Facts and summary information and article on Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor Napoleon I of France, who is ranked among the greatest military leaders of all time for his performance during the Napoleonic Wars
Napoleon Bonaparte Facts
August 15, 1769. Ajaccio, Island of Corsica
May 5, 1821. St. Helena Island
Second lieutenant, artillery
Highest Rank Achieved
Self-proclaimed emperor, in command of all French armies
Siege of Toulon
Battle of the Pyramids
Aspern / Essling
Borodino, or Moskova
Napoleon Bonaparte summary: Napoleon Bonaparte—Napoleon I, Emperor of France—was the greatest soldier of his age and ranks among the most renowned military leaders of all time. The tactics he refined in the Napoleonic Wars heavily influenced European and American armies into the 21st century, but his legacy went beyond strictly military concerns. For nearly a quarter of a century his influence in politics, law, and military organization and tactics spread across most of Europe and parts of Africa and the MidEast. The Napoleonic Code of laws did a great deal to standardize law across Europe and brought greater freedom to the peoples of the lands he conquered than they had previously known.
In the military realm, he masterfully adapted existing tactics and made maximum use of the technology of his time and Europe’s improved network of roads. Speed and shock were his primary weapons, and he coordinated the separate arms of infantry, cavalry and artillery effectively. He organized his forces so that armies, corps and even divisions could go into battle and fight independently as needed. He chose skillful subordinates and then closely coordinated their efforts. His chief of staff, Louis Alexandre Berthier, who was as much a master at handling logistics as Napoleon was a master of battlefield tactics, ably aided him. Added to all this was Napoleon’s charisma and personal courage, which earned him the devout allegiance of his soldiers.
After years of successfully outmaneuvering and outfighting armies of several nations, he made the mistake of invading the vast stretches of Russia in 1812. Before the year was over, the French Army that staggered back out of the tsar’s lands was barely a shadow of the conquering horde that had entered in June. Forced to abdicate, Napoleon was sentenced to exile on the island of Elba but escaped and returned to France in 1815. He attempted to resume his winning ways with a rapid strike to divide Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies in Belgium in order to defeat them in detail, but he lost his final battle, south of Waterloo, on June 15, 1815. Again forced to abdicate, he was exiled to the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic where he died in 1821.
Part conquering megalomaniac, part revolutionary who brought greater freedoms to Europe as he expanded his empire, he left bloodshed and death in his wake but was dedicated to the advancement of France. He said of himself, "Power is my mistress."
Born Napoleon Buonaparte on the French island of Corsica on August 15, 1769, he changed his surname to Bonaparte in 1796 following his first military victories and eventually became simply Napoleon—no surname required. His family was minor nobility with no military tradition, but he read military history voraciously and after an early education in "gentleman subjects," he attended a military school in France. Graduating at age 16, he became a second lieutenant in the artillery. When Corsica declared independence from France in 1793 he severed all ties with the island; he was henceforth a Frenchman, through and through.
During the French Revolution (1789–1799), many army officers fled the country, as they were also nobility. This opened up opportunities for military advancement based on merit rather than birth status. The young Napoleon was handed such an opportunity during the 1793 siege of Toulon, a port city in southern France that had rebelled against the Parisians controlling the revolution. The city had invited in British ships and turned command over to their officers. When the commander of the French artillery was wounded in September, Napoleon was named as his replacement. He performed skillfully and played a vital role in the fall of the city on December 19, for which he was promoted to brigadier general.
He always believed luck played a role in success, and Dame Fortune smiled upon him again in October 1795. When a Royalist revolt against the regime broke out in Paris, Napoleon squelched it with a "whiff of grapeshot" from a battery, killing and wounding hundreds and clearing the streets. He was rewarded with command of the Army of Italy.
