Napoleon I, also called Napoleon Bonaparte was the greatest military genius of his era and maybe the greatest general in history. He created an empire that covered most of western and central Europe.
Napoleon was born on August 15, 1769 on the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea. Because the island belonged to France Napoleon was a French citizen.
At the age of 9 he entered a French military school. While he was an average student in most subjects he was extremely good at mathematics. At 16 he graduated and became an artillery officer in the French army.
During the French Revolution Napoleon was stationed in Paris. This was a critical time for France because the country was at war with many European countries. In that year the monarchy was overthrown and France became a republic. During the revolution Napoleon defended the new government and joined the Jacobins, a radical political group in France.
In the years that followed Napoleon fought many battles in most of Europe. In 1796 he became commander in chief of all French forces in Italy. From Italy Napoleon invaded Austria, France’s most powerful enemy. As Napoleon approached Vienna, the Austrians surrendered and were forced to give up Belgium to France.
Napoleon’s victories made him very popular with the French people. He was able to convince France’s government – the Directory – that he could cut off British trade to Asia by occupying Egypt. But the British commander Horatio Nelson defeated Napoleon in the Battle of the Nile in 1798 and most of his fleet was destroyed.
Consul and Emperor
In 1799 Napoleon returned to Paris. With the help of his followers he overthrew the French government, which was very unpopular at that time because it had lost other wars. A consulate of three men was created to govern France, but Napoleon, who was the First Consul, held all the power.
As soon as he was in control of France Napoleon began to reform the country. He modernized the government, founded the Bank of France and reorganized higher education. But his greatest achievement was the Code Napoleon, a collection of laws that allowed people many liberties they had received during the Revolution. The code still forms the basis of civil law in France.
In 1804 Napoleon
changed France from a consulate to an empire. He became emperor and crowned himself at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.
When Napoleon seized power he began to concentrate on his dream of controlling all of Europe. In the Napoleonic Wars he fought against Prussia, Austria, Great Britain and Russia.
In 1805 Napoleon’s fleet was defeated again by Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, off the coast of Spain. In retaliation Napoleon tried to ruin England’s economy. He forbade countries that he controlled to trade with France but this didn’t work because they needed British goods. Although he had to give up his plan of conquering Great Britain he continued winning against other European armies on the ground.
Napoleon put his relatives on the thrones of the conquered territories. After his first marriage had ended in divorce, the emperor married Marie Louise, daughter of the emperor of Austria. Within a year they had a son whom he gave the title king of Rome.
In 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia because the Russians did not want to help blockade Britain. It turned out to be the biggest mistake of his career. When the French moved forward the Russian army retreated and burned down everything that the French might be able to use. When Napoleon finally reached Moscow, a huge fire broke out, destroying much of the city. Napoleon could do nothing but turn back. When the winter came and it started to snow most of Napoleon’s soldiers died. It was the greatest disasters in military history.
Napoleon’s enemies saw their chance. One by one they rose against him. Britain, Austria and Prussia joined Russia in their fight against Napoleon. The French were defeated in the Battle of Leipzig in today’s Germany. In 1814 the enemies captured Paris and Napoleon had to give up his throne.
Napoleon was banned on the island of Elba near Corsica, where he stayed for only 10 months. In March 1815 he escaped from prison and, together with his old supporters began a march on Paris. The king fled and for a short time Napoleon once again ruled France. This period, known as the Hundred Days, ended on June 18, 1815 when Napoleon was defeated for the last time at the Battle of Waterloo, Belgium.
After this final defeat, Napoleon was taken prisoner by the British who put him on the tiny island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. He stayed there until he died in 1821.