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Napoleon Can't Get Enough of Europe

Being the military guy that he was, Napoleon couldn’t wait to use France’s army. Napoleon had hardly been in power when in 1800 he headed back to Italy to reconquer lands that had been lost during his absence. After a series of battles, Napoleon defeated Austria and took most Austrian holdings in Italy.

Napoleon then signed a treaty with Britain in which France won Malta. The peace was tenuous and strained and destined not to last long. Napoleon had already redrawn Germany, annexed Piedmont, and taken Malta, but he had his eyes on Britain and he hoped in the future to invade. With war with Britain just around the corner, Napoleon sold French land in North America to the United States for a little over seven million dollars, land eventually called the Louisiana Purchase. Britain wasn’t all Napoleon wanted. He also had his sights on Russia and Prussia. It remained to be seen whether he would realize his foreign policy goals—nothing less than the domination of Europe—the way he realized his domestic goals.

The Coalitions

In 1803, Napoleon positioned troops in French ports along the English Channel in preparation for an invasion of England. As Napoleon prepared for invasion, Europe prepared for Napoleon. Britain joined Austria, Russia, Naples, and Sweden in the Third Coalition against France, the first two having been formed against revolutionary France.

When Napoleon tried to bring his fleet to the English Channel from the Mediterranean in preparation for a possible invasion of England, he suffered a major setback. Britain’s Lord Nelson crushed the French fleet at the historic Battle of Trafalgar, establishing the permanent dominance of the British navy and effectively preventing a French invasion. With his hopes for a naval invasion of England permanently squashed, Napoleon looked eastward. Napoleon’s troops marched through Germany and engaged Coalition forces in Germany and Austria. In December 1805, at the Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon used brilliant strategy to crush the opposing forces.

He knocked Austria out of the war and kicked them out of Italy with a treaty.

Russia temporarily retreated but at the cost of much land. Unopposed in Germany, Napoleon created a new German Confederation of the Rhine of which he was the protector. The Fourth and Fifth Coalitions likewise proved ineffective against Napoleon and suffered humiliating defeats.

The Grand Empire

Napoleon now saw himself as the emperor not just of France but of all of Europe. Those nations he hadn’t beaten, he bullied. In his Grand Empire, Napoleon replaced monarch after monarch with his family members and he imposed his Code Napoleon on the lands he conquered. He often invaded under the guise of liberator rather than as conqueror; or so he wanted the people to believe. He planned to use his Grand Empire to defeat the one nation he couldn’t defeat militarily: Britain.

Continental Quotes

"England is a nation of shopkeepers."

—Napoleon Bonaparte

Would You Believe?

Napoleon's Continental System resulted in the demise of Amsterdam as a trade power and possibly in the delay of the Industrial Revolution's arrival in France—neither were expected results. The boycott and blockade of Britain also hurt the French badly.

Napoleon used what was known as the “Continental System” to starve the British. He demanded that all his subjects and allies boycott Britain by not sending any shipments to the islands. Practically everyone participated in the system but Portugal; Britain never suffered the way Napoleon had hoped, though. Napoleon demanded that Spain help him invade Portugal but Spain refused.

Napoleon invaded Spain and the Spanish opposition headed for the hills rather than engage him directly. In the meantime, Austria tried to break away, so Napoleon invaded and eventually defeated them, though many of his troops remained bogged down in Spain. At this point, Napoleon and his Grand Empire seemed virtually unstoppable. However, Napoleon had his sights set on one last big prize.

The Original Waterloo

In 1811, Alexander’s Russia stopped enforcing the boycott, which drew the wrath of Napoleon. Possibly Napoleon needed a whipping boy; possibly he’d heard that Russia was considering an invasion of Germany. Regardless, Napoleon ignored the advice of his advisors and started plans to invade Russia.

He amassed an army of 600,000 men and launched his offensive in June of 1812, defeating army after army as the Russians engaged him. But then the Russians began a retreat into the heartland of Russia. The Russians finally engaged Napoleon again outside Moscow. Historians estimate the battle resulted in between 50,000 and 70,000 dead in one day, making the Battle of Borodino one of the bloodiest battles in all of human history. The Russians abandoned the city and set it ablaze on their way out. Finally, after weeks in a burnt-out city, Napoleon began a retreat not only out of the city but also out of the country, often called sarcastically the Grand Retreat, back through frozen Russia. He had no supplies and had hoped to live off the land as he went, but the Russians had left nothing for him. Of the 600,000 French soldiers that entered Russia, only about 40,000 made it safely back to Poland and Prussia. Nevertheless, Napoleon headed immediately for Paris to raise another army.

As Napoleon gathered a new army, the Sixth Coalition smelled blood. Napoleon engaged the Coalition forces at Leipzig in the Battle of Nations. Outnumbered two

Would You Believe?

France paid Napoleon an amazing two million francs yearly salary while he ruled his “empire" on Elba.

to one, the French forces held out as long as they could but Napoleon eventually retreated to Paris. By April 1814, Coalition forces had converged on Paris. The mighty Napoleon was cornered. In mid-April, Napoleon agreed to an unconditional surrender and abdicated his throne. The Coalition agreed to let Napoleon keep the title of emperor—but he had to go be the emperor of the tiny island of Elba off the Italian coast.

The Allies restored the monarchy in France, but it didn’t last long. When Napoleon heard that the French monarchy had the nation in turmoil, he staged a daring escape from Elba early in 1815. He landed in France to find soldiers waiting to arrest him.

In grand fashion, Napoleon convinced them to rejoin him instead. He took what troops he could muster and he marched on Paris. Upon hearing of Napoleon’s return, the new French monarch, Louis XVIII, fled.

For a few months, a period often referred to as the Hundred Days, Napoleon ruled France again. He gathered more than 250,000 combined regular and citizen soldiers. In June, Napoleon engaged British and Prussian forces separately in an attempt to knock them out before they could join forces and defeat his new army. Although it seemed like a good idea at the time, things didn’t work out according to plan. The Duke of Wellington finally defeated Napoleon’s troops at the famous Battle of Waterloo in modern-day Belgium on June 18, 1815. After his defeat, Napoleon was banished to the island of St. Helena, in the middle of nowhere some 1,700 miles off the coast of Angola. Napoleon lived out his days there and died in 1821.

As a Matter of Fact

After he earned international renown for defeating Napoleon at Waterloo, Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington, became a political star and rose through the ranks of British government. He eventually became British Prime Minister in 1828. The ultra-conservative Wellington, occasionally called “Old Nosey" because of his prominent nose, in not-so-conservative fashion led Catholic Emancipation in the United Kingdom. In other words, under his administration Catholics gained many civil rights in the UK. This action ultimately led to an anti-climactic duel between Wellington and Lord Winchilsea. In the duel, neither man fired at the other and Winchilsea eventually apologized to Wellington for accusing him of trying to destroy Protestantism.

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