On December 18th 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, was back in Paris from the frozen lands of Russia, leaving behind hundreds of thousands of his soldiers’ corpses. The once incomparable Grande Armée, the sword and shield with which he had made himself master of Europe, shattered against the Russian wall. His enemies, old and new, stirred with the scent of blood of the wounded beast. The British Empire, Russia, Austria, Prussia, Sweden, Spain and Portugal, amongst many others; formed the Sixth and Seventh Coalition against him. He would be defeated and exiled twice. His legacy and name would outlive them all. Read below about Napoleon’s last adventure.

1# After the Russian campaign

In the beginning of 1813, not everything was hopeless for Napoleon. His enemy of old, Austria, remained neutral, and while Prussia had coalesced with Russia―both funded with immense British subsidies, as all fighting against Napoleon would―Russia had also suffered vastly as a result of Napoleon’s failed Russian invasion in 1812. Its richest lands were scorched, its army down to less than a 100.000. Still enough to snuff out the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, the short-lived Polish state that owed its existence to Napoleon. Berlin and Pomerania were also retaken and returned to the Prussians, surrounding strong French garrisons in Stetin and Danzig, which resisted for now.

Europe, 1813. In blue, France, its allies and satellite states. In red, the Sixth Coalition (Austria was still neutral, and Spain was occupied by the French but had revolted, so neither should be included at this stage). Author: Sammy pompon (Wikipedia user). Source

The german states of the French protectorate of the Rhine Confederation, begun to question their loyalty to their protector, who as was characteristic of him, had launched himself into a flurry of activity on his return to Paris. New conscripts were recruited and soon France had 150.000 soldiers ready to take the field. The new recruits were nicknamed Marie-Louises, for it had been Napoleon’s wife, Empress Marie Louise, who had signed the recruitment order; and on account of their youth, some as young as 15. Napoleon complained of this, and of their lack of training but it had been his orders to leave garrissons behind in Prussia, and his the fault to start the Peninsular War which tied hundreds of thousands of French troops.

2# The War of the Sixth Coalition

His army marched to meet the Russians and Prussians in Saxony, one of his protectorates of the Confederation, where his tenderfoot recruits fared exceptionally well, winning the battles of Lützen on 2nd May, and Bautzen on 20 to 21st May, east of Dresden. However, having lost a quarter of a million horses during the Russian campaign, his current 8.000 cavalrymen couldn’t compete against Russian and Prussian 30.000 cavalry, preventing him from chasing the enemy and exploiting his victory. Both sides were exhausted, and Napoleon agreed to a truce. During this hiatus, Metternich, Austria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, proposed a conference in Prague to mediate between Napoleon and the Coalition. The conditions put in front of him were: to retreat west of the Rhine and abandon the Rhine Confederation, as well as renounce to the Kingdom of Italy and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, and in return, he’d be allowed to keep the French throne. Napoleon couldn’t bring himself to accept a peace which forced him to to abandon his German allies (who wouldn’t be so squirmish about abandoning him themselves) and forsake the sacrifice of his soldiers during all these years.

With Metternich’s attempts to diplomatically regain the territory lost to Napoleon in 1809, Austria finally joined the Sixth Coalition. Their summer battle plan aimed to pick Napoleon’s subordinates one by one, while avoiding an engagement with his main force. Napoleon made their job all easier, by wasting Oudinot’s corps in a far-fetched operation to retake Berlin, while Vandamme and Macdonald’s corps were mowed down after an inconsequential French victory at Dresden. To compound this, Bavaria, one of Napoleon’s oldest allies of the Rhine Confederation, suddenly deserted to the Coalition. The decisive battle was fought from 16th to 17th October 1813, when 360.000 Coalition soldiers attacked Napoleon’s 200.000 in Leipzig. The Battle of the Nations was the largest battle in Europe before World War I, and also one of Napoleon’s largest and most decisive defeats. Saxony, whom he had refused to abandon during the Prague Conference, betrayed him too, like Bavaria and Württemberg. With the Rhine Confederation lost, Napoleon retreated west of the Rhine, never to recross it again. 

