Teaching

Source Collection: The Napoleonic Experience

Progression of Napoleon’s Life Map of Europe in 1812 Map of Europe in 1815 Departments of 1798

Overview

The bare facts of the life of Napoleon Bonaparte stagger the imagination and rival the plots of the most fantastic novels. Born in 1769 in Ajaccio, Corsica, just as that island was passing from the hands of the Republic of Genoa to those of France, Bonaparte attended a French military school for impoverished sons of the nobility. Unlike many French nobles, he supported the Revolution, and thanks to a combination of skill, luck, and patronage, he was given command of the Italian campaign in 1796 (at the ripe old age of 27!). He invaded Egypt in 1798, took charge of a new government in 1799, had himself named First Consul for Life in 1802, and crowned himself Emperor in 1804.

This source collection consists of 70 primary sources, including maps, written correspondence, and songs.

Essay

His fall from the pinnacle of power was almost as startling as his rise. In 1812 he invaded Russia, where he won most of the battles but lost an army in the process. Within two years the powers allied against him had captured Paris. Forced into exile on the island of Elba, Napoleon escaped to fight one last time. When he lost his final battle at Waterloo in Belgium in 1815, the victors sent him to the faraway island of Saint Helena, where he died in 1821. The eagle (his preferred symbol) had taken its last flight.

Napoleon created a new form of government in France, reshaped the boundaries of Europe, and influenced revolutionaries and nationalists the world over. Since his first days in power he aroused controversies that continue today. Was he a true son of the Enlightenment who modernized French government and brought the message of equality under the law wherever he went? Or was he an authoritarian military dictator who fought incessant wars and conquered territory in order to maintain his egomaniacal grip on power? There is abundant evidence for both views. The evidence is presented here under three main headings: Domestic Policies; Foreign Policies and Wars; and His Legacy.

Domestic Policies
How did a young Corsican from a minor noble family, whose native language was not even French, become supreme ruler of one of the most important powers in Europe? The answer has to be sought in the impact of an expanding war on revolutionary politics. From 1792 to 1794, the French armies struggled to save the Republic from its foreign and internal enemies. In 1794 the tide turned, enabling France to go on the offensive and to carry the war to its neighbors rather than desperately fight to save itself. But war was expensive, and the Directory government (1795–99) encouraged its generals to exact tribute from the local populations they "liberated" in order to pay for the maintenance of the armies. While fighting far from France, the generals acted more and more on their own, paying their armies out of local treasure and overseeing the administration of conquered territories.

Like the other generals, Napoleon Bonaparte benefited from this system, but he stood out from them because of his remarkable talent for seizing every military opportunity. In 1796 he took a ragtag army of 40,000 soldiers and swept the Austrian armies out of their possessions in Italy. When he returned to Paris in November 1797 bearing the treaty that he himself had negotiated with the Austrians, giving France control over much of Italy, Belgium, and the Rhineland, the French welcomed him as a hero. His taste of power and glory in Italy inspired him with great ambitions for the future. "I saw the world spin beneath me," he exulted, "as if I were flying through the air."

He invaded Egypt next and though trapped when the English destroyed his fleet, he escaped to France in October 1799 at a critical moment in the political affairs of the Republic. Leading members of the government secretly sought a constitutional overhaul and they needed a general to make their plot work. Napoleon appeared at just the right moment, but his arrogance and bluster nearly lost the day. He forced his way into a meeting of the deputies, who threatened to outlaw him as a would-be dictator. He and his brother Lucien, rallying some troops waiting outside, broke up the session by armed force. Napoleon was then named First Consul. The plotters in the legislature expected to control the young general (he was not old enough to hold office under the Constitution of 1795), but they soon found themselves outmaneuvered.

Napoleon steadily gained support for the new regime by promising a regime of law and order and by making peace with the Catholic Church and its head, the pope.

Although probably not motivated by personal religious conviction, he did believe that good relations with the Catholic Church were essential to maintaining order and guaranteeing his own legitimacy. Some conflicts over religion continued, but the pope had granted Napoleon more or less everything he wanted in exchange for bringing France back into the Catholic fold. Napoleon reaffirmed the principle of religious toleration for Protestants, who were organized in a number of consistories under state control. After 1804 the state paid the salaries of Protestant pastors, just as it paid those of Catholic priests. In 1806 Napoleon organized French Jews into a system of government-supervised consistories like those that regulated Protestant worship. He did everything possible to encourage Jewish assimilation to French ways. As was typical of Napoleon, he hoped to guarantee law and order by organizing all the groups in society under state control.

