Life of Napoleon

The Rise and Fall of Napoleon

Biography of Napoleon


Napoleon was a ruthless leader, brilliant military leader and paradoxically an enlightened ruler and political reformer. His rise and fall followed an amazing path: from obscure beginnings on the island of Corsica, to becoming Emperor of a French empire spanning most of Europe and large parts of the world.

The Rise and Fall of Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Leading His Men

Napoleon Leading His Men

NAPOLEON I., Emperor of the French, was born at Ajaccio, in the island of Corsica, Aug. 15, 1769; he died on the island of Saint Helena, on May 5, 1821 at the age of 51.

His birth name was Napoleone di Buonaparte, but when he moved to France he changed the spelling of his name to the French, Napoléon Bonaparte. Later, when he became Emperor of France, he adoped the reign-name of Napoleon, by which he is most commonly known,

Napoleon's father, Carlo Bonaparte was a Corsican lawyer and local political leader and his mother Letizia Bonaparte was noted as woman of considerable intellect. The famous Napoleon was the couple's second of three children. Their first son, also named Napoleone, died in infancy before his most famous brother and namesake was born. Although he would eventually becone the Emperor of France and one of the greatest leaders of Europe, Napoleon came from a fairly humble background and was not even French. His father, Carlo (Charles) Bonaparte, an advocate and his mother, Letizia Ramolino, were Corsican Italians and spoke a Corsican dialect

Napoleon as a Young Man

Napoleon as a Young Man

As a youth, Napoleon enrolled at the military school at Brienne, France. He did not speak French fluently and was relentlessly mocked and bullied by his fellow students for his accent and his country bumpkin behaviour. While at the school, Napoleon's father died, leaving the family penniless due to gambling debts but Napoleon was able to continue his studies as a pensioner of the French king. Napoleon remained at the military academy a little more than five years.

Shortly after completing the academy, Napoleon entered the military school of Paris, where he received a commission as lieutenant of artillery in 1785. He was located in a garrison at Valence when the French Revolution began, and the period of confusion and strife that followed led Napoleon to rise from obscurity to become the master of France, his adopted country.

Soon after the Revolution began, Napoleon made an unsuccessful attempt to conquer the Corsican cities for France. Despite this setback, in 1793 he was made lieutenant colonel of artillery, and shortly after succeeded in capturing Toulon from the British, who had occupied the city. Napoleon's victory brought him to the attention of the Revolutionary government and he was promoted to brigadier general of artillery in February 1794. He was planning, in 1795, to engage in military service with the Sultan of Turkey. In the early part of that same year the Convention was thrown into great peril by the mutinous spirit of a large number of people at Paris, and Napoleon was selected to command the national forces. A rebellious force of the national guard numbering 30,000 men undertook to reach the Convention at the Tuileries, where it was headquartered.

Napoleon Bonaparte had only 5,000 troops at his disposal with which to defend the revolutionary government from a counter revolution. Even at this early stage Napoleon displayed his ability to win against overwhelming odds. He placed his forces in line and sent a destructive volley of grape shot to clear the streets, mowing down those engaged in the mutiny with great destruction, and not only disbanded the national guard, but ended the insurrection by disarming the populace.

Immediately after this victory Napoleon was given command of the army of the interior. On March 9, 1796, he was married to Josephine Beauharnais, the widow of General Beauharnais. Soon after he assumed supreme command of the army of Italy, which he found in a wretched condition, and quickly began reorganizing. Although the French forces numbered but 40,000 men, he was confronted by a force of 75,000 Austrians and Sardinians. On April 11, 1796, he succeeded in securing possession of the Apennines by defeating the Austrians at Montenotte, and soon after followed successful battles that concluded at Lodi on May 10, thereby bringing all of northern Italy into possession of the French. He immediately began to move upon Austria, and that country was compelled to make peace after its army was defeated at Bassano, Roveredo, Rivoli, and other points. These successes also required the Pope to cede a portion of his Papal States dominion. They brought about peace treaties with Modena, Parma, and Naples, while the treaty with Austria, on Oct. 17, 1797, gave Lombardy, the Netherlands, and the Ionian Islands to France, and Venice was made a part of Austria.

