That same evening, the 25th of August, ministers from Paris and Madrid visit Napoleon at his camp in Valuevo. In his bedroom, the emperor is being vigorously scrubbed and sprayed by his valets. When Napoleon is fully uniformed, he leaves his bedroom and speaks with the colonel from Spain. Then he looks at the gift that Beausset, prefect of the palace, has brought, showing his favor by tugging the prefect’s ear. Beausset pulls a cloth off a brightly-colored portrait of Napoleon’s son. The son, the king of Rome, is playing a game of bilboquet using a ball in the shape of a globe and a stick that looks like a scepter. Napoleon tenderly admires the gift. Then he dictates his battle proclamation and rides off.
Tolstoy enjoys humanizing Napoleon, in this case showing his vanity and idiosyncrasies. Napoleon’s son with Empress Marie Louise, Napoleon II, would have been under two years old at this time. Bilboquet is a game in which a ball is attached by a string to a stick with a cup on top, the object being to catch the ball in the cup. The use of this toy in the painting is meant to evoke the little boy’s future dominance as a world ruler.
Because the Russian left flank has already moved back and is not fortified, it seems obvious that the French ought to attack it. But Napoleon doesn’t think so at the time. After studying the terrain, he returns to headquarters and draws up his battle disposition—four directions which, in hindsight, are vague and impossible to carry out. For example, he orders that the French batteries be set up at locations that cannot reach the Russians, and he doesn’t take sufficient account of the terrain.
Napoleon’s survey of the battle situation illustrates Tolstoy’s earlier point that what seems clear to later historians is seldom obvious at the time. It also suggests that Prince Andrei’s instincts are correct—commanders’ orders are not as decisive as they like to think. The instructions Napoleon provides are, in fact, mostly impracticable.
Napoleon’s historians later suggest that he lost the battle because he had a cold. But this view overlooks the coincidence of the wills of all those present. It was, in fact, the French soldiers who each chose to fight and kill Russian soldiers. It only seemed to Napoleon that he was really in charge; thus the question of his having a cold or not is really immaterial.
Historians give all kinds of dubious justifications for the way things turn out. Tolstoy supports this claim with a bold assertion: that Napoleon’s agency was wildly exaggerated. According to Tolstoy’s view of history, countless human wills coincide to produce historical events.
Furthermore, Napoleon’s instructions during this battle were really no worse than those given in any previous battle; they only seem to be because this is the first battle Napoleon lost. Had he won, the instructions would have seemed ingenious and would have been studied for generations.
The context of historical events also colors people’s perceptions of them. Tolstoy implicitly questions the concept of military genius altogether, a criticism he’ll develop at the end of the book.
After returning from another ride along the line, Napoleon drinks punch and chats with Beausset about changes he intends to make in the empress’s house. Despite his nonchalant air, however, Napoleon can’t sleep that night. He gets up before dawn and chats with his adjutant, Rapp, who assures him that the day will go well and that all preparations have been undertaken. Napoleon observes that his army has been much diminished since Smolensk and fusses about his cold. He goes outside and paces in the dark. By 5:30 in the morning, Napoleon is riding toward the Shevardino redoubt, and cannon fire rings through the dawn.
Despite being one of the war’s most formidable personalities, Napoleon experiences the prelude to battle much like any other soldier—chatting about irrelevancies, fidgeting, and fighting to keep nerves in check. In life and death scenarios, both small and great wrestle with similar uncertainties and fears.