The most famous Frenchman in history was born at Ajaccio, Corsica on 15 August, 1769. Consequently Napoleon Bonaparte was not, in fact French. He was, though, a French subject as a result of the ceding of Corsica to France by the Genoese in 1768. His family was upper-middle class. His father Carlo was a political opportunist who gained acceptance into the French aristocracy.
At the age of 10 Napoleon entered the military academy at Brienne, France. His first few months there were a nightmare with the other children teasing him for his strange name, his foreign accent and his small size. Napoleon coped by concentrating on his studies. In 1784 he won a place at the prestigious Ecole Militaire in Paris. A year later he graduated and was commissioned a second lieutenant of artillery. He was garrisoned at Valence. He spent the next six years as a struggling soldier in an isolated outpost.
Napoleon’s regiment was stationed in Auxonne when the French Revolution broke out. Napoleon approved of the Revolution in principal but he deplored the violence of the common people. On 10, 1792 August he witnessed the second storming of the Tuileries and the arrest of King Louis XVI . He also saw the slaughter of the Swiss Guards that followed. From this point on Napoleon both hated and feared the common people of France.
Between 1790 and 1791 Napoleon spent 18 months in his homeland of Corsica, helping to consolidate French rule. In 1793, he rejoined his regiment who were stationed in Italy. He was here given his first military command at the siege of Toulon. In 3 days Napoleon bombarded the city into submission, gaining control of this important harbor city . He was rewarded by a speedy promotion to brigadier-general and an appointment as commander of planning for the army of Italy.
In 1795 he was recalled to Paris to help quell mobs under royalist leadership that were preparing to storm the Tuileries. Napoleon was placed as second in command of the defense. He ordered the storming crowds to be annihilated with forty cannon. This act established Napoleon as a hero of the Revolution and gained him entrance into Parisian society. Through such connections he met Josephine de Beauharnias. On March 9, 1796 the two were married. His bride’s connections were evident two days later when Napoleon became commander of the Army of Italy.
In quick succession Napoleon achieved victories over the Italians, Austrians and Sardinians at Matenotte, Dego, Millesimo, Mondovi and Lodi, Milan, Castiglione and Arcola. In February 1797 he marched across the Alps toward Vienna. The Austrians sued for an Armistice before a single shot was fired.
His return to France was triumphant. At just 28 years of age Napoleon had established himself as the greatest French general of all time. In honor of his achievements he was elected to the prestigious Institut. He set his sights on achieving total power.
First though there was the ongoing sea war with Britain. He decided on a rearguard action to attack Britain’s resources by occupying Egypt and cutting off her trade routes with India and the Far East. On June 10, 1798 his forces took the island fortress of Malta. Three weeks later they seized Alexandria. Within days the entire Nile Delta was in French hands. Napoleon’s first defeat, however, came on August 1 when his entire naval fleet was destroyed by the British navy. In February, 1799 the French were again defeated, this time on land at the battle of Acre. Napoleon retreated to Egypt. Here he handed his command over to General Jean Baptiste Kleber and sailed for France.
When he arrived back in Paris, Napoleon was dismayed to find that France had lost control of most of the territories he had won in Italy. The Directory was, in fact, in a state of chaos. The young General was seen as the last hope for the country. Two of the directors approached him with a plan to overthrow the Directory. A coup d’etat was executed on 10 November 1799. The directors were forced to resign and the Directory was abolished. A new Government was established consisting of three consuls. Napoleon Bonaparte was meant to be one of the three equal members of this consul but it didn’t take long for him to assert himself as de facto dictator of France.
Napoleon set about reforming local and national government, education and legislature, proving himself a brilliant statesman and administrator. In 1802 Napoleon was voted consul for life. This, however, was not enough for him, and he set about paving the way for himself to be crowned Emperor of the French. In May, 1804 he got his wish.
In 1803 the British declared war on France once more. In December of that year the Grand Armee assembled in preparation of an invasion of Britain. The destruction of his fleet, combined with the Spanish, by the British off Cape Trafalgar, however, ended any plans of a British invasion. In August, 1805 Napoleon invaded Germany. French victories followed at Ulm, and Austerlitz. Napoleon was crowned king of Italy. His relations were made kings of Naples and Holland. In 1806 Prussia declared war on France and was soundly defeated. Napoleon now introduced ‘The Continental System’ which forbade all European nations trading with his age old enemy, Britain. In June, 1807 he gained victory over the Russians at the Battle of Friedland. A year later Charles IV ceded his rights in Spain to Napoleon. Napoleon’s brother Joseph took the throne of Spain.
The beginning of the end came in December, 1810 when the Russians announced that they would no longer observe the Continental System. Napoleon’s response was to invade Russia. Making it to Moscow the French forces were decimated by a massive fire. The Russian winter then took its toll on the French. More than half a million men had been reduced to less than 10,000. Napoleon retreated to Paris.
Europe now believed that France could be beaten. In 1813 the Prussians joined forces with Russia in an alliance against France. When Austria joined the alliance, Napoleon knowing he couldn’t prevail, sued for an armistice. He soon reneged on the conditions, however and an allied invasion of France was put in motion. By January, 1814 France was under attack from all sides. In March, 1814 Paris fell to the allies. Napoleon had moved his army east. The Parisian authorities had, however, abandoned him and they came to terms with the allies.
Napoleon was determined to hold out to the bitter end. But after his General defected he finally faced the inevitable. On 6 April, 1814 Napoleon Bonaparte announced his abdication. Under the Treaty of Fontainebleau he was exiled to the island of Elba. Just a year later, however, he returned to Paris and, with the masses rallying around him, was reinstated as head of state. The allies, of course, retaliated by marching once more on France. Initially Napoleon’s forces gained the victory but the final defeat came when the British forces, reinforced by the Prussians, met the French at Waterloo. Napoleon had fought his last battle.
For a second time the Emperor abdicated. Deciding what to do with him, the allies finally decided on exile to the rocky island of St. Helena in the south Atlantic. Situated a thousand miles off the African Coast Napoleon was now well and truly out of the way. On 5 May, 1821 Napoleon Bonaparte died on his island prison. He was just fifty one years of age.