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Napoleon Bonaparte

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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.
—Andrew Roberts, British historian.[1]

Napoleon Bonaparte, born Napoleone di Buonaparte (1769–1821), was a French statesman, math nerd,[2] science enthusiast,[3] and military commander of Corsican origin who became Emperor of France after the French Revolution and led that country through the tumultuous Napoleonic Wars. He was arguably the first modern dictator.

Napoleon was born in Corsica to a minor noble family. Corsica itself had only been conquered by France a year before Napoleon's birth.[4] Napoleon was an artillery officer in the French army when the 1789 Revolution broke out. The subsequent campaigns by the United Kingdom and its allies against the French Republic brought Napoleon into national prominence. He came to power in 1799 after orchestrating a coup d'état (the "Coup of 18 Brumaire") and ruled France for five years as "First Consul" before the French Senate declared him Emperor. This spawned many bad "can he do it? Of Corsi-can" jokes.[citation NOT needed]

After winning many stunning victories throughout the Napoleonic Wars, the emperor met his downfall due to his own hubris, as dictators are wont to do. His extended fight against guerrilla warfare in Iberia (1807–1814) and his ill-advised 1812 invasion of Russia collapsed his conquests and led to his first downfall (1814). Napoleon improbably managed to return from exile, but faced his final defeat during the Battle of Waterloo (1815).

Napoleon's greatest influence on the modern world comes through the liberal reforms he brought to Western Europe. His "Napoleonic Code" replaced the old patchwork of laws and backward customs that Western Europe inherited from feudalism.[5] The Napoleonic Code upheld the principles of equality before the law (for men), civil liberty, and secularism.[6]

Despite popular stereotypes, Napoleon was not particularly short, standing at about 5'6" (1.68m), which was a perfectly average height for the time. The widely-cited "short Napoleon" caricature derives from anti-French propaganda published in Britain that intentionally conflated the size of the French inch (2.71 cm) and the British inch (2.54 cm), and from the fact that his personal guards were often more than 6 feet tall, making Napoleon seem smaller than he was.[7][8] Furthermore, many of the political and military leaders of Napoleon's time were taller than he was, so there is at least a kernel of truth to the myth. Nevertheless, a Napoleon complex refers to a short person compensating for diminutive stature in other ways.

Napoleon's rise[edit]

Napoleon's early years[edit]

Napoleon as a young adult with long hair.
As the nation was perishing I was born. Thirty thousand Frenchmen were vomited on to our shores, drowning the throne of liberty in waves of blood. Such was the odious sight which was the first to strike me.
—Napoleon on the French conquest of Corsica, 1789.[9]

Napoleon's family was minor nobility of Tuscan origin who had immigrated to Corsica in the 16th Century.[10] Napoleon was born in the year after France conquered the island from Genoa.[11] He was proud to be Italian, claiming that he was "of the race that founds empires."[12] Like Mussolini after him, Napoleon was an Italian who spent his young adulthood fighting against the thing he would later create. In Napoleon's case, it was France itself. He was an avowed Corsican nationalist, as his parents had fought against the French conquest of the island before and during his birth.[13] Napoleon was unhappy as a teenager (surprise, surprise), and even went so far as to write an essay contemplating the concept of suicide partially inspired by what he perceived as the weakness of his countrymen in the face of French oppression.[14][15] He was also a romantic in his youth, and he penned a trashy romance novel called Clisson et Eugénie, based on his real-life relationships.[16]

Education turned Napoleon into a Frenchman. He enrolled in a French military academy run by clergy, where he faced bullying for being a foreigner.[17] Despite his religious education, he was never a true Christian. Napoleon was instead inspired by Enlightenment-style secularism. He said during this part of his life that he was scandalized to learn that "the most virtuous man of antiquity would burn in Hell for not having practised a religion he knew nothing about."[18] His Enlightenment background also lent itself to a lifelong interest in science.[3] During school, Napoleon excelled at mathematics to the point where his teachers decided that he'd have a fulfilling career in the artillery corps, where math skills were essential.[2] Napoleon also had a geometric theorem named after him, although there's doubt as to whether he was the one who came up with it.[19]

During the Revolutionary Wars[edit]

Napoleon uses artillery to quell the royalists.
"No, connard, the enemy's that way!"
I like the Mohammedan religion best. It has fewer incredible things in it than ours.
—Napoleon on religion.[20]

