What created this image of his shortness was the height of his generals and those soldiers in his Imperial Guard. Generals like Augereau, Massena and Serurier were well over 6 feet tall and they seemed to tower over the younger general. In fact, when these very generals first encountered Napoleon (then called General Bonaparte), they thought that their height gave them an advantage over Napoleon.
Wow, were they wrong!
When the young general reached northern Italy to take command of the French Army there, the army was in bad shape; they were without proper supplies and were almost totally without discipline.
The Army of Northern Italy was divided into three corps under generals Massena, Augereau and Serurier. All three were battle-hardened commanders of the armies of revolutionary France and very tall. Each had already served a long time in command situations and they resented this young general who was only 26 years old.
So when Napoleon entered the headquarters for the first time, the three generals did not even rise to meet him. In fact, Augereau kept his feet propped atop the table. Napoleon had won no victories under his own command as yet and they doubted his command capabilities and determination.
The young general said nothing about their attitude but he calmly removed his hat and set it on the table. Augereau, sometimes a bully, began to feel uncomfortable at the cool character of the fresh commander.
Napoleon placed his palms on the table and leaned toward the generals. He looked each of them in the eye and announced that they would fight to victory. They would fight with discipline, with speed and with unshakeable will and Napoleon would lead them.
"What has gone before does not matter. The failures of the past are not my failures."
Slowly, Augereau removed his feet from the table.
Napoleon continued to lay out his plans and what he expected from his generals.
"You will fight with determination. You will march far and march fast. Speed and surprise will achieve more than guns."
Simple enough. There was no room for discussion or haughtiness.
When Napoleon stood to leave, the three older generals leaped to their feet at attention. When Napoleon was gone from the room, Augereau stared at the others and said in quiet astonishment, "the little bougre scared the water out of me." Being tall wasn't such an advantage after all.
Napoleon enjoyed being around tall people and when he created his Imperial Guard, he wanted them all to be at least 6 feet tall. In all the paintings and in people's memories, Napoleon always looked shorter than he really was. But to his enemies, he looked like a giant.