Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte
Revolutionary General, First Consul, and Emperor of the French

Born: August 15, 1769

Place of Birth: Ajaccio, Corsica, France

Died: May 5, 1821

Place of Death: Longwood, St. Helena



A poor Corsican noble by birth, Napoleon Bonaparte grew up in Corsica until his family obtained a scholarship for him to study at the school at Brienne in France, and he left for there at age nine. After studying for five years there, he then enrolled in the École Militaire in Paris in 1784. Commissioned as a lieutenant in the artillery in 1785, once the French Revolution was in full swing in 1793 Napoleon rose to distinction when as a captain he was placed in command of the artillery during the Siege of Toulon . His plans to force the British out of the harbor were successful, and he was rewarded with a promotion to général de brigade for his contributions to the victory.

Two years later the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution had been overcome but France's government, the National Convention, was still in turmoil. The political executions had been stopped but corruption ran rampant. While in Paris, General Bonaparte had made the acquaintance of one of the more powerful politicians, Paul Barras. In October of 1795, a royalist mob threatened to overthrow the government, and General Menou attempted to negotiate the disarmament of the mob and failed. Barras was then entrusted to defend the Convention, but not being a soldier, he asked Napoleon to disperse the mob. On October 5th (13 Vendémiaire) Napoleon responded quickly, sending Captain Murat and his cavalry to fetch artillery. With this artillery Napoleon fired a "whiff of grapeshot" into the mob and dispersed it, earning the gratitude of the government. Grateful for their continued existence, the government promoted him to général de division and gave him command of the Army of the Interior. Wanting to fight France's enemies, Napoleon instead repeatedly tried to convince the them to give him command of the Army of Italy despite its poor condition.

In the meantime, Napoleon had met and fallen in love with Josephine de Beauharnais. The widow of General Alexandre Beauharnais who was guillotined during the Terror, Josephine was six years older than Napoleon and had two children from that marriage. Regardless, Napoleon had fallen in love with her and wanted to marry her. For her part, Josephine was a bit put off by his passion for her but liked him and hoped he could provide for her and her children. They were married on March 9th, 1796 with two of the witnesses being Paul Barras and Napoleon's aide Lemarois. Unfortunately, Napoleon's family never warmed to Josephine which would not help events in the future. Meanwhile, Napoleon had successfully convinced France's new government, called the Directory, to give him command of the Army of Italy, and he left to assume command of the poorly equipped army only two days after his marriage to Josephine.

First Italian Campaign

Despite having little tangible support in the form of supplies from the government, General Bonaparte quickly set out to inspire his men and take the offensive. A series of maneuvers and victories quickly knocked Piedmont out of the war in less than three weeks, even though the Piedmontese had been fighting France for four years. General Bonaparte continued the offensive into Italy, and a few weeks later at the Battle of Lodi he sighted some of the guns, which was typically the job of an artillery corporal. For this action, his troops nicknamed him "the little corporal". Napoleon and his senior officers then led a charge across the bridge under heavy fire, and the momentum was enough to carry the bridge and win the battle.

Napoleon and the Army of Italy continued to earn success throughout 1796 across Italy. His strategic concepts of rapid marches and concentration of force at critical moments confused enemy generals used to the siege warfare and fixed battles of the earlier part of the century. The Austrians launched multiple attempts to crush his inferior numbers and maintain control of northern Italy, all unsuccessful. At one such battle, the Battle of Arcola , Napoleon was anxious to force a victory quickly much as he had at Lodi by leading a charge across the bridge. Grabbing a flag and waving it as a rallying point, he and his officers began to charge across the bridge, but the Austrian fire was too much. Colonel Muiron, his friend and aide-de-camp, threw himself in front of Napoleon to save his life and died, struck by bullets. In the ensuing chaos, Napoleon was knocked into a muddy canal of the river where he was still vulnerable to enemy fire, and a number of soldiers charged into the canal to rescue their general.

After Napoleon's Army of Italy defeated the Austrians throughout Italy and arrived in a position to threaten Austria itself, the Austrians finally asked for peace. By this time he had astounded both Austria and France by managing to lead his army to victory despite the odds against them.