After the Revolution broke out, Napoleon went AWOL from the French military to deal with the situation on Corsica. The island was split three ways between the royalists, the revolutionaries, and the nationalists. Napoleon sided with the Revolution, and this forced him to split with his former family friends who favored independence and his own hometown.[21] Pasquale Paoli, the leader of the Corsican nationalists, had turned against the revolutionaries after the execution of France's king.[22] Paoli's subsequent actions (sabotaging a French campaign in Sardinia)[23] infuriated Napoleon and convinced him to denounce Paoli as a traitor. The Buonaparte family was driven from Corsica in 1793.

In France, Napoleon wrote a pro-republican pamphlet which earned him the attention and respect of Maximilien Robespierre, an influential French politician and architect of the "Reign of Terror".[24] He subsequently became a commander during the campaign against anti-republican forces in southern France and won his first victory by ejecting the Anglo-Spanish fleet from the city and forts of Toulon.[25] However, Napoleon's career suffered a setback when Robespierre fell from power due to a coup.[26] A Catholic royalist uprising against the republican government gave Napoleon his chance to retake the spotlight. He took command in Paris and used artillery to launch grapeshot and decimated the royalist army despite being outnumbered six-to-one.[27]

In the wake of his successful defense of Paris, the French government assigned Napoleon to the Army of Italy. At this point, Napoleon changed his name from Buonaparte to the more French Bonaparte, realizing then that his future was in France and not in Corsica.[28] In Italy, Napoleon faced the armies of Austria and Sardinia-Piedmont. Luckily for him, the two countries hated each other and their armies refused to coordinate. Napoleon was able to defeat the two armies separately and take northern Italy.[29] Taking initiative, Napoleon negotiated the Treaty of Campo Formio, which ceded what is now Belgium to France and annexed most of northern Italy into a newly-formed client state called the Cisalpine Republic.[30] The victorious campaign brought Napoleon fully into the national spotlight. Meanwhile, the vast sums of loot Napoleon managed to extort from the small Italian states helped stabilize France's teetering republican government.[29]

A painting of Napoleon visiting the Great Sphinx of Giza.
"What sort of idiots build a sculpture without a nose?"

With peace brought to the continent, France turned its attention to its most stubborn foe: Great Britain. With the British navy too powerful to defeat in the Channel, Napoleon instead wanted to fight in the Middle East. He hoped that establishing a stronghold there could disrupt British trade with their colonies in India. The Directory, France's new government, went along with it because they were glad for an excuse to keep Napoleon out of France and far away from a chance to launch his own coup.[31] Napoleon set out for Egypt. Along with his army, Napoleon brought about 150 of France's best scholars and scientists to study Egyptian culture and history.[3] Among their accomplishments was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.[32] Napoleon's campaign in Egypt began auspiciously. He defeated the Egyptian army in the Battle of the Pyramids and installed a new government in Cairo to abolish feudalism and modernize Egypt.[31] During his campaign, Napoleon outwardly embraced Islam to ingratiate himself to the Egyptian populace but he remained a staunch secularist.[33] Unfortunately for Napoleon, the British navy entered the Mediterranean and destroyed the French, cutting Napoleon off from supplies and forcing him to call off the expedition amid starvation and disease.[34] Napoleon abandoned his troops and returned home to France on a small boat.

The Brumaire Coup[edit]

Napoleon in Saint-Cloud during the Brumaire Coup, 1799.

The Coup of 18 Brumaire marked the end of the French Revolution and brought General Napoleon Bonaparte to power as First Consul of France. While Napoleon was adventuring in Egypt, diplomatic disagreements between the new French government and the various monarchies of Europe led to the outbreak of the War of the Second Coalition. Knowledge of France's defeats and the near loss of everything Napoleon had worked for is what prompted him to return to France so abruptly.[35] The French government at this point was too politically weak to punish France's most famous war hero for deserting his post.

