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Sunday, June 13, 2021

Napoleon I Bonaparte – From Emperor to Exile

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Bonaparte returned to Italy, which had been taken back by the Austrians while he had been preoccupied in Egypt. He entered Italy leading his men across the Alps, through the Great St. Bernard Pass. He met the Austrians at the Battle of Marengo and in one of his finest battles victory was eventually his. The Treaty of Lunéville of February 1801 not only confirmed the Treaty of Campo Formio but also extended French control. France was extended to cover the frontiers chosen by Julius Caesar in his creation of Gaul: the Pyrenees, the Alps, and the River Rhine. The Treaty of Amiens in March 1802 resulted in peace between the British and the French. The British withdrew some soldiers, but there was a disagreement over Malta, with Britain, in support of French royalists, declaring war on France in 1803. The French had used the period to sell the French possessions in North America to the United States. The Louisiana Purchase resulted in the United States’s doubling in size after paying less than 3 cents per acre. In January 1804 Bonaparte discovered that the royalists were plotting his assassination. He sent his soldiers several miles over the French border into the German state of Baden, where the duc d’Enghien from the house of Bourbon was seized and brought back to France. He was quickly tried and then shot. By this time Napoleon seemed to have decided to confirm himself in power by becoming an emperor, and the Empire was proclaimed on May 28, 1804. On December 2 at Notre-Dame de Paris, the imperial regalia was blessed by the pope, and Napoleon then crowned himself and Josephine. On May 26, 1805, in Milan Cathedral, he was crowned king of Italy. There were no major changes in the way France was run, except that succession was not hereditary, and some princely titles were handed out to members of his family, with an imperial nobility created in 1808. Napoleon was involved in fighting the British from 1803 until 1805, hoping to be able to land troops on the British mainland. Initially the French moved many troops to Boulogne but they did not have control of the sea, which had prevented their previous planned attack in 1798. The French managed to persuade the Spanish to declare war on the British, with the hope that the Franco-Spanish fleet might be a match for the British. However, on October 21, 1805, at the Battle of Trafalgar, the British under Admiral Horatio Nelson defeated the Franco-Spanish fleet, ending any real chance of an invasion of the British Isles. Nelson himself was killed in the battle despite the Royal Navy’s victory. With his failure at sea, the French decided to attack Austria again, and on November 13, 1805, Napoleon led his men into Vienna, the Austrian capital. On December 2 he defeated the combined Austrian and Russian forces at the Battle of Austerlitz, one of his greatest victories. The Treaty of Pressburg saw the Austrians give up all claims to influence in Italy and also cede Venetia and Dalmatia (Croatia) to the French, as well as giving land in Germany to France’s ally Bavaria. In July 1806 Napoleon established the Confederation of the Rhine, placing western Germany under French protection and control.

Napoleon then turned his attention to the Prussians, and he defeated them at the Battles of Jena and Auerstädt. He then defeated the Russians at Eylau, and took the city of Warsaw, where he met and fell in love with Countess Marie Walewska, a Polish woman who hoped that she might persuade Napoleon to re-create Poland. Soon after this the Russian czar Alexander I met with Napoleon at Tilsit in northern Prussia, and this summit led to the re-creation of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. Napoleon was developing his concept of the continental system that would strangle the British economy by forbidding Britain to export goods to any European country, and this in turn would result in mass unemployment, making Britain collapse from within. While most countries agreed to this, Portugal, Britain’s oldest ally, refused to cooperate, so Napoleon decided to invade Portugal. He sent General Junot against the Portuguese, with Charles IV of Spain allowing French troops to go through his country. The French quickly captured Lisbon, and the Portuguese monarchy fled to Brazil. However, many Spanish were unhappy about the presence of French soldiers, and, Charles IV abdicated in favor of his son, who became Ferdinand VII. Napoleon saw this move as a perfect opportunity to remove the Spanish Bourbon family, and both Charles and Ferdinand, under pressure, abdicated. Napoleon put his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the throne of Spain. Although Spanish revolutionaries welcomed this, it was very unpopular in most of Spain and guerrilla war broke out. With the British aiding the Portuguese and now the Spanish royalists united under the command of Arthur Wellesley—later the first duke of Wellington—the French started losing what became known as the Peninsular War. Although Napoleon met with Czar Alexander I at the Congress of Erfurt from September to October 1808, the czar would give no firm commitment. However, it removed the prospect of war with Russia. Napoleon sent huge forces into Spain and was about to win the war when Austria attacked Bavaria. Napoleon had to send his armies against Austria, defeating them and forcing them to sign the Treaty of Schönbrunn on October 14, 1809.