Napoleon returned in December, 1797, to France, where he was greeted as a hero and as the most celebrated military leader of the world. The Directory began to fear his power and decided to have him take charge of an expedition to Egypt, then a possession of Turkey, for the purpose of conquering that country and destroying the influence of England in that region. Possession of Egypt would also have given France the ability to strike overland at British possessions in India.

Napoleon's First Major Military Campaign

Napoleon at the Battle of the Pyramids

Napoleon at the Battle of the Pyramids

Accordingly Napoleon embarked in May, 1798, with a well-organized army from Toulon, reduced Malta while en route, and on July 1 effected a landing at Alexandria, Egypt. On July 4 he took that city, on the 24th of the same month Napoleon captured Cairo by winning the Battle of the Pyramids, and subsequently overran Egypt and much of Palestine. On land, Napoleon was everywhere victorious except at Acre. However his fleet was destroyed in the Bay of Aboukir by a British fleet under the command of Nelson. This was followed by a Turkish counter attack which landed a large force at Aboukir on July 25. This attack was skillfully repelled and the Turks were almost annihilated. Soon after intelligence reached him that the army of France was meeting with disaster at home, which caused him to give the command of the army in Egypt to General Kleber and he returned to France.

Napoleon's expedition to Egypt was notable for the number of scientists whom he brought along. These scientists conducted many important surveys and excavations which led to many discoveries and a renewed interest in ancient Egyptian culture and history. One of the discoveries made by the French scientists accompanying the expedition was the Rosetta Stone, part of an inscription which eventually allowed the translation of the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing.

Napoleon's Seizes Power

The government of France had been unsuccessful in satisfying the people, and Napoleon was hailed as the right man to restore order and confidence. After securing the cooperation of Moreau and other military men of influence, he abolished the Directory on Nov. 9, 1799, and caused the adoption of a new constitution. This constitution provided for three consuls, of which Napoleon was the first consul; Cambaceres, the second; and Lebrun, the third. However, Napoleon was the real ruler of France, and he and Josephine occupied the palace of the kings of France in the Tuileries. Napoleon's position as First Consul was secured by a rigged election giving him over 99 percent of the popular vote.

His government gave vigorous attention to both military and civil affairs, and constructing canals and highways and reorganizing the army. In his prime, Napoleon worked 12 to 14 hours every day, taking no more than 15 minutes for lunch and dinner. He would read reports, send orders, and meet with representatives from the everywhere in France and its terrtories. He amazed his staff with his prodigious memory and the ability to distill facts and figures. However his reign was also marked by more or less constant warfare with all of the main European powers who engaged in shifting alliances against him. His principal opponents were Britain and Austria, as well as Prussia and Russia, though at times he was able to make peace with some of his enemies or at least force some of them to withdraw from the fight.

One of the main threats to France and to Napoleon's power was the empire of Austria. In 1800 Napoleon marched into Italy by way of the Great Saint Bernard pass, shortly after defeated the Austrians at Marengo, won the Battle of Hohenlinden through the skillful cooperation of Moreau, and by the Peace of Luneville acquired all of Italy. Subsequently treaties were made with Portugal, Spain, Bavaria, Naples, Turkey, and Russia, and in 1802 Great Britain agreed to the Treaty of Amiens.

Napoleon as First Consul

Napoleon as First Consul

His attention was next directed to the enlargement of civil institutions. Accordingly he reformed local government, established schools, revised the code of laws, founded the Bank of France, established universities, defined the powers of the church, and gave encouragement to the development of industrial arts and sciences. Napoleon's achievements included establishing the Napoleonic code of laws, which is to this day the foundation of criminal and civil law in France and many former French colonies. He also emancipated the Jews, giving them full status as citizens of France. However, Napoleon's rule was not completely progressive. He re-established slavery as a legal institution, which had been abolished during the French Rfevolution and he sent his army to suppress a slave revolt in the French colony of Haiti, but it was defeated.