At the same time that these important restructurings of the state and its relations with France's main religions were taking place, Napoleon won great prestige by coming to terms first with Austria in 1801, which had resumed the struggle in 1799, and then making peace with Britain, Spain, and the Dutch Republic in 1802, ending a decade of nearly nonstop war. Peace gave him the breathing room to send an army to Saint Domingue to reestablish slavery in the colonies and capture Toussaint L'Ouverture; even though the army captured Toussaint and sent him to die in a French prison, Napoleon's army succumbed to yellow fever and to the tenacity of the former slaves, who established the Republic of Haiti and severed all connections with France. Although the peace in Europe proved short-lived too, it gave Napoleon time to have himself declared Consul for Life in a referendum in 1802.

By the end of 1802, the Republic had essentially ceased to exist and a new authoritarian state was taking shape. Elections no longer had much meaning. Napoleon set up a Legion of Honor to reward military and bureaucratic service to his state. It was the embryo of a new nobility. Newspapers were suppressed, unruly theaters closed, and critical authors sent into exile. Finally, the new direction became clear: on 2 December 1804, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor with the pope watching. A new civil code consolidated revolutionary legislation by confirming all the sales of property undertaken since 1789 and guaranteeing equality under the law. But the Napoleonic Code also installed a more paternalistic legal system than that envisioned by the revolutionaries: husbands and fathers gained nearly complete control over their wives and children, and employers wielded great authority over their workers. Even while confirming some of the legal gains of the revolutionary decade, Napoleon labored assiduously to cultivate the loyalties of those who had suffered during the Revolution such as the old regime nobility. In some large measure, he succeeded.

Emperor Napoleon I had created a new kind of hybrid state in which certain revolutionary ideas (equality under the law, careers open to merit rather than birth, the abolition of the remains of feudalism) were combined with an authoritarian state structure and a new nobility open to those who served the state well. As time passed, Napoleon increasingly emulated the court of the old regime monarchy. He hoped to take his place among the legitimate monarchs of Europe and even married a Habsburg to establish his credentials. Although this hybrid state enjoyed broad support among the French people, neither the state nor the popular support survived defeat in war.

Foreign Policies and War
Napoleon's dramatic rise and fall depended from beginning to end on his fortunes at war. His unexpected successes in Italy in 1796–97 made him an instant legend, both among the French people at home and among his soldiers in the Army of Italy. Yet from the very start of his ascent, overreaching ambition proved to be a potentially fatal flaw. When Napoleon returned from Italy in 1797, the Directory government wanted to send him off to invade England, mainly to get him out of town. Napoleon convinced them that an invasion of Egypt would suit their purposes better, for it would open the route to India where Great Britain had earlier expelled the French and established an important empire. Napoleon focused his ambition on Egypt because of its historical importance, not because it was a viable strategic objective: "We must go to the Orient," he insisted. "It is there that great glory has always been gained." His search for glory nearly ended his career.

Napoleon invaded Egypt in early July 1798 on the pretense that he was reasserting the Ottoman sultan's authority there against the local Mameluke rulers. In the Battle of the Pyramids outside Cairo, Napoleon's soldiers smashed the Mameluke cavalry. It was one of the few glorious moments of the Egyptian campaign. He was so confident of his ultimate success that he brought with him scores of scientists, engineers, and archaeologists to study the treasures and riches of the Orient.

But on 1 August 1798, British Admiral Horatio Nelson trapped the French fleet in Aboukir Bay off the Egyptian coast and captured or destroyed all but four of the French ships. The destruction of the French fleet left the army in Egypt cut off from France and ensured the dominance of the British in the Mediterranean. From there the situation deteriorated. Despite Napoleon's attempts to respect the Islamic religion, his occupation aroused resentment and revolt. Napoleon marched his troops into the province of Syria in early 1799 but was forced to retreat to Egypt by an outbreak of the plague and the difficulty of supplying his army. A clever stream of propaganda kept the French at home ignorant of his troubles.

Napoleon's elevation to the successive positions of First Consul, First Consul for Life, and then Emperor only enhanced his interest in the pursuit of glory through military means. Indeed, from 1800 to 1812 it seemed as if nothing could prevent him from attaining dominion over all of Europe. In seeking this goal, he received vital assistance from the divisions among his enemies, who frequently made a separate peace with Napoleon either to cut their losses or to pursue their own advantage in alliance with him. Yet Napoleon was not content with a merely European theater in his quest of greatness; he hoped to establish some kind of worldwide empire. To this end he tried to extend France's colonies in the New World by retrieving Louisiana from the Spanish and by invading Saint Domingue; eventually, he sold the one and gave up on the other. He also sent agents to Persia and India, tried to claim a part of the coast of Australia, and dispatched army officers to investigate defenses in North Africa. Most of these plans for world empire were frustrated by his inability to defeat the British at sea. In October 1805 Nelson again decimated the French fleet, this time in the Battle of Trafalgar near the Straits of Gibraltar. Nelson died but lost no ships; the French saw two-thirds of theirs sunk or destroyed.

