Napoleon’s Empire Collapses Napoleon’s Costly Mistakes:Napoleon’s own personality was the greatest danger to his empire. His desire for power helped him reach great heights, and that same love of power lead him to his doom. In his efforts to extend the French Empire and crush Great Britain, Napoleon made three disastrous mistakes.
The Continental System
In November 1806, Napoleon set up a blockade – a forcible closing of ports – to prevent all trade and communication between Great Britain and other European nations. Napoleon called this policy the Continental System. Napoleon wanted to destroy Great Britain’s economy.
Napoleon’s blockade, however, was not strong enough. Smugglers snuck goods from Britain into Europe. Napoleon’s allies also disregarded his blockade, including his own brother, who Napoleon had made the king of Holland! So, while Napoleon’s blockade had weakened British trade, it did not destroy it.
Then, Great Britain responded with its own blockade. Because the British navy was stronger than the French navy, it was better able to make the blockade work, using Napoleon’s idea against him.
The Peninsular War
In 1808, Napoleon decided to try and get Portugal to accept the Continental System. To do this, he sent an invasion force into Portugal through the country of Spain. The Spanish people protested, so Napoleon responded by replacing the Spanish king with his brother, Joseph. This move made the Spanish people even angrier.
For the next six years, groups of Spanish peasant fighters, known as guerillas, attacked French armies in Spain. The guerillas were not an army that Napoleon could defeat in a regular battle. Instead, they worked in small groups that ambushed French troops and then fled into hiding. The British added to Napoleon’s troubles by sending troops to aid the Spanish fighters.
Napoleon lost about 300,000 men during this Peninsular War (named because Spain is located on the Iberian Peninsula). The Spanish people turned against Napoleon, whom they saw as an abusive, foreign conqueror. This was seriously weakened Napoleon and his French Empire.
The Invasion of Russia
Napoleon’s most disastrous mistake of all came in 1812. Even though Alexander I of Russia had been Napoleon’s ally, the Russian Czar refused to stop selling grain to Great Britain. The Russian Czar’s refusal to obey Napoleon’s Continental System caused Napoleon to invade Russia.
In June 1812, Napoleon and his Grand Army of 500,000 men marched into Russia. As Napoleon advanced, the Russian army retreated, refusing to meet in an unequal battle. On this retreat, the Russians practiced a scorched-earth policy, burning grain fields and slaughtering lives stock so as to leave nothing for the French army to eat.
When Napoleon entered the Russian capital, Moscow, in September, 1812, he found it burned to the ground. Napoleon stayed in the ruined city into the middle of October, when he finally decided to return to France. As the French army moved west, the temperature dropped and snow began to fall. Thousands began to die of exhaustion, hunger and cold. By the time the French army returned to France, only 10,000 remained in fighting shape.
Napoleon’s Downfall:Napoleon’s enemies quickly took advantage of his weakness. Great Britain, Russia, Prussia, Sweden and Austria declared war on France. All of the main powers of Europe were now fighting Napoleon.
The Battle of Leipzig
Following the Russian disaster, Napoleon managed to raise another army. However, most of this new army was untrained and not ready for battle. Napoleon faced the allied armies of the European powers outside the German city of Leipzig in October 1813. The allied forces easily defeated Napoleon’s inexperienced army.
In January 1814, the Russian and Prussian armies captured Paris. Napoleon wanted to continue to fight, but his generals refused. In April 1814, Napoleon surrendered and gave up his throne.
The victorious allies gave Napoleon a small pension and exiled, or banished, him to Elba, a tiny island off the Italian coast. The allies expected no more trouble from Napoleon, but they were wrong.
The Battle of Waterloo
Louis XVI’s brother assumed the French throne as Louis XVIII. However, the new king quickly lost popularity among the peasants. They suspected him of wanting to undo the Revolution’s land reforms. When Napoleon heard that Louis was losing the love of the French people, he jumped at the chance to regain power. He escaped from Elba and, on March 1, 1815, landed in France. Thousands of French people welcomed him and volunteers joined the ranks of his army, Napoleon was again the emperor of France.
The time from when Napoleon regained power, on March 1, 1815, to the time he lost the Battle of Waterloo, on June 18, 1815, was called The Hundred Days.
In response to Napoleon’s regaining power, the European allies quickly readied their armies. The British army, lead by the Duke of Wellington, prepared for battle near the village of Waterloo, in Belgium. On June 18, 1815, Napoleon attacked. The British and Prussian forces broke Napoleon’s lines and chased the French from the battlefield.
This defeat ended Napoleon’s last bid for power. Taking no chances this time, the British sent Napoleon to St. Helena, a lonely island in the South Atlantic. There, he lived in exile for six years, dying in 1821 of stomach cancer.
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