Napoleon Bonaparte was best known as the ruler of France. Not only was he this, but he was King of Italy, Mediator of the Swiss Confederation and Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine, he is considered by many to be one of the best military commanders that ever lived. His rise, reign, and fall marked the end of the Monarchy in France, and the start of a Republic.
Napoleon was born in Ajaccio the capital of Corsica, a small island off the coast of France. At the age of 16 he became a commissioned second lieutenant in an artillery regiment on mainland France. After spending a few years back in Corsica he eventually attained the rank of Artillery Commander. He got his big break while commanding a republican government force at Toulon. His unorthodox way of commanding proved to be immensely successful as Toulon was successfully defended.
The committee of public safety noticed how well he commanded the battle and promoted Bonaparte to Brigadier-General. During the time he was a general he led successful campaigns in Italy, Lombardy, The Papal States, and most noticeably Egypt; where he took a group of 167 scientists, mathematicians, naturalists, and chemists. This team made many important discoveries such as the Rosetta Stone. After all the success Bonaparte had outside the country he launched a successful Coup d’état of the provisional government set up by the French Consulate, and shortly thereafter pronounced himself Emperor of the French.
Less than a year after his successful coup Bonaparte made his second campaign to Italy, which had been conquered by the Austrians while Napoleon was in Egypt. Although the battle started badly Napoleon’s forces eventually routed the Austrians in June at the Battle of Marengo leading to an armistice. After successfully re-taking Italy he was crowned King of Italy. In 1802 the British signed the treaty of Amiens, Which led to peace between Britain and France. The peace between the two rivals was short lied however, as the British opposed France’s annexation of Piedmont, and Napoleon’s Act of Mediation in Switzerland. By 1805 the British had started to lead a coalition force that included Russia and Austria against France. Bonaparte was able to hold back 4 of these coalitions until his campaign into Russia.
In June of 1812 Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia began. The campaign was ill-fated from the start as Russia used the scorched earth tactic so that the French army found it very difficult to meet their basic needs. The Russian army was quick to withdraw from the border, and eluded battle with Napoleon’s army for most of their retreat until they reached Moscow. When the French army had taken Moscow their numbers had greatly diminished, as the army had started with over 650,000 frontline troops, but the scorched earth tactic, and the long Russian winter took it’s toll on the French, as only 40,000 troops made it back to France.
After the French defeat in the Russian campaign Prussia joined a new coalition against France which included Russia, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Portugal. Initially Bonaparte had great success causing almost 100,000 casualties with the French sustaining only 30,000. As Napoleon’s success grew so did the opposing coalition, after the Battle of Dresden Sweden and Austria joined the force opposing the French. The coalition now had a force of 500,000 soldiers compared to 100,000 of the French Army. Realizing he faced imminent defeat Bonaparte abdicated in favor of his son. The coalition force took Paris in March of 1814.
With the French royalists gaining power and the coalition against Napoleon Louis XVIII was returned to power, and Napoleon was exiled to Elba a small island in the Mediterranean 20 km off the coast of Italy. He ran the island as a small country, with a small army and navy and the establishment of mines and improving farmland. After 100 days in exile he escaped Elba in February of 1815 and returned to France after he had gathered a force of 140,000 soldiers and 200,000 volunteers. He sent his army to Waterloo for an epic battle with the British. His inability to survey the battlefield because of hemorrhoids was one of the defining factors in the British victory.
After being captured by the Duke of Wellington while trying to escape to the United States he was exiled to Saint Helena, a small British held territory off the west coast of Africa where he lived until his death in 1821. His cause of death is unknown. In his autopsy the coroner stated that he had died of stomach cancer, but a study of his body done in 2001 revealed that the levels of arsenic in his body where 38 times the normal amount.
Some view Napoleon as a great leader of France, his military tactics and Napoleonic code are still used today with modern armies. He set the stage for a diplomatic governing body of France, and he won the respect of the French nation.