Napoleon has often been regarded as the most talented (and shortest!) general of the last millennium, but his largest impact on Europe was after the wars. It is true that he led most of France’s young men to their death, but the reason why is often unknown. France was already in shambles, but Napoleon turned the whole country into an armed camp. Although he was originally considered a great hero, his eventual defeat made him the creature of horror stories told by mothers to their children.
Although he was always considered a Frenchmen, he was actually a native of Corsica, an island off the coast of the French-Italian border. His family lived in the coastal city of Ajaccio, which was where he was born on August 15,1769. None of his Ancestors had ever been a soldier, but his father had been a Corsican Patriot. Because his father later became a member of the French Aristocracy, he was educated in Paris at a military school at the expense of the French King. When Corsica declared independence from France in 1793, Napoleon and his family fled to France since they chose to remain faithful to France. His first command in the French army was when he participated in the Siege of Toulon during the revolt there. He took over the job of a wounded artillery general and succeeded in seizing important spots in the siege. The French government noticed him for the first time when he helped in forcefully pacifying a mob in Paris trying to overthrow the revolutionary government in 1795. The following year, he married JosТЈТІphine de Beauharnais who was the widow of a general guillotined during the revolution. In the same year, Napoleon was placed in command of the French army in Italy. Although his army was initially badly trained and ill equipped, he used his superior military-genius to defeat the King of Sardinia and four Austrian generals. His army was within 80 miles after of Vienna and so Austria sued for peace. Napoleon forced them to sign the Treaty of Campo Formio, thus ending the First Coalition. The Treaty let France keep most of their conquests in northern Italy and because of this, Napoleon strengthened his position in France by sending the Directory millions of francs worth of treasure.
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In 1798, Napoleon decided to invade Egypt thereby cutting British trade links with the east and to remove the country from Turkish hands. However, his personal ambitions included making himself a second Alexander the Great by expanding France all the way to India. Although he initially met with success, defeating the Turkish army at the Battle of the Pyramids, conquering Egypt and totally overhauling her government system, his fleet was destroyed by Horatio Nelson at the Bay of Aboukir, thereby stranding his army in Egypt. Because of this, he decided to invade Syria, but the British/Turkish armies repulsed his troops. At the same time, a Second Coalition was brewing back home in Europe. So, he ditched his army, fled back to France, and used the Directory’s disorganized situation to establish himself as Consul, then First-Consul, and then eventually Emperor of France. He easily defeated the Second Coalition and totally reformed the French government system. His new laws were supposedly based on the aims of the Revolution, but at the same time, he was taking away the right of the people to remove him from power. Among his new laws were ones that abolished the Three Estates, centralized and reformed laws on tax collecting and public education, and established a system of promotion based on merit not heritage throughout the army and government.
However, in 1804, Britain renewed hostilities with France over the island of Malta. Britain was soon joined by Austria, Russia, Sweden, and Spain, forming a Third Coalition against France. This new war had many consequences including the Louisiana Purchase and the establishment of the Confederation of the Rhine (effectively ending the Holy Roman Empire), the Kingdom of Naples, and the Kingdom of Holland. The French defeated the Austrians and captured Vienna, forcing them to cede even more land to France. When the Prussians and the Russians invaded the Confederation of the Rhine, Napoleon moved against them, crushing the Prussians and forcing Russia to become an ally of France. In 1806, Napoleon started implementing his Continental System, intensifying an economic war against the British that started nearly 15 years ago. When Russia became an ally of France, they were also forced to implement the system. However, the system eventually led to France’s economic downfall, as it was nearly impossible to implement as the British ruled the sea after Napoleon’s fleet was destroyed at Trafalgar by the British admiral Horatio Nelson in 1805. At the same time, France was fighting a costly war on another front.
In 1808, Napoleon overthrew the existing Spanish king and then set up his brother Joseph as king. However, when the Spanish people revolted and drove Joseph out of Madrid, Napoleon launched the Peninsular war, a major offensive against the British forces helping the Spaniards inside Spain. In the end, France lost the war after losing 300,000 soldiers and untold amounts of money and supplies. This war should have warned Napoleon about the fiery patriotism of the people of conquered countries, but his ignorance of the situation led to his eventual defeat instead.
The next step in his slow path downwards was his decision to invade Russia in 1812 when Tsar Alexander withdrew from the Continental System. Despite the fact that he managed to capture Moscow, the Russians did not surrender. Instead, they burned the city before the French got there, so the shelter and supplies that Napoleon was banking on were destroyed. Therefore, his army had to retreat back to Germany, all the while chased and hunted by the Russians. The whole Russian campaign ended up as a complete failure. He lost almost all of his 500,000 men that he had started with. At the same time, patriotic revolts were occurring throughout France’s conquered territories. In 1810, he divorced Josephine and married the daughter of the Austrian Emperor, Marie-Louise, in a last-ditch attempt to improve relations. Upon his return to France, the Prussians, Russians, Swedish and British started the War of Liberation against him. His army was eventually forced over the Rhine at the Battle of Leipzig and soon after that, he abdicated in favor of his son, who was born in 1811, with the allied armies not far from Paris. However, the allied armies did not accept the plan and they demanded that the brother of Louis16, Louis 18, be put on the throne.
Napoleon was sent to rule the Island of Elba in 1813 with the British Navy guarding the Island. However, in 1815, he returned to Paris and his old armies quickly gathered around him, being already sick of the new king. The allies were threatening to invade France again since they heard of the return of Napoleon, so he quickly organized a new army and marched them into Belgium to meet the British and Prussian armies. At Ligny, he defeated the Prussians under Blucher and then marched to Waterloo to meet the British under Wellington. At first, he was doing well in the battle. His forces were pushing the British back until a speck arose on the horizon. At first, Napoleon thought that it was his cavalry, but as time passed, his hope turned into dismay. For it was the Prussian army that had reformed after Ligny and had marched all the way to Waterloo from their defeat. With the new troops, Wellington eventually defeated Napoleon and he was forced to abdicate a second time. However, he was still forced to flee as the allies didn’t accept the plan (again). He intended to board headed to America, but the English fleets were watching all the French harbors. One month after Waterloo, the new French government ordered him off French soil in 24 hours. So, he sought out asylum in Britain. On the 15th of July, he boarded a British ship and surrendered his sword. He was sent into exile on the island of St Helena, where he spent the last seven years of his life. In those last years, he often dreamed of times before, but strangely enough, he never thought of his times as Emperor, only about his commands as a defender of the revolution. He kept on telling himself that all along he had been supporting the cries of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" and that he had always been a true friend of the revolution.
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