Prussia, or Belvidere, in 1813, or maybe 1809. Anyway, the French and British face off.
Prussia, or Belvidere, in 1813, or maybe 1809. Anyway, the French and British face off. Credit: Tom George Davison

Imagination governs the world.
—Napoleon Bonaparte

The battle began at precisely 11 o’clock on a misty June morning. No one was sure what year it was—both 1809 and 1813 had been suggested—or where exactly they were fighting, though everyone could agree it was somewhere in Prussia, or maybe Bulgaria. And also that the British army was severely outnumbered: a dozen men to the French army’s 24, and therefore headed for certain defeat.

The two groups faced off in a long green field in full view of the village, taking turns firing every 30 seconds or so. Some men died quickly, others dramatically, with a great show of wiggling of legs. A medic dashed in to tend to the wounded, only to be chased away by a dragoon on horseback. The cavalry charge came, its majesty somewhat dimmed by the fact that there were only two horsemen per side. They clashed sabers gleefully with the dexterity of four-year-olds, and they giggled at their lack of skill. But they looked magnificent in their superfine wool coats and metal breastplates and pants that buttoned up the side (making it necessary to plan Port-a-John trips far in advance). They agreed the swordfight was excellent compensation for not getting to fire a musket.

Some of the villagers settled in to watch the skirmish. “I hope that fellow doesn’t get killed,” the tavern keeper commented, pointing at one of the French infantrymen. “He’s a good customer.” Others, namely the blacksmith, continued their daily labors. A pair of joggers trotted by and then disappeared into the trees, apparently oblivious to the life-and-death struggle just a few feet away.

Ten minutes later, after the British had been chased off the field with cries of “Vive l’Empereur!,” everyone, including the dead, marched cheerfully back to camp, where the real business of the day began: cooking lentil soup over a wood fire, examining coats and small weapons offered for sale, admiring and firing homemade grenade launchers and mortars (which give off much more satisfying blasts than muskets), and swapping stories and gossip about their absent leader and adversary, the man responsible for all this mayhem.

“We have to stop that mad dog Napoleon from taking over Europe!” declared Terrence Walsh, a British soldier in a faded red coat. In French camp—where, it must be said, the tents were more neatly arranged and the food smelled better—the rationale for the battle was a bit different. “Napoleon wasn’t interested in conquering the world,” said Victor Eiser, a grenadier in Napoleon’s imperial guard, which gave him the privilege of wearing a very tall, very heavy, very intimidating bearskin hat. “He wanted a united Europe. He hated Britain, and Britain and Prussia controlled world trade.”

Not that all the French recruits had such high-minded reasons for joining up. “I love the uniforms,” said Tom Meyer, a French infantryman. “The British uniforms are boring.”

(A fact even Walsh must concede: “The French won’t have me. They don’t like my beard. I can’t shave it. I’m a model.”)

But where was he, this arbiter of military fashion, this hater of beards, this conqueror and uniter, this reason for all these soldiers and civilians to be stranded somewhere in what was perhaps Prussia, or, if you must be specific, Spencer Park in Belvidere?

That’s a very complicated question. In 1809 (or 1813), l’Empereur was busy subduing Germans in more strategic locations than this little backwater. In 2013, the organizers of the Brigade Napoleon‘s Grand Tactique couldn’t find a Napoleon to show up. Mark Schneider, North America’s premier Napoleon, was detained by his duties in Colonial Williamsburg, where he performs as Lafayette (the emperor, alas, never made it to the New World), and also, as the Wall Street Journal reported, by a guilty plea to a 2008 DUI charge that keeps in him in jail two days a week.

It might be possible to get another short man in a bicorne hat to ride a horse across the parade grounds with his hand tucked into his uniform jacket, barking orders, but Brigade Napoleon takes its reenactments seriously. Not only does Schneider bear a strong resemblance to the emperor, he is also the same height (5’7″, not 5’4″, as is widely believed; the animosity between the French and the British in those days was such that they couldn’t even agree on measurements), and speaks French with a Corsican accent. He once distracted a crowd at a rock concert in Weimar, Germany, simply by walking by in full uniform; the Germans shouted “Vive l’Empereur!” and asked for his autograph, which he gave in character.

