Upon his return to France from Corsica in 1792, Napoleon distinguished himself during the storm of the Tuileries Royal Palace, during which the ambitious young man at the head of the masses offered a radical suggestion (which was nevertheless not employed) to use his cannon against the palace walls. This instance was the first during which the world perceived Napoleon’s emphasis on artillery, a branch of the armed forces that would furnish his ascent to power.
It was then that France, having virtually imprisoned its king and placed him on death row, suddenly found herself facing armed opposition from nearly every nation in Europe. The rag-tag Republican Guard divisions and civilian militia troops became France’s only defense against overwhelming numbers of some of the most able fighting men of the time.
The victory at Valmy in December of 1792 helped retain the country’s solidarity, but due to the retirement and/or desertion of a majority of higher-ranking commanders — namely Jourdain, who resigned shortly following Valmy, and Lafayette, who fled to Austria, both having done what they did to maintain secure ties between their heads and the remainder of their bodies– the military always hung on the edge of an abyss.
In the spring of 1793, an expeditionary force of British, Austrian, Neapolitan, and Spanish troops landed in southern France and occupied the crucial trading port of Toulon, pressing ever further into the mainland. A French corps under the General Carteaux, (a former artist!), was ordered to intercept and neutralize the invasion force.
During the siege of Avignon on the way to Toulon, the French artillery commander, General Dommartin, was injured by the British. The task of leading the Republic’s cannon was transferred to his second-in-command, the twenty-four-year-old Captain Bonaparte.
From the beginning, Napoleon’s mind concocted an ingenious scheme of events that, if followed, would ensure French triumph. His plan was simple; to obtain a hold of the three elevated hills around the port and place artillery pieces at those key strategic locations. This would instill panic into the Allied ranks and cause the British navy to withdraw from Toulon’s harbor due to fear of long-range bombardment from elevated spots.
Unfortunately, Carteaux lacked the military experience necessary to recognize the value of artillery and neglected Napoleon’s insightful suggestions. In the meantime, the Allies continued to maul the French forces and break out of the encirclement. Captain Bonaparte gathered the courage to report Carteaux’s incompetence to the government in Paris, knowing very well that he was at risk for losing his head if events proceeded in the wrong way.
However, the representative of the Jacobins, after inspecting the situation, reassigned Carteaux to another location far from the battle. Yet Carteaux’s successor, the ex-medic Doppet, objected to Napoleon’s plan after one assault on the hills claimed the life of one of his adjutants. Doppet was soon relieved of his duties as well.
Napoleon was free to carry out his scheme and did so following only several decisive days, which terminated the previously stagnant conflict and offset the Allied occupation of southern France. The enemy withdrew their forces, as Napoleon had predicted. This was his first major military success, and the French Republic, recognizing an ardent supporter where it suspected so many others of treason, made a celebrity of him in addition to promoting him to the exalted rank of General.