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A Short History of Napoleon, the Ambitious, Charismatic Emperor of France

Napolean
Napoleon Bonaparte dominated European affairs for over a decade as the Emperor of France and became one of the most celebrated military leaders of all time. Wikimedia Commons

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More words have been written about Napoleon Bonaparte than almost any other historical figure. But for those with limited time resources, here's a short primer on the wildly ambitious French military leader with help from Peter Hicks, historian and manager of international affairs for the Fondation Napoléon in Paris.

Born in Corsica, Arrives in France

Napoleon was born Napoleone di Buonaparte Aug. 15, 1769, on the island of Corsica, only recently bought by France from the Italian city-state of Genoa. Young Napoleon, the son of a prominent Corsican family, was sent to mainland France for school, where his Parisian classmates made fun of his provincial accent.

"Instead of calling him Napoleon, they called him 'straw on the nose,'" says Hicks, "mispronouncing his name in French with a Corsican accent."

After graduating from the French military academy and becoming part of the French Revolution, Napoleon dropped the extra vowels in his Italian-sounding name.

Marriage to Josephine

Napoleon was six years her junior when he met 32-year-old Paris socialite Marie-Josephe-Rose de Beauharnais, who already had two children: Eugène, born in 1781 and Hortense, born in 1783. Their father, Alexandre de Beauharnais, had been executed in 1794 during France's Reign of Terror. Napoleon and Josephine married in 1796 and Napoleon became stepfather to her children.

In the course of time, it was discovered that Josephine was incapable of having more children. Napoleon would divorce her in 1809 to marry Austrian Archduchess Maria-Louise, banking on her to produce him an heir, which she did with the birth of a son, Napoléon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte, later Napoleon II, in 1811. Napoleon was said to have loved Josephine for the rest of his life and her name was reportedly the last word on his lips when he died in 1821.

But back to the battlefield.

Hero of the Italian Campaign

Napoleon rose through the ranks of the French army and was promoted to major general after helping to quash a royalist coup in Paris. In 1796, at just 26 years old, he was sent to Italy to mount a last-ditch campaign against France's bitter rival Austria. He found the French troops exhausted and unpaid but whipped them into excitement with promises of glory and riches to be won.

Despite being outnumbered almost two-to-one by Austrian and Italian Piedmontese fighters, Napoleon used speed and cunning to separate the enemy forces and ruthlessly attack their weak points. Napoleon's armies could cover up to 30 miles (48 kilometers) a day compared to just 6 or 7 (10 or 11 kilometers) for the Austrians and Italians.

"They sent a young madman who attacks right, left and from the rear," complained a Piedmontese officer. "It's an intolerable way of making war."

When the Austrians and Italians surrendered, Napoleon demanded payment in gold, which he gave to his fighting men, sealing their loyalty. Word of his exploits spread far and wide.

"Napoleon really burst onto the scene with the staggering success of the first Italian campaign, which put him on the radar with the rest of Europe," says Hicks. "Everybody wanted to know, 'Who is this guy?'"

Napoleon
The consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I (1769-1821) and Coronation of the Empress Josephine (1763-1814), in Notre Dame cathedral, 2nd December 1804. Painting by Jacques Louis David (1748-1825), 1806. Musee du Louvre, Paris, France.
Photo Josse/Leemage/Getty Images

Visions of Empire in the Exotic East

It didn't take long for Napoleon to begin seeing himself as the French incarnation of Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great. He could have made a play for emperor in 1797, but felt the moment wasn't quite right in Paris. So he rallied his armies and set off for Egypt, where he hoped to cut off British trade with India.

Napoleon scholar Jean Tulard called the Egyptian campaign, "probably the craziest expedition in the history of France." Napoleon marched 35,000 troops across the desert from the port city of Alexandria toward Cairo. At the Battle of the Pyramids, he faced a wall of 10,000 fearless Mameluke fighters on horseback.

"Soldiers," Napoleon shouted to his troops, "from the height of these pyramids, 40 centuries look down upon you."

The French, following Napoleon's ingenious battlefield strategies, crushed the saber-wielding Mamelukes and took Cairo. But while Napoleon was daydreaming of conquest — "I saw myself founding a new religion," he later wrote, "marching into Asia riding an elephant, a turban on my head, and in my hand the new Koran" — the British struck back, destroying the French fleet docked in the Mediterranean.

Stranded in Egypt, Napoleon decided to pick more fights with the locals. He took on the Turks in Syria and bombarded the centuries-old walls at the ancient city of Acre. But by 1798, morale was low and a civil war was raging back home. Napoleon saw an opening for his triumphant return, so he abandoned his troops in Egypt and secretly made for France.

The Egyptian campaign wasn't a total wash, though. Napoleon's soldiers, while digging to reinforce a fortress wall in 1799, made an accidental discovery in the Nile Delta — the Rosetta Stone.

From First Consul to Emperor

When Napoleon arrived in France in October 1798, he found his country in chaos. The state coffers were empty, a coalition of enemies was on the attack, and the French central government lead by a five-man Directory was divided and crumbling. France needed a strong, authoritarian leader and Napoleon knew just the right guy for the job.

In a matter of weeks, he plotted with two of the Directors and some wealthy backers to hatch a coup d'etat. They convinced the legislature that another royalist coup was imminent, pretense for relocating the government to a country palace and sending in troops to "protect" them.

First, Napoleon made a ham-handed speech presenting himself as France's savior, which the constitutional body violently rejected, crying "down with the dictator!" and "death to the tyrant!" He returned the next day with more troops, and in a complicated series of political maneuvers, convinced the deputies to dissolve the Directory and create a new three-person consul with Napoleon at its head.

