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Napoleon Bonaparte’s military career

Napoleon Bonaparte’s military career was launched by the events of the French Revolution. Called upon by various revolutionary governments to perform, Bonaparte was able to advance his career with each successive coup. When he became a successful commander in the French war against the counter-revolutionary armies in Italy, he put himself into a position to take over the French government. He was invited to join a coup to overthrow the Directory in 1798 and became emperor six years later.

In domestic affairs, Napoleon acted like an enlightened despot. He brought order to France following a decade of internal struggle, he maintained the ban on feudal privilege, confiscated church property, opened opportunities for the middle class, and regularized taxes. Resistance to authority was swiftly and brutally suppressed. Policies implemented affected most social and political institutions and fell under the rubric of Code Napoleon. These codes were later exported to the places he conquered in battle. Napoleon’s domestic affairs are reflected in his statements below:


“…Of all political questions this is perhaps the most important. There will be no stability in the state until there is a body of teachers with fixed principles. Till children are taught whether they ought to be Republicans or Monarchists, Catholics or Unbelievers, and so on, there may indeed be a state, but it cannot become a nation. It will rest on vague uncertain foundations. It will be constantly exposed to changes and disorders….”


“…Modern philosophers have sought to persuade France that the Catholic religion is the implacable enemy of every democratic system and every republican form of government: hence this cruel persecution exercised by the French Republic against the religion and its minister; hence all the horrors to which this unhappy people was condemned…Reason alone cannot enlighten us in this matter; without religion we always walk in darkness; and the Catholic religion is the only one which gives humanity certain and infallible knowledge regarding its first source and ultimate end. No society can exist without morality….A society without religion is like a ship without a compass….”

Public opinion:

“…A man is only a man. His power is nothing if circumstances are not favourable. Opinion is all-important.”

Napoleon also continued the European war begun during the French Revolution. Both the Revolution and Napoleon’s empire were helped by these four major factors: 1) the idea that the expansion of states was legitimate, changing the original assumptions about the balance of power in Europe; 2) the end of the old regime; 3) financial expenditures of the new French revolutionary governments expanded the scope of government; and, 4) the rise of ambitious new men ready to exploit the new situation in Europe. Napoleon took advantage of these trends. But Napoleon was also successful because he employed new tactics: ridding himself of supply trains which enabled his troops to move more quickly; and, concentrating his forces for decisive battles (rather than fight prolonged wars). Napoleon also pursued diplomacy energetically. He was anxious to reach quick peace agreements in order to release his troops for further projects. He made his army efficient in order to reach successful political ends.

Jacob Walter, an eighteen year old German stonemason, was drafted into Napoleon’s Grand Army in 1806. He kept a diary, which included his chronicle of his survival in the Russian campaign. What follows is an excerpt from his account of the 1809 campaign to subdue the Prussians along the Baltic.

“…While we were besieging the fortress of Colberg, we were assigned a camp in a swampy place. Since wood and even straw were rarely to be had, the barracks were built from earth and sod, and ditches were dug around them. As some sickness was arising because of the continual fog, I also became sick and had to go to the hospital in the fortress of Stettin…When I arrived with several from the regiment, we were placed three stories high under the roof in the hospital. Here twelve to fifteen of the men about me died every day, which made me sick at my stomach…In this fortress of Stettin the Wrzburg soldiers were stationed and were all dressed in uniforms of white and red, that is, like Austrian soldiers.

This stronglhold had a position which could be besieged only by land from the side facing Berlin. Here the Oder River flows into the Baltic Sea…When we had to leave camp after midnight, all the regiments marched forward through the swamp; and finally, when light firing began upon the outposts, we were commanded to attack by wading through the rampart ditches with fascines, to tread these in, and to scramble up the outworks by chopping and shoveling. When I stood in the ditch, each first soldier had to pull up the next one with his rifle. The ramparts were of sand, and everyone frequently fell back again because of the attack of the enemy, or just because of the sliding sand; yet in the that place huge cannonballs flew by above us, thundering so violently that we would have believed the earth would burst to pieces. When everyone was almost on top of the earthwork, the Prussians were slaughtered with great vigor, and the rest took flight into the gate….”1

The Napoleonic War was costly in lives, finances, and property damage. In the Russian campaign alone, the Grand Army of Napoleon that started out with 600,000 men, limped back across the Russian frontier with only 25,000 survivors. Did Napoleon liberate France and much of Europe from the grip of the old regimes, or did he merely spread death and destruction in despotic fashion? Here is what a few of his contemporaries had to say:

Metternich, chief minister to the emperor of Austria (1820)

“…In order to judge of this extraordinary man, we must follow him upon the grand theater for which he was born. Fortune had no doubt done much for Napoleon; but by the force of his character, the activity and lucidity of his mind, and by his genius for the great combinations of military science, he had risen to the level of the position which she had destined for him….Master of himself, he soon became master of events. In whatever time he had appeared he would have played a prominent part.”

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