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Napoleon Bonaparte
crowned himself emperor of France

1769 - 1821

Napoleon I, also known as Napoleon Bonaparte, crowned himself emperor of France. He was the greatest military genius of his time and perhaps the greatest general in history. He created an empire that covered most of western and central Europe.

Napoleon was also an excellent administrator. He introduced many useful reforms, including the creation of a strong, efficient central government and the revision and organization of French laws into collections called codes. Many of Napoleon's reforms are evident today in the institutions of France and of areas once under French control.

Napoleon stood 5 feet 2 inches tall, about average for Frenchmen of his time, though most French generals and statesmen were taller. He earned the nickname le Petit Caporal (the little corporal) in 1796 at the Battle of Lodi, near Milan, Italy. In the battle, General Bonaparte startled his troops by personally aiming the cannon, a risky job usually performed by a corporal.

Napoleon was an inspirational and dramatic leader. He could also be cynical and demanding, though this side of his character was usually hidden from the public. In addition, Napoleon had great energy and ambition. He personally directed complex military maneuvers and at the same time controlled France's press, police system, foreign policy, and domestic affairs. He chose capable subordinates and rewarded them generously with medals, wealth, military rank, and titles of nobility.

Napoleon's ambition ultimately led him to overextend his power. His downfall also resulted in part from feelings of nationalism in areas invaded by French troops and from economic hardship brought on by Napoleon's attempts to exclude British goods from continental Europe. Other factors that contributed to his downfall included bitter reaction to the taxes and conscription (the draft) that he imposed across his empire and opposition to Napoleon of many of Europe's royal rulers.

Napoleon was born on Aug. 15, 1769, in Ajaccio, on the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea. The year before his birth, France had bought Corsica from the Italian city-state of Genoa. Napoleon was the fourth child and second son of Carlo and Letizia Ramolino Buonaparte (later given the French spelling Bonaparte). Napoleon's parents were members of noble Italian families. Carlo Buonaparte was an eloquent lawyer and a prominent citizen of Corsica. Napoleon's mother was beautiful and strong-willed.

In 1779, at the age of 9, Napoleon entered a French military school at Brienne-le-Chateau, a town in France near Troyes. Napoleon was an average student in most subjects, but he excelled in mathematics. In 1784, he was selected for the elite military academy Ecole Militaire in Paris, from which he graduated a year later.

In January 1785, at the age of 16, Napoleon received a commission in the French Army, as a second lieutenant of artillery. He joined an artillery regiment and briefly attended the royal artillery school in Auxonne, near Dole. He was promoted to first lieutenant in 1791 and to captain in 1792.

The French Revolution broke out in 1789. During the early 1790's, Napoleon spent many months in Corsica on leave from the French Army. While there, he served in the Corsican National Guard. In France, however, he had joined a radical political society known as the Jacobins. Many Jacobins wanted to make France a democratic republic. Napoleon's membership in the society brought him into conflict with the governor of Corsica, Pasquale Paoli, who was a royalist (supporter of the French monarchy). After the revolutionary French government executed King Louis XVI in January 1793, Paoli declared the Bonapartes outlaws, and the family fled to France. Napoleon then returned to the French Army.

In June 1793, a group of Jacobins led by Maximilien Robespierre gained control of the French government. Several French cities revolted against Robespierre's regime. At Toulon, the rebels were aided by a British naval fleet. When the French artillery commander at Toulon was wounded, Napoleon was sent to take his place. In December 1793, Napoleon positioned the artillery on high ground overlooking the harbor at Toulon and fired down on the British ships. The fleet withdrew and French troops gained control of Toulon. For his role in the victory, Napoleon was named brigadier general at the age of 24.

Napoleon's star had risen, but soon seemed about to set. In July 1794, Robespierre fell from power and was executed. In August, Napoleon was imprisoned for about a week. After his release, he returned to the army.

In 1795, Napoleon was in Paris when angry mobs there tried to attack the ruling National Convention at the royal palace called the Tuileries. The mobs had been encouraged by royalists who hoped to destroy the convention before it could install a new moderate government. The convention was protected by troops under Vicomte Paul de Barras. Barras had seen Napoleon in action at Toulon and now sent for him. Napoleon defended the palace with point-blank cannon fire. This cannon fire, which became known as the "whiff of grapeshot," killed or wounded hundreds of people and quickly cleared the streets. Napoleon was hailed as a hero and promoted to major general. The new government, called the Directory, was installed with Barras as one of its five directors.

In 1796, Napoleon married Josephine de Beauharnais, a beautiful woman of French descent from Martinique in the West Indies. Josephine's first husband, Vicomte Alexandre de Beauharnais, had been sent to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. When Napoleon met her, Josephine was a leader of fashionable French society. She was six years older than Napoleon, and had two children by her previous marriage.

