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Napoleon Bonaparte: Flawed Hero

Napoleon was the son of Corsica's representative to France's monarch, Louis XVI. The island of Corsica had belonged to Genoa but had been taken over by France as a debt payment in 1769, the year of Napoleon's birth.

When revolution came to France twenty years later, Napoleon was an artillery officer in the French army. He had been a prodigious reader and was equipped with an unusual memory and a skill in mathematics. Philosophically he was a skeptic and believed in the Enlightenment. He favored France's revolution and he remained a Corsican nationalist, believing that Corsica belonged to the Corsicans but he would soon look forward to Corsicans voluntarily making their little island a part of France.

Louis XVI's military, to which Napoleon belonged, transitioned into the revolution's military — minus a lot of aristocratic officers who fled the country. Napoleon thought the executions of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette (in 1793) a mistake, and he was viewed by some as associated with Robespierre and his murderous Committee of Public Safety. Following executions of the hardline Robespierre faction in July 1794, Napoleon was arrested and charged with complicity with Robespierre, but two weeks later, on 20 August, he was released and returned to his military duties.

In June 1795, when almost 26, he became a general — thanks in part to aristocratic officers having abandoned the army. In October there was an uprising against France's revolutionary government by people who wanted a constitutional monarchy. The government put General Napoleon in charge of crushing the uprising. Napoleon used his artillery. Hundreds were killed, and France's First Republic stayed in power.

Military Glory

Thanks to military victories France was ruling over the Austrian Netherlands and the Dutch Republic. By the spring of 1796, French armies were pushing through the Germanic lands known as the Holy Roman Empire. Napoleon was given command of an army in Italy and in May he chased the Austrians out of Milan. He told his troops that he would lead them to the most fertile plains on earth, that rich provinces and opulent towns would be at their disposal. There, he said, "you will find honor, riches and glory." He was unbothered apparently by any conflict between this and the Revolution's slogan about liberty and equality.

He won more great battles, the last one at Rivoli (just west of Turin, in northern Italy) on January 14, 1797. Napoleon's victories enlivened that nationalistic spirit of the French people. He returned to Paris and was welcomed as a hero, and it seems he enjoyed the adulation. (Joseph Stalin appreciated adulation but also sneered at it.)

Napoleon knocked Austria out of the war, leaving him at war with only Britain. And, pursuing his war with Britain, Napoleon and his military set sail for Egypt, intending to damage British trade. There was the Battle of the Pyramids, in July 1797. He defeated an army of some 40,000 Egyptians, losing only 29 dead (according to Wikipedia.) He exhorted his troops with romantic nonsense, telling them: "Forward! Remember that from those monuments yonder forty centuries look down upon you." (David G. Chandler).

But the Egyptian campaign didn't work out for him. In August 1798, the British smashed the French navy at anchor near Alexandria. Napoleon's army in Egypt was now isolated, and it was kept isolated. The British were encouraged, and so too were the Austrians, Russians and Turks. They joined Britain in a new coalition against France (called the Third Coalition).

Motivated by French political considerations, Napoleon abandoned his army in Egypt and returned to Paris without permission from the government. The government in Paris had been ruling dictatorially and enduring complaints from leftists in parliament. Pretending to save France from a leftist coup, Napoleon and his allies overthrew the government and created a new constitution that was approved by a rigged plebiscite without a secret ballot, 99.94 percent voting yes. The new government was to consist of three consuls (ancient Rome had two consuls as chief executives), and the First Consul was, guess who — Napoleon — to be described by some as a virtual dictator.

In the year 1800, First Consul Napoleon went with his army across the Alps to take care of military business. He crushed the Austrians in northern Italy, at Marengo (125 kilometers east of Milan). Napoleon planned to keep the Duchy of Milan for France, and he extended his authority in northern Italy by annexing Piedmont. He added nearby Genoa and Parma to areas under his control, and farther south, on the Italian peninsula, he took control of Tuscany and Naples. Another French army swept through Bavaria and scored an overwhelming victory at Hohenlinden in December 1800. In 1801, Austria withdrew again from its war against France. So too did Russia and Turkey. Again, Britain was the only nation at war with France.

