Napoleon I, known as Napoléon Bonaparte before he became emperor, was probably the most brilliant military figure in history. Rising to command of the French Revolutionary armies, he seized political power as first consul in 1799 and proclaimed himself emperor of France in 1804. By repeated victories over various European coalitions, he extended French rule over much of Europe. He was finally defeated in 1814–15.
Napoleon was born on Aug. 15, 1769, to Carlo and Letizia Buonaparte (see Bonaparte family) in Ajaccio, Corsica. His father secured a scholarship for him to attend French military school at Brienne (1779–84). Ostracized as a foreigner, he devoted himself entirely to his studies and graduated 42d in his class of 58. He then spent a year at the Military Academy in Paris before he was commissioned (1785) a second lieutenant in artillery. Assigned to the Valence garrison, he spent more than half of the next seven years on furlough in Corsica, often without authorization. He came into conflict with the Corsican nationalist Pasquale Paoli, and his family was forced to flee to Marseille in 1793.
Bonaparte had welcomed the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789, and in September 1793 he assumed command of an artillery brigade at the siege of Toulon, where royalist leaders had welcomed a British fleet and enemy troops. The British were driven out (Dec. 17, 1793), and Bonaparte was rewarded with promotion to general of brigade and assigned to the French army in Italy in February 1794.
After the overthrow of the revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre in July 1794, Bonaparte was briefly imprisoned because he was identified with Robespierre's faction. Released in September, he was assigned to fight a rebellion in the Vendée. He refused to go, however, working instead in the topographic section of the army, and eventually his name was stricken (Sept. 15, 1795) from the list of general officers.
On Oct. 5, 1795 (13 Vendémiaire under the Revolutionary calendar), a revolt broke out in Paris, protesting the means of implementing the new constitution introduced by the National Convention. Paul Barras, who had been given full military powers, ordered Bonaparte to defend the convention, and aided by Joachim Murat's cannons, Bonaparte routed the insurrectionists within four months. He was rewarded by the new government, the Directory, with appointment (March 1796) as commander of the Army of the Interior. Before taking up that post he married (March 9) Josephine de Beauharnais, the 33-year-old widow of a republican general and erstwhile lover of a series of men, including Barras.
Italian and Egyptian Campaigns
Late in March 1796, Bonaparte began a series of operations to divide and defeat the Austrian and Sardinian armies in Italy. He defeated (April 21) the Sardinians at Mondovi, forcing them to conclude a separate peace by which Savoy and Nice were ceded to France. Then, in a series of brilliant maneuvers and battles, he won Lombardy from the Austrians. Mantua, the last Lombard stronghold, fell in February 1797 after a prolonged siege; Bonaparte had defeated four attempts to relieve the siege. As he crossed the Alps to advance on Vienna, the Austrians sued for an armistice, which was concluded at Leoben on Apr. 18, 1797. Bonaparte then personally negotiated the Treaty of Campo Formio (Oct. 17, 1797), ending the war of the First Coalition, the first phase of the French Revolutionary Wars.
In addition to attending to his military operations in Italy, Bonaparte engaged in political affairs. He reorganized northern Italy to create (1797) the Cisalpine Republic and negotiated treaties with various Italian rulers. He also purloined invaluable Italian works of art and vast quantities of money, which were sent to Paris to enhance French museums and to bolster French finances.
On his return to Paris, the Directory proposed that Bonaparte invade England. Instead he urged the occupation of Egypt in order to threaten British India. On May 19, 1798, he sailed with an army of more than 35,000 troops on 350 vessels for Alexandria, Egypt. Subsequent to seizing Malta en route, he reached Egypt on July 1, after evading the fleet of the British admiral Horatio Nelson. There he occupied Alexandria and Cairo, guaranteed Islamic law, and began to reorganize the government. On August 1, however, Nelson attacked and annihilated the French fleet at Abukir Bay. Thus cut off from France, Bonaparte continued his administrative reorganization and helped create the Institute of Egypt, a scholarly institution that began the methodical study of ancient Egypt. This study resulted in the publication of the monumental 18-volume Description d'Égypte (1808–25).
In February 1799, Bonaparte learned of the Ottoman Empire's declaration of war against France. To forestall a Turkish attack on Egypt he invaded Syria but was halted at Acre by Turkish troops under British command. Suffering from the plague, the French army returned to Cairo in June. In the meantime French forces in Europe were being defeated by the armies of the Second Coalition, and Bonaparte resolved to return to France. He sailed on Aug. 24, 1799.
