Portrayed by Mark Schneider
No military figure in history has been quite as polarizing as Napoleon Bonaparte. Was he a monster, driven by an endless, ruinous quest for military glory? Or a social and political visionary brought down by petty, reactionary kings of Europe?
The French Revolution had taken a dark turn when a 23-year-old Corsican second lieutenant arrived in Paris and saw Louis XVI dethroned. By 30 he was head of the most powerful country in Europe. At his death at 52 in exile, Europe had been changed forever.
One of the first truly modern politicians, he fashioned himself as a hero who successfully dragged France back from the edge of the abyss. Master of media manipulation, this idealized image of Napoleon has endured to this day.
Napoleon’s complex and violent legacy seeded totalitarian regimes in the 20th century and sounds an alert to us in the 21st.
Mark Schneider, a historical interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg, is not only a consummate student of history, but also a skilled actor. His mother was French and his father American – so he’s fluent in both French and English! He is a graduate of Christopher Newport University, where he majored in history and performed on the equestrian team. He then volunteered for the Army and served as a Cavalry scout stationed in Germany and Bosnia.
He happens to have an uncanny resemblance to Napoleon Bonaparte. Because of this resemblance and his skill at portraying the emperor, he is often engaged by the Napoleonic Society of America and the Napoleonic Alliance to perform at conferences and anniversary celebrations around the country and has performed internationally as Napoleon in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and Spain. He appeared in the Jubilé Imperial in Paris France as well as the official Napoleon for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts exhibit, Napoleon: Power and Splendor. Mark has appeared in the Netflix documentary “Being Napoleon” and made a cameo appearance in the 2018 French film, “L’Empereur de Paris,” as Napoleon himself.
You write to me that it is impossible; this word is not French. – Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon believed that “with perseverance and courage, a soldier should think nothing impossible.” Anything is possible if you truly believe in it. In an age of revolution, he achieved an extraordinary rise to power and transformed Europe into the modern age.
The origins of the French revolution of 1789 did not begin overnight. Like all revolutions, resentment had festered for a long time. In 1715, Louis XIV died. He had been an absolute monarch since 1643. His extravagant lifestyle strained the kingdom’s coffers, but because of his conquests, France emerged as a large and powerful country. His successor, Louis XV continued his extravagance, but weakened the monarchy with lost wars, political clashes and religious feuds. Madame de Pompadour observed, “Après moi, le déluge.” Thus, things were not looking good for France.
Louis XVI embraced some of the Enlightenment ideals and tried to reform the government, but pleased neither the nobility nor the masses. By the end of the American Revolution in 1783, France had spent more money in the war than the young United States. Add to this the voices of Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu and the ideas of the Enlightenment: representation in government and the equality of man. It is no surprise that France was ready for a change. Economic crisis and the contagious revolutionary ideas sparked France’s own revolution on July 14th, 1789, with cries of “Libertè! Egalitè! Fraternitè!” While hunting on that same day, one of Louis XVI ministers came to him. The king said, “Is it a revolt?” The minister replied, “No sir, it’s a revolution.”
The Revolution gave Napoleon the opportunity to accelerate his rise to power. In the old regime, privilege ruled over merit. Now he succeeded by his own genius for military calculations and a persistence that inspired/drove those under his command. He proved himself as a leader in the siege of Toulon (1793-94) and in the defeat of a royalist insurrection (1795). In 1796 he became First General of the Army of Italy and Commander of the Expeditionary Force to Egypt in 1798. When the time was right, he led a Coup d’Etat on November 9, 1799. He became “Hero of the Revolution” and established himself as First Consul of the Republic.
He was not only a military genius but also, as a national leader, he was a great reformer who would spread the ideas of the revolution across Europe. Yet he believed that everyone could raise their position in life, as he had, if they just had the desire and will to do so. Napoleon would say to his soldiers, “There is a Marshal’s baton in every soldiers knapsack.” It was the age of promotion by merit rather than privilege — it was the age of Revolution.
- 1769 – (Aug 15) born in Corsica
- 1779-1784 – Attends French military schools at Autun, Brienne and Ecole Militaire
- 1789 – (Jul 14) French Revolution begins (age 20)
- 1793-94 – Siege of Toulon and is made a General (age 24)
- 1796-97 – Commander of the Army of Italy and first Italian campaign
- 1798-99 – Egyptian Campaign
- 1799 – (Nov 9) Coup d’Etat. becomes First Consul (age 30)
- 1804 – (Dec 2) becomes Emperor of the French (age 35)
- 1805-1815 – European Wars against England, Russia, Prussia, Austria, Spain, Portugal and Sweden.
- 1814 – (May 4) exiled to Elba
- 1815 – (Mar 1) escapes Elba and begins “Hundred Days” Campaign
- 1815 – (Jun 18) defeated at the Battle of Waterloo
- 1815 – (Oct 16) exiled to Saint Helena
- 1821 – (May 5) Dies on island of Saint Helena (age 52)
- From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step.
- The word impossible is not French.
- What then is, generally speaking, the truth of history? A fable agreed upon.
- History is the version of past events its people have decided to agree upon.
- Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.
- A leader is a dealer in hope.
- It is the cause, not the death that makes the martyr.
- I am sometimes a fox and sometimes a lion. The whole secret of government lies in knowing when to be the one or the other.
- A revolution is an idea which has found its bayonets.
- I am the signet which marks the page where the revolution has been stopped; but when I die it will turn the page and resume its course.
- Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts (2014) I consider this to be the best recent biography on Napoleon. Andrew Roberts’s mammoth biography of Bonaparte endeavors to examine his life in full, balancing the different aspects of his character and history that have made him such a compelling figure in the nearly 200 years since his death. The Guardian’s review referred to it as “a view – essentially positive – from inside the imperial entourage,” and praised its pacing and its continued relevance to the present political moment.
- The Age of Napoleon by Alistair Horne (2004) One of my favorite authors! Alistair makes a great concise account of Napoleon’s life without a long read.
- Napoleon by Vincent Cronin (1971) A fantastic unbiased account of Napoleon’s life.
- Napoleon by Emil Ludwig (1954) The first biography I read on Napoleon and I absolutely loved it!
- The Campaigns of Napoleon by David Chandler (1966.) The best accounts of Napoleon’s campaigns in the English language.