Expedition to Egypt

Great Britain still threatened France though, and next General Bonaparte was appointed to command the Army of England. When it became clear that an invasion of England was not feasible at this time, it was decided that the army would attack British interests in Egypt, and he set sail with the Army of the Orient. After capturing Malta and evading British Admiral Nelson's fleet, the French army landed in Egypt, but they were soon cut off from France when Admiral Nelson destroyed most of their fleet at the Battle of the Nile.

Nevertheless, Napoleon asserted control over Egypt and began introducing some of the ideals of the French Revolution while respecting the culture and religion of the Egyptians. He had brought scientists and scholars from France with him, and their work became the basis of modern Egyptology, with one of their most notable contributions being the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. While in Egypt Napoleon also learned of his wife Josephine's infidelity back in France, and in response he began sleeping with the wife of a soldier, Pauline Foures.

Unfortunately for the French, Great Britain had pressured the Ottoman Empire to declare war on France and raise an army to attack Egypt. Anxious to keep the Turks from gaining a foothold in Egypt, Napoleon went on the offensive, leading his men in an expedition to Syria. After the French army took Jaffa, he was faced with a terrible decision. The French army had seized thousands of prisoners, prisoners that they did not have the supplies to feed. The destruction of the French naval fleet had severely limited the French army's supplies, and the French did not even have an adequate number of soldiers to detain the prisoners. Worse, the prisoners had already fought against the French in many battles, been captured, and then released because of the French army's inability to care for them. They had been released after a promise to not take arms against the French again in a set amount of time, and they had clearly broken this promise, killing more French soldiers in subsequent battles. Napoleon consulted with his generals for a few days about how to solve this problem, and then finally decided to order the execution of the prisoners.

At roughly the same time, many French soldiers at Jaffa were falling ill with the plague. As French morale plummeted, Napoleon personally went to visit the afflicted soldiers in the hospital. In defiance of the possibilities of contracting the plague himself, Napoleon spoke with the infected soldiers and even helped move a corpse.

The French army advanced as far as the fortress of Acre before they were stopped. The British had reinforced Acre and after two months of unsuccessfully attempting to take the city, Napoleon knew that it would not fall with the forces available to him. His army marched back to Egypt, only to learn that France was in danger. While British warships had been successfully blockading his forces, occasionally news broke through the blockade, and by all reports the fledgling French Republic was in danger of being destroyed. The Directory had continued to antagonize its enemies and fight costly wars in an effort to maintain its hold on power in France. Napoleon decided to return to France and left command of the Army of the Orient to General Kléber who cursed him for this action.

The Consulate

Napoleon departed Egypt, taking only his closest officers with him, and he again successfully dodged Admiral Nelson's ships on the voyage across the Mediterranean. Upon arriving in France, he ignored quarantine rules, hurried to Paris, and was soon involved in a plot to overthrow the corrupt Directory. Two of the directors had formed a plot to overthrow the government and establish a better one, and they needed a general to ensure the army would support the coup. General Joubert had been their first choice, but he had been killed a few months earlier at the Battle of Novi , so they settled on Bonaparte, thinking they could control him. On November 9th, 1799 (18th Brumaire) with his men in place, Napoleon made a passionate speech to the Council of 500, who quickly grew angry with him. As he was physically roughed up, his soldiers moved in to protect him and the politicians fled. With power secure, he and the two directors involved in the plot wrote a new constitution and formed the Consulate. Napoleon quickly asserted himself and established himself as the First Consul, more powerful than the other two.

Realizing that the people of France would only see his government as legitimate if he could achieve peace, he immediately set out to put an end to the wars. When General Moreau, commanding the Army of the Rhine, refused to follow his suggestions to maneuver to achieve favorable terms with France's enemies, Napoleon formed a new army, the Army of the Reserve. He personally led the Army of the Reserve into Italy and defeated the Austrians at the close fought Battle of Marengo. After that victory, the Austrians were open to talks, but negotiations broke down and that winter the Austrians again resumed hostilities, this time in Germany. After General Moreau's victory at Hohenlinden, the Austrians asked for peace. Only Great Britain remained at war with France.