Before leaving for his new position he married Josephine de Beauharnais, whose husband had been guillotined during the Reign of Terror. A graceful, attractive woman six years his senior, she had social position that the Corsican hoped would open doors for him. The passionate letters he wrote to her while on campaign indicated he was truly taken with her, and after he declared himself emperor in 1804, she was crowned Empress Josephine; she served as ambassador and hostess and returned to the French court some of the ceremony it had known under the monarchy. She was unable to produce a male heir for Napoleon, however, and he had their marriage annulled in 1810. He then married Marie-Louise of Austria but provided Josephine with a generous settlement and the two remained in close contact.
Napoleon in Italy, 1796-97
France’s revolution was initially viewed by other European nations as an internal matter, but in August 1791 Austria and Prussia, in the declaration of Pillnitz, warned that they were willing to use force to protect King Louis XVI of France. The following April they began soliciting allies for war against the republican government in Paris, which responded by declaring war on Austria. From 1792 on, France found itself embroiled in wars with most nations of Europe; thanks to a new policy of conscription, the republicans are able to raise several large armies, named for their areas of responsibility. Napoleon left Paris to take command of the Army of Italy just days after marrying Josephine.
During 1796-97 he defeated Austrian armies at Lodi, Castiglione, Arcola and Rivoli. At Lodi he personally led a bayonet charge across a bridge to attack the Austrian rear guard. Impressed by his courage, his soldiers affectionately nicknamed their five-foot-two brigadier general "the Little Corporal." The end of 1797 saw him in control of Italy and Austria, and the peace he negotiated expanded France’s holdings in Europe, including giving the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) and Lombardy to France. Napoleon became a national hero.
He next hoped to invade a traditional enemy, Great Britain, against whom France had fought the Hundred Years War (1337–1453), but he soon realized he lacked the strength for a successful cross-channel invasion. Instead, on July 1, 1798, he invaded Egypt to interfere with Britain’s trade lines with India and North Africa. Napoleon won several victories on land against the Turks, who controlled Egypt at the time, but his fleet suffered a severe defeat off Alexandria at the hands of British admiral Horatio Nelson.
Leaving most of his army behind, Napoleon returned to France and joined in an uprising against the ruling Directory. Following the coup of November 9, 1799, he became first consul and was virtually the ruler of France. To solidify his power, he rewrote the French Constitution in 1802, making himself consul for life; two years later he again fiddled with the constitution to declare himself emperor.
One result of Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt was the discovery by one of his soldiers of the Rosetta Stone, which unlocked the language of hieroglyphics, greatly aiding the study of ancient Egypt.
Napoleon’s Years of Glory
As emperor, Napoleon used his power to organize his country’s civil laws into a single civil code. He improved transportation through a program of bridge- and canal-building and reformed the education system. He established leading universities and the Bank of France.
In the meantime, he used a strict conscription system to raise a powerful army and again invaded Austria in 1800, winning a victory on the Marengo Plain in northern Italy; this time, the peace terms recognized the Rhine River as the eastern border of France. His belligerence led to war with Britain in 1803, and two years later Russia and Austria allied with the British against him. To fund his wars, he sold 828,000 square miles of French territory on the North American continent to the young United States of America, an event known in the US as the Louisiana Purchase.
Between 1805 and 1807 he conducted a brilliant campaign marked by rapid maneuvering and violent attacks. Victories over the Austrians at Ulm, an Austro-Russian force at Austerlitz and the Russians at Friedland led to the Treaties of Tilsit with Russia and Prussia (respectively). These treaties made France and Russia allies and essentially split the European continent between the two. Prussia’s territory was reduced by nearly half.
The Continental System
Napoleon used his control of European ports to institute a blockade, excluding British trade from the continent, a situation known as the Continental System. He had suffered another naval defeat at the hands of Horatio Nelson, at Trafalgar; if he couldn’t invade Britain, he would bankrupt what he called the "nation of shopkeepers." The mutual trade-war blockades between France and Britain created the conditions that led to the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States.
