Destruction of the Napoleonic Empire

Destruction of the Napoleonic Empire:

A rupture with the Tsar Alexander precipitated the final disasters for Napoleon. A number of events between the celebrated meeting at Tilsit in 1807 and the memorable year of 1812 made a rupture inevitable. Tlisit purported to divide Europe between the two Emperors, but Alexander soon found that his chief function was to help bring all western and central Europe under the domination of the French Empire, while his ambition to enlarge the Russian Empire in eastern Europe was repeatedly thwarted by Napoleon.

To be sure, Alexander wrested Finland from Sweden (1809), but Napoleon’s forcing of Sweden into a war with Great Britain (1810-1812), presumably as an ally of Russia as well as of France, prevented the Tsar from extending his territory farther in that direction. Then, too, the revival of a Polish state under the name of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and under French protection was a thorn in his flesh, which became all the more irritating, when it was enlarged after the Austrian War of 1809. The Tsar did not take kindly to the ensuing marriage of his ally with a Habsburg archduchess, which seemed to indicate that Napoleon would cooperate more closely with Austria than with Russia. Besides, Alexander’s aggressive warfare against the Ottoman Empire was constantly handicapped by French intrigue, so when the treaty of Bucharest was at length concluded (May 1812) it was due to the British rather than to French assistance that Russia extended its southern boundary to the River Pruth. Finally, the Tsar resented the dethronement of one of his relatives in the German duchy of Oldenburg and the incorporation of the duchy into the French Empire.

All these differences might conceivably have been adjusted, had it not been for the economic breach which the “continental system” ever widened. Russia, at that time almost exclusively an agricultural country, suffered greatly from the stoppage of its trade with Britain, and popular protest and agitation alarmed the Tsar. The result was a gradual suspension of the rigors of the “continental system” in Russia and the eventual return to normal trade relations as they had existed prior to Tilsit. This simple fact Napoleon could not and would not condone. “Russia’s partial abandonment of the continental system was not merely a pretext but the real ground of the war. Napoleon had no alternative between fighting for his system and abandoning the only method open to him of carrying on war against England”.

By the opening of the year 1812 Napoleon was actively preparing for war on a large scale against his recent ally. From the Austrian court, thanks to his wife, he secured the promise of a guard of 30,000 men to protect the right wing of his projected invasion of Russia. From the trembling Prussian King he wrung, by threats, permission to lead his invaders across Prussian soil and the support of 20,000 troopers for the left of his lines. A huge expedition was then gathered together: some 250,000 French veterans; 150,000 Germans from the Confederation of the Rhine; 80,000 Italians: 60,000 Poles; and a detachment of Dutch, Swiss, Danes, and Yugoslavs; in all, a host of more than 600,000.

Simultaneously Tsar Alexander made counter-preparations. Through British mediation, he made peace with the Turks and thus removed an enemy from his flank. A series of treaties between himself, Great Britain, and Marshal Bernadotte, who was the crown prince of Sweden and tired of Napoleonic dictation, guaranteed his possession of Finland, assured him of a supporting Swedish army, and in return promised Norway as compensation to Sweden. A Russian army of 175,000 men was mobilized.

In June 1812, Napoleon crossed the Niemen River and began an invasion of Russia. His forces were superior to the Russians in numbers, organization, and equipment. Not daring to give open battle, the Russian forces kept retreating farther inland. In vain Napoleon tried to trap this or that Russian division into a fight. Unable to defeat or capture his foe, he penetrated ever deeper into Russia. Only once, at Borodino, on September 7, did one of the Russian generals, Kutusove, seriously engage a part of the invading army. Both sides lost heavily in the engagement, but the French took possession of Moscow a week later.

The very night of Napoleon’s triumphal entry, the city was set on fire through the carelessness of some natives. Barracks and foodstuffs were alike destroyed: most of the inhabitants fled, and what was left of the city was pillaged by French troops as well as by Russians. The lack of supplies and the impossibility of wintering in a ruined city compelled Napoleon on October 22 to evacuate Moscow and retrace his steps toward Niemen. The Russian forces followed, still not risking major engagements, but harassing the French rear-guard and cutting off stragglers.

