Napoleon Bonaparte, also known as Napoleon I, was a French general and emperor who conquered large parts of Europe in the 19th century.
Famed for his tactical brilliance and quick thinking in desperate situations, he went down in European history as one of the foremost military strategists of the time.
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Early Life of Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Corsica, an island located on the Mediterranean Coast, on August 15, 1768, to Carlo Bonaparte and Letizia Romalino Bonaparte. Despite being part of the Corsican nobility, Napoleon’s family were of modest means.
Napoleon did his schooling in mainland France, graduating from the military academy in 1785. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant of an artillery detachment in the French Army. He was on leave when the French Revolution broke out in 1789, during which he became involved with the Corsican branch of the Jacobins, one of many pro-democratic parties in France at the time. At the time, the Bonaparte family had gotten into a dispute for their pro-democratic leanings with the monarchy supporting the governor of Corsica. The result was them fleeing Corsica for mainland France in 1793, where Napoleon returned to active military duty
Napoleon came into contact with Augustine Robespierre, the brother of the infamous Maximilien Robespierre. Maximilien Robespierre would herald the Reign of Terror, a period of anarchy marked by violence against and execution of those considered the enemies of the French revolution.
But when the Robespierre brothers fell from power and were guillotined in July 1794, Napoleon was placed under house arrest for a brief period of time due to his association with them. In 1795, he suppressed a monarchy-backed uprising against the revolutionary government, being promoted to a major general as a result.
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Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte
The French government was fighting against other European monarchies since 1792. In a series of battles taking place in Italy during 1796, Napoleon led a French army to victory over the much better equipped and larger armies of Austria. The Treaty of Campo Formio signed between France and Austria led to territorial gains for France.
The Directory, a five-member group that governed France since the Reign of Terror ended in 1795, directed Napoleon to lead an invasion of Great Britain. Knowing the French Navy was inadequate to deal with the far more superior British Royal Navy, Napoleon instead proposed an expedition to Egypt, then a British Protectorate. Taking Egypt from the British would effectively cut them off from their vital trade with India, causing widespread economic hardship on the British Isle. Landing in Egypt in 1798, the French army won the Battle of the Pyramids in June of that year.
But during the Battle of the Nile in August, the French Navy was nearly wiped out following the engagement with the British Navy. Later, Napoleon would launch an invasion of Syria in 1798. Syria was then a province of the Ottoman Empire. This campaign would be a failure as well.
With the political situation in France deteriorating, Napoleon decided to return to France. He then became part of the group that overthrew the Directory in 1799.
Now a three-member group called the Consulate ruled France with Napoleon becoming first consul, a position consolidated by his victory over Austria at the Battle of Marengo in June 1800.
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Napoleon I, Emperor of France
A constitutional amendment made in 1802 made Napoleon first consul for life. In 1804, he crowned himself, emperor of France, during a lavish ceremony at the Cathedral of Notre Dame
Seeking to restore stability in post-revolutionary France, he centralized the government by introducing reforms in banking and education, supporting science and art. His most significant accomplishment was the creation of the Napoleonic Code, which transformed the French legal system and continues to be the be basis of the legal system in France and most of Western Europe to this day.
The Napoleonic Wars broke out in 1803, lasting until 1815. It was a series of conflicts between the French Empire and a coalition of European nations.
On October 1805, the French fleet was annihilated during the battle of Trafalgar, nullifying the threat of invasion of the British Isles. The Battle of Austerlitz in December of that year, however, solidified his reputation as one of the greatest generals in European History. A combined army of Austrians and Russians was defeated by the French and the termination of the Holy Roman Empire that resulted would be a catalyst for the unification of Germany in 1871
Seeking to defeat his British rivals through economic means, Napoleon devised the Continental System in 1806, which blockaded Europeans ports from British Trade. Subsequent victories in 1807 and 1809 against the Russians and Austrians resulted in French territorial gains in central and Eastern Europe
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Fall of Napoleon Bonaparte
The Russian withdrawal from the continental system gave Napoleon casus belli for Napoleon to launch an invasion of Russia in the summer of 1812. It proved to be a costly mistake as the Russians switched to scorched-earth tactics to deny the French army any hope of preparing for the brutal winter that would follow. By September of that year, both sides had suffered enormous casualties.
The French Army did eventually take Moscow but all they found was an empty city, with its population having evacuated further east. Seeing little point in residing in Moscow, Napoleon retreated back towards the west under constant attack by the Russians. Only 100,000 of the original 600,000 managed to reach the safety of the empire.
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Further setbacks for Napoleon awaited him with the defeat of his armies in Spain. Napoleon’s forces were again defeated in 1813 during the Battle of Leipzig by a coalition force of Austrian, Prussian, Russian and Swedish troops. He was forced to abdicate his throne when the coalition forces captured Paris. He was exiled to the island of Elba off the coast of Italy while his wife and son were sent to Austria
On February 26, 1815, Napoleon escaped to mainland France, where he was welcomed to Paris by cheering crowds. He began a campaign to reconquer lost French possessions in Europe shortly after.
The French Army invaded Belgium in 1815 in order to defeat a combined British and Prussian army. In the engagement that followed the Prussians were defeated at Ligny but on June 18, at the Battle of Waterloo, the French were crushed by the British through Prussian support. The battle permanently ended Napoleon’s threat to Europe.
In June 1815, Napoleon was dethroned once again.
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Final years of Napoleon Bonaparte
In October 1815, Napoleon was exiled to Saint Helena, a remote island in the South Atlantic Ocean. He passed away while there on May 5, 1821. He was 51 at the time. The likely cause of his demise is said to be stomach cancer, although it was speculated with no sufficient evidence that he was poisoned. Although his last wish was to be buried on the banks of the Seine, he was buried on the island. In 1840 his remains were returned to France and given a state funeral.
Frequently Asked Questions about Napoleon Bonaparte
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