Napoleon I (1769-1821), emperor of the French, ranks as one of the greatest military conquerors in history. Through his conquests he remade the map of Europe, and through his valuable administrative and legal reforms he promoted the growth of liberalism.
Napoleon Bonaparte was born Napoleon Buonaparte (the spelling change was made after 1796) on Aug. 15, 1769, in the Corsican city of Ajaccio. He was the fourth of 11 children of Carlo Buonaparte and Letizia Romolino. His father derived from the lesser Corsican nobility. Following the annexation of Corsica by France in 1769, Carlo was granted the same rights and privileges as the French nobility. After an elementary education at a boys' school in Ajaccio, young Napoleon was sent in January 1779 with his older brother Joseph to the College of Autun in the duchy of Burgundy. In May of the same year he was transferred to the more fashionable College of Brienne, another military school, while his brother remained at Autun. Here Napoleon's small stature earned him the nickname of the "Little Corporal."
At Brienne, Napoleon received an excellent military and academic education, and in October 1784 he earned an appointment to the École Militaire of Paris. The royal military school of Paris was the finest in Europe in the years before the Revolution, and Napoleon entered the service of Louis XVI in 1785 with a formal education that had prepared him for his future role in French history. Napoleon joined an artillery unit at Valence, where he again received superior training.
First Military Assignments
Now a second lieutenant, Napoleon continued his education on his own, but he was distracted by Corsica. Until 1793 his thoughts, desires, and ambitions centered on the island of his birth. Following the death of his father, he received an extended leave (1786) to return to Corsica to settle his family's affairs. After rejoining his regiment at Auxonne, he again spent more than a year on his native island (1789-1790), during which time he was influential in introducing the changes brought about by the Revolution. Returning to France, Napoleon was transferred to Valence in June 1791. But by October he had returned to Corsica, where he remained for 7 months. He spent the critical summer of 1792 in Paris and then returned to Corsica for one last episode in October. On this visit he took part in the power struggle between the forces supporting Pasquale Paoli and those supported by the French Republic. After Paoli was victorious, Napoleon and the Bonaparte family were forced to flee to the mainland, and the young officer then turned his attention to a career in the French army.
The Revolution of 1789 did not have a major effect upon Bonaparte in its early years. He did not sympathize with the royalists. Nor did he take an active part in French politics, as his thoughts were still taken up with affairs in Corsica. Napoleon was in Paris when the monarchy was overthrown in August 1792, but no evidence indicates that he was a republican. Upon his return from Corsica in the spring of 1793, Capt. Bonaparte was given a command with the republican army that was attempting to regain control of southern France from the proroyalist forces. He took part in the siege of Avignon, and then while on his way to join the French Army of Italy Napoleon was offered command of the artillery besieging the port of Toulon.
The siege of Toulon provided Napoleon with his first opportunity to display his ability as an artillery officer and brought him national recognition. France had gone to war with Prussia and Austria in 1792. England, having joined the struggle in 1793, had gained control of Toulon. After his distinguished part in dislodging the British, Napoleon was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. He also made the acquaintance of Augustin Robespierre, the younger brother of the powerful Maximilien, and though Napoleon was not politically a Jacobin, he derived benefits from his association with influential party members. The overthrow of the Jacobin regime on 9 Thermidor (July 1794) led to Napoleon's imprisonment in Fort Carré on August 9. When no evidence could be found linking him to the British, Napoleon was released after 10 days of confinement.
Throughout the winter of 1794-1795 Napoleon was employed in the defense of the Mediterranean coast. Then, in April 1795, he was ordered to Paris, and in June he was assigned to the Army of the West. He refused this position, pleading poor health. This refusal almost brought an end to his military career, and he was assigned to the Bureau of Topography of the Committee of Public Safety. While serving in this capacity, he sought unsuccessfully to have himself transferred to Constantinople. Thus Napoleon was in Paris when the royalists attempted to overthrow the Directory on Oct. 5, 1795.