The Napoleonic retreat from Moscow is one of the most horrible episodes in history. To the exasperating attacks of pursuing Russians on the rear were added the severity of the weather and the barrenness of the country. Steady downpours of rain changed to blinding storms of sleet and snow. Swollen streams, heaps of abandoned luggage, and huge snowdrifts repeatedly blocked the line of march. The gaunt and desolate country, which the army had ravaged and pillaged during the summer’s invasion, grimly mocked the retreating host. Exhaustion overcame thousands of troopers, who dropped by the wayside and beneath the snow gave their bodies to enrich the Russian soil. The retreat became a rout and all would have been lost had it not been for the almost superhuman efforts of the valiant rear-guard under Marshal Ney. As it was, a mere remnant of the Grande Armee recrossed the Niemen on December 13, and, in a pitiable plight, half-starved and with torn uniforms, re-entered Germany. Fully half a million lives were sacrificed in the fields of Russia. Yet in the face of these distressing facts, Napoleon egotistically announced to the afflicted French people that “the Emperor has never been in better health!”

For a moment Tsar Alexander hesitated. His country was freed, and to make peace in the hour of triumph might be of advantage to his country and involve no further risks on his part. But his own longing to pose as the chief figure on the European stage, the deliverer of oppressed nationalities, coupled with the insistent promptings of Baron vom Stein, who was always at his elbow, eventually decided him to attempt the complete overthrow of his rival. Late in December, he signed a convention with the Prussian commander, General Yorck, whereby the Prussian army would cooperate with the Russian and Swedish forces, and in return, Prussia would be restored to the position it had enjoyed prior to Jena. In January 1813, Alexander at the head of the Russian troops crossed the Niemen and proclaimed the liberty of the European peoples. King Frederick Willaim III, amidst the acclaim of his people, confirmed the convention of his general, and in March declared war against Napoleon. The War of German Liberation commenced.

The events of the year 1813 were as auspicious in the history of Germany as they were disastrous for the fortunes of Napoleon. Prussia led the movement to free all the German-speaking people from French domination. From Prussia the national enthusiasm spread to other states. Mecklenburg, which had been the last addition to the Confederation of the Rhine, was the first to secede from it. All northern and central Germany was soon in popular revolt, and the Prussian army, swelled by patriotic enlistments, marched southward into Saxony. Austria, divided between fear of Napoleon and jealousy of the growing power of Russia, mobilized its army and waited.

In these trying circumstances, Napoleon acted with accustomed promptness. After arriving in France late in 1812 he hurriedly mobilized a new army, which, with the wreck of the Grande Armee and the assistance that was still forthcoming from Naples and southern Germany, numbered 200,000 men. With this, he advanced into Saxony, and on May 2, 1813, attacked the allied Russians and Prussians at Lutzen. He defeated them but was unable to follow up his advantage for want of cavalry. On May 20-21, he gained another fruitless victory at Bautzen.

At this point, an armistice was arranged through the mediation of Austria. Metternich, the chief minister of that country, proposed a general European peace on the basis of the reconstruction of Prussia, the re-partition of the grand duchy of Warsaw by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, the recession of the Illyrian provinces to Austria, the dissolution of the Confederation of the Rhine, and the freedom of the German ports of Hamburg and Lubeck. But it was a decisive victory, not peace, that Napoleon wanted, and the only reason that induced him to accept the armistice was to gain time for the arrival of re-enforcement from Italy and France. The delay, however, proved fatal to him, for the British government utilized it to conclude new treaties with his Continental foes, assuring them of larger financial subsidies and thereby enabling them to strengthen their armies. The numerical balance of armed force, thus established between the Allies and Napoleon, was tipped against the latter when, in August 1813, Austria, whose peace proposals Napoleon rejected, formally joined the coalition against him.

Napoleon was then in Saxony in command of armies aggregating 400,000 men. Gathering against him in Bohemia, Silesia, and northern Prussia were Austrian, Prussian, and Russian forces of over 500,000 men. At Dresden, in August, he won his last spectacular victory, against the Austrian army of General Schwarzenberg. But his marshals suffered repeated reverses, and his forces were rapidly hemmed in by the Allies. At Leipzig, on October 16-19, fought the fateful three-day “Battle of the Nations”. Against 300,000 troops of the Allies, Napoleon could use only 200,000, and of these, the Saxon contingent deserted in the heat of the fray. It was by military prowess that the Napoleonic Empire had been reared; its doom was sealed by the battle of Leipzig. A fortnight later, with the remnant of his army, Napoleon recrossed the Rhine.

