Modern Europe—Napoleonic Wars

1795 to 1815
French Directory to Battle of Waterloo

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Napoleonic Wars

Dozens of people played important roles in the first seven years of the French Revolution. For the following twenty years, however, from 1796 to 1815, the central character in the history of western Europe was Napoleon Bonaparte. There are few characters in history more complicated or controversial. He was a brilliant general and statesman and made many necessary and important reforms. But his overwhelming confidence in himself and uncompromising manner made many enemies and doomed his legacy. He sought after Republican ideals, but when elected bodies failed to produced the desire results, he resorted to a dictatorship far more tyrannical that the degenerate Christian monarchies he sought to replace. He sought to improve society, but his wars of aggression killed over 3 million people. He was so sure that he alone could best direct the government of 150 million Europeans that he took on far more then even a ruthless dictator with all the armies of Europe at his back, could hope to achieve. After thirteen years of Imperial rule, he was finally defeated by the combined nations of Europe but not before radically changing the political landscape of the continent.

Napoleon Lodi
Campaigns in Italy and Egypt—Napoleon was born in Corsica, studied at a military academy, and graduated as an artillery officer shortly before the French Revolution. He first came to the attention of the leaders of the revolution for his exceptional performance during the siege of Toulon. As a result, he was appointed by Paul Barras, an aspiring leader of the Directory, to defend their Convention in Paris, which was threatened by both royalist sympathizers and the Paris mob. Napoleon brought positioned artillery at key locations in the city and defended the convention. In gratitude, Barras introduced Napoleon to Josephine, his future wife, and gave him command of the French Army in Italy.

By early 1797 the Directory was in firm control of the government of France and Napoleon was dispatched to Italy. By late 1797 he was master of northern Italy and had forced Austria into peace negotiations. He returned to Paris in December of 1797 a hero and gained support for an ambitious plan of conquest directed against Britain's empire in India. His ambition was to conquer the middle east and use an overland route to supply Britain's enemies in India with French support. In June 1798 Napoleon and his army sailed for Alexandria and won a decisive victory over the Egyptian Mamluks at the Battle of the Paramids, but suffered a number of setbacks over the next few months. First, the British naval hero Horatio Nelson destroyed the French fleet at port in Aboukir bay. Then his troops suffered from the plague and his campaign into Syria was not entirely successful. Finally, he he received word that French armies in Italy had suffered many reverses and that the government in Paris was in disorder. Upon hearing this news, Napoleon retreated with his army to Egypt and returned alone to France.

Coup and First Consulship—During Napoleon's absence, the Napoleon was still popular in France and received a hero's welcome on his returned from Egypt. With the help of his brothers and other allies in goverment he arranged a coup d'etat and was pronounced "First Consul" of France. His first order of business was to reconquer Italian territory lost during his expedition to Egypt. Napoleon's second Italian Campaign was just as decisive as his first and by June 1800 he had reclaimed northern Italy and forced the Austrians to sue for peace. For four years afterward Europe enjoyed a period of relative peace. Napoleon spent the time consolidating his power in France and putting the economy on solid footing. He signed a concordant normalizing relations with the Catholic church, sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States, established a new civil code, and made a number of other worthwhile reforms.

Napoleon Jena
Although Napoleon had begun his career advocating for Republican ideals, once he held power he began to see the advantages of a monarchial system. He arranged to have himself crowned Emperor of France and proceeded to appoint his relatives as kings of the French client states he had created in Italy, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. Napoleon's audacity in crowning his family members and also, his summary execution of a German nobleman alarmed the royals of Europe. In a short time Russia, Naples, and Austria joined with Britain in another coalition to oppose France.