On the continent, Napoleon's well-trained armies ensured an altogether different outcome. In 1805 a new coalition to oppose Napoleon took shape uniting Great Britain, Russia, and Austria, with Prussia threatening to join at any moment. On 2 December 1805, Napoleon routed the Austrians and Russians at the Battle of Austerlitz. The Prussians then foolishly tried to take him on by themselves and suffered a disastrous string of defeats. Napoleon seized the occasion to remake the map of the German states, joining all of them except Austria and Prussia in a Confederation of the Rhine. With this new confederation under his influence, Napoleon declared himself the true successor to Charlemagne. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, Francis II had abdicated his title as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire a few years before, becoming merely the Emperor of Austria. Napoleon then turned his ire on the Russians. After a series of hard-fought contests, Alexander I made peace. By the terms of the Tilsit Treaty, Prussia gave up one-third of its territory, and France and Russia secretly agreed to ally together against England, a promise that neither intended to keep.

Between 1806 and 1810, Napoleon reached the height of his power in Europe. He made himself king of a newly amalgamated Italy in 1805, which brought together extensive territories in northern and central Italy. He installed his brother Joseph as King of Naples in 1806 before moving him to the kingdom of Spain in 1808. He made his brother Louis King of the Netherlands in 1806. In 1807 he named his brother Jerome King of Westphalia. He could put his relatives on the thrones of Europe because he could defeat all his rivals via a straightforward land invasion except one, Great Britain. Recognizing that he could not invade the island nation, he tried to isolate Great Britain commercially through an embargo of goods called the "continental system" of 1806. The system failed because the French could not provide the same manufactured goods as Great Britain for even somewhat similar prices. Thus, despite official prohibitions, massive state intervention, and the expansion of the country to include prosperous areas in Belgium, Germany, and Italy, France could not compete with the rapidly industrializing British.

In the long run, the failure of this continental blockade spelled the beginning of the end. To make the embargo on trade more encompassing, Napoleon invaded Portugal and then occupied Spain in 1808. The Spanish rebelled and with financial and military support from Britain, they tied Napoleon's armies down in a long guerrilla war. Even Napoleon's personal intervention with 150,000 additional troops could not stabilize the French takeover. The French continued to win many battles but were gradually losing the war in Spain and Portugal. By 1813 British, Portuguese, and Spanish troops had driven out the French. In Latin America, local patriots seized the moment of turmoil in Spain to press their own demands for independence, marking an important turning point in the region's political development. Events in Latin America did nothing to help Napoleon in Europe.

Napoleon fell from power because he could not dispose of either Great Britain or Russia. While the British stubbornly resisted the French in the Iberian peninsula, Tsar Alexander I abandoned his alliance with France and began to prepare for war once again. The British promised subsidies, and the Russians carried on a secret trade in British goods. In June 1812, Napoleon entered Russian territory with 500,000 troops. As he advanced, the Russians retreated, destroying food and fodder in a calculated "scorched-earth" policy. After a hard-won victory at Borodino outside Moscow, his now much-diminished army entered Moscow on 14 September, only to have the Russians torch the city. After five weeks of futilely waiting for Alexander to come to terms, Napoleon ordered a general withdrawal. Before long, winter set in, dashing French hopes for an orderly retreat. Tens of thousands of soldiers froze to death; thousands of others lost their lives to marauding Russian soldiers or enraged peasants. The Russians had not exactly won the campaign, but the French had lost and even admitted tactical defeat. Napoleon returned with approximately 40,000 men.

The end was now approaching fast. Emboldened by the French army's unexpected losses and the success of their own internal reforms, all the great powers had by September 1813 joined again in a coalition designed to bring down the French Emperor. After the two sides fought a generally inconclusive battle at Leipzig in October (called the Battle of the Nations) that resulted in the defection of a large part of his forces, Napoleon now had only 100,000 soldiers left to defend France. The allied victories were fueled by a wave of patriotic enthusiasm that swept the German states, as young men joined up to liberate Germany from French control. By March 1814, the allied armies had captured Paris. In April his own officials pressured Napoleon to abdicate in favor of the brother of Louis XVI, known as Louis XVIII because Louis XVI's son, who would have been Louis XVII, had died in captivity. Napoleon tried to kill himself with poison but failed and went into exile on the island of Elba.