Napoleon was approached by Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, a member of the Directory, France's five-member ruling body, who convinced him to join a coup against the other members in order to centralize France's executive power.[36] Falsely warning of a Jacobin plot against the government, Sieyès convinced France's legislative bodies to gather in the Palace at Saint-Cloud, placing them away from Paris and surrounded by Bonaparte's loyal soldiers.[37] Meanwhile, Sieyès intimidated two other members of the Directory into resigning with him, leaving the body neutered with three out of five seats empty.[36] The legislators figured out what Napoleon was up to and chased him away when he tried giving them a speech, but the other plotters salvaged the situation by sending in soldiers to terrorize them into dissolving France's government and establishing a three-member consulate under First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte.[37]

Napoleon, however, was not about to share power in a triumvirate, and he certainly wasn't going to be a puppet of Sieyès. He spent the following months strengthening his own post as First Consul. This culminated with him proposing a new constitution that would place all executive power under Bonaparte and allow him to rule by decree. Napoleon then rigged the referendum on the new constitution, announcing that 99% of France's voters had approved it.[38] The constitution would be amended twice. The first time was in 1802, which made Napoleon First Consul for life.[38] The second amendment was in 1804, which established the French Empire and crowned Napoleon as Napoleon I, Emperor of the French and leader of the House Bonaparte.[38] The turbulent French Revolution had ended with France becoming an autocratic dictatorship.

As First Consul[edit]

First Consul Napoleon.

Ending the wars[edit]

After assuming leadership of France, Napoleon immediately set about dealing with the ongoing War of the Second Coalition. Although various nations were fighting against France, the bulk of the actual threat came from Austria. Napoleon thus chose a bold strategy of crossing the Alps and narrowly managed to rout the Austrians in northern Italy at the Battle of Marengo.[39] Austria made peace a year after in 1801, and Russia voluntarily left the coalition due to its recently crowned czar deciding that he admired Napoleon.[40]

The United Kingdom, meanwhile, had also grown tired of the constant warfare. Secret talks began, and the result was the 1802 Treaty of Amiens. In it, France agreed to withdraw from central and southern Italy, but they kept northern Italy, the Rhineland, and the Netherlands.[41] France thus got the better end of the deal, but the true purpose was to provide both sides with a much-needed breather before resuming hostilities.

With peace achieved and France's economy beginning to recover, Napoleon became by far the most popular of France's post-Revolution leaders up to that point.[42] This is what enabled Napoleon to hold the second referendum to amend the new constitution to make him France's dictator for life.

The Americas and slavery[edit]

The decision to reestablish slavery isn't just a stain on Napoleon's legacy, it's a crime.
—Louis-Georges Tin, Representative Council of Black Associations (CRAN).[43]

With peace (temporarily) achieved across Europe, Napoleon turned his attention to France's colonial empire. France's colony in Haiti had risen up against racist colonial rule and forced the new republican government to abolish slavery. Napoleon inflamed the situation in 1802 by relegalizing the vile institution, betraying the ideals of the Revolution and condemning over 300,000 people to decades more in bondage until France abolished slavery once more in 1848.[43] He did this in order to revitalize France's colonies in the Caribbean, with the broader goal of reestablishing France as a major colonial power after its defeat to British Empire during the French and Indian War.

Back on Haiti, revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture proclaimed himself "Governor-for-Life" and began acting unilaterally to negotiate trade treaties with the United Kingdom and the United States.[44] Louverture's push for autonomy angered Napoleon, who sent an army to betray and capture him. At first, this pacified the island. However, Napoleon made the grave mistake of declaring his intention to reinstate slavery in Haiti, which prompted Louverture's second-in-command Jean-Jacques Dessalines to rise up again and fully expel the French from the island.[45] The humiliating defeat in Haiti convinced Napoleon that France would not have an empire in the Americas; this influenced his decision to sell France's claim to the Louisiana Territory to the United States.[46]

Louisiana had previously been under Spanish control, and in 1795, the United States had made a treaty with Spain allowing them access to the Mississippi River and New Orleans.[47] This arrangement was threatened when Napoleon acquired Louisiana from Spain through a secret deal and announced his intentions to rebuild France as a colonial power in the Americas.[48] The Americans feared that French and American expansionism would result in a war over Louisiana. Luckily, that scenario was averted due to Napoleon's loss in Haiti. The Americans were stunned when Napoleon simply offered to sell the entirety of France's claim to Louisiana for a mere $15 million dollars, which US President Thomas Jefferson eventually accepted.[49] The Louisiana Purchase famously doubled the size of the United States. It was also, less famously, very bad news for the Native Americans who lived there.

