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Encyclopedia > Napoleon I
For other uses, see Napoleon (disambiguation).
Portrait of Napoléon Bonaparte
Portrait of Napoléon Bonaparte

Napoléon Bonaparte (15 August 17695 May 1821) was a general and ruler of the French Republic. He was a general of the French Revolution and became the effective ruler of France in 1799: he was First Consul (Premier Consul) of the French Republic from November 11, 1799 until May 18, 1804, then Emperor of the French (Empereur des Français) and King of Italy under the name Napoléon I from May 18, 1804 until April 6, 1814, and again briefly from March 20 to June 22, 1815.

Napoléon, over the course of little more than a decade, acquired control of most or all of the western and central mainland of Europe by conquest or alliance in his quest for a united European state devoid of the degenerate feudal system. His defeat at the Battle of the Nations near Leipzig, where he faced impossible odds that not even he could overcome, in October 1813 eventually caused the demise of his empire. He later staged a comeback known as the Hundred Days (les Cent Jours), before being decisively defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium on June 18, 1815 followed shortly afterwards by his capture by the British and his exile to the island of Saint Helena, where he was murdered by the Comte de Montholon.

Aside from his military achievements, Napoléon is also remembered for the establishment of the Napoleonic code, and he is considered to have been one of the "enlightened monarchs". Napoléon appointed several members of the Bonaparte family as monarchs; although they did not survive his downfall, a nephew, Napoléon III, ruled France later in the century.


Early life and military career

He was born Napoleone Buonaparte in the city of Ajaccio on Corsica. He later adopted the more French-sounding Napoléon Bonaparte, the first known instance of which appears in an official report dated March 28, 1796.

His family was of minor Corsican nobility. His father, Carlo Buonaparte, an Italian-born attorney, was named Corsica's representative to the court of Louis XVI in 1778, where he remained for a number of years. Biographers agree that the dominant influence of Napoléon's life was his mother, Laetitia. Ahead of her time, she had her 8 children bathe every other day—at a time when even those in the upper classes took a bath perhaps once a month.

Carlo arranged for Napoléon's education in France. He entered a military school at Brienne-le-Château, a small town near Troyes, on May 15, 1779. Napoléon considered himself an outsider, not learning French until age 10; accusations of being a foreigner would dog him throughout his life, especially since he spoke French with an Italian accent. Due to Carlo's influence, Napoléon was admitted into the elite École Militaire in Paris, from which he graduated in September, 1785, receiving his commission as a 2nd lieutenant of artillery in January 1785, at the age of 16. He then attended the royal artillery school at Auxonne near Dole.

When the French Revolution began in 1789, Napoléon returned to Corsica, where a nationalist struggle sought separation from France. Civil war broke out, and Napoléon's family fled to France. Napoléon supported the Revolution and quickly rose through the ranks. In 1793, he helped free Toulon from the royalists and from the British troops supporting them. In 1795, when royalists marched against the National Convention in Paris, he had them shot.

He was nicknamed The Little Corporal (le petit caporal) after his victories at the Italian border. The name, roughly translated to "low ranking" or "unknown" corporal, was given to him by his soldiers in 1796 when Napoleon, then a very young and unknown corporal was in charge of the lacklustre and demoralized French army at the Italian border. A heroic episode of crossing a bridge at the Battle of Lodi that year endeared him to the French and brought him recognition as a leader. Contrary to popular myth, the name 'little' was not in reference to his height (he was 5 foot 7 inches tall, taller than average for a Frenchman in his times).

Napoléon was a brilliant military strategist, able to absorb the substantial body of military knowledge of his time and to apply it to the real-world circumstances of his era. An artillery officer by training, he used artillery innovatively as a mobile force to support infantry attacks. When appointed commander-in-chief of the ill-equipped French army in Italy, he managed to defeat Austrian forces repeatedly. In these battles, contemporary paintings of his headquarters show that he used the world's first telecommunications system, the Chappe semaphore line, first implemented in 1792. Austrian forces, led by Archduke Charles, had to negotiate an unfavorable treaty; at the same time, Napoléon organized a coup in 1797 which removed several royalists from power in Paris.