A Brief Peace

In 1801, Napoleon signed a concordant with the Papacy, ending the Revolution's decade-old fight with the Catholic Church. Catholics in France were to practice their religion as they pleased, with the French government nominating bishops and paying the clergy.

The British were war-weary, and apply their will to withdraw from a bloody and ruinous war they signed a peace treaty with France, at Amiens (in the far north of France) in May 1802. The treaty returned to France various Caribbean islands and left France in control of the Netherlands and most of the Italian peninsula. The French public rejoiced. They had the will of the British to thank. Napoleon had been less cooperative, but in France the First Consul Napoleon was hailed as the Hero of France, a God of War and an Angel of Peace.

In June 1802, the French signed another treaty, with the Turks. It opened up Dardanelles waterway to French trade. France was enjoying a booming economy. Peace allowed Napoleon to pursue plans to stimulate economic growth to better meet competition with Britain's more advanced economy.

Into 1803, Napoleon had troops in St. Domingue (Haiti). France promised the island's black anti-slavery leader, Toussaint L'Ouverture, that in being shipped to France for negotiations he would be perfectly safe with the French because they were gentlemen. In France, Napoleon ordered that Toussaint be imprisoned in the Alps and murdered by lack of food and warmth. France was hanging on to slavery despite its revolution. Toussaint died on April 7, 1803.

The peace between France and Britain would last only one year. The British felt their position in the New World endangered, and they saw indications that Napoleon was planning to dominate the Mediterranean Sea and the Middle East and feared for their trade routes. Britain wanted France to withdraw from the Dutch Republic and Switzerland in exchange for Britain's recognition of France's annexation of the Italian island of Elba and its other gains in Italy. The French were offended by the British not having evacuated the island of Malta, as required by the Treaty of Amiens. Napoleon enhanced British fears by moving to exclude Britain from the continent, and he was building up his military, adding troops from Piedmont to his war-making capability while Spain was helping build his navy. Napoleon, moreover, was not content with a balance of power. But it can't be said that he wanted war, despite favoring action and the glories of victory. He wasn't giving a lot of consideration to the British point of view — which he needed if he were to be a great diplomatically. He was angry with them for jeopardizing the peace recently achieved.

If Napoleon had tolerated British fears regarding its power and security, if he had a viewed gains in empire as something that great powers choked on (Rome choked on its gains and was conquered by its own empire, and Britain had recently lost colonies that had become the United States), perhaps the peace created at Amiens could have lasted indefinitely. This might have happened also if he had feared war more. The philosopher of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant, was in poor health and on his way to his death in February 1804. His book Perpetual Peace, written in 1795, had suggested peace was good for humanity and could be achieved by everyone respecting the national self-determination of others and by states being republican rather than monarchical. Kant had warned of people twisting words and reasoning in order to make war. But Kant was not highly respected by Napoleon.

Napoleon was going to war also because of his fear of appearing weak. He regarded another war with Britain as inevitable, and he moved in the direction of fulfilling that expectation. France broke relations with Britain on 11 April, and Britain declared war on France on 18 May 1803.

Facing another war with Britain, and facing Britain's navy dominating the Atlantic, France sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States (less than three cents per acre, a total of $15 million) — a mistake for France some believe. Also, before the end of the year, France pulled its 8,000 soldiers out of St. Domingue — the former slaves rebels having won the Battle of Vertières and having proclaimed an independent republic they called Haiti (an instance of France choking on its imperial power).

Meanwhile, Napoleon had been working on reforms to be known as Code Napoleon, which became law in March 1804. According to the new laws, citizens had the right to a civil rather than Church marriage; government was to be restructured for honest administration; one's property and wealth were to be protected; and the Rights of Man and Citizen declared in 1789 were to be upheld, including equality before the law and freedom of the press. Education issues were addressed, and the tradition of women as dependents was upheld. Women were to be educated mainly in what was seen as making them good wives: domestic skills and religious devotion.