Conquest of Central Europe—While 1800-1804 was a period of relative peace in Europe, the years 1805-1807 saw a series of dramatic battles in which Napoleon's Grand Armee conquered much of Central Europe and defeated the combined armies of Austria, Prussia, Russia, Naples, Sweden, and Britain. In late 1805 Napoleon marched on Austria and won a brilliant victory at Austerlitz, bringing an end to the Holy Roman Empire. He placed his brother Joseph on the throne of Naples and then marched north, where he defeated the Prussian army at the Battle of Jenna. Napoleon's hardest won campaign however, was with Russia, the last surviving member of the fourth coalition. Alexander I finally conceded after the battle of Friedland and signed the treaty of Tilsit. By this treaty Prussia was partitioned to create the Kingdom of Westphalia, Russia conceded its Polish territory to the Duchy of Warsaw, and both states became clients of Napoleon's Empire. After three years of warfare all of Europe, excepting only Britain, was controled by Napoleon or his allies.

In spite of his conquests, resistance to Napoleon's regime remained and his German foes continued to drill their troops in preparation for another stand against the tyrant. By 1809 much of the French Army had been redeployed to the Peninsular War in Spain so Austria and Britain chose this time make another assault on Napoleon's empire. The allies opened one front in the Netherlands, and another in the Danube Valley. But Napoleon recalled his armies to the field and again prevailed at the Battle of Wagram. Eventually, however, Napoleon resolved that the best way to make a permanent peace with the great powers of Europe was to combine the Bonaparte dynasty with the ruling houses of Europe. Part of the terms of peace with Austria, therefore, involved the marriage of Napoleon with Marie Louise, an Austrian princess.

Peninsular War
Napoleon's Missteps and the Peninsular War—After eight years in power Napoleon had won a great deal of glory for himself and for France, but the years 1809 to 1812 saw a number of missteps and errors of overreach. First, he assumed that, having made himself the "protector" of the Catholic Church, the pope would agree to his demands. He was surprised, therefore, when Pius VII refused to grant a number of accommodations, so he sent an army to annex Rome and take the Pope into captivity. This did him no good, as the Pope refuse to negotiate even after four years in isolation, but it alienated a number of his Catholic subjects.

Another way in which Napoleon alienated his allies was his enforcement of a trade embargo with Britain, which ruined the economies of countries that relied on foreign trade. Alexander I refused to enforce a trade embargo against England and even Napoleon's brother Louis, king of the Netherlands flouted the emperors orders to restrict trade. Napoleon's tendency to dictate terms from above, which contradicted long established local methods, gained him enemies throughout Europe, even in formerly friendly domains.

Napoleon's most intractible problem, however, was the Peninsular War in Spain. For most of his reign, Spain had been at peace with France, and its corrupt and craven rulers had accomodated his every wish. Yet in 1808 he deposed the Bourbons rulers and installed his brother Joseph Bonaparte as king of Spain. This caused an a widespread uprising in Spain, not by the nobility or upper classes, who acquiesed to Napoleon's rule, but by the peasantry and rural resident who saw the French as a threat to the church, local government and provincial rights. Napoleon's armies were accustomed to fighting pitched battles against standing armies, but were ineffective against the type of guerilla warfare fought by the Spanish, and Britain armies were entrenched in strongholds all along the coast with ready supplies and reinforcements. The Peninsula war dragged on in Spain for four years without a clear resolution; longer than it had taken Napoleon to defeat the combined forces of the Hapsburg Empire, Prussia, and Russia.

French retreat from Moscow
Invasion of Russia and Final Defeat—When Napoleon planned his invasion of Russia he assumed the war would be won in western Russia, long before winter set in. But the Russian strategy of scorched earth and retreat drew Napoleon's army to its doom. After a long march and several battles, the French army approached Moscow, only to find it deserted and stripped of supplies. They had barely begun setting up winter quarters when arsonists burned most of the city, leaving the French army without shelter from the coming winter.

Napoleon's disastrous retreat from Moscow, during which over 500,000 men perished, emboldened his enemies, and Prussia, Russia, and Austria organized another coalition against the French. The long running war in Spain had exhausted many regiments and the loss of thousands of battle-tested soldiers in Russia was irreplaceable. Napoleon was forced to draw some of his experience troops from Spain, raise a new army and return to Germany to meet his united enemies, commanded by the Prussian general Marshal Blucher, while Britain opened a new offensive in Spain under Duke of Wellington. The battles of the Sixth coalition began in earnest in the summer of 1813 and the allies did not let up until Napoleon resigned his office in April of 1814.