After rallying the army to defeat the Austrians, Napoleon earned the title of "First Consul for Life" and decided it was time to bring monarchy back to post-Revolution France. On Dec. 2, 1804, after literally snatching the crown from the hand of Pope Pius VII, Napoleon named himself Emperor of France.

Napoleon Helped Make Modern France

While still First Consul, Napoleon created several new state institutions and spearheaded reforms that pulled the country out of chaos by consolidating power in a strong central government.

Among the big changes were to bring religion back to France through a pact with the Pope. Not only did Napoleonic France recognize Catholics, but welcomed Protestants and Jews on equal footing.

Under Napoleon, France created its first central bank, the franc was introduced, and taxes were collected in a fair and timely manner. The messy post-Revolution legal system was codified under what's known as the Civil Code or the Napoleonic Code. On the flip side, women lost almost all legal rights and slavery was reintroduced in French colonies.

"Government was settled along a top-down structure — and it was very much one man at the top," says Hicks, "but Napoleon's reforms brought financial security, and also political and social stability."

France Versus the World

Napoleon's rule of France was dominated by nonstop fighting with European rivals, chiefly Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia. The Napoleonic Wars spanned from 1796 to 1815 and were bankrolled by Britain, the major economic and military power of the day.

"Britain was happy to have Europe fighting itself so it could run the rest of the world," says Hicks. "Britain paid other countries to do the fighting against France, but the other guys didn't need much encouraging. They found Napoelonic France quite challenging."

The British formed coalition after coalition against the French Empire, but Napoleon managed to keep the upper hand and even win more territory until 1812, when he made a fateful and failed gamble in Russia.

In Russia, Napoleon Was Beaten by Retreat

When the Russian czar Alexander I backed out of Napoleon's blockade of British goods in 1811, Napoleon was livid. Against the advice of his generals, Napoleon chose to invade Russia with one of the largest European armies ever assembled, an estimated 600,000 soldiers from France, Italy, Germany and Poland.

Napoleon's army charged into Russia in the blazing heat of the summer. The Russians, overwhelmed by the sheer number of enemy fighters, fell back in retreat, burning the towns and countryside behind them. Exhausted and without towns to raid for supplies, the French forces suffered from disease and desertion.

Finally, the two armies met at the Battle of Borodino, where Napoleon threw his men into a brutal, all-day assault that cost tens of thousands of lives on both sides. The Russians finally relented and Napoleon marched triumphantly into Moscow, only to find the city in flames.

The Russian winter arrived early and with a vengeance. Napoleon's army, fully unprepared for temperatures as low as -22 degrees F (-30 degrees C), froze to death by the thousands. Starving soldiers killed each other over horsemeat. And throughout the ordeal, Cossacks raided the retreating French army, dealing devastating blows to its flanks and rear.

Of Napoleon's invading army of 600,000, only 100,000 made it out of Russia alive.

Exile to Elba

After barely escaping total disaster in Russia, Napoleon came home to fight off another coalition of European foes: Britain, Russia, Prussia, Sweden and Austria. With diminished forces, he held off the coalition for a year before the enemy marched on Paris itself and Napoleon's generals refused to follow him into a final battle.

On April 12, 1814, Napoleon abdicated his throne and was exiled to the tiny island of Elba between Italy and Corsica. Hicks says that Napoleon's expulsion to Elba was "kind of a joke," less of a punishment for Napoleon than a strategy engineered by the Russians to destabilize Austrian-controlled Italy.

"Cartoons at the time compared Napoleon on Elba to Vesuvius next to Naples," says Hicks. "It's going to blow up, and it did."

Triumphant Return and Final Defeat at Waterloo

After less than a year in exile, Napoleon sailed from Elba with 1,000 supporters and landed on the French mainland, where he was met by exultant crowds. King Louis XVIII, who had been installed by the coalition allies in Napoleon's place, skipped town without a fight. The Emperor was back, but not for long.

What followed is known as the Hundred Days Campaign, Napoleon's last desperate grasp at power. With coalition forces amassing against him, Napoleon decided to strike first by invading Belgium. He had some luck against the Prussians in a preliminary battle, but then he came up against the British outside the Belgian town of Waterloo.

The British army, under the command of the formidable Duke of Wellington, numbered 68,000 troops at Waterloo, roughly the same size as Napoleon's force. But Napoleon didn't know that the Prussians were waiting in the wings with 72,000 more enemy troops. Napoleon might have won if he had ordered the attack on the British line sooner, but he opted to wait and let the muddy ground dry. Those extra hours gave the Prussians time to join the fight and rout the French.

On June 22, 1815, Napoleon abdicated the throne for the second and final time.

Napoleon
The death mask of Napoleon Bonaparte in the Musée de la Maison Bonaparte, the ancestral home of the Bonaparte family, in Ajaccio, France
Michal Osmenda/Wikimedia Commons (CC By 2.0)

Death on St. Helena, an Island Prison

The British weren't going to take any chances with Napoleon's second exile. They chose the remote tropical island of St. Helena, thousands of miles from France off the coast of Africa. There, in a ramshackle estate called Longwood, a single prisoner was guarded by 2,800 men and a Royal Navy squadron of 11 ships.

Napoleon died May 5, 1821, likely from stomach cancer. He was 51 years old. He was buried on St. Helena, but his remains were eventually returned to France where he was entombed at Les Invalides among the great French leaders of all time.

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