Napoleon Bonaparte was born on August 15, 1769 in Ajaccio, on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. His family belonged to the minor Corsican nobility and supported Corsican independence from France. As a boy, Napoleon attended school in mainland France, first at Autun and later at the military academy in Brienne-le-Château.
Childhood and Family Background
Napoleon grew up with a large extended family in Corsica. His parents, Carlo Buonaparte and Letizia Ramolino, had four children who survived infancy: Joseph, Napoleon, Lucien, and Elisa. Later, Carlo adopted his nephew Louis and had two more children with Letizia: Pauline and Caroline. Napoleon was closest to his mother, a strong-willed woman who emphasized discipline. His father was rarely home due to his political activities.
Table: Bonaparte Siblings
|Second oldest brother
|Adopted cousin and brother
Napoleon grew up speaking both Corsican and French and kept his distinct Corsican accent all his life. The Corsican culture and political situation influenced him from a young age.
Education in France
In 1779, Napoleon left Corsica for school in mainland France. He was a strong-willed but withdrawn child who preferred reading to playing sports with classmates. Napoleon graduated from the Brienne military academy in 1784 and the elite École Militaire in Paris in 1785. Although his exam scores were mediocre, Napoleon received glowing reviews for his keen intellect. As a teenager, he discovered a passion for mathematics and military strategy.
Early Military Career
After graduating in 1785, Napoleon was commissioned as a second lieutenant in an artillery regiment based in Valence. He alternated between garrison duty and visits home to Corsica for several years. Napoleon became an avid reader and continued educating himself on classic military campaigns and enlightenment philosophy in his spare time.
Hardship and Opportunity in Corsica
Beginning in 1790, Napoleon spent eighteen months in Corsica on leave. He became strongly aligned with Corsican patriot Pasquale Paoli, who decreed that all French-born residents should leave the island.
Napoleon and his family were forced to flee Corsica in 1793, setting sail just ahead of the French troops who came to regain control. This was a traumatic exile for Napoleon’s mother Letizia, cementing his resentment toward France. However, it also opened new opportunities for advancement in the French military.
Early Commands and Promotions
When Napoleon returned to military duty in 1793, France was descending into political chaos. The French Revolution had begun, King Louis XVI had just been executed, and France was battling a coalition of European nations. These chaotic conditions allowed Napoleon’s career to advance rapidly as many aristocratic officers fled France. Brigadier General Napoleon Bonaparte took command of the artillery units supporting French troops at the Siege of Toulon in September 1793.
Table: Early Commands and Promotions
|Position and Location
|Captain of Artillery at Siege of Toulon
|Brigadier General at Siege of Marseille
|Commander of the Army of the Interior in Paris
|Commander-in-Chief of the Army of Italy
His tactical skills and mastery of artillery tactics were instrumental in driving the British from Toulon, earning him high praise and promotion to brigadier general by age 24. Over the next two years Napoleon continued to rise rapidly up the ranks in the French army.
In March 1796, Napoleon took command of the struggling French Army of Italy and set out to drive the Austrians from northern Italy. Through bold strategy, maneuvering, and willingness to seize opportunities, he won a series of victories against the Austrians.
Strategic Mastery in Italy
Napoleon demonstrated his strategic talents in these Italian campaigns. He successfully evaded Austrian forces in the Alps by using remote mountain roads. Napoleon maneuvered to isolate and defeat each Austrian army individually before reinforcements could arrive. Understanding the value of morale, he led dramatic charges bolstering the courage of his weary troops.
Seizing Mantua and Forcing Peace
By early 1797 Napoleon had driven the Austrian forces nearly to Vienna. In February, he laid siege to the Austrian stronghold of Mantua which surrendered after nearly a year. With northern Italy under French control, Austria sued for peace in the 1797 Treaty of Campo Formio. Victory transformed the 27-year old Napoleon into an internationally famous military commander.
Looting Italy’s Art Treasures
Aside from territory, Napoleon’s Italian campaigns brought enormous plunder back to France. As Napoleon conquered each state, he systematically looted Italy’s greatest art and sculptures. Teams of specialists pried treasures loose from palaces, churches, and museums before shipping them to Paris. Bonaparte also spent lavishly from the Italian treasury to pay his troops and supply his army. Many criticize these acts as naked plunder.
The Egyptian Campaign Ends in Disaster
While still in Italy, Napoleon developed an audacious new plan – conquest of Egypt as a base to threaten Britain’s empire in India. He set sail in May 1798 with 35,000 soldiers, 10,000 sailors, and a corps of scholars and scientists to study Egypt’s ancient wonders.
Initial Successes and Colonial Ambitions
The expedition captured Malta and then seized Alexandria in July 1798. Napoleon’s army marched south along the Nile River, defeating Egypt’s Mamluk warriors near the Pyramids of Giza. Initially his reports back to France boastfully compared his victories to the conquests of Alexander the Great in the ancient world.
