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The Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) were fought between the French emperor, Napoléon Bonaparte (Napoléon I; 1769–1821) and the European powers of Britain, Austria, Russia, and Prussia. Ultimately, the wars extended to all corners of the European continent, profoundly affecting European politics, society, and culture. The wars encompassed eight separate military campaigns divided into three broader periods: 1803 to 1807, the ascendancy of Napoleonic power in Europe; 1807 to 1812, the height of Napoléon’s Grand Empire; and 1812 to 1815, the decline and fall of Napoléon’s empire.
Napoléon became ruler of France in November 1799 when he participated in a coup d’etat, overthrowing the Directory. He immediately inherited the war of the Second Coalition, the last of the wars of the French Revolution. Within months of coming to power he declared the French Revolution ended, and defeated the Second Coalition led by Austria and England. Napoléon concluded the Peace of Lunèville with Austria in 1801. He created satellite republics in Italy (the Cispadane and Cisalpine Republics) in 1796 and 1797, but consolidated them into the Italian Republic in 1802. England signed the Peace of Amiens in 1802 after losing their continental allies. The peace was an expedient, and neither Britain nor Napoléon trusted the other. In May 1803 Britain declared war on France, inaugurating the Napoleonic Wars.
In January 1805 Spain joined France in an anti-British alliance. Napoléon prepared an invasion force to be ferried and protected by a combined Franco-Spanish fleet. Britain sought allies to tie the French to the continent. By summer 1805 England, Russia, and Austria formed a Third Coalition against France. Napoléon’s policies in Germany and Italy prior to 1805 alienated Austria and Russia, leading to the formation of the Third Coalition in July 1805. Napoléon, however, capitalized upon his favorable relations with the princes of Germany to gain their support against Austria. The campaign of 1805 was Napoléon’s most successful. In October he achieved a dramatic victory over the Austrian army at Ulm in Bavaria. Napoléon invaded Austria, taking Vienna by the end of November. At Austerlitz on December 2, 1805, Napoléon soundly defeated the combined Russo-Austrian army under the eyes of Tsar Alexander I and Kaiser Franz I.
Victory over the Third Coalition enabled Napoléon to make sweeping changes to the map of Europe. The Holy Roman Empire (Germany) was abolished in the summer 1806 and replaced by the Confederation of the Rhine, with France as its protector. Austria and Prussia were excluded from this new German entity. The number of German territories was substantially reduced through secularization and mediatization from 120 to 37. The Italian Republic, a kingdom after 1804, annexed Venetia, nearly doubling its size.
In February 1806 a French army occupied the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, giving Napoléon the entire peninsula. He then isolated Great Britain by instituting an economic blockade embodied in the Milan and Berlin decrees, often referred to as the “Continental System.”
Tensions between Prussia and France culminated in September 1806 in the second campaign of the Napoleonic Wars. The Prussian army was destroyed in two battles, Jena and Auerstadt (October 14, 1806), and the kingdom was overrun. The belated arrival of a Russian army in Poland extended the war into the winter and spring of 1807. Napoléon fought the Russians to a draw at Eylau in February, but decisively defeated them in June at Friedland. The victory over Russia virtually completed Napoléon’s conquest of Europe. Tsar Alexander I met the French emperor at Tilsit and agreed to a continental alliance.
Shortly after Tilsit, Napoléon authorized the invasion of Portugal, a British ally. Spanish support for Napoléon’s endeavors was lukewarm after the destruction of its fleet at Trafalgar in October 1805. The Spanish king, Carlos IV, and his first minister, Manuel de Godoy, wanted to extricate themselves from the French alliance. Napoléon distrusted the Spanish and in spring 1808 overthrew the Spanish monarchy and occupied Spain. He placed his elder brother Joseph on the throne, which generated enormous popular resistance. The Spanish feared the revolutionary anticlericalism of France, and the imposition of a foreign king. Formal Spanish military resistance gave way to a guerilla war that continued until 1814. Napoléon led a second army into Spain in October 1808, reestablishing French control, but Portugal was lost to the British earlier in the year. Napoléon kept more than 250,000 French and allied troops in the Iberian Peninsula for the next four years. The Peninsular War tied down military resources, and provided Britain with a theater of war on the European continent.
