Welcome to the Napoleonic Era (AKA the era named after the guy who was defeated in the end). Seriously, why don’t we call it the Wellington’s Era or the Nelsonian Era? Now, before you throw me out of the history club, let me say: I do understand. Napoleon was the political and military genius of the age and there is certainly something to be said for an individual with the amount of influence and power that he had.
So who was Napoleon? Depends who you asked – in 1805 an Englishman would’ve said he was the devil, an Austrian might have to think about it (trying to remember if the latest treaty with France was still in place or broken) and a Frenchman would have said he was the all-knowing, all-good emperor. Oh, dear! Where’s the truth?
Since we’ll be talking about Napoleon’s era for the next few weeks, we should probably know a little about the man himself. So here’s the condensed biography and my thoughts. (For the sake of time and space I’m not going to get too in-depth today, we’ll discuss some of the treaties, military campaigns, and terms in the next couple of weeks. Leave a question in the comments, and I’ll answer any quick inquiries immediately 🙂 )
The Early Years
Napoleon Bonaparte was born on August 15, 1769, on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. Trained for the military, and vowing to support the Revolutionary French regime, he drove the British navy out of Toulon with well-placed artillery, and defended the French ruling “Directory” (yes, that’s what they called the chosen leaders) from a mob, prompting the grateful government placed him in command of the Army of Italy.
Portrait of young Napoleon (Public Domain)
He left Paris after his marriage to Josephine de Beauharnais on March 9, 1796. Their marriage was plagued with rumors of infidelity and was not especially happy.
Napoleon made inspiring speeches, roused the spirits of his troops and led them into Italy. The Italian Campaigns during the War of the First Coalition (1792-1797) were filled with small, ego-boosting victories which made Napoleon a hero to the French people. During the War of the Second Coalition (1798-1802), Napoleon fought the Egyptian and Syrian Campaigns in a vain effort to reach the British colony of India by land. Yes, seriously, he thought he was going to march across Asia and over the Himalayas – somebody needed to buy him a topography map!
Well, after the desert sands and several defeats, Napoleon abandoned his army and rushed back to Paris in time to drive the weak Directory out, defeat invading enemy armies, and establish himself as “First Consul.”
During the next few years, he made government reforms, consolidated power for himself, and oversaw the organization of laws known as “Code Napoleon.” Napoleon was “elected” Emperor of the French and crowned in December 1804. By-the-way, Napoleon actually took the crown from the pope’s hands and crowned himself, to show that he gave allegiance to no one, except…himself.
Other European nations weren’t excited about the new emperor and years of war followed. Napoleon, with his Grande Armee, employed his classic “art of war,” which including preventing the enemy armies from uniting, moving swiftly and striking hard, keeping the enemy guessing, using unusual maneuvers, creating a myth about his leadership to feed his ego and inspire his troops, and keeping his victories in news headlines. The Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 was Napoleon’s finest military victory.
Napoleon at Austerlitz (Public Domain)
In 1806 he established the Continental System in an effort fight Britain through economic warfare; this system caused much trouble in the French empire. Newly conquered territories were transformed into “republics” within the French Empire and were ruled by Napoleon’s siblings, allowing Napoleon to control almost all of Continental Europe by 1807.
Napoleon, obsessed with the idea of founding a French dynasty, divorced his Empress Josephine, and on April 10, 1810, married Marie Louise of Austria. Eleven months later, a son and the hopeful heir to the throne was born.
Beginning of the End
Trouble loomed on the horizon. In 1809 Napoloen suffered his first major military defeat at the Battle of Aspern-Essling. Although the emperor did not fight directly in it, the Spanish Peninsular War was significant because it drained the empire of troops, money, and supplies.
In 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia, angry at that nation for breaking an economic treaty. He reached a deserted Moscow after several terrible battles. Unable to make peace with the czar, Napoleon began a horrible winter retreat which destroyed his Grande Armee.
Back in Paris after leaving his army in Russian snows, Napoleon found himself facing the Sixth Coalition (AKA – “European nations against Napoleon.”) He was steadily defeated and driven out of his conquered territories. The emperor defended Paris in the brilliant Six Days Campaign before he was forced to abdicate in the spring of 1814. He was sent into exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba.
Waterloo & The End of Napoleon
Napoleon Returns from Elba (Public Domain)
One year later, in 1815, Napoleon made a lightning return from Elba to the delight of the French people, who raised new armies. Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. He escaped from France, where the people were ready to kill him, and surrendered to the British. The European rulers sent Napoleon to the Island of St. Helena in the middle of the Atlantic. Napoleon died there on May 5, 1821, and was buried on the island; his body was exhumed and reburied in Paris in 1840.
My Thoughts on Napoleon (The Short Version)
Napoleon conquered Europe to satisfy his power lust. However, he was a brilliant military leader when his pride did not inhibit his planning. He gave France some stability after the revolution, and his code of laws is still in use today.
Napoleon ruled one of the largest empires up to that time, but he was never content. There was always something else he wanted. His lack of faith and strong morals contributed to his selfishness, pride, and ultimate demise.
Religion, except perhaps the one where he could rule supreme, had no place in his life. Sadly, Napoleon is an example of man who lived for human praise and self-glory. I’m reminded of a Bible verse when I study Napoleon’s life: For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? (Matthew 16:26)
P.S. Do you agree that Napoleon’s pride and lack of moral foundation contributed to his downfall or do you think there are other forces (conspiracy, stronger enemy armies, etc.) are to blame? Share your thoughts in a comment.
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