On Bonaparte's arrival in Paris on October 14, he joined Emmanuel Sieyès in a conspiracy to overthrow the Directory. On November 9 (18 Brumaire), Bonaparte was appointed commander of the Paris garrison, the legislative assemblies were moved from Paris to Saint Cloud, and the five Directory members resigned. The following day Bonaparte, aided by his brother Lucien, used troops to disperse the assemblies and accepted appointment as one of three consuls, with Sieyès and Pierre Roger Ducos.
Despite Sieyès's plans to dominate the Consulate, Bonaparte gained the position of first consul. He appointed the members of the council of state, government officials, and judges of the courts, but he had little control over the Legislative Corps. The Consulate guaranteed law and order and maintained the political and social accomplishments of the Revolution. Behind a democratic facade, however, Bonaparte concentrated power in his own hands.
During the rule of the Consulate more formidable legislation was completed than in any other comparable period in French history. Order and regularity were established in every branch of the government. Bonaparte centralized local government, appointing the prefects and mayors and their councils; he pacified the rebellious regions of France and reconciled the royalists; he actively participated in drawing up the Napoleonic Code, a complete codification of the civil law; he initiated (1801) the Concordat with Pope Pius VII, which reestablished Roman Catholicism in France; and he created (1802) the order of the Legion of Honor to reward civil and military merit. Bonaparte also consolidated the national debt, restored the value of French bonds, balanced the budget, established the Bank of France, and centralized equitable tax collection. He created the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry and undertook vast public works projects. By creating the Université de France, in effect a state licensing body for teachers, he brought the entire system of higher education under centralized state control. His concern with cultural grandeur was also reflected in the enlargement of the Louvre, the transformation of the Hôtel Soubise into the Archives Nationales, and the construction of neoclassical buildings around Paris. These internal achievements were balanced by the restoration of French supremacy abroad. In June 1800, Bonaparte defeated the Austrians at Marengo, Italy. Peace with Austria was concluded in the Treaty of Lunéville (Feb. 9, 1801), and a year later the Treaty of Amiens (Mar. 27, 1802) ended war with Britain. In acknowledgment of his achievements, Bonaparte was recognized by plebiscite as consul for life on Aug. 2, 1802.
With peace restored, Bonaparte extended French influence into Holland (the Batavian Republic), Switzerland (the Helvetic Republic), and Savoy-Piedmont, which was annexed to France; he played the major role in the Imperial Recess (1803), by which the free cities and minor states of the Holy Roman Empire were consolidated; and he attempted to extend the French colonial empire, principally by recovering Haiti (see Louisiana Purchase). As a result of these policies and his refusal to grant trade concessions to Britain, war was renewed in 1803.
Bonaparte organized an army of 170,000 to invade Britain, but his complex strategy to draw the British fleets away from Britain failed. Meanwhile, Austria also prepared to resume war, forcing Bonaparte to abandon his invasion plans. Any hope of a future invasion was ended when the British admiral Nelson destroyed most of the Franco-Spanish fleet in the Battle of Trafalgar on Oct. 21, 1805.
In February 1804 a British-financed plot to assassinate Bonaparte was uncovered by the former police minister Joseph Fouché (who recovered his job as a result of this discovery). Of the leading conspirators, Jean Charles Pichegru died in prison, Jean Victor Moreau fled the country, and Georges Cadoudal was executed. Another victim was the duc d'Enghien, a Bourbon-Condé prince who was kidnapped from the German state of Baden and executed in France.
In the wake of these events, which revived royalist hostility, the Senate petitioned Bonaparte to establish a hereditary dynasty. On Dec. 2, 1804, therefore, Napoleon crowned himself emperor in a ceremony presided over by Pope Pius VII. Napoleon created a titled court that included many of his statesmen and generals as well as ex-royalists. Believing that family ties were more durable than treaties, in the next few years he placed members of his family on the thrones of several satellite states—Naples, the Netherlands, Westphalia, and Spain—and married his relatives to some of the most distinguished families in Europe.
Dynastic considerations also caused Bonaparte to divorce Josephine in 1809 because she had borne him no male heir. He then married (Apr. 2, 1810) Marie Louise, daughter of Austrian emperor Francis I (previously Holy Roman emperor Francis II); within a year a son, the king of Rome, was born.
In 1805, Britain organized the Third Coalition against France, but Napoleon's new Grand Army swept through Germany into Austria, destroying both Austrian and Russian armies at Ulm and Austerlitz. Austria signed (Dec. 26, 1805) the Treaty of Pressburg, by which Venice and Dalmatia were annexed to Napoleon's Kingdom of Italy, and in 1806, Napoleon organized the Confederation of the Rhine, a grouping of German states under French protection. Soon after, the Holy Roman Empire was formally dissolved. Prussia helped organize the Fourth Coalition against Napoleon late in 1806, but its forces were destroyed by Napoleon in the Battle of Jena-Auerstädt (October 1806). After defeating the Russians at Eylau (Feb. 8, 1807) and Friedland (June 14, 1807), Napoleon forced the allies to sign (July 7–9, 1807) the Treaties of Tilsit, which resulted in the creation of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and the Kingdom of Westphalia.