The British army in Portugal in 1809 was led by General Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington. He used the small kingdom to conduct offensive operations into Spain, and played a “cat and mouse” game with King Joseph and the French army through 1810. French military power, tied down by Spanish guerillas, was insufficient to retake Portugal. In 1812, as Napoléon invaded Russia, Wellington launched an invasion of Spain supported by the Portuguese and Spanish. Between 1812 and 1813 Joseph and the French Imperial army were forced back to the Pyrenees, and in 1814 Wellington crossed into southern France, finally ending the Peninsular War.
Napoléon returned to Paris in January 1809 to face a new threat from Austria. The Austrians believed that with Napoléon occupied in Spain they stood in a good position to regain control of the German and Italian states. In April 1809 Austrian armies invaded the Confederation of the Rhine, the Kingdom of Italy, and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw—the Napoleonic satellite state of Poland. A combination of Napoléon’s military skill, and more significantly the strength of his alliances with the German princes and Russia, enabled him to defeat Austria. By mid-May Napoléon sat in Vienna. Although he was repulsed at Aspern-Essling, he attacked again in July and defeated Archduke Charles at Wagram.
Napoléon extended the borders of imperial France in 1810 to include Holland, northwest Germany, Tuscany, and the Papal States. The expanding imperium led to confrontation with Tsar Alexander I of Russia. In June 1812 Napoléon invaded Russia with a French Imperial army of 500,000 men. By the end of September Napoléon had defeated the Russians at Borodino and captured Moscow. Tsar Alexander and his generals evacuated the capital and withdrew east of the city, refusing to surrender or negotiate. Napoléon withdrew from Moscow in the middle of October with no prospect of a clear victory. During both the advance and retreat, his army suffered far more from desertions and disease than from battle casualties. In December the army that returned to central Europe was reduced to 120,000 men. The enormity of the French losses led Tsar Alexander to continue the pursuit and liberate Europe. In March 1813 Frederick William III, the king of Prussia, joined the coalition against France.
Napoléon had rebuilt the French army by the spring 1813 and defeated the Russians and Prussians at Lutzen and Bautzen in Saxony. All sides agreed to a temporary armistice through the summer. During this time Austria joined the coalition against France. The armistice expired in August, and Napoléon found himself under attack from three directions—Prussia, Poland, and Austria. German princes defected from their French alliances, and in October Napoléon was soundly beaten at Leipzig, forcing him to abandon Germany.
Prussian forces crossed the Rhine at the end of December. Coalition armies moved into France from Spain, Germany, and Belgium. Napoléon initially held the Prussians and Russians at bay, but was ultimately overwhelmed by numbers. Napoléon abdicated in April 1814, and went into exile on the island of Elba. Louis XVIII, the brother of the former French king, was restored to the throne.
Napoléon returned to France in February 1815 and was welcomed by the army and the French population, who had lost their taste for kings. The coalition, meeting in Vienna, committed itself to his utter defeat. Napoléon assembled an army and invaded Belgium. In June 1815 he was defeated at Waterloo by British and Prussian armies. He abdicated a second time and was taken prisoner by the English. The former French emperor spent his remaining days on the island of St. Helena in the south Atlantic. He died in 1821.
The Napoleonic Wars transformed the European continent, reshaping the borders of Germany and Italy. Napoléon purposely fostered Italian nationalism in order to strengthen his satellite states, but in Germany and Spain, nationalism emerged in reaction to French military occupation. Liberalism, the desire for constitutional government, also manifested in Western and Central Europe. The Napoleonic Wars also led to the creation of a European international system established at the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815), which was based upon the principles of balance of power and territorial compensation. The congress system called upon the monarchical powers to suppress revolutions to prevent another crisis like the one that had affected Europe for the previous twenty-five years.
- Connelly, Ow 2006. The Wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon, 1792–1815. London: Routledge.
- Dwyer, Philip, 2001. Napoleon and Europe. Harlow, U.K.: Longman.
- Esdaile, 1995. The Wars of Napoleon. Harlow, U.K.: Longman.
- Rothenberg, Gunther 1978. The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Schneid, Frederick 2005. Napoleon’s Conquest of Europe. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Schroeder, P 1994. The Transformation of European Politics, 1763–1848. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
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