Code Napoléon[edit]

Is it not an absurd and terrible thing that that which is true in one village is false in another? What kind of Barbarism is it that citizens must live under different laws? When you travel in this kingdom you change legal systems as often as you change horses.
Voltaire explains the problem that Napoleon sought to fix.[50]

Creating a new legal system for France had been an ongoing project for much of the French Revolution. The revolutionary governments had shattered the secular power of the Catholic Church, broken the guilds, and legally unified the country.[51] Before the revolution, France was governed by a number of different legal systems, from Frankish Customary Law around Paris to traditional Roman Law in the south to theocratic Church laws in lands controlled by the clergy.[52] There was an increasing push to replace France's outdated and contradictory feudal laws with a new legal system based on rationalism. Napoleon himself recognized the importance of building a legal state to bolster his rule, and he was desperate to be seen as more than just a general who had seized power with force.

The "Civil Code of the French People" was implemented across France's territories in 1804, and it became known as the "Code Napoléon" in 1807.[52] The code was both revolutionary and conservative. It ended the French nobility and declared that all men were created equal, but it did not grant rights to women.[52] Like in the United States at the time, the key word in "all men are created equal" was men. Non-whites also lost out, as slavery was re-legalized across France's colonies.[52] Like in the United States at the time, "men" was wordlessly amended to mean "white men".

Nonetheless, the Code was innovative in that it recognized property rights and actually explained how those property rights actually worked in practice.[51] Unfortunately, it was also a step back in terms of criminal justice, as it returned prison labor, warantless arrests, and freaking branding to the French justice system.[52]

The Code Napoléon is still used in France in modified form today. Later it formed the basis of the private law of the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Spain, and was quite influential throughout the rest of Europe. Some "descendants" of the Code Napoléon were later "exported" to other countries trying to come up with a new code of civil law, e.g. Japan. Since Louisiana was a French colony until Napoleon himself sold it to the United States in 1803, and the purchase wasn't finalized until 1804, the Code Napoléon is also the basis of civil law in Louisiana.[53]

Becoming emperor[edit]

Napoleon on his throne.
To be a king is to inherit old ideas and genealogy. I don't want to descend from anyone.
—Napoleon on becoming Emperor.[54]

Despite his popularity, Napoleon faced multiple assassination plots from royalists and Jacobins.[55][56] Napoleon received intelligence, later proven false, that Louis-Antoine-Henri de Bourbon-Condé, the Duke of Enghien was responsible for one of the plots against him. Napoleon had the Duke kidnapped, tried, and executed. This action was the final nail in the coffin preventing any and all reconciliation between Napoleon and the monarchs of Europe, and it prompted the famous quote, “C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute” (“It’s worse than a crime, it’s a mistake”).[57]

The various assassination attempts made Napoleon's most ardent supporters, France's landowners, fear what would happen if Napoleon were ever to lose power.[58] He leveraged that fear into the 1802 referendum appointing him First Consul for life. However, the threat of the Bourbons still hung over France, and there was an increasing sense that the only way to preserve what remained of the French Revolution was to make Napoleon a hereditary ruler so that there would never again be an unstable shift in power that could allow the Bourbons to return.[58] Napoleon convinced the French Senate to pass a law making him "Emperor of the French" and once again falsified the results of the national referendum to ensure its passage.[58] Napoleon chose the title Emperor because it was ambitious, and was at that point in history more associated with the Roman Empire than the hated Bourbon kings.[59] A French socialite at the time, Madame de Rémusat, explained that Napoleon's rise was possible because "men worn out by the turmoil of the Revolution … looked for the domination of an able ruler" and that "people believed quite sincerely that Bonaparte, whether as consul or emperor, would exert his authority and save [them] from the perils of anarchy."[60]

Napoleon was crowned as Emperor of the French on Sunday December 2nd, 1804.[54]

As emperor[edit]

The Battle of Trafalgar, one of the wettest battles in European history.

War of the Third Coalition[edit]

The Treaty of Amiens predictably broke down within a year of its negotiation. The issue in question was Malta, which the United Kingdom refused to vacate despite having agreed to do so during the negotiations.[61] Napoleon retaliated by occupying the German state of Hanover and the southern Italian kingdom of Naples, both of which were under British protection.[61] The war with the UK began in 1803.

