Napoleon Bonaparte was a fascinating man. Although diminutive in stature, he possessed a titanic ego, and tremendous willpower, determination and ambition. He was responsible for bringing much-needed stability to calm the post-revolution chaos in France. His life was marked by a spectacular rise in power and a dizzying fall. Under the leadership of this military genius, France witnessed some spectacular victories in the battlefield and towards the end of his career, his unwise military interventions were instrumental in crushing defeats for the French army.
The bloody French Revolution left France traumatised but Napoleon Bonaparte emerged from its ashes and began a meteoric rise to power. Napoleon left an indelible mark in history but paradoxically had many character flaws and made many mistakes, the biggest of which was his war with Russia.
Born in 1769, in Ajaccio, on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, he was the second of eight surviving children. Despite his parents belonging to a minor Corsican nobility, the family was not wealthy. The year before Napoleon’s birth, France had acquired Corsica from the city-state of Genoa, Italy. Napoleon later adopted a French spelling of his last name.
Here’s an interesting bit of trivia — In 1799, during Napoleon’s military campaign in Egypt, a French soldier discovered the Rosetta Stone which proved to be instrumental in cracking the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics, a script that had been dead for almost 2,000 years.
After graduating from the French military academy in 1785, Napoleon became a second lieutenant in an artillery regiment of the French army. Within three years of the French Revolution in 1789, the revolutionaries had overthrown the monarchy and proclaimed a French republic. During the early years of the revolution, Napoleon was largely on a sabbatical from the military and home in Corsica where he became enamoured with the Jacobins, a pro-democracy political group. However, this association soon got him on the wrong side of the nationalist Corsican governor, following which the Bonaparte family fled their native island for mainland France and Napoleon returned to military duty.
Napoleon seemed to gravitate towards controversial individuals and in France he became associated with Augustin Robespierre, the brother of revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre, a Jacobin who was a the principal force behind the Reign of Terror (1793-1794). During this time, Napoleon was promoted to the rank of brigadier general in the army. However, Robespierre soon fell from power and was guillotined along with Augustin in 1794 and Napoleon was briefly put under house arrest for his ties with them.
We are all familiar with the American state of Louisiana. From 1803 to 1815, France was enmeshed in the Napoleonic Wars, a series of major conflicts with various coalitions of European nations. In 1803, Napoleon was in need of funds to finance the future wars and decided to sell France’s Louisiana Territory in North America to the newly independent United States for $15 million, a transaction that later became known as the Louisiana Purchase.
The French revolution came about due to the anger of the common man against the extravagant lifestyle of the French nobility which were all but decimated in the bloody purges following the revolution. Paradoxically, Napoleon re-established a French aristocracy and began handing out titles of nobility to his loyal friends and families, as his empire continued to expand across much of western and central continental Europe.
After his fall in October 1815, Napoleon was exiled to the remote, British-held island of Saint Helena, in the South Atlantic Ocean where he died in 1821 of stomach cancer, aged only 51. Interestingly, during his time in power, Napoleon often posed for paintings with his hand in his vest, leading some to speculate that he had been plagued by stomach pain for years. He was buried on the island, despite his request to be laid to rest ‘on the banks of the Seine, among the French people I have loved so much’. In 1840, his remains were returned to France and interred in a crypt at Les Invalides in Paris, the resting place of many other French military leaders.