3# General and tactician

Napoleon would have to stomach yet a third betrayal, when later that month his brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, whom Napoleon had made a Marshal and King of Naples, sided with the Coalition in return for being allowed to keep his throne. Napoleon predicted he wouldn’t survive him for long, and he was indeed deposed and executed in 1815, by Ferdinand I, the restored Bourbon King of Naples. In November 1813, the Coalition offered peace terms again, the Frankfurt proposals, demanding France’s withdrawal from the Netherlands and Italy (Spain and German states having already been liberated), but allowing Napoleon to keep Belgium and the Rhineland (west bank of the Rhine). Napoleon agreed, and the Napolenic Wars might have ended here, if not for Britain’s last-minute refusal to allow France to keep Belgium, fearing Napoleon might stage an invasion of Britain from there. Napoleon saw the yielding of Belgium in contradiction with his coronation oath to protect the borders of France, and the war resumed by 1814.   

By then he only had 80.000 men left to defend the Rhineland, 90.000 more in south-west France against Welington’s 121.000, and 60.000 more in Northern Italy. His enemies dwarfed him with nearly a million soldiers in all fronts, including strategic reserves. Moreover, Napoleon also had to contend with the war-weariness of the country, which reflected in draft evasion rising over 30%. Nevermind that, when there weren’t enough muskets and uniforms to furnish them with. In addition to, several French towns surrendered without a fight to the vanguard Coalition troops. But it was during this hopeless situation that Napoleon again showed his military genius, deftly moving his 80.000 men between three larger Coalition armies, 400.000 men in total, and scoring four consecutive victories in the Six Days’ Campaign, between 10th to 15th February. The Duke of Wellington, one of the best generals of the day, later stated that Napoleon might have saved Paris if he had been able to continue with his strategy a little longer.

4# Abdication and exile

Napoleon counted on his countrymen to emulate the doggednes of the Russians during the French invasion of 1812, while he himself cut their communication lines. Instead of chasing him, the Coalition armies decided to march for Paris. The capital was neither prepared nor willing to fight, and on 31st March they surrendered, a far cry from the burning of the city with which the Russians had welcomed Napoleon to Moscow. Dissuaded of marching against the city by his marshals, Napoleon sent one of them, Auguste de Marmont, to discuss peace terms with the Coalition. But Marmont took a page from Murat’s book and surrendered with his men, critically crippling Napoleon’s options. On April 2nd, the French Senate passed an act deposing him and restoring the Bourbons with Louis XVIII, the brother of Louis XVI who had been executed during the French Revolution. Napoleon bowed to the Senate’s wishes, and abdicated on April 6th

Napoleon Bonaparte after his abdication in Fontainebleau. Painting by Paul Delaroche, 1845. Photography. Source

That same night he attempted to commit suicide, but a doctor arrived in time and forced him to vomit the poison. A week later, the Treaty of Fontainebleau was ratified, in which Napoleon abdicated his throne in exchange for the Island of Elba, where he would keep hold of his imperial title, and even a small army and navy. Accompanied by four hundred guards and a small court, he bid farewell to his Imperial Guard, an event full of tears and an emotional speech. The army remained unconditional to Napoleon and would be his main supporter during his return in 1815. Denied of the company and sight of his wife and son, whom he would never seen again, he left France and arrived on Portaferraio, Elba, on May 3rd.

Wedged between Italy and his native Corsica, his island-home counted with 11.000 inhabitants. Nevermind that it was insignificant compared to the vast territory he had ruled as master of Europe, and nevermind that the Bourbons never remmited him a single Franc of the annual 1.5 million agreed in the Treaty of Fontainebleau as his pension; Napoleon was as always restless and bursting with incomparable drive. During his short stay he left he reinforced defences, built and paved, reformed the administration in the lines of France, codifying and promoting meritocracy in detriment of birthright, just as he had done elsewhere. He avidly followed news from home, asking lots of questions to visitors but always wisely claiming his role in international politics was over.