Napoleon began the war in a strong position. France was at the height of its power up to then, and he also had the powerful Spanish fleet at his disposal. Manuel de Godoy was the dictator of Spain in all but name, and he had become a willing puppet ruler of France in 1796 due to having been promised half of Portugal as a personal conquest.[62] Napoleon hoped to use the Spanish fleet to destroy the British Royal Navy and finally achieve what no one since William the Bastard had done: invade the British isles. Unfortunately for him, the Franco-Spanish fleet suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of Admiral Lord Nelson during the Battle of Trafalgar, permanently ending French hopes of achieving naval supremacy.[63]

On land, Napoleon once again faced Austria and Russia. Napoleon moved quickly and used a forced march to encircle the Austrians at the German city of Ulm, capturing 60,000 Austrian prisoners and creating the inspiration for the Schlieffen Plan.[64] The shattered Austrians retreated towards Austerlitz (now located in Czechia) to link up with their Russian allies. This set the stage for one of Napoleon's most famous battles. The Battle of Austerlitz, also called the Battle of the Three Emperors, saw Napoleon take advantage of the divisions between the Austrians and Russians to defeat an army of 90,000 soldiers with only 68,000.[65]

The disaster convinced Austria to immediately enter an armistice with France. This resulted in the Treaty of Pressburg, in which Austria surrendered all of its lands in Italy to the Cisalpine Republic and surrender its lands in Germany to Napoleon's allies, which were then released from the Holy Roman Empire.[66] Throughout 1806, Napoleon reorganized the German states into the so-called "Confederation of the Rhine", a large French puppet state which represented the closest thing the world had ever seen to a united Germany.[67]

War of the Fourth Coalition[edit]

Napoleon greets Czar Alexander to negotiate the Treaty of Tilsit.

The radical restructuring of Germany convinced the east German superpower of Prussia to intervene and begin the war of the Fourth Coalition. It's somewhat difficult to separate this war from the previous, as many of the belligerents maintained constant hostilities with no interruptions. Napoleon routed the Prussians in two months and occupied Berlin.[68] Prussia was then forced to cede much of its territory to the Confederation of the Rhine.

After completing his establishment of the Confederation, Napoleon finally announced that the Holy Roman Empire no longer existed.[69] During the campaign against Russia, Napoleon established the Duchy of Warsaw as a client state under control of Saxony, which was itself under the control of France.[70] Napoleon defeated the Russians in the Battle of Friedland, in which the Russians lost 20,000 men.[71] The scope of this loss finally brought Russia to the negotiating table. The Fourth Coalition ended when Russia signed the Treaty of Tilsit with Napoleon, becoming a French ally in exchange for being given a free hand to conquer Finland from Sweden and to take the Balkans from the Ottoman Empire.[72]

This war also saw Napoleon create the "Continental System", under which he forbade his European allies and other neutral countries from trading with the United Kingdom.[73] Ultimately, the embargo hurt France and her allies worse than the United Kingdom, as the UK could still trade with her vast overseas holdings. Russia joined the Continental System under the Treaty of Tilsit, but would later wish they hadn't.

Napoleon's victory over the Fourth Coalition marked the height of his power. Unfortunately for him, the stunning victories over much of Europe caused Napoleon to grow more and more arrogant in his decision-making. Everything after would be a downhill slide.

The Peninsular War[edit]

French troops execute civilians in Madrid.
The fact is that not a single Spaniard is on my side.
—Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain.[74]

Napoleon's slow downfall began when he invaded Portugal. The attack was prompted by Portugal's refusal to join the Continental System; the nation chose to honor its long-standing alliance with Britain.[75] Napoleon also negotiated a secret treaty with Spain promising to partition Portugal into three pieces under join Spanish and French control.[76] Napoleon, as it would later be seen, had no intention of honoring the treaty.