On Christmas Eve of 1800, Napoleon and some of his friends and family traveled to the Opera to watch Hadyn's Creation for its first performance in France. As they were riding in their carriages, an explosion went off behind Napoleon's carriage, killing many innocent bystanders and wounding Napoleon's stepdaughter Hortense de Beauharnais. The conspirators had filled a horse drawn cart with a bomb and paid a fourteen year old girl to hold the horse for a few minutes. Napoleon had narrowly evaded the bomb due to the mistiming of the conspirators and the speedy driving of his coachman driving the carriage. His family in the following carriage had only evaded the explosion due to having left late. In all nine people were killed and twenty six wounded, and two of the conspirators were arrested, tried, and executed while a third escaped. However, much of the funding for the plot had come from the British government and French royalist exiles living in Britain. Despite British involvement in the plot against his life, Napoleon negotiated with the British and soon the British had also agreed to the Peace of Amiens, ending the wars brought about by reactions to the French Revolution.

Improving French Quality of Life

As First Consul, Napoleon sought to bring order, prosperity, and unity to France. To heal some of the divides that the French Revolution had produced, he offered a general amnesty to all French citizens who had fled the nation during the French Revolution. He also began negotiating with the Pope to bring Catholicism back as the official religion of France. These negotiations were successful but he ensured that some of the gains of the French Revolution, namely religious freedom and separation of church and state, would continue.

To strengthen France, Napoleon undertook a number of changes to the government. While the economic policies of the Directory had led to significant national debt, nearly worthless money due to inflation, and many government employees going unpaid, Napoleon's sound economic policy revived the French economy and improved the lives of many. He established the Bank of France to improve the economy and the government's ability to support and control the economy. He also reformed public education for the French, ensuring that all citizens would receive an education. And since all citizens were now educated, he established the Legion of Honor, an order of honor to reward the best of either civilian or military merit.

Continuing his reforms as First Consul, Napoleon formed a committee of legal scholars and led the development of the Civil Code, also known as the Code Napoléon. This standard of laws brought about many changes to the way French law worked. For religious matters, the Civil Code guaranteed religious freedom and enforced the separation of church and state. To combat the resentment that had brought about the French Revolution, the Civil Code forbade feudal privileges that gave nobles different rights than other citizens. The Civil Code also granted individual freedoms such as the freedom to work in any profession. For women, the Civil Code granted women property rights and the right to divorce, but in family matters the law still saw the husband as the head of a household. Napoleon always considered the Civil Code as his greatest legacy, and as the French traveled throughout Europe, the progressive ideas of the Civil Code traveled with them, helping to bring about reform in those territories.

While Napoleon improved the lives of French citizens living in European France, his policies did not help the black citizens living in French colonies, including the blacks living in Saint-Domingue (later known as Haiti). The French colony on the island of Hispaniola had abolished slavery in 1793 and this act was ratified by the National Convention in early 1794. While the island was still nominally a part of France, it had been somewhat isolated due to British control of the seas and the French governments being preoccupied with survival throughout the tumultuous years of the French Revolution. A former slave, Toussaint Louverture, had risen to power and now controlled the island. While Toussaint Louverture insisted that Saint-Domingue was still a colony of France, in 1801 he issued his own constitution for Saint-Domingue instead of following directives and getting approval from the government in Paris. Napoleon was furious and interpreted the constitution as a declaration of independence and an insult to the French government and sovereignty. Due to the peace with Great Britain, Napoleon was able to send an expedition of thousands of soldiers across the Atlantic without fear of interference from the British navy. Led by Napoleon's brother-in-law General Leclerc, the expedition was to reassert control over the colony and potentially reestablish slavery. While the expedition was initially successful in retaking the island and capturing Toussaint Louverture, ultimately yellow fever killed a majority of the French soldiers. Many of the inhabitants of the island rose in revolt and they successfully ousted the French. This failure of the French to maintain control over a distant colony would influence Napoleon's decision to sell the territory of Louisiana to the United States of America in what became known as the Louisiana Purchase.

