All great events hang by a hair. The man of ability takes advantage of everything and neglects nothing that can give him a chance of success; whilst the less able man sometimes loses everything by neglecting a single one of those chances.
After his campaigns in Italy and Egypt, Napoleon heard of France’s series of defeats at the hands of the “Coalition” led by Britain, Austria and Russia, and including the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, Naples, various German monarchies and Sweden. This Coalition was formed with the express purpose of containing French expansion and reinstating the monarchy.
Bonaparte left his forces in the care of another general and set sail for France. He did so without receiving orders permitting this move, which was called out as treason by some of his opponents, but the majority of the French people backed Napoleon so nothing ever came of this charge.
Overthrowing the directory, Napoleon became “first consul” for ten years, with two consuls appointed by him who had consultative voices only. His power was confirmed by the new “Constitution of the Year VIII”. The constitution preserved the appearance of a republic but in reality established a dictatorship.
The Battle of Marengo was Napoleon’s first great victory as the French head of state and caused Austria to sign the Convention of Alessandria, which abandoned north Italy to the French. This triumph secured his political authority and boosted his popularity back home, but it did not lead to an immediate peace. Bonaparte’s brother, Joseph, led the complex negotiations in Lunéville and reported that Austria, emboldened by British support, would not acknowledge the new territory that France had acquired. As negotiations became increasingly fractious, Bonaparte gave orders to his general Moreau to strike Austria once more. Moreau and the French swept through Bavaria and scored an overwhelming victory at Hohenlinden in December 1800. As a result, the Austrians capitulated and signed the Treaty of Lunéville in February 1801.
France and Britain signed the Treaty of Amiens in March 1802, bringing the Revolutionary Wars to an end. This caused Napoleon’s popularity to soar and led the French people to basically elect him dictator for life.
Abroad, Napoleon attempted to pacify Saint-Domingue but this proved to costly due to the rampant spread of disease, so he withdrew French forces. This land would become Haiti. I can hear the jokes rolling in now.
Deciding that colonialism was too expensive, he sold the Louisiana Territory to the Francophile United States’ President, Thomas Jefferson. This doubled the size of the fledgling United States.
There is a joy in danger.
Trouble at home
Napoleon faced several attempts on his life during the Consulate. In January 1804, an assassination plot was uncovered that involved Moreau and which was ostensibly sponsored by the Bourbon family, the former rulers of France. On the advice of Talleyrand, Napoleon ordered the kidnapping of the Duke of Enghien, violating the sovereignty of Baden. The Duke was quickly executed after a secret military trial, even though he had not been involved in the plot. The execution infuriated royal courts throughout Europe, becoming one of the contributing political factors for the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars.
To expand his power, Napoleon used these assassination plots to justify the creation of an imperial system based on the Roman model. In his eyes, a clear line of succession lined out in the constitution was the only way to prevent the chaos of the Revolution from playing out again or to prevent the return of the Bourbons to power. Launching yet another referendum, Napoleon was elected as Emperor of the French.
Britain declared war on France in 1803 due to some territory disputes. An alliance called the “Third Coalition” took shape, which included Britain, Sweden, Austria, and Russia.
Napoleon had thought about invading England, but ended up forgetting that idea. The benefit of this was that this was the beginning of La Grande Armée. At the start, this French army had about 200,000 men organized into seven corps, which were large field units that contained 36–40 cannons each and were capable of independent action until other corps could come to the rescue. A single corps properly situated in a strong defensive position could survive at least a day without support, giving the Grande Armée countless strategic and tactical options on every campaign. On top of these forces, Napoleon created a cavalry reserve of 22,000 organized into two cuirassier divisions, four mounted dragoon divisions, one division of dismounted dragoons, and one of light cavalry, all supported by 24 artillery pieces. By 1805, the Grande Armée had grown to a force of 350,000 men, who were well equipped, well trained, and led by competent officers.
After abandoning the plan to invade England, Napoleon decided to snatch the low hanging fruit of the Austrian army, which was isolated from their allies. The resulting The Ulm Campaign is generally regarded as a strategic masterpiece and was influential in the development of the Schlieffen Plan in the late 19th century. For just 2,000 French casualties, Napoleon had managed to capture a total of 60,000 Austrian soldiers through his army’s rapid marching. He then captured Vienna, which prompted the Russians and Holy Roman Empire to attack him, resulting in the Battle of Austerlitz. France and Austria agreed to an armistice immediately afterwards and the Treaty of Pressburg followed shortly after on December 26th.
Napoleon would go on to establish “The Confederation of the Rhine” which was a group of German states friendly to France. These would serve as a buffer and signaled the end of the Holy Roman Empire. This enraged Prussia and led to the battles of Jena and Auerstedt. These battles shattered the Prussian military and freed up Napoleon to face the Russians.
After several bloody stalemates, the Russians were defeated handily in the Battle of Friedland. This led to the Treaties of Tilsit, which brought “peace” between the two nations.
War of the Peninsula
Napoleon, given a moment’s respite from war, now turned his attention towards his “Continental System”, which forbade any of his subject nations from trading with the British. Portugal tried to play both sides against the middle and ended up getting invaded for their sneakiness.
The Spanish at first were all too happy to have the French enter their land to invade their neighbor, but Napoleon decided to intervene in the internecine Spanish squabbles and the Spanish erupted. Guerrilla warfare ensued, and 8 long years later, the French were pushed out of Spain by Arthur Wellesley. This campaign drained the French of much needed manpower.
Interesting side note, after leaving in 1808, Napoleon never came back to Iberia. One wonders what difference he might have made here if Central Europe had not occupied him so much.