Some of us become acquainted with Napoleon Bonaparte only from a polite distance, in history class, where he’s slotted neatly between the French and Industrial Revolutions and is an object lesson in the dangers of invading Russia, or through novels or movies ranging from War and Peace to Regency romances, where he is an agent of chaos and suffering and an impediment to true love. There have been towns named for him, and airports and restaurants and pastries and gas grills and psychological complexes, and he’s recognizable enough to serve as shorthand for anything small but mighty, or maybe megalomaniacal.

But there are other people who want to know him, to see what he saw and eat what he ate, to experience what it was like to go to war in early-19th-century Europe, to feel the camaraderie of life on the battlefield, when war was still glorious and noble—or at least the uniforms and horses made it seem that way. There are plenty of ways to escape the 21st century. Why shouldn’t one of history’s greatest puzzles be one of them?

"Harold," sporting a British military uniform
“Harold,” sporting a British military uniformCredit: Andrea Bauer

I am a monarch of God’s creation, and you reptiles of the earth dare not oppose me.
—Napoleon Bonaparte

The Napoleonic Historical Society‘s headquarters are above the Patio Theater in Portage Park, which is fitting, since the Patio is also a relic of another, more glorious bygone age. The office, one large room, is identified by a sign on the door that reads “Emperor’s Headquarters.” There is no emperor present—merely an executive director, Todd Fisher, and a newsletter editor, John Brewster. But the emperor’s relics are everywhere: shelves of books (some published by Fisher’s Emperor’s Press), miniature models of Napoleon and his soldiers in action, a small working guillotine, an unused ashtray bearing the Napoleonic seal, and a full French army uniform and bearskin hat like the one Victor Eiser wore at the reenactment in Belvidere. Aside from the furniture and an Oriental rug, the only objects in the room that do not relate to Napoleon are a computer used to produce the society’s newsletter and a baseball autographed by Braves pitcher Warren Spahn that was given to Fisher by his accountant.

“The society is open to anyone with a general interest in the period,” says Fisher, a broad, magisterial man of 58 who sits behind a broad, magisterial desk. “We get everyone from Jane Austen types who just like”—he pauses, trying to find the right word—”dancing to serious military historians and collectors.” This distinguishes it from the International Napoleonic Society, based in Toronto, whose mission is more scholarly. There is an overlap in membership, though, and Fisher himself has written a scholarly book on Napoleon’s campaigns between 1805 and 1807. (The International Napoleonic Society was started by Ben Weider, founder of the International Federation of BodyBuilding & Fitness and the Mr. Olympia competition, which presented Arnold Schwarzenegger to an unsuspecting world. Weider’s great contribution to scholarship was to perpetuate the theory, controversial among serious historians, that Napoleon died of poisoning.)

The Napoleonic Historical Society was founded in 1981 and has had a somewhat tangled and litigious history, rife with schisms and reconciliations, sort of like France’s. It’s currently in a period of peace and has between 500 and 600 members, though only about 100 are active and attend the annual conferences. (This year’s will be in Alexandria, Virginia, in September.) Even fewer go on Fisher’s annual tours, which visit places Napoleon happened to be exactly 200 years before, but this is by design: if he takes more than 14 people, he has trouble getting reservations at decent restaurants.

Fisher recently got back from a tour of Saxony in eastern Germany, where Napoleon spent 1813 beating a retreat from the Russia debacle of 1812. Russia was not a military defeat, Fisher points out; Napoleon had actually captured Moscow. What defeated him was a heat wave on the march into Russia that killed a quarter of his men and, more crucially, a quarter of his horses, which led to serious problems in feeding the soldiers.

But history, as the cliche goes, is written by the winners, and the Brits have not been kind to Napoleon.

“God, we hate the British!” Fisher exclaims, with a meaningful look at Brewster. Though technically an American, Brewster grew up in England and retains the accent. He just laughs.

“The British claimed he was a megalomaniac bent on world domination,” Fisher continues. “That’s their story, and they’re sticking to it. But his influence is still with us today. The Code Napoléon is the basis for European law, with the exception of England. He broke down trade, consolidated Europe, emancipated the Jews, founded the école system in France, and started the decline of monarchy in Europe. This all tends to be overlooked. Even people who didn’t like him say he was good for society. And now he’s equated with Hitler because they both invaded Russia!”

