Imagine a pub quiz night. You've bluffed your way through football trivia, obscure poets, and managed to guess the dress size of Queen Victoria's chief chambermaid. Only one question to go, and sweet victory is yours. As your last remaining opponent is booed out for not knowing the atomic weight of plutonium, the man with the microphone turns to you and asks 'What was the name of Napoleon's soldier?'1
Unless you're already drunk enough to make stealing traffic cones seem like a fun and original thing to do, your first response will probably be 'Huh? Which one?'
The common trivia question 'What was the name of Napoleon's horse?' is equally silly. Over the course of his lifetime, Napoleon Bonaparte would have owned and used far more horses than pairs of trousers.
Horses in the Napoleonic Era
At the turn of the 19th Century, horses were the only practical way of travelling long distances overland quickly and with reasonable comfort - the first steam-powered locomotive was built in 1804, but the railroad did not reach continental Europe until 1835. Different types and breeds of horse were required for different purposes - you would not haul coal in a Mini Cooper, race a VW Bus, or go overland in a Ferrari. Napoleon would have owned fast, spirited horses for hunting, trotting2 horses for pulling carriages, strong, tireless horses for travel, elegant, high-gaited horses for parades, and, of course, horses trained for war.
Horses cannot be ridden until they are fully grown at around three to five years of age, and their average lifespan is only 20 - 25 years. Besides the vast numbers needed to mount troops and carry supplies, each campaign would have required several mounts for Napoleon's personal use. Horses were killed in battle, starved, froze, succumbed to injuries or disease, were poisoned3 by bad water or were simply killed and eaten by hungry soldiers. Highly-bred steeds were also exchanged by rulers as tokens of esteem or captured as prizes of war.
Napoleon and His Horses
For his personal use, the Emperor favoured grey4 Arabians or Barbs, quick, agile Arab desert horses fiery enough to be impressive, but small enough that he could mount them unaided. This was not because of his size - contrary to rumours about his short stature, Napoleon was about 168 cm tall, a very acceptable average height for a Frenchman of the time. He simply wasn't a terribly good equestrian. His saddle horses were generally chosen for their reliability and sweet, gentle dispositions rather than their exteriors and put through extensive training before the Emperor would consent to ride them. His officers thought they were too small and skinny and 'would have been ashamed to ride them' - they preferred larger Thoroughbreds.
Napoleon never owned a horse as a child, and probably only had one year of formal equestrian training during his brief stay at the École Royale Militaire in Paris. He was never a very elegant rider by European standards, preferring the style he had acquired riding donkeys during his childhood in Corsica - slouching, back bent, heels drawn up5 and reins bunched in one hand, sliding back and forth so much that he wore holes in his breeches. According to Napoleon's personal valet, Constant, 'The Emperor mounted a horse without grace... and I believe that he would not have always been very sturdy on the horse if we had not taken so much care to give him only horses perfectly trained.' Nevertheless, he could easily cover 20 - 30km in one day, rode for pleasure as well as travel, and was undaunted by his numerous falls and accidents.
The Emperor recognised the importance of horses for warfare and built up an impressive French cavalry. He re-opened the aristocratic studs that had been closed during the Revolution, even going so far as to encourage racing in the hopes that it would improve bloodlines as breeders competed to own the fastest animals.
It is no wonder, then, that Napoleon Bonaparte kept a stable of about 806 personal saddle horses besides the carriage horses and his personal stud, and owned and used over 150 horses in his lifetime. The names of several dozen mounts7 have been recorded by diligent record-keepers, but we have more information on a mere handful.
This grey Arabian stallion was presented to Napoleon Bonaparte by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire as a token of friendship, and is known to have been one of his favourites. He accompanied his master to St Helena in 1815. After Napoleon's death on 5 May, 1821, Vizir was brought first to England and then to France, where he died in 1829. He was stuffed and mounted, and is currently on display at the Musée de l'Armée in Paris, along with the unknown dog that kept Napoleon company on Elba8.
Another grey Arabian stallion, Marengo, is widely accepted to have been Napoleon's favourite and most-used mount, ridden during nearly all his campaigns. He has been identified in various paintings, although Napoleon's taste in horses means that it is hard to tell them apart. Also, many paintings are not historically accurate, created after the fact to glorify the Emperor. For example, Napoleon probably crossed the Alps on a mule, rather than a horse. Curiously enough, the meticulous stable records Napoleon kept show no evidence of a horse named 'Marengo', nor is he mentioned in any primary sources.
The most likely answer to this puzzle is Napoleon's habit of bestowing nicknames on those around him - after all, Josephine's given name was Rose. Many of his horses are known to have been renamed - for example, Napoleon's tall, pure-white Norman parade horse, Intendant, was affectionately nicknamed 'Coco' by the Imperial Guard, and Mon Cousin was rechristened Austerlitz while Cirus and Ingenu both became Wagram to commemorate famous victories. Conversely, Moscou was known as Tcherkes after the disastrous Russian campaign. It is assumed that the stallion Ali was called 'Marengo' after the Battle of Marengo on 14 June, 1800, in which he carried his master to victory. Napoleon also used him at Austerlitz, Jena-Auerstedt, Wagram, and Waterloo, and he was wounded eight times in the course of his career as a war-horse.
