Napoleon and the Siege of Toulon 1793

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, by Jacques-Louis David, 1812
The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, by Jacques-Louis David, 1812. Wikimedia Commons

The siege of Toulon in 1793 might have blended into the many other actions of the French Revolutionary War were it not for the later career of one man, as the siege marked the first notable military action of Napoleon Bonaparte, later French Emperor and one of the greatest generals in history.

France in Rebellion

The French Revolution transformed almost every aspect of French public life, and grew more radical as the years passed (turning into terror). However, these changes were far from universally popular, and as many French citizens fled revolutionary areas, others decided to rebel against a revolution they saw as increasingly Parisian and extreme. By 1793 these rebellions had turned into widespread, open and violent revolt, with a revolutionary army / militia sent out to crush these enemies within. France was, in effect, engaging in a civil war at the same time as countries surrounding France looked to intervene and force a counter revolution. The situation was, at times, desperate.

Toulon

The site of one such rebellion was Toulon, a port on the south coast of France. Here the situation was critical to the revolutionary government, as not only was Toulon an important naval base – France was engaged in wars against many of the monarchist states of Europe – but the rebels had invited in British ships and handed over control to their commanders. Toulon had some of the thickest and most advanced defences, not just in France, but in Europe, and would have to be retaken by the revolutionary forces to help secure the nation. It was no easy task, but had to be done quickly.

The Siege and the Rise of Napoleon

Command of the revolutionary army assigned to Toulon was given to General Carteaux, and he was accompanied by a ‘representative on mission’, basically a political officer designed to make sure he was being sufficiently ‘patriotic’. Carteaux began a siege of the port in 1793.

The effects of the revolution on the army had been severe, as many of the officers had been nobility and as they were persecuted they fled the country. Consequently, there were many open spaces and plenty of promotion from lower ranks based on ability rather than birth rank. Even so, when the commander of Carteaux’s artillery was wounded and had to leave in September, it wasn’t purely skill that got a young officer called Napoleon Bonaparte appointed as his replacement, as both he and the representative on mission who promoted him – Saliceti – were from Corsica. Carteaux had no say in the matter.

Major Bonaparte now showed great skill in increasing and deploying his resources, using a keen understanding of terrain to slowly take key areas and undermine the British hold on Toulon. While who played the key role in the final act is debated, but Napoleon definitely played a vital role, and he was able to take full credit when the port fell on December 19th 1793. His name was now known by key figures in the revolutionary government, and he was both promoted to Brigadier General and given command of the artillery in the Army of Italy. He would soon leverage this early fame into greater command, and use that opportunity to take power in France. He would use the military to establish his name in history, and it began at Toulon.