“France was just coming off of 12 years of revolution and constant wars [when Napoleon came to power in 1799],” adds Brewster. “At the time, he looked like God’s gift.”

(Except to women, whom he described as “nothing but machines for producing children.” This may be the reason that, while there are women in the Napoleonic Historical Society, they are far outnumbered by men.)

“He had a very high opinion of himself,” says Fisher, “but what do you say about someone who has an accurate opinion of themselves?”

My life has been a romance.
—Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte was born on the Mediterranean island of Corsica in 1769, the same year it was conquered by France. His family was part of the minor nobility, high enough on the social ladder that Napoleon could attend the French military academy but low enough that he was never in danger of the guillotine during the French Revolution.

Napoleon rose rapidly through the military ranks. He was very good at reading maps and had an extremely organized mind, which he compared to a chest of drawers. “He would open a drawer,” says Fisher, “take care of a problem, and shut it back in again.” Napoleon enthusiasts love to tell the story of how he would start dictating a letter to a secretary, stop when the secretary fell behind, and move on to a new secretary and a new letter. He would go through six more secretaries, then return to the first and pick up the letter exactly where he left off. The historian Paul Johnson writes that despite his highly organized mind, Napoleon had no conscience. Of course, Johnson is British.

By the time Napoleon was 26, he was in charge of the French army’s campaign against Italy. In 1799, when he was 30, he staged a coup d’etat and became the leader of the French government, though he modestly called himself the First Consul. In 1804, in the wake of an assassination attempt, he upgraded himself to emperor in order to assure the succession of his line, which technically made him not much different from the monarchs he was fighting. Die-hard fans, though, will tell you that more-conservative Europeans, including the emperors of Austria and Prussia and the czar of Russia, all hated that Napoleon had come from common origins, not ordained by divine right like they were. Thus, Napoleon spent most of his 15-year reign fighting them.

“They weren’t the Napoleonic Wars,” says J. David Markham, the president of the International Napoleonic Society, who has written several books on Napoleon. “They were more counterrevolutions because the old regimes couldn’t stand the French Revolution. Coalitions formed against Napoleon, all funded by Great Britain.”

(Meanwhile, after the coronation, the new emperor made enemies of supporters of the French Revolution—including Beethoven, who angrily crossed his name off the dedication page of the Eroica Symphony.)

At its largest, Napoleon’s empire encompassed large parts of Italy and central Europe and all of Spain. He marched as far east as Moscow and as far south as Egypt. In his spare time, he reorganized the French government, sponsored the inventions of the smallpox vaccine and canned food, wrote kinky love letters to his then wife Josephine, and stole vast quantities of great European and Egyptian art and put them on display at the Louvre, which he renamed the Musée Napoléon.

And then comes the great and tragic part of the story (depending on who’s telling it): he lost it all. After the Russia debacle, the British, Prussian, and Austrian armies chased him back to Paris, where he was forced to abdicate and accept banishment to the island of Elba. He escaped and fought his way back to Paris, where he ruled again for 100 days before his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Just to be sure he wouldn’t come back, the British exiled him to another island, Saint Helena in the south Atlantic—a location so remote, reports John Brewster, that there is still no airport. The only way to get there is by a mail boat that docks once a week. (Nonetheless, Todd Fisher plans to include it in his Napoleon bicentennial tour, but only once.) He died there, probably of stomach cancer, in 1821, and left future historians plenty to think about.

“We’re forever reassessing him,” says rock critic Jim DeRogatis, who happens to be a member of the Napoleonic Historical Society and bears a large tattoo of the Napoleonic crest on his right forearm. “He was a tyrant and a dictator, he was an idealist carrying on the ideals of the French Revolution in a realpolitikal way. He started wars, wars were forced upon him. He supported atheism, he got the fucking church out of the government. Even in the fucking British army through World War I, you had to be upper-class to be an officer. It was unprecedented for a hardworking and smart corporal to become a general. His best generals and marshals rose through the ranks. Hard work and ingenuity are revered American notions.”