Rise to power

From 1792 to 1795, France had been at war with much of Europe. By 1796, Austria had become France's chief enemy. Days after marrying Josephine, Napoleon left Paris to take command of a French army on the Italian-French border -- an underfed, ill-equipped force of about 38,000 men. The Directory hoped that he could tie up Austrian forces in Italy while larger French armies won the war by marching through Germany and attacking Vienna, Austria's capital.

Instead, Napoleon won the war. In less than a year, he defeated four armies, each larger than his own. He won a final victory by marching over the Alps and threatening Vienna in early 1797. In October, France and Austria signed the Treaty of Campoformio, which enlarged France's territory. Napoleon returned to Paris, where once again he was hailed as a hero.

Napoleon had by now developed a highly successful military strategy that was to form the basis of his future campaigns. He would start a battle while holding back as large a reserve as possible. He would then seek the weakest point in the enemy's lines and throw all his strength against that point at the decisive moment. Napoleon had an extraordinary ability to recognize the best time to attack.

When Napoleon returned to Paris after defeating Austria, he already had political ambitions. However, he felt that he did not yet have enough influence to gain control of the government. Instead, he concentrated on strengthening his military reputation. Late in 1797, the Directory offered to put Napoleon at the head of an invasion of England. But he declined the offer. Instead, he proposed that he invade Egypt to destroy British trade with the Middle East. The Directory agreed to the plan. In May 1798, Napoleon sailed for Egypt with about 38,000 men.

Napoleon reached Egypt in July. There, he defeated the Mamelukes, Egypt's military rulers, in the Battle of the Pyramids near Cairo. On August 1, however, the French fleet anchored in Abu Qir Bay was destroyed in the Battle of the Nile by a British fleet commanded by Lord Horatio Nelson. As a result, Napoleon's army was stranded in Egypt. Turkey then formed an alliance with Great Britain and Russia and declared war on France. In 1799, Napoleon's troops invaded Turkish Syria and advanced as far as the fortress Acre (now Akko, Israel), which Napoleon failed to capture. Meanwhile, Napoleon learned that a Turkish army was preparing to invade Egypt. He retreated to Egypt, where he met and defeated the Turks at Abu Qir, near Abu Qir Bay. About this time, Napoleon learned that Austria, Britain, and Russia had formed a coalition against France and had defeated the French army in Italy. He left his army in the command of General Jean Kleber and sailed for France.

First consul of France

News of Napoleon's victory at Abu Qir arrived with him in Paris. The French people, who had lost confidence in the Directory, cheered the return of the young hero. Napoleon formed key political alliances and seized control of the French government on Nov. 9, 1799, in a bold move known as the Coup d'Etat of Eighteenth Brumaire. A new constitution overwhelmingly approved by the French people replaced the Directory with a three-member Consulate. Napoleon became first consul. The other two consuls served merely as advisers to Napoleon. After 10 years of revolution and civil disorder, the French wanted a strong leader. Napoleon could now rule France as a dictator.

As first consul, Napoleon sought peace. In May 1800, he led a famous march across the Alps, through the Great St. Bernard Pass and into the Po Valley of northern Italy. In June, his army surprised and defeated the Austrians in the Battle of Marengo. In 1801, the Austrians signed the Treaty of Luneville, which reaffirmed the Treaty of Campoformio. With Austria defeated, the war-weary British agreed to peace in 1802 in the Treaty of Amiens. Russia had dropped out of the coalition against France in 1799. For the first time in 10 years, Europe was at peace.

Napoleon proved to be a superb civil administrator. One of his greatest achievements was his supervision of the revision and collection of French law into codes. The new law codes -- seven in number -- incorporated some of the freedoms gained by the people of France during the French Revolution, including religious toleration and the abolition of serfdom. The most famous of the codes, the Code Napoleon or Code Civil, still forms the basis of French civil law. Napoleon also centralized France's government by appointing prefects to administer regions called departments, into which France was divided.

The Napoleonic empire

Napoleon was not content simply to govern France. His thoughts soon turned to conquest. At first, he sought to extend French influence in the Western Hemisphere. In 1800, Napoleon forced Spain to cede to France the Louisiana Territory in North America. But the army that he sent to take possession of the territory was destroyed in the French colony of Haiti by a slave revolt and by tropical disease. Frustrated, Napoleon abandoned his plans for the Western Hemisphere and turned his attention to Europe. By 1803, France had annexed the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy and Napoleon had become president of the Italian Republic, which bordered Piedmont on the east. Also, fearful of Britain's naval power, Napoleon had tried to stop British trade with the rest of Europe. He anticipated war with Britain and in 1803 sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States to raise money for the war. War with Britain began later that year.

