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Napoleon Bonaparte: A Life of Ambition

Updated on January 2, 2013
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Napoleon: Early Days

When we all think of Napoleon Bonaparte we immediately conjure up images of a vertically challenged, French, military leader who conquered much of Europe. However, Buonaparte was a dynamic, innovative emperor whose ambitions knew no limit. Napoleon was a powerful man who maintained influence through domestic policies, master military strategies, and impressive international relations. However, countless thousands were killed in the many wars and battles instigated by Napoleon's need for conquest.

Napoleon Buonaparte was born in French occupied Corsica on August 15, 1769 to Carlo Buonaparte, a lawyer and his wife Marie-Letizia. Corsica is a French island between the coasts of France and Italy. Napoleon was born in the capital city of Corsica, Ajaccio, to a noble family that was not high in the aristocracy. Napoleon later adopted the French version of their family name: Bonaparte. Just before his tenth birthday Napoleon began studying at the military academy in Brienne.

In 1784 Bonaparte enrolled in the Ecole Royale Militaire, a Parisian military school. One year later, almost to the day, he graduated from the Ecole Militaire with the rank of second lieutenant, an accomplishment that usually took about three years for most students. Napoleon began his military career stationed in Valence where he remained for many years but he was still able to spend a lot of time in Corsica due to the distraction of the French Revolution and Napoleon's willingness to bend the rules. He still managed to play a productive role in political and military matters through his diplomatic letter writing and fierce determination.

In 1785, Paul Francois Barras, a directory member helps Napoleon get promoted to Commander of the Army of the Interior. Early on in his career Bonaparte learned the value of connections in high places, and would reward loyalty when he gained power. The next year on March 2, 1786 in Italy, the ambitious Napoleon is given command of the French army.

Map of Corsica

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Rise to Power

A pivotal event that resonated with Bonaparte was when a mob stormed the Bastille in Paris on July 14th, 1789. Napoleon viewed rebels attacking the symbol of bureaucracy in the failing government, and fostered ideas of change for the future. Another event that impacted Napoleon’s future was his eyewitness account of the dethroning of the King Louis XVI in France at the Tuileries Palace. When an all out civil war began in 1793, Bonaparte opposed Pasquale-Paoli, the rebel leader of Corsica and his family had to flee to the French mainland because of their pro-French beliefs. This is the time period when Napoleon and his family changed their name from Buonaparte to the French Bonaparte, likely to better assimilate into French society. Later in December of 1793, Bonaparte fought in the internal battle of Toulon in France. Due to his courage displayed at the battle of Toulon, Bonaparte is promoted to brigadier general at a young age.

Napoleon’s career success hits a speed bump a year later; he is imprisoned for eleven days under the accusation that he was a Jacobin and a Robespierre supporter. Regardless of this setback, less than a year in 1795 after his imprisonment, Napoleon is promoted yet again, this time as General of the Army of the West. Napoleon is responsible for suppressing civil unrest and rebellion against the French republic under this position.

In 1796 Napoleon marries Josephine de Beauharnais whom he had met and started an affair with several months earlier. He writes countless love letters to her, some of which still exist today.

The following year Napoleon wins another battle, the Battle of Rivoli, furthering his reputation as a superior military leader. On October 17, 1797 Napoleon creates the Treaty of Campo-Formio with defeated Austria, which resolves the first Italian campaign. The treaty cemented most of the French conquests and marked the conclusion of Bonaparte’s victory over the First Coalition. When Bonaparte returns to Paris he is greeted as a hero for his military successes. Wasting no time within five months of returning to Paris, Napoleon departs and begins his Egyptian campaign where the Ottomans rule. The primary focus of conquering Egypt was to eliminate trade routes between Britain and India. By July 2, 1798 Alexandria falls to Bonaparte’s forces. Later in July, Bonaparte wins the Battle of the Pyramids in Egypt. Three days later Cairo falls to Napoleon; in rapid succession Bonaparte has dismantled the Ottomans.

On August 1, 1798 the French navy is defeated by the British in the Battle at Aboukir otherwise known as the Battle of the Nile. Regardless of some losses and the unsteady nature of the campaign, in August of 1799, Napoleon is informed there is turmoil in France and returns to Paris; some say abandoning his troops in Egypt. By November 1799, following a coup d’etat (overthrow of the government), Bonaparte becomes First Consul of the new French government. Bonaparte and his counterparts immediately start making reforms throughout the government. A few months later Napoleon sets up his home in Tuileries Palace, former home of Kings. In May of 1800, Napoleon leads troops across the Alps in the Second Italian Campaign. During June of the same year Bonaparte wins the Battle of Marengo against Austrian troops. In July of 1801, the Concordat is signed between and France and Rome, ending the rifts between the French and the Catholic Church, reinstating Roman Catholicism as the state religion.

