Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte

(1769-1821)

The greatest military genius of modern French history, Napoleon Bonaparte was born on the island of Corsica, which was con¬ quered by France in the year of his birth. Fie arrived in France in 1778 to study language and attend a military preparatory school. The onset of the French Revolution provided the opportunity for his keen mind and tremen¬ dous will to exert themselves.

Napoleon commanded the artillery that forced the British fleet to evacuate Toulon (1794) and fired cannon shot to dis¬ perse the rebellious Parisian crowds in 1795. The new Directory government sent him to Italy, where prior commanders had failed to oust the Austrian army.

He astounded everyone by defeating the Austrians and their allies. In 1798, he sailed with a large fleet that brought his army to Egypt. He defeated the Mamelukes at the Battle of the Pyramids, but then had to return to France after his fleet was destroyed by the British at the Battle of the Nile.

Returning to France in 1799, Napoleon overthrew the Directory and set up the new Consulate government, with himself as first consul. He soon changed his title to first con¬ sul for life, and then to emperor of France in 1804.

Napoleon devised a military system that was both simple and profound. Building on the methods developed by Lazare Nicolas Marguerite Carnot during the French Revolution (see no. 65), Napoleon divided the French armies into independent corps that foraged for food, lived off the land, and converged suddenly in the heartland of the enemy.

His marshals became brilliant, inde¬ pendent field commanders. Finally, Napoleon used a mass of artillery, infantry and cavalry to break his foe’s line at its weakest point.

Napoleon’s greatest victories were Marengo (1800), Austerlitz (1805), Jena and Auerstadt (1806), and Friedland (1807).

Even more impressive was the way he snatched victory from defeat by his presence on the battlefield, and the personal impact he had upon the vet¬ erans who formed his Imperial Guard — the core of the Napoleonic armies.

His intervention in Spain and Russia, how¬ ever, were his downfall. Napoleon’s marshals were consistently defeat¬ ed in Spain by the Duke of Wellington (see no. 68).

Napoleon personally took 600,000 men into Russia in 1812, but he returned with only 50,000. The fierce Russian defense, grinding battles such as Borodino, and the harsh winter of 1812—1813 all made Napoleon’s Russian campaign a terrible disas-ter.

Napoleon abdicated his throne in 1814 and was exiled to the small island of Elba in the Mediterranean. One year later, he escaped from Elba, returned to France, and became emperor once more, for the brief period of 100 days. He marched north into the Netherlands to meet the British-Prussian armies under the Duke of Wellington. A younger, sharper Napoleon might well have overcome Wellington at Waterloo, but the emperor had fought his last battle.

After abdicating a second time, Napoleon was confined by the British to the tiny island of St. Helena in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Napoleon died in 1821, the victim of a stomach ailment. Rumors that the British had poisoned him lingered for years.