While the European powers were meeting to decide the terms of peace, Napoleon learned that many in France resented the changes introduced by the new Bourbon King, Louis XVIII. On 26 February 1815, he escaped with 1,100 men and returned to France to begin what became known as "the Hundred Days." Louis fled when unit after unit went over to Napoleon. The allies gathered their armies for another showdown; they outnumbered Napoleon two to one. On 18 June 1815, the final battle was engaged at Waterloo in Belgium. The Prussians joined up with the army under the command of the Duke of Wellington, victor over the French in Spain and Portugal, and together they defeated Napoleon, who abdicated again. This time he was sent off to distant Saint Helena in the South Atlantic, far from Europe. He died there six years later.

Contemporary Views of Napoleon
Napoleon Bonaparte was a legend even before he died, and his death did nothing to diminish his stature in history. Those around him in his final days almost immediately published their version of his story, including his British physician Edward O'Meara, who complained of the petty persecutions directed by his own government against his patient. Although Napoleon did not himself write memoirs, he provided ample material for those close to him to do so.

In part, the memory of Napoleon was also shaped by his adoption of many liberal principles during the brief Hundred Days interlude. The prime example was the Constitution of 1815, written by Benjamin Constant. Although most doubt the sincerity of Napoleon's commitment to liberalism, his ideas did inspire some to take the gamble of giving him their support, and it left the image of a "Napoleon of the people" in some minds. The peasantry of northern France, in particular, who liked the pageantry of the regime and the high wages for rural labor caused by the wars, would remember the Napoleonic epoch fondly as a time of glory and prosperity.

Among the most perceptive commentators on Napoleon were those in the liberal opposition. Germaine de Staël and Benjamin Constant both sought to understand Napoleon's appeal and his effects on revolutionary and republican France. They disliked many aspects of his personality and rule but also recognized that his charismatic style of government had fundamentally changed the rules of politics. Even his most determined enemies, such as the English, could not suppress a sneaking admiration for his accomplishments. And for some in the lower classes, he seemed a welcome change from boring run-of-the-mill monarchs.

Although many, both within and outside France, opposed Napoleon's repressive government and imperialist ambitions, they would nonetheless find it difficult to deny that he cut an extraordinary figure. Anyone born before 1830 or even 1840, especially in France, would have grown up with the legend of Napoleon all about them, in stories, in songs, and in widely reprinted popular engravings. Leading politicians and artists of the nineteenth century worked in his shadow. Even the most convinced republicans could not help feeling nostalgic about some aspect of the Napoleonic experience.

Primary Sources

Progression of Napoleon’s Life

Progression of Napoleon’s Life
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Even when they resisted Napoleon’s efforts to control their destinies, contemporaries of all European nations were fascinated by the Napoleonic legend unfolding before their eyes. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Map of Europe in 1812

Map of Europe in 1812
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A map of Europe in 1812 depicting French territory, French dependencies, and territories allied to Napoleonic France. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Map of Europe in 1815

Map of Europe in 1815
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A map of Europe in 1815 depicting Napoleonic France, Prussia, the Austrian Empire, and the boundary of the Germanic Confederation. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Departments of 1798

Departments of 1798
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Map of 1798 France depicting the Departments and major urban centers. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Revolutionary France 1799

Revolutionary France 1799
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Map of Europe in 1799 depicting Revolutionary France, territories occupied by French forces, and Sister Republics. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

The Moscow Campaign 1812

The Moscow Campaign 1812
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Map depicting Napoleon's 1812 Russia campaign. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Napoleon in Italy 1796-97

Napoleon in Italy 1796-97
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Map depicting Napoleon's campaigns in Italy, 1796-97. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign

Map of Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign
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Map depicting Napoleon's Egyptian campaigns. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

The Great Man

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German cartoonists tried to reduce Napoleon down to size, in this case, the size of mice! Here the mice serve as courtiers. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

The Great Heroism of the Nineteenth Century

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As in other caricatures, foreigners tried to humiliate Napoleon, once again using mice to represent those who would now attend him. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Celebrating Napoleon's Birthday on the Island of St. Helena

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In this cartoon, Napoleon is portrayed as a buffoon, riding a goat in a charge against rodents, mocking his warlike instincts. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Song of the Marseillaise of the Federation of 10 August, Year II

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One of many hymns that was composed by rhyming new lyrics to the wildly popular tune of the "Marseillaise," this song was performed at a festival celebrating the first anniversary of the republican revolution of August 10. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Napoleon as an Ambitious Young General in 1796–97

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In his memoirs, André François Miot de Melito, a special minister from the French government to Piedmont, tells of his first impressions of the young Napoleon Bonaparte, who was only twenty-seven but already an important general because of his victories in the Italian campaign. Bonaparte held court in Italy like a ruler. According to Miot, Bonaparte had already formed a plan to take absolute power for himself. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Day of Saint-Cloud