Establishment of the Empire

In 1803 the conspiracy leader Georges Cadoudal was secretly returned to France with the help of the British government to make yet another attempt on Napoleon's life. Luckily for Napoleon, the French police caught wind of the conspiracy and were able to arrest Cadoudal and many of the conspirators in early 1804. As the conspirators were interrogated, it was revealed that after assassinating Napoleon a great prince was to reveal himself in Paris to take power. Napoleon's spies throughout Europe determined that the great prince was the Duke of Enghien, a prince of the blood of the House of Bourbon who lived just across the border from France in Baden. Based on this information and angry at yet another attempt on his life, Napoleon ordered General Ordener to secretly cross the border with some cavalry and seize the Duke of Enghien. Meanwhile, Napoleon and the other statesmen discussed what should be done with such an important prisoner. One of the other consuls, Cambacérès, suggested that holding the Duke of Enghien hostage would be enough to ensure Napoleon's safety. Contrary to this position, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Talleyrand insisted that the Duke of Enghien must be executed as a reprisal against the House of Bourbon, teaching them that violent actions would be met in kind.1 Ultimately, Napoleon sided with Talleyrand and the Duke of Enghien was quickly tried and executed.

In May of 1804, the people of France voted that Napoleon should become Emperor of the French. Many French citizens viewed this a necessary step to avert assassination attempts on his life, to show that France could not be brought down by the death of Napoleon, that the Bourbons and the French Revolution would not return even if Napoleon was killed. Furthermore, Napoleon's popularity in France was huge due to his achievements and the improved quality of life his leadership had brought about, especially when compared to the tumultuous and dark years of the French Revolution of the previous decade. On December 2nd, 1804, Napoleon was crowned Emperor of the French, in a ceremony largely symbolic of Charlemagne being crowned as Holy Roman Emperor a millennium before. The Pope had been invited to crown Napoleon to complete this symbolism, however Napoleon took the crown from the Pope and crowned himself, indicating that he had risen on his own success. He then crowned his wife Josephine as Empress of the French.

The Third Coalition

Peace did not last long though. Besides funding the assassination attempts, the British government ignored the agreements laid out in the Peace of Amiens and offered money to Austria, Russia, and Prussia to go to war with France. Enticed by British money and afraid of the Revolutionary ideals such as the removal of privilege by birth, the leaders of Austria and Russia declared war on France and the Third Coalition was born. Napoleon wasted no time and in response quickly moved his army, now named La Grande Armée, towards Germany. Napoleon's strategic genius successfully outmaneuvered much of the Austrian army under General Mack, forcing Mack to surrender 27,000 troops at Ulm with barely a shot being fired.

Napoleon's army continued to chase the Austrians and took Vienna, but they were unable to prevent the Russian army from joining up with the remaining Austrian army. Now outnumbered, Napoleon's Grande Armée began to fall back. Napoleon sent General Savary to negotiate with the Allies, but moreso to convince them that Napoleon was not confident about the outcome of the war. Savary successfully did this, and brought back a Russian prince to Napoleon, who arrogantly lectured him and told him to surrender. Napoleon appeared to agree with the prince about his chances of success, and the prince dutifully reported back to Tsar Alexander of Napoleon's weakness. Napoleon took up a defensive position and on the anniversary of his coronation, his trap at the Battle of Austerlitz worked exactly as he had planned, with the outnumbered French crushing the combined Russian and Austrian armies. Austria sued for peace immediately.

The Fourth Coalition

The next year, Prussia began to prepare for war and in August the war party of its government secretly decided on an upcoming war against France. Napoleon's informants had told him of the warmongering attitude of the Prussian court, but he could scarcely believe the Prussian court had kindly waited for him to defeat the Austrians before deciding on war. Knowing that the Prussian Queen Louise was one of the warmongers of the court, and admiring her beauty and defiant attitude, Napoleon called her "the only man in Prussia."2 Prussia delivered an arrogant ultimatum to France demanding France's acquiescence on certain terms by October 8th, and the message only reached Paris on October 2nd. Napoleon, who was already in Germany, only received the message on the 7th. Always quick to seize the initiative, Napoleon waited until the next day when the ultimatum expired and then quickly maneuvered La Grande Armée into Prussia and crushed the Prussians at the twin battles of Jena-Auerstädt. His forces pursued the disorganized and defeated Prussians throughout Prussia, forcing the surrender of their army throughout the country.