On December 24, 1800 a small group of French royalist attempted to assassinate Napoleon with a bomb but only manage to kill innocent bystanders, leaving Napoleon physically unharmed. Bonaparte eliminates the remaining royalists from government positions as a result of the assassination attempt. He has several people executed but they are not directly linked to the assassination attempt.

In March 1802, the Treaty of Amiens was signed with Britain, brokering a fragmented peace. In May 1802, Napoleon restructures the education system in France under his new found position. A few months later a new constitution is adopted in France making Bonaparte First Consul for life. Under Bonaparte's guidance on May 3, 1803, the United States is sold the Louisiana territory because he believes the U.S. is too great a distance from France to adequately defend the territory. England violates the Treaty of Amiens in May 1803, causing renewed war with France; shortly after Russia and Austria join the British coalition.

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Emperor Napoleon

On May 18, 1804 the senate proclaims Napoleon Bonaparte as the Emperor. Under Bonaparte’s rule as emperor he created the Bank of France, centralized the government, and created new civic law reform under the Code Napoleon. In March 17th 1805 Napoleon is crowned the King of Italy in Milan, furthering the span of his empire. Later that year the Battle of Trafalgar resulted in another naval victory for the British. As a result Napoleon switched his military strategy from invading England to attacking Austria and Russia. In December 1805, the Battle of Austerlitz results in victory for Napoleon against Russia and Austrian forces, as Napoleon sets his sights on further territorial gains.

Napoleon starts to appoint many of his family members to various positions including making his brother King of Naples in 1806. Bonaparte proceeds to defeat Russia at the Battle of Friedland where he captured and killed over thirty thousand Russians including over twenty-five Russian generals. In July 7, 1807 Czar Alexander I and Napoleon make peace with the Treaty of Tilsit. Later in July, Bonaparte creates the Grand Duchy of Warsaw (Poland) to be controlled by France and expands his empire still further. In November of 1807, Napoleon begins the occupation of Portugal after easy military victories.

During 1808 Napoleon begins the Peninsular War, in which costly defeats over the next several years drain military resources for the French empire. In June of 1808 Napoleon names his brother Joseph, King of Spain and promotes loyalist Murat, a French marshal, to King of Naples. Bonaparte installs other relatives and supporters as leaders in Holland, Westphalia, Italy, and Sweden, as his empire expands. In 1810, Napoleon annuls his childless marriage to his wife Josephine, after fourteen years in hopes of creating an heir with a new marriage. In April, Bonaparte marries Marie-Louise the archduchess of Austria, and a year later Napoleon’s first son is born.

Battle of Waterloo
Battle of Waterloo | Source

Napolen: Decline and Exile

Midway through 1812, Napoleon begins the Russian campaign. In September of the same year France invades Moscow with the Grand Army, but the Russians have already burned and abandoned the city. As Napoleon’s army retreats during a bitter winter, many casualties are suffered, Napoleon entered the city with over five hundred thousand men and arrives in France with only eighty-thousand. Just before Christmas in 1812 Napoleon returns to Paris, after the staggering loss of casualties.

In March of the next year, Prussia declares war on France as part of the Wars of the Sixth Coalition, the previous five being failures to control Bonaparte's grab for territory. Later in 1813, France loses to Spain, Britain, and Portugal in the Battle of Vitoria. The French lost about eight thousand men during the battle; the British lost roughly thirty-five hundred, the Portuguese around nine hundred and Spain about five hundred and fifty men. The Battle of Vitoria was very significant because after the catastrophe of the Russian campaign, this subsequent loss helped show that Bonaparte’s authority of Europe was coming to an end.

During the cold January month, an anti-French coalition army invades France. At the end of March, Paris falls to the invading armies. Two days later the Senate proclaims the end of the Empire and Bonaparte and his family flee Paris. Two days after they flee Napoleon abdicates his empire and Louis XVIII is restored to the French throne. One month later Bonaparte is exiled to Elba, a Mediterranean island and his wife and son escape to Vienna. Less than a year later Napoleon escapes Elba and returns to Southern France. Within six days of arriving in France, ever determined, Napoleon rallies what remains of his army. Within two weeks Louis XVIII flees and Napoleon takes control once again. Bonaparte begins the “Hundred Days” campaign, where he quickly raised an army of a hundred and forty thousand troops, plus two hundred thousand volunteer forces and governed for one hundred days.

In June of 1815, Bonaparte is defeated in the Battle of Waterloo by the Prussians and British. Four days later Napoleon abdicates for a second and final time. Not until October several months later is Napoleon exiled to Saint Helena; an Atlantic island off the west coast of Africa. Napoleon dies there in exile on March 5, 1821.

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Tyrant or Ambitious?

Was Napoleon Bonaparte a tyrant or just ambitious?

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