Day of Saint-Cloud
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The problems of the revolutionary government had so intensified that the two leaders, Abbé Sieyès and Roger Ducos, plotted to overthrow it with the help of the most famous military man of the day. But the legislative body, particularly the lower house, proved resistant. Napoleon needed the help of his younger brother Lucien to rally the troops and erase the opposition. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Napoleon’s Own Account of His Coup d’Etat (10 November 1799)

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Napoleon glosses over the conspiracy to overthrow the Constitution of 1795 and the duly elected legislature. This conspiracy was organized in part by his younger brother Lucien. He does, however, admit that some of the deputies opposed his endeavor and tried to arrest him. At this moment, Napoleon portrays himself as a simple “soldier of liberty, a citizen devoted to the Republic.” This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

The Saving of France

The Saving of France
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In this propagandistic allegorical engraving, Napoleon saves the female figure of France from the abyss to which she has been led by "revolutionary fanaticism." The figure of fanaticism is armed to the teeth with "the daggers of party spirit" and holds in one hand the chains of slavery and in the other the torch of discord. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Making Peace with the Catholic Church, 1801–2

Making Peace with the Catholic Church, 1801–2
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One of Napoleon’s first priorities was to reestablish good relations with the papacy, which had fought the revolutionary church settlement tooth and nail. Napoleon gained everything he desired in the Concordat: he appointed the bishops and archbishops of the French church, and all bishops had to swear an oath of fidelity to the French Republic. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Napoleon’s Personal Feelings about Religion

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Klemens von Metternich, head of the Austrian government and therefore a sharp critic of Napoleon, reported that Napoleon viewed Catholicism in largely utilitarian, even cynical terms. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Bonaparte, First Consul of the French Republic

Bonaparte, First Consul of the French Republic
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From the beginning it was clear that Napoleon’s political support was closely tied to his fortunes in war. This engraving celebrates the victory over the Austrians at the battle of Marengo in Italy, June 1800. In fact, he almost lost this battle, but government propaganda rarely mentioned any such problems. Both in this image here and in the written report, it is described as a major victory. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

The Mode of Training Blood Hounds in St. Domingo

Engraving called The Mode of training Blood Hounds in St. Domingo
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This image reveals grotesque mistreatment of blacks even during training exercises. Here a French cavalryman (chasseur) plans to use someone as a live prey for hunting dogs. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

The Mode of Exterminating the Black Army as Practised by the French

The Mode of Exterminating the Black Army as Practised by the French
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The fighting between the French and the Haitians was very bloody. When the French tried to put down Toussaint in 1802, it took them some five months with an expeditionary force of 23,000. Supplied by locals, the French seized the towns, gradually extending their control to the countryside. Eventually they even captured L’Ouverture but never could quell the uprising. The expeditionary force sent by Napoleon to reconquer Saint Domingue met great resistance. Both sides committed atrocities. Here the French are shown throwing their enemies overboard to a certain death. Such tactics ultimately failed, however, as the blacks established an independent republic of Haiti. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Oath as Consul for Life (4 August 1802)

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The oath that Bonaparte took on becoming consul for life gives a good idea of the image that he tried to project: protector of the gains of the Revolution and insurer of order. In retrospect, his claims about not wishing to make war ring hollow. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Bonaparte, First Consul, Putting Away His Sword after the General Peace

Bonaparte, First Consul, Putting Away His Sword after the General Peace
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The engraving celebrates the peace treaties of 1801 and 1802. The lack of perspective in this image reflects the vision that Napoleon wanted the French to have when they thought about his actions. Making peace proved to be one of Napoleon’s more popular decisions. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Triumph of Napoleon, First Consul

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Napoleon encouraged comparisons between the post-revolution French republic and the Roman republic. The French adoption of the term "Consul" was a clear reference to the Roman Republic, for that was the name given the men chosen to direct the republican government in Roman times. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Napoleon’s Reasons for Making Himself Emperor (December 1804)

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When he made himself emperor, Napoleon clearly rejected the republican form of government. Here he tries to claim that hereditary government is necessary in a large state. The presence of the pope at his coronation seemed to confer legitimacy on the act. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

A Grateful France Proclaims Napoleon the First Emperor of the Frence

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In this engraving, Roman and contemporary themes are combined to glorify the new emperor. The absence of any clear representation of revolutionary liberty shows Napoleon moving away from the events of the preceding decade. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

The French Civil Code (1804)

