N & E
Napoleon & Empire

Short biography of Napoleon Bonaparte
6. The Fall of the Empire

Napoleon Bonaparte in 1812

Throughout the year 1812, Napoleon was concerned mainly with the preparation and execution of the Russian campaign. In the spring, however, he must take steps to try to avert the famine raging in several french departments, which led him to adopt a law on grain on May 4th and to tax the price of wheat on the 8th. But such domestic concerns, just as his dispute with Pope Pius VII (rupture of the Concordat of 23 February 1801, decision to transfer the Pope to Fontainebleau  , May 21st), or the mixed news arriving from Spain, noting the disturbing success recorded by Arthur Wellesley of Wellington, could not long distract his attention from the Russian campaign.

In January, the Emperor ordered Louis-Nicolas Davout to occupy the Swedish Pomerania, which determined Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte to offer shortly afterwards the Swedish alliance to Tsar Alexander I. In February, Napoleon forced the Prussian King Frederick William III to promise a contingent of twenty thousand men for a future campaign. In March, French troops entered in Prussia, and Austria was in turn taxed: thirty thousand men were recruited. To the Tsar's reaction, which was to have his ambassador in Paris issue an ultimatum to the French Government and to accept the alliance offered by Bernadotte, Napoleon replied by putting on a war footing the army corps stationed in Germany.

After the issuance of the ultimatum of the Tsar to Napoleon, he left Paris on May 5th and joined the Grand Army stationed in Königsberg on June 12th.

On June 24th, the Emperor crossed the Niemen, after refusing to restore the kingdom of Poland and ordering to dissolve the Polish Diet in Warsaw, which demanded such reconstitution. On the 28th, Napoleon entered Wilno (or Vilna, the current Vilnius) and lingered there for eighteen days, which, according to Antoine de Jomini, was the biggest mistake he committed his whole life. The army resumed its progress on July 16th and the Emperor entered Vitebsk on the 28th, telling Joachim Murat that: "The first Russian campaign was over. 1813 will see us in Moscow, 1814 in St. Petersburg. The Russian war will be over in three years". After another two weeks off, Napoleon resumed his progress on August 13th in the direction of Smolensk, passed the river Dnieper and entered on the 18th a city evacuated the day before by the Russians. The next step led him to Wiazma, where he entered the 29th, the same day on which Mikhaïl Illarionovitch Golenichtchev-Koutouzov was appointed as commander of the Russian troops. Three days later, Napoleon wrote to Marie-Louise: "Here I am after nineteen years of war, many battles and sieges in Europe, Asia, Africa. I will hurry to finish it to see you again soon". He believed such opportunity had come on September 7th, when the Russians finally agree to a general confrontation: the battle of Borodino, where the Emperor had galvanized his troops by exposing the portrait of the King of Rome painted by François Gerard in front of his tent. The commitment, overly murderer, was not decisive. However, the Russians evacuated Moscow but left for Napoleon nothing more than a deserted and burned down city, which he entered on September 14th. Disappointed in his expectation of receiving the Tsar peace offers, he decided to do himself confidential proposals, without effect.

He must now consider retreat. On October 5th, he began to take steps in this direction although he lingered yet in the Russian capital for two weeks despite the first snowfall, taking the time to reorganize the French comedy through the "Moscow decree" dated the 15th. On the 19th, he finally gave the signal for departure.

The retreat, on the devastated way over, quickly turned into a nightmare. On October 25th, Napoleon himself escaped a kidnap attempt by a party of Cossacks. On the 31st, the Emperor came to Wiazma. On November 9th, shortly after receiving the news of the conspiracy of General Malet, he was in Smolensk. As he left the city on the 14th, the temperature was -25°C (-13°F). The following days he conducted a series of engagements now known as the Battle of Kransoïe, which saw Marshal Ney, commanding the rearguard, covered himself with glory despite losing most of his men. The battle, victory or defeat, at least allowed the Emperor to cross the Dnieper river and reach the town of Orcha, where he personally burnt whatever he wished to deprive the Russians of. A few days later, facing the Berezina river, he burnt the eagles of all corps, as well as vans and cars that were still following the army. On the 27th, Napoleon and his guard crossed the river on bridges built by General Jean-Baptiste Eblé and his pontoon men.

On December 5th, having entrusted the army to Joachim Murat, the Emperor left for Warsaw in the company of Armand de Caulaincourt. He arrived on the 10th and left immediately. On the 18th, shortly before midnight, he reached the Tuileries Palace.