Portugal fell easily, and its royal family fled to Brazil.[75] Napoleon's army, however, had marched through Spain, and they started to behave less like allies and more like occupiers. This situation, combined with Spain's rapidly collapsing economy due to the ongoing wars, led to a popular uprising against the king and his minister Godoy.[77] The Spanish king was forced to abdicate in favor of his son Ferdinand VII, but with French troops occupying Madrid, Napoleon was able to claim the crown for himself and toss Ferdinand in prison.[78] He then handed the crown off to his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, who ruled as Napoleon's puppet.[74]

The Spanish hated poor Joseph, especially after he began confiscating territory from the Catholic Church.[62] (His alleged alcoholism also earned him the monicker "Pepe Botella" or Bottle Joe.) The Spanish people launched a general uprising against the hated French occupiers, using guerrilla warfare to great effect. In fact, this is where the term "guerrilla" ("little war" in Spanish) came from. The worst atrocities committed during the Napoleonic Wars by both sides were committed here as the French brutally tried to put down Spanish revolts.[79] Over the years, the war became an ulcer bleeding Napoleon's strength. Napoleon's power in Iberia was finally shattered by Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who defeated the French in Portugal and began advancing into Spain.[80]

Europe in 1812.

War of the Fifth Coalition[edit]

With Napoleon preoccupied dealing with the deteriorating situation in Spain, the War of the Fifth Coalition broke out in 1809 when Austria decided to have another crack at taking down Napoleon. They invaded the Confederation of the Rhine, specifically Bavaria, and caught the French by surprise.[81] Napoleon himself once more had to take to the field to rescue his country. He won a quick series of victories over the Austrians and occupied their capital, but his overconfidence resulted in his first real setback at the Battle of Aspern Essling.[82] Napoleon managed to defeat the Austrians in the end, and the resulting Treaty of Schönbrunn in 1809 saw Austria lose the Dalmatian coastline to France and lose much of its eastern territory to the Duchy of Warsaw.[83]

Although certainly not a defeat, the Fifth Coalition was yet another sign that Napoleon's arrogance was seriously degrading his ability to properly fight wars. Napoleon's biggest fuckup would come just three years later.


Invasion of Russia[edit]

Never interfere with the enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself.
—Often attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte.[84]
"Next time I'll bring mittens."
Napoleon's retreat from Moscow.

In 1808, Napoleon and Czar Alexander met at Erfurt to reaffirm their alliance. Instead, they only exposed how fragile it was. Alexander was reluctant to break with the United Kingdom, Napoleon was reluctant to allow Alexander a free hand to wage war against the Ottoman Empire, and neither wanted the other to gain too much land or power.[85] With Napoleon's power weakened by the ongoing disaster in Spain, Russia was unwilling to completely burn its bridges with Austria and Britain. Thus, Napoleon left Erfurt dissatisfied.

The messy breakup between Alexander and Napoleon had a number of causes. Firstly, Russia was far more dependent on British trade than the other way around, and adhering to the Continental System was wreaking havoc on Russia's economy.[86] Secondly, Russia's interests were inherently opposed to France's, especially when it came to the Warsaw Duchy (which Russia saw as a threat), and the Ottoman Empire (which Napoleon didn't want to see destroyed by Russia). Napoleon and Alexander both started preparing for war as early as 1810, as the mutual divorce seemed inevitable.

In Napoleon's mind, he would wage a quick campaign to chastise the Russians, similar to what he had already done during the Fourth Coalition. Napoleon claimed that, “I shall tame Alexander; I shall win two battles and I shall go to Moscow or to St Petersburg: there I shall dictate peace. I shall be away no more than three or four months.”[86] To achieve this, he made his first mistake in assembling the Grande Armée. It was the largest army of the era, numbering about 570,000-630,000 soldiers.[87][88] This worked against him because the Russians knew full well that they weren't about to defeat half a million men led by history's best general. (Though many Russian generals, being Russians, wanted to fight anyway.[89]) Thus, instead of meeting Napoleon on the battlefield, they retreated into their own country, using hit-and-run and scorched earth tactics against the French.[90] Napoleon noted that "My regiments were amazed that after so many hard and deadly marches [two months after the invasion], the results of their endeavors constantly were further away, and they started to worry about the distance separating them from France."[90] Napoleon's usual strategies worked against him in Russia. His forced march tactics only tired his soldiers out over the course of the massive Russian hinterlands. His usual reliance on living off the land forced his troops into food and water shortages as the Russians burned storehouses, croplands, and farms. Starvation, desertion, typhus, and suicide cost Napoleon more men than Russian action ever could.[91]

Having already lost a third of his men, Napoleon finally caught the Russians at Borodino. However, this was the bloodiest of his battles, and it accomplished nothing because the Russians had simply escaped again, though not before leaving both armies battered.[92] Napoleon finally entered Moscow on the 15th of September, but he found the city deserted.[93] Napoleon's plans were further foiled when the Russians set fire to Moscow, burning it down and denying Napoleon the housing and supplies he hoped to gain from it. The emperor famously remarked, "This fire demolished everything. I was ready for everything but not this. Who could think that people would burn their own capital?"[90] With Moscow destroyed and his troops left in the cold, Napoleon finally tried suing for peace.[93] The Russians didn't accept (or rather, didn't bother to reply), and Napoleon was forced to leave Moscow a month later in disarray.