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Napoleon brought to completion a project dear to the hearts of the revolutionaries, the drafting of new law codes. The civil code was the most important of them because it institutionalized equality under the law (at least for adult men), guaranteed the abolition of feudalism, and, not least, gave the nation one single code of law replacing the hundreds in effect in 1789. As the following excerpts show, however, it also codified the subservience of women in marriage and of workers in their places of employment. Divorce was still allowed (it had been established in 1792), but under conditions that were very unfavorable to wives. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Winning over the Nobles

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To make his new hybrid state work, Napoleon curried the favor of the old regime nobles. He needed their approval to make his empire convincing. Although he set up his own form of nobility, largely granted for exceptional military service, he wanted to amalgamate these new nobles with the old nobility of the monarchy. The memoirs of Henriette-Lucie Dillon, wife of Frédéric-Séraphin, Comte de La Tour du Pin, show his success. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

The Glitter of the Imperial Court

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The memoirs of Claire, Countess of Rémusat provide a bird’s-eye view into the operation of Napoleon’s imperial household. Rémusat was a lady-in-waiting to Napoleon’s first wife Josephine. Napoleon wanted an elaborate court to underline his imperial power. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Abstention Rate in Napoleonic Plebiscites

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All regions of France did not support Napoleon equally. His rule aroused most enthusiasm in the east (a prerevolutionary border region crucial in the Napoleonic wars) and the center of the country, least in the west, which had long provided a home to royalist counterrevolution. Abstension rate in Napoleonic plebiscites (shaded areas = those where the abstention rate exceeded 80 percent). This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Bonaparte and Islam

Bonaparte and Islam
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Bonaparte’s secretary describes the religious practices, attitudes, and views of Bonaparte with regard to Islam. Accepting that the general curried favor with Muslims, he also hoped to deflect criticism of Bonaparte, claiming that what he did was good governance rather than bad Christianity, as his critics maintained. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Problems in Governing Egypt

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Bonaparte’s young secretary was a firsthand, if uncritical, observer who took detailed notes and left his memoirs for posterity. He was clearly enthralled by the young general. Here he describes the difficulty of convincing the Egyptians of French superiority in science. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Egyptian Misery Shatters French Hopes

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Bonaparte’s secretary naively complained how the hopes of the French invasion were shattered by the reality of the situation in Egypt. He clearly expected that the invaded would regard the French as liberators instead of attackers. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Bonaparte Visiting the Hospital in Jaffa

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This undated post-French Revolutionary print shows Bonaparte visiting a hospital in Jaffa. Of classical proportions, this image is centered on Bonaparte, who appears to be bringing order to an otherwise disorderly and chaotic scene. However, Napoleon’s actual interest was limited, far less than this print would suggest. In fact, he ordered that poison be given to men too ill with plague to be transported. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

In Search of Glory: Bonaparte’s Bulletins

In Search of Glory: Bonaparte’s Bulletins
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In this passage, Bonaparte’s secretary describes the importance and effect of Bonaparte’s propaganda in the form of the military bulletin from an army in the field. Glory and military virtue were emphasized; generals vied to be included. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Battle For and Taking of Ratisbon, April 23, 1809

Battle For and Taking of Ratisbon
Annotation
The general peace agreement lasted a scant two years after the treaty of 1801. Although unable to seriously threaten an occupation of the British Isles, Napoleon was very successful on the continent, launching major wars into Austria, Prussia, Spain, and Italy until overreaching into Russia in 1812. The attack on Ratisbon was a key part of a struggle against Austria. Although defeated before, the Austrians bridled at this loss and renewed hostilities, but Napoleon prevailed again. Although this was not his most decisive victory, it represented the continuation of a long series of successful campaigns against his opponents. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Sire, They Are My Sons and My Wife

Sire, They Are My Sons and My Wife
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Napoleon cultivated the intense personal loyalty of his troops with engravings like this one, which suggests a personal interest in the ordinary soldier. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

An Ordinary Soldier’s Account (1806)

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The “French” armies included units from many allied states. Excerpted below is the memoir of an ordinary foot soldier in Napoleon’s army. Jakob Walter came from Württemburg, one of the medium-size German states allied with Napoleon. He fought against other German states, in this instance Prussia. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

The Confederation of the Rhine and the Dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire (1 August 1806)

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To increase his control over the German states and definitively destroy the Holy Roman Empire, Napoleon set up the Confederation of the Rhine, grouping together a large number of formerly indepedent states, and forced the Emperor to abdicate his position. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Meeting of the Emperors at Tilsit

Meeting of the Emperors at Tilsit
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In July 1807, Napoleon and Alexander agreed to cooperate. Napoleon used this strategy to prevent his enemies from forming an alliance against him. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

