by Kathy Warnes
Napoleon Bonaparte - Wikimedia Commons
Even famous people in history like Napoleon Bonaparte had their superstitions. Napoleon, like many people from Corsica, had grown up with stories of ghosts and vampires. His nurse, Ilari, chanted incantations over him to protect him from demons and he believed in omens and good luck charms. Most of the time he wore a little black satin heart between his flannel waistcoat and his shirt and he carried a scarab that he had found in a Pharaoh’s tomb in Egypt in his waistcoat pocket.
Napoleon Believed in a Little Red Man of Destiny
Napoleon interpreted his dreams and he liked to tell ghost stories. He firmly believed in a Little Red Man of Destiny who foretold his future, and let this belief influence his decisions. A thoughtful historical look at Napoleon should include his superstitions and folklore beliefs, and an assessment of how much they influenced his actions.
The Little Red Man of Destiny was a legendary ghost who had appeared at the Tuileries Palace, a royal place that stood on the right bank of the River Seine in Paris until 1871. Since the time of Catherine de Medici, every time that an important event was going to happen to one of the inhabitants of the Tuileries, legend has it that the Little Red Man of Destiny appeared. Henri IV supposedly saw him on the morning of the day that Francois Ravaillac assassinated him. Anne d’ Autriche saw him a few days before the Fronde began. Marie Antoinette saw him in the corridor the day before August 10, 1792, when the mob stormed the Tuileries Palace and ended the monarchy.
The Little Red Man of Destiny Supposedly Guided Napoleon’s Campaigns
The Little Red Man of Destiny seemed to follow Napoleon through all of his campaigns and he provided a rough map of some of the events of Napoleon’s life. People at the Tuilieries were familiar with stories of The Little Red Man of Destiny appearing to Napoleon while he stayed at the palace. The legend says that the Little Red Man of Destiny appeared to Napoleon for the first time in Egypt in 1798, and told Napoleon that he had ten years to enjoy victory and triumph on European battlefields.
The Little Red Man told Napoleon several things, including the fact that the French fleet had not obeyed his orders and that the Egyptian campaign would fail. The Little Red Man told Napoleon that he would return to France and find England, Russia, Turkey and an allied Europe surrounding his country.
Napoleon was staying at Schonbrunn Castle in Vienna, Austria, when General Jean Rapp, one of his most trusted generals, came to see him, in the spring of 1807 after the siege of Danzig. Between March 19 and May 1807, French troops under Marshall Lefevre laid siege to the city of Danzig in modern Poland, surrounding more than 11,000 Prussian and Russian troops under Marshall Kalckreuth. Danzig surrendered on May 24, 1807, and on September 9, 1807, Napoleon established the Free City of Danzig.
General Jean Rapp Describes the Little Red Man of Destiny’s Influence over Napoleon
General Jean Rapp wanted to speak to Napoleon so he walked into Napoleon’s quarters unannounced. Napoleon was standing perfectly still, staring intently through the window at the sky. General Rapp pushed a chair to make enough noise to attract Napoleon’s attention. Napoleon stood unmoving, staring out at the sky.
General Rapp rushed to Napoleon’s side, fearing that Napoleon had fallen into a stupor. Without taking his eyes from the sky, Napoleon grabbed General Rapp’s arm and excitedly asked him if he saw the red star of destiny, almost as large as the moon and brilliant. Napoleon told General Rapp that the star of destiny had never abandoned him and often it appeared to him dressed in red and shaped like a man, the Little Red Man of Destiny.
Napoleon Ignores the Little Red Man of Destiny’s Warning Not To Invade Russia
In a sworn affidavit, Napoleon’s Counsellor of State Louis Mathieu Count Mole reported that he heard the Little Red Man of Destiny warn Napoleon of the future after the Battle of Wagram which took place on July 5 and 6th, 1809. The two day struggle between the Fifth Coalition – Britain and Austria- against Napoleon’s Imperial French, German and Italian Army took place about six miles outside of Vienna on the Marchfeld plain on the north bank of the Danube. The French Army won the battle, but the Little Red Many of Destiny warned Napoleon not to conduct his planned Russian campaign and cautioned him that his victory days were soon to be over unless he tried to negotiate peace in Europe.
In June 1812, while controlling nearly all of Europe, Napoleon invaded Russia to force Tsar Alexander I to submit again to the terms of a treaty that Napoleon had forced on his four years earlier. Napoleon amassed an army of nearly half a million soldiers and stepped on Russia soil as the leader of the largest army the world had seen. The Russians under Marshal Mikahil Kutuzov, waged a campaign of strategic retreat and devastated the land and harassed the French flanks as they fell back. Napoleon’s supply lines stretched to the breaking point that summer of 1812, and by September the French Army had shrunk to two thirds of its strength without having fought a single battle. Fatigue, hunger, desertion, and Russian raids had decimated it.
Napoleon Brings His Army Home to France
On September 7, 1812, Napoleon and his decimated army fought Marshal Kutuzov’s Russian Army at Borodino Fields, about 70 miles from Moscow, but neither side won a decisive victory despite the deaths of 108,000 men. Marshal Kutuzov withdrew his forces and when Napoleon’s army arrived in Moscow on September 14, 1812, they found a depopulated city and few supplies. The next day fires in the city deprived the French Army of shelter as well.
After waiting in vain until mid-October for Alexander I to make him a peace offer, Napoleon ordered his troops to march the 500 miles home. Russian forces blocked the south route, so the French Army had to return the way it came and soon found itself in the middle of an early and extremely cold winter. Napoleon and his men endured sub zero temperatures, Russian attacks, and starvation, with only ten thousand men surviving. Napoleon’s Russian campaign ensured his downfall and Russia’s rise to power. The Little Red Man of Destiny had accurately predicted the outcome of Napoleon’s Russian campaign.