His Campaign in Russia and First Exile

Napoleon was upset that Josephine had been unable to give him an heir, and he divorced her to marry Marie-Louise, the daughter of Austrian emperor Francis I. Their son was born on March 20, 1811, and was given the title the king of Rome. Napoleon was now at his most powerful. He controlled the French Empire, which included the Illyrian provinces, the Papal States, Tuscany, the Netherlands, and parts of Germany. It was surrounded by the Kingdom of Westphalia, ruled by his youngest brother, Jérôme Bonaparte; the Kingdom of Spain, ruled by older brother, Joseph Bonaparte; the Kingdom of Italy (ruled by Eugène de Beauharnais, Josephine’s son, as the viceroy); the Kingdom of Naples (ruled by Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Marshal Joachim Murat); and the Principality of Lucca and Piombino (ruled by another brother-in-law, Félix Bacciochi). With the Swiss Confederation linked to France by alliance, there were also two other French allies, the Confederation of the Rhine and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. With Napoleon’s marriage to Marie-Louise, Austria was also an ally. However, the fighting on the Iberian Peninsula continued, and in spring 1812, Napoleon moved his army to Poland to threaten Czar Alexander I of Russia. The Russians retreated, and Napoleon, intent on engaging them in battle, invaded Russia with 650,000 men. As the Russians retreated, the French were drawn further and further into Russia, with the French fighting an indecisive two-day battle at Borodino on September 7. A week later Napoleon entered Moscow, which had been abandoned by the Russians. However, a fi re broke out later the same day destroying much of the city, and Napoleon had to withdraw. Harassed by Russian soldiers, Cossacks, and others, by the time Napoleon’s troops left Russia, there were scarcely 10,000 men left. The Prussians and the Austrians suspected that the French army had been broken in Russia, and after a false report that Napoleon had died in Russia in October, morale declined. When Napoleon returned to Paris, he found France in a bad state, economically and militarily. He was still able to defeat the Russians and the Prussians, respectively, at the Battles of Lützen and Bautzen. Austria offered to allow the French to return to their original borders, but with the dissolution of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and the Confederation of the Rhine. The Prussians offered to return to the frontiers of 1805. Napoleon hesitated, and Austria declared war. At the Battle of Leipzig on October 16–19, 1813, known also as the Battle of Nations, the French forces were badly mauled. With the French facing defeat in Spain, Napoleon ordered his troops to return to France, and he faced his opponents who declared that their war was not against the French people but specifically against Napoleon himself. While Napoleon wanted to continue fighting, he was forced to accept the Treaty of Fontainebleau, whereby he abdicated and moved to the island of Elba with 400 guards and an annual income of 2 million francs. Napoleon bid farewell to his old guard at Fontainbleau and went to Elba. Louis XVIII, brother of the executed Louis XVI, then became the king of France.


Although Napoleon was initially quite happy to reform the government of Elba, he soon became bored, and some of the French were upset at the Bourbon Restoration, with Louis XVIII effectively put into power by foreign countries. With Napoleon worried about being sent into a more remote exile and without his allowance, which was supposed to have been paid by the French government, Napoleon decided to risk everything on returning to France and trying to regain power. On March 1, 1815, he landed at Cannes with some guards and rapidly gained more and more support, reaching Paris on March 20. Louis XVIII announced that he would not hold the French command to their
oaths of loyalty, in a great gesture to prevent a civil war, and Napoleon was back in power. Some of the men who had pressured Napoleon to abdicate at Fontainebleau and who had taken up appointments under Louis XVIII returned to support Napoleon, who magnanimously appointed Marshals Ney and Soult to senior command positions. The British and the Prussians were angered by Napoleon’s return to Paris and immediately massed armies in the Netherlands (modern-day Belgium). Louis XVIII had ended conscription, and Napoleon was eager not to reintroduce the draft, so he mustered as many soldiers as he could and then marched them into the Netherlands, where he defeated the Prussians at the Battle of Ligny on June 16, 1815. At the same time the French under Ney drove back the British at Quatre Bras. Napoleon then made a crucial mistake in detaching a third of his army to cut off the Prussians, whom he thought had fl ed eastward. In fact they soon found that they were following the Prussians of Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher. When Napoleon and his soldiers met the British at Waterloo, Napoleon was ill but launched a series of attacks against the British lines before having to retire as his condition worsened. When he recovered, he found that the French cavalry had launched a number of futile charges against the British. He salvaged much of the situation by advancing the artillery. With the British forces driven back, and some of their allies having fled in disorder, Napoleon launched an all-out attack. However, at that moment the Prussians arrived on the battlefield, and the French were defeated, with Napoleon fleeing back to France. He abdicated on June 22, 1815, and tried to make for the United States but eventually surrendered to the British, who decided to send him into exile on the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena.


Napoleon spent the last six years of his life on St. Helena, where he wrote his memoirs and amused himself with his small number of followers who went with him into exile. He was well looked after but soon became ill. It has been suggested that he was poisoned by arsenic given off by his wallpaper and, alternatively, even more bizarrely, that he had developed female characteristics. It also seems that he might have succumbed to cancer. He died on May 5, 1821, on St. Helena and was buried there, although his body was repatriated to France in 1840 and lies in the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris. Many people have marveled at Napoleon’s military genius. He was a good tactician, but his strengths lay in campaigning strategies in which he often went into a war outnumbered by his opponents but was often able to match them on the battlefield. He also relied heavily on the artillery, most likely from his original background. His ability to risk much on single battles served him well until Borodino, with him making mistakes at both Leipzig and at Waterloo. At the latter battle he asked an aide how he would be remembered, and the man replied that Napoleon had “extended the boundaries of glory.”

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