During the retreat, Russia's winter hit Napoleon's army with full force. The army's horses died, and most were forced to proceed on foot, with usually fatal results.[90] Russian peasants were also zealous in their desire to wipe out the armies of the "evil foreigner" Napoleon (the Russian Orthodox Church had declared him the Antichrist when he invaded, and that played a role as well[94]), and harassed any small French units, destroying many of them. Having invaded with half a million men, Napoleon escaped with only 10,000 left.[95] Things worsened when Napoleon received word of an attempted coup back in Paris, causing him to leave his army early and rush home.[93]

Although the Russian strategy was likely superior, Napoleon's army was probably doomed from the start due a combination of factors: not bringing their own food or water (thus making them susceptible to hunger and dysentery), poor hygiene (even for the standards of the 1810s), no changes of clothing for foot soldiers (thus engendering lice and concomitant typhus). Most of the soldiers died of disease (dysentery or typhus), with only about 30,000 of the original 600,000 or so returning to France after having been basically abandoned by Napoleon who had fled earlier under armed guard.[96][97]

Napoleon abdicated in Fontainebleau.

War of the Sixth Coalition[edit]

The War of the Sixth Coalition began in 1813 when the states of Europe, heartened by Napoleon's defeat in Russia, banded together one more time to defeat him. The Coalition included the UK, Russia, Prussia, Austria, Sweden, Spain, and Portugal.[98] Vastly outnumbered, Napoleon won his last great victory at the Battle of Dresden.[99] With Wellington advancing from Spain to the south, and the other allies advancing from the east through Germany, Napoleon was forced to retreat and defend Paris during the Six Days' Campaign.[100]

With Paris under attack by multiple armies, and with his own forces just about depleted, Napoleon finally caved to the inevitable. He abdicated and signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau, ending his rule and sending him into exile on Elba.[101]

Return and final defeat[edit]

The First Restoration of the Bourbons to the French throne proved unpopular with the French people, as King Louis XVIII set about undoing the progress made by the French Revolution. Hearing of this, Napoleon escaped from the island of Elba and made his way back to France. With the French army refusing to attack their former emperor, Napoleon was able to march on Paris and retake his throne less than a year after being sent into exile.[102] The Coalition partners, now comprising most of Europe, denounced Napoleon as an outlaw and signed a declaration of war against him personally.[103]

The Prussians and the British each assembled armies against Napoleon. They outnumbered Napoleon badly, so the emperor's only chance was to keep them apart. Napoleon chased down his archnemesis, the Duke of Wellington, and trapped him at Waterloo, but the Prussians came to the rescue and the allies defeated Napoleon for the final time.[104] Napoleon was once again forced to abdicate, and the British exiled him to a different island, Saint Helena, this time far out in the Atlantic Ocean.[105] Napoleon died there in 1821.


What then is, generally speaking, the truth of history? A fable agreed upon.
—Napoleon during his final exile.[20]

The Congress of Vienna[edit]

Europe after the Congress of Vienna.

After Napoleon was defeated by the Sixth Coalition, a great conference called the "Congress of Vienna" was held by representatives of the victorious kings and emperors of Europe and ran for almost a year (including during Napoleon's brief escape from Elba). This conference sought to largely undo most of what Napoleon had put into place, and tried to revert European politics back to how they were in the good old days before the French Revolution, to include restoring the old French royal family to their throne. Additionally, the conference set up the informal "Concert of Europe" system, whereby the major European countries would seek to avoid another large-scale, devastating war by using a complicated system of alliances and diplomatic conferences. It mostly worked for a while. There were many wars in Europe in the 1800s, but they tended to be much smaller and more localized. These wars never came close to the massive scale and widespread destruction of Napoleonic Wars until about a hundred years later when the complicated system of alliances backfired.[106]