With the Prussians knocked out of the war, only the Russian army remained, and the French moved on into Poland, which had been greedily partitioned and dissolved by Russia, Austria, and Prussia in the latter half of the 18th century. Hoping to be liberated by the French, a large number of the Poles supported Napoleon, and while in Warsaw he met the beautiful Marie Walewska and entered into a relationship with her. Still fighting the Russians, Napoleon began laying a trap for them that almost worked until his plans were intercepted when a courier was captured. Following that mistake, the French fought the Russians at the indecisive Battle of Eylau in February of 1807, and then in June the French army smashed the Russian army at Friedland. Tsar Alexander asked for peace, and the landmark Treaty of Tilsit was signed between Napoleon and Alexander, forming an alliance between Russia in the east and France in the west.

The Peninsular War

The British still remained resolute in their opposition to France, and due to British naval supremacy after the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Napoleon could not strike at them militarily. Instead he decided to bring them to the bargaining table through economic warfare. He established a trade embargo against the British and made it a cornerstone of his foreign policy, insisting his allies and defeated enemies also follow it. Most of Europe now complied with this policy which came to be known as the Continental System, however, Portugal did not, and Napoleon decided to move troops into Portugal and Spain to force them to comply. In response, the British landed an army in the Spanish Peninsula and the French were never able to fully take Portugal.

In the meantime, the Bourbon royal family of Spain fought internal power struggles and the people of Spain were generally unhappy with their government. Napoleon seized this opportunity and acted as if he would help resolve the Spanish royal family's crisis. Instead he demanded the abdication of the Spanish royal family and he placed his brother Joseph on the throne as King of Spain. Expecting to be treated well for bringing the Civil Code and its progressive ideals to Spain and removing an ineffective government, the French soldiers were surprised to find many of the population rising against them. The Spanish clergy had seen how the French clergy had lost power in the secularization of France, and in response incited many of the population to a religious holy war against the French. Unused to guerrilla warfare, the French army struggled to maintain control over the Peninsula.

The Fifth Coalition

Sensing an opportunity for revenge since the French army was preoccupied with events in the Spanish Peninsula, Austria secretly prepared for war. In April of 1809, Austria invaded France's German allies, initially scoring successes until Napoleon arrived on the scene to take command. During this campaign, as Napoleon was holding sessions to address the issues of various people, a young German man named Friedrich Staps approached him. Just in the nick of time, Napoleon's aide General Rapp seized the young man, who had hidden a knife in his coat and was about to stab Napoleon. Napoleon attempted to pardon the man, but the man said defiantly that if he were let go, he would merely try and try again to kill Napoleon until either he himself or Napoleon was dead. At that point, Napoleon reluctantly ordered the man's execution.

Forcing a confrontation with the Austrians at Aspern-Essling , the French would lose this battle more to the current of the Danube River than to Austrian skills. As the battle began to wind down, Marshal Lannes, Napoleon's best friend, was critically wounded and brought back to safety by his men. Napoleon saw his wounded friend and rushed to him, deeply concerned that Lannes might die. Every day he visited the wounded marshal, but finally on the 31st of May Lannes died. Napoleon, upon arriving that day and learning of his friend's death, wept by his side for most of the day. Six weeks after his first major loss at Aspern-Essling, Napoleon had learned from those mistakes and defeated the Austrians at Battle of Wagram , and they again sued for peace.

Fully aware that France needed allies to maintain a balance of power and peace in Europe, and disappointed that Tsar Alexander had not assisted him as promised against the Austrians, Napoleon hoped to solidify an alliance through marriage. Furthermore, his family had never approved of Josephine, and she had never been able to produce an heir for him even though he had fathered an illegitimate child with Marie Walewska. Napoleon first asked for the hand of Alexander's sister but was politely refused. Unable to form a matrimonial alliance with Russia, he then asked for the hand of the daughter of Emperor Francis of Austria. In 1810, Napoleon divorced the love of his life, Josephine, and married Marie Louise, the daughter of the Austrian Emperor, forming an alliance that he hoped would cement peace. From this union his son, Napoleon II, was born.

Confrontation with Russia

In 1812 Napoleon began to prepare for a confrontation with Russia. The Treaty of Tilsit in 1807 had laid out the alliance between France and Russia, but while Napoleon followed through on his parts of the treaty, Tsar Alexander had not fulfilled his side of the treaty. Russia was supposed to help defend France against the other major powers, but in 1809 when Austria launched their attack, Russia made no move to help France, having secretly formed an alliance with Austria. Furthermore, Russia had not complied with the Continental System, and so Great Britain continued to thrive with its trade reaching Russian ports.

