Today on September 16, 1793, a young and largely unknown artillery captain named Napoleon Bonaparte takes command at the Siege of Toulon.
The Siege of Toulon was a significant battle in the early day of the French Revolution. The bloody war nearly lasted a decade, leading to unprecedented bloodshed across western Europe. It pitted French royalists (those faithful to the monarchy) against the revolutionary republicans. The Siege of Toulon might very well have been a lesser-known battle if it had not involved one man — Napoleon Bonaparte. Toulon is where the young officer and future Emperor of France received his first noteworthy command. Protected by a thick outer wall, the well-defended port city was also supported by a dozen outlying fortifications. Soldiers from Spain, Great Britain, Sardinia, and Naples manned the defensives surrounding Toulon.
Artillery would need to play a critical role in overcoming these defenses if the republicans were to recapture it. But upon taking command, the young captain faced a shortage of gunpowder, untrained artillerymen, and few cannons. Despite these challenges, Napoleon recognized that this was his time to shine. He knew capitalizing on this opportunity would help make a name for himself. So immediately took steps to transform the situation. Napoleon established new and more reliable routes from Marseilles, bringing in a stable supply of ammunition. He ordered the construction of new batteries and workshops to produce more guns. Soon, more than 1,500 soldiers were under his command firing over 100 cannons and mortars.
The Siege of Toulon demonstrated Napoleon’s meticulous organizational and leadership skills. He developed a new plan that would hopefully lead to a quick and decisive victory. Napoleon suggested the French concentrate forces on recapturing Fort L’Eguillette, a small fortification on southwest corn of the harbor. Upon seizing the fort and installing heavy cannons, they would be within the range of hitting the British warships. Once under heavy fire, he believed the Royal Navy would have no choice but to evacuate and abandon Toulon. The combined Spanish and British fleet consisted of almost 70 ships.
“Among those who most distinguished themselves and who gave me the most help in rallying the men and leading them forward was Citizen Bonaparte, Commander of the artillery.” — General Dugommier to the French Minister of War
On December 18, they finally launched a major assault against the British positions near Fort L’Eguillette. The morning rainstorms and windy weather rendered muskets useless in the battle. This likely meant brutal hand-to-hand combat would be needed to win the day. Napoleon, recently promoted to Major, bravely led the second charge against the defending batteries. Amidst the fighting, Napoleon’s horse was killed from underneath him. Shortly after, a British sergeant punctured his left leg with a bayonet. Fortunately, the injury was not life-threatening, and the assault continued. The British garrison eventually folded under immense pressure. As planned, French forces went on to easily capture the Fort L’Eguillette.
By the following afternoon, ten heavy cannons were in position and began firing of British ships of the line. With few options remaining, Commander-in-Chief Samuel Hood ordered an immediate evacuation. The Siege of Toulon ended the next day. Many royalist citizens tried to escape and flee aboard the Allied ships — but many drowned amid the chaos. As Republican soldiers entered the city, they began a horrific two-week massacre of its local civilians. The Republic’s early victory at the Siege of Toulon sparked a massive counterattack against the encroaching Allied armies along the border. The government promoted Napoleon to Brigadier-General in thanks to his extraordinary contributions.
“My predictions were exactly fulfilled. Such is the history of this event, which so greatly astonished Europe and has never been well understood.” — Napoleon Bonaparte reflecting on the Siege of Toulon