Timing Can Be Everything
Napoléon Bonaparte and the War of 1812
My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.
- Thomas Jefferson
The Napoléonic Empire
Napoléon was 5’2” tall. He wore boots and tall hats and was often depicted astride a horse.
The Napoléonic Wars marked France’s “turbulent decade.” The magnitude of these wars engulfed Europe and even invaded America. Napoléon had signed a peace treaty with Austria and England but fighting resumed within a year due to a dispute over the Island of Malta. Part of the peace treaty stated that the island of Malta would be given to the French – however, the Maltese decided to ignore that part of the treaty because they didn’t want to be ruled by France. This didn't sit well with France and by 1805, war was in full bloom pitting England, Austria and Russia against Spain and France. (Prussia was neutral at this point.)
Napoléon, during this fighting, did something that hadn't been done for years - he had men stand along riverbanks and practice amphibious warfare and aquatic tactics. He felt the only way to take England was to attack them from the water. For the previous two years, the French fleet had been held back by Lord Nelson, who had even chased the French to the West Indies and back. Finally, the French fleet had managed to break away and join up with the Spanish. They all came together at Cape Trafalgar for the Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805. There, Nelson was mortally wounded, but the English crushed the French and Spanish fleets combined. This caused Napoléon to give up any thought of invading England. (Trafalgar Square in London commemorates this battle.) The British remained impervious and ruled the seas – so Napoléon turned his attention once more to Austria.
Napoléon’s troops swept down into Austria, and occupied Vienna. However they didn’t stay there but kept pushing on, as was Napoléon’s usual battle strategy. His troops were agile because they could stay ahead of cumbersome supply lines – they subsisted on what they could scrounge from the surrounding countryside. During this time, Prussia had been neutral and Napoléon wanted to act before Prussia awoke and sided with the enemy. Finally, on 2 December 1805, at the Battle of Austerlitz (in present-day Czechoslovakia), the combined troops of Austria and Russia were defeated. (tsar Alexander, the Russian leader, was there in person.) Napoléon was brilliant and anticipated his enemy’s every move. Three of the enemy were killed for every French soldier who died. This ended with the signing of a very embarrassing treaty for the Austrians, the Treaty of Pressburg, on 26 December 1805. This treaty not only placed Austria under French control, but they were also forced to give up Northern Italy. The Confederation of the Rhine was formed, composed of several new Germanic states (excluding only Austria and Prussia), all allied with France. This confederation was a collection of Napoléon's allies and vassals, mostly remnants of the Holy Roman Empire, a relic from when the Roman Empire really had power (it had been formed by Charlemagne in the 9th century). The title Holy Roman Empire was by then merely symbolic. Napoléon was continuing his habit of sweeping aside all traditions of the Old Order of Europe.
Napoléon had always said he supported a constitutional monarchy form of government, yet in his personal life he actually practiced dynastic nepotism, contradicting what he was publicly espousing. He made his brother, Jerome, the King of Westphalia. Brother Joseph was appointed the King of Naples. (For more on Joseph, see New Jersey's Ex-King.) Brother Louis was installed as the King of Holland.
In 1806, Prussia declared war on France, becoming the significant part of a new anti-French coalition. England could always be counted on to be anti-French, but this time Sweden joined the coalition. However, almost a year later on 14 October 1806 at the Battle of Jena, Napoléon routed the Prussian forces and swept into Berlin, the Prussian capital. Next, he dealt with the Russians. The Battle of Friedland, 14 June 1807 (Friedland was on the edge of Prussia), was an important Russian defeat. Another treaty was signed, this time with tsar Alexander, which stated that Russia would become a permanent ally of France and would cede Poland to them. In return, Napoléon agreed to leave Russia alone, and not to interfere with her internal affairs, her expansion efforts into the old Ottoman Empire or her move against Finland and her subsequent threat of Sweden. (One of Napoléon’s generals later became King of Sweden.) At this point, Austria, Prussia and Russia were forced French allies.
Through all this, England still hated France and England was still imperviously seated on her island, ruling the seas. To try to combat this, Napoléon decided to use economic warfare (which, unfortunately for Napoléon, never really worked). He established the Continental System, which stated that all France's allies could no longer trade with England. In retaliation, England issued the Orders in Council, which stated that no neutral countries could do business in any ports controlled by Napoléon – should they try, they would be fired upon by British forces. This was mainly aimed at America, trying to force Jefferson to choose sides. Jefferson was not pleased.
The Brits had not been friendly to Americans around that time - especially with regard to the practice of impressing - British ships would board American ships and claim some American sailors were actually English deserters, and so impress them, forcing them to join the British Navy or else they could be taken back to England and tried for desertion. Americans felt the Brits were not showing them respect as an autonomous nation. Finally, a British ship fired upon an American ship, the Chesapeake, which had refused to cooperate and let the Brits board to check for deserters. Jefferson had had enough - he issued the Embargo Act in 1807, stating that America would trade with NO ONE. Several of the individual states, however, didn’t support this Act because it penalised them economically.