The Flag of Elba was designed by Napoleon himself, including the bees which he had adopted in France as his royal symbol. Author: it:User:Giantao88. Source

5# The return

Louis XVIII failed to alleviate the Frenchmen’s fears about the reestablishment of feudalism, the Ancien Régime, which had been one of the causes of the French Revolution. His unpopular policies towards the army, like the abolishment of the tricolor flag, the Imperial Guard, or popular Napoleonic condecorations such as the Légion d’honneur, was deeply resented in the army. They yearned for the return of their petit caporal (little corporal), their nickname for Napoleon, on account of the camaraderie they shared (and not of his stature) for Napoleon understood their psychology better than anyone. Aware of this, on February 26th 1815, Napoleon escaped Elba on board of the Inconstant, a brig of his small navy, avoiding both British and French squadrons. In total he had gathered eight small vessels, a thousand men, two light cannons and twenty servants. On March 1st they docked in Golfe Juan, near Cannes. Napoleon was back.

He marched north across mountains to avoid Bourbon patrols, gathering veterans and supporters as he went. The most famous moment of his march was when he encountered the 5th regiment sent to arrest him. One version of the story goes the following: he asked them if they wanted to shoot his emperor, they immediately dropping the muskets and embracing him. In another version Napoleon talked to the soldiers in his familiar, jovial, style, pinching their cheeks and revising them as though they were still his own. Whatever version you choose, both left little doubt to with whom the loyalties of the French army lay.

Today the route Napolen took is a famous and picturesque path to follow. Author: Fr.Latreille. Source

Later he even reprimanded a batallion for not marching well, showing them that Napoleon was still confident in his authority and didn’t need to beg. Even Ney, one of his former marshalls, fell prey to Napoleon’s self-confidence when sent to intercept him. Army apart however, the populace’s feeling towards him remains more difficult to gaige. Some areas and classes supported him genuinely while others were simply displeased with the Bourbons. Be as it may, the country was swept by a wave of euphoria, brining about a feeling of unity and national pride like that of the first days of the French Revolution. Louis XVIII fled to Belgium, and eleven months after abdicating, Napoleon Bonaparte entered Paris on 20th March as de facto Emperor of the French. When he arrived in the Tuileries Palace he was welcomed with tears of joy and cries of vive l’empereur, vive Napoléon!

6# The Hundred Days

True to his word, Napoleon didn’t persecute anybody who had served the Bourbons, and welcomed with open arms, even those like Joseph Fouché, his former Minister of Police, who had conspired to overthrow him in the past. It was characteristic of Napoleon to be merciful, even forgetful of the slights done to him. He restored the Tricolor Flag, the Imperial Guard, military honours and regiment designations. He also revamped the political system, sharing power with the two chambers of the parliament. It was a more liberal monarchy than his first mandate, in which he had held absolute power. He eliminated Bourbon censorship and abolished slave trade entirely, declaring the end of his imperial ambitions.

This didn’t assuage the fears of Austria, Russia, Prussia, and Britain, who formed the core of the Seventh Coalition, plus seventeen more countries and small states, who swore never to put the arms down until the Corsican outlaw was defeated and ousted. But to bring their impressive force of 850.000 men to the French borders they needed time, specially the Russians and the Austrians, so Napoleon regarded the British and Prussians under Wellington and Blücher, cantoned near Brussels, to be the most immediate threat. He hopeed a decisive victory against these might knock off one, or both, out of the war, or at the very least buy him time to fight the Austrians and Russians one by one. Napoleon brought his army close to 200.000, plus several extra thousand training in the depots, although they were badly wanting in training, morale, and equipment, Moreover, he had to divert 20.000 to steam a royalist rising in the Vendée, and at his disposal were only left four marshals: Davout, Bey, Soult and Grouchy; compared to the eleven to fifteen he had had during previous campaigns.  

