Napoléon Bonaparte French: 15 August 1769 – 5 May 1821 was a French military and political leader who rose to prominence during the French Revolution and led several successful campaigns during the French Revolutionary Wars. As Napoleon I, he was Emperor of the French from 1804 until 1814, and again briefly in 1815 (during the Hundred Days). Napoleon dominated European and global affairs for more than a decade while leading France against a series of coalitions in the Napoleonic Wars. He won most of these wars and the vast majority of his battles, building a large empire that ruled over continental Europe before its final collapse in 1815. One of the greatest commanders in history, his wars and campaigns are studied at military schools worldwide. Napoleon’s political and cultural legacy has endured as one of the most celebrated and controversial leaders in human history.
He was born Napoleone di Buonaparte in Corsica, to a relatively modest family from the minor nobility. When the Revolution broke out in 1789, Napoleon was serving as an artillery officer in the French army. Seizing the new opportunities presented by the Revolution, he rapidly rose through the ranks of the military, becoming a general at age 24. The Directory eventually gave him command of the Army of Italy after he suppressed a revolt against the government from royalist insurgents. At age 26, he began his first military campaign against the Austrians and their Italian allies—winning virtually every battle, conquering the Italian Peninsula in a year, and becoming a national hero. In 1798, he led a military expedition to Egypt that served as a springboard to political power. He engineered a coup in November 1799 and became First Consul of the Republic. His ambition and public approval inspired him to go further, and in 1804 he became the first Emperor of the French. Intractable differences with the British meant that the French were facing a Third Coalition by 1805. Napoleon shattered this coalition with decisive victories in the Ulm Campaign and a historic triumph over Russia and Austria at the Battle of Austerlitz, which led to the elimination of the thousand-year-old Holy Roman Empire. In 1806, the Fourth Coalition took up arms against him because Prussia became worried about growing French influence on the continent. Napoleon quickly defeated Prussia at the battles of Jena and Auerstedt, then marched the Grand Army deep into Eastern Europe and annihilated the Russians in June 1807 at the Battle of Friedland. France then forced the defeated nations of the Fourth Coalition to sign the Treaties of Tilsit in July 1807, bringing an uneasy peace to the continent. Tilsit signified the high watermark of the French Empire. In 1809, the Austrians and the British challenged the French again during the War of the Fifth Coalition, but Napoleon solidified his grip over Europe after triumphing at the Battle of Wagram in July.
Origins and education
Napoleon was born on 15 August 1769, to Carlo Maria di Buonaparte and Maria Letizia Ramolino, in his family’s ancestral home Casa Buonaparte in Ajaccio, the capital of the island of Corsica. He was their fourth child and third son. This was a year after the island was transferred to France by the Republic of Genoa. He was christened Napoleone di Buonaparte, probably named after an uncle (an older brother who did not survive infancy was the first of the sons to be called Napoleone). In his 20s, he adopted the more French-sounding Napoléon Bonaparte.
The Corsican Buonapartes were descended from minor Italian nobility of Tuscan origin, who had come to Corsica from Liguria in the 16th century.
Head and shoulders portrait of a white-haired, portly, middle-aged man with a pinkish complexion, blue velvet coat, and a ruffle
The nationalist Corsican leader Pasquale Paoli; portrait by Richard Cosway, 1798
His father Nobile Carlo Buonaparte was an attorney, and was named Corsica’s representative to the court of Louis XVI in 1777. The dominant influence of Napoleon’s childhood was his mother, Letizia Ramolino, whose firm discipline restrained a rambunctious child. Napoleon’s maternal grandmother had married into the Swiss Fesch family in her second marriage, and Napoleon’s uncle, the cardinal Joseph Fesch, would fulfill a role as protector of the Bonaparte family for some years.
Napoleon Bonaparte, aged 23, lieutenant-colonel of a battalion of Corsican Republican volunteers
Upon graduating in September 1785, Bonaparte was commissioned a second lieutenant in La Fère artillery regiment. He served in Valence and Auxonne until after the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789, and took nearly two years’ leave in Corsica and Paris during this period. At this time, he was a fervent Corsican nationalist, and wrote to Corsican leader Pasquale Paoli in May 1789, “As the nation was perishing I was born. Thirty thousand Frenchmen were vomited on to our shores, drowning the throne of liberty in waves of blood. Such was the odious sight which was the first to strike me”
Siege of Toulon
Main article: Siege of Toulon
Bonaparte at the Siege of Toulon
In July 1793, Bonaparte published a pro-republican pamphlet entitled Le souper de Beaucaire (Supper at Beaucaire) which gained him the support of Augustin Robespierre, younger brother of the Revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre. With the help of his fellow Corsican Antoine Christophe Saliceti, Bonaparte was appointed artillery commander of the republican forces at the Siege of Toulon.