Therein lies the appeal. What’s the point of looking up to a guy who had his empire handed to him by his dad? Unless you were a guy who had your empire handed to you by your dad.

“If you think about ‘great’ figures of history in the past 200 or 300 years, aside from perverse interest in Hitler or Stalin arising out the pornography of violence, who else is there to go to?” asks Paul Cheney, a history professor at the University of Chicago.

Plus, as DeRogatis points out, the “little Italian” had charisma.

There’s also this, says Cheney: “Well into the 19th century and even the 20th century, insane people often fantasized about being one of two people: Jesus Christ or Napoleon.”

Which may point to some fundamental dichotemy in human nature. Would you rather be terribly good or terribly powerful?

Todd Fisher and John Brewster inside the headquarters of the Napoleonic Historical Society
Todd Fisher and John Brewster inside the headquarters of the Napoleonic Historical SocietyCredit: Andrea Bauer

Ability is of little account without opportunity.
—Napoleon Bonaparte

Though Sheperd Paine is a longtime member of the Napoleonic Historical Society, he’s not really a fan of Napoleon. His interests lie more in military history.

“Most people think of military history as being about the battles and the tactics and who moved where,” he says. “I’m interested in the human experience. I do research to try to put myself in other people’s shoes: a private at Gettysburg, a general at Waterloo, what it was like to stand up and yell ‘Charge!’ and know you’re going to have to be the first to go in and your chances of survival are slim. Battles are terrible things. In the movie Anzio with Robert Mitchum, set during World War II, Mitchum asks, ‘If war is so terrible, why do we do it?’ We like it. It’s the most dramatic event human beings engage in. They’re at their very best and their very worst. In the same event, there’s cowardice and bravery, selfishness and generosity.”

Paine never had a chance to find this out firsthand. He was in the army, but never saw combat. He tried reenacting, but he couldn’t get into it. Instead, his medium for experiencing war is miniature military models and dioramas. He specializes in showing what photographers call decisive moments, when human beings are at their very best and worst: the chaos on the gun deck of a British ship during the Battle of Trafalgar; lonely soldiers camping out in the snow during the Russian retreat, surrounded by their now-useless gear and protected by a bayonet; Napoleon, his back to the viewer, paying solemn tribute to another emperor, Frederick the Great of Prussia, after conquering his country and dissolving his Holy Roman Empire.

Paine, now 67, began making his models when he was a student at the University of Chicago. Much to his delight, he discovered that people were willing to pay for them, enough so he could make a living. He never had another job and only retired, 15 years ago, when his eyesight started going. In 2008, he and DeRogatis, who also makes military miniatures, collaborated on a coffee-table book featuring photos of 30 years’ worth of models and dioramas. Paine’s work ranges from the 1600s to World War II, but he found the Napoleonic era particularly fruitful for the colorful uniforms and larger-than-life characters—not just the emperor, but also his marshals. “You meet more interesting people and have more interesting friends if you don’t limit yourself to the ones who are still alive,” he says.

His figures, made from epoxy, wire, and metal, are just three and a half inches tall, but their faces and bodies are expressive, and their uniforms are exquisitely detailed. In a series depicting Napoleon’s retreat from Russia, even the horses look defeated.

“Shep is a legend,” says DeRogatis. “I’ve written nine books. His how-to-build-a-diorama book has outsold everything I’ve ever done.”

Malcolm Forbes was a fan and collector of Paine’s work. So was Andrew Wyeth. Once Paine was at an art gallery in Santa Fe during a Wyeth show. The saleswoman asked Paine if he was a collector of Wyeth’s work. “He collects mine,” Paine replied.

After he stopped making models, Paine began collecting Napoleonic-era memorabilia, the best he could afford. His house is filled with antique swords and and uniforms and hats, including one that may have belonged to Napoleon, all displayed on models Paine sculpted himself.

He prefers objects that come with a story attached. Among his favorites are the medals that belonged to a Mamluk soldier-slave Napoleon met during his Egyptian expedition. The soldier eventually rose to the rank of colonel in the French army and served in all of Napoleon’s major campaigns. He was wounded seven times and had eight horses shot out from under him, but he died in France of old age. “Without the story, the medals are just costume jewelry,” Paine says. “What I’m holding is a direct connection between him and me.”

