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Napoleon's Wars, Mistakes and Fall

Napoleon, First Consul | Emperor Napoleon and War in 1804-05 | Napoleon's Gains in 1806-07 | Napoleon's Mistakes in 1808-12 | Napoleon's Fall


Napoleon, First Consul

"From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but one step."      Napoleon Bonaparte

Northern Italy,

Northern Italy, 1794. Napoleon conquered Venice in May 1797. It was given to Austria, which took control of the city in January 1798.

Napoleon crossing the Alps

An unglorified version of Napoleon leading his reserve army through the Alps in 1800, by Paul Delaroche in 1848, a painting now in the Louvre. He was on his way to battle the Austrians in northern Italy. For the romantic version click here.

According to paintings of Napoleon Bonaparte, his hair was cut short around the time that he became First Consul, adding to the discarding of long hair in men's hairstyles. In France, the style of women's clothing was changing too, to lighter dresses that revealed more of the shape of the body – part of what some of the more conservative and religious of people saw as decadence.

In 1800, in his first year as First Consul, Napoleon led his army across the Alps at Saint Bernard's Pass. in June of that year, with light field artillery that was easily moved about, the high morale of his troops and his on-the-spot innovations, Napoleon crushed the Austrians in northern Italy, at Marengo (125 kilometers east of Milan), which put France back in charge of the Po River valley. Napoleon planned to keep the Duchy of Milan for France, and he extended his authority in northern Italy by annexing Piedmont. He added nearby Genoa and Parma to areas under his control, and farther south on the Italian peninsula he took control of Tuscany and Naples.

Austria withdrew from its war against France in 1801. And, that year, Napoleon signed a concordant with the Papacy, mending the rift that had begun between the French Revolution and the Catholic Church a decade before. Catholics in France were to be free to practice their religion as they pleased, while the French government was to nominate bishops and pay the clergy.

In 1802, the war-weary British signed a treaty with France – the Treaty of Amiens – which returned to France Trinidad and other Caribbean islands. France remained in control of the Dutch and Belgian Netherlands and most of the Italian peninsula. The Treaty of Amiens left Europe with a balance of power of sorts, which Britain's leaders wished to maintain.

In early 1803, Napoleon still had troops in St. Domingue (Haiti). He possessed Louisiana, taken from Spain, and he was moving to acquire Florida. France also had a tie with the United States that was preferred by the Jefferson administration over the British. The British, who still held Canada, felt their position in the New World endangered. And they saw indications that Napoleon was planning to dominate the Mediterranean Sea and the Middle East and feared for their trade routes in these parts of the world.

Favorable sentiments toward revolution brought German areas south and east of Frankfurt – Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden – to France's side by 1803. William Pitt the Younger, back in power in Britain, wanted to stop the spread of France's ideas of revolution, and he sought another Anglo-Austro-Russian coalition against Napoleon.

Rather than assure the British that they had nothing to fear, Napoleon enhanced British fears by moving to exclude Britain from the continent. During this time of peace, Napoleon was building up his military, adding troops from Piedmont to his war making capability while Spain was helping build his navy. Napoleon was not content with a balance of power, nor did he like the status quo. He did not love war, but he did like the glories of military victory – the source of admiration for him from the French people. Napoleon regarded another war with Britain as inevitable, and he was working toward fulfilling that expectation.

The British were not evacuating the island of Malta, as required by the Treaty of Amiens. They wanted to keep Malta and wanted France to withdraw from the Dutch Republic and Switzerland in exchange for Britain's recognition of France's annexation of the Italian island of Elba and its other gains in Italy. France did not agree and, on April 11, 1803, broke relations with Britain.

Facing war another war with Britain and Britain's domination of the Atlantic, France sold Louisiana territory to the United States. On May 18, Britain declared war on France – a return to their war of 1792-82, the British expecting it to be a war of attrition that would last many more years.

Code Napoleon

Napoleon, meanwhile, was streamlining the organization of France. He presided over thirty-six of the eighty-four sessions that produced what was called Code Napoleon. Marriages and divorces were to be civil – in other words, outside the purview of the Church. There was to be government restructuring geared to honest administration, protection of property and wealth, and the Rights of Man and Citizen declared in 1789 was to be upheld, including equality before the law and freedom of the press. France was to have both private and public schools, with some of the early years of education in clerical schools, but all schooling was to be controlled by the state.

Under Code Napoleon the tradition of women as dependents was to continue. They could not make contracts or have bank accounts in their own name. Women were to be educated mainly in that which was seen as making them good wives: in domestic skills and religious devotion.

Concerned about keeping his armies fed, Napoleon had offered a cash prize to anyone who developed reliable food preservation, and a food canning industry began in France.


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