He adopted a plan to capture a hill where republican guns could dominate the city’s harbour and force the British to evacuate. The assault on the position led to the capture of the city, but during it Bonaparte was wounded in the thigh. He was promoted to brigadier general at the age of 24. Catching the attention of the Committee of Public Safety, he was put in charge of the artillery of France’s Army of Italy.
Napoleon spent time as inspector of coastal fortifications on the Mediterranean coast near Marseille while he was waiting for confirmation of the Army of Italy post. He devised plans for attacking the Kingdom of Sardinia as part of France’s campaign against the First Coalition. Augustin Robespierre and Saliceti were ready to listen to the freshly promoted artillery general
First Italian campaign
Main article: Italian campaigns of the French Revolutionary Wars
A three-quarter-length depiction of Bonaparte, with black tunic and leather gloves, holding a standard and sword, turning backwards to look at his troops
Bonaparte at the Pont d’Arcole, by Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, (ca. 1801), Musée du Louvre, Paris
Two days after the marriage, Bonaparte left Paris to take command of the Army of Italy. He immediately went on the offensive, hoping to defeat the forces of Piedmont before their Austrian allies could intervene. In a series of rapid victories during the Montenotte Campaign, he knocked Piedmont out of the war in two weeks. The French then focused on the Austrians for the remainder of the war, the highlight of which became the protracted struggle for Mantua. The Austrians launched a series of offensives against the French to break the siege, but Napoleon defeated every relief effort, scoring victories at the battles of Castiglione, Bassano, Arcole, and Rivoli. The decisive French triumph at Rivoli in January 1797 led to the collapse of the Austrian position in Italy. At Rivoli, the Austrians lost up to 14,000 men while the French lost about 5,000
Main article: French campaign in Egypt and Syria
Person on a horse looks towards a giant statue of a head in the desert, with a blue sky
Cavalry battlescene with pyramids in background
Battle of the Pyramids on 21 July 1798 by Louis-François, Baron Lejeune, 1808
After two months of planning, Bonaparte decided that France’s naval power was not yet strong enough to confront the British Royal Navy. He decided on a military expedition to seize Egypt and thereby undermine Britain’s access to its trade interests in India. Bonaparte wished to establish a French presence in the Middle East, with the ultimate dream of linking with Tipu Sultan, a Muslim enemy of the British in India.
Napoleon assured the Directory that “as soon as he had conquered Egypt, he will establish relations with the Indian princes and, together with them, attack the English in their possessions”. The Directory agreed in order to secure a trade route to India.
Ruler of France
Bonaparte in a simple general uniform in the middle of a scrum of red-robbed members of the Council of Five Hundred
General Bonaparte surrounded by members of the Council of Five Hundred during the Coup of 18 Brumaire, by François Bouchot
While in Egypt, Bonaparte stayed informed of European affairs. He learned that France had suffered a series of defeats in the War of the Second Coalition. On 24 August 1799, he took advantage of the temporary departure of British ships from French coastal ports and set sail for France, despite the fact that he had received no explicit orders from Paris.The army was left in the charge of Jean Baptiste Kléber
Temporary peace in Europe
After a decade of constant warfare, France and Britain signed the Treaty of Amiens in March 1802, bringing the Revolutionary Wars to an end. Amiens called for the withdrawal of British troops from recently conquered colonial territories as well as for assurances to curtail the expansionary goals of the French Republic. With Europe at peace and the economy recovering, Napoleon’s popularity soared to its highest levels under the Consulate, both domestically and abroad. In a new plebiscite during the spring of 1802, the French public came out in huge numbers to approve a constitution that made the Consulate permanent, essentially elevating Napoleon to dictator for life Whereas the plebiscite two years earlier had brought out 1.5 million people to the polls, the new referendum enticed 3.6 million to go and vote (72% of all eligible votersThere was no secret ballot in 1802 and few people wanted to openly defy the regime; the constitution gained approval with over 99% of the vote His broad powers were spelled out in the new constitution: Article 1. The French people name, and the Senate proclaims Napoleon-Bonaparte First Consul for Life After 1802, he was generally referred to as Napoleon rather than Bonaparte.
