Reader's Encyclopedia

Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon I, original name Napoleone Buonaparte; 1769 - 1821) Emperor of France (1804 - 15)

Napoleon, born in Corsica and educated at French military schools, began his astoundingly successful military career as a very young man. Involved in the Revolution, he was imprisoned but managed to avoid the bloodletting of Robespierre 's Reign of Terror. While serving the Directory, his victory in northern Italy during the campaign against Austria raised him to the position of national hero. His following campaign, in Egypt, was thwarted by the English victory of Nelson and the loss of the French fleet in the battle of the Nile. Returning to Paris at the time of a collapse in the government, Napoleon launched the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire (November 9, 1799) that set him firmly upon the path of destiny.

Now first consul, he was elected consul for life in 1802. Napoleon 's coronation as emperor of France took place on December 2, 1804. The empire had been carved out of a series of military and political victories, but the Napoleonic dreams of glory and grandeur included the founding of a dynasty. In 1796 the Little Corporal had married Josephine Beauharnais, but Napoleon divorced his wife, the first empress, when it became clear that she could not provide him with an heir, and he married Marie Louise, archduchess of Austria (1810). As emperor, Napoleon enacted various important internal reforms in the economy and the legal system, but it was the victories of the empire under the Old Guard, consisting of Marshal Ney, Davout, Murat, and others, that made Napoleon a living legend and maintained his reign. The history of Europe during these years is the history of Napoleon 's conquests, a chronicle of the gradual spread of his power throughout continental Europe.

Napoleon had captured the age, both in fact and in spirit, but there remained limits to even his sovereignty. After Nelson ' s second crushing defeat of the French fleet at Trafalgar, Napoleon was obliged to abandon any plans for the invasion of England. Furthermore, the English under Wellington had landed an army on the Iberian peninsula, aiding the Spanish and the Portuguese, who were seeking to restore the Bourbon line and remove the economic weight of Napoleon 's continental system, the blockade of England. Napoleon thus turned eastward, beginning the disastrous campaign on the Russian front that was to prove his undoing. At Borodino, he defeated the Russians under Kutuzov but paid a high price for his victory. Reaching Moscow, he found the city abandoned and in flames; the long retreat westward from Russia cost the Napoleonic Corps more than two - thirds of its men. Napoleon himself had returned to France to organize a new army. This force was defeated at the battle of Leipzig, which resulted in the fall of Paris to the coalition allies led by Wellington (1814). Forced to abdicate, Napoleon was banished to the island of Elba; ten months later, he escaped and returned to France in a final effort to regain power. But history 's tide was no longer his to command; after the brief triumphant glory of the Hundred Days, he was crushed at the Battle of Waterloo (June 18, 1815). His last years were spent in exile on the island of St. Helena.

A figure of great interest, not only to historians but to other writers as well, Napoleon has been the subject of an enormous amount of literature, including such works as Sardou's Madame Sanskrit Gene and George Bernard Shaw 's Man of Destiny.