With the return of a wartime atmosphere and as a defense against reactionary royalty scheming against Napoleon, the French Senate, on 18 May 1804, voted in favor of Napoleon becoming royalty himself. It elevated him from First Consul to Napoleon I, "Emperor of the French." Napoleon's coronation was held on December 2 at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Pope Pius VII had arrived for the coronation, and it was expected that in keeping with tradition he would crown Napoleon. But Napoleon did not wish to recognize papal superiority, and at the last moment he took the crown from the Pope and crowned himself.

Napoleon's Grand Illusion and the Fourth Coalition

Britain was looking strong to Sweden, which had agreed to lease its territory in Pomerania (on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea) as a military base for British troops against France. In December 1804, Sweden and Britain signed an alliance. In April, Russia signed a treaty with Britain in the interest of removing the French from the Netherland and against, according to the treaty, "the unmeasured ambition of the French Government and the degree of influence out of all proportion which it tends to arrogate to itself." Austria joined the coalition that coming August, 1805, angered by Napoleon having proclaimed himself King of Italy and angered by his annexation of Genoa and alliances concluded with Bavaria, Wurtenberg and Baden.

In what was to be known as the War of the Fourth Coalition, Napoleon gave the Russians and Austrians more to be upset about. He smashed their armies in December 1805, in a twelve-hour battle at Austerlitz (in what today is the Czech Republic. The French, according to britannica.com, lost 9,000 men and their opponents lost 15,000 men killed and wounded and 11,000 captured. The Russian emperor fled with his troops back toward Russia.

But Napoleon had suffered a defeat at sea, off Spain's Cape Trafalgar. The British had been on the offensive against Spain and 1804 had seized three Spanish ships carrying treasure from the Americas. In December 1804, Spain had joined had the war on Napoleon's side, adding its navy to France's war effort. Britain's great Trafalgar victory in October, 1805, spectacularly confirmed its naval supremacy over the French and Spain. Napoleon's plan to invade England would not be revived.

In February 1806, the French drove the Bourbon king of Naples, Ferdinand IV, and his queen, Caroline (sister of Marie Antoinette) from southern Italy to Sicily, where they were protected by the British navy, and Napoleon made his elder brother, Joseph, King of Naples. Peace talks between France and Britain went nowhere, and in July Napoleon put fifteen of the small German states into a "Confederation of the Rhine," its capital to be Frankfurt, and he named himself the confederation's protector. There was the question whether German support for Napoleon could be gained or sustained, but popularity outside of France did not concern Napoleon much. Military strength was his focus. His taking what wealth he could from occupied territories had not made his rule popular in the Netherlands or in Italy.

Napoleon's added power in Germany annoyed the Prussians (also Germans). The King of Prussia, Frederick William III, with his 200,000-man army, was unafraid and sent Napoleon an ultimatum, demanding the withdrawal of all French troops from east of the Rhine. In October, 1806, Napoleon sent his army of 122,000 against the armies of Prussia and its ally, Saxony. The Battle of Jena-Auerstedt ensued. Prussia's military was still influenced by its feudalism, and Napoleon was victorious again. He drove through Prussia, never allowing the Prussians a chance to stop and regroup. Napoleon entered Berlin on 27 October. Prussia's royal family fled beyond Danzig to East Prussia and fell on the mercy of Russia's tsar, Alexander I. Prussia's king, Frederick William III, united what was left of his troops with the Russians, and with Alexander he swore eternal brotherhood.

Another battle ensued in February, the Battle of Eylau (near the eastern border of what today is Poland, the French on one side, Prussia and Russia on the other. It was fourteen hours of continuous battle — summed up by a French officer, Marshall Ney: "What a massacre! And without result!". At 3 a.m. Napoleon wrote to his wife, Josephine:

My love, we had a great battle yesterday.

