Napoleone di Buonaparte, better known as Napoleon, was one of the greatest military leaders the modern world has ever known. At the height of his power in 1811, he consolidated most of Western Europe under a single regime, something not seen since the days of the Roman Empire. However, his reign was marked by some significant defeats, and he was twice sent into exile; he fought his way back from the first exile in Elba, but the second, in St Helena, was to prove decisive.
Born in Corsica to a family of minor nobles, he studied in Paris at the École Militaire, becoming the first Corsican to graduate from it. He did so just at the right time, for France was in upheaval.
It had just executed its nobles, done away with its royal family, and had set up a republic. Napoleon supported the revolution which swept the nobility away and tried to do the same in Corsica, for which he was exiled in 1793.
Two years later, he saved the Directory (the newly formed republican government) by firing canons upon the Royalist forces who wanted a return to the old order. Known as the 13 Vendémiaire, this incident secured his future. Only 26-years-old at the time, he was appointed General of the Army of Italy.
It was not meant as a reward, however. Napoleon was already popular, which made the Directory fear him. His new position was meant to keep him as far away from France as possible.
In this capacity, he waged war on against the First Coalition — a joint force of Austrian, Russian, Piedmont-Sardinian forces, as well as other Italian kingdoms. Despite regime change in 1796 with the ousting of Maximilien Robespierre, Napoleon became commander-in-chief, retook French provinces seized by the Coalition, and expanded France’s territories.
By January of the following year, Napoleon brought his troops within several miles of Vienna, forcing them to sue for peace. This brought an end to the War of the First Coalition.
In 1798, he began a military expedition to Egypt, then under the Ottomans. Though he acquired some territories in the Middle East, his army was defeated with help from the British navy. Returning to France the following year, he overthrew the Directory in the Brumaire Coup of November and replaced it with a Consulate, with him as the First Consul.
The Austrians remained a threat, however, as were others in France who vied for power. In June 1800, he finally defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Marengo, which consolidated his position in the new government. It also destroyed the Second Coalition.
In 1804, he declared France to be an empire, made himself Emperor of the French, and destroyed the Third Coalition. He then tried to make himself the Holy Roman Emperor, but after the Austrian defeat at the Battle of Austerlitz in August 1806, Emperor Francis II dissolved the title rather than let Napoleon acquire it. This ended the Third Coalition.
Britain, however, remained the thorn in his side. Masters of the sea because of their vast navy, they imposed a naval blockade of France’s coastline in 1806. Napoleon retaliated by imposing the Continental System, a pan-European embargo on England. The latter retaliated by joining the Fourth Coalition, which was defeated in 1807.
The Fifth Coalition was defeated in 1809. He then divorced his first wife and married Marie Louise, an Austrian princess, in order to cement his ties to Europe’s nobility. He also revived France’s aristocracy by allowing those exiled during the French Revolution to return.
The Russian Empire, an ally at the time, was not happy with the Continental System, however. This forced Napoleon to launch a catastrophic invasion of Russia in 1812 to bring them back in line. Though he won, the Russian winter caught them and he lost most of his men during his retreat. Seizing upon his weakness, a Sixth Coalition was launched the following year, which finally defeated him.
Forced to sign the Treaty of Fontainebleau on 11 April 1814, Napoleon was exiled to Elba several days later on April 20. A tiny island in Tuscany, Italy, it had a population of some 12,000 people, over whom he was allowed to rule. Though forced to abdicate as the Emperor of the French, he was allowed to retain his title of emperor.
Napoleon installed himself at the island’s capital of Portoferraio. He told the people that he intended to be a justice of the peace. Although the treaty guaranteed him an allowance, he received nothing. Nor was he allowed to be with his wife and son, who had taken refuge in her native Austria.
Despite this, he managed to implement modern agricultural methods on Elba which improved their food production. This convinced many that he had resigned himself to his fate.
Throughout his exile, he received many letters of support from the continent. Access to newspapers also allowed him to keep abreast of current events. France devolved into further chaos and there was intense dissatisfaction among the French for how their veterans were being treated. The old nobility, no longer fearing Napoleon, wrecked their revenge upon the populace.
All of Europe was exhausted from constant warfare. To make things worse, the Coalition which defeated him devolved into a melee as they fought over their spoils. The Congress at Vienna considered sending him further away to the Azores or to Saint Helena, but Napoleon realized that assassination was more than likely.
Though called the Hundred Days, Napoleon actually spent nine months in exile. On 26 February 1815, he managed to slip past his guards, and with 600 men, made his way aboard the Swiftsure. The ship landed them at Golfe-Juan near Antibes in southeastern France on March 1. They avoided Provence, which was staunchly Royalist, by passing through the Alps. Today, the path he took is called Route Napoléon.
Crowds joined him on his way to the capital, and by the time he reached it on March 19, he had amassed an army. Even those sent to capture him joined his side, so great was his charisma. It took a Seventh Coalition to finally end his reign and his empire. The second time around he was sent to St Helena, and this time there was no escape.