During the Consulate, Napoleon faced several royalist and Jacobin assassination plots, including the Conspiration des poignards (Dagger plot) in October 1800 and the Plot of the Rue Saint-Nicaise (also known as the Infernal Machine) two months later In January 1804, his police uncovered an assassination plot against him that involved Moreau and which was ostensibly sponsored by the Bourbon family, the former rulers of France. On the advice of Talleyrand, Napoleon ordered the kidnapping of the Duke of Enghien, violating the sovereignty of Baden. The Duke was quickly executed after a secret military trial, even though he had not been involved in the plot Enghien’s execution infuriated royal courts throughout Europe, becoming one of the contributing political factors for the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars.
The Iranian Envoy Mirza Mohammed Reza-Qazvini meeting with Napoleon I at the Finckenstein Palace, 27 April 1807, to sign the Treaty of Finckenstein.
Napoleon continued to entertain a grand scheme to establish a French presence in the Middle East in order to put pressure on Britain and Russia, and perhaps form an alliance with the Ottoman Empire. In February 1806, Ottoman Emperor Selim III finally recognized Napoleon as Emperor. He also opted for an alliance with France, calling France “our sincere and natural ally”.That decision brought the Ottoman Empire into a losing war against Russia and Britain. A Franco-Persian alliance was also formed between Napoleon and the Persian Empire of Fat′h-Ali Shah Qajar. It collapsed in 1807, when France and Russia themselves formed an unexpected alliance In the end, Napoleon had made no effective alliances in the Middle East.
Peninsular War and Erfurt
Main article: Peninsular War
The settlements at Tilsit gave Napoleon time to organize his empire. One of his major objectives became enforcing the Continental System against the British. He decided to focus his attention on the Kingdom of Portugal, which consistently violated his trade prohibitions. After defeat in the War of the Oranges in 1801, Portugal adopted a double-sided policy. At first, John VI agreed to close his ports to British trade. The situation changed dramatically after the Franco-Spanish defeat at Trafalgar; John grew bolder and officially resumed diplomatic and trade relations with Britain.
War of the Fifth Coalition and Marie Loui
Napoleon at the Battle of Wagram, painted by Horace Vernet.
After four years on the sidelines, Austria sought another war with France to avenge its recent defeats. Austria could not count on Russian support because the latter was at war with Britain, Sweden, and the Ottoman Empire in 1809. Frederick William of Prussia initially promised to help the Austrians, but reneged before conflict began.A report from the Austrian finance minister suggested that the treasury would run out of money by the middle of 1809 if the large army that the Austrians had formed since the Third Coalition remained mobilized Although Archduke Charles warned that the Austrians were not ready for another showdown with Napoleon, a stance that landed him in the so-called “peace party”, he did not want to see the army demobilized either On 8 February 1809, the advocates for war finally succeeded when the Imperial Government secretly decided on another confrontation against the French.
In 1808, Napoleon and Czar Alexander met at the Congress of Erfurt to preserve the Russo-French alliance. The leaders had a friendly personal relationship after their first meeting at Tilsit in 1807. By 1811, however, tensions had increased and Alexander was under pressure from the Russian nobility to break off the alliance. A major strain on the relationship between the two nations became the regular violations of the Continental System by the Russians, which led Napoleon to threaten Alexander with serious consequences if he formed an alliance with Britain.
By 1812, advisers to Alexander suggested the possibility of an invasion of the French Empire and the recapture of Poland. On receipt of intelligence reports on Russia’s war preparations, Napoleon expanded his Grande Armée to more than 450,000 men.He ignored repeated advice against an invasion of the Russian heartland and prepared for an offensive campaign; on 24 June 1812 the invasion commenced.
Separated from his wife and son, who had returned to Austria, cut off from the allowance guaranteed to him by the Treaty of Fontainebleau, and aware of rumours he was about to be banished to a remote island in the Atlantic Ocean, Napoleon escaped from Elba, in the brig Inconstant on 26 February 1815 with 700 men. Two days later, he landed on the French mainland at Golfe-Juan and started heading north.