Ali was born at the famous stud of El Naseri in 1793 and exported to France - or, perhaps, captured during the Egyptian campaign - in 1799. The stallion was tiny, standing at only 14.1 hands9, but fast, allegedly able to complete 130 km journeys in five hours. He survived the retreat from Moscow in 1812 and was finally captured after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. He was brought back to the UK and put on display at Pall Mall, then used for stud. He died of old age in 1831, and was preserved as a trophy. The hide with the 'N' brand was lost, but his skeleton is on display at the National Army Museum in Chelsea, sans one hoof, which was presented to the Grenadier Guards for use as a snuff box in the officers' mess.
The famous stud at Ivenack, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany, was founded by Graf Burchard Hartwig von Plessen in 1785. He imported a thoroughbred stallion, Morwick Ball, and a mare, Herodias, from England. Their dapple-grey colt Herodot never raced, but sired many champions. During the occupation of Mecklenburg, Napoleon sent out a squadron especially to capture Herodot. He was hidden in a hollow tree, one of Ivenack's famous Thousand-Year Oaks10 and the French troops were forced to retreat without their prize. Unfortunately, they led his mares right past the tree, and the stallion whinnied for them, giving himself away.
Herodot continued his career in France, where he was incorporated into Napoleon's private stud and used as a saddle horse by the Empress Josephine. At the Congress of Vienna, where European diplomats met to discuss the terms of the peace after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, Generalfeldmarschall Gebhard Leberecht Fürst Blücher11 von Wahlstatt made it a special condition that Herodot be returned to Germany. This honour was only shared by four other horses - all four are made of stone and are part of the Quadriga on the Brandenburg Gate, which was captured by Napoleon in 1806 and returned to Berlin in 1815.
The horse was ridden back from Marseille to Mecklenburg, where he was allowed to recover from his adventures and once again put out to stud, his experience with French mares obviously not having spoiled his taste for German ones. He died at the age of 35 and was buried beneath the oak that had once hidden him. A bust of Herodot can still be seen on the gable of the main stable at Ivenack.
The Unsung Heroes
While Marengo is no doubt the most widely acclaimed of Napoleon's horses, perhaps the ones who made the biggest contribution to his greatness are the ones known only by number rather that name: like the steeds of Kellerman's12 cavalry brigade, who turned humiliation into Napoleon's finest hour by an amazing charge at the Battle of Marengo, the catalogue of horses who were killed underneath Napoleon in battle, or the Emperor's famous Polish lancers who drove fear into the hearts of the enemy. He knew himself the decisive difference a well-used horse could make. Speaking of the uprising of 1792 which led to the downfall of the king, Napoleon remarked that 'If Louis XVI had only appeared on horseback13, he would have conquered!'
On some occasions, it could even be said that the horses decided the timing of ceasefires - in several battles the fighting had to stop as the lines of dead horses built a barricade between combatants. At Waterloo, one officer counted 240 of his 300 horses killed, with an approximate equine mortality rate of 10,000 animals during the one-day battle, while Murat14 estimated that 15,000 horses had died from heat and exhaustion alone during one short march in June 1812. Yet despite the high mortality rate, Napoleon's Empire in many ways came to greatness on the back of thousands of horses. They may even have played an important role in his downfall, as a contributing factor to Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo is said to have been haemorrhoids. The Emperor and afflicted officers who shared his poor diet and lack of hygienic facilities could not remain on their horses for long, making it more difficult to survey the battlefield.
Of course, the question 'What was the name of Napoleon's horse?' is further complicated by the fact that there was more than one Napoleon, and the others had horses of their own. Napoleon III15, for example, is not only famous for being both the last monarch and the first president of the French Republic, but also owned a horse named Prince Imperial who holds the record for the longest mane, with a forelock measuring 215cm and a mane measuring 300cm.
In 1869, Prince Imperial was bought by Jacob Howser, an American livestock dealer, for the princely sum of $3,00016. He was taken on tour in the United States and displayed as an attraction at fairs and horse shows under the hyperbolic title 'The Greatest Living Curiosity of This or Any Other Age.' When the horse died in 1888, Howser had the cadaver stuffed and continued to tour with it, storing it in his family's living room in the off-season. His family continued this tradition until his great-grandson asked his children to burn it after his death. Instead, the horse was sold, mounted on wheels, and used in parades. It is currently on display at the Heritage Hall in Marion, Ohio.
So What Do I Answer?
If you're ever asked the name of Napoleon's horse, the questioner is most likely thinking of Marengo, even though 'Marengo', strictly speaking, may never have existed. Your best bet is to memorise this entry, just in case, and reproduce it word-for-word if the matter ever comes up. They'll probably give you a prize just to get you to stop talking17.