The “Battle of the Nations”, followed within a year by the disasters of the retreat from Moscow, marked the collapse of Napoleon’s power outside France. His Empire and puppet states tumbled like a house of cards. The Confederation of the Rhine dissolved, and its princes hastened, with a single exception, to throw in their lot with the victorious Allies. King Jerome Bonaparte was chased out of Westphalia. Holland was liberated, and William of Orange returned to his country as King. Denmark submitted and by the treaty of Kiel (January 1814) engaged to cede Norway to Sweden in return for a monetary payment and Swedish Pomerania. Austria readily recovered the Tyrol and the Illyrian provinces and occupied Venetia and Switzerland. Even Joachim Murat deserted his brother-in-law, and, in the hope of retaining Naples, came to terms with Austria. Only Polish Warsaw and the King of Saxony remained loyal to the Napoleonic alliance; the territories of both were in possession of the Allies.

With the remnant of his defeated army and what young boys and old men he was able to recruit, Napoleon needlessly prolonged the struggle on French soil. At the close of 1813 Austria prevailed upon its more or less willing allies to offer him fairly favorable terms: France might retain its “natural boundaries”- the Rhine, the Alps, and the Pyrenees; and Napoleon might continue to rule over a region which would have gladdened the heart of Richelieu or Louis XIV. But it was still a victory and not peace upon which the military egoist had set his mind.

Early in 1814 three large Allied armies, totaling 400,000 men, accompanied by the Emperors of Russia and Austria, and the King of Prussia, invaded northern France and converged on Paris. Blucher with his German troops was advancing up the Moselle to Nancy; Schwarzenberg with the Austrians crossed the Rhine to the south at Basel and Neu Breisach; Bernadotte in the Netherlands was welding Swedes, Dutch, and Prussians into a northern army. Meanwhile, a decisive defeat that Wellington with his army of British, Spaniards, and Portuguese, inflicted upon the French at Vitoria (June 1813) drove King Joseph for the last time from Madrid and in effect cleared the whole Iberian peninsula. The British general then fought his way through the Pyrenees, so that in the spring of 1814 a fourth victorious Allied army in the neighborhood of Toulouse threatened Napoleon from the south. An Austrian army, which was then operating in Venetia and Lombardy, menaced France from yet a fifth direction.

Against such overwhelming odds, Napoleon displayed throughout the desperate months of February and March 1814 the same remarkable genius, the same indomitable will, as had characterized his earliest campaigns. Inflicting a setback on one invader, he turned quickly against a second. Such apprehension did his tiger-like assaults excite among his opponents that as late as February he might have retained the French frontiers of 1792 if he had chosen to make peace. But he would play the game to the bitter end. On March 1, his four chief opponents- Great Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia- concluded the treaty of Chaumont, cementing their alliance for a period of twenty years and agreeing not to make terms without each other’s consent nor to desist from war until their arch-enemy was overthrown. Each contracting party undertook to furnish 150,000 men, and Great Britain promised a special subsidy of five million pounds.

Within a month, resistance was broken. Paris surrendered to the Allies on March 31, 1814, and thirteen days later Napoleon signed with the allied sovereigns the personal treaty of Fontainebleau, by which he abdicated his throne and renounced all rights to France for himself and his family, and in return, was accorded the island of Elba and an annual pension of two million francs for himself; the Italian duchy of Parma was conferred upon Empress Maria Louisa, and pensions of two and a half million francs were promised for members of Napoleon’s family. Another seven days and Napoleon bade his Old Guard an affecting farewell and departed for Elba. In his diminutive island empire, hard by the shore of Tuscany, Napoleon Bonaparte lived for ten months.

Meanwhile, in France, order was emerging from chaos. In 1793 European sovereigns had banded together to invade France, to restore the absolute monarchy of the Bourbons, and to stamp out the flames of revolution. The most noteworthy significance of the era of Napoleon was the fact that now in 1814 the monarchs of Europe, at last in possession of France, had no serious thought of restoring social or political conditions just as they had been prior to the Revolution. Their major quarrel was not with principles but with a man. The Tsar Alexander was an impressionable prince, familiar with phrases of revolutionary philosophy, and anxious to pose as the arbiter of Europe. Talleyrand, the man of the hour among Frenchmen, who himself had played no mean role throughout the Revolution and under Napoleon, combined with a desire to preserve the frontiers of his country a firm conviction that the mass of his countrymen would not revert to absolute monarchy. Between Talleyrand and Alexander, it was arranged, with the approval of the great powers, that in the name of “legitimacy”, the Bourbons should be restored to the throne of France, but with the understanding that they should recognize the chief reforms of the Revolution. It was likewise arranged by the Treaty of Paris (May 1814) that France should regain the limits of 1792. “Legitimacy” was a brilliant discovery of Talleyrand. It justified the preservation of France in the face of crushing defeat, and, if it restored the Bourbons, it did so as limited, not as absolute, monarchs.