During the last days of the year, Napoleon tried, with his attitude and activities (hearings, hunting, visiting the Salon du Louvre), to combat the disastrous impression left by the publication in Le Moniteur of the disastrous military Russian campaign.

Napoleon Bonaparte in 1813

From the first days of 1813, Napoleon begain to prepare himself for the consequences of the Russian campaign. On January 11th, he obtained 350,000 men from the Senate. A few days later, he organized and established a council of regency: Marie-Louise became regent, with Jean-Jacques Régis de Cambaceres as secret counselor.

While anticipating the resumption of hostilities, the Emperor also played the diplomatic card. In Austria, which posed as a mediator in the conflict between France and Russia, he offered the restoration of Illyria. From Pope Pius VII, he obtained on January 25th at Fontainebleau the signature of a new concordat.

Such efforts proved unsuccessful and the very successes were only temporary: less than two months after signing, the Pope denounced the concordat; on April 7th Austria rejected the French proposals. The Russo-Prussian offensive (Prussia declared war on France on March 17th) had in the meantime reached Hamburg and Dresden. Napoleon, after obtaining an additional 180,000 men of the Senate, left for the army on April 15th. On the 25th, he reached Erfurt and took command of the troops.

Although saddened by the death of Marshal Bessières and the Grand Palace Marshal Duroc, the first part of the campaign was good for the French army. The battles of Lützen (May 2nd) and Bautzen (May 20th-21st) were successful although Napoleon could not fully exploit them lacking his cavalry; Dresden and Hamburg were recovered. The Emperor agreed, however, to sign the armistice of Pleiswitz, thereby committing, according to Jomini, "the biggest mistake during his career as commander in chief". Napoleon probably hoped that, during the talks to be held, he would be able to avoid Austria's entry into war (this country was still officially neutral). He also expected to reconstruct his missing cavalry. Finally, it could be he was trying to show the French public opinion, which was increasingly hostile to the regime, that he was not responsible for the conflict.

Nevertheless, it was the coalition that made the most out of the cease-fire. Klemens von Metternich and Tsar Alexander had already agreed. The talks, which took the name of Prague Congress, had no other purpose than allowing time for Karl Philipp von Schwartzenberg to gather and organize the Austrian forces. When Napoleon accepted the bulk conditions, however harsh, that were proposed, Metternich added others, inadmissible.

On August 10th, 1813 at midnight, the Austrian Chancellor closed the conference. Two days later, Austria, financed by Britain, as were Russia and Prussia, declared war on Napoleon.

On the 26th and 27th of August in Dresden, the Emperor won his last major victory in Germany. Around him, however, his marshals and generals suffered defeat after defeat (Nicolas Oudinot, Dominique Vandamme, Michel Ney), his brother Jerome fled his capital of Cassel upon a Cossack raid, and his allies betrayed him. Bavaria defected on October 8th. Even worse, the Saxon army turned around its guns at the height of the Battle of Leipzig and ended in coalition ranks a fight it began under the imperial flag.

Defeated, Napoleon embarked on a retreat that led him on October 23rd to Erfurt (where Joachim Murat left to join Naples ), the 30th to Hanau, where he defeated the Bavarians, and on November 2nd to Frankfurt am Main, before crossing the Rhine. On the 9th, he was back in Paris.

A week later, he proposed to the coalition, already nearing the French borders, a conference to discuss peace. The allies responded with a statement, known as Frankfurt Declaration, stating that they did not make war on France but to Napoleon. Then they crossed the Rhine (December 2nd).

The Emperor, after reviewing the other proposals contained in the Frankfurt Declaration by the Legislature, sent twenty-three senators and councilors of State in the military divisions to accelerate the conscription (class 1815 had been called in advance) and the organization of the National Guard.

He found himself in a desperate situation: the English were in the Southwest and in Tuscany, the Austrians in Alsace and Switzerland, the Russians in Holland; he just had to recognize the title of King of Spain to Ferdinand VII through the Treaty of Valençay; Metternich was providing dilatory answers to his proposals... Napoleon must still undergo the late revolt of the Legislature on December 29th, which condemned "the ambitious activities" of the Emperor.

He therefore closed the record of its public acts of the year 1813 by adjourning the meeting.

Napoleon Bonaparte in 1814

The wrath of the Emperor against the deputies continued on January 1st, 1814, on the occasion of receiving the new year: he called down the members present and invited them to return to their departments. In the following days, he deployed an intense activity to repel the eventual invasion. During the month of January, he created the French corps in Paris, put the National Guard in the capital on alert and presented the King of Rome to his officers, sent Armand de Caulaincourt to negotiate with the allies, recalled Eugene and his troops to France, ordered Pope Pius VII to return to Italy, appointed his brother Joseph Bonaparte lieutenant general of the Emperor and finally left to join the army on the 25th. He would never see his wife or his son again.