Once Napoleon was exiled to Elba the exhausted allies returned home and attempted to restore order, but the emperor still had many supporters in France and soon escaped from captivity. On his return, Napoleon swore he intended only to govern France in peace, but his enemies would not hear of it and once again raised armies against him. He was finally defeated at Waterloo, and exiled to the remote Island of St. Helena where he died six years later.

Characters—Napoleonic Wars

Character/Date Short Biography

Napoleon family

Victorious general who rose to power during the French Revolution. Crowned himself Emperor and restored France to greatness.
Josephine Beauharnais
Aristocratic wife of Napoloeon Bonaparte.
Joseph Bonaparte
Older brother of Napoleon who was crowned first, King of Naples, and then later, King of Spain.
Eugene de Beauharnais
Stepson of Napoleon, who accompanied him on all his early campaigns. Later Prince of Italy.


Michel Ney
One of Napoleon's most trusted generals and hero of many French battles. Executed for treason after Waterloo.
Marshal Blucher
Prussian Field Marshall who opposed Napoleon at Leipzig and Waterloo. (At age 72!)
Duke of Wellington
Napoleonic war general who fought in Spain and Portugal. Defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.
Horatio Nelson
Great Naval hero of his age; victor at the Battle of the Nile, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar.
General Janssens
Dutch General who surrendered Cape Town to the British after the Battle of Blaauwberg.
Alexander I
Leader of Russia during the Napoleonic Wars.

Statesment and Diplomats

Apostate bishop who organized Civil Constitution of Clergy. Stayed in favor during regime changes from the Estates General to the Restoration.
Austrian statesman who was influential in bringing about a long lasting peace in Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. Hosted Congresss of Vienna.
Louise of Prussia
Queen of Prussia who inspired Germany to resist Napoleon. Greatly honored in Prussia.
Pope Pius VII
Pope during the reign of Napoleon and the early restoration period.

Arts and Science

Jacques-Louis David
Neoclassical French painter of the revolutionary era famous for his historical subjects.
Georges Cuvier
World expert on fossils and prehistoric animals. Proponent of catastrophism in contrast to uniformism.

Timeline—Napoleonic Wars

AD YearEvent

Revolutionary Era: 1789-1795

Dec 1793 Napoleon defeats royalists at siege of Toulon. Distinguishes himself as artillery officer.
Jan 1795 French client state Batavian Republic is established in the Netherlands.
Oct 1795 Napoleon protects Thermidorian Convention from protestors, confiscates arms from Paris mob.

Directory: 1795-1799

Nov 1795 Thermidorian Convention establishes a 5-member executive government called The Directory.
Mar 1796 Napoleon marries Josephine Beauharnais and assumes leadership of Italian campaign.
May 1796 Successful campaign in Italy at Lodi brings France spoils of war and new sources of taxation.
Jan 1797 Victory against Austria at the Battle of Rivoli gives France control of Northern Italy.
Jul 1797 French client state Cisalpine Republic is established in Northern Italy.
Sep 1797 Coup of 18 Fructidor ousts newly elected conservatives from Directory government.
Oct 1797 Treaty of Campo-Formio with Austria cedes much Austrian territory into French hands.
Feb 1798 Roman states are invaded by French army. Pope Pius VI kidnapped, exiled to France.
Apr 1798 French client state Helvetian Republic established in Switzerland.
Jul 1798 At Battle of the Pyramids, Napoleon overthrows Mamluks, gains control of Egypt.
Aug 1798 Horatio Nelson destroys the French navy in the Battle of Nile, strands Napoleon.
Mar 1799 Napoleon's siege of Acre is broken up by British sea-power. French are forced to retreat.
Jun 1799 Austrians and Russians win back much of Northern Italy in Battle of the Trebia.