Napoleon took 130.000 men with him, while the rest covered the Italian, Swiss, Spanish and Rhine borders. He marched north, sending Ney with a corps to delay Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch army at Quatre Bras, south of Brussels, while he engaged Blücher’s Prussian force. He aimed to prevent them link up and outnumber him, initially succeeding when he defeated Blücher near Ligny, on June 16th. Next day at noon he sent Grouchy with 30.000 to harass the retreating Prussians, thus ignoring one of his military maxims: no force should be divided before a battle. For he was marching to battle Wellington near the town of Waterloo.

Map of the campaign. Author: Ipankonin (Wikipedia user). Source

7# The Battle of Waterloo

On June 17th, the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon was uncharacteristically lethargic. He barely spent any time on horseback, reconnoitring the field and the enemy positions, as it was his wont. Some suggested he suffered hemorroids, which prevented him from riding for too long. Moreover, at 46, he was overweight, the tireless energy of his mid-twenties slacking. But that didn’t excuse his allowing Wellington to choose the ground, thus ignoring another of his military maxims: never do what the enemy wishes you to do.

And yet a third serving when he delayed the assault on the first light of the 18th, waiting for the ground to dry for the artillery. Instead, he ordered the attack at 11am, unknowingly giving Blücher’s forces plenty of time to come to Wellington’s aid. Had he attacked at dawn, he would have had extra time to break Wellington’s lines without Prussian interference, but by 4pm the latter were already engaging his right flank. Napoleon wasn’t alone in erring that fatidic day, his generals too seemed infected by the same maladroitness. Marshal Davout, the best French commander after Napoleon, was wasted in Paris as governor; Grouchy, engaging Blücher’s rearguard in Wavre, failed to rush to Waterloo once he heard the French grand battery thundering in the distance; while Ney led an unsupported 10.000 men cavalry charge against Wellington’s centre. To the day, it’s unclear who ordered it or whether someone ordered it at all, for both Napoleon and Ney denied it.

The British formed squares and used bayonets to repell the charges―a very effective tactic against cavalry―but this let them weak against the horse artillery that Ney had brought forward. This was the breaking point, when Napoleon used to order his reserve, the fearsome elite troops of the Imperial Guard to rush to widen Wellington’s gap, a drop to start the flood that washes the enemy away. But Napoleon refused the entreaties of his generals, just as he had done in the battle of Borodino, and the opportunity was gone. When he finally commited them, it was to be too late. Dutch artillery pounded them hard and they fell back, demoralised. Someone shouted “La Garde recule. Sauve qui peut!” (The Guard is retreating. Every man for himself!). Never before the Imperial Guard had been routed, and when the rest of the French troops saw, their spirit disintegrated and they fled. It was the end. Two reserves of the Old Guard sacrificed themselves to cover the retreat of their emperor and his defeated army.

A grenadier of the Old Guard. The Old Guard was made of veterans handpicked amongst the best fighters of the Frech army and its allies. It was one the best fighting units of the Napoleonic Wars, if not the best. Painter: Édouard Detaille. Source

8# The second exile

When news of the defeat reached Paris, it wasn’t long until the two chambers formed a provisional government and demanded Napoleon’s abdication. He contemplated shutting down the chambers and keeping the fight on, but finally abided and abdicated for a second time on June 22nd. On July 8th Louis XVIII was restored for a second time. 111 days had passed since Napoleon arriving from Elba, a period known as the Hundred Days. For a time, he hoped to be allowed to retire in the U.S., his erstwhile ally against Britain, but rightly fearing execution at the hands of the Bourbons or the Prussians, he finally decided to surrender to the British. On July 15th, he handed himself to Captain Maitland, on HMS Bellerophon, thus concluding the Napoleonic Wars.  