In 1802, the French people had overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that made Napoleon first consul for life. In May 1804, the French Senate and people voted him their emperor. Napoleon crowned himself emperor on December 2 in ceremonies at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

By 1805, Austria, Russia, and Sweden had joined Britain in a new coalition against France. In September 1805, Napoleon led his troops into Germany. In October, he captured an Austrian army at Ulm. In December, he demolished the Austrian and Russian armies at Austerlitz. But earlier that year Lord Nelson had destroyed the fleets of France and Spain, France's ally, near Trafalgar, a cape on Spain's southern coast. This victory gave Britain control of the seas and ended any chance of Napoleon's invading Britain.

In 1806, Prussia joined Russia in mounting a new campaign against France. In October, Napoleon's forces overwhelmed the Prussian army at Jena and at nearby Auerstedt. In June 1807, Napoleon demolished Russian armies at Friedland. In 1809, he defeated the Austrians again at Wagram, near Vienna.

After each victory, Napoleon enlarged his empire. In 1806, he set up the Confederation of the Rhine, made up of a number of western German states, and placed it under his protection. He also carved provinces of Germany and Italy into principalities and dukedoms, and gave them to friends and relatives. In 1806, he made his brother Joseph, king of Naples, and his brother Louis, king of Holland. In 1807, Napoleon made his brother Jerome, king of Westphalia and added to France the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. In 1809, he gave his sister Elisa, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and annexed to France the Illyrian Provinces, which covered much of what are now Slovenia and Croatia. In 1810, he brought his empire to its height by annexing Holland and much of Germany.

By 1809, Napoleon had grown concerned about what would become of his vast empire after his death. Josephine, who was now 46 years old, had no children by him, and Napoleon had no heirs. In December, he divorced Josephine to marry a younger woman. In April 1810, he married the 18-year-old Archduchess Marie Louise, daughter of Emperor Francis I of Austria. In 1811, the couple had a son, also named Napoleon, who was given the title king of Rome.

Fall from power

In 1806, Napoleon had issued the Berlin Decree, which barred British ships from ports under French control. The decree was aimed at destroying British trade with continental Europe. In 1807, Napoleon issued the Milan Decree, which was intended to prevent the ships of neutral nations from carrying British goods to continental Europe. Such ships were attacked by French vessels. The system established by the Berlin and Milan decrees for blocking British trade was known as the Continental System.

Portugal, which had long been friendly with Great Britain, refused to follow the Berlin Decree. In 1807, the French gained control of Portugal and occupied parts of Spain. In 1808, French forces under Marshal Joachim Murat seized control of Madrid, Spain's capital. Napoleon removed King Ferdinand VII from the Spanish throne and appointed his brother Joseph, king of Spain. Murat took Joseph's place as king of Naples.

The Peninsular War began in 1808 when Spanish and Portuguese forces rebelled against French rule. Soon after the war began, British troops joined the fight against France on the peninsula that consisted of Portugal and Spain. By April 1814, all French forces had been driven from the peninsula. Tens of thousands of French soldiers died in the war, and the loss of Spain and Portugal greatly damaged Napoleon's prestige.

On Dec. 31, 1810, Czar Alexander I of Russia withdrew from the Continental System. Napoleon felt that the czar's withdrawal threatened France, and so he assembled a new army to attack Russia. Many years of war had weakened France, but Napoleon raised about 600,000 men. His allies and subject nations furnished by conscription many of these soldiers. The Russian army had about 200,000 men.

In June 1812, Napoleon's army crossed the Neman River into Russia. The Russians retreated, denying Napoleon a decisive battle. In September, Napoleon fought the Russians at Borodino, near Moscow. The battle resulted in many casualties on both sides but produced no clear winner. Again, the Russians withdrew.

Napoleon pushed on to Moscow only to find the city nearly empty of people. Soon after the French army entered Moscow, large parts of the city were destroyed by fires that had been set by the retreating Russians. With the bitter Russian winter approaching, Napoleon waited in Moscow for Alexander to offer peace, but no such offer came. In mid-October, Napoleon, unable to supply his troops, began the long retreat from Moscow. His soldiers struggled against snowstorms and freezing temperatures. Soldiers and horses died of starvation and exposure. Russian soldiers called Cossacks killed many of the stragglers. Of the 600,000 men in Napoleon's army, about 500,000 died, deserted, or were captured during the campaign and the retreat from Russia.

After he returned to Paris, Napoleon admitted the disaster in his famous 29th Bulletin. The French continued to support him, but news of the devastating campaign encouraged his enemies throughout Europe.

