Napoleon's Wars, Mistakes and Fall - Part I of V

Posted by Nick Efstathiadis in ,


"From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but one step."
                                                                         Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon crossing the Alps

An unglorified version of Napoleon leading his reserve army through the Alps in 1800, by Paul Delaroche in 1848, a painting now in the Louve. He was on his way to battle the Austrians in northern Italy. For the romantic version click here.


Napoleon, First Consul

According to paintings of Napoleon Bonaparte, his hair was cut short around the time that he became First Consul, adding to the discarding of long hair that was developing in men's hairstyles. In France, the style of women's clothing was changing too, to lighter dresses that revealed more of the shape of the body -- part of what some of the more conservative and religious of people saw as the decadence of the time.

In 1800, in his first year as First Consul, Napoleon led his army over the Alps. And, in June of that year, with light field artillery that could easily be moved about, and the high morale of his troops, and his on-the-spot innovations, he crushed the Austrians at Marengo (125 kilometers east of Milan), which put France back in charge of the Po River valley.

Austria withdrew from its war against France in 1801. And, that year, Napoleon signed a concordant with the Papacy, mending the rift that had begun between the French Revolution and the Catholic Church in 1790. Catholics in France were to be free to practice their religion as they pleased, while the French government was to nominate bishops and pay the clergy.

In 1802, the war-weary British signed a treaty with France -- the Treaty of Amiens -- which returned to France Trinidad and other Caribbean islands. France remained in control of the Dutch and Belgian Netherlands and most of the Italian peninsula. The Treaty of Amiens left Europe with a balance of power of sorts, which Britain's leaders wished to maintain.

In early 1803, Napoleon still had troops in St. Domingue (Haiti), and he had Louisiana from Spain and was moving to acquire Florida. France also had ties with the Jefferson administration in the United States that were preferential over the British. The British, who still held Canada, felt their position in the New World endangered. And they saw indications that Napoleon was planning to dominate the Mediterranean Sea and the Middle East and feared for their trade routes in these parts of the world. They disliked signs that France was extending its power into western Germany. And rather than assure the British that they had nothing to fear, Napoleon enhanced British fears by moving to exclude Britain from the continent. Napoleon was also building up his military, adding troops from Piedmont to his war making capability and with Spain building his naval forces. Napoleon was not content with a balance of power, nor did he like the status quo. He did not love war, but he did like the glories of victory -- the source of admiration for him from the French people. Napoleon regarded another war with Britain as inevitable, and he was working toward fulfilling that expectation.

The British were not evacuating the island of Malta, as required by the Treaty of Amiens. They wanted to keep Malta and wanted France to withdraw from the United Netherlands and from Switzerland in exchange for Britain's recognition of France's annexation of the Italian island of Elba and its other gains in Italy. France did not agree and, on April 11, 1803, broke relations with Britain. Facing war with Britain, Britain's domination of the Atlantic and having lost hope concerning St. Domingue, France sold Louisiana territory to the United States. And on May 18, Britain declared war on France -- the two powers returning to their war of 1792-82, the British expecting it to be a war of attrition that would last many more years.

Code Napoleón

Napoleon, meanwhile, was streamlining the organization of France. He presided over thirty-six of the eighty-four sessions that produced what was called Code Napoleón. Marriages and divorces were to be civil -- in other words, outside the purview of the Church. There was to be government restructuring geared to honest administration, protection of property and wealth, and the Rights of Man and Citizen declared in 1789 was to be upheld, including equality before the law and freedom of the press. France was to have both private and public schools, with some of the early years of education in clerical schools, but all schooling was to be controlled by the state.

Under Code Napoleón the tradition of women as dependents was to continue. They could not make contracts or have bank accounts in their own name. Education was important to Napoleon. Women were to be educated mainly in that which was seen as making them good wives: in domestic skills and religious devotion.

Concerned about keeping his armies fed, Napoleon had offered a cash prize to anyone who developed reliable food preservation, and a food canning industry began in France.

Napoleon's Wars, Mistakes and Fall

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