Biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, Great Military Commander

At its height, his empire covered much of Europe

Napoleon Bonaparte
Anderiba12/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 4.0

Napoleon Bonaparte (Aug. 15, 1769–May 5, 1821), one of the greatest military commanders, was the twice-emperor of France whose military endeavors and sheer personality dominated Europe for a decade.

In military affairs, legal issues, economics, politics, technology, culture, and society in general, his actions influenced the course of European history for over a century, and some argue, to this very day.

Fast Facts: Napoleon Bonaparte

  • Known For: Emperor of France, conqueror of much of Europe
  • Also Known As: Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon 1st of France, The Little Corporal, The Corsican
  • Born: Aug. 15, 1769, in Ajaccio, Corsica
  • Parents: Carlo Buonaparte, Letizia Ramolino
  • Died: May 5, 1821, on Saint Helena, United Kingdom
  • Published Works:Le souper de Beaucaire” (Supper at Beaucaire), a pro-republican pamphlet (1793); the "Napoleonic Code," the French civil code (1804); authorized the publication of "Description de l'Égypte," a multivolume work authored by dozens of scholars detailing Egypt's archeology, topography, and natural history (1809-1821)
  • Awards and Honors: Founder and grand master of the Legion of Honor (1802), the Order of the Iron Crown (1805), the Order of the Reunion (1811)
  • Spouses: Josephine de Beauharnais (m. March 8, 1796–Jan. 10, 1810), Marie-Louise (m. April 2, 1810–May 5, 1821)
  • Children: Napoleon II
  • Notable Quote: "Great ambition is the passion of a great character. Those endowed with it may perform very good or very bad acts. All depends on the principles which direct them."

Early Life

Napoleon was born in Ajaccio, Corsica, on Aug. 15, 1769, to Carlo Buonaparte, a lawyer, and political opportunist, and his wife, Marie-Letizia. The Buonaparte's were a wealthy family from the Corsican nobility, although when compared to the great aristocracies of France Napoleon's kin were poor.

Napoleon entered the military academy at Brienne in 1779. He moved to the Parisian École Royale Militaire in 1784 and graduated a year later as a second lieutenant in the artillery. Spurred on by his father's death in February 1785, the future emperor had completed in one year a course that often took three.

Early Career

Despite being posted on the French mainland, Napoleon was able to spend much of the next eight years in Corsica thanks to his ferocious letter writing and rule bending, as well as the effects of the French Revolution (which led to the French Revolutionary Wars) and sheer good luck. There he played an active part in political and military matters, initially supporting the Corsican rebel Pasquale Paoli, a former patron of Carlo Buonaparte.

Military promotion also followed, but Napoleon became opposed to Paoli and when civil war erupted in 1793 the Buonapartes fled to France, where they adopted the French version of their name: Bonaparte.

The French Revolution had decimated the republic's officer class and favored individuals could achieve swift promotion, but Napoleon's fortunes rose and fell as one set of patrons came and went. By December 1793, Napoleon was the hero of Toulon, a general and favorite of Augustin Robespierre; shortly after the wheel of revolution turned and Napoleon was arrested for treason. Tremendous political flexibility saved him and the patronage of Vicomte Paul de Barras, soon to be one of France's three 'Directors', followed.

Napoleon became a hero again in 1795, defending the government from angry counter-revolutionary forces; Baras rewarded Napoleon by promoting him to high military office, a position with access to the political spine of France. Napoleon swiftly grew into one of the country's most respected military authorities, largely by never keeping his opinions to himself, and he married Josephine de Beauharnais in 1796.

Rise to Power

In 1796, France attacked Austria. Napoleon was given command of the Army of Italy, whereupon he welded a young, starving and disgruntled army into a force which won victory after victory against theoretically stronger Austrian opponents.

Napoleon returned to France in 1797 as the nation's brightest star, having fully emerged from the need for a patron. Ever a great self-publicist, he maintained the profile of a political independent, thanks partly to the newspapers he now ran.

In May 1798, Napoleon left for a campaign in Egypt and Syria, prompted by his desire for fresh victories, the French need to threaten Britain's empire in India and the Directory's concerns that their famous general might seize power.

The Egyptian campaign was a military failure (although it had a great cultural impact) and a change of government in France caused Bonaparte to leave—some might say abandon—his army and return in the August of 1799. Shortly after he took part in the Brumaire coup of November 1799, finishing as a member of the Consulate, France's new ruling triumvirate.

First Consul

The transfer of power might not have been smooth, owing much to luck and apathy, but Napoleon's great political skill was clear; by February 1800, he was established as the First Consul, a practical dictatorship with a constitution wrapped firmly around him. However, France was still at war with her fellows in Europe and Napoleon set out to beat them. He did so within a year, although the key triumph, the Battle of Marengo, fought in June 1800, was won by the French General Desaix.