France's defeat in Haiti and British control of the seas convinced Napoleon that France would not be able to hold on to its remaining possessions in North America, so he sold the Louisiana Territories to the United States, which led to a large expansion of America. He planned on using the money from the sale of Louisiana for the construction of a large invasion fleet to cross the English Channel and conquer Britain. However French naval defeat at the battle of Trafalgar would dash any French hope of an invasion.

Napoleon is Crowned Emperor

At home, Napoleon faced a number of plots to remove him from power or assassinate him. Some of the concpirators were monarchists who wished to restore the old ruling family. Napoleon uses these plots as a pretext to amend the constitution to make himself hereditary ruler of France, on the premise that these plots could not succeed in destabilizig the government and restore the old ruling nobility, if a new nobility was established. In 1802 the French senate proclaimed Napoleon consul for life and in May, 1804, he proclaimed himself emperor, being crowned with Josephine as empress by the Pope in Paris, Dec. 2, 1804. The people gave a decided vote in favor of this action, but the vote was likely rigged given the unusually lopsided results in favour of Napoleon becoming emperor. Immediately he established titles of nobility, created military marshals, and instituted an imperial court,

Napoleon was crowned King of Italy at Milan on May 26, 1805, and his stepson, Eugene Beauharnais, became his viceroy. This course and his policy in annexing large territories to his dominion caused his power to be feared by the European states, and soon after an alliance was formed against him by Russia, Austria, Sweden, and England. Napoleon immediately invaded Germany, where he defeated a large Austrian army at Ulm, captured Vienna, and on Dec. 2, 1805, won the Battle of Austerlitz over the Austrians and Russians. These successes were followed by making his brother Joseph King of Naples; his brother Louis King of Holland; and the electors of Bavaria and Wurttemburg, who had rallied to his assistance, kings of their respective countries. A large army of Prussians and Russians had in the meantime gathered at Jena, which Napoleon defeated, and, after capturing Berlin, he established the kingdom of Westphalia for his brother Jerome. In June, 1807, Napoleon defeated the Russians at Friedland and shortly after a compact was formed between him and Emperor Alexander I., by which Russia was allowed to take Finland from Sweden and annex a portion of Prussian Poland, while the King of Prussia received as a possession one-half of his former dominions.

It was Napoleon’s ambition to humble England, an object he hoped to accomplish by closing the principal ports of Europe against that country, but the English army defeated his forces in Portugal. He sent an army against the allied Portuguese and English in 1807, which resulted in the royal family of Portugal settling in the then Portuguese colony of Brazil, and the following year Napoleon deposed the Spanish king and installed Napooleon's brother Joseph as King of Spain, while his brother-in-law, Murat, succeeded to the throne of Naples. The Spanish rebelled and angaged in long war with the French occupiers, with British assistance, which drained the French of resources. The French were finally driven from Spain by the allied army of English and Spaniards, this being known as the Peninsular War and extending over a period of seven years.

Austria declared war against Napoleon in 1809, which caused him to enter Bavaria with a large army, but he met defeat at Aspern and Esslingen. However, on July 6 the final battle was fought at Wagram, in which the opposing forces were crushed completely, and as a result Emperor Francis was compelled to cede more of his territory. Napoleon also took over what remained of the Papal States, and the Pope reaced by excommunicating Napoleon. In response, Napoleon had his soldiers break into the Vatican, kidnap the Pope and bring him to Framce.

Napoleon’s accomplished wife, Josephine, had borne him no children, hence he divorced her, and on April 2, 1810, married Marie Louise of Austria. From this union came a son in 1811, who is known as Napoleon II.

Emperor Napoleon at Height of His Powers

Napoloen Granting the Legion of Honour to His Veterans

Napoleon was in the height of his power in 1810 and 1811, his dominion extending from Hamburg to the Mediterranean and from Vienna to the Atlantic, but his influence began to decline rapidly. He declared war against Russia in 1812 because the Czar refused to maintain a continental blockade against Britain, and with an army of 550,000 men entered upon his disastrous invasion of Russian territory.

