Napoleon’s Forgotten First Battle: La Maddalena, 1793

Napoleon got his first taste of battle in February 1793 at the siege of La Maddalena. By the year’s end, Napoleon was a general and a hero.

Jun 6, 2024By Dale Pappas, PhD Modern European History, MA History, BA History, Italian Studies

napoleon first battle la maddalena


Napoleon’s name is synonymous with French history. But before Napoleon rose to power in France, he dreamed of becoming influential in his native Corsica. In fact, Napoleon made many decisions in his early life, believing that it could help further his career in Corsica rather than France. However, Napoleon’s participation in the failed attempt to seize La Maddalena in February 1793 contributed to a shift in his thinking about Corsica. By the end of 1793, this Corsican patriot had emerged as a rising star of the French Republic.


Napoleon’s Homeland: Corsica 

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Decorative Map of Corsica by Victor Levasseur, 1861. Source: Wikipedia Commons


In his book The Social Contract (1762), Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote of Corsica, “I have a presentiment that one day this small island will astonish Europe.” Indeed, the rebellion launched by the islanders against Genoese rule in the 1760s captured Europe’s attention. Even people in distant Boston and Philadelphia admired Corsica’s rebellious spirit. They tried to emulate it in opposing British policies on the eve of the American Revolution.


Corsican rebels continued their fight against the French, who purchased the north Mediterranean island of Corsica from Genoa in 1768. France formally annexed Corsica the following year and appointed Charles Louis de Marbeuf as the island’s governor.


But Rousseau’s statement equally applies to the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, born in Ajaccio, Corsica, on August 15, 1769. He was the second son of Carlo and Letizia Buonaparte. Despite aristocratic lineage, Napoleon’s parents were Corsican revolutionaries determined to upend Genoese rule. At first, they also backed resistance to the French, but soon realized loyalty presented opportunities for the family.

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Napoleon’s Youth 

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Napoleon Studying at Auxonne, 1788, by François Flameng. Source: Wikipedia Commons


Thanks to his family’s close ties to Marbeuf, Napoleon received admission to one of France’s military academies. Napoleon started school in France at age nine, first in Autun and then in Brienne. The young Napoleon impressed his instructors as he advanced through different academies.


Although initially recommended for naval service because of his knack for mathematics, Napoleon was soon placed on track for a career in the prestigious artillery branch of the French army. In 1785, he received his first commission in the French army as a lieutenant.


However, Napoleon longed to return to Corsica and found adjusting to life in France difficult. Indeed, at this point, Napoleon still signed his name “Napoleone di Buonaparte” rather than the Napoleon Bonaparte. Despite his promising academic record and French military commission, Napoleon spent most of the years 1786-1788 on leave from his regiment. Most of that time was spent in Corsica.


Napoleon grew interested in and supported republican ideals as the French Revolution unfolded. But at this stage, Napoleon saw the French Revolution as an opportunity for Corsica’s independence. In other words, Napoleon still saw his future in Corsica rather than Paris.


Pasquale Paoli: Corsican & French Revolutionary Hero?

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Pasquale Paoli. Source: Wikipedia Commons


As a Corsican patriot, the young Napoleon idolized Pasquale Paoli. Paoli was one of the world’s most famous revolutionaries, even in an era dominated by the leaders of the American and French revolutions. His name was synonymous in Europe and North America with Corsica’s revolt against the island’s Genoese and French rulers.


Paoli gained international popularity for his leadership in resisting and eventually expelling Genoese forces from Corsica in the early 1760s. The rebels, of course, did not fare as well against the French. But Paoli had given up the fight and spent most of Napoleon’s youth in exile in England.


His road to return to Corsica opened in 1789 as the events leading to the French Revolution unfolded. Napoleon and his family helped Paoli return and restore his leadership role in Corsican society. Now, with the support of the French revolutionary government, Paoli moved to entrench his power in Corsica.


However, he did not see Napoleon and the family as having a significant role in Corsica’s future. Paoli, for instance, was unhappy about Napoleon’s French military commission and held more conservative royalist and clerical views instead of republican sympathies. Paoli also got into heated disputes with Napoleon’s younger brother, Lucien. Napoleon was thus increasingly isolated from the position of power he wanted in Corsica.


The Expedition Against Sardinia 

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Napoleon in 1792 by Henri Félix Emmanuel Phillipoteaux, 1835. Source: Wikipedia Commons


Paoli was expected to demonstrate his loyalty to the French revolutionary cause by raising volunteers to attack one of France’s enemies, the Kingdom of Piedmont. Piedmont ruled Corsica’s neighboring island, Sardinia. French planners organized an attack on Sardinia’s three strategic outlying islands, La Maddalena, San Stefano, and Caprera.


Paoli’s nephew Pietro Paolo Colonna-Cesari became the French expedition’s commander. Napoleon led an artillery unit attached to the expedition in his first significant command. Napoleon believed his service here would improve his standing with Paoli and overall status in Corsica.


