Joining the ranks of the radical Jacobins, Napoleon cut all ties with his homeland when Corsica declared independence from France in 1793. At that point, his choice was made; he chose to no longer be Corsican but to be French. Young Napoleon embraced the revolutionary cause and became an officer in the republican artillery, distinguishing himself at the siege of Toulon fighting the British, Spanish, Piedmontese and those French who had turned traitor. His plan won the city back for the revolutionaries and he was made a brigadier general. His star was on the rise having taken command in a difficult situation, devised a plan that led to victory and having been wounded in the process, he had all the makings of a revolutionary hero. His status rose even higher when, on October 5, 1795, he suppressed a royalist uprising in Paris with a “whiff of grapeshot” and, as a reward, he was put in charge of the Army of Italy. In this post he proved himself a natural and gifted military leader. In 1796 and 1797 he defeated the Austrians at Lodi, Castiglione, Arcola and Rivoli until, in the end, Austria and Italy were at his mercy. He also gained the high esteem of his soldiers by leading from the front, at Lodi even personally leading a bayonet charge across a bridge against the Austrian rear guard. It was because of this that his troops dubbed him “the Little Corporal”.
Great Britain, however, was the one enemy he could not touch and the following year renewed their war against France, later joined by Austria and Russia. However, even with the gains he had already made, his ambition was still not fulfilled and in 1804 he crowned himself Emperor, having Pope Pius VII brought up from Rome to preside over the ceremony and his give papal blessing to the new French Emperor. Yet, still, the British remained his greatest irritant. In 1805 the British fleet, again led by Horatio Nelson, destroyed the French and Spanish navies at the battle of Trafalgar. On land, however, Napoleon proved unstoppable and he set out on what was arguably his most brilliant military campaign. He moved quickly, maneuvered adeptly and struck with vicious force. On October 17, 1805 he defeated the Austrians at Ulm and on December 2 won a stunning victory over the Austro-Russian forces at the battle of Austerlitz. That victory alone would have earned him a page in military history but Napoleon was still not finished. In 1806 he defeated the Prussians at Jena and in 1807 defeated the Russians at Friedland, forcing them to make peace. With the Treaty of Tilsit, Europe was effectively divided between France and Russia with the French Empire in the commanding position. Napoleon had made himself Emperor in 1804 and within three years had effectively made himself master of Europe.
For the devout, traditional royalists of France Napoleon would not and could not be anything but an upstart usurper, however, many people who would have been royalists were converted to his side because of the order and return to normalcy that Napoleon brought to France. He ended the chaos, bloodshed and instability of the French Revolution and while he emancipated Jews and Protestants he also signed a concordat with the Pope that recognized Catholicism as the religion of the majority in France and restored to the Catholic Church most (but not all) of the privileges that the First Republic had taken from them. Napoleon had also portrayed his French Empire as a restoration of the empire of Charlemagne and the style he adopted was a very noticeably Roman one; wearing a laurel crown at his coronation, topping the standards of his regiments with eagles and in countless other ways. As the Pope had come to terms with him, as the position of the Church had been settled in France, it became possible, in the minds of many at least, to be a good Catholic and a loyal supporter of the new Emperor Napoleon I. The most unanswerable argument Napoleon could always make to his critics was that he simply got it done. The republican purists might have condemned him for his monarchial aspirations and the royalists might denounce him as a usurper but the fact was, they had not succeeded and Napoleon had. They did not restore calm and order to France, he did. They did not resolve the problems with the Church, he did and the government and legal system he established proved successful enough to endure, in part, even to our own time. He got it done and no one, then or now, could deny it, regardless of their own opinions of the man.
The Kingdom of Spain proved easy to conquer but impossible to pacify. The word “guerilla” entered the lexicon as Spanish irregular forces harassed the French occupiers at every turn. Spain, generally dismissed as a sideshow by Napoleon, would be a drain on French resources that would ultimately prove critical. It was also worsened by the fact that Napoleon didn’t stop at Spain but decided, while he was in the neighborhood and all, to conquer Portugal in 1807. The Royal Family went into exile in Brazil but this proved a pivotal moment as it got Great Britain (longtime allies of Portugal) involved in the Peninsular War. The British would support the Spanish resistance, revamp the Portuguese army into a very effective fighting force and would send troops to Spain to bedevil the French led by the man who would ultimately bring Napoleon down; Arthur Wellesley, later made Duke of Wellington. France would lose 300,000 men in Spain and have nothing to show for it.
By the spring of 1813, Napoleon had recovered somewhat but was faced with the combined forces of Great Britain, Russia, Sweden and Prussia arrayed against him. Napoleon scraped together another army and went out to meet them, confident that, having defeated multiple enemies before, he could do so again. For a time, it seemed that might be the case as he fought as brilliantly as he had in the past but this time it was to no avail. The French were defeated at Leipzig in October of 1813 and forced to retreat to France. With a population tired of his wars and the horrendous casualties they caused, along with the Allied powers closing in on them, Napoleon’s marshals urged him to admit defeat. Feeling disgusted and betrayed Napoleon abdicated on April 11, 1814 and was exiled to the island of Elba on the Italian coast. King Louis XVIII was restored to the throne of France and Europe breathed a sigh of relief. By this time Napoleon had divorced Empress Josephine and in 1810 had married Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria, the eldest child of Emperor Francis I. He did this to obtain an heir and make the Bonaparte succession secure as well as to, hopefully, gain recognition as a legitimate member of the crowned heads of Europe by marrying into the House of Hapsburg. In 1811 she gave birth to his only son, Napoleon II. With his downfall in 1814, Napoleon would never see them again and that too weighed heavily upon him.
For other thoughts on Napoleon and his place in history, see this post.