Exile on Saint Helena
Napoleon on Saint Helena
Britain kept Napoleon on the island of Saint Helena in the Atlantic Ocean, 1,870 km (1,162 mi) from the west coast of Africa. Napoleon was moved to Longwood House there in December 1815; it had fallen into disrepair, and the location was damp, windswept and unhealthy.The Times published articles insinuating the British government was trying to hasten his death, and he often complained of the living conditions in letters to the governor and his custodian, Hudson Lowe.
With a small cadre of followers, Napoleon dictated his memoirs and grumbled about conditions. Lowe cut Napoleon’s expenditure, ruled that no gifts were allowed if they mentioned his imperial status, and made his supporters sign a guarantee they would stay with the prisoner indefinitely.
His personal physician, Barry O’Meara, warned London that his declining state of health was mainly caused by the harsh treatment. Napoleon confined himself for months on end in his damp and wretched habitation of Longwood
In February 1821, Napoleon’s health began to deteriorate rapidly. He reconciled with the Catholic Church. He died on 5 May 1821, after confession, Extreme Unction and Viaticum in the presence of Father Ange Vignali. His last words were, “France, l’armée, tête d’armée, Joséphine” (“France, army, head of the army, Joséphine”)
Reorganisation of the religious geography: France is divided into 59 dioceses and 10 ecclesiastical provinces.
Napoleon’s baptism took place in Ajaccio on 21 July 1771; he was piously raised as a Catholic but he never developed much faith.As an adult, Napoleon was a deist. Napoleon’s deity was an absent and distant God. However he had a keen appreciation of the power of organized religion in social and political affairs, and paid a great deal of attention to bending it to his purposes. He noted the influence of Catholicism’s rituals and splendors Napoleon had a civil marriage with Joséphine de Beauharnais, without religious ceremony. Napoleon was crowned Emperor on 2 December 1804 at Notre-Dame de Paris in a ceremony presided over by Pope Pius VII. On 1 April 1810, Napoleon married the Austrian princess Marie Louise in a Catholic ceremony. During his brother’s rule in Spain, he abolished the Spanish Inquisition in 1813. Napoleon was excommunicated by the Catholic Church, but later reconciled with the Church before his death in 1821.
Leaders of the Catholic Church taking the civil oath required by the Concordat
Seeking national reconciliation between revolutionaries and Catholics, the Concordat of 1801 was signed on 15 July 1801 between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII. It solidified the Roman Catholic Church as the majority church of France and brought back most of its civil status. The hostility of devout Catholics against the state had now largely been resolved. It did not restore the vast church lands and endowments that had been seized during the revolution and sold off. As a part of the Concordat, he presented another set of laws called the Organic Articles.
Napoleon emancipated Jews, as well as Protestants in Catholic countries and Catholics in Protestant countries, from laws which restricted them to ghettos, and he expanded their rights to property, worship, and careers. Despite the anti-semitic reaction to Napoleon’s policies from foreign governments and within France, he believed emancipation would benefit France by attracting Jews to the country given the restrictions they faced elsewhere
Napoleon visiting the Palais Royal for the opening of the 8th session of the Tribunat in 1807, by Merry-Joseph Blondel
Historians emphasize the strength of the ambition that took Napoleon from an obscure village to command of most of Europe.George F. E. Rudé stresses his “rare combination of will, intellect and physical vigour” At 5 feet 2 inches (1.57 m), he was the average French male but short for an officer.In one-on-one situations he typically had a hypnotic effect on people, seemingly bending the strongest leaders to his will.He understood military technology, but was not an innovator in that regard.He was an innovator in using the financial, bureaucratic, and diplomatic resources of France. He could rapidly dictate a series of complex commands to his subordinates, keeping in mind where major units were expected to be at each future point, and like a chess master, “seeing” the best plays moves ahead
Napoleon maintained strict, efficient work habits, prioritizing what needed to be done. He cheated at cards, but repaid the losses; he had to win at everything he attempted.He kept relays of staff and secretaries at work. Unlike many generals, Napoleon did not examine history to ask what Hannibal or Alexander or anyone else did in a similar situation. Critics said he won many battles simply because of luck; Napoleon responded, “Give me lucky generals”, aware that “luck” comes to leaders who recognize opportunity, and seize it. Dwyer states that Napoleon’s victories at Austerlitz and Jena in 1805–06 heightened his sense of self-grandiosity, leaving him even more certain of his destiny and invincibility
Further information: Cultural depictions of Napoleon
Napoleon is often represented in his green colonel uniform of the Chasseur à Cheval of the Imperial Guard, the regiment that often served as his personal escort, with a large bicorne and a hand-in-waistcoat gesture.
