it to them. Additionally, his love for snuff resulted in him acquiring a great snuff box collection. His favorite snuff boxes were hinged, oval-shaped, extremely plain, and lined with gold. He preferred this shape with the hinges because he did not have to use two hands to open the boxes and because he frequently let the lid fall afterwards. He also had several duplicates of his favorite snuff boxes made, although each had a unique antique medal set inside the lid. If you are interested in learning more about snuff and snuff boxes, click here.
People often claim that Napoleon said, “An army travels on its stomach,” but apparently no one, not even Napoleon, said such a thing. In fact, the closest reference to this seems to have come from an 1858 work by historian Thomas Carlyle, History of Friedrich the Second, Called Frederick the Great where Carlyle stated, “An Army, like a serpent, goes upon its belly.” As to Napoleon, the closest remark he said to an army traveling on its stomach is, “The basic principle that we must follow in directing the armies of the Republic is this: that they must feed themselves on war at the expense of the enemy territory.”
Another interesting fact about Napoleon was that his vests and breeches were always made from white kerseymere, a fine twilled woolen fabric. He changed into these each morning and wearing white would not have been a problem if he did not have the bad habit of wiping his inky pen on his white breeches within two hours of arising. Making the situation worse was that Napoleon would also vigorously shake his pen so that everything near him was usually spotted with ink. For this reason, his breeches and vests were usually only washed three or four times before they were replaced. Napoleon’s clothes were not the only things ruined by ink. He once was supposedly so unhappy with his wife’s dress choice, that he threw a bottle of ink at it and ruined it so she could never wear it again.
If you believe that Napoleon ever converted to Islam, you would be wrong. That is a myth that began after he went to the Great Pyramid of Giza or the Pyramid of Cheops. It was initiated with the 26 August 1798 Order of the Day that included a transcript about Napoleon having a long conversation with “imans” and muftis” and where Napoleon supposedly said:
“Glory to Allah! There is no other God but God; Mohammed is His prophet, and I am one of his friends. …. The Koran delights my mind. … I love the prophet and intend to visit and honour his tomb in the sacred city. But my mission is first to exterminate the Mamelukes.
The conversation was reprinted and embellished, and many early biographies repeated this false story including Willem Lodewyk Van-Ess in 1809, Sir Walter Scott in 1827, and William Henry Ireland in 1828.
Napoleon liked to control everything and once wrote a letter to his sister Elisa trying to influence French fashions by insisting that she encourage the buying of French fabrics. His demand was dated 22 February 1806:
“MY Sister, I should like you to insist that no dresses are worn at your Court except those made of silk or batiste, and to prohibit cotton and muslin, so that a preference may be given to the products of French industry and they may become fashionable.”
Napoleon also tried to control members of his family like his brother Jerome, who had married an American socialite named Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson. Napoleon was furious when he learned about the marriage and told his brother he would face ruin if he did not divorce her. Finding that he had no choice, it was not long before Jerome acquiesced to his brother’s demands even though Elizabeth had just given birth to his son. As Jerome’s reward for his obedience Napoleon made him King of Westphalia and married him to the Princess Catharina of Württemberg, the daughter of Frederick I, King of Württemberg.
Jerome wasn’t the only person to have problems when it came to love. Napoleon did too. One well-known relationship that he had was with 16-year-old Désirée Clary whom he met when he was about twenty-five. Their introduction came by way of his older brother Joseph, who was also interested in Désirée but gave her up once he learned that Napoleon wanted to court her. Désirée and Napoleon fell in love and she seemed determined to marry him despite their age difference. Eventually, however, she moved away, and he ended the relationship. Napoleon later tried to arrange a suitable marriage for her, but she rejected his choice and ultimately married General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who then accompanied Napoleon on various campaigns. Nevertheless, Bernadotte also befriended writer Madame de Staël and her friend Madame Récamier, both of whom were critical of Napoleon’s policies, and eventually Bernadotte betrayed Napoleon.
Napoleon’s also had a passionate relationship with Josephine de Beauharnais, whom he married in 1796. However,two days after their marriage, he left Paris to take command of the Army of Italy, and soon thereafter his lonely wife took a lover. Napoleon kept his domestic problems to himself for a time and ignored her affair with Hippolyte Charles. That changed during the Egyptian Campaign when one of his Generals showed him a letter detailing their relationship. The General also mentioned to Napoleon that it was common knowledge throughout Paris that Josephine and Hippolyte were involved. That, coupled with Josephine’s extravagant spending, resulted in a livid and depressed Napoleon writing to his brother Joseph stating that he planned to divorce his wife when he returned to Paris.
“It is melancholy business, when all the affections of one’s heart are wrapped up in a single person. I want you to arrange to have a country place ready for me when I return … I am counting on spending the winter there, and seeing no one. I am sick of society. I need solitude, isolation. My feelings are dried up, and I am bored with public display. I am tired of glory at 29; it has lost its charm and there is nothing left for me but complete egotism. I mean to keep my Paris house — I shall never give that up to anyone. I have no other resources.”
Napoleon’s plan to divorce her never came to fruition upon his return, that would take a few more years. Furthermore, when he finally divorced her, it had nothing to Hippolyte and everything to do with the fact that she could not produce an heir.
Although Napoleon might have sometimes been driven half-mad by Josephine, it is well-known that he wrote passionate love letters to all the women he loved. However, not everyone may know that he also once wrote romantic novella. When he died, the novella was discovered. Over the years, pages from it were scattered and dispersed but recently they were pieced back together, and his novella was then published under the title Clisson et Eugénie. It was discovered that he wrote the pages when he was an ambitious 26-year-old soldier in 1795 and that it was inspired by his love affair with Désirée. It is considered to be the fictionalized account of their doomed romance, and, it has all the necessary elements for a dramatic but sad love story: a young soldier loves, loses love, and dies courageously in battle.
-  Baring-Gould, Sabine, Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, 1897, p. 107.
-  Ibid.
-  Tarbell, Ida Minera, A Short Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, 1896, p. 4.
-  Ibid., p. 4-5.
-  “Fine art auctions find Texas good buyers’ market,” in Austin American Statesman, 10 July 1983, p. 35.
-  Memoirs of Constant, Vol. 2, 1895, p. 10.
-  Dedication of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, September 18-20, 1895, 1896, p. 99.
-  Keyes, Ralph, The Quote Verifier, 2007, p. 5.
-  A Selection from the Letters and Despatches of the First Napoleon, Volume 1, 1884, p. 222.
-  Thompson, J.M., Letters of Napoleon, 2013, p. 289.
-  Ibid., p. 129-130.