The Russians made a stand at Borodino, but were defeated, and by a skillful retreat avoided engagements. They not only fell back with great precision, but destroyed or carried away all available supplies. This course made it exceedingly difficult for Napoleon to gather support for his immense army, and when he reached Moscow the city had been reduced to ashes. The winter setting in made it impossible to continue farther pursuit, neither could he subsist at Moscow, and the only thing that remained was an inglorious retreat.

No sooner had Napoleon decided upon this course than extremely severe weather set in. The Russians took advantage of his dilemma by pursuing him with companies of mounted Cossacks, who harassed his army and destroyed in great numbers the French soldiers, now fatigued and weakened by famine and disease. Not more than 50,000 of his army lived to return, from Russia. During this retreat, Marshal Ney distinguished himself in commanding the French rear guard.

As he had done in Egypt, Napoleon essentially abandoned his defeated army and fled back to France. The main body of his army continued to retreat through Germany, pursued by the Russians and now the Austrians. The French garrisons in Germany were forced to surrender and France lost its German possessions, and France itself was now threatened with invasion.

The Beginning of the End

Napoleon immediately ordered a conscription and raised a new army of 350,000 men. However, French forces were greatly outnumbered by their enemies. In 1812 an alliance was formed by Prussia, Spain, Russia, Great Britain, and Sweden against France. The allies now pressed their advantage against France. But the first battles ended in victories for Napoleon who was, as usual able to win against numerically superior forces.

Napoleon first won the battle at Lutzen, on May 2, 1813, followed by more French victories at Bautzen and Dresden. Despite these successes, Napoleon was forced to retreat to Leipzig, where he was defeated at the famous “Battle of Nations”, so called because of the vast number of countries arrayed against him, on Oct. 16, 18, and 19.

Napoleon on the Defensive

The Defence of France

Despite these setbacks, Napoleon and France showed great resiliency and recovered enough to continue fighting. In the early part of 1814 he was ready with a new army and defeated the Prussian General Blucher in four successive engagements, but the allied armies captured Paris on March 30, 1814, and Napoleon proposed to abdicate in favor of his son. This proposition was not accepted, since the allies looked upon him as a disturber of the peace in Europe, and on April 5 he abdicated unconditionally at Fontainebleau. He retained the title of emperor, and was given the sovereignty of the island of Elba. Louis XVIII. was restored to the throne of France, and the work of the French Revolution was largely undone.

Napoleon was not to be so easily disposed of and, taking advantage of the unpopularity of the Bourbons in France, he escaped from Elba after ten months’ residence and landed, on March 1, 1815, at Frejus. An army under Marshal Ney was sent by the king to stop Napoleon, but Ney and his troops defected to Napoleon, who immediately began a triumphant march upon Paris. Louis XVIII. fled, while his place was taken by Napoleon, who began at once to raise a powerful army with which to confront the consolidated forces of Europe.

The allied armies began an immediate march upon France but Napoleon planned to defeat them one by one before they could unite. The German army under Blucher was defeated at Ligny on June 16, and Wellington was attacked at Waterloo on the 18th, to which place he had retired. Napoleon was on the verge of success against the English army, but the Prussians under Blucher made a sudden and decisive attack from the rear, and thus the great Battle of Waterloo was lost. Napoleon fled the battlefield with some troops providing a body guard while the rest of the army was completely routed and destroyed.

The allied armies occupied Paris without opposition, and Napoleon abdicated in favor of his son on June 22 and sought to escape to America. However the allies refused to allow his young son to retain power and Napoleon found it impossible to escape from France. He accordingly surrendered to Captain Maitland of a British warship. Louis XVIII. was immediately restored to the throne and Napoleon was exiled on the island of Saint Helena, off the coast of west Africa, where he remained a prisoner under the charge of Sir Hudson Lowe.

Napoleon was bewildered the last few days of his life, his last words being “head of the army,” from which it is taken that he thought himself still in command of his troops. He was buried on the island, but twenty years later the remains were removed to France, where they were placed in a magnificent tomb in the Hotel des Invalides on Dec. 15, 1840.