His desire for complete blockade led Napoleon to occupy Portugal in 1807 and Spain in 1808, but Spanish and Portuguese troops aided by the British fought a determined resistance. Known as the Peninsular War, it would tie down 300,000 French soldiers between 1807 and 1814. By October 1813 the British commander in the Peninsular War, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, had crossed the Pyrenees and invaded France.
During the years following the Treaties of Tilsit, Napoleon implemented throughout his European holdings a legal system known as the Napoleonic Code that did much to standardize laws. It guaranteed freedom of religion, abolished serfdom and established free schools for all citizens.
Le Grande Armee Meets Disaster in Russia
Russia initially joined its ally France in the Continental System blockade, but the effect was damaging to Russia’s own trade, and ports were reopened to neutral ships on December 31, 1810, straining the Franco-Russian partnership. On June 24, 1812, Napoleon led an army of 600,000—le Grand Armee, the largest in the history of Europe up to that time—in an invasion of Russia. Unable to defeat such a force, the Russians fell back and adopted a scorched earth policy, burning buildings, crops, orchards and anything else that could be of use to the French.
Napoleon finally engaged the Russians at Borodino in September, an inconclusive battle with high casualties on both sides. On September 15, the French army entered the Russian capital of Moscow, but it was a Pyrrhic victory: the population was gone, and the Russians set fire to the town. For over a month, Napoleon waited for his erstwhile partner to capitulate, but a bitter winter and no means of feeding his troops forced him to abandon Moscow. Freezing weather, starvation, desertion, harassing attacks by Cossacks, and a bloody battle at the Berezina River on November 27 reduced le Grand Armee from 600,000 to less than 100,000. The emperor returned to Paris to strengthen his forces there, but the disaster in Russia and the continuing war in Spain and Portugal had emboldened his enemies.
In the spring of 1813, Britain, Prussia, Portugal, Spain, Russia and Sweden along with minor German states formed the Sixth Coalition of nations allied against France. The emperor gathered his veterans and conscripted new recruits. Initially, he claimed victories at Lutzen and Bautzen and forced a peace that bought him time to raise additional troops, but in August Austria officially joined the coalition, tipping the balance. At the three-day Battle of Leipzig in October, the largest battle of the Napoleonic Wars, the coalition dealt Napoleon a devastating defeat. Ultimately he was forced back behind the Rhine, and an invasion of France was imminent. Napoleon’s field marshals forced him to abdicate on April 11, 1814, and he was banished to the island of Elba.
Napoleon’s Hundred Days
The following March, he escaped and returned to France, where he was still widely regarded as a hero, and assumed his role as emperor, displacing King Louis XVIII. This began a period known as the Hundred Days of Napoleon or simply The Hundred Days (actually 111 days, March 20–July 8, 1815). While he was raising a new army, Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia agreed to a new coalition to oppose him. Knowing he would soon be vastly outnumbered, Napoleon chose to strike quickly into Belgium where he hoped to inject his army between an Anglo-Dutch force under his old enemy in Spain, the Duke of Wellington, and a Prussian Army under Field Marshal Prince Gebhard von Blücher and defeat each force separately.
In this campaign, however, the French emperor would not have the assistance of his exceptional former chief of staff, Louis Alexandre Berthier, who chose not to rejoin his old commander and instead personally escorted King Louis XVIII to safety. Berthier had been among those who forced Napoleon’s abdication in 1814, believing that the long period of war had to end for the good of France.
After clashes at Ligny and Quatre Bras, Napoleon attacked Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch army near Mont St. Jean, south of the village of Waterloo, Belgium, on June 18, 1815. After hours of bloody fighting, Wellington’s line was close to breaking, but Blücher arrived with 48,000 Prussians in the late afternoon. The battered, outnumbered French army retreated back into France.
Napoleon abdicated a second time and was carried into exile on a British ship to the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. He died there May 5, 1821, at the age of 51. Claims arose that he had been gradually poisoned with arsenic, but most likely he died of stomach cancer, which also killed his father and sister Pauline. His remains were not returned to France until 1840 when he was interred at Les Invalides in Paris.