The myth of Napoleon's invincibility is said to have been shaken at Eylau, but the French would defeat the Russians again, in June near the same location, at the Battle of Friedland. And this time Napoleon won decisively. On June 19, Russia's Emperor Alexander sent an envoy to seek an armistice with the French. Wikipedia:

Napoleon assured the envoy that the Vistula River represented the natural borders between French and Russian influence in Europe. On that basis, the two emperors began peace negotiations at the town of Tilsit after meeting on an iconic raft on the River Niemen. The very first thing Alexander said to Napoleon was probably well-calibrated: "I hate the English as much as you do." Napoleon reportedly replied, "Then we have already made peace." The two emperors spent several days reviewing each other's armies, passing out medals, and frequently talking about non-political subjects.

Russia had agreed to join Napoleon's blockade against British trade, while at Tilsit Prussia's king, Frederick William III, gave Napoleon nearly half of his territory. Of his 9.75 million inhabitants, no more than 4.5 million were to remain within the new boundaries of the Prussia state. Napoleon was now master of almost all of western and central continental Europe, except for Spain, Portugal, Austria and several other smaller states.

Some were to claim that French and Napoleon would have been better off leaving Germany to the Germans, Italy to the Italians and Holland to the Dutch. And there was the upcoming issue of leaving Spain to the Spanish. But some people were impressed. The historian Andrew Roberts writes:

To large numbers of people across Europe Napoleon seemed to represent the ideas of progress, meritocracy and a rational future.

One of them was the philosopher Hegel, a professor at the University of Jena. He had caught a glimpse of Napoleon in Jena through the window of his study and was impressed by Napoleon as a conqueroring hero and a man with a "beautiful soul." Hegel would see the Battle of Jena as moving the world toward an end of contradiction, toward a "universal homogeneous state," toward an "end of history".

Meanwhile within France Napoleon had created a police state. He had spies looking for subversion, and he had reduced the number of newspapers in Paris to a few sycophants, violating Article 11 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

The Slide to Defeat

Britain's naval blockade of France remained Napoleon's primary annoyance. Britain was seizing the ships of neutral countries (including the U.S.) trading with the French. French industries were hurting.

Napoleon demanded that Portugal join his trade boycott against the British and declare war on Britain. Portugal hesitated. Napoleon's ally, Spain, allowed French troops to pass through its territory to Portugal. The French military captured Lisbon, and Portugal's royal family fled to Brazil. For Napoleon it was another illusory success.

In 1808, Napoleon intervened in a quarrel between Spain's king and his son Ferdinand. He made the two of them prisoners in a comfortable setting and moved his brother Joseph from the Kingdom of Naples to the throne in Spain. Spaniards resented the presence of French troops and the arrogance of Napoleon's intervention. France responded with a barbarous war against Spanish insurgents. Resistance to the French spread to Portugal. The British landed a force there to help the Portuguese resistance, and in October the British troops sent troops against the French in Spain.

Austria wanted to rehabilitate their reputation. And with Napoleon's Grand Army bogged down in Spain, Austria was encouraged to make war again against Napoleon. An Austria force and Napoleon clashed when he attempted to cross the Danube River, near Vienna — the Battle of Aspern-Essling, in May 1809. Half of Napoleon's force was non-French mercenaries. The Austrians drove Napoleon's army back but failed to follow. Napoleon is said to have lost his reputation for invincibility. But in a few weeks Napoleon returned with a reorganized force — the Battle of Wagram. Wikipedia:

The two-day battle of Wagram was particularly bloody, mainly due to the extensive use of artillery on a flat battlefield packed with some 300,000 men. Although Napoleon was the uncontested winner, he failed to secure a complete victory and the Austrian casualties were only slightly greater than those of the French and allies. Nonetheless, the defeat was serious enough to shatter the morale of the Austrians, who could no longer find the will to continue the struggle.