Napoleon has become a worldwide cultural icon who symbolises military genius and political power. Martin van Creveld described him as “the most competent human being who ever lived”.Since his death, many towns, streets, ships, and even cartoon characters have been named after him. He has been portrayed in hundreds of films and discussed in hundreds of thousands of books and articles.
During the Napoleonic Wars he was taken seriously by the British press as a dangerous tyrant, poised to invade. The British nicknamed him Boney A nursery rhyme warned children that Bonaparte ravenously ate naughty people; the “bogeyman”.At the time of death he was measured as 5 feet 2 inches (1.57 m), which was the average French male height but short for an officer. Some historians believe that the obsolete French feet were used, making him 5 feet 6 inches (1.68 m) with an English yardstick, but he had done his best to make French convert to the metric system, which was adopted already in 1793Napoleon surrounded himself with tall bodyguards and was affectionately nicknamed le petit caporal, reflecting his reported camaraderie with his soldiers rather than his height. In spite of that, the Napoleon Complex is named after him to describe men who have an inferiority complex and become aggressive due to short stature.
Propaganda and memory
Bonaparte Crossing the Alps, realist version by Paul Delaroche in 1848
Napoleon’s use of propaganda contributed to his rise to power, legitimated his régime, and established his image for posterity. Strict censorship, controlling aspects of the press, books, theater, and art, was part of his propaganda scheme, aimed at portraying him as bringing desperately wanted peace and stability to France. The propagandistic rhetoric changed in relation to events and to the atmosphere of Napoleon’s reign, focusing first on his role as a general in the army and identification as a soldier, and moving to his role as emperor and a civil leader. Specifically targeting his civilian audience, Napoleon fostered a relationship with the contemporary art community, taking an active role in commissioning and controlling different forms of art production to suit his propaganda goals.
Hazareesingh (2004) explores how Napoleon’s image and memory are best understood. They played a key role in collective political defiance of the Bourbon restoration monarchy in 1815–1830. People from different walks of life and areas of France, particularly Napoleonic veterans, drew on the Napoleonic legacy and its connections with the ideals of the 1789 revolution.
Long-term influence outside France
Bas-relief of Napoleon I in the chamber of the United States House of Representatives
Napoleon was responsible for spreading the values of the French Revolution to other countries, especially in legal reform and the abolition of serfdom.
After the fall of Napoleon, not only was the Napoleonic Code retained by conquered countries including the Netherlands, Belgium, parts of Italy and Germany, but has been used as the basis of certain parts of law outside Europe including the Dominican Republic, the US state of Louisiana and the Canadian province of Quebec.The memory of Napoleon in Poland is favorable, for his support for independence and opposition to Russia, his legal code, the abolition of serfdom, and the introduction of modern middle class bureaucracies
Napoleon could be considered one of the founders of modern Germany. After dissolving the Holy Roman Empire, he reduced the number of German states from 300 to less than 50, prior to the German Unification. A byproduct of the French occupation was a strong development in German nationalism. Napoleon also significantly aided the United States when he agreed to sell the territory of Louisiana for 15 million dollars during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. That territory almost doubled the size of the United States, adding the equivalent of 13 states to the Union
Marriages and childrenEmpress Marie-Louise and the King of Rome, by Joseph Franque, 1812.
Napoleon’s second wife, Marie-Louise
Napoleon married Joséphine de Beauharnais in 1796, when he was 26; she was a 32-year-old widow whose first husband had been executed during the Revolution. Until she met Bonaparte, she had been known as “Rose”, a name which he disliked. He called her “Joséphine” instead, and she went by this name henceforth. Bonaparte often sent her love letters while on his campaigns.He formally adopted her son Eugène and cousin Stéphanie and arranged dynastic marriages for them. Joséphine had her daughter Hortense marry Napoleon’s brother Louis.
Joséphine had lovers, such as lieutenant Hippolyte Charles, during Napoleon’s Italian campaign Napoleon learnt of that affair and a letter he wrote about it was intercepted by the British and published widely, to embarrass Napoleon. Napoleon had his own affairs too: during the Egyptian campaign he took Pauline Bellisle Foures, the wife of a junior officer, as his mistress. She became known as “Cleopatra”