From Reformer to Emperor

Having concluded treaties that left Europe at peace, Bonaparte began working on France, reforming the economy, legal system (the famous and enduring Code Napoleon), church, military, education, and government. He studied and commented on minute details, often while traveling with the army, and the reforms continued for most of his rule. Bonaparte exhibited skill as both legislator and statesmen.

Napoleon's popularity remained high, helped by his mastery of propaganda but also genuine national support, and he was elected Consulate for life by the French people in1802 and Emperor of France in 1804, a title which he worked hard to maintain and glorify. Initiatives like the Concordat with the Church and the Code helped secure his status.

Return to War

Europe was not at peace for long. Napoleon's fame, ambitions, and character were based on conquest, making it almost inevitable that his reorganized Grande Armée would fight further wars. However, other European countries also sought conflict, for not only did they distrust and fear Napoleon, they also retained their hostility towards revolutionary France.

For the next eight years, Napoleon dominated Europe, fighting and defeating a range of alliances involving combinations of Austria, Britain, Russia, and Prussia. Sometimes his victories were crushing—such as Austerlitz in 1805, often cited as the greatest military victory ever—and at other times, he was either very lucky, fought almost to a standstill, or both.

Napoleon forged new states in Europe, including the German Confederation—built from the ruins of the Holy Roman Empire—and the Duchy of Warsaw, while also installing his family and favorites in positions of great power. The reforms continued and Napoleon had an ever-increasing effect on culture and technology, becoming a patron of both the arts and sciences while stimulating creative responses across Europe.

Disaster in Russia

The Napoleonic Empire may have shown signs of decline by 1811, including a downturn in diplomatic fortunes and continuing failure in Spain, but such matters were overshadowed by what happened next. In 1812 Napoleon went to war with Russia, assembling a force of over 400,000 soldiers, accompanied by the same number of followers and support. Such an army was almost impossible to feed or adequately control and the Russians repeatedly retreated, destroying the local resources and separating Napoleon's army from its supplies.

Napoleon continually dithered, eventually reaching Moscow on Sept. 8, 1812, after the Battle of Borodino, a bludgeoning conflict where over 80,000 soldiers died. However, the Russians refused to surrender, instead torching Moscow and forcing Napoleon into a long retreat back to friendly territory. The Grande Armée was assailed by starvation, extremes of weather and terrifying Russian partisans throughout, and by the end of 1812 only 10,000 soldiers were able to fight. Many of the rest had died in horrible conditions, with the camp's followers faring even worse.

A coup had been attempted in Napoleon's absence from France and his enemies in Europe were reinvigorated, forming a grand alliance intent on removing him. As vast number of enemy soldiers advanced across Europe toward France, overturning the states Bonaparte had created. The combined forces of Russia, Prussia, Austria and others just used a simple plan, retreating from the emperor himself and advancing again when he moved to face the next threat.

Abdication

Throughout 1813 and into 1814 the pressure grew on Napoleon; not only were his enemies grinding his forces down and approaching Paris, but the British had fought out of Spain and into France, the Grande Armée's Marshalls were underperforming and Bonaparte had lost the French public's support.

Nevertheless, for the first half of 1814 Napoleon exhibited the military genius of his youth, but it was a war he couldn't win alone. On March 30, 1814, Paris surrendered to allied forces without a fight and, facing massive betrayal and impossible military odds, Napoleon abdicated as Emperor of France; he was exiled to the Island of Elba.

Second Exile and Death

Napoleon made a sensational return to power in 1815. Traveling to France in secret, he attracted vast support and reclaimed his imperial throne, as well as reorganizing the army and government. After a series of initial engagements, Napoleon was narrowly defeated in one of history's greatest battles: Waterloo.

This final adventure had occurred in less than 100 days, closing with Napoleon's second abdication on June 25, 1815, whereupon British forces forced him into further exile. Housed on St. Helena, a small rocky island well away from Europe, Napoleon's health and character fluctuated; he died within six years, on May 5, 1821, at age 51.

Legacy

Napoleon helped perpetuate a state of European-wide warfare that lasted for 20 years. Few individuals have ever had such a huge effect on the world, on economics, politics, technology, culture, and society.

Napoleon may not have been a general of utter genius, but he was very good; he may not have been the best politician of his age, but he was often superb; he may not have been a perfect legislator, but his contributions were hugely important. Napoleon used his talents, to, through luck, talent or force of will, rise from chaos, then build, lead and spectacularly destroy an empire before doing it all again in a tiny microcosm one year later. Whether hero or tyrant, the reverberations were felt across Europe for a century.

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