Louis XVI’s “legitimate” heir was his brother, the Count of Provence, a cynical, prosaic, and very stout old gentleman who had been quietly residing in an English country house, and who now made a solemn, if somewhat unimpressive, state entry into Paris. The new King kept what forms of the old regime he could. He assumed the title of Louis XVIII, “King of France by the grace of God”. He reckoned his reign from the death of the Dauphin (“Louis XVII”) in the year 1795. He replaced the revolutionary tricolor with the lilied white flag of his family. Out of the fullness of his royal authority, he granted a “charter” to the French people. But Louis XVIII was neither so foolish nor so principled as to insist upon the substance of Bourbon absolutism. The very charter, which he “graciously” promulgated, confirmed the revolutionary liberties of the individual and established a constitutional form of limited monarchy for France.

The same month that witnessed the straddle of the French Bourbon between revolution and reaction, beheld the restoration of another Bourbon in the person of Ferdinand VII to the throne of Spain, and the return of Pope Pius VII, amid the enthusiastic shouts of the Romans, to the ancient see upon the Tiber. About the same time Piedmont and Savoy were restored to Victor Emmanuel I, King of Sardinia. Europe was rapidly assuming a more normal appearance. To settle the outstanding territorial questions that the overthrow of Napoleon had raised, a congress of rulers and diplomats met at Vienna in the autumn of 1814.

Within a few months, the unusual calm was rudely broken by the sudden reappearance of Napoleon Bonaparte on the European stage. It was hardly to be expected that he for whom the whole Continent had been too small would be content in tiny Elba. He nursed grievances, too. He could get no payment of the revenue promised him by the treaty of Fontainebleau; his letters to his wife and little son were intercepted and unanswered; he was treated as an outcast. He became aware of a situation both in France and in Vienna favorable to himself. As he foresaw, the shrinkage of the great French Empire into the realm of old France disappointed many patriotic Frenchmen, and their bitterness was enhanced by the presumption of returning emigres and the tactless way in which the Bourbon princes treated veterans of Grande Armee. In the circumstances, Napoleon believed he could count upon the renewed loyalty of the French nation. He believed, too, that he might not encounter anew the combined forces of the European powers, for these were angrily quarreling at Vienna over the peace settlement. If some fighting were necessary, the return of French prisoners from Russia, Germany, Great Britain, and Spain would supply him with a larger army than he had in 1814.

On February 26, 1815, Napoleon slipped away from Elba with some 700 men, and, managing to elude the British guardships, disembarked at Cannes on March 1 and advanced northward. Troops sent to arrest him were no proof against the familiar uniform and cocked hat; they threw their own hats in the air amid shouts of Vive L’Empereur. Marshal Ney, the “bravest of the brave”, who had taken an oath of allegiance to the restored Bourbon monarchy and promised Louis XVIII that he would bring Napoleon to Paris in an iron cage, deserted to him with 6,000 men, and on March 20 the Emperor jauntily entered the capital. Louis XVIII, who had assured his parliament that he would die in defense of his throne, was already jogging over the Belgian frontier.

Napoleon clinched his hold upon most of the French people by an astute manifesto. “He had come”, he declared, “to save France from the outrages of the returning nobles; to secure to the peasant the possession of his land; to uphold the rights won in 1789 against a minority which sought to reestablish the privileges of caste and the feudal burdens of the last century; France had made trial of the Bourbons; it had done well to do so, but the experiment had failed; the Bourbon monarchy had proved incapable of detaching itself from its worst supports, the priests and nobles; only the dynasty which owed its throne to the Revolution could maintain the social work of the Revolution….. He renounced war and conquest…. he would govern henceforth as a constitutional sovereign and seek to bequeath a constitutional crown to his son”.

The Emperor was as wrong in his judgment of what Europe would do as he was right concerning the attitude of France. The statesmen who had been haggling about treaty stipulations at Vienna speedily forgot their differences in the face of the common danger. The four great powers solemnly renewed their treaty of alliance, and with alacrity, all joined in signing a declaration. “In violating the convention which established him on the island of Elba, Bonaprate has destroyed the only leag little to his existence. By reappearing in France with projects of disorder and destruction, he has cut himself off from the protection of the law and has shown in the face of all the world that there can be neither peace nor truce with him. Accordingly, the Powers declared that Napoleon Bonaparte was excluded from civil and social relations, and as an enemy and disturber of the tranquility of the world, he has incurred public vengeance…..”