The result was the Treaty of Schönbrunn. The Austrians gave up a sixth of their territory and promised Napoleon peace and amity forever.

Meanwhile, Napoleon's ally, Russia, was doing well. It defeated Sweden. Sweden lost Finland, which became an autonomous Grand Duchy within the Russian empire.

But Britain was also doing well. Its exports reached an all-time high. Apparently, Napoleon's blockade was not working. Napoleon has been described as being interested in forcing Britain into negotiations — not the kind of conditions or agreement that Britain might accept.

In 1810, the British negotiated an agreement with the Portuguese calling for the gradual abolition of the slave trade across the Atlantic. Napoleon's diplomacy was something else. He annexed what had been the Dutch Republic. He annexed the cities of Hamburg and Bremen. He annexed the Republic of Valais in what today is southern Switzerland, and in January 1811 he annexed the Kingdom of Westphalia, the Grand Duchy of Berg and the Duchy of Oldenburg.

The annexation of Oldenburg annoyed Tsar Alexander, whose brother-in-law had been an heir to the throne there. Also, Alexander was annoyed also by Napoleon's reluctance to approve of his expansion against the Ottomans to Constantinople — Napoleon fearing that this would make Russia too great of a Mediterranean power. Napoleon's boycott of trade with Britain was hurting Russian exports and economy, and Alexander issued a decree taking Russia out of Napoleon's boycott system. In early 1811, Napoleon was warned that Tsar Alexander was planning a pre-emptive strike against him. Napoleon's response: he began to organize an invasion of Russia.

Napoleon He still had an army in Spain. In early 1812, along the Vistula River in what today is Poland, he gathered his force against his former friend, Tsar Alexander. It reached around 680,000, only about one-third of them French and many of them unenthusiastic participants. His army had a supply of rations that was to last fifty days, with horses pulling carts of supplies and artillery accompanied by herds of cattle. Napoleon allowed officers to bring along luxuries and servants: more to carry and more mouths to feed. And, taking a cue from their officers, common soldiers brought along friends otherwise known as camp followers.

The march to Moscow began in late June. The roads made travel a struggle. Supply wagons failed to keep up. After the last of the cattle were slaughtered nothing was left to feed upon. On July 29, Napoleon and his army staggered into Vitebsk, after only a minor skirmish between his troops and a Russian rear guard. Vitebsk was a ghost town about 300 miles short of Moscow. Napoleon was advised that he would soon have no cavalry left. He held a war council, and his three top-ranking subordinates urged a halt to the campaign. Some around Napoleon spoke of the mistake that Charles XII of Sweden had made in the first decade of 1700s by fighting the Russians on their soil. Napoleon agreed, saying that they were not going to repeat the folly of Charles XII of Sweden. But the following day, Napoleon changed his mind. He was compounding his folly by not wanting to admit folly or show weakness. He accused his top subordinates of being too soft and pampered. He was eager to meet the Russians and Tsar Alexander in battle. He believed this would come either at Smolensk 80 miles up road or at Moscow – places he believed that Alexander would not be willing to abandon.

Napoleon not giving up was moving him into a deeper hole. He reached Moscow. There he waited for Alexander to bargain with him, but no message from Tsar Alexander arrived. Napoleon's supply lines were being attacked by guerrillas, and winter was approaching. After little more than a month Napoleon began his withdrawal. He allowed his troops to carry their loot from Moscow with them as proofs, he said, of their victory. They had horse fodder for less than a week.

It is said that only 30,000 of his invading force of more 600,000 returned to their homes. And it weakened his empire. In late 1812, with news of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, people under his rule in Germany, Austria, Italy and elsewhere were encouraged in their desire to be rid of him.