Gen. Paul Barras had been placed in command of the defense of Paris by the government, and he called upon Gen. Bonaparte to defend the Tuileries. Napoleon put down the uprising of 13 Vendémiaire by unhesitatingly turning his artillery on the attackers, dispersing the mob with what he called "a whiff of grapeshot." In gratitude he was appointed commander of the Army of the Interior and instructed to disarm Paris.
Marriage and Italian Campaign
In the winter of 1795 Napoleon met Josephine de Beauharnais, the former Mademoiselle Tascher de La Pagerie. Born on the island of Martinique, she had been married to Alexandre de Beauharnais at the age of 16 and had borne him two children, Eugène and Hortense, before separating from him. Alexandre, a nobleman from Orléans, was executed in the last days of the Terror in 1794, leaving Josephine free to marry Napoleon. Their civil ceremony took place on March 9, 1796. Within a few days Napoleon left his bride behind in Paris and took up his new command at the head of the Army of Italy.
On March 26 Napoleon reached his headquarters at Nice, and on March 31 he issued the first orders for the invasion of Italy. The campaign opened on April 12, and within several weeks he had forced Piedmont out of the war. In May, Napoleon marched across northern Italy, reaching Verona on June 3. The campaign was then bogged down by the Austrian defense of Mantua, which lasted 18 months. During this period Napoleon beat back Austrian attempts to relieve the fortified city at Castiglione, Arcole, and Rivoli. Finally, in the spring of 1797, Napoleon advanced on Vienna and forced the Austrians to sign the Treaty of Campoformio (Oct. 17, 1797). The treaty gave France the territory west of the Rhine and control of Italy.
After spending the summer and fall at the palace of Monbello, where he established with Josephine what in reality was the court of Italy, Napoleon returned to Paris the hero of the hour. He was the man who could make war and peace. Napoleon was given command of the Army of England after drawing up a plan to invade that island. However, after a brief visit to the English Channel he abandoned any hope of crossing that turbulent body of water with the available French fleet. Returning to Paris, he gave up his command.
Napoleon did not wish to remain idle in Paris; nor did the government wish to see a popular general in the capital without a command to occupy him. Thus, when an expedition to Egypt was proposed, probably by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, both the general and his government gave it their support. Strategically, the expedition would extend French influence into the Mediterranean and threaten British control in India. Napoleon sailed from Toulon on May 19, 1798, with an army of 35,000 men. On June 11-12 he captured Malta, and on June 30 the task force reached Alexandria, Egypt. The city was taken, and Napoleon's army marched up the west branch of the Nile to Cairo. In sight of the city and of the Pyramids, the first major battle took place. With minimal losses the French drove the Mamluks back into the desert in the Battle of the Pyramids, and all of lower Egypt came under Napoleon's control.
Napoleon reorganized the government, the postal service, and the system for collecting taxes; introduced the first printing presses; created a health department; built new hospitals for the poor in Cairo; and founded the Institut d'Egypte. During the French occupation the Rosetta Stone was discovered, and the Nile was explored as far south as Aswan. But the military aspect of Napoleon's Egyptian venture was not so rewarding. On Aug. 1, 1798, Horatio Nelson destroyed the French fleet in Aboukir Bay, leaving the French army cut off from France. Then Napoleon's Syrian campaign ended in the unsuccessful siege of Acre (April 1799) and a return to the Nile. After throwing a Turkish army back into the sea at Aboukir (July 1799), Napoleon left the army under the command of Gen. Jean Baptiste Kléber and returned to France with a handful of officers.
Landing at Fréjus on Oct. 9, 1799, Napoleon went directly to Paris, where the political situation was ripe for a coup d'etat. France had become weary of the Directory, and in collaboration with Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, Joseph Fouché, and Talleyrand, Napoleon overthrew the government on 18 Brumaire (Nov. 9-10, 1799). The Constitution of the Year VIII provided for the Consulate. Napoleon was named first consul and given virtually dictatorial powers. The trappings of the republic remained—there were two legislative bodies, the Tribunate and the Corps Legislatif— but real power rested in the hands of the first consul.
