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Napoleon Bonaparte
1769 - 1821


The most famous Frenchman in history was born at Ajaccio, Corsica on 15 August, 1769. Consequently Napoleon Bonaparte was not, in fact French. He was, though, a French subject as a result of the ceding of Corsica to France by the Genoese in 1768. His family was upper-middle class. His father Carlo was a political opportunist who gained acceptance into the French aristocracy.

At the age of 10 Napoleon entered the military academy at Brienne, France. His first few months there were a nightmare with the other children teasing him for his strange name, his foreign accent and his small size. Napoleon coped by concentrating on his studies. In 1784 he won a place at the prestigious Ecole Militaire in Paris. A year later he graduated and was commissioned a second lieutenant of artillery. He was garrisoned at Valence. He spent the next six years as a struggling soldier in an isolated outpost.

Napoleon’s regiment was stationed in Auxonne when the French Revolution broke out. Napoleon approved of the Revolution in principal but he deplored the violence of the common people. On 10, 1792 August he witnessed the second storming of the Tuileries and the arrest of King Louis XVI . He also saw the slaughter of the Swiss Guards that followed. From this point on Napoleon both hated and feared the common people of France.

Between 1790 and 1791 Napoleon spent 18 months in his homeland of Corsica, helping to consolidate French rule. In 1793, he rejoined his regiment who were stationed in Italy. He was here given his first military command at the siege of Toulon. In 3 days Napoleon bombarded the city into submission, gaining control of this important harbor city . He was rewarded by a speedy promotion to brigadier-general and an appointment as commander of planning for the army of Italy.

In 1795 he was recalled to Paris to help quell mobs under royalist leadership that were preparing to storm the Tuileries. Napoleon was placed as second in command of the defense. He ordered the storming crowds to be annihilated with forty cannon. This act established Napoleon as a hero of the Revolution and gained him entrance into Parisian society. Through such connections he met Josephine de Beauharnias. On March 9, 1796 the two were married. His bride’s connections were evident two days later when Napoleon became commander of the Army of Italy.

In quick succession Napoleon achieved victories over the Italians, Austrians and Sardinians at Matenotte, Dego, Millesimo, Mondovi and Lodi, Milan, Castiglione and Arcola. In February 1797 he marched across the Alps toward Vienna. The Austrians sued for an Armistice before a single shot was fired.

His return to France was triumphant. At just 28 years of age Napoleon had established himself as the greatest French general of all time. In honor of his achievements he was elected to the prestigious Institut. He set his sights on achieving total power.

First though there was the ongoing sea war with Britain. He decided on a rearguard action to attack Britain’s resources by occupying Egypt and cutting off her trade routes with India and the Far East. On June 10, 1798 his forces took the island fortress of Malta. Three weeks later they seized Alexandria. Within days the entire Nile Delta was in French hands. Napoleon’s first defeat, however, came on August 1 when his entire naval fleet was destroyed by the British navy. In February, 1799 the French were again defeated, this time on land at the battle of Acre. Napoleon retreated to Egypt. Here he handed his command over to General Jean Baptiste Kleber and sailed for France.

When he arrived back in Paris, Napoleon was dismayed to find that France had lost control of most of the territories he had won in Italy. The Directory was, in fact, in a state of chaos. The young General was seen as the last hope for the country. Two of the directors approached him with a plan to overthrow the Directory. A coup d’etat was executed on 10 November 1799. The directors were forced to resign and the Directory was abolished. A new Government was established consisting of three consuls. Napoleon Bonaparte was meant to be one of the three equal members of this consul but it didn’t take long for him to assert himself as de facto dictator of France.

Napoleon set about reforming local and national government, education and legislature, proving himself a brilliant statesman and administrator. In 1802 Napoleon was voted consul for life. This, however, was not enough for him, and he set about paving the way for himself to be crowned Emperor of the French. In May, 1804 he got his wish.

In 1803 the British declared war on France once more. In December of that year the Grand Armee assembled in preparation of an invasion of Britain. The destruction of his fleet, combined with the Spanish, by the British off Cape Trafalgar, however, ended any plans of a British invasion. In August, 1805 Napoleon invaded Germany. French victories followed at Ulm, and Austerlitz. Napoleon was crowned king of Italy. His relations were made kings of Naples and Holland. In 1806 Prussia declared war on France and was soundly defeated. Napoleon now introduced ‘The Continental System’ which forbade all European nations trading with his age old enemy, Britain. In June, 1807 he gained victory over the Russians at the Battle of Friedland. A year later Charles IV ceded his rights in Spain to Napoleon. Napoleon’s brother Joseph took the throne of Spain.

The beginning of the end came in December, 1810 when the Russians announced that they would no longer observe the Continental System. Napoleon’s response was to invade Russia. Making it to Moscow the French forces were decimated by a massive fire. The Russian winter then took its toll on the French. More than half a million men had been reduced to less than 10,000. Napoleon retreated to Paris.

