Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Monarch Profile: Emperor Napoleon I

The man who would become Emperor of the French and one of the most renowned military commanders in history was born Napoleone di Buonaparte on August 15, 1769 in Ajaccio on the island of Corsica. His parents were Carlo Maria di Buonaparte and Maria Letezia Ramolino. The year before he was born the island of Corsica had been ceded to France from the Republic of Genoa and Carlo di Buonaparte, a lawyer, was chosen to represent Corsica at the court of King Louis XVI in 1777. Because of the connections of his family, he was able to go to school in France where he learned to speak French and was later enrolled at a military academy. At first he was made fun of by his classmates because of his “provincial” manners and Italian accent but this only motivated him to succeed all the more nor did it turn him off of his admiration for France, at least in the long term. The historiography of Napoleon has often been divided into two camps with those hostile to Napoleon emphasizing his Italian-Corsican background and those enamored with Napoleon who portrayed him as purely French and, indeed, the very embodiment of French greatness. The truth, of course, cares nothing for agenda. In fact, Napoleon was not French in his background or ethnicity. In terms of the blood in his veins he was as Italian as one could be. However, he was French, not just by adoption, but by choice.

In the time of the young Napoleon, a Corsican could either hold on to regional pride and maintain resentment at French rule or embrace France as the most powerful country they had encountered. This was the way for Napoleon though it took him some time to get there and it came about fully when he realized that France was the only vehicle large enough for his ambition. When that became clear, he determined that the advancement of France would be his goal and in so doing he would advance himself to the most extreme heights possible. He learned French, later adopted the French spelling of his name and devoted his entire life to France. As ambitious and egotistical as he could be, he always held France, if not first in his heart, at least second to himself and even that is somewhat debatable. France was sacred to him and even in his darkest hours he never entertained the same bitterness toward his country that other fallen despots often do. France was the most wonderful thing this young man from Corsica had ever seen and if it had any faults it was only that it lacked his leadership to lead it to the glorious destiny that France deserved. It did not happen overnight of course. His first inclination had been to become a Corsican nationalist and during the French Revolution he was part of the most radical, revolutionary faction in Corsica but when he broke with the would-be leader of Corsican independence, Pasquale Paoli, he returned to France and became as ardent a Frenchman as one could be.

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”.

With these exploits, Napoleon had become a celebrity in France and he took full advantage of it in both the military and political spheres. Already he identified the British as his greatest enemy but a cross-channel invasion was not possible at that stage so he took 40,000 men and invaded Egypt, menacing British trade routes and threatening India. He won several victories over the Turks and their subject peoples who were fierce but outdated in their tactics. In the end, however, the British thwarted him by a victory at sea in the battle of the Nile thanks to the skillful leadership of the British admiral Horatio Nelson. Napoleon, seeing the situation was doomed, left his army and returned to France. Some, recognizing his ambition, skill and popularity, had thought that sending him to the Middle East would put him out of the way. As it happens, they were right to be wary for when he returned Napoleon involved himself in a plot against the Directory and, in the end, he managed to make himself First Consul; effectively the dictator of France. He enacted a new, expansive system of conscription (we have the French Revolution to thank for the “nation in arms”) and in 1800 invaded Austria which resulted in a negotiated peace that established the Rhine as the eastern border of France. On the home-front Napoleon reworked the civil laws and formalized the changes of the revolution into the Napoleonic Code. In 1802 he revised the constitution to be “Consul for Life”.

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.

This was an astounding event and it shows just how rapidly life was changing for Napoleon and how rapidly he was being changed himself. In little more than ten years he had gone from being an obscure junior artillery officer to crowning himself “Emperor of the French”. He had married the aristocratic Josephine de Beauharnais, the great love of his life, he had gone from fighting French troops in Corsica to leading French troops to some of their greatest victories, he had gone from being a Jacobin revolutionary to proclaiming himself a monarch -and of imperial status no less. And along with a helping of plain good fortune (which he would be the first to recognize) he had done it all by his own skill. He was brilliant on the battlefield, and away from it he allowed no opportunity to slip through his fingers, advancing himself by being a revolutionary when the revolutionaries were in power, fighting for the Directory then going along with the coup against it and finally, when standing on the world stage, sought to make himself the equal of the Emperors of Austria and Russia. It was nothing short of astounding. Later in life, Napoleon never liked to portray himself as a traitor or a revolutionary when, in fact, he was both. However, the more he advanced, the more conservative he became and eventually he tried to force republicanism and monarchy together, to create a revolutionary kind of monarchy, not eliminating monarchy as the French revolutionaries had originally sought to do, but simply replacing them with his own version. And he was succeeding.

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.