Napoleon began at once to solve the problems that faced France at the turn of the century. With mailed fist and velvet glove he ended the civil war in the Vendée. He then personally led an army over the Grand-Saint-Bernard Pass into Italy and defeated the Austrians, who had declared war on France while Napoleon was in Egypt, at the Battle of Marengo (June 14, 1800). This victory, which Napoleon always considered one of his greatest, again brought Italy under French control. After a truce that lasted into December, French armies forced Austria out of the war for the second time. The Treaty of Lunéville (Feb. 9, 1801) re-confirmed the Treaty of Campoformio. It was followed on March 25, 1802, by the Treaty of Amiens, which ended, or at least interrupted, the war with England. The Concordat that Napoleon signed with Pope Pius VII in 1801 restored harmony between Rome and Paris, and it ended the internal religious split that had originated in the Revolution. Napoleon also reformed France's legal system with the Code Napoleon.
By 1802 Napoleon was the most popular dictator France had ever known, and he was given the position of first consul for life with the right to name his successor. The establishment of the Empire on May 18, 1804, thus changed little except the name of the government. The Constitution of the Year VIII was altered only to provide for an imperial government; its spirit was not changed. The Emperor of the French created a new nobility, set up a court, and changed the titles of government officials; but the average Frenchman noticed little difference.
The Treaty of Amiens proved to be no more than a truce, and in May 1803 the war with England was renewed. The Emperor planned to invade the island kingdom in the summer of 1805, but his naval operations went amiss. In September, Napoleon turned his back on the Channel and marched against Austria, who together with Russia had formed the Third Coalition. At Ulm (October 14) and Austerlitz (December 2) Napoleon inflicted disastrous defeats upon the Allies, forcing Alexander I of Russia to retreat behind the Neman and compelling Austria to make peace. At the Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon reached the height of his military career. The Treaty of Pressburg (Dec. 27, 1805) deprived Austria of additional lands and further humiliated the once mighty Hapsburg state.
Victory throughout the Continent
The year 1806 was marked by war with Prussia over increased French influence in Germany. The overconfident Prussian army sang as it marched to total destruction at the battles of Jena and Auerstädt (Oct. 14, 1806), and Napoleon entered Berlin in triumph. Prussia was reduced to a second-rate power, and the fighting moved eastward into Poland as the Russians belatedly came to the aid of their defeated ally. Although at the Battle of Eylau (Feb. 8, 1807) the French were brought to a standstill, on June 14 at Friedland the Emperor drove the Russian army from the field. Alexander I made peace at Tilsit on June 25, 1807. This understanding between the two emperors divided Europe. Alexander was to have a free hand in the east to take Finland and Bessarabia, while Napoleon was free to reshape western and central Europe as he pleased. The most significant result was the creation of the grand duchy of Warsaw (1807). Sweden was defeated in 1808 with Russia's help. Napoleon was now master of the Continent. Only England remained in the field.
Problems with England and Spain
On Oct. 21, 1805, Adm. Horatio Nelson had destroyed the combined Franco-Spanish fleet off Cape Trafalgar, Spain. This loss made it virtually impossible for Napoleon to invade England. He, therefore, introduced the Continental system, or blockade, designed to exclude all British goods from Europe. In this manner he hoped to ruin the British economy and to force the "nation of shopkeepers" to make peace on French terms. His plan did not work, and it led Napoleon into conflicts with Spain, the papacy, and Russia, and it undoubtedly formed a major cause for the downfall of the Empire.
In Spain in 1808 French interference led to the removal of the Bourbon dynasty and to the placement of Joseph Bonaparte as king. But the Spanish people refused to accept this Napoleonic dictate and, with aid from Great Britain, kept 250,000 French troops occupied in the Peninsular War (1808-1814). The refusal of Pope Pius VII to cooperate with Napoleon and the blockade led to the Pope's imprisonment and a French take-over of the Papal States. In the case of Russia refusal proved even more serious. Alexander's refusal to close Russian ports to British ships led to Napoleon's Russian campaign of 1812, which was highlighted by the Battle of Borodino (September 7) and the occupation of Moscow (September 14-October 19). However, the ultimate result of this Russian campaign was the destruction of the Grand Army of 500,000 troops.
