The Napoleonic Experience

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Foreign Policies and War

Napoleon's dramatic rise and fall depended from beginning to end on his fortunes at war. His unexpected successes in Italy in 1796–97 made him an instant legend, both among the French people at home and among his soldiers in the Army of Italy. Yet from the very start of his ascent, overreaching ambition proved to be a potentially fatal flaw. When Napoleon returned from Italy in 1797, the Directory government wanted to send him off to invade England, mainly to get him out of town. Napoleon convinced them that an invasion of Egypt would suit their purposes better, for it would open the route to India where Great Britain had earlier expelled the French and established an important empire. Napoleon focused his ambition on Egypt because of its historical importance, not because it was a viable strategic objective: "We must go to the Orient," he insisted. "It is there that great glory has always been gained." His search for glory nearly ended his career.

Napoleon invaded Egypt in early July 1798 on the pretense that he was reasserting the Ottoman sultan's authority there against the local Mameluke rulers. In the Battle of the Pyramids outside Cairo, Napoleon's soldiers smashed the Mameluke cavalry. It was one of the few glorious moments of the Egyptian campaign. He was so confident of his ultimate success that he brought with him scores of scientists, engineers, and archaeologists to study the treasures and riches of the Orient.

But on 1 August 1798, British Admiral Horatio Nelson trapped the French fleet in Aboukir Bay off the Egyptian coast and captured or destroyed all but four of the French ships. The destruction of the French fleet left the army in Egypt cut off from France and ensured the dominance of the British in the Mediterranean. From there the situation deteriorated. Despite Napoleon's attempts to respect the Islamic religion, his occupation aroused resentment and revolt. Napoleon marched his troops into the province of Syria in early 1799 but was forced to retreat to Egypt by an outbreak of the plague and the difficulty of supplying his army. A clever stream of propaganda kept the French at home ignorant of his troubles.

Napoleon's elevation to the successive positions of First Consul, First Consul for Life, and then Emperor only enhanced his interest in the pursuit of glory through military means. Indeed, from 1800 to 1812 it seemed as if nothing could prevent him from attaining dominion over all of Europe. In seeking this goal, he received vital assistance from the divisions among his enemies, who frequently made a separate peace with Napoleon either to cut their losses or to pursue their own advantage in alliance with him. Yet Napoleon was not content with a merely European theater in his quest of greatness; he hoped to establish some kind of worldwide empire. To this end he tried to extend France's colonies in the New World by retrieving Louisiana from the Spanish and by invading Saint Domingue; eventually, he sold the one and gave up on the other. He also sent agents to Persia and India, tried to claim a part of the coast of Australia, and dispatched army officers to investigate defenses in North Africa. Most of these plans for world empire were frustrated by his inability to defeat the British at sea. In October 1805 Nelson again decimated the French fleet, this time in the Battle of Trafalgar near the Straits of Gibraltar. Nelson died but lost no ships; the French saw two-thirds of theirs sunk or destroyed.

On the continent, Napoleon's well-trained armies ensured an altogether different outcome. In 1805 a new coalition to oppose Napoleon took shape uniting Great Britain, Russia, and Austria, with Prussia threatening to join at any moment. On 2 December 1805, Napoleon routed the Austrians and Russians at the Battle of Austerlitz. The Prussians then foolishly tried to take him on by themselves and suffered a disastrous string of defeats. Napoleon seized the occasion to remake the map of the German states, joining all of them except Austria and Prussia in a Confederation of the Rhine. With this new confederation under his influence, Napoleon declared himself the true successor to Charlemagne. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, Francis II had abdicated his title as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire a few years before, becoming merely the Emperor of Austria. Napoleon then turned his ire on the Russians. After a series of hard-fought contests, Alexander I made peace. By the terms of the Tilsit Treaty, Prussia gave up one-third of its territory, and France and Russia secretly agreed to ally together against England, a promise that neither intended to keep.