Two years later, Jefferson’s term of office was up. His successor, President James Madison, replaced the Embargo Act (in 1809) with the Non-Intercourse Act. This new Act said that the US could trade with whomever they wished – except Britain and France. Further, it said that the first one of the two countries that officially agreed to respect America's neutral stance would be rewarded with American trade. Napoléon jumped at the chance, so Madison announced that trade with the French was resumed. The Brits were furious. However, Napoléon never intended to honour his agreement, which later put Madison in a bit of a bind.
Finally, the US ended up declaring war on England in 1812. The irony was that, even before war was declared, England had repealed its Orders in Council, the Act that had caused much of the animosity – but due to the time lag inherent in international transactions of the period, the US was unaware of this and went to war before they knew.
Did Napoléon gain anything of value with his economic sanctions? No, his plan backfired completely. He could not adequately enforce the embargoes. Further, he did not grasp the the scope of the industrial revolution which was taking place in England. Of equal importance, he did not understand the economic power the Americans had amassed. The Continental System weakened as more and more French allies began to subtly (or not so subtly) ignore the Continental System. Since the Continental System never actually hurt England in the first place, it was seen as a failure. This caused many nations to feel that France was being completely unreasonable. Finally, it caused a fissure with Russia; tsar Alexander felt Russia needed the British market for Russian grain exports. Russia was suffering badly from the Continental System and was gaining nothing. Napoléon concluded that he would have to invade Russia again to put them back in their place.
On top of the Russian threat, Napoléon had to deal with a rising tide of nationalism, especially in Spain. When Napoléon replaced the Spanish king with his brother, Joseph, the Spanish people were offended. Having a Frenchman forced upon them was the ultimate insult. An uprising ensued. Napoléon had previously been at what could have been considered the high-water point of his military career. But problems in Spain, combined with the discontent brewing in Portugal (who had refused to join the Continental System), marked the beginning of the end. It was all downhill from there.
Napoléon invaded Portugal. The Portuguese monarchy fled to Brazil. But under the Duke-of-Wellington-to-be, British forces entered Portugal and forced the French to leave. However, the Brits inexplicably allowed 20,000 or so French troops to evacuate the country rather than pressing for a resounding defeat of the French. Wellington and two other generals were ordered home to face an inquiry over this. One of the generals was held responsible, but the Duke of Wellington was cleared and reassigned back to Spain. (For an idea of some of the accounting headaches Wellington faced during his early career, see But That's All in the Past.) Meanwhile, France had deployed 200,000 men into Spain/Portugal trying to regain its former position. Thus began what came to be called the Peninsula Wars, fought between France and England, each trying to gain supremacy. Fighting continued for years. When Wellington arrived, he began using what could best be described as guerilla tactics. The battles dragged on and on, draining resources on both sides. It became known as the “Spanish Ulcer” and represented the first major crack in Napoléon’s ability to maintain control.
Austria during this period was growing more and more discontented and went so far as to ally with the anti-French coalition. They rallied their troops and renewed their battle with France. But they were defeated a second time, and were forced by France to sign the Treaty of Vienna in 1809 where they had to cede even more of their territory to France. Napoléon felt, though Austria had been defeated twice, that they would continue to cause him problems. He had a brilliant idea. The emperor had no children - and his wife Joséphine had been spreading the rumour that he could not have any. He would kill two birds with one stone: to Joséphine’s extreme distress, in 1810 Napoléon divorced her and married the daughter (Marie-Louise) of the Austrian Emperor (Francis I), hoping to cement relations between the nations and also to give himself an heir. (Only the second part worked – his new wife did produce a son - but his father-in-law still declared war.) When he married Marie-Louise, Napoléon became the nephew of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette as well as the son-in-law of a Hapsburg.
"The Arrival of Marie-Louise"
The Prussians were regrouping. Napoléon’s troubles seemed never-ending.
Finally, in 1812, Napoléon decided to move against tsar Alexander in Russia, to punish him for removing himself from the Continental System. Napoléon put together an army of 600,000 men (his largest army yet), many of them drawn from his alliance territories. They invaded Russia in June. The Russian forces kept retreating backward, drawing Napoléon further into the country. They finally reached Moscow, after having fought only a minor skirmish at Borodin. It was punishingly hot; many of Napoléon’s soldiers had by then deserted so that the army was down to about 450,000 men. Upon reaching Moscow, Napoléon found many parts were burning, leaving both the city and his men basically out of supplies and with few places to lodge. To make matters worse, Alexander ignored his repeated requests to meet. The tsar refused to communicate with Napoléon at all.
Napoléon waited weeks, but nothing happened. He realised he’d better get his men out of Russia before the harsh Russian winter set in. Finally, in late fall, he began his retreat – but he had waited too late. The French retreat was brutal. Winter came abruptly and temperatures dropped to -20°F. Thousands of men died of exposure and starvation. Supplies were nonexistent; mounts dropped dead, equipment was abandoned. Cossack raids from multiple directions killed thousands. Fewer than 100,000 men survived. Had his enemies but realised it, Napoléon could have been easily defeated at that point.