Only a month after French revolutionaries executed King Louis XVI, Napoleon got his first taste of battle in service to the French revolutionary cause. But at the time, Napoleon often wrote of events in France as if he were a foreign observer. Despite his service in the French military, Captain Buonaparte of the Corsican National Guard was still, first and foremost, a Corsican. But this campaign would help change that.


The expedition arrived off the coast of the three Sardinian islands on February 21, 1793. Troops quickly occupied San Stefano, separated from the other islands by less than 800 yards. Napoleon set up his cannons on San Stefano to fire on La Maddalena while French troops prepared to land on the island.


Napoleon’s artillery proved effective during the attack. But the same could not be said for the French troops. After seeing La Maddalena’s defenses for themselves, troops on board one of the French ships mutinied. Rather than continue fighting, the French retreated.


Napoleon’s 1793

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The Siege of Toulon, 1793 by Jean Antoine Siméon Fort. Source: Wikipedia Commons


Napoleon’s first battle was over. It had been a dismal failure. But 1793 was a critical year in Napoleon’s personal and professional life. Over the next few months, Napoleon’s position in Corsica weakened. He fumed against Paoli and his family and blamed them for the expedition’s failure. But Paoli and his allies still exercised power in Corsica. They would soon plan to wield that influence in shaping the island’s future.


Napoleon returned to active military duty in France. At this time, Napoleon became close to an important figure in the French government and fellow Corsican, Antonio Saliceti. Napoleon was soon assigned to the French revolutionary forces besieging the Mediterranean port city and naval base of Toulon.


Political turmoil resulted in Toulon falling into the hands of anti-revolutionary royalists. The royalists then invited an Anglo-Spanish fleet to protect them from any French revolutionary counterattack. Napoleon thus joined the effort to recapture Toulon.


After months of stalemate, the French revolutionaries finally gained the upper hand in late 1793. In fact, on December 17, 1793, Napoleon captured a key British-held outpost defending Toulon. Within a few days, the city surrendered. More importantly for Napoleon, his service had been recognized with a recommendation for promotion to brigadier general.


Historian Andrew Roberts notes that because of Toulon, Napoleon was a 24-year-old general with less than four years of active military experience. 1793 had indeed been an eventful year for Napoleon.


Paoli’s Next Move 

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Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson (1758-1805). Source: Wikipedia Commons


Paoli’s relationship with French revolutionary authorities in Paris deteriorated after the failed expedition against Sardinia. Indeed, by the spring of 1793, Corsica was embroiled in a civil war between Paoli’s faction and republican supporters like Napoleon. By April 1793, Napoleon and his family had fled Corsica for Marseille.


Napoleon’s idol-turned-rival Paoli l did not resist the British invasion of Corsica in early 1794. A rising star in the British Royal Navy, Horatio Nelson, lost an eye in the siege of the Corsican town of Calvi. Nelson would lose an arm in battle and later his life in a victorious effort during the Napoleonic Wars’ decisive naval engagement of Trafalgar in 1805.


British forces seized Corsica by the late summer of 1794. Britain occupied the island until 1796, when Napoleon’s victories in Italy made it impossible to maintain control. By that point, Paoli had returned to England, where he died in 1807. French troops soon reoccupied Corsica. Napoleon last visited Corsica on his return to France from Egypt in 1799.



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Napoleon I in coronation costume by François Gérard. Source: Wikipedia Commons


Why has La Maddalena been forgotten in Napoleon’s story? It starts with Napoleon and the legend he helped create about his life. Napoleon actively involved himself in promoting propaganda surrounding his achievements. A minor role in a failed campaign did not warrant much discussion in writing a heroic narrative of Napoleon’s life.


Over the years, supporters and detractors have helped Napoleon’s legend grow. The evidence is all around us in the endless list of books, art, music, and movies about Napoleon’s life. La Maddalena is not a familiar chapter in the story of Napoleon’s life that is so often told by admirers or opponents. Thus, from Napoleon’s time onward, accounts of his military career generally begin with the 1793 siege of Toulon, where he played an important role.


But to skip over Napoleon’s experience in the expedition against Sardinia is a mistake if we want to understand his life and career. The failed attack at La Maddalena formed part of a chain of events that shaped not only Napoleon’s life but also the future of France and Europe. The fallout from the expedition’s failure pushed Napoleon and his family out of Corsica. At the same time, it set in motion the events that would see Napoleon become one of Revolutionary France’s leading generals.


Just three years after his first battle at La Maddalena as an unknown captain, Napoleon won his first brilliant campaign in Italy. A few years later, Napoleon ruled France.

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By Dale PappasPhD Modern European History, MA History, BA History, Italian StudiesDale Pappas has taught History and Academic Writing at the high school and university levels in the United States and Europe. He holds a PhD in Modern European History from the University of Miami. Dale researches the history of tourism in the Mediterranean and the political history of Modern Greece. When he needs a breather from world travels, Dale lives between Miami, FL and Athens, Greece.