In February 1813, Prussia and Russia formed an alliance against Napoleon, and in March they declared war. German princes in Napoleon's Confederation of the Rhine were advised to join them against France under pain of being removed from power. Hamburg was occupied by Russian Cossacks. German conscripts in France's armies were deserting en masse. In April, Austria ended its "amity forever" with France. After returning to France, Napoleon had organized an army to meet his enemies to France's east. Austria's foreign minister, Count Clemens von Metternich, described Napoleon's troops as boys and old men and told Napoleon that he was lost. In a rage, Napoleon told Metternich that he knew nothing of what goes on in a soldier's mind, that he, Napoleon, grew up on the battlefield and cared little for the lives of a million men. Metternich replied that he wished all of Europe could hear what he had just said. Metternich accused Napoleon of having sacrificed French soldiers for his own ambitions. Napoleon boasted of having spared French soldiers by sacrificing Poles and Germans, which outraged Metternich – a German.

The French had been driven from Portugal. In Spain, Napoleon's forces were confronted with guerrilla warfare, and on 21 June 1813 a British general, Wellesley (the 1st Duke of Wellington), leading a Spanish force, defeated the French army led by Napoleon's brother, Joseph.

Napoleon's force in what today is Germany were outnumbered, and his enemies were taking advantage of what they had learned of Napoleon's methods. In October the Battle of Leipzig was fought. Austrian, Prussian, Russian, Swedish, and Bohemian forces (the Sixth Coalition) defeated Napoleon's not-so-grande army. It was 430,000 men against 155,000, a three-day battle. Napoleon's force was decisively defeated. Napoleon retreated to defend the French homeland, as his Confederation of the Rhine and power in Germany collapsed.

It was time now for Napoleon to feel the pressure to settle with the coalition against him — better now than waiting. According to the historian Andrew Roberts:

Napoleon had told his court several times that the French people would overthrow him if he signed a 'dishonourable' peace sending France back to here pre-war borders, which is effectively what Metternich was demanding.

Roberts writes that police reports were currently telling Napoleon that the French people wanted peace far more than La Gloire. But the great genius Napoleon let things slide. France was offered peace if it. Napoleon, writes Roberts, "simply could not bring himself to accept what he saw as a humiliating peace."

By March 1814, Russian and Prussian armies were entering Paris. Royalists welcomed them waving the white flag of the Bourbon monarchy. The French senate decreed the end of Napoleon's authority and instituted a provisional government. On April 6, Napoleon signed his abdication. The younger brother of Louis XVI, age 58, returned to Paris as Louis XVIII. He did not want absolute power and accepted that he was to be a constitutional monarch.

Rather than hanging Napoleon for all his aggressions and bloodletting, the Allied powers followed the preference of Tsar Alexander of Russia. Napoleon was banished to the island of Elba, off the coast of Italy and still a French possession. He was to be the island's ruler, to maintain his title of emperor and to have a benefit of a yearly income of two million francs paid for by the government of France.

On Elba, Napoleon brooded, asking himself where he had gone wrong, and he decided that he had judged human nature too highly. He then tried to undo the circumstances that had led to his humuliation. On 26 February 1815, after being on Elba less than eleven months, with about 1026 men, 40 horses and two cannons aboard a hired frigate he journied 160 miles to the southern coast of France, between Cannes and Nice. Moving inland with his force a little more than 100 miles he encountered a battalion of French soldiers sent against him. Napoleon stepped forward and said "Let him that has the heart, kill his Emperor!" The soldiers were awed, and Napoleon was able to rally them to his side, Louis XVIII fled Paris. Napoleon took up residence there once again, and again he inspired men to reach for glory. He put France on war-footing, and in June he sent troops into what today is Belgium, remembering his successes, no doubt, and letting himself be fooled into believing that he could triump against the forces that had united against him. They met him again, at the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon and his French army of 128,000 met a coalition force of 234,000 British, Dutch, Belgians and Prussians. Napoleon's defeat came on 18 June 1815. The Allies took him prisoner and sent him to the small island of St. Helena,in the South Atlandic, more than 15 degrees below the equator and about 1,200 miles west of the African continent. There Napoleon was to write his memoirs, giving the world a distorted account of his deeds. And there in 1821, at the age of 52, he died.


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