Napoleon formed a massive army of troops from all corners of Europe and then crossed the Niemen River into Russia. Expecting a quick battle with the Russians to bring Tsar Alexander back to the negotiating table, Napoleon's plans were solid but his subordinates failed to execute his plans well. Each time Napoleon's Grande Armée almost caught the Russian army, a failure of one of the French generals resulted in the Russian army eluding the trap and falling back deeper into Russia. Furthermore, the Russians adopted a scorched earth policy, denying supplies to the Grande Armée and forcing them to rely on their lengthy and inadequate supply lines. Napoleon's Grande Armée continued to chase the Russians, traveling much farther than Napoleon had ever originally intended. Finally the Russians made a stand near Moscow at the Battle of Borodino and were defeated, but their army retreated in good order.

Hoping for a negotiation with Tsar Alexander, Napoleon occupied Moscow and attempted to contact Alexander, who refused to discuss anything at all, sending the French messengers away. Realizing how over-extended his army was, Napoleon ordered a general retreat to French allied territories. During the retreat, the lack of food and supplies alongside the weather of a harsh Russian winter did what no army could do, nearly destroying the once great army. The Russians chased after the Grande Armée and almost caught them at the Berezina River, but a great effort on the part of the survivors of the Grande Armée at the Battle of the Berezina enabled a few to make their way home. Napoleon left the army to return to Paris on December 5th, traveling in disguise as the secretary to Caulaincourt and traveling 1300 miles in thirteen days despite the winter roads.

The Sixth Coalition

After the retreat from Russia, the British, Prussians, and Russians smelled blood and formed the Sixth Coalition against France. Sweden, led by former French Marshal Bernadotte, also joined in the new coalition against France. The French were hurting for experienced troops and good horses for cavalry after the disaster in Russia, but nonetheless Napoleon managed to raise a new army. A new campaign took place in the spring of 1813 in Saxony until an armistice gave both sides some time to recover. Austria, despite the marriage alliance with Napoleon, turned on him and joined the coalition, ruining half the point of his divorce from Josephine. Even though they wanted to see Napoleon laid low, all of the coalition nations were uncomfortably respectful of Napoleon's excellent abilities as a general, and so the coalition devised a new plan for fighting the French. They would avoid engaging the French where Napoleon was present, and instead go after his subordinates. Meanwhile, Napoleon was urged to take up a scorched earth policy to deny supplies to the coalition forces, but he refused as the campaign theater was in Saxony, Saxony was an ally, and it would be dishonorable.3 During the campaign that followed, despite Napoleon's and his generals' best efforts, the French were unable to hold back the coalition forces. One by one, Napoleon's German allies such as Bavaria and Saxony began to abandon his cause. The coalition's new plan, their significant advantages in numbers, the French lack of good horses, and the defection of France's allies proved to be Napoleon's undoing.

After the campaigns in Saxony in 1813, the French were forced to fall back and defend France on their own soil in 1814. While fighting an amazing campaign in France, the French simply did not have the numbers necessary to seal their victories and hold back the coalition advance. French morale plummeted further when Marshal Marmont betrayed Paris to the Allies. Finally, convinced by some of his marshals that continued fighting was futile, Napoleon abdicated his throne in favor of his son, who was instead sent away to Austria, never to see his father again. Napoleon was exiled by the Allies to the tiny island of Elba off the coast of Italy, where he governed and tried to keep himself busy. The Bourbon aristocrats who had fled France during the Revolution finally returned to power thanks to the strength of the coalition armies. Unfortunately for France, they quickly abused their powers, treating the people and especially the army of France very badly. To their minds, it was as if the last twenty years had never happened, and the privileges of their birth entitled them to arrogantly treat others poorly.