Invasion of Egypt, rise to power

In 1798, the French government, afraid of Bonaparte's popularity, charged him with the task of invading Egypt to undermine Britain's access to India. An indication of Napoléon's devotion to the principles of the Enlightenment was his decision to take scholars along on his expedition: among the other discoveries that resulted, the Rosetta Stone was found. He was defeated by Cezzar Ahmet in Syria near the Castle of Saida. While Napoleon had massive success against the native Mamluk army (his 25,000 strong invading force defeated a 100,000 army), his fleet in Egypt was largely destroyed by Nelson at The Battle of the Nile, so that Napoléon became land-bound.

According to an enduring myth, while in Egypt, Napoleon ordered his troops to use the Sphinx for target practice, destroying its nose in the process. Though the origin of this myth is unclear, it is thought to have been perpetuated by guides native to the region, and also, no doubt, by scholars who find in it an expression of the West's brutish and essentially myopic disregard for the culture of the rest of the world.

A coalition against France formed in Europe, the royalists rose again, and Napoléon abandoned his troops and returned to Paris in 1799; in November of that year, a coup d'état made him First Consul of France, making him the most powerful man in the nation. According to the French Revolutionary Calendar, the date was 18 Brumaire.

Napoléon instituted several lasting reforms including the metric system, higher education, a tax system, a central bank, law codes, and road and sewer systems. His set of civil laws, the Napoleonic Code or Civil Code, has importance to this day in many countries. The Code was largely the work of Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès, who held the office Second Consul under Bonaparte from 1799 to 1804.


Struggle in Europe, advance to emperor

In June 1800, the Austrians were routed at Marengo. Napoleon returned to Paris to disprove the rumors about his defeat and death. Napoleons's brother Joseph, who was leading the peace negotiations in Lunéville, reported that due to British backing for Austria, Austria would not recognize France's newly gained territory. As negotiations developed more and more into a farce, Napoleon gave orders to his general Moreau to strike Austria once more. Moreau led France to victory at Hohenlinden 1800. As a result the Treaty of Lunéville was signed in February 1801, under which the French gains of the Campo Formio treaty were reaffirmed and increased; the British also committed themselves to sign a peace treaty and finally signed the treaty of Amiens in March 1802, in which Malta was to be handed over to France. It was during this period that Napoleon tried to ensure peace in Europe. However his enemies had difficulties in recognizing a republic, as all the countries bordering France were kingdoms and were horrified that the ideas of the revolution might be exported to them. In Britain the brother of Louis XVI was welcomed as a state guest although officially Britain recognized France as republic. While France complied with some of the provisions of the treaty, for strategic reasons Britain did not cede Malta to France.

In 1803, Napoléon sold a large part of North America to the United States — the Louisiana Purchase — for less than three cents per acre; he had just faced a major setback when an army he sent to conquer Santo Domingo and establish a base was destroyed by a combination of yellow fever and fierce resistance led by Toussaint L'Ouverture. With his western forces diminished, Napoléon knew he would be unable to defend Louisiana and decided to sell it to finance the war against Britain, which at that time was more or less inevitable.

Coronation of Napoléon, memorialized by Jacques-Louis David

The dispute over Malta provided the pretext for Britain to declare war on France in 1803 to support French royalists. Napoléon, however, crowned himself Emperor on 2 December 1804 (illustration, right) at Notre-Dame Cathedral. Claims that he seized the crown out of the hands of Pope Pius VII during the ceremony in order to avoid subjecting himself to the authority of the pontiff are apocryphal; after the Imperial regalia had been blessed by the Pope, Napoléon crowned himself before crowning his wife Joséphine as Empress. Then at Milan's cathedral on 26 May 1805, Napoléon was crowned King of Italy, with the Iron Crown of Lombardy.

A plan by the French, along with the Spanish, to defeat the Royal Navy failed dramatically at the Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805), and Britain gained lasting control of the seas.