If Napoleon had stopped there, if he had let the peace in Europe continue and simply endured the hardships imposed by his sullen enemies it is entirely possible that there might still be a Bonaparte on the throne of France today. However, as with many of those who advance themselves so far, Napoleon thought he could advance farther still. He was overreaching to be sure, but it was not necessarily overconfidence as so many assume. Napoleon had a high opinion of his own abilities certainly but to the great frustration of his enemies it was mostly justified. As his British adversary the Duke of Wellington said, his mere presence on a battlefield was as good as 40,000 extra soldiers. The problem was that Napoleon could not be everywhere at once and while he had many adept commanders amongst the Marshals of France, most were better subordinates than they were independent commanders. Likewise, Napoleon had re-drawn the map of Europe, tearing down old countries and establishing new kingdoms. He farmed out his siblings to become monarchs in Germany, Italy and Holland but only his brother Louis, who was made king over the Dutch, proved both capable and popular (so much so that Napoleon eventually removed him and annexed the Netherlands to France). Critically, one such country was also Spain. Having meddled in Spanish affairs previously, Napoleon finally took over the country outright and placed his brother Giuseppe (Joseph) on the throne as King Jose I.

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.

The Spanish quagmire, however, was not enough of a distraction to deter Napoleon from even grander ambitions. Russia was still smarting from the loss of Poland and was unhappy with French influences in Russia and the impact on the Russian economy of Napoleon’s effort to force everyone to stop trading with Britain. By 1812 French spies informed Napoleon that Tsar Alexander I had about decided he had had enough of this and would be taking action. In response, Napoleon launched the most ambitious offensive of his career. Gathering all of his allies (and those allied by force) into a massive army of 600,000 men, Napoleon invaded Russia in the summer of 1812. Most know the basic story of how the invasion unfolded. The French won battles, advanced and advanced but never achieved a decisive victory. Many of the Russian generals seemed hopelessly inept but the stalwart Russian soldiers, on the other hand, seemed inhumanly unflappable. Despite all losses they never gave up and while the French kept advancing, the Russians kept falling back, destroying everything as they went. Napoleon even captured Moscow but it was far from a prize or a decisive victory. The burnt out ruins of the city he marched into summed up the entire Russian campaign; cold, hunger and hardship that gained France nothing. And, all the while, with the Russian armies remaining intact as a threat, bands of fierce Cossacks harassed the French flanks and supply lines. The invasion turned into a disaster and had to be abandoned. The famous retreat from Moscow was nothing short of a nightmare for the French and their allies. Of the 600,000 men Napoleon had led into the steppes of Russia, only about 40,000 survived the ordeal.

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.

So, Napoleon did not stay exiled very long. He had little trouble escaping from Elba, won over the army sent to arrest him to his side and triumphantly restored himself to power. However, the other European powers had had enough and, at the Congress of Vienna, declared Napoleon an enemy of world peace basically and joined forces to crush him immediately. He probably knew this was bound to happen and it calls into question the point of his restoration and all those who would die as a result but, Napoleon believed that if he could move quickly and defeat the British and the Prussians before all the Allies could unite against him there would be time to make some arrangement or at least hope for a miracle that would enable his empire and dynasty to survive. And, it must be said, at the outset, he displayed his usual skill. He divided the Prussians from the British (a coalition force that included a large number of Germans and the Dutch-Belgian army) and was able to bring superior forces to bear against the British under Wellington at the small Belgian town of Waterloo.

However, when it came time for battle on June 18, 1815, Napoleon was ill and displayed none of his usual foresight and aggressiveness. He attacked the British lines again and again but the British always managed to hold on. Just when it seemed the enemy would crack under sheer weight of numbers, the Prussians arrived on the scene. Desperate to end the battle, Napoleon threw in his “Old Guard” but the British repulsed them as well. Wellington counter-attacked, the Prussians closed in and the French were totally defeated. Napoleon was finally and permanently beaten. Once again he was exiled but this time to the remote island of St Helena in the middle of the South Atlantic where he lived out the rest of his life. Napoleon Bonaparte, the man who made himself “Emperor of the French” and who conquered most of Europe died on May 5, 1821 at the age of 51. Meanwhile, the Congress of Vienna had worked to put Europe back together after Napoleon had spread war and devastation from Lisbon to Moscow. Most damaging though was that his success had spread the ideas of the French Revolution across the whole continent and by both raising up some peoples and inspiring others to resist him, he made nationalism a much more potent force in the future. The impact of “the Little Corporal” would be felt from the Iberian Peninsula to the steppes of Russia, from Scandinavia to Sicily for a very long time to come.

For other thoughts on Napoleon and his place in history, see this post.


  1. I have to ask: since you support the restoration of monarchy in France (as do I), do you support the Legitimist claim, or the Bonapartist claim? After all, Napoleon was a usurper, however, he was nonetheless a self-declared monarch, much like King Zog, my personal favorite. Would you be satisfied with either, or would you only support a Legitimist/Bonapartist claim? And which one?