From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step.
—Napoleon Bonaparte

DeRogatis loves his job. But he’s noticed that if you really love your job, it’s very easy to do nothing but work. That’s one of the reasons he gets up at 5 AM to work on his box dioramas. Right now he’s building a scene from the Italian campaign when the French stabled their horses in the monastery dining hall where the original Last Supper was painted on the wall. “It keeps me sane,” he says. “At [Napoleonic Historical Society] meetings, people will say, ‘I liked your last review,’ and I’ll be like, ‘Let’s talk about Marshal Davout.’

“In the rock world,” DeRogatis continues, “you’re surrounded by hipsters. You’ll go to the Empty Bottle and you won’t be surprised by anyone there. At the miniature history group, people come to it from different angles. The first rule is, you don’t talk about politics. You can rank on Talleyrand all you want, but don’t bring Obama into it.”

This partially explains how Todd Fisher, a former chef and stockbroker, and Tom Hoff, then a Chicago cop, found themselves sharing a hotel room in the Italian version of the Sybaris during a 2000 reenactment of the Battle of Marengo, one of Napoleon’s most decisive victories.

“We Americans had to hold up our end drinking and drinking and drinking until the last man standing,” Hoff recounts. “There was a downpour, and we were supposed to be sleeping in an open field. We were sober enough to be able to drive to find a hotel. Everything was booked because of the damned reenactors.” The only room they could find was in the sex hotel. By the time they woke up and got back to the battlefield the next day, the battle had already been fought. (The French won.) “We were the ultimate French soldiers,” Hoff concludes. “We got drunk, we found a brothel, and we missed the battle! It’s not the reenactment. It’s everything that goes on around a reenactment.”

Hoff is a frequent reenactor. He’s “fought” in every war from the French and Indian War to World War II. He jokes that his first wife was the last widow of the First World War. As far as hobbies go, he admits it’s expensive—a full uniform, from shirt to hand-sewn coat and tall shako hat, is easily $1,000, and a musket goes for another $1,200—and time-consuming—you frequently have to travel to battle sites. But Hoff is into it. He’s been with some of his units for 15 or 25 years.

“When we did away with conscription,” he explains, “it decreased the size of the military. It took something out of male life, a sense of brotherhood and camaraderie. This gives guys a chance to get out and bond and share a common interest. I’ve been with my War of 1812 unit for 15 years. They’re my closest friends. We’re godfathers to each other’s children.”

In recent years, Hoff has discovered that camp life has become his favorite part of reenacting. He’s thinking of changing his Napoleonic character (or “impression,” in reenactor lingo) to a “Grumbler,” a member of the French army’s Old Guard and, as he puts it, “embrace the ethos of sitting around a campfire complaining. If you don’t shoot a musket, you don’t have to clean it.

“To some people, it seems silly,” he continues. “But the vast majority of us are getting more out of it than just surface. If you’re not reflecting and getting something out of it, you’re doing it wrong.”

The French army prepares for battle.
The French army prepares for battle.Credit: Tom George Davison

All celebrated people lose dignity on a close view.
—Napoleon Bonaparte

But enough of this talk of looking at Napoleon from afar, from the worm’s eye view of the regular soldier who, if all the memoirs DeRogatis has read are any indication, was more concerned about finding a baguette for dinner than winning the battle. Mark Schneider, by virtue of what he calls his “large Gallic nose,” has a more rarefied view: riding a white horse through the Brandenburg Gate to the cheers and applause of 20,000 Germans.

Schneider, who is now 43, was first introduced to Napoleon at the age of two, when a French cousin gave him a small model. In elementary school, when his classmates kept models of superheroes on their desks, he had Napoleon. This exposed him to a certain amount of ridicule, but his admiration and love of history remained constant into adulthood. Two weeks after he got out of the army, he got a job at Colonial Williamsburg, gradually working his way up to historical performer. People told him he bore a strong resemblance to Napoleon, but it never mattered until one fateful day in 1998. He was at an event sponsored by Brigade Napoleon, the organization responsible for the Battle of Belvidere. The press showed up and demanded a Napoleon for photographs. Schneider was immediately promoted from French cavalry hussar to emperor.

