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