The Royal and Imperial Family of Napoleon

The Royal and Imperial Family of Napoleon
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The remainder of the text on this image reads: Emperor of the French, King of Italy, and Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine. The military flags make clear the connection between military conquest and imperial glory. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

The Continental System (1806)

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Since 1793, the French government had carried out policies intended to ruin British commerce; it hoped in this way to eliminate or at least dampen the British will to join in and its ability to finance military coalitions against the French. Napoleon ultimately tried to exclude Great Britain from all commerce with the continent. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

The Prussian Reform Edict (9 October 1807)

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In response to his defeat by Napoleon, Prussian King Frederick William I, pushed by his ministers, initiated a series of reforms intended to modernize property relationships and the administration of the state. This edict abolished serfdom. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

An Ordinary British Soldier Recounts the Portuguese Campaign (1810)

Annotation
This account, probably by Thomas Howell, a soldier of the Highland Light Infantry regiment, offers a firsthand account of the skirmishes between British/Portuguese forces and the French armies. Little is known about Howell except that he was born in 1790 of Methodist parents. His memoir was published shortly after the events described (a second edition dates from 1819). This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Another Firsthand View of the Fighting in Portugal

Annotation
This account by British Private William Wheeler of the 51st Regiment gives a vivid account of the hand–to–hand fighting in Portugal. Wheeler’s letters home were saved by the family and form the basis of their publication in 1949. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

The Burning of Moscow as Seen by One of Napoleon’s Generals

Annotation
Philippe de Ségur served as Quartermaster–General during the invasion of Russia and had accompanied Napoleon on many of his military campaigns. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

The Effect of the Russian Winter Described by a General

Annotation
Ségur gave a terrifying description of the effect of the Russian winter that started in November 1812. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Retreat from Russia

Retreat from Russia
Annotation
There was not much to celebrate in the Russian campaign, especially once the retreat from Moscow began. Print depicting the horrific conditions and loses suffered by the French army as it retreated from Moscow in the winter of 1812. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

The Russian Campaign as Seen by an Ordinary Soldier

Annotation
Adrien-Jean-Baptiste-François Bourgogne (1785–1867) was the son of a cloth merchant from northern France. He fought in Poland in 1806; in Austria, Spain, and Portugal in 1809–11; and in Russia in 1812–13. His memoirs were first published in 1857. In his accounts of the Russian campaign, he tells how the snow and cold hampered French progress almost as much as Russian ferocity on the battlefield. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

The Russian Campaign as Seen by a Female Russian Soldier

Annotation
Fighting under the name Alexander Durov, Nadezhda Durova was the daughter of a Russian officer who dressed as a man to join the Russian army in 1806. Although it became known that she was a woman, she was allowed to serve until 1816 when she retired as a captain of the cavalry. Her memoirs were first published in 1835. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Triumph of the Year 1813

Triumph of the Year 1813
Annotation
Napoleon’s efforts to dominate central Europe kindled a huge reaction, as national feelings soared among the many ethnic groups inhabiting the area. While these feelings would eventually lead to great internal conflicts, at first they were focused on francophobia and hostility to Napoleon. This cunning image shows a gnarled face made of Napoleon’s victims and an epaulet with fingers grasping toward conquest. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Napoleon Is Unable to Digest Leipzig

Napoleon Is Unable to Digest Leipzig
Annotation
After the defeat in Russia, with renewed allied forces arrayed against him, Napoleon prepared once again to defend France. Yet in 1813 at Leipzig, the Emperor was defeated. This allowed the allies to press a successful campaign, leading to the surrender in 1814. Napoleon would return the next year, only to be defeated at Waterloo and exiled far from Europe. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

I Am Called Cerberus but Am Also a Chameleon: Napoleon Being Sucked into Hell

I Am Called Cerberus but Am Also a Chameleon: Napoleon Being Sucked into Hell
Annotation
Where once cartoonists focused on classical images of death to signal the doom of monarchs and aristocrats, they now used these same symbols to drag Napoleon into the netherworld. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

"This is My Dear Son": Napoleon as Child of the Devil

Annotation
Linking Napoleon with Hell represents a far cry from his own propaganda. German propaganda piece depicting Napoleon as the child of the Devil. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

The Exorcism: Ridding France of the Devil Napoleon

Annotation
The seal in the foreground, with its fleur–de–lys, indicates a return to royalism after France’s liberation from Napoleon. In addition, the secularism associated with the Revolution is countered with the image’s reference to the religious practice of exorcism. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

The Little Cartesian Devil

Annotation
The reversal of circumstances that German cartoonists emphasized seemed generally to exercise considerable sway over this use of symbols. Here, Napoleon, who strode so large over Europe, is bottled and examined. Obsessed with his small stature, Napoleon might have been particularly displeased with this image. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

"The Song of the End": The Whole World Now Chases Him

Annotation
Where Napoleon was once the conqueror, the world now avenges itself. This sense of reversal, felt widely outside of France, characterized a number of the caricatures of Napoleon, and indeed of the entire Revolution. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Six Part German Caricature: Napoleon Is Now Reduced to a Manageable Size!