Fall from Glory
The Napoleonic system now began to break up rapidly. At its height three of the Emperor's brothers and his brother-in-law sat on European thrones. Napoleon had also secured an annulment of his marriage to Josephine and then married Marie Louise, the daughter of Emperor Francis II of Austria, in March 1810. Despite this union, Napoleon's father-in-law declared war on him in 1813. Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of the Nations at Leipzig (Oct. 16-18, 1813) forced him behind the Rhine, where he waged a brilliant, but futile, campaign during the first 3 months of 1814. Paris fell to the Allies on March 31, 1814, and the hopelessness of the military situation led the Emperor to abdicate at Fontainebleau (April 4, 1814) in favor of his son Napoleon II. However, the Allies refused to recogize the 3-year-old boy, and Louis XVIII was placed on the French throne.
Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba, where he was sovereign ruler for 10 months. But as the alliance of the Great Powers broke down during the Congress of Vienna and the French people became dissatisfied with the restored royalists, Napoleon made plans to return to power. Sailing from Elba on Feb. 26, 1815, with 1,050 soldiers, Napoleon landed in southern France and marched unopposed to Paris, where he reinstated himself on March 21. Louis XVIII fled, and thus began Napoleon's new reign: the Hundred Days. The French did not wish to renew their struggle against Europe. Nevertheless, as the Allies closed ranks, Napoleon was forced to renew the war if he was to remain on the throne of France.
The Waterloo campaign (June 12-18) was short and decisive. After a victory over the Prussian army at Ligny, Napoleon was defeated by the combined British and Prussian armies under the Duke of Wellington and Gebhard von Blücher at Waterloo on June 18, 1815. He returned to Paris and abdicated for a second time, on June 22. Napoleon at first hoped to reach America; however, he surrendered to the commander of the British blockade at Rochefort on July 3, hoping to obtain asylum in England. Instead, he was sent into exile on the island of St. Helena. There he spent his remaining years, quarreling with the British governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, and dictating his memoirs. He died on St. Helena, after long suffering from cancer, on May 5, 1821.
Further Reading on Napoleon I
The best one-volume work on Napoleon in English is James M. Thompson's slightly pro-British account, Napoleon Bonaparte (1952). Also excellent are Felix Markham, Napoleon (1964), and André Castelot, Napoleon (1971). The two-volume work of Georges Lefebvre, Napoleon (1936; trans. 1969), is a masterful account of the period 1799-1815; primarily a political history, it includes all aspects of the Napoleonic era.
A number of books deal with Napoleon's period of exile: Gilbert Martineau, Napoleon's St. Helena (1966; trans. 1969), which includes illustrations and a good bibliography; Michael John Thornton, Napoleon after Waterloo: England and the St. Helena Decision (1968), detailing the weeks in July and August 1815 during which Napoleon waited his fate on a British warship; and an account based on the diary of the secretary to the governor of St. Helena, Gideon Gorrequer, St. Helena, during Napoleon's Exile: Gorrequer's Diary, edited by James Kemble (1969). One of the best of the many biographies of Josephine is André Castelot, Josephine, translated by D. Folliot (1967), which provides many insights into Napoleon as husband and lover.
Three fine works on Napoleonic military history are Vincent J. Esposito and John R. Elting, A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars (1964); David G. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (1966); and Sir James Marshall-Cornwall, Napoleon as Military Commander (1967). A useful account for the general reader of Napoleon's invasion of Russia is in Leonard Cooper, Many Roads to Moscow; Three Historic Invasions (1968). Claude Manceron, Napoleon Recaptures Paris, translated by George Unwin (1969), is a lively account of Napoleon's take-over of Paris in March 1815.