Putting, as he told himself, "the boots of General of the Army of Italy", he did not lose a moment to start the fight. On January 27th, 1814, he defeated the vanguard of Blücher in Saint-Dizier. Two days later, heading the "Marie-Louise", comprising all still inexperienced young soldiers, he repeated success in Brienne. These successes, no matter how tarnished by the defeat suffered on February 1st in La Rothière, facing the Austro-Prussian forces together, enabled him to obtain the opening of a French-allied conference on the 3rd at Chatillon-sur-Seine. The conditions offered to him - pull France's borders back to its limits prior to the Revolution - were such that he refused and the conference was adjourned on the 7th.

Having had to retreat to Nogent, and having considered the evacuation of Paris by the government, Napoleon obtained from the 10th to the 19th of February a series of victories over the Prussian, Austrian, and Russian armies (Champaubert, Montmirail, Chateau-Thierry, Vauchamps, Mormant, Nangis, Montereau) resulting in the resumption of the Châtillon conference without interrupting hostilities. Again, Napoleon rejected the proposals made to him but offered his stepfather, Emperor Francis the first, peace on the basis of the Frankfurt Declaration (December 4th, 1813). Another victory over Blücher on February 22nd led the allies to meet in Troyes to hold a council of war, which decided to retire and offer Napoleon an armistice.

In late February, along with discussions in Châtillon, negotiations were conducted in Lusigny for an armistice. Their failure led Napoleon to issue two decrees by which he called the French to conduct a partisan war against the enemy and revolt against the authorities who were trying to distract them. On March 7th, 1814, the Emperor was again victorious at Craonne but could not cut the road to the Allies to Paris. New battles were still required. On the 9th and 10th, at Laon, Napoleon still failed to obtain an advantage and must fall back on Soissons. On March 13th, last success, he recovered Reims but on the 20th, the day after the negotiations of Chatillon were definitely interrupted, he suffered at Arcis sur Aube a failure that forced him to withdraw behind the river Aube and let the Allies march on Paris. He then conceived the plan to cut the Allied supply lines and heads to Saint-Dizier. But the interception of his correspondence, revealing to the enemy that there was a strong royalist party in the capital, convinced foreign policy makers to continue their offensive.

Napoleon was in Fontainebleau on March 31st, 1814, when Paris fell. The Senate, that had just established an interim government dominated by Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, almost immediately declared, on April 2nd, that Napoleon had forfeited his throne. The Legislature passed the same resolution on the 3rd. On the 4th, the Emperor signed, in Fontainebleau, a conditional form of abdication, preserving the rights of his son and the Empress Regent. But after a meeting with his marshals on April 6th, Napoleon renounced for himself and his family to the thrones of France and Italy, as required by the foreign rulers.

After having moved for a few days between discouragement and inclination to reject his abdication, Napoleon finally gave in to despair and on April 12th, according to the testimony of Armand de Caulaincourt, attempted suicide by poisoning. Failing to do so, he accepted the next day the offer made to him of the sovereignty of Elba ("The Island of Sancho Panza given to Caesar", said the historian Henri Houssaye). On April 20th, he made his farewell speech to his guard in the courtyard of the Cheval-Blanc of the Fontainebleau castle and left in company of Bertrand, Drouot, Cambronne, and six hundred men.

Napoleon embarked on April 28th at St. Raphael (French Riviera) on the British frigate The Undaunted, after having raised on his path in Provence serious hostility. On May 4th, 1814, he set foot in his new "kingdom". His sister Pauline, Madame Mère, Maria Walewska and her son soon joined him there, but Marie-Louise did not, consoling from the exile of her imperial husband into the arms of the Austrian general Neipperg. On the miniature theater that he was imposed, however, Napoleon deployed all the activity he was capable of, performing in a few months a prodigious work of reorganization. The former referee of the European policy seemed to have accepted his fate. He stayed current, however, on the developments in the political situation in France.

Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815

In early 1815, on top of all the good reasons that Napoleon already had to "leave the island for an heroic adventure" - boredom, fear of assassination, financial difficulties due to non-payment of the endowment promised, deportation rumors coming from Vienna - added the positive knowledge of the growing discontent aroused by the Bourbons. In mid-February, Hugues Bernard Maret sent an emissary to the Emperor to advise him to hasten his return, to take advantage of the unpopularity of a regime that was increasing the harassment against Republicans and Bonapartists. Napoleon, then, decided and set himself in action.