Fearing a reptition of his Elba escape, Britain decided to exile him to the remote island of Saint Helena, where he and his small cadre of followers arrived on board of the HMS Northumberland, on October 15th 1815. Saint Helena was and still is, an overseas British possession almost 2000 km west of Africa. Literally, in the middle of nowhere and far for from everything. With Jamestown as the only viable harbour, and British ships patrolling around, Napoleon must have known he would die there. While his final residence of Longwood House was fixed and refurbished, he resided in Jamestown for two months, stricking friendship with Betsy Balcombe, the fourteen-year-old daughter of his hosts. With his son or others, Napoleon was always at ease around children, and participated of their games like one of their age.  

Jamestown, Saint Helena. Author:
Andrew Neaum. Source

9# Saint Helena

Although the weather on island is tempered tropical, Longwood House sits on a plateau with a nasty microclimate of its own: windy and cloudy three-hundred days a year, with humidity reaching over 70%. Everything there was damp, furniture and wallpaper, to the cards Napoleon used, and which had to be dried in the oven. Moreover, Longwood had constant infestations of rats, mosquitoes, cockroaches, midgets, mosquitoes, and termites. But it was the most convenient place on the island to guard and keep a watchful eye on Napoleon. Things were about to get even worse for him, when Hudson Lowe took the post of Island Governor in 1816. Napoleon had gotten exceptionally well with all the British officers before but in the tactless Lowe he found his match. Although not a cruel man, Lowe was described by Wellington as: “wanting in education and judgement. A stupid man”.  

When not quarrelling with Lowe, Napoleon spent his days learning English, taking baths, playing chess, receiving visitors, or reading aloud and narrating his adventures to the audience. He also begun dictating a biography about Julius Caesar, and his memories, the latter published after his death to become the most sold bestseller of the 19th century. He retained a prodigious memory, able to recall the troop dispositions of all his battles, but also self-serving, thus contributing to reinforce certain Napoleonic myths that shifted the blame of his downfall. In Longwood he also had an affair with Madame Albine de Montholon, wife of French general Charles Tristan, both having joined Napoleon on his exile. Albine’s daughter, Hélène Napoleone, might genuienly have been the last of Napoleon’s illegitimate offspring.

Longwood House. Nowadays the house is a museum owned by the French government. Author: Michel Dancoisne-Martineau. Source

10# Napoleon’s death

In 1816, Napoleon begun showing further signs of deteriorating health. He stopped taking walks and ride on horse. He refused to eat fruit and vegetables, and refused the doctor’s prescriptions. He suffered from depression and his condition had deteriorated so much by 1820, that he breathed with difficulty, suffered from swelling extremities, headhaches, gum ache, excited bowels, liver problems, and perhaps, also hepatitis B. Soon he couldn’t stand on its own, and by February 1821 he had lost 22 to 33 pounds, vomited daily, his complexion turned tallow and pale like a corpse, his cheeks sunken, and he coughed and spat a lot. Knowing the end was near, he wrote his last will on April 1821.

On April 26th he begun vomiting blood and on May 3rd he received extreme unction, thus being received back to the Catholic Church that had excommunicated him. His last words spoken in the delirium were: France, the Army, Head of the Army, Josephine. Before that, he mumbled of bequeathing his only legitimate son, Napoléon François, with the family state of his native Ajaccio. On his deathbed, the great general, statesman and emperor who had held Europe on the palm of his hand, reverted to the Corsican landowner of the petite noblese. At 5.49pm on Saturday May 5th, he passed away after giving three sighs, right after the island sunset gun had fired.