The Hundred Days

Before long, dissent with the Bourbon rule was widespread in France, while on Elba Napoleon grew increasingly worried about plans to assassinate or kidnap him. Napoleon decided to escape from Elba to France where he could regain control of his destiny instead of being subject to the whims of the Allies. He landed in France and began a march to Paris, picking up supporters along the way. At Laffrey, a battalion stood ready to kill or capture him, blocking his way. Napoleon boldly walked out to meet these soldiers drawn up in battle formation. An officer gave the order to fire on Napoleon, but no one fired. Napoleon shouted out, "Soldiers! I am your Emperor. Do you recognize me? If there is one among you who would kill his general, here I am!"4 Not a soldier fired, and most joined Napoleon's entourage. He marched back into Paris with an army, and the Bourbon king was forced to flee France. Napoleon had regained power without a shot being fired.

Given that much of the French populace welcomed him back and they were not endeared to the Bourbon regime, Napoleon hoped that the other governments of Europe would avoid interfering with a weakened France's government. He sent messages of peace to the other governments of Europe, but many of these were returned unopened as they refused to negotiate with France's leader. The coalition powers feared a strong France and declared that they were waging war against Napoleon, not France. Throughout Napoleon's years as a leader he had realized that the only things that brought many of these governments to negotiations were military victories. France was still badly outnumbered as the Allies began to prepare their armies for another campaign, and so Napoleon decided to strike first, aiming to remove the nearby British and Prussian armies before the Austrian and Russian armies could arrive at France's borders. The French army was unready to face a combined enemy army, so he set out to defeat each enemy army one at a time to defend France. Outmaneuvering the Allies, he split the British and Prussian armies, and then badly beat the Prussians at the Battle of Ligny. But shortly thereafter, due to a multitude of mistakes and the failure of Marshal Grouchy to keep the Prussians from reaching the battlefield and joining the British, the French lost the Battle of Waterloo against the combined enemy forces.

Despite the loss of the Battle of Waterloo, the French army could have been rallied more quickly had Napoleon remained with the army. Instead he returned to Paris to try and stabilize the situation there. French politicians panicked upon hearing of the loss of the battle and many refused to support Napoleon as emperor, instead placing their hopes on currying favor with Louis XVIII or establishing a new republic. Lucien Bonaparte, Marshal Davout, and Lazare Carnot all advised Napoleon that he should temporarily use military force to reassert his will over the government, as regardless of what the politicians said the people preferred him over the Bourbons, but he refused to use force to remain in power.

Exile and Death

Since the coalition powers had declared war against him and not France, he abdicated a second time in favor of his son and left Paris for Fontainebleau. However, the Prussian and British armies continued their march on Paris, and in response Napoleon offered to serve France as just a general and not the emperor, but the politicians in Paris rebuffed this offer. Napoleon became indecisive on what to do next, and when he realized he could not escape to America, he finally decided to turn himself over to the mercy of the British, hoping that they would treat him well since he was a former head of state. Expecting them to hold him on a country estate in England or send him to the United States, he was surprised and regretted his decision when they did not do this, instead sending him to the remote island of Saint Helena and allowing him little contact with the outside world. He died there six years later, plagued by sickness, but not before befriending those who gave him a chance, including the young Betsy Balcombe, daughter of a British businessman. Napoleon was buried on Saint Helena until 1840 when his remains were returned to France and entombed in Les Invalides. His friends Generals Duroc and Bertrand, his brothers Joseph and Jérôme, and his son Napoleon II are buried nearby.

There is some controversy surrounding Napoleon's death. While the official belief is generally that stomach cancer killed him, there are questions surrounding the validity of this cause of death. A notable theory has been put forward that suggests Napoleon was poisoned by a member of his staff, Montholon, on the order of the French ultra-royalists, who feared him making a return to France as he did after his first exile. The most interesting evidence of this theory is a strong correlation between dates of his sickness and high levels of arsenic in his hair. Most of the individuals on the island kept diaries of events, and Napoleon's valet Louis Marchand recorded Napoleon's symptoms and dates of sickness. In the 20th century, toxicity scientists analyzed locks of hair cut from Napoleon's head on recorded dates and compared the dates of Napoleon's sickness as recorded by Marchand to the corresponding position down the length of his hair. A correlation was found between extremely high levels of arsenic in his hair on the dates of his worst symptoms. A variety of theories have provided alternative reasons for the high amount of arsenic in his hair.



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Updated October 2023

© Nathan D. Jensen