On the 15th of August 1769 in the French-occupied capital of Corsica, Ajaccio, Napoleon was born to his father Carlo Maria di Buonaparte, and his mother, Maria Letizia Ramolino. The island of Corsica was formerly ruled by Genoa for nearly four hundred years before being ceded to France in 1768, however; Corsica enjoyed a period of independence under the leadership of Pasquale Paoli. ( The geography of Corsica was mountainous, coupled with poor rail and road construction that led to isolation with politics championed by familial loyalty and patronage. ( Imperatively, Napoleon’s father was a staunch supporter of the Corsican resistance leader, Pasquale Paoli. However, when Paoli fled Corsica for his life, Carlo Buonaparte shifted his allegiance to France and effectively established connections with the French. ( In essence, this verified the Bonaparte family’s claim to nobility and allowed Carlo to enroll both of his sons, Joseph, and Napoleon, in the French College d’Autun to perfect their French.
After a few years at d’Autun, Napoleon gained admission to a military college in Brienne in 1779, which he attended for five years, after which he transferred to the military academy in Paris graduating early from the Parisian military academy. Despite his education being in France, once he received a commission as an artillery officer, Napoleon returned to Corsica in 1786. However, it is worthy of note that shortly before this, Napoleon’s father fell ill and died around 1785.
Napoleon, similarly, to his father, lent his support to Pasquale Paoli, who had returned to Corsica to lead the Nationalists in a civil war. Napoleon and Pasquale were split over many topics. The most divisive was the accusation that Napoleon and his family were pro-French and were condemned by the Nationalists for their opposition to Corsican independence from France. (4) In the end, Napoleon withdrew his support from the Nationalists, and moved his family to France in 1793, where they adopted the French version of their name; Bonaparte.
By returning to France Napoleon prompted a re-commissioning of the French military and he joined his military unit in Nice in June 1793 throwing his political support behind the Jacobins. The Jacobins were considered progressive and were a popular party after the French Revolution. The Jacobins came into dictatorial power for a brief period known as the Reign of Terror, an era of extremism and executions. During this period, Napoleon was stationed at Toulon, where he drove out the British fleets which were supported by counter-revolutionary federalists around 1795. Furthermore, Napoleon fell out of favor with Jacobin leadership, avoiding execution, while managing to gain the favor of the Directory which was the governing body of France during this period. The military success of Napoleon furthered his career, and he was named commander of the Army of the Interior and became a trusted military advisor to the government of France. In 1796 the Directory appointed Napoleon as the commander of the Italian army due to Italy being a client nation of France during this period. During Napoleon’s command, the Italian army saw victories against Austria at Lodi, Milian, and Mantua which expanded the French border via the Treaty of Campo Formio. (
On March 9, 1796, Napoleon married Josephine de Beauharnais, the widow of General Alexandre de Beauharnais, who had two children of her own. Napoleon squashed a royalist threat in France and was then deployed to Egypt and the Middle East in 1798. The campaign was part of an effort to limit British trade with India through Egypt. Although Napoleon had several victories, Napoleon experienced defeat at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. (6) As a result of this defeat, Austria, Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia formed a Coalition against France. In 1799, the French were beaten in the Italian peninsula and were required to surrender most of their territory in the area while civil unrest continued to exist in France.
In June 1799, the Jacobins staged a coup and took control of the country, but Napoleon returned in October of the same year with a new government member developing a plan to perform a second coup, placing him and two others in power. Overall, Napoleon’s coup was successful and saw the adoption of a new constitution in 1800, and the creation of a position known as the first consul, which was effectively a dictatorship known commonly as the Consulate. In short, Napoleon had the authority to appoint generals, governors, civil servants, judges, and members of legislative bodies. Napoleon fulfilled the first incarnation of this position and led economic, social, military, education, legal, and religious reforms, such as reinstituting Roman Catholicism as the state religion. Furthermore, he also oversaw the creation of what would come to be known as the Napoleonic code, a set of laws forbidding privileges to be given based on birth, decreed government jobs that must be granted to the qualified rather than used as favors, and mandated freedom of religion. On the outside of French borders, he sought and achieved a brief period of European peace. Overall, Napoleon’s reforms proved incredibly popular, so much so that in 1802 an election was held, and he was decreed first consul for the rest of his life, and in 1804 he was crowned Emperor of France.
Despite these successes, the peace Napoleon achieved was short-lived with tensions between France and Britain rising again. The two powers began warring again in 1803, and soon after that Austria and Russia returned to the fray. Initially, Napoleon had planned to invade England but decided to focus eastward due to facing a naval defeat. The victories Napoleon experienced in the east, defeating combined Austrian and Russian forces in Austerlitz, allowed him to install individuals loyal to him in positions of power in Naples, Sweden, Holland, Italy, Westphalia, and Spain.
It is worthy of note that Napoleon’s marital status changed in 1810, when he had his marriage to Josephine annulled due to her inability to have an heir. In her place, Napoleon married the daughter of the emperor of Austria, Marie-Louise, that same year who was eighteen when they married. In 1811 they had a son, Napoleon II.
The era of Napoleon’s military prowess enters a decline during this period with several defeats that destroyed the national budget of France. Furthermore, a winter invasion of Russia in 1812, which began with over 600,000 men, left fewer than 10,000 in condition to fight. Ultimately, the defeat of Napoleon filled his enemies, foreign and domestic, with confidence. Interestingly, a coup was attempted, but failed, while Napoleon was fighting in Russia, and at the same time, British forces were sweeping through French territories. In the end, Napoleon was faced with limited resources to resist, and with extreme tension from within and without his empire, which led Napoleon to surrender on March 30, 1814. The former Emperor of France was then exiled from France to an island named Elba.
Although, almost a year later, Napoleon escaped his place of exile and returned to Paris, where the people were overjoyed at his illustrious return though this sentiment did not last. Napoleon led his forces once more into battle, defeating a Prussian force in Belgium, only to be humiliated a few days later at Waterloo. The week after his defeat, he abdicated his title and powers. Napoleon requested to have his son be named emperor, but it was rejected by the coalition of nations aligned against him. After his second abdication, he was again sent into exile being placed on the island of St. Helena where he deteriorated. Effectively, Napoleon had minimal things to occupy himself outside of reading and writing, he eventually disconnected himself from the outside world. Napoleon’s health began to rapidly fail. By the spring of 1821, he was confined to his bed, and wrote the last words of his will; "I wish my ashes to rest on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of that French people which I have loved so much. I die before my time, killed by the English oligarchy and its hired assassins.”(7)
The once proud emperor died on the 5th of May 1821.
(Written by Ben Harvey. Edited by Hannah Holbert, 2023)