Birth of Napoleon

15/08/1769View on timeline

Napoléon Bonaparte (French: [napoleɔ̃ bɔnɑpaʁt]; 15 August 1769 – 5 May 1821) was a French statesman and military leader who rose to prominence during the French Revolution and led several successful campaigns during the French Revolutionary Wars. 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. He is considered one of the greatest commanders in history, and 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 (Italian: [napoleˈoːne di bwɔnaˈparte]) in Corsica to a relatively modest family of Italian origin from the minor nobility. He was serving as an artillery officer in the French army when the French Revolution erupted in 1789. He rapidly rose through the ranks of the military, seizing the new opportunities presented by the Revolution and becoming a general at age 24. The French 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 war hero in France. In 1798, he led a military expedition to Egypt that served as a springboard to political power. He orchestrated a coup in November 1799 and became First Consul of the Republic. His ambition and public approval inspired him to go further, and he became the first Emperor of the French in 1804. 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 the Russian Empire and Austrian Empire at the Battle of Austerlitz which led to the Dissolution of the 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 his Grande Armée 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.

Napoleon then invaded the Iberian Peninsula, hoping to extend the Continental System and choke off British trade with the European mainland, and declared his brother Joseph Bonaparte the King of Spain in 1808. The Spanish and the Portuguese revolted with British support. The Peninsular War lasted six years, featured extensive guerrilla warfare, and ended in victory for the Allies. The Continental System caused recurring diplomatic conflicts between France and its client states, especially Russia. The Russians were unwilling to bear the economic consequences of reduced trade and routinely violated the Continental System, enticing Napoleon into another war. The French launched a major invasion of Russia in the summer of 1812. The campaign destroyed Russian cities but resulted in the collapse of the Grande Armée and inspired a renewed push against Napoleon by his enemies. In 1813, Prussia and Austria joined Russian forces in the War of the Sixth Coalition against France. A lengthy military campaign culminated in a large Allied army defeating Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813, but his tactical victory at the minor Battle of Hanau allowed retreat onto French soil. The Allies then invaded France and captured Paris in the spring of 1814, forcing Napoleon to abdicate in April. He was exiled to the island of Elba off the coast of Tuscany, and the Bourbon dynasty was restored to power. However, Napoleon escaped from Elba in February 1815 and took control of France once again. The Allies responded by forming a Seventh Coalition which defeated him at the Battle of Waterloo in June. The British exiled him to the remote island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic, where he died six years later at the age of 51.

Napoleon's influence on the modern world brought liberal reforms to the numerous territories that he conquered and controlled, such as the Low Countries, Switzerland, and large parts of modern Italy and Germany. He implemented fundamental liberal policies in France and throughout Western Europe. His Napoleonic Code has influenced the legal systems of more than 70 nations around the world. British historian Andrew Roberts states: "The ideas that underpin our modern world—meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, and so on—were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon. To them he added a rational and efficient local administration, an end to rural banditry, the encouragement of science and the arts, the abolition of feudalism and the greatest codification of laws since the fall of the Roman Empire".

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries by Jacques-Louis David, 1812

Personality

Historians emphasize the strength of the ambition that took Napoleon from an obscure village to command of most of Europe. In-depth academic studies about his early life conclude that up until age 2, he had a "gentle disposition". His older brother, Joseph, frequently received their mother's attention which made Napoleon more assertive and approval-driven. During his early schooling years he would be harshly bullied by classmates for his Corsican identity and control of the French language. To withstand the stress he became domineering, eventually developing an inferiority complex.

George F. E. Rudé stresses his "rare combination of will, intellect and physical vigour". In one-on-one situations he typically had a hypnotic effect on people, seemingly bending the strongest leaders to his will.[230] 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.

In terms of influence on events, it was more than Napoleon's personality that took effect. He reorganized France itself to supply the men and money needed for wars. He inspired his men—Wellington said his presence on the battlefield was worth 40,000 soldiers, for he inspired confidence from privates to field marshals. He also unnerved the enemy. At the Battle of Auerstadt in 1806, King Frederick William III of Prussia outnumbered the French by 63,000 to 27,000; however, when he was told, mistakenly, that Napoleon was in command, he ordered a hasty retreat that turned into a rout. The force of his personality neutralized material difficulties as his soldiers fought with the confidence that with Napoleon in charge they would surely win.

Napoleon visiting the Palais Royal for the opening of the 8th session of the Tribunat in 1807, by Me...
Napoleon PBS Documentary

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Published in 5/10/2018

Updated in 19/02/2021

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