Between 1806 and 1810, Napoleon reached the height of his power in Europe. He made himself king of a newly amalgamated Italy in 1805, which brought together extensive territories in northern and central Italy. He installed his brother Joseph as King of Naples in 1806 before moving him to the kingdom of Spain in 1808. He made his brother Louis King of the Netherlands in 1806. In 1807 he named his brother Jerome King of Westphalia. He could put his relatives on the thrones of Europe because he could defeat all his rivals via a straightforward land invasion except one, Great Britain. Recognizing that he could not invade the island nation, he tried to isolate Great Britain commercially through an embargo of goods called the "continental system" of 1806. The system failed because the French could not provide the same manufactured goods as Great Britain for even somewhat similar prices. Thus, despite official prohibitions, massive state intervention, and the expansion of the country to include prosperous areas in Belgium, Germany, and Italy, France could not compete with the rapidly industrializing British.

In the long run, the failure of this continental blockade spelled the beginning of the end. To make the embargo on trade more encompassing, Napoleon invaded Portugal and then occupied Spain in 1808. The Spanish rebelled and with financial and military support from Britain, they tied Napoleon's armies down in a long guerrilla war. Even Napoleon's personal intervention with 150,000 additional troops could not stabilize the French takeover. The French continued to win many battles but were gradually losing the war in Spain and Portugal. By 1813 British, Portuguese, and Spanish troops had driven out the French. In Latin America, local patriots seized the moment of turmoil in Spain to press their own demands for independence, marking an important turning point in the region's political development. Events in Latin America did nothing to help Napoleon in Europe.

Napoleon fell from power because he could not dispose of either Great Britain or Russia. While the British stubbornly resisted the French in the Iberian peninsula, Tsar Alexander I abandoned his alliance with France and began to prepare for war once again. The British promised subsidies, and the Russians carried on a secret trade in British goods. In June 1812, Napoleon entered Russian territory with 500,000 troops. As he advanced, the Russians retreated, destroying food and fodder in a calculated "scorched-earth" policy. After a hard-won victory at Borodino outside Moscow, his now much-diminished army entered Moscow on 14 September, only to have the Russians torch the city. After five weeks of futilely waiting for Alexander to come to terms, Napoleon ordered a general withdrawal. Before long, winter set in, dashing French hopes for an orderly retreat. Tens of thousands of soldiers froze to death; thousands of others lost their lives to marauding Russian soldiers or enraged peasants. The Russians had not exactly won the campaign, but the French had lost and even admitted tactical defeat. Napoleon returned with approximately 40,000 men.

The end was now approaching fast. Emboldened by the French army's unexpected losses and the success of their own internal reforms, all the great powers had by September 1813 joined again in a coalition designed to bring down the French Emperor. After the two sides fought a generally inconclusive battle at Leipzig in October (called the Battle of the Nations) that resulted in the defection of a large part of his forces, Napoleon now had only 100,000 soldiers left to defend France. The allied victories were fueled by a wave of patriotic enthusiasm that swept the German states, as young men joined up to liberate Germany from French control. By March 1814, the allied armies had captured Paris. In April his own officials pressured Napoleon to abdicate in favor of the brother of Louis XVI, known as Louis XVIII because Louis XVI's son, who would have been Louis XVII, had died in captivity. Napoleon tried to kill himself with poison but failed and went into exile on the island of Elba.

While the European powers were meeting to decide the terms of peace, Napoleon learned that many in France resented the changes introduced by the new Bourbon King, Louis XVIII. On 26 February 1815, he escaped with 1,100 men and returned to France to begin what became known as "the Hundred Days." Louis fled when unit after unit went over to Napoleon. The allies gathered their armies for another showdown; they outnumbered Napoleon two to one. On 18 June 1815, the final battle was engaged at Waterloo in Belgium. The Prussians joined up with the army under the command of the Duke of Wellington, victor over the French in Spain and Portugal, and together they defeated Napoleon, who abdicated again. This time he was sent off to distant Saint Helena in the South Atlantic, far from Europe. He died there six years later.

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