Annotation
Napoleon is mocked through this diminutive portrayal of the former conqueror. Original Format Engraving Physical Dimensions 18.8 x 25 cm Title (French) Caricature allemande à 6 compartiments, où l'on voit un brave Allemand qui, à l'instar du chat avec la souris, s'amuse à tourmenter Napoléon de diverses façons, avant de l'avaler This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

His Monument: Napoleon's Past and Future Are FIlled With Dead Bodies

Annotation
This Janus–like figuration of Napoleon haunts the viewer as it suggests a future filled with skulls. Indeed, the unprecedented deaths from war and conquest of the last two centuries make this image seem predictive. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Debris of the French Army Returning to the Fatherland

Debris of the French Army Returning to the Fatherland
Annotation
Here, as in other critical images, reversal plays an important role. Proud soldiers have given way to a bedraggled collection of men, far removed from their former glory. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

The Emperor and the Imperial Guard on the Island of Elba

The Emperor and the Imperial Guard on the Island of Elba
Annotation
Napoleon spent ten months on this island in the Mediterranean. He was able to follow events in France without much difficulty. This initial exile was part of a relatively lenient settlement granted by the allies in 1814 after Napoleon’s initial defeat. France’s opponents did not want to humble the nation so much that it would seek revenge. Further, they believed that a stable France helped maintain a balance of power in Europe. Thus Napoleon first lived with a sizable entourage not far from the mainland. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Congress of Vienna

Congress of Vienna
Annotation
The treaty in the spring of 1814 had accepted Napoleon’s surrender, but a general meeting of European countries convened to settle broader issues of a postrevolutionary era. While the allies were working on a number of concerns—and as a byproduct, raising French anxieties—Napoleon returned to capitalize on this negative reaction. Within three months he was defeated yet again, and this meeting—the Congress of Vienna—set a framework more hostile to France than before, which endured to a significant degree until midcentury and beyond. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Return from the Island of Elba

Return from the Island of Elba
Annotation
Troops sent by Louis XVIII to stop Napoleon’s advance toward Paris either deserted or joined Napoleon. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

The Battle of Waterloo as Recounted by one of Napoleon’s Personal Aides (June 1815)

Annotation
Jardin Ainé (the elder) was responsible for Napoleon’s horse and had a firsthand view of the momentous events that definitively ended Napoleon’s career. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

The Day after Waterloo

The Day after Waterloo painting
Annotation
Thousands died or were wounded in the fighting that began 15 June and ended at a series of farmhouses at Waterloo on 18 June 1815. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

The Battle of Waterloo as Seen by an Ordinary British Cavalryman

The Battle of Waterloo as Seen by an Ordinary British Cavalryman
Annotation
At the Battle of Waterloo, Dickson (1789–1880) was a corporal in a Scottish cavalry troop. He had enlisted in 1807. His reminiscences of the battle were written down by relatives years later. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Germaine de Staël, A French Writer Exiled by Napoleon

Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution
Annotation
De Staël was the daughter of Jacques Necker, Louis XVI’s Swiss Protestant finance minister. She published novels, literary tracts, and memoirs and became one of the best-known writers of the early nineteenth century. Napoleon exiled her in 1803. In the following excerpts, she describes her first meetings with him in 1797 and her judgment of the man. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

The View of the London Times (5 July 1821)

Annotation
On the occasion of Napoleon’s death, the leading English paper expressed the view of the English establishment: hatred of his despotic rule, yet a kind of sneaking admiration of his “extraordinary life.” This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

A Popular English Broadside (1821)

A Popular English Broadside (1821)
Annotation
Some in the popular classes saw in Napoleon an opponent of monarchs. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

A Poem by Victor Hugo (1830)

A Poem by Victor Hugo (1830)
Annotation
In his poem “To the Column,” the great French poet Victor Hugo celebrates the memory of Napoleon. This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.

Credits

From LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY: EXPLORING THE FRENCH REVOLUTION, https://revolution.chnm.org/exhibits/show/liberty--equality--fraternity/napoleonic-experience

How to Cite This Source

"Source Collection: The Napoleonic Experience," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/source-collection-napoleonic-experience [accessed December 1, 2021]