By 1805 the Third Coalition against Napoléon had formed in Europe; Napoléon attacked and secured a major victory against Austria and Russia at Austerlitz (2 December) and, in the following year, humbled Prussia at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt (14 October 1806). As a result, Napoléon became the de facto ruler over most of Germany. Napoléon marched on through Poland and then signed a treaty with the Russian tsar Alexander I, dividing Europe between the two powers. In the French part of Poland, he established the restored Polish state of Grand Duchy de Varsovie with the Saxonian King as a ruler.

Then on 17 May 1809 Napoléon ordered the annexation of the Papal States to the French empire.

Battles in Spain, Austria, and Russia

Napoléon crossing the Alps, by Jacques-Louis David

Since he failed at conquering the British militarily, he decided to try to conquer them economically, by banning all merchandise and ships from continental Europe. He once again failed, however, because it turned out that continental Europe needed England more than England needed them. Napoléon attempted to enforce a Europe-wide commercial boycott of Britain called the "Continental System". He invaded Spain and installed his brother Joseph Bonaparte as king there. The Spanish rose in revolt, which Napoléon was unable to suppress. The British invaded Spain through Portugal in 1808 and, with the aid of the Spanish nationalists, slowly drove out the French. While France was engaged in Spain, Austria attacked in Germany, but after initial success suffered defeat at the Battle of Wagram (6 July 1809).

Alexander I of Russia eventually caved to the advice of his sister, the Grand Duchess Catherine, and began to cast aside his idolization of Napoléon and fell into line with the anti-French sentiment prevailent in Russia at the time. He deployed around 300,000 Russian troops to the Polish frontier in preparation for an invasion of the French Empire. In 1812, Napoléon invaded Russia in a massive pre-emptive attack. Victor Hugo would write in his poem, "Russia 1812" (1873):

The snow fell, and its power was multiplied.
For the First time the Eagle bowed its head - dark days!
Slowly the Emperor returned - behind him Moscow!
Its onion domes still burned.

Napoléon refused to recreate the Polish nation from the former Polish territory he now recaptured from the Russians. Instead he desired a more unified Empire - something which he could not have with an independent, nationalist Poland in the east. The Poles proposed to retrieve former Polish areas from Russian hands gradually and build a base for further war there. The Russians under Kutuzov, who declared a Patriotic War, retreated instead of giving battle. This was less the result of an overall campaign plan to constantly ellude the French, as it was the result of disunified command and the resulting inability to give decisive battle. Finally, outside Moscow on 12 September, the Battle of Borodino took place, when Kutuzov caved to popular pressure to give battle - fulling knowing his army, despite having around 157,000 troops to the French 131,000, was inadequate. The Russians retreated and Napoléon was able to enter Moscow, assuming that Alexander I would negotiate peace. Moscow began to burn and within the month, fearing loss of control in France, Napoléon left Moscow. The French Grand Army suffered greatly in the course of a ruinous retreat; the Army had begun as over 600,000 men, but in the end fewer than 10,000 crossed the Berezina River (November 1812) to escape. Russian losses were similar, if not greater, but the hoemgroudn advantage allowed them to recoup these much quicker. In total over 1 million died in the few months of conflict.

Encouraged by this dramatic reversal, several nations again took up arms against France, spurred on by the growing Prussian nationalism. A long, busy campaign in Germany resulted in most of the largest battles of the wartime period - Lutzen, Bautzen and Dresden, amongst others. French forces, at their height, totalled around 450,000 in Germany to over 800,000 Allied troops, minus a considerable strategic reserve. The Allies devised the Trachenburg Plan in order to secure victory in Germany. Fully aware of Napoléon's penchant for defeating numerically superior forces the Allies agreed never to give battle with the Emperor himself and instead to attack only those French forces commanded by his marshals and generals. When they broke with this plan at Dresden the result was humiliating defeat. The decisive defeat of the French came at the Battle of Leipzig, also called "The Battle of the Nations" (16-19 October 1813), where the Allies finally cornered Napoléon between three massive armies approaching from different directions. This was Napoléon's greatest mistake in what was otherwise a reasonably well-fought campaign, considering the odds. Here he went against his own doctrine and confronted a unified and massively numerically superior enemy force. The result was 70,000 French losses to around 50,000 Allied.

