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.
Shortly before the ceremony of coronation which would crown him and Josephine as Emperor and Empress of France, Napoleon gave his wife a copy of the old book and bade her read the prophecies contained therein, which, he told her, certain men had said pertained to him.
Josephine was at once startled and puzzled by what she read, and when she turned to her husband, she found him laughing a bit too loudly in false bravado. On that day, December 2, 1804, it was a bit premature to test the prophecy, but in years to come, Napoleon would no longer laugh at the words of Noel Olivarius.
Here is the way Napoleon might have read the prophecy during one of those lonely days during his banishment on St. Helena.
“Italy will see a supernatural being arise from kindred stock. This man will come, in his youth, out of the sea.” [Napoleon was a Corsican of common parentage. Traditionally he has been depicted as diminutive and given such titles as the “Little Corporal.” In actuality, he was about 5′ 6″, which was the average height of the French soldier at that time. His penchant for surrounding himself with a personal guard of exceptionally tall officers created the lasting illusion that Napoleon Bonaparte himself was shorter than average.]
“He will adopt the language and the manners of the Celto-Gauls.” [He claimed France as his homeland].
“While still young, and in spite of untold obstacles, he will have a brilliant career and will become a great commander. Years of arduous toil and struggle will follow. He will be constantly at war …. He will give laws to the Germans, end the chaos in Gaul, and finally be made king. Thereupon, he will assume the title of emperor.” [Napoleon rose to power quickly when he was a very young officer. He established the Confederation of the Rhine, abolished the German Empire, and made himself Emperor of Europe].
“He will do great things for his realm, construct magnificent buildings, ports, canals, waterworks. He alone will accomplish as much as all the Romans. He will have two wives and one son.” [This was fulfilled in all ways].
“In his wars, his campaigns will lead him where the 55th parallel of latitude intersects with the 55th meridian. There his enemies will set fire to a great city. He will enter it with his soldiers and again leave the ruins. His men will have neither bread nor water. They will perish in the bitter cold.” [Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia was climaxed with the Russians burning Moscow, rather than allowing the French to occupy it, and was terminated with Napoleon’s disastrous retreat through the vicious Russian winter].
“Finally this great man, deserted and betrayed by his friends, will be driven into his own capital by a great European army.” [Napoleon found a grand coalition, which had been formed by his enemies, awaiting him upon his return to France. While France rocked with internal strife, allied armies invaded the country and entered Paris on March 31, 1814.]
“Banished to an island not far from his native land, he will remain there with his followers for 11 months, after which he will again disembark on Gaulo-Celtic soil.” [When he attempted to resist the allied army, Napoleon found that he had been deserted. He was forced to abdicate and took refuge on Elba, a small island off Italy’s west coast. On March 1, 1815, eleven months after his abdication, Napoleon landed at Cannes, France and led a new army against the European coalition.]
“Driven out by a European triple alliance in three and one-half months, he will be compelled to surrender his throne to the former king.” [Exactly three and one-half months after he had begun to regroup his forces–June 15, I815–Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. He was thereafter decreed a “habitual disturber of the peace of Europe” and banished to the island of St. Helena.].
In Napoleon’s memoirs, the military genius also mentions his encounters with a famous entity known as “the little red man,” a ghost who became well known as a harbinger of tragedy in France. According to legend, the entity appeared to some of the nation’s most notable personalities for over 260 years. Its habitat seemed primarily to be the Louvre and the Tuileries in Paris.
Catherine de Medici is said to have been the first person to have confronted the apparition. It was in 1564, during the construction of the Tuileries, that the lady came face to face with a gnome-like creature dressed completely in scarlet. It soon became apparent to the haughty Catherine that her unannounced companion was not a man of flesh and blood, and she interpreted the visitation as an omen of bad luck.
Scarlet was an appropriate color for the ghost to wear, for Catherine had already begun to stir up trouble between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants in France, and it was she who induced the king to order the terrible St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of the Huguenots.
The little red man appeared to Henry IV just before the monarch was assassinated by an insane schoolteacher in 1610.
In 1792, startled chambermaids discovered the scarlet-clad gnome in the bed of Louis XVI at the time that the threatened king was making a futile attempt to escape machinations of the French revolutionaries.
