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Emperor Napoleon and War in 1804-05

A few months into his war with Britain, Napoleon's police discovered in France a British spy network connected with a plot involving French émigrés living in Britain. It was a plot to replace Napoleon with one of the brothers of Louis XVI, the Count of Artois (not to be confused with his older brother, the future Louis XVIII, the Count of Provence). In the wartime atmosphere and as a defense against French royalty, the French Senate, on May 18, 1804, voted in favor of the First Consul becoming Napoleon I, "Emperor of the French."

Napoleon's coronation was held on December 2 at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Pope Pius VII had arrived for the coronation, and it was expected that in keeping with tradition he would crown Napoleon. But Napoleon did not wish to recognize papal superiority, and at the last moment he took the crown from the Pope and crowned himself.

In 1804, Napoleon won Spain as an ally against the British, the British that year losing patience with Spain for its association with and help for France. Britain ordered a naval squadron to go on the offensive against Spain, and the British seized three Spanish ships carrying treasure from the Americas back to Spain. In December, Spain joined the war against Britain, and Napoleon looked forward to Spain's naval forces helping the French navy.

Napoleon crowned empeor

Napoleon crowned as emperor, December 2, 1804

In March, the Kingdom of Italy was founded, to be a Napoleon satellite. In May, Napoleon was crowned King of Milan. In June, France annexed what had been the Republic of Genoa. That year, Russia, concerned about its own imperial ambitions in Europe, allied itself with Britain, and Austria joined the alliance in July, followed by Sweden. The German states of Bavaria, Wurttemberg, and Baden formally declared themselves with France.

Still looking towards an invasion of England, Napoleon visited the channel coast opposite England, and he said that if he could conquer the channel he could conquer the world. In July he ordered the French fleet to sail up the Atlantic coast to the entrance of the English Channel and to bring with it as many Spanish ships as possible. On August 18 the French fleet reached Spain's Atlantic port of Cadiz. A British fleet had been stalking the French fleet and was waiting off Cape Trafalgar. Napoleon ordered the French and Spanish ships and 90,000 men out of Cadiz to do battle with the British. Smashing the British navy would help in his plans to invade England, and the battle, he said, was to end "six centuries of shame and insult."

The Captains of the Spanish ships resented being under a French admiral. Their ships were manned mostly by soldiers or beggars that had been gathered from the slums of Cadiz, and those who were to man cannon had never fired a gun from a rolling ship. By the time Spain's ships reached the British navy, many of the crew were sick and morale was low – on the French ships as well. French ships had been in poor repair, poorly provisioned, and the crews short of men and poorly trained. There were 18 French warships and 15 Spanish – a total of 33 for Napoleon – and 27 British warships. But Britain's crews were experienced, and the British fleet was led by a skillful and imaginative admiral, Horatio Viscount Nelson – feared by sea captains in Napoleon's navy. Nelson's fleet all but annihilated Napoleon's fleet. Not one of Nelson's 27 ships was sunk or captured. Twenty-three of the French-Spanish fleet of 33 sailed away from the battle, damaged and defeated. The British lost 449 killed, including Nelson, and 1,241 wounded. How many of the French and Spanish died is unknown, but the French described the battle as a victory, describing their loss as "trifling" and glorying in Nelson's death.

Despite French propaganda, France's stock market was shaken by the news of the Trafalgar battle, and Napoleon decided that the invasion of England would be postponed.

In England, the Battle of Trafalgar brought people into the streets. Without a strong land army, the British saw their navy as their major line of defense. The Day of Nelson's victory at Trafalgar, October 21, became Trafalgar Day, with the singing of Britannia Rules the Waves (first introduced in 1740). Wartime fears were uniting Britain, and much of the support for the French Revolution was evaporating.

Napoleon, meanwhile, was having real successes on land. In November, Napoleon's cavalry entered Vienna (the capital of Austria) unopposed, while his other forces were pursuing retreating Austrian and Russian armies in Moravia. In early December, Napoleon met Britain's allies, the Austrians and Russians, at Austerlitz. Russia's emperor, Alexander, was there. So too was the Austrian emperor, Francis II. Napoleon had 68,000 and the combined Russian and Austrian force had 85,000. Tricking the enemy into thinking he was weaker than he actually was, at a propitious moment he called on reserves unknown to his enemy. He won the battle again. In the twelve hours of battle the Russian-Austrian force lost around 12,000 killed and wounded and 15,000 had been taken by the French as prisoners. The French lost 6,000 men. The Russian emperor fled with his troops back toward Russia.

Austerlitz set the stage for nearly a decade of French domination on the European continent. France and Austria signed a truce on December 4. On December 26, Emperor Francis signed the Treaty of Pressburg, which gave to France more territory in northern Italy. The treaty made Venice a part of Napoleon's Kingdom of Italy and gave to Napoleon's ally, Bavaria, territory that had belonged to Austria. And the Treaty of Pressburg took Austria out of the war.

To celebrate his victory at Austerlitz, Napoleon launched construction of a monument to be called the Arc de Triomphe, modeled after the Arc de Constantine in Rome – a project not to be completed until 1836.


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