"Episode of the Retreat from Russia"
After Napoléon returned to France, he felt he needed to make up for his humiliating defeat in Russia, so he gathered together a new army. But at the ensuing Battle of Leipzig in 1813, he was defeated utterly by the Russians and Prussians. In 1814, the allies entered Paris and Napoléon was forced to abdicate the throne; he was exiled to the island of Elba, not far from Corsica, where he had been born. He was allowed a personal escort of some 1,000 men, a household staff and was even given the title Emperor of Elba and rule over its 110,000 people. Bonaparte began his exile with a reform of the governmental system on the island, which is Italy's third biggest and lies just off the coast of Tuscany.
The French, with Napoléon gone, decide to return to a monarchy form of government. Louis XVIII, brother of the prior monarch Louis XVI, was restored to the throne (though his reign only lasted a few decades). Louis XVI’s son would have been Louis XVII but the son had missed his chance to rule, so the French decided to skip that designation in his honour. Once the ruler had been installed, European political leaders met at the Congress of Vienna (1814 – 1815), to decide how France and the rest of the European spoils would be divvied up. First up, France’s boundaries were reduced to their pre-revolutionary location.
Palazzina dei Mulini
Soon, former French emperor grew bored in exile. His thoughts turned towards Paris - now under the restored rule of the Bourbons - and he began to plan his return. The time came faster than he imagined and only nine months later, on 26 February 1815, he escaped with his miniature army and landed in France near Cannes with 600 guardsmen of his bodyguard. He moved towards Grenoble where he was confronted by men of the 5th Regiment, which had been sent to arrest him. Advancing alone Bonaparte said: "Soldiers of the 5th, you can shoot your emperor if you dare." None did. As he advanced on Paris his military force grew with thousands of old soldiers and regular troops flocking to his banner - so many, in fact, that a notice appeared in the Place Vendome in Paris: "From Napoléon to Louis XVIII. My good brother - there is no need to send any more troops - I have enough."
On March 19, the Bourbons fled for Belgium and a day later Bonaparte took government and began preparations for the Allied military onslaught he knew would come. Two months after his return to France Bonaparte had an army of 280,000 men, with half again due within another two months. Impressive though that force was, it would be moved upon by Allied armies filled with almost 1,000,000 men. Napoléon was soon back in business (though his comeback proved to be very short-lived). The leaders convening in Vienna declare Napoléon an outlaw (as if he cared), calling him the Disturber of the Tranquility of the World. Three months later at the Battle of Waterloo (1815), Napoléon was once again pitted against the Duke of Wellington. Napoléon was decisively trounced – but possibly only because the Prussians arrived to bolster Wellington’s troops. (Time was not Napoléon’s friend in that battle.)
On this occasion, Napoléon was exiled much further away - to the extremely distant island of St Helena in the mid-Atlantic (where he died 6 years later from a combination of ulcer and mercury poisoning caused by the dye used in the wallpaper in his room). The Congress of Vienna (1814 - 1815) resumed its duties. Finally, the Peace of Vienna (1815) was decided, and Europe was divided up to look the way it remained (except for Italy and Germany which were not yet unified) for the next 100 years.
Back in the US during this period, the War of 1812 between America and Britain was being waged. This war lasted for two years. Both sides were fairly evenly matched. At one point, the British entered Washington, DC and burned down the White House, however this was not a decisive battle, and fighting continued apace. The Battle of Plattsburg in upstate New York finally convinced the British that they would be better off settling with the Americans and returning to the status quo. Negotiations to that effect were taking place in Ghent. After two weeks, the Treaty of Ghent (1815) was signed. However, Americans didn’t know this due to the length of time it took to get news from overseas. Meanwhile, Andrew Jackson inflicted the greatest defeat ever on Britain at the Battle of New Orleans (1815), fought after the treaty was signed. American troops crushed the British troops utterly. This battle had a curious aftereffect – the British and the Americans, seeing each other as equals, became tight allies from that point forward. (Apparently, the battle increased Britain's opinion of America's fighting force.)
Spain’s hold on the New World was seriously weakened by all the fighting they had been going through with France. This led to a revolt of essentially all of Spain's colonies. Over a 10 – 15 year period, Spain lost everything in the Western hemisphere except for Cuba – which they managed to hold on to for a little while longer (though not even until the 20th century). Mexico, Chile, Venezuela and others became independent at that time. Likewise, Portugal lost its hold on Brazil.
These events resulted in the then-American president, James Monroe, issuing the Monroe Doctrine which stated that America was the most powerful force in the Western Hemisphere and she would protect the lesser countries. There was to be no more colonisation of the Americas. In return, the United States would not move into any areas controlled by the Europeans. Almost all former colonies around the world were now free. The British helped the Americans enforce the Monroe Doctrine because they felt that it weakened their rivals on the European continent.
The national flag of Italy was designed by Napoléon Bonaparte.
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