The Little Red Man of Destiny Appears at Fontainebleau
In 1813, Napoleon successfully invaded Germany and won The Battle of Dresden in August 1813, against the Sixth Coalition of Austrians, Russians, and Prussians. In October of 1813, he lost the Battle of Leipzig and withdrew with his army back to France. On January 1, 1814, Napoleon had sought seclusion in his study in the Fontainebleau Palace, 31 miles outside of Paris. According to the testimony of Counselor Mole and the guard Basil de Migne, they heard Napoleon and the ghost talking. They signed official documents attesting to the truth of the conversation that they over heard.
The Little Red Man of Destiny had appeared at Fontainebleau to warn Napoleon that he had three months left in power. He said that in three months the allies would invade Paris and if Napoleon didn’t take his advice and sue for peace his power would be confined to a small, bleak island of the sea. Napoleon argued that he couldn’t possible conquer the allies or make peace on honorable terms in the space of three months.
Napoleon Abdicates and the Little Red Man of Destiny Goes with Him?
The Allied Army arrived in Paris on March 31, 1814. On April 1, 1814, three months after the Little Red Man of Destiny’s final visit to Napoleon, Talleyrand and the French Senate called for Napoleon’s abdication. Napoleon abdicated on April 11, 1814, and he was granted sovereignty over the island of Elba in the Mediterranean Sea, and a pension from the French government. Napoleon Bonaparte left Fontainebleau after his famous farewell speech on April 20, 1814.
Napoleon would later escape from Elba on February 26, 1815, and return to France for his 100 Days rule. The British and Prussian armies defeated him at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, and again he was exiled, this time to St. Helena, a remote island in the Atlantic Oceans.
Napoleon’s actions would seem to indicate that although he was superstitious, he followed his own ideas of his destiny and his role in the world, gambled on the success of his armies and lost the gamble without the help of the Little Red Man of Destiny. Apparently the Little Red Man of Destiny went into exile with Napoleon, because he hasn’t been heard from since then. Napoleon can claim a Pyrrhic Victory over the Little Red Man of Destiny because he is still very much alive in world history despite his defeats and refusal to obey the Little Red Man of Destiny’s orders.
American Explorer George Kennan Translates Two Napoleon Folk Tales From the Russian
George Kennan, an American explorer who traveled in the Kamchatka and Caucasus regions of Russia, provided some interesting insights into the superstitious side of Napoleon in his introduction to a book called Folk-Tales of Napoleon that he translated from the Russian.
This George Kennan, a cousin twice removed of the diplomat and historian George F. Kennan, was born in Norwalk, Ohio, in February 1845, and lived until 1924. He enjoyed traveling from the time he was a young boy. When he was twelve, he began his working career at the Cleveland and Toledo Railroad Company telegraph office. In 1864, he took a job with the Russian American Telegraph Company to survey a route for a proposed telegraph line to run overland through Siberia and across the Bering Strait. He spent two years in Kamchatka and returned home to Ohio through St. Petersburg. When he arrived back in the United States, he lectured and wrote articles and books about his Russian travels. He provided ethnographies, histories, and descriptions of many native peoples in Siberia that modern researches still use for source material.
In his Folk Tales of Napoleon, George Kennan translated two Napoleonic legends. One of the legends is from the Russia of Alexander Amphiteatrof and the other is from the third chapter of Balzac’s Country Doctor.
In his introduction, Kennan makes the point that the value of history and biography depends on truth, but there is also a kind of great man literature in which the literature of popular legend and tradition overshadows the value of truth. The literature of popular legend and tradition reveals the temperament and character of its subjects instead of the actions of its subjects.
"Napoleonder," first appeared in the St. Petersburg Gazette of December 13, 1901. It portrayed Napoleon as using the word "Bonaparty" to conjure up all of the soldiers that ever served under him or all of the soldiers that died for him on the battlefield to come back from beyond the grave. Once again he leads them against the enemy and Napoleon and his ghostly army are invincible because they are a supernatural army.
The results of the battle between Napoleon and the Russian Army at Borodino Field on September 7, 1812, were indecisive, even though 108,000 men died.
According to a New York Times story, Kennan's translation has the French soldiers intone the word Bonaparty. Instantly there is a great rushing sound, and the earth is shaken as if by an earthquake. Our soldiers look – and drop their hands. On all parts of the field appear threatening battalions with bayonets shining in the sun, torn flags waving over terrible hats of fur and tramp! Tramp! Tramp! On come thousands of phantom men, with faces yellow as chamomile, and empty holes under their bushy eyebrows. Alexander, the Blessed Czar, was stricken with terror.
The brigand Napoleonder sat on his horse holding his sides with laughter and shouted, "Aha! My old men are not to your taste! I thought so!"
The French legend says that supernatural powers aid Napoleon for the strength and glory of France. The French peasant says that a familiar spirit shaped like a Red Man advises and directs Napoleon. In the Russian campaign, "Napoleon himself was worried because the Red Man had appeared again and had said to him, "My son, you are going too fast. You will run short of men, and your friends will betray you."
The French and Russian peasant legends about Napoleon are expressed by people with widely differing languages, thought and temperament, but holding curiously similar ideas as to the source of his supposed inspiration and invincibility.
Delderfield, R.F., The Fall of Napoleon, 1813-1814. Cooper Square Press, 2001.
Gengembre, Gerard, Napoleon: The Immortal Emperor, Vendome Press, 2003
Herold, J. Christopher, Mind of Napoleon: A Selection of His Written and Spoken Words, Columbia University Press, 1955