A bronze-cast replica death mask of Napoleon, the original taken immediately after his death by François Carlo Antommarchi. Author: Rauantiques. Source

11# Legacy and accomplishments

Napoleon was buried a mile off Longwood, his remains finally removed and reburied in Paris in 1840, just as he had petitioned. His funerary cortege was attended by one million Frenchmen, and he was put to rest in Les Invalides, where he remains to the day. Because dangerous amounts of arsenic were found on samples from his hair, there hasn’t been a lack of finger pointing at Lowe and the British as the poisoners of Napoleon. But many of Napoleon’s contemporanies were also found to have had unhealthy levels of arsenic in their bodies. Furthermore, the autopsy was conclusive: Napoleon died of stomach cancer, like the one that killed his father at 38, and which also killed his sisters Pauline and Caroline. In fact, the doctors were astounded he had lived for that long with such damaged organ.

The tomb of Napoleon at Les Invalides, Paris. Author: Josh Hallet. Source

The legacy of Napoleon is vast and complex, neither lacking in critics and admirers. In the military aspect he showed an acumen only seen in the likes of Genghis Khan, Hannibal, Alexander the Great, or Julius Caesar. He fought more than sixty battles, more than any other commander in history, and only lost seven. Although he wasn’t a military theorist, he refined and perfected existing strategy, and understood a soldier’s mind better than anyone, introducing extremely popular awards like the Legion of Honour (which still stands) and regimental pride. On the downside, he failed to recognise his enemies’ swift adoption of his corps system and military reforms. Moreover, his command of sea strategy was as lacking as his command in land was exceptional. His vanquisher, the Duke of Wellington said after hearing of his death: “Now I can say I’m the most successful general alive”. Praise coming from a foe is invaluable, even more if it came from a man whose military record almost equalled that of Napoleon himself.    

His civil achievements are far more outlasting. He purged the most dangerous elements of the French Revolution, the Jacobinism, doing away with economic and political instability, civil unrest, etc; and tempered the positive aspects: rationalism in government aimed to improve the lives of its citizens, equality before the law, a culture of meritocracy, religious freedom, property rights, secular education, efficient police system, sound finances, and efficient administration. All were integrated in his code, the Napoleonic Code, which is the base for European law today, and forty other countries besides France have adapted parts of it. Equally important, was the standardization of state education in the form of the Lycées (secondary education), for he believed education was to be the sword and shield of the future generations of Frenchmen.

He was accused of warmongering and of being tyrannical and despotical, the sole responsible for the Napoleonic Wars. There’s no denying he was a soldier first and foremost, and he always put the welfare of his soldiers and France before that of the rest of Europe; and his first mandate resembled an unffetered dictatorship, yet another absolutist monarchy. But weren’t Austria, Russia and Prussia absolute monarchies, with the exception of Britain? And was he an unparalleled warmonger in a world where, before his rise to power, all European countries had constantly squabbled with each other? With the exception of Russia in 1812, and Spain and Portugal in 1808, all wars were declared on him, and not viceversa. Neither there are solid grounds to say he was the vengeful Corsican he was depicted as. Political executions under his rule can be counted with the fingers of one hand―most famous the Duke of Enghien―and even those who conspired to overthrow him like Talleyrand and Fouché, were pardoned, and even brought back to service. A merciful, and even shortsighted behaviour.   

He resumed slavery in Saint-Domingue and only abolished it completely by 1815, but didn’t Britain outlaw slavery completely only by 1833? Didn’t Russia abolish serfdom, a form of indentured servitude, only in 1861? The Coalition ushered a more reactionary Ancien Régime after Napoleon’s defeat, in which ideas of equality, legalit,y and moderate freedom exported by Napolenic France were quashed, and calls for reform and parliaments repressed. But these staple values of the French Revolution had been like a spark, spread by the hurricane force that was Napoleon, and in time would grow and consume the old feudal world of kings and peasants. He was a man of boundless energy and peerless vision. Incomparable. Without him the world would be very different today, a petty landowner of the backwater island of Corsica, who showed the world how much one single man can achieve. This is the legacy of Napoleon the Great. 

If you liked it, don’t forget to check the previous three articles about Napoleon’s life. His humble origins, dominance of Europe, and the Russian Campaign. And to read this fantastic book I used to write this article. Don’t forget to subscribe for more and leave your thoughts. Thank you!