Napoleon's Spy Games: Three Secrets of Imperial Espionage

Listen to The Cultural Tutor: Napoleon's Briefcase podcast


Napoleon's Briefcase

Beyond battlefield triumphs, Napoleon deployed intelligence networks, revealing a mastermind who understood the impact of information (and disinformation) on the fate of nations. Here are three sneaky tactics Napoleon used against his foes.

   Napoleon’s Gazettes Étrangères portfolio, part of the SPYSCAPE museum & experience

Napoleon’s Gazettes Étrangères portfolio

Each morning, Napoleon Bonaparte awaited the clandestine delivery of his mysterious red-leather portfolio by Count Lavalette, the Postmaster-General overseeing the Black Chamber within the French post office. The emperor's prized case secreted newspaper clippings and daily reports from discreet agents as well as copies of private correspondence. Each day, French codebreakers and stenographers within the Black Chamber meticulously copied, deciphered, and resealed correspondence bound for foreign embassies and deposited the copies in Napoleon’s Gazettes Étrangères, creating an atmosphere where even the risky act of sending a letter became an exercise in prudence and counterintelligence.

Joaquin Phoenix stars in Ridley Scott’s epic Napoleon (2023)


Napoleon's Legend

Joaquin Phoenix's portrayal of Napoleon Bonaparte as a brash military leader is vividly depicted in Ridley Scott's thrilling biopic. Even today, the French Emperor is lauded for his military strategy and interest in espionage, recognizing their power to shape history.

Observations by the second company at the Battle of Mainz (1795)

France’s Spy Balloon 

Long before China’s spy balloon drifted across America in early 2023, there was the French Aerostatic Corps, founded in 1794 and widely believed to be the world's first balloon unit. The Corps using balloons primarily for reconnaissance and spying. In May 1794, equipped with the balloon L'Entreprenant (The Enterprising), the Corps joined troops at Maubeuge, initiating reconnaissance activities during an enemy bombardment. Subsequently, the corps moved the balloon to the plain of Fleurus, playing a pivotal role in the Battle of Fleurus on June 26, where the balloon remained afloat for nine hours, providing crucial intelligence to the French Army through signals and notes dropped from the balloon. Despite the French victory, opinions on the effectiveness of the balloon corps were mixed.

In 1799, Napoleon disbanded the Corps but it was never far from his thoughts. Five years later, in 1804, Napoleon considered invading England by landing troops transported by balloons but consulted his Aeronaut of Official Festivals, Sophie Blanchard, who said the invasion would likely not succeed due to the unpredictable winds in the English Channel.

Napoleon's Spy Games: Three Secrets of Imperial Espionage

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Listen to The Cultural Tutor: Napoleon's Briefcase podcast


Napoleon's Briefcase

Beyond battlefield triumphs, Napoleon deployed intelligence networks, revealing a mastermind who understood the impact of information (and disinformation) on the fate of nations. Here are three sneaky tactics Napoleon used against his foes.

   Napoleon’s Gazettes Étrangères portfolio, part of the SPYSCAPE museum & experience

Napoleon’s Gazettes Étrangères portfolio

Each morning, Napoleon Bonaparte awaited the clandestine delivery of his mysterious red-leather portfolio by Count Lavalette, the Postmaster-General overseeing the Black Chamber within the French post office. The emperor's prized case secreted newspaper clippings and daily reports from discreet agents as well as copies of private correspondence. Each day, French codebreakers and stenographers within the Black Chamber meticulously copied, deciphered, and resealed correspondence bound for foreign embassies and deposited the copies in Napoleon’s Gazettes Étrangères, creating an atmosphere where even the risky act of sending a letter became an exercise in prudence and counterintelligence.

Joaquin Phoenix stars in Ridley Scott’s epic Napoleon (2023)


Napoleon's Legend

Joaquin Phoenix's portrayal of Napoleon Bonaparte as a brash military leader is vividly depicted in Ridley Scott's thrilling biopic. Even today, the French Emperor is lauded for his military strategy and interest in espionage, recognizing their power to shape history.

Observations by the second company at the Battle of Mainz (1795)

France’s Spy Balloon 

Long before China’s spy balloon drifted across America in early 2023, there was the French Aerostatic Corps, founded in 1794 and widely believed to be the world's first balloon unit. The Corps using balloons primarily for reconnaissance and spying. In May 1794, equipped with the balloon L'Entreprenant (The Enterprising), the Corps joined troops at Maubeuge, initiating reconnaissance activities during an enemy bombardment. Subsequently, the corps moved the balloon to the plain of Fleurus, playing a pivotal role in the Battle of Fleurus on June 26, where the balloon remained afloat for nine hours, providing crucial intelligence to the French Army through signals and notes dropped from the balloon. Despite the French victory, opinions on the effectiveness of the balloon corps were mixed.

In 1799, Napoleon disbanded the Corps but it was never far from his thoughts. Five years later, in 1804, Napoleon considered invading England by landing troops transported by balloons but consulted his Aeronaut of Official Festivals, Sophie Blanchard, who said the invasion would likely not succeed due to the unpredictable winds in the English Channel.

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Grand Chiffre: a nomenclator cipher

Grand Chiffre

Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries

One of France’s most significant cryptographic achievements was the Great Cipher (Grand Chiffre), a nomenclator cipher crafted for Louis XIV by the highly skilled father-and-son cryptographers Antoine and Bonaventure Rossignol.

The generals of the revolution and Napoleon inherited this technology for encryption. To ensure its security, the codes had a limited lifespan. So, should Napoleon wish to communicate with Marshal Davout, a code would be commissioned in late August 1813 and be withdrawn months later in early December. 

The Duke of Wellington, commander of the British troops, entrusted Major George Scovell, a linguist, with creating a team dedicated to intercepting and deciphering French messages. Scovell’s breakthroughs allowed the British to breach French ciphers, providing a wealth of military intelligence on Napoleon and his armies, and significantly impacting strategic decisions during this historical period.


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