A few months later, guards claimed to have seen the little red ghost in the prison where Louis and Marie Antoinette awaited their turn at the chopping block of the guillotine in 1793.
The Red Man first appeared to Napoleon in 1798 during the military leader’s Egyptian campaign. The entity is said to have materialized for Napoleon and to have made a bargain with the ambitious officer.
According to the terms of the contract, Napoleon was to enjoy victory and triumph on the battlefields of Europe for a decade. The strange visitor said that he had advised the rulers of France in the past and declared that he had now come to give counsel to Napoleon.
The mysterious ghostly adviser told the military genius that he had been at his side since he was but a schoolboy. “I know you better than you know yourself,” the spirit chided him.
The Red Man told Napoleon that his orders to the French fleet had not been obeyed. Even though the Egyptian campaign had begun on a note of triumph after the bloody battle of the Pyramids, the ghost told him, the enterprise would fail and Napoleon would return to France to find her closed in by England, Russia, Turkey, and an allied Europe.
True to the Red Man’s prediction, the Egyptian campaign failed. In 1809, after the Battle of Wagram, Napoleon made his headquarters at Schonbrunn where, one lonely midnight, he again received his mysterious adviser.
Napoleon had conducted ten years of successful campaigning, and he asked for a five-year extension of his contract with the Red Man. The ghost granted his request with the admonition that the greedy conqueror should not launch a campaign that would take him on Russian soil. Napoleon ignored the warning and met with a disaster which proved to be more significant than the physical defeat which came at Waterloo.
The Little Red Man seemed to follow Napoleon through all of his campaigns and provided a rough map of some of the events of Napoleons 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 Red Man made his third and final appearance on the morning of January 1, 1814, shortly before the Emperor was forced to abdicate. The red gnome appeared first to Counsellor of State Mole and demanded that he be allowed to see the Emperor on matters of urgent importance. Mole had been given strict orders that the Emperor was not to be disturbed, but when he went with the message that the Red Man was there, the mysterious stranger was granted immediate entrance.
It is said that Napoleon beseeched the Red Man for time to complete the execution of certain proposals, but the prophetic messenger gave him only three months to achieve a general peace or it would be all over for him. In a futile effort to gain more time, Napoleon desperately tried to launch a new eastern campaign. Such a move left Paris to fall into the hands of the Allies; and on April 1, three months after the Red Man’s final visit to the Emperor, Talleyrand and the Senate called for Napoleon’s abdication.
As Napoleon spent those last brooding days staring forlornly out to sea, he had valid reasons for believing that a book written 262 years before his rise to glory had accurately foretold his fate.
According to some accounts, as he lay on his death-bed at St. Helena he was heard to call out during the night, “Steingel, hurry, attack!”
Since the battle of Marengo in 1800, Napoleon had been haunted by a premonition that one of his seasoned artillery officers had received in a dream. Steingel, a rugged campaigner had been so convinced that the next day’s battle would be his last that he had his will drawn up and asked Napoleon to be its executor.
“Last night I dreamed I leaped forward on my horse at a decisive moment in the battle,” Steingel told him. “I found myself facing a gigantic armored Croat. I advanced and hit him with my sword. The blade glanced off his armor.
“Then the armor and the uniform fell off the Croat and I saw Death with its sickle before me. He gave a great mocking laugh, raised his sickle, and struck me down.”
After the day’s fighting had ended, Napoleon was notified that Steingel had been slain on the battlefield. With a demand that became an obsession, Napoleon ordered an investigation of the circumstances under which one of his favorite officers had died.
From eyewitness accounts, Napoleon learned that Steingel had jumped forward on his horse to attack and had been blocked by a gigantic Croat. One look at his opponent, and Steingel had cried out, “That is him!” and had sat on his horse as if paralyzed.
The Croat charged and Steingel struck him with his sword. The weapon bounced off the armor of the giant, who thrust Steingel a death blow.
The eerie accuracy of Steingel’s premonition was but another dark bead which Napoleon mentally added to a string of circumstances which, in his analysis, led him to conclude that one’s life is preordained. As he had declared to Dr. Arnott, “Our hour is marked and no one can claim a moment of life beyond what fate has predestined.”