However conditions in Egypt quickly deteriorated – scorching heat, lack of supplies, epidemics of disease, and mounting Arab guerilla resistance. The British Navy under Admiral Horatio Nelson traced Napoleon to Egypt and obliterated the French fleet anchored in Aboukir Bay. Stranded in Egypt without naval support, Napoleon’s position became increasingly desperate.
Retreating from the Disaster in Egypt
In the summer of 1799 Napoleon abandoned his army and secretly set sail for France just ahead of British ships enforcing the blockade. Although he had brought scholars to study its ancient monuments, ultimately Napoleon led only an invading colonial army in Egypt.
He left them trapped and facing increasingly effective resistance. Many of his surviving soldiers remained stuck in Egypt for three more years until their surrender in 1801.
Napoleon later portrayed his Egyptian campaign as pilgrimage to Alexander the Great’s conquests of Egypt. But militarily and politically it was an utter disaster for France. Nonetheless, the aura of victory in Italy still gave him enough clout to step into the power vacuum upon returning to France.
Seizing Power in France
While Napoleon was stranded in Egypt, matters in France continued descending into chaos. Ongoing war with European powers had caused economic collapse, religious and peasant revolts erupted across France, and political factions plotted coups in Paris. As military commander of Paris, Napoleon observed this instability firsthand upon his return on October 14, 1799.
The Coup of November 9-10, 1799
Wasting no time, Napoleon collaborated with his brother Lucien and diplomat Talleyrand to overthrow the existing Directory government. On November 9-10, 1799, Napoleon’s forces seized key sites in Paris and summoned the Legislature under force of arms. By dawn on the 10th, three Directors had resigned from the government. The remaining members appointed Napoleon, Sieyès, and Ducos as an emergency Consulate government.
This coup was the opening move in Napoleon’s ascent to supreme power in France over the next five years. Although illegal and unconstitutional, given the turmoil in Paris most accepted the coup without military resistance. Bonaparte was renowned for his victories and represented order and stability to a weary public.
Constitutional Referendum and Imperial Ambitions
In late 1799 Napoleon supervised development of a new French constitution concentrating executive authority under his leadership as First Consul. This went before voters in a referendum on December 14-15 and was approved by over 99% of voters, though turnout was low.
Just five years after returning penniless to France, Napoleon was now the country’s leading general and head of state. In 1802 his role evolved to Consul for Life, and by 1804 he was crowned Emperor of France – all while carefully shaping the public approval to support his growing imperial ambitions.
Reforms to Stabilize France
As ruler over the next fifteen years, Napoleon instituted lasting reforms establishing the modern French bureaucracy, legal codes, educational system, and central bank. He managed France’s finances tightly. His ministers aggressively promoted infrastructure projects, industry, and efficient tax collection to fill the nation’s coffers.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s life story arcs across the upheavals of the French Revolution and Empire. In his early career, his bold generalship brought victory in Italy which made him nationally famous in France at just age 27. Though his disastrous Egyptian campaign ended in retreat, upon returning to France, Napoleon adroitly seized political power as First Consul.
Over the next 15 years as France’s ruler, he crowed himself Emperor and built an empire extending across Europe. Napoleon instituted lasting reforms establishing the modern French state. However his continual wars disrupted the entire European continent. After a decade of glorious victories, his disastrous 1812 invasion of Russia marked the turning point towards eventual defeat at Waterloo in 1815.
Even now over 200 years later, Napoleon’s legacy remains mixed. At times he embodied the meritocratic ideals of the French Revolution – the minor noble from Corsica rising to power based on his military brilliance. Yet he frequently abandoned those principles by crowning himself Emperor and placing his siblings and generals in positions of feudal power. His dramatic rise and fall permanently altered the political order of Europe. Even today, Napoleon represents both the optimistic promise and inherent dangers of concentrated political power.
Frequently Asked Questions
What year was Napoleon born?
Napoleon Bonaparte was born on August 15, 1769 in Ajaccio, Corsica.
Where did Napoleon grow up?
As a boy, Napoleon grew up in Corsica but attended school in mainland France from age 10, first in Autun and later at the military academy in Brienne-le-Château. His large extended family belonged to the minor Corsican nobility.
How did Napoleon rise to power so quickly?
Napoleon rose quickly during the French Revolutionary Wars as many aristocratic generals fled France. Bold victories in Italy in 1796-97 made him a famous military commander in his 20s. He gained political power by overthrowing France’s Directory government in a 1799 coup upon returning from his Egyptian campaign.
What reforms did Napoleon introduce as France’s leader?
As France’s leader, Napoleon introduced lasting reforms including efficient government bureaucracy, lycées and grandes écoles to educate administrators, the Napoleonic legal code, the Bank of France, and infrastructure improvements. These stabilized French society after the turmoil of revolution.
How long was Napoleon the ruler of France?
Napoleon ruled France for nearly 15 years from November 1799 until his forced abdication in April 1814 following his disastrous Russian campaign and loss at the Battle of Leipzig. After briefly regaining power in 1815, Napoleon finally lost at Waterloo and spent his remaining years exiled on Saint Helena island until his death on May 5, 1821.