After beating the Austrians (again), Napoleon turned his attention on domestic affairs. The Empress Josephine, his wife, had not been able to have children, so he divorced her. Napoleon then settled on the Austrian Archduchess Marie Louise. She would bear him a son, who history knows as Napoleon II.
In 1812, Napoleon made his biggest mistake. He invaded Russia. Russia had decided they would trade with whoever they wanted to, and even had discussions about invading France. This led to Napoleon invading despite his adviser’s protestations. It was a disaster.
The Armée had begun in May 1812 with over 400,000 frontline troops. Fewer than 40,000 crossing the Berezina River in November 1812. The Russians had lost 150,000 in battle and hundreds of thousands of civilians.
After the Russian disaster, Napoleon had built his army up to around 350,000 by the summer of 1813. But his time was running out. Prussia joined with Austria, Sweden, Russia, Great Britain, Spain, and Portugal in the Sixth Coalition. Even though Napoleon won several victories, the attrition ground him down until he was forced to abdicate on April 4, 1814.
He was then exiled to an island of 12,000 population, Elba. He was allowed to rule there, ironically.
Return of the King
Separated from his wife and son, who had returned to Austria, cut off from the allowance guaranteed to him by the Treaty of Fontainebleau, and aware of rumours he was about to be banished to a remote island in the Atlantic Ocean, Napoleon escaped from Elba, in the brig Inconstant on February 26, 1815 with 700 men. Two days later, he landed on the French mainland at Golfe-Juan and started heading north.
The 5th Regiment was sent to intercept him and made contact just south of Grenoble on March 7, 1815. Napoleon approached the regiment alone, dismounted his horse and, when he was within gunshot range, shouted to the soldiers, “Here I am. Kill your Emperor, if you wish”. The soldiers quickly responded with, “Vive L’Empereur!” General Ney, who had boasted to the restored Bourbon king, Louis XVIII, that he would bring Napoleon to Paris in an iron cage, affectionately kissed his former emperor and forgot his oath of allegiance to the Bourbon monarch. The two then marched together towards Paris with a growing army. The unpopular Louis XVIII fled to Belgium after realizing he had little political support. On 13 March, the powers at the Congress of Vienna declared Napoleon an outlaw. Four days later, Great Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia each pledged to put 150,000 men into the field to end his rule.
Thus began the Hundred Days, Napoleon’s swan song of governance. He was defeated finally at the Battle of Waterloo and escaped from the field only to find that he was no longer welcome in Paris. He abdicated the throne to his son, and fled. After hearing that Austrian troops were ordered to kill him, he turned himself in to the British Captain Frederick Maitland on HMS Bellerophon on July 15, 1815.
The fool has one great advantage over a man of sense — he is always satisfied with himself.
Exile on Saint Helena
The British kept Napoleon on the island of Saint Helena in the Atlantic Ocean. They also took the precaution of sending a garrison of soldiers, with an experienced officer (Edward Nicolls), to uninhabited Ascension Island, which lay between St. Helena and Europe.
With a small cadre of followers, Napoleon dictated his memoirs and grumbled about conditions. Lowe cut Napoleon’s expenditure, ruled that no gifts were allowed if they mentioned his imperial status, and made his supporters sign a guarantee they would stay with the prisoner indefinitely.
While in exile, Napoleon wrote a book about Julius Caesar, one of his great heroes. He also studied English under the tutelage of Count Emmanuel de Las Cases with the main aim of being able to read English newspapers and books, as access to French newspapers and books was heavily restricted to him.
There were rumors of plots and even of his escape, but in reality no serious attempts were made. For English poet Lord Byron, Napoleon was the epitome of the Romantic hero, the persecuted, lonely, and flawed genius.
The life of this extraordinary man ended on May 5, 1821.
In 1840, Louis Philippe I obtained permission from the British to return Napoleon’s remains to France. On December 15, 1840, a state funeral was held. The hearse proceeded from the Arc de Triomphe down the Champs-Élysées, across the Place de la Concorde to the Esplanade des Invalides and then to the cupola in St Jérôme’s Chapel, where it remained until the tomb designed by Louis Visconti was completed.
In 1861, Napoleon’s remains were entombed in a porphyry stone sarcophagus in the crypt under the dome at Les Invalides.
Napoleon instituted various reforms, such as higher education, a tax code, road and sewer systems, and established the Banque de France, the first central bank in French history. He dissolved the Holy Roman Empire prior to German Unification later in the 19th century. The sale of the Louisiana Territory to the United States doubled the size of the United States.
In May 1802, he instituted the Legion of Honour, a substitute for the old royalist decorations and orders of chivalry, to encourage civilian and military achievements; the order is still the highest decoration in France.
The Napoleonic Code, the Code Civil—now often known as the Napoleonic Code, was a fundamental change in the nature of the civil law legal system with its stress on clearly written and accessible law. Other codes (“Les cinq codes“) were commissioned by Napoleon to codify criminal and commerce law; a Code of Criminal Instruction was published, which enacted rules of due process.
Napoleon reorganised what had been the Holy Roman Empire, made up of more than a thousand entities, into a more streamlined forty-state Confederation of the Rhine; this provided the basis for the German Confederation and the unification of Germany in 1871.
The movement toward national unification in Italy was similarly precipitated by Napoleonic rule. These changes contributed to the development of nationalism and the nation state.
British historian Andrew Roberts:
The ideas that underpin our modern world—meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, and so on—were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon. To them he added a rational and efficient local administration, an end to rural banditry, the encouragement of science and the arts, the abolition of feudalism and the greatest codification of laws since the fall of the Roman Empire.
One man from a tiny island did all of this. I’ll leave you with this quote of his.
He who fears being conquered is certain of defeat.
As always, thanks for reading.