Bonaparte at the Pont dArcole by Antoine-Jean Gros

Napoléon Bonaparte

The first time Napoleon Bonaparte revealed his genius for seizing opportunities to change destinies was in 1793 at Toulon. Bonaparte, then a young artillery captain in the French Revolutionary Army, told his superior how to place cannons so as to take this key French port back from the hands of the Royalists, who were supported by the British Navy.

General Carteaux was unwilling to support his cocky subordinate, but he was replaced by General Dugommier, who recognised Napoleon Bonaparte’s brilliance and allowed him to act. A few days later, the British sued for peace, the port was back in government hands and the French Republic was no longer under threat. As for Captain Bonaparte, he was promoted directly to the rank of brigadier general.

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries by Jacques-Louis David, 1812
The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries by Jacques-Louis David, 1812. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Napoleon made history as one of the greatest military commanders the world has ever known. He was born in Corsica right after the island was annexed by France.

The family, although aristocratic, was poor. They sent the boy to the Brienne Military School. The young Napoleon’s Corsican nationalism made him unpopular with the other boys, but he became close to one fellow student, the future General Gudin.

Napoleon Bonaparte propelled himself to power in the later years of the French Revolution on the back of the popularity he gained by his military successes. He took over the reins of France's government in the coup d’etat of 18 Brumaire, in late 1799, giving himself the powers of a dictator and eventually proclaiming himself Emperor Napoleon I in 1804.

General Bonaparte with his Military Staff in Egypt by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1863
General Bonaparte with his Military Staff in Egypt by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1863. Hermitage Museum.

At the same time, Napoleon demonstrated his military genius, pitting his army against various coalitions of European powers. Military success won new territories for France, stretching its influence across most of continental Europe, as Napoleon replaced old leaders with relatives and loyalists.

Napoleon had instituted the Continental System, a blockade against Great Britain intended to cut off trade for a primary rival. In 1810, Russia withdrew from the arrangement and Tsar Alexander I stopped complying with the trade ban because it also affected Russian trade adversely.

In the summer of 1812, Napoleon retaliated by leading a massive army into Russia to bring his one-time ally back in line. The campaign was designed to ensure swift victory, but turned into a disaster for the Emperor's 'Grande Armee'. Worn down by bloody skirmishes with the Russian Army, hunger, the harsh Russian winter and a gruelling march deep into Russia, after just six months Napoleon's troops beat a humiliating retreat.

Napoleon's Retreat from Russia by Adolph Northen
Napoleon's Retreat from Russia by Adolph Northen.

Emboldened by the failure of Napoleon's invasion, other European nations joined forces against him. That forced his abdication and first exile to the Island of Elba in 1814. He made a brief return the following year before suffering a crushing defeat at the hands of the British and Prussian armies at the Battle of Waterloo. He was exiled to the remote island of St. Helena in the Atlantic Ocean, where he died aged 51.

Nearly 200 years after his death, Napoleon's name still evokes keen interest and his rich legacy remains visible in everything from French law to art and architecture.