On February 25, three proclamations, dated March 1st and addressed to the French people, the army and the guard, were printed on the island of Elba. The next day, at nine o'clock at night, they unberthed and prepared the equipment. Napoleon sailed aboard the brig L'Inconstant, accompanied by a flotilla of four three-masts and two felucca. Seven hundred men and four cannons made up his army.

After having sailed without incident, the landing took place on March 1st in Golfe-Juan , between Cannes and Antibes. Reading was immediately given to the proclamation for the army, in which Napoleon stated that "the Eagle, with the national colors, will fly from steeple to steeple to the towers of Notre Dame".

Napoleon choosed to reach Lyon through the Alps to avoid the royal cities of the Rhone Valley. On March 4th, 1815, he entered Digne, on the 5th Sisteron and then Gap. On the 7th, as a royal decree was issued to "hunt him down" and shoot him upon identification, he rallied the first troops at Laffrey. In the evening, he entered Grenoble. In Lyon, on 10th, the population hailed him as the victorious savior, as well as the 7,000 men who were marching along already. The next day he adopted his first decrees, restoring the tricolor flag, restoring the Chambers, and ordering the emigrants returned after January 1st, 1814 to leave immediately the Empire. He continued his march onto Paris by Macon, Chalon, and Dijon. On March 18, Marshal Michel Ney, who had promised to take him to the King in an iron cage, joined Napoleon in Auxerre. Finally, on March 20, 1815, Napoleon entered Paris in triumph, on the anniversary of the birth of his son the King of Rome. The same evening, he established his government. The "miracle of the invasion by one man", as Chateaubriand would write, was accomplished.

In the following days, the Emperor took a series of symbolic measures that seemed designed to recall the republican origins of the regime: abolition of censorship, update of the revolutionary laws against the Bourbons, taking over the command of the National Guard of Paris by the Emperor himself. Soon, Benjamin Constant, whom Napoleon had commissioned a Constitution on April 14, botched in a few days an Additional Act to the Constitutions of the Empire that the Emperor promulgated on the 22nd (but the official announcement, after the referendum, was issued on June 1st at the ceremony of the Field-of-May) that satisfied no one.

However, the Additional Act was applied immediately, and the month of May, which also saw the reconciliation of Napoleon with his brother Lucien, was mainly dominated by the elections. Carefully concocted by Joseph Fouché, who already envisioned the end of the adventure and readied the next, they brought to the House a large liberal majority (five hundred representatives), eighty Bonapartists and forty Republicans. Napoleon, who was not the dupe of his minister, told him one day: "You are a traitor, Fouché, I should hang you." However, the other was content to say "I'm not of the opinion of your Majesty", and continued his work.

Napoleon ignored it, for his great concern was war. From the beginning, it threatened. On March 29th, 1815, despite the advice of his brother-in-law, Joachim Murat initiated hostilities against Austria in Italy. On April 4th, Napoleon tried to write to the European rulers to announce his acceptance of the Treaty of Paris of May 30th, 1814. However, these had already declared that "Napoleon Bonaparte has placed himself without the pale of civil and social relations; and that, as an enemy and disturber of the tranquillity of the world, he has rendered himself liable to public vengeance". Their intransigence was total. On April 25th, they "reciprocally engage not to lay down their arms [...] until Bonaparte shall have been rendered absolutely unable to create disturbance". It only remained for the Emperor to build an army.

On June 12th, 1815, eight days after the distribution of eagles in the Great Gallery of the Louvre, Napoleon left Paris to join the Northern army. Upon leaving, he told General Bertrand's wife these few words that did not betray a great confidence: "Well, Madame Bertrand, provided we do not regret the island of Elba". On June 14th, he addressed a new proclamation to his troops at the head of which he crossed the river Sambre on the following day. The Belgian campaign started with a victory over the Prussians at Gilly, near Charleroi. On the 16th, at Ligny, in the plains of Fleurus, Napoleon inflicted on the enemy heavy losses but did not manage to destroy it, while Michel Ney failed to Wellington at the Battle of Quatre-Bras. The battle of Waterloo took place on the 18th...

On June 21st, back at the Elysee Palace, Napoleon faced the hostility of the parliamentary chambers and dared not repeat Brumaire, as his brother Lucien and Marshal Davout advised him to do, under risk of triggering a civil war. On 22nd, he abdicated in favor of his son but Joseph Fouché formed an interim government, took over the management of affairs and avoided the proclamation of Napoleon II.

Napoleon jailed!
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