Dominant in Europe, Napoleon was obsessed with Britain's defiance and role as the commercial "paymaster of Europe." To subdue Britain, Napoleon committed his most serious blunders. He imposed (1806) the Continental System, a blockade of British trade, on Europe to undermine the British economy. The refusal of Portugal to observe the blockade led to French intervention in Iberia and embroilment in the Peninsular War (see Napoleonic Wars). While the Peninsular War raged, Austria mobilized and began the War of the Fifth Coalition. A series of hard-fought battles culminated in final French victory (July 5–6, 1809) at Wagram, and Austria lost Illyria and Galicia by the Treaty of Schönbrunn (Oct. 14, 1809).
Although French control in Iberia was eroding by 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia on June 23–24 of that year. One major reason for the attack was the Russian refusal to accept the Continental System. The Russian armies withdrew, drawing Napoleon deep into Russia. Napoleon defeated them at Borodino on Sept. 7, 1812, and a week later reached Moscow. There he waited in vain for Emperor Alexander I's surrender, while Russian arsonists set the city on fire. With reinforced Russian armies attacking his outlying positions and signs of winter's approach, Napoleon ordered a retreat in October. Despite the deprivations suffered by his troops, the miserable weather, and the pursuing Russian army, Napoleon held the nucleus of his army together and managed to escape Russian encirclement. After crossing the Berezina River he left his ravaged army and hurried back to Paris on learning of an abortive coup in Paris by the demented general Claude Malet.
After Napoleon's Russian debacle the Prussians deserted their alliance with the French, and in 1813 the Sixth Coalition was formed among Prussia, Russia, Britain, and Sweden (ruled by the erstwhile Napoleonic general Bernadotte, later to be King Charles XIV John). Napoleon soon formed a new army and defeated the allies at Lützen (May 2) and Bautzen (May 20–21). After a short armistice, hostilities again began in August, when Austria joined the coalition. Although Napoleon was victorious (August 26–27) at Dresden, the French were outnumbered two to one and defeated in the so-called Battle of Nations at Leipzig on October 16–19. Withdrawing across the Rhine, Napoleon refused to surrender any conquered territory, convinced that such a concession would cost him his crown in France. In 1814, France was invaded, and Napoleon again demonstrated his military genius by defeating each enemy army as it advanced on Paris. Nevertheless, hopelessly outnumbered, he attempted to negotiate, but the allies continued to advance and took Paris on March 31.
The Hundred Days
On April 6, Napoleon abdicated in favor of his son. When the allies refused to accept this, he made his abdication unconditional on April 11. He then was exiled to the island of Elba, where he was given sovereign power and introduced administrative, economic, and political reforms.
Aware of France's dissatisfaction over the restoration rule of the Bourbon dynasty, Napoleon decided to return to France in 1815. Landing at Cannes on March 1, he marched triumphantly through sympathetic areas of France and was greeted as the returning hero. King Louis XVIII fled abroad, and Napoleon occupied Paris on March 20, beginning the period called the Hundred Days. Although Napoleon proclaimed peaceful intentions, the allies, who were meeting at the Congress of Vienna, immediately outlawed him and prepared for war. Before massive Russian and Austrian forces could reach France, Napoleon resolved to separate and defeat the Prussian and Anglo-Dutch armies in what is now Belgium. Despite several initial victories he was defeated by the duke of Wellington and Gebhard von Blücher at the Battle of Waterloo) on June 18, 1815.
Napoleon returned to Paris, where he abdicated for the second time on June 23. Fleeing to Aix, he surrendered to the captain of the British warship Bellerophon and was exiled to the island of Saint Helena. Living with his secretary and a few loyal friends, he dictated his memoirs, laying the foundation of the Napoleonic legend. He died on May 5, 1821.
The Napoleonic legend was embellished by his followers in the succeeding decades of turbulent French politics. It facilitated the rise of Napoleon's nephew, who eventually founded a Second Empire as Napoleon III in 1852. Allowing for the exaggerations of the legend, there remains no question that Napoleon I was a military genius. Although his ambition to dominate Europe cost France hundreds of thousands of lives, he left to that country many of the institutions that form its modern basis. His tomb in the Invalides in Paris is a national shrine.
Horward, Donald D. "Napoleon I, Emperor of the French (Napoléon Bonaparte)." Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Grolier Online, 2012. Web. 4 Jan. 2012.