The Self-Made Emperor of Europe
As a military commander and twice-emperor of France, Napoleon left an indelible mark on Europe, shaping its political and social landscape for years to come. His military campaigns, innovative tactics, and larger-than-life persona continue to captivate historians and enthusiasts alike. In this episode, we will delve into the life, achievements, and legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Napoleon was born in Ajaccio, on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, on August 15, 1769. He was the second child out of eight who survived. Although his parents came from a noble background, they did not have much wealth.
Napoleon’s humble origins defined him as a self-made man, inspiring countless individuals, particularly those without privilege. He became a shining example of what talent, ambition, and unwavering determination could achieve, transcending the limitations of the old system.
Napoleon Bonaparte, aged 23, as lieutenant-colonel of a battalion of Corsican Republican volunteers. Portrait by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux.
At ten years old, Napoleon began his education at the military academy in Brienne. He later advanced to the École Royale Militaire in Paris, graduating as a second lieutenant in the artillery. Within a decade, he became the commander of the Army of the Interior and a trusted military advisor to the government.
In the following two years, Napoleon led a series of extraordinary military victories, conquering all of northern Italy and forcing the Habsburgs to give up their territories. He also aimed to weaken the British position in Egypt through a military expedition. While the results were not as expected, he achieved several impressive military victories. The expedition received extensive coverage in France and propelled Napoleon to national fame in France.
By 1799, the Directory, the group that had governed France then, had lost its popularity, leaving the country disillusioned and uninspired. Meanwhile, Napoleon gained immense popularity across the nation. In November of that year, he was part of a group that overthrew the Directory in a momentous event known as the Coup of 18 Brumaire. This led to the establishment of a three-member Consulate, with Napoleon as the First Consul, making him the most influential political figure in France.
General Bonaparte surrounded by members of the Council of Five Hundred during the Coup of 18 Brumaire. Paining by François Bouchot.
Napoleon dedicated himself to bringing stability to France after the turbulent period of revolution (we covered it in our previous episode). He centralized the government, implemented reforms in banking and education, and fostered support for science and the arts. Additionally, he worked towards reconciling his regime with the Pope, aiming to repair the strained relationship caused by the revolution. Among his notable achievements, the Napoleonic Code stands out as a major accomplishment. This legal framework revolutionized the French legal system, simplifying it and establishing the basis for modern French civil law that remains in effect today.
In 1802, a constitutional amendment made Napoleon First Consul for life. Two years later, he crowned himself emperor of France in a grand ceremony at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. From there, he went on to dominate Europe for the next eight years, taking on a range of alliances made up of Austria, Britain, Russia, and Prussia.
In December 1805, Napoleon scored one of his greatest victories at the Battle of Austerlitz, defeating the Austrians and Russians. This triumph had a significant impact, leading to the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire and the creation of the Confederation of the Rhine.
The Emperor Napoleon in his study at the Tuileries. Paining by Jacques-Louis David, 1812.
In 1810, Napoleon dissolved his childless marriage to Josephine de Beauharnais and sought a new alliance by marrying the daughter of the Austrian emperor. His goal was to secure an heir for his legacy. The following year, Napoleon II, a son, was born, fulfilling his hopes for a successor.
Napoleon’s decision to wage war against Russia came a year later, as he gathered an immense army of over 600,000 men. After the grueling Battle of Borodino, where over 80,000 soldiers perished, Napoleon’s troops finally reached Moscow on September 8, 1812. To their surprise, they discovered that the city had been largely abandoned. The retreating Russians had intentionally set fires throughout Moscow, aiming to deprive the enemy of essential provisions. Despite waiting for a month in vain for a surrender, Napoleon faced the harsh reality of the approaching Russian winter and made the difficult decision to evacuate his starving and exhausted army from Moscow.
Napoleon watching the fire of Moscow in September 1812. Painting by Adam Albrecht, 1841.
The subsequent retreat turned into a catastrophe as the Russian forces relentlessly attacked Napoleon’s troops, now weakened and vulnerable. Out of the staggering 600,000 soldiers, only around 100,000 managed to make it out of Russia alive. The disastrous retreat marked a significant turning point in Napoleon’s military career.
During the same time, the French were also fighting in the Peninsular War against Spain and Portugal, with assistance from the British, resulting in the French being driven out of the Iberian Peninsula. This was followed by the Battle of Leipzig, where Napoleon’s forces were defeated by a coalition that included Austrian, Prussian, Russian, and Swedish troops. He then retreated to France, and in March 1814, coalition forces took Paris.
Napoleon was forced to give up his throne and abdicate. He was exiled to Elba, a small Mediterranean island off the coast of Italy. He was given sovereignty over the island while his wife and son went to Austria.
A man of his ambition and vigor couldn’t simply accept defeat, and in less than a year, Napoleon orchestrated a daring escape from Elba and set sail for the French mainland with over 1,000 devoted followers. The news of his return reached Paris, where he was met with jubilant crowds. The reigning king, Louis XVIII, fled and thus began what would be famously known as Napoleon’s Hundred Days campaign.
Napoleon’s return from Elba. Painting by Charles de Steuben, 1818.
Undeterred by setbacks, Napoleon swiftly assembled a fresh army and devised a preemptive strike plan to defeat the allied forces individually, thwarting their united attack. Invading Belgium, his forces engaged and emerged victorious over the Prussians at the Battle of Ligny. However, their fortunes reversed just two days later at the Battle of Waterloo. The French suffered a devastating defeat against the British forces led by Wellington, the renowned victor of the Peninsular War, with support from the Prussians.
Once again, on June 22, 1815, Napoleon was compelled to abdicate. He was subsequently banished to the remote island of Saint Helena, a British territory located in the vast expanse of the South Atlantic Ocean.
Napoleon’s life quickly descended into a state of tedium. With little to captivate his interest aside from reading and writing, he gradually withdrew from the outside world. In 1817, his health began to decline rapidly, likely due to a stomach ulcer or cancer. By the spring of 1821, he was bedridden and penned the final words of his will: “I wish my ashes to rest on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of those French people which I have loved so much. I die before my time, killed by the English oligarchy and its hired assassins.” On May 5, 1821, the once mighty emperor breathed his last.
Contrary to his wish, Napoleon was buried on the island. However, in 1840, his remains were repatriated to France and entombed in a crypt at Les Invalides in Paris, the resting place of other esteemed French military leaders.
“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” —Napoleon Bonaparte
“Courage isn’t having the strength to go on—it is going on when you don’t have strength.” —Napoleon Bonaparte
“History is a set of lies agreed upon.” —Napoleon Bonaparte
“If you want a thing done well, do it yourself.” —Napoleon Bonaparte
“You don’t reason with intellectuals. You shoot them.” —Napoleon Bonaparte
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