To give force to their threats, the Allies prepared another invasion of France. Wellington assembled an army of more than 100,000 British, Dutch, and Germans, and planned to cooperate with 116,000 Prussians under Blucher near Brussels. An Austrian army under Schwarzenberg neared the Rhine. Russia and Germany were alive with marching columns. To oppose these forces Napoleon raised a field army of 180,000 men, and on June 12, 1815, quit Paris for the Belgian frontier. His plan was to separate his opponents and to overcome them singly. It would be a repetition of the campaign of 1814, though on a larger scale.

How Napoleon passed the border and forced the outposts of the enemy back to Waterloo; how there, on June 18, he fought the final great battle of his remarkable career; how his troops were mowed down by the fearful fire of his adversaries and how even his famous Old Guard rallied gloriously but ineffectually to their last charge; how the defeat administered by Wellington was turned at the close of the day into a mad rout through the arrival of Blucher’s forces; all these matters are commonplaces in elementary histories of military science. It has long been customary to cite the Battle of Waterloo as one of the world’s decisive battles. In a sense, this is just, but it should be borne in mind that, in view of the firm determination of almost all of Europe, there was no ultimate chance for Napoleon. The Allies could put almost limitless numbers in the field; Napoleon was at the end of his resources. For the conservation of human life, it was fortunate that the first battle of the campaign of 1815 was also its last. Waterloo added military prestige to the naval preeminence which Great Britain already enjoyed and established the reputation of Wellington as victor over Napoleon.

On June 21 Napoleon arrived in Paris, defeated and dejected. That very day the parliament, on the motion of Lafayette, declared itself in permanent session and took over all functions of government. The following day Napoleon abdicated the second time in favor of his son, and the provisional government of France, through the intriguing Fouche, reopened negotiations with the Bourbons. On July 7 the Allies reoccupied Paris, bringing back the flustered old Louis XVIII “in their baggage train”.

On July 15, the day following the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, Napoleon, who had gone to Rochefort on the French coast, with some vague idea of taking refuge in America, delivered himself over to the commander of a British warship which was lying in the harbor. The British government, however, refused to grant him asylum in England. Instead, he was dispatched on another British warship to the rocky island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. Here he lived for five and a half years. He was allowed considerable freedom of movement and the society of a group of personal friends. He spent his time walking on the lonely island, quarreling with his suspicious strait-laced English jailer, Sir Hudson Lowe, and dictating memoirs to his companions. These memoirs, which were subsequently published, were subtly compounded of truth and falsehood. They represented him in the light of a true son and heir of the Revolution, who had been raised by the will of the French people to power in order that he might substantiate the revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. According to himself, he had always been the friend of peace and of oppressed nationalities, the author of blessings which had flowed uninterruptedly upon his people until he had been thwarted by British machinations and the brute force of European despots. Napoleon shrewdly foresaw the increase of popular discontent with the repressive measures that the reactionary sovereigns and statesmen of Europe were almost certain to inaugurate, and resulting disturbances might provide an opportunity for his own son to re-create a Napoleonic Empire. Napoleon carefully inserted in his will the pious request that he “be buried on the banks of the Seine in the midst of the French people whom I have so dearly loved”. On May 5, 1821, the first of the modern revolutionary dictators died on the island of St.Helena.

Important Links:

Intellectual Enlightenment
Political Causes of the French Revolution
Economic Causes of the French Revolution
Beginning of the French Revolution
Functions of the Constituent Assembly
Unsuccessful Attempt of the Royal Family to Flee the Country
Phases of the French Revolution
Role of Philosophers in the French Revolution
Nature of the French Revolution
Correlation Between the Objectives and Achievements of the French Revolution
Do you agree that the French Revolution achieved far less than what it intended to achieve?
Triumph of Jacobinism
Transformation of the Republic into a Military Dictatorship
Importance of the French Revolution
The Course of the French Revolution
French Revolution of 1848
The Foreign Policy of Louis Philippe
Causes of the Revolution of February 1848
Short Note on the French Revolution of 1848
Bonaparte Napoleon
Napoleon Ascendency
Consulate Rule and Constitution of 1799
Reforms of Napoleon
Napoleon Concord With Pope
Napoleonic Code
Continental System
Causes of the Failure of the Continental System
Napoleonic Imperialism
Napoleonic War
Short Note on Napoleon Bonaparte
Decline of the Napoleonic Empire
Spread of Revolutionary Principles
Popular Movement
Metternich and the Vienna Peace Settlement
The United States and the French Revolution, 1789–1799