Trying to revert back to the "good old days" also backfired a bit - the lower classes of people eventually had enough of the reactionary results of the Congress, and this exploded into a wave of revolutions and rebellions across Europe about thirty years later in 1848, an event known as the Spring of Nations.[107] Most of these revolts eventually failed, except notably in France, which apparently didn't get the lesson from its own history and thus repeated it — the king was overthrown, a shaky republic was formed, which was eventually overthrown by a guy named Napoleon who became emperor. No joke, one of Napoleon's nephews became Emperor Napoleon III (Napoleon's newborn son was Napoleon II). The Spring of Nations did give some steam to newer political movements, such as nationalism, socialism and communism, as well as unification movements in places like Germany and Italy.

French propaganda showing Emperor Napoleon emancipating the Jews.

Jewish emancipation[edit]

Before the French Revolution and its subsequent continental turmoil, the Jews were denied citizenship, equal rights, and the right to join government or own property.[108] Throughout the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Era, Jews faced waves of violence such as the slaughters during the Crusades or the horrific Chmielnicki Pogrom.

Jewish emancipation refers to the process by which Jews gained civil equality in Europe. The process began during the French Revolution with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which proclaimed that France would uphold the principle of religious non-discrimination.[109] Unfortunately, the subsequent revolutionary governments did little to uphold this principle when it came to the Jews. It wasn't until Napoleon assumed leadership of France that French Jews were permitted to worship openly and participate in civil society.[110]

Throughout his military campaigns, Napoleon forcibly expanded his religious tolerance policies. This began in 1797 when Napoleon ordered that Italian Jews should not be forced to wear yellow armbands and should be allowed to live wherever they chose rather than in ghettoes.[111] In 1806, Napoleon convened a "Sanhedrin" in Paris of French Jews in order to address their concerns and his concerns about how Jews could live amicably with French Christians.[112] Napoleon's victorious armies also spread Jewish emancipation into Germany.

Although Jewish emancipation would be partially reversed after Napoleon's defeat, he still sowed the seeds that led to their eventual equality in Western Europe later in that century.[113] Unfortunately, Napoleon wasn't around to help the Jews defend themselves from that one crazy Austrian dude who cocked everything up.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


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  10. McLynn, Frank (1998). Napoleon. Pimlico. ISBN 978-0-7126-6247-5. ASIN 0712662472. p. 2
  11. Napoleon Bonaparte: The Little Corporal who built an Empire "Napoleon was born in Ajaccio, Corsica on 15 August. The occupying French forces who ran the island had acquired it from Genoa the year before."
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  32. The Rosetta Stone. Linda Hall Library.
  33. Bonaparte and Islam. Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte by Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne edited by R.W. Phipps. Vol. 1 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1889) p. 168-169.
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  53. "Is Louisiana Under Napoleonic Law?" - Slate Magazine
  54. 54.0 54.1 See the Wikipedia article on Coronation of Napoleon I.
  55. See the Wikipedia article on Plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise.
  56. See the Wikipedia article on Conspiration des poignards.
  57. Louis-Antoine-Henri de Bourbon-Condé, duke d'Enghien. Britannica
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  71. See the Wikipedia article on Battle of Friedland.
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  75. 75.0 75.1 Peninsular War. Britannica.
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  77. Mutiny of Aranjuez. Revolvy.
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  97. The Illustrious Dead: The Terrifying Story of How Typhus Killed Napoleon's Greatest Army by Stephan Talty (2010) Three Rivers Press. ISBN 0307394050.
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  100. See the Wikipedia article on Six Days' Campaign.
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  102. Hundred Days. Britannica.
  103. Treaty of the Seventh Coalition.
  104. Battle of Waterloo. National Army Museum.
  105. See the Wikipedia article on Saint Helena.
  106. "The Congress of Vienna 1814-1815" - Oxford Public International Law
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  108. Anti-Semitism In Medieval Europe. Britannica.
  109. Jewish Emancipation in Western Europe. My Jewish Learning.
  110. Napoleon and the Jews. By Ben Weider, CM, PhD. International Napoleonic Society.
  111. Napoleon scholar details Emancipation of European Jews. STL Jewish Light.
  112. This Day in Jewish History / The Sanhedrin of Paris Convenes at the Behest of Napoleon. Haaretz.
  113. Napoleon Bonaparte. Jewish Virtual Library.