After his return from Moscow, Napoleon faced a hostile alliance of Austria, Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Sweden. In April 1813, Napoleon arrived in Germany with a new army and took the offensive against the allies. He won initial victories at Lutzen, Bautzen, and Dresden, but his forces were vastly outnumbered. In October, the two sides fought at Leipzig in the Battle of the Nations. In the battle, Napoleon was defeated, and he retreated into France. The allies pursued him and captured Paris in March 1814.

At Fontainebleau, on April 11, 1814, Napoleon abdicated (gave up) the imperial throne. The allies called for the return of a king of the Bourbon family and placed Louis XVIII, the brother of Louis XVI, on the French throne. Napoleon was exiled from France and made ruler of the tiny island of Elba off the northwest coast of Italy. His wife and son were sent to his wife's father, the emperor of Austria. Napoleon never saw his wife or son again.

On Elba, Napoleon planned his return to France. In February 1815, he sailed from the island with about 1,100 followers who had shared his exile. He landed at Cannes on March 1 and began marching to Paris, gathering supporters along the way. Troops led by Marshal Michel Ney were dispatched from Paris to arrest Napoleon. But when they saw their old leader, the men gladly joined him and hailed him as their emperor. Louis XVIII fled Paris as Napoleon approached. On March 20, Napoleon entered Paris and was carried on the shoulders of cheering crowds into the Tuileries.

The Hundred Days and Waterloo. Napoleon immediately proclaimed a new constitution that limited his powers. He promised the allies that he would not make war. But the allied leaders considered Napoleon an "enemy and disturber of the peace of the world." Once again, both sides prepared for battle.

Napoleon advanced into Belgium with about 125,000 men, hoping to defeat the separate armies of Britain's Duke of Wellington and the Prussian Marshal Gebhard von Blucher. On June 16, Napoleon defeated Blucher at Ligny, near Fleurus. On June 18, Napoleon attacked Wellington at Waterloo in what has become one of history's most famous battles. The battle featured spectacular charges by thousands of French cavalry. But just as it seemed the British forces would collapse, Blucher's troops arrived to reinforce Wellington. Badly outnumbered, the French army suffered a crushing defeat.

Napoleon fled to Paris and abdicated for the second time, on June 22. The period from Napoleon's return to Paris from Elba to his second abdication is known as the Hundred Days. Napoleon tried to escape to the United States, but he failed and surrendered at Rochefort to Frederick Lewis Maitland, the captain of the British battleship Bellerophon. In August, Napoleon was sent to the barren British island of St. Helena, in the South Atlantic Ocean.

On St. Helena, Napoleon spent much of his remaining years dictating to friends his version of the events that occurred during his lifetime. He died on May 5, 1821, of a stomach ulcer that was probably cancerous. Most historians label as inaccurate a theory that he died of arsenic poisoning. Napoleon was buried on the island. In his will, Napoleon had asked to be buried "on the banks of the Seine, among the French people I have loved so much." In 1840, the British and French governments had his remains brought to Paris. There, at the Eglise du Dome (Church of the Dome), which is part of the Hotel des Invalides (Home for Disabled Soldiers), the body of Napoleon was laid to rest.

Napoleon's place in history

Napoleon is both a historical figure and a legend -- and it is sometimes difficult to separate the two. The events of his life have fired the imaginations of great writers, filmmakers, and playwrights whose works have done much to create the Napoleonic legend.

Napoleon was one of the greatest military commanders in history. But he has also been portrayed as a power-hungry conqueror. He denied being such a conqueror. He argued that he had tried to build a federation of free peoples in a Europe united under a liberal government. He did intend, though, to achieve this goal by concentrating power in his own hands. However, in the states he created, Napoleon granted constitutions, introduced law codes, abolished feudalism, created efficient governments, and fostered education, science, literature, and the arts.

Contributor: Owen Connelly, Ph.D., Author, Napoleon's Satellite Kingdoms and Blundering to Glory: The Military Campaigns of Napoleon.

Additional resources

Level I

Carroll, Bob. Napoleon Bonaparte. Lucent Bks., 1994.

Masters, Anthony. Napoleon. McGraw, 1981.

Sauvain, Philip. Waterloo. Macmillan, 1993.

Level II

Connelly, Owen. Blundering to Glory: Napoleon's Military Campaigns. 1987. Reprint. Scholarly, 1990.

Haythornthwaite, Philip J. The Napoleonic Source Book. Facts on File, 1991.

Marrin, Albert. Napoleon and the Napoleonic Wars. Viking, 1991.

Riehn, Richard K. 1812: Napoleon's Russian Campaign. McGraw, 1990.

Schom, Alan. One Hundred Days: Napoleon's Road to Waterloo. Oxford, 1993.

Thompson, James M. Napoleon Bonaparte. 1952. Reprint. Basil Blackwell, 1988. A standard biography.


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