After he brushed aside the army of his former allies turned enemies, the Bavarians, at Hanau he crossed the Rhine and began to fight the best tactical campaign of his career in defence of France. Napoléon always became excessively arrogant when he had large armies, but when the odds were against him and he only had a small force he was at his best. Ultimately however his mistakes in Germany ensured the campaign for the defence of France was futile at best.

Defeat, exile in Elba, return and Waterloo

Paris was occupied on 31 March 1814. The marshals asked Napoléon to abdicate, and he did so on 6 April in favour of his son. The Allies, however, demanded unconditional surrender and Napoléon abdicated again, unconditionally, on 11 April. In the Treaty of Fontainebleau the victors exiled the Corsican to Elba, a small island in the Mediterranean 20 km off the coast of Italy. They let him keep the title of "Emperor" but restricted his empire to that tiny island.

Napoléon tried to poison himself and failed; on the voyage to Elba he was almost assassinated. In France, the royalists had taken over and restored King Louis XVIII to power. On Elba, Napoléon became concerned about his wife and, more especially, his son, in the hands of the Austrians. The French government refused to pay his allowance and he heard rumours that he was about to be banished to a remote island in the Atlantic. Napoléon escaped from Elba on 26 February 1815 and returned to the mainland on 1 March 1815.When he returned to the mainland,King Louis XVIII sent troops to stop him. Napoleon simply got out of his carriage and walked up to the soldiers and said "If any man would like to shoot his emperor, he may do so". The men then followed him to Paris. He arrived on 20 March with a regular army of 140,000 and a volunteer force of around 200,000 and governed for a Hundred Days.

Napoléon's final defeat came at the hands of the Duke of Wellington and Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher at the Battle of Waterloo in present-day Belgium on 18 June 1815.

Off the port of Rochefort, Napoléon made his formal surrender while on board HMS Bellerophon on 15 July 1815.

Exile in Saint Helena and death

Napoléon on the Bellerophon at Plymouth, before his exile to Saint Helena.

Napoléon was imprisoned and then exiled by the British to the island of Saint Helena (2,800 km off the Bight of Guinea) from 15 October 1815. There, with a small cadre of followers, he dictated his memoirs and criticized his captors. In the last half of April 1821, he wrote out his own will and several codicils (a total of 40-odd pages). When he died, on 5 May 1821, his last words were: "France, the Army, Joséphine."

In 1955 the diaries of Louis Marchand, Napoléon's valet, appeared in print. He describes Napoléon in the months leading up to his death, and led many, most notably Sten Forshufvud and Ben Weider, to conclude that he had been killed by arsenic poisoning. Arsenic was at the time sometimes used as a poison undetectable when administered over a long period of time. In 2001 Pascal Kintz, of the Strasbourg Forensic Institute in France, added credence to this claim with a study of arsenic levels found in a lock of Napoléon's hair preserved after his death: they were seven to thirty-eight times higher than normal.

Cutting up hairs into short segments and analysing each segment individually provides a histogram of arsenic concentration in the body. This analysis on hair from Napoléon suggests that large but non-lethal doses were absorbed at random intervals. The arsenic severely weakened Napoléon and remained in his system. There, it could have reacted with calomel- and mercury-based compounds—common medicines at the time—and thus been the immediate cause of his death.

More recent analysis on behalf of the magazine Science et Vie showed that similar concentrations of arsenic can be found in Napoléon's hair in samples taken from 1805, 1814 and 1821. The lead investigator, Ivan Ricordel (head of toxicology for the Paris Police), stated that if arsenic had been the cause, Napoléon would have died years earlier. Arsenic was also used in some wallpaper, as a green pigment, and even in some patent medicines, and the group suggested that the most likely source in this case was a hair tonic. Prior to the discovery of antibiotics, arsenic was also a widely used, but ineffective, treatment for syphilis. (This has led to speculation that Napoléon might have suffered from syphilis.) Controversy remains as the Science et Vie analysis has not addressed all points of the arsenic poisoning theory.