Consulate: 1799-1804

Nov 1799 Napoleon returns from Egypt and in alliance with Sieyes, becomes First Consul of France.
Jun 1800 Napoleon crosses Alps, regains control of Northern Italy at the Battle of Marengo.
Jul 1801 Napoleon signs Concordat with Pope Pius VII—ends schism with the Catholic Church.
Mar 1802 Treaty of Amiens temporarily ends conflict with Britain. French Revolutionary Wars.
May 1802 Napoleon restructures French educational system
Aug 1802 New constitution is adopted, making Napoleon First Consul for life
May 1803 France sells Louisiana Territory to United States
Mar 1804 Napoleonic Code—uniform code of civil law—is enacted.

Rise of Empire: 1804-1811

Dec 1804 Napoleon invites Pope to coronation, then crowns himself Emperor in Notre-Dame Cathedral.
Mar 1805 Cisalpine Republic is renamed Kingdom of Italy. Eugene de Beauharnais appointed viceroy.
Oct 1805 Battle of Trafalgar—French fleet is destroyed, no invasion of England possible.
Dec 1805 Battle of Austerlitz—Napoleon wins crushing victory over Austria and Russia.
Mar 1806 Napoleon's brother, Joseph Bonaparte is named King of Naples.
Oct 1806 After Prussian defeat at Jena, Napoleon creates client state, Kingdom of Westphalia.
Jul 1807 After defeat at Freidland Russia signs Treaty of Tilsit, recognizing French Warsaw.
Feb 1808 Spanish monarchy allows French army to occupy Spain (supposedly to attack Portugal).
Jul 1808 Napoleon forces Spanish king to resign, Joseph Bonaparte named King of Spain.
Jul 1809 French over-run Papal states. Pope Pius VII is kidnapped and imprisoned in Savona, France.
Dec 1809 Napoleon divorces Josephine Beauharnais, dismisses cardinals who oppose divorce.
Apr 1810 Napoleon marries Marie-Louise, Archduchess of Austria. A son is born a year of marriage.
Sep 1810 Duke of Wellington begins active campaign against the French in Spain and Portugal.

Fall of Empire: 1812-1815

Jun 1812 Napoleon crosses the Neiman River and enters Russian territory with 600,000 men.
Oct 1812 Six weeks after victory at Borodino, Napoleon orders a retreat from Moscow.
Dec 1812 Last of the straggling French troops returns across the Neiman river. Only 120,000 survive.
Apr 1813 Battle of Vittoria—Beginning of major British/Spanish offense in Spain.
Mar 1813 Emboldened by Russian disaster, Prussia declares war on France.
Jan 1814 Anti-French coalition army enters France, the Pope is freed from captivity. Paris falls in March.
Apr 1814 Napoleon abdicates, exiled to the island of Elba, off the coast of Italy.
Sep 1814 Metternich hosts Congress of Vienna, convention settles national boundaries for Europe.
Mar 1815 Escaping Elba, Napoleon returns in France. His wife Marie-Louise flees to Austria with son.
Jun 1815 Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon defeated by Duke of Wellington and Marshal Blucher.

Recommended Reading—Napoleonic Wars

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Haaren - Famous Men of Modern Times   Napoleon Bonaparte (1)
Guerber - The Story of Modern France   The Youth of Napoleon to Ney Shot (25)

Supplemental Recommendations

Marshall - The Story of Napoleon    entire book
Synge - The Struggle for Sea Power   Beginning of the Struggle to The Exile of St Helena (21)
Macgregor - The Story of France   Napoleon Bonaparte to The Batttle of Waterloo (9)
Birkhead - Heroes of Modern Europe    Napoleon Bonaparte (1)
Morris - Nations of Europe and the Great War   Earthquake of Napoleonism to Fall of Napoleon's Empire (3)
Morris - Historical Tales: French   The Burning of Moscow to Napoleon's Return from Elba (2)
Abbott - Josephine    entire book
Abbott - Joseph Bonaparte    entire book
Wheeler - The Story of Napoleon    entire book

Special Interest - Military

Wood - The Boy's Book of Battles   Trafalgar to Waterloo (2)
Fraser - Boys' Book of Battles   Austerlitz to Waterloo (2)

* Level I & II study questions are based on Core Reading Assignments.

I: Introductory, II: Intermediate, C: College Prep