He took a Method approach to his new role, reading histories and memoirs to find out how Napoleon walked (always with purpose), talked (with an Italian accent), and interacted with others (“he was very intense”). Within a few years, he had attracted the attention of the History Channel, which hired him to play Napoleon in a documentary, and, in 2005, the organizing committee of a Waterloo reenactment in Belgium.

“I don’t think Europeans had seen fully dressed characters interact to bring history to life,” Schneider says. “It became very popular.” Soon he was marching across the continent from bicentennial reenactment to bicentennial reenactment. He’s done Borodino twice and Austerlitz four times, but he claims it never gets old, except when he has to re-create the famous portrait of Napoleon with his hand inside his vest, holding his stomach—the photographers’ favorite, he says. In his opinion, it’s a bit of a cliche.

“At my first big event, Waterloo in 2005,” he says, “I was marching down the street and all the reenactors and civilians were lined up at the side of the road shouting, ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ There’s a lot of choreography and it feels like work, but then there are these great moments, feeling history all around you.”

This, he feels, raises his Napoleon work from entertainment to public service. It’s one thing to read about Napoleon in a book, entirely another to have the experience of watching him lead troops into battle.

The Napoleon business will probably slow down a bit after the Waterloo bicentennial reenactment in 2015. Napoleon won’t be announced until next year, but already Schneider is locked in a bitter rivalry with a Frenchman named Frank Samson, who told the Wall Street Journal that Schneider has “an enormous flaw: He is an Anglo-Saxon. Can you imagine Napoleon addressing his army with a ridiculous accent? The horror! The horror!” (John Brewster chronicled their struggle in the most recent edition of the Napoleonic Historical Society newsletter, though his account is strongly biased in favor of his friend Schneider.)

Schneider claims the rivalry is entirely one-sided. “In the end,” he says, “I’m not Napoleon. He’s not Napoleon. If [Samson] gets it, I’ll say, ‘Bravo! Wonderful job!’ At this point, I’ve done enough for anybody.”

We are born, we live, and we die in the midst of the marvelous.
—Napoleon Bonaparte

Jim DeRogatis doesn’t see anything particularly notable about his fascination with Napoleon. “There are groups of people fascinated by stuff everywhere,” he says.

“I don’t know if knowing everything about punk rock is different from knowing everything about Napoleon,” he continues. “It’s a subculture. You can’t live by music alone. You have to learn about other things in life. It’s unhealthy to have one obsession. It’s better to have a couple.”

But everyone has a different reason for being obsessed with Napoleon. For some it’s about the man himself, with all his contradictions and ambiguities, his quick rise and inglorious end. For others, it’s the excitement of firing a musket (professional tip: putting flour in the barrel results in a much more dramatic explosion) or the camaraderie of sitting around a campfire with your buddies, knowing that when you go to battle tomorrow, nobody’s going to get killed. Or it’s about getting as close to significant moments in history as possible. Or honoring ancestors who fought in the Napoleonic Wars, or ordinary soldiers whose names have since been forgotten. Or getting to travel to cool places; to an American, getting to go to Vienna or northern Italy is a hell of a lot more exciting a prospect than Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Some academic historians are perplexed by Napoleon adulation. “Frankly, I’ve never understood that mentality,” Isser Woloch, a professor at Columbia University who studies the French Revolution and Napoleonic era, writes in an e-mail. “Insofar as individuals affect the course of history (world historic individuals, as Hegel put it), Napoleon is high up there. But the bottom line must include the appalling carnage that his wars generated, which perhaps to our sensibility today should trump everything else.”

But Napoleon is far enough back in time that it’s easy to ignore the gore amid the pretty uniforms. “The era is just modern enough that we understand it,” DeRogatis says. “The way people were living wasn’t much different. The way the wars were fought is just antiquated enough to be exotic.”

Besides—it’s the bicentennial! “2019 will be the 250th anniversary of the birth of Napoleon,” Todd Fisher says. “It’ll start all over again. We’ll be creeping around battlefields when we’re in our 80s remembering when we were young enough to climb that hill.”