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Napoleon Bonaparte

Early Napoleonic Wars

Napoleon Becomes Emperor

Napoleon's Battles Continue

Summary

With Napoleon's power ever increasing, the British moved to form an alliance not long after Napoleon's coronation. The alliance had three parts: Britain, Austria (under Emperor Francis II) and Russia (under Czar Alexander I).

The alliance came just at the right time for Britain, as Napoleon was preparing for an assault on the Isle, which he derogatorily called "that island of shopkeepers." Extremely alarmed, the British deployed Admiral Nelson to the English Channel separating England and France. Meanwhile, the Austrian and Russian Armies were approaching France from the east. Napoleon, upset that his invasion of England had been preempted, was forced to move his troops to face the approaching Russo-Austrian army. On October 25, 1805, Nelson wiped out the French fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Though defeated at sea, Napoleon had better luck on land. Although he did not manage an invasion of England, on December 2, 1805, he did defeat the Austrians and Russians at the Battle of Austerlitz. The Russians withdrew to Poland as the retreating Austrians ceded Venetia to Napoleon. With this success under his belt, Napoleon started working to rebuild the French fleet. At this time he also dissolved the old Holy Roman Empire (much of modern Germany) once and for all, replacing it with the Confederation of the Rhine, a federation of supposedly independent states actually ruled by the French Empire.

With Napoleon's designs on Germany apparent, the eastern German state of Prussia, led by King Frederick William III, decided (fairly misguidedly) to make war on France by itself. On October 1806, the French Army soundly defeated the Prussians at the battles of Jena and Auerstadt. Frederick William III fled east, to Konigsberg.

Moving into Poland, Napoleon next sent his forces against the Russian Army of Czar Alexander I, defeating it on June 14, 1807, at the Battle of Friedland. Instead of retreating and continuing the fight in Russia, Alexander decided to negotiate with Napoleon. France and Russia signed the Treaty of Tilsit in July 1807, under which the French and the Russians allied against the British. As a result, Napoleon consolidated almost all of Western Europe (minus Spain) in exchange for an agreement not to attack Russia. This treaty restored peace to the continent for a time.

Having now subdued the Russians, Austrians and Prussians, Napoleon focused on reaping his revenge on England for their victory at Trafalgar. His strategy was to economically strangle the "island of shopkeepers." To this end, Napoleon decided to shut down all European ports' shipping, robbing Britain of a market for its manufactured goods, and hoping to cause a depression in Britain. This plan, called the Continental System, was first announced by the Berlin Decree of 1806. Russia, as well as the independent but chastened Prussia and Austria, agreed to participate in the Continental System, and actually formally declared war on Great Britain.

Soon all of Europe was cooperating so well with the Continental System that Spain remained as the only port still accepting British goods. Focusing his energy there, Napoleon tricked both the Bourbon king and his son into abdicating the throne of Spain, and installed his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the throne. The Spanish hated French rule, and began a fierce guerilla rebellion against France known as the Peninsular War. Seeing their opportunity, the British sent aid to the Spanish Peninsulars as well as troops, under the leadership of the Duke of Wellington.

Commentary

Alexander I of Russia was the leading force behind the coalition against France. Like Napoleon, Alexander saw himself as a kind of "enlightened despot." However, Alexander's interests were quite at odds with Napoleon's, and he hoped to be a kind of counterbalance in Europe to Napoleon. Alexander was an early pioneer of the idea of "collective security" in international relations: he felt that all the countries should work together to stop any one country from getting too powerful, as France was. Thus, Alexander wanted a coalition to stop Napoleon's expansion throughout Europe. (Napoleon now controlled most of Italy, Central Europe, parts of Germany, and was creating a Grand Duchy of Warsaw in the vicinity of modern-day Poland.) In idealistic rhetoric, Alexander claimed that the Britain-Austria-Russia alliance represented "law" while Napoleon's land-grabbing represented mere brute "force." Yet Alexander's motives did not stem purely from a sense of justice: the British also paid Russia 1.25 million pounds for every 100,000 Russian soldiers in the army.

The Battle of Trafalgar only confirmed Napoleon's long-held belief that the French could not stand up to the British at sea. From then on, Napoleon gave up on the idea of a direct assault on Britain, and started thinking about ways to damage Britain's economy, giving his navy time to develop a fleet that could match that of the British.

The Treaty of Tilsit resulted from a combination of circumstances: first, after being defeated at Friedland in Poland, Czar Alexander I did not want to continue battle on Russian soil, fearing that this might provoke a revolution against him. Secondly, the Treaty resulted directly from Napoleon's charming ways and crafty diplomacy: the French Emperor cleverly managed to convince the Czar that they were really on the same side, and that England was to blame for all their problems. He persuaded him that while he (Napoleon) was interested in becoming emperor of all Europe, Alexander's destiny was to become emperor of all the East, ruling Turkey, India, and Persia; himself an egomaniac, Napoleon knew perfectly how to play to his adversary's ego.

The Peninsular War, fought by Spanish guerillas called peninsulars and by British troops under Wellington, would actually inflict some defeats on the French Army, as well as divert French resources and soldiers from other battles. Moreover, throughout Europe, the successful Spanish resistance heartened various groups, who began to think that they might also lead successful rebellions against the now-weakened French. It was largely as a result of the Peninsular War that an anti-French nationalist movement soon sprang up in Germany.

Moreover, the Peninsular War was only the most manifest failure of the general debacle that the Continental System was to become. Not only did the system fail to strangle Britain's economy fully, it also sowed discontent with French rule throughout Europe, because many people could not get the British manufactured goods they were accustomed to. Rather than undermining Britain, the Continental System probably hurt France more than other country.

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Wrong date.

by kbbaby224, November 18, 2013

It wasn't in 1814 that he abdicated this throne. He abdicated his throne in 1815

response to abdication

by brianohhh, November 22, 2013

To the comment above.
Actually - Napoleon did sign an abdication on April 4, 1814, after the Allies ganged up on him and invaded France successfully. In 1815 he was sent to St.Helena after he had escaped from Elba and was defeated at Waterloo.

Waterloo Error

by brianohhh, November 22, 2013

The article makes a massive and typical blunder in stating Napoleon fought 'the British army' at Waterloo. In fact Wellington's army was made up of various nationalities; British, Dutch, Belgian, various German states. Of the 68,000 strong army of Wellington, just over 24,000 were actually British.

See all 6 readers' notes   →

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