Europe now believed that France could be beaten. In 1813 the Prussians joined forces with Russia in an alliance against France. When Austria joined the alliance, Napoleon knowing he couldn’t prevail, sued for an armistice. He soon reneged on the conditions, however and an allied invasion of France was put in motion. By January, 1814 France was under attack from all sides. In March, 1814 Paris fell to the allies. Napoleon had moved his army east. The Parisian authorities had, however, abandoned him and they came to terms with the allies.

Napoleon was determined to hold out to the bitter end. But after his General defected he finally faced the inevitable. On 6 April, 1814 Napoleon Bonaparte announced his abdication. Under the Treaty of Fontainebleau he was exiled to the island of Elba. Just a year later, however, he returned to Paris and, with the masses rallying around him, was reinstated as head of state. The allies, of course, retaliated by marching once more on France. Initially Napoleon’s forces gained the victory but the final defeat came when the British forces, reinforced by the Prussians, met the French at Waterloo. Napoleon had fought his last battle.

For a second time the Emperor abdicated. Deciding what to do with him, the allies finally decided on exile to the rocky island of St. Helena in the south Atlantic. Situated a thousand miles off the African Coast Napoleon was now well and truly out of the way. On 5 May, 1821 Napoleon Bonaparte died on his island prison. He was just fifty one years of age.






Napoleon Bonaparte was effectively dictator of France beginning in 1799 and emperor of France as Napoleon I from 1804 to 1814; he also conquered and ruled over much of western Europe. He was the first ruler of the Bonaparte dynasty. Napoleon married Marie-Louise of Austria on February 11, 1810.

He was born in the city of Ajaccio on Corsica shortly after Corsica had been sold to France by the Republic of Genoa. His family was a member of the minor Corsican nobility. His father Carlo Bonaparte arranged for Napoleon's education in France and he moved there at the age of nine.

He initially considered himself a foreigner and outsider; accusations of foreignness would dog him throughout his life. He had become an officer in the French army when the French Revolution began in 1789. Napoleon returned to Corsica, where a nationalist struggle sought separation from France. Civil war broke out, and Napoleon's family had to flee to France. Napoleon supported the revolution and quickly rose through the ranks. In 1793, he freed Toulon from the royalists and the British troops supporting them. In 1795, when royalists marched against the National Convention in Paris, he had them shot.

Nicknamed the Little Corporal, Napoleon was a brilliant military strategist, able to absorb the substantial body of military knowledge of his time and apply it to the real-world circumstances of his era. An artillery officer by training, he was innovative in his use of artillery as a mobile force to support infantry attacks. When appointed commander-in-chief of the ill-equipped French army in Italy, he managed to defeat Austrian forces repeatedly. In these battles, contemporary paintings of his headquarters show that he used the world's first telecommunications system, the Chappe semaphore line, emplaced in 1792. Austria, led by Archduke Charles, had to negotiate an unfavorable treaty; at the same time, Napoleon organized a coup in 1797 which removed several royalists from power in Paris.

Invasion of Egypt, rise to dictatorship

In 1798, Napoleon invaded Egypt in order to undermine Britain's access to India. An indication of Napoleon's devotion to the principles of the Enlightenment was his decision to bring scholars along on his expedition: among the other discoveries that resulted, the Rosetta Stone was translated. Napoleon's fleet in Egypt was completely destroyed by Nelson at The Battle of the Nile, so that Napoleon was land-bound.

A coalition against France formed in Europe, the royalists rose again, and Napoleon abandoned his troops and returned to Paris in 1799; in November of that year, a coup made him the ruler and military dictator ("First Consul") of France. According to the French Revolutionary Calendar, the date was 18 Brumaire.

He instituted several lasting reforms in the educational, judicial, financial and administrational system. His set of civil laws, the Napoleonic Code or Civil Code, has importance to this day in many countries.

He was also a dictator and military adventurer who would cost France and her allies the lives of millions of men. In the end, all the Napoleonic Empire Wars did not gain any territory for France.

Struggle in Europe, rise to emperor

In 1800, Napoleon attacked and defeated Austria again; afterwards, the British also signed a peace treaty.

In 1802, Napolean sold a large part of northern America to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase; he had just faced a major military setback when his army sent to conquer Santo Domingo and establish a base in the western world was destroyed by a combination of yellow fever and fierce resistance led by Toussaint l'Ouverture. With his western forces diminished, Napoleon knew he would be unable to defend Louisiana and decided to sell.

After Napoleon enlarged his influence to Switzerland and Germany, a dispute over Malta provided the pretext for Britain to declare war on France in 1803 and support French royalists who opposed Napoleon. Napoleon however crowned himself Emperor in 1804. Claims that he seized the crown out of the hands of Pope Pius VII during the ceremony in order to avoid subjecting himself to the authority of the Pontiff are apocryphal; after the Imperial regalia had been blessed by the Pope, Napoleon crowned himself before crowning his wife Josephine as Empress.