Marriages and children

Napoléon was twice married:

Napoléon also had at least two illegitimate children who both had descendants:

Other information points to Napoléons's having had further illegitimate children:

  • Émilie Louise Marie Françoise Joséphine Pellapra, daughter by Françoise-Marie LeRoy.
  • Karl Eugin von Mühlfeld, son by Victoria Kraus.
  • Hélène Napoleone Bonaparte, daughter by Countess Montholon.
  • Barthélemy St Hilaire (August 19, 1805 - November 24, 1895) whose mother remains unknown.


Napoléon had asked in his will to be buried on the banks of the Seine, but when he died in 1821 he was buried on Saint Helena. This final wish was not executed until 1840, when his remains were taken to France in the frigate Belle-Poule and entombed in Les Invalides, Paris.


Napoleon is credited with introducing the concept of the modern professional conscript army to Europe, an innovation which other states were forced to follow.

In France, Napoleon is also seen as having preserved the Revolution by creating and perpetuating its myth. It is widely believed that, had he not taken power and radically changed French society as well as the map of Europe, a restoration of the French monarchy would have evolved into a parliamentary constitutional monarchy, much in the way that the British monarchy has. Furthermore, the Napoleonic Wars also exported the Revolution to the rest of Europe, and it is believed that the movements of national unification and the rise of the nation state, notably in Italy and Germany, were rooted in and precipitated — if not caused — by the Napoleonic rule of those areas.

The Code Napoleon was adopted through much of Europe and remained after Napoleon's defeat. Professor Dieter Langewiesche of the University of Tuebingen describes the code as a "revolutionary project" which spurred the development of bourgeois society in Germany by expanding the right to own property and breaking the back of feudalism. Langewiesche also credits Napoleon with reorganizing what had been the Holy Roman Empire made up of more than 1,000 entities into a more streamlined network of 40 states providing the basis for the German Confederation and the future unification of Germany under the Second Reich in 1871.

His marshals

Napoléon's marshals included:

The names of a great proportion of these have been given to successive stretches of a circular avenue encircling Paris, thus nicknamed Boulevard des Maréchaux ("The Marshals' Boulevard").

See also

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations by or about:
Napoleon Bonaparte
Wikimedia Commons has multimedia related to:
  • Bonaparte (Napoléon Ier) (http://www.insecula.com/contact/A003985.html/)
  • The Napoleon Series (http://www.napoleonseries.org/index.cfm) - volunteer educational project with over 800 pages of content.
  • Full texts of
    • Memoirs of Napoleon (http://www.gutenberg.net/etext/3567) from Project Gutenberg
    • The Life of Napoleon I (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/14300) by John Holland Rose, 1910, from Project Gutenberg
  • Napoleon's family genealogy (http://www.napoleonseries.com/genealogy)
  • A profile focusing in his years serving in the French army (http://web.genie.it/utenti/i/inanna/livello2-i/napoleone-1-i.htm)
  • "The Strange Story of Napoleon's Wallpaper" (http://www.grand-illusions.com/napoleon/napol1.htm) - discussing the possibility of arsenic poisoning
  • Napoleon - Portraits and Paintings (http://www.geocities.com/superstorelink/napoleon.html)
Preceded by:
College of 5 directors:
Louis-Jérôme GOHIER
Jean-François MOULIN
Head of State of France
(1st time)
Succeeded by:
(King of France)
Provisional Consul
along with:
(Nov. 11 - Dec. 12 1799)
First Consul
along with:
(Second Consul)
Charles-François LEBRUN
(Third Consul)
(Dec. 12 1799 - May 18, 1804)
Emperor of the French
(May 18, 1804 - Apr. 6, 1814)
Preceded by:
(King of France)
Head of State of France
(2nd time)
(Emperor of the French)
(Mar. 20 - June 22, 1815)
Succeeded by:
Napoléon II
(Emperor of the French)

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