This Week in History: Napoleon I born in Corsica in 1769
Napoleon I, also known as Napoleon Bonaparte, was born on the Mediterranean island of Corsica on Aug. 15, 1769. Then, as now, Corsica was a part of France. As a youth, Napoleon’s well-to-do parents sent him to a military school in France. In October 1785, he graduated from the elite military academy École Militaire in Paris, completing a two-year course in just one year. At age 16, he entered the French army as a second lieutenant. Napoleon’s skill, intelligence, and bravery earned him fast promotion.
Napoleon returned to Corsica after the outbreak of the French Revolution (1789-1799). There, he joined the Jacobins, a radical group loosely dedicated to installing democracy in France. In early 1793, Napoleon rejoined the French army. In June, the Jacobins took control of the French government. By the end of the year, 24-year-old Napoleon was a brigadier general. At that time, France was at war with several European nations. Napoleon gained fame, and considerable power, for leading his troops to a number of key victories. In November 1799, Napoleon—seeing an opportunity amidst a weak, chaotic French government—seized power in a bold coup d’état.
Napoleon became first consul—the head of a three-member Consulate. In 1801 and 1802, treaties with Austria and the United Kingdom brought peace to Europe for the first time in 10 years. However, the peace did not last long, as fighting resumed in 1803.
In 1804, Napoleon established the Code Civil, a law code that still forms the basis of French civil law. Later that year, he crowned himself emperor, and the civil laws became known as the Code Napoleon.
From 1805 to 1809, Napoleon won a string of victories over the armies of Austria, Prussia, and Russia. The laundry list of victories gave names to now-famous Parisian avenues, boulevards, and train stations: Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena, Auerstadt, Friedland, and Wagram. After each victory, Napoleon enlarged his empire, adding parts of modern-day Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Slovenia. Napoleon had reached his peak.
In 1808, fierce fighting erupted in Spain. The Peninsular War, a grinding, bloody conflict, pitted French forces against the combined forces of the United Kingdom, Portugal, and Spain—recently a French ally. The war dragged on until 1813, costing hundreds of thousands of lives and ending in a bitter French defeat.
In 1812, Napoleon led 600,000 troops in an invasion of Russia. That September, Napoleon’s army won a gruesome battle over the Russians at Borodino, and it occupied Moscow. The Russians refused to surrender, however. Lacking shelter and supplies to survive the harsh Russian winter, Napoleon’s army was forced to retreat. Starvation, cold, and Russian raids combined to decimate the French army as it pulled back. Just 100,00 returned to France.
The Spanish and Russian campaigns had greatly reduced the numbers of the French army, yet Napoleon soldiered on. His troops fought a number of battles in Germany in 1813 before finally falling back to France, exhausted. By March 1814, the French army was so reduced it could not protect Paris, and the city fell to an alliance of enemies. Napoleon was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba, and France relinquished most of its empire.
Undaunted, Napoleon escaped from exile and rallied yet another army in France, returning to power in March 1815. His longtime enemies—Austria, Prussia, Russia, and the United Kingdom—grimly gathered forces again, determined to end the fighting once and for all.
On June 18, 1815, the French and British armies clashed on the now famous field of Waterloo, a boggy stretch of ground south of Brussels. The fighting was intense and bloody. Late in the day, just as the French neared victory, thousands of Prussian troops arrived. The French army, exhausted and now badly outnumbered, collapsed. Napoleon retreated to Paris, where he gave up power for the final time on June 22. He was exiled again, this time to tiny St. Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean. He died there on May 5, 1821.