A plan by the French, along with the Spanish, to defeat the British Royal Navy failed dramatically at the Battle of Trafalgar, and Britain gained lasting control of the seas.

By 1805 the Third Coalition against Napoleon had formed in Europe; Napoleon attacked and secured a major victory against Austria and Russia at Austerlitz and, in 1806, humbled Prussia at the Battle of Jena-Auerstadt. As a result, Napoleon became the de-facto ruler over most of Germany. Napoleon marched on through Poland and then signed a treaty with the Russian tsar Alexander I dividing Europe between the two powers.

Battles in Spain, Austria, and Russia

Napoleon attempted to enforce a Europe-wide commercial boycott of Britain called the Continental System. He invaded Spain and installed his brother Joseph Bonaparte as king there. The Spanish rose in revolt, which Napoleon was unable to suppress. The British invaded Spain through Portugal in 1808 and, with the aid of the Spanish nationalists, slowly drove out the French. While France was engaged in Spain, Austria attacked in Germany and, after initial success, was defeated at the Battle of Wagram.

Alexander I of Russia had become distrustful of Napoleon and refused to cooperate with him against the British. Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812. The Russians under Kutuzov retreated instead of giving battle. Outside of Moscow on September 12, the battle of Borodino was fought. The Russians retreated and Napoleon was able to enter Moscow, assuming that Alexander I would negotiate peace. Moscow began to burn and within the month, fearing loss of control in France, he left Moscow and the French Army suffered a ruinous retreat; the Army had begun as over 500,000 men and in the end less than 10,000 crossed at Berezina. Encouraged by this dramatic reversal, several nations again took up arms against France. The decisive defeat of the French came in 1813 at the Battle of Leipzig, also called "The Battle of Nations".

Defeat, Exile in Elba, Return and Waterloo

In 1814, an alliance between Great Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria against Napoleon was formed. Although the defense of France included many battles which the French won, the pressure was overwhelming. Paris was occupied on 31 March. The marshals asked Napoleon to abdicate. The Allies demanded unconditional surrender and on 11 April Napoleon agreed. He was exiled to Elba, a small island in the Mediterranean, under the Treaty of Fontainebleau that let him keep the title of "Emperor" but restricted his empire to that tiny island.

He tried to poison himself and failed; on the voyage to Elba he was almost assassinated. In France, the royalists had taken over and restored King Louis XVIII to power. Once there, he became concerned about what was happening to his wife and, more especially, his son, in the hands of the Austrians; the French government refused to pay his allowance and he heard rumors that he was about to be banished to a remote island in the Atlantic. Napoleon escaped from Elba on February 26, 1815 and returned to the mainland in March 1815. The armies sent to stop him received him as leader. He arrived in Paris and governed for 100 days.

His final defeat was by Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815.

Exile in Saint Helena and Death

Napoleon was imprisoned and then exiled by the British to the island of Saint Helena. There, with a small cadre of followers, he dictated his memoirs and criticized his captors. In the last half of April 1821, he wrote out his own will and several codicils (a total of 40-some pages) himself. His last words were: "France, the Army, Josephine."

In 1955 the diaries of Louis Marchand, Napoleon's valet, were published. He describes Napoleon in the months leading up to his death, and led many to conclude that he had been killed by arsenic poisoning. Arsenic was at the time sometimes used as an undetectable poison, administered over a long period of time. In 2001 Pascal Kintz, of the Strasbourg Forensic Institute in France, added credence to this claim with a study of arsenic levels found in a lock of Napoleon's hair preserved after his death, with seven to thirty-eight times normal levels.

More recent analysis on behalf of the magazine Science et Vie showed that similar concentrations of arsenic can be found in Napoleon's hair in samples taken from 1805, 1814 and 1821. The lead investigator (Ivan Ricordel, head of toxicology for the Paris Police) stated that if arsenic was the cause, he should have died years earlier. Arsenic was also used in some wallpaper, as a green pigment, and even in some patent medicines, and the group suggested that the most likely source in this case was a hair tonic.

Napoleon's tomb in Les Invalides

He married Josephine de Beauharnais and Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria. He had no children with Josephine (which was why he divorced her) and only one with Marie-Louise: Napoleon Francis Joseph Charles Bonaparte (1812-1833), King of Rome (known as Napoleon II of France although he never ruled). Napoleon did have at least two illegitimate children: Charles, Count L on, (1806 - 1881) (son of Catherine El onore Denuelle de la Plaigne [1787 - 1868]) and Alexandre Joseph Colonna, Count Walewski, (1810 - 1817) (son of Maria, Countess Walewski [1789 - 1817]).

He had asked in his will to be buried on the banks of the Seine, but when he died in 1821 he was buried on Saint Helena. In 1840 his remains were taken to France and entombed in Les Invalides, Paris.











This web page was last updated on: 21 December, 2008