    1. First of all, I make it a point to stay out of succession disputes as much as possible. They do harm to the cause and certainly in France they have actually prevented a royal restoration from occurring. That, however, concerns mostly the Bourbon-Orleanist dispute which the Bonapartes are no part of. Personally, I dislike the idea of 'self-made' royals. Royals are born and not made in my book and I particularly dislike politicians elevating themselves from commoner to royal status. However, that being said, I have always maintained that, although I have very definite opinions about who should reign over France, I would consider any candidate, Legitimist, Orleanist or Bonapartist to be an improvement over the current state of affairs. As for the Bonapartes, there is plenty I dislike about Napoleon III but it was he, even more than his famous uncle, who managed to make the Bonapartes acceptable and a 'member of the club'. And, particularly as the opportunity for a restoration was squandered, I know of no government that succeeded his that was any real improvement.

    2. Alright, that makes sense. In terms of "Self-made royals", do you think it is permissible in the absence of a monarchy? That is why I like Zog and Ibn Suad, in that, they made would-be-republics into monarchies. That is different from the bonapartist situation, since they usurped a ruling monarch. Would you agree that it is permissible in a Republic to establish a royal line (particularly in the case of Zog, since he was nobility and not a commoner) in order to avoid the trap of republicanism?

    3. Technically, Albania already had a royal line in the person of Prince Wilhelm and he did claim that King Zog had usurped his throne, it just didn't matter because there was nothing he could do about it and it was not very long before King Zog fled the country as well. As I've said before, anything would be better than the republic, especially in the case of Albania as the communist state was one of the most horrific anywhere but when it comes to Zog himself, I try to keep positive about these things and so do not put forward my opinion about him unless asked. Suffice it to say that I have never understood the appeal but, hey, if he's your kind of guy, power to you. If his grandson were made King of Albania, I would consider that progress.

  2. Great profile! I've read many books about the Napoleonic era and wars and this was a wonderfully detailed summation. Keep up the good posting MM!

    1. Thank you for your sentiments. Very nice of you to say.

  3. Not exactly my favorite monarch, although it's hard to doubt the man's greatness.

    1. Not my favorite monarch by far (it is sometimes hard for me to say 'monarch' at all) but certainly as a military man he was one of the greatest battlefield commanders in history and, as I said, whether he did it for right or wrong, he did get things done which sounds easy enough but is actually quite a rare thing for those in power.

  4. "If Napoleon had stopped there," should have been his epitaph, although being a meglomaniac thinking he was invincible he could never have just stopped...and that was his downfall.

    I'm of the mind of historian Paul Johnson in that I don't think much of Bonaparte beyond being a good general and someone who is responsible for the deaths of millions, directly and indirectly, to feed his ego.

    Let's see: the judicial murder of the innocent Duc D'Enghien, which turned European elites against him, which even his advisors said was a stupid move but which he still bragged about in his last will and testament.

    His betrayal of Toussaint L'Overture (who remained a loyal Frenchman to his death) and the Haitian people by enslaving them again and attempting to invade Haiti.

    The pillage, rape and wholescale slaughter of Spain, a country he was allied to, all so he could exhaust its goods, steal away its treasures and place another of his underserving and mediocre relatives on a throne.

    His decisions to literally make up countries at a whim (such as the assorted "Italian Republics" which he would later suppress to make a kingdom for himself) or to divide countries at a whim (his plan to divide Portugal into three countries).

    His treatment of the Pope and plan to make the Pope basically his personal almoner, moving him and the College of Cardinals permanently to Paris and remaking the Church in his (Bonaparte's image) all because of his ego-driven idea he was the second coming of Charlemagne (although Charlemagne never treated the pope in such a manner).

    His plans to have countries and peoples who had no connection to France be part of France (i.e. Dalmatia, Croatia, Slovenia, Holland,central Portugal).

    His unconcern for his "allies" - his line to Metternich about the lives of the thousands of allied Poles and Germans who died in the invasion of Russia not being worth the life of one Frenchman

    His decision to come back in the Hundred Days which destroyed France as a great power, rolled back all the territorial gains of the Revolution, made France an occupied nation and had no chance of succeeding except as more vainglorious attempts for himself. Over at several alt-history boards I frequent there is often an attempt to Napoleon-wank history where he gains control of Europe (or the world) if this or that had happened but no one has yet to come up with an conceivable scenario where he could have been victorious over the last Allied Coalition even if he had won at Waterloo. What was strange was that no one in France who leapt to his banner realized this.

    There's a reason why Napoleon does not have the legacy of a Washington or a Cincinnatus. There's a reason why even to this day why someone like Juan Carlos of Spain refers to him simply as "Bonaparte" and not as "Emperor Napoleon", there's a reason many Russians used his name as a curse word for generations because he never could just "stopped there".

    1. So...I get the feeling you're not a big Boney fan?

  5. Is this what Marie-Antoinette and the saintly Princesse de Lamballe were massacred for? For this upstart Bonaparte to revel in yards and yards of assorted velvet curtains and a so-called crown? Great general or not, once a peasant, always a peasant. A bas Bonaparte!


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