Napoleonic Era: Biographies

We are developing information on several individuals that played important roles in the Napoleonic wars. At the center of it all, of course was Corsican-born Napoleon Bonaparte. Ironically while the most famous Frenchman of all times, he was born in Corsica. Other giants of the 19th century were Horatio Nelson and the Duke of Wellington. Napoleon is best known as a military genius. Actually his impact on Europe and France goes far beyond the military. He is perhaps of all defeatd military figures the individual who had the greatest impact on history, for good and bad. His military campaigns can be viewed as giving rise to the German nationlism tha would so dominate the history of the 19th and 20th century. His mind was not confined to military matters. He thought deeply about civil society. The Code Napoleon is one of the world's great legal systems. Nelson's stunning victory at Trafalgur gave the British unquestioned naval supremecy for a century and in cooperation with America meant that the Anglo-Americans promoting democracy and capitalism would powefully shape the modern world. The Protestant Wellington's impact beyond the military was less important, but after the War played a vital role in of all things -- Catholic emancipation. Tsar Alexander played a key role in Napoleon's defeat, but did little to make Russia a modern society. Other royals played only minor roles, reflecting the chnaging nature of European society. Commoners made up Napoleon's dashing marchals, but lefy little impact outside of the military sphere. Napoleon's family lacked the genius of the Emperor and thus left little impact. American President Thomas Jefferson was a great admirer of French culture and at first a supporter of the French Revolution. He does no feature prominently in Napoleonic War history, but in fact made the most important decesion made by any individual during the era.

Tsar Alexander I (Russia, 17 - )

Tsar Alexander I was born (1777). Immediately after his father's assasination, CAlexander was taken to be raised by his grandmother, Catherine the Great nd became a favorite. Alexander hwas schooled at Catherine's direction by scholars of the Enligtenment. He made, however, no major effort to modenize Russia during his long reign. He was crowned Tsar Alexander I (1802). His reign coincided with that of Napoleon of France. Alexander ultimately won the throne with the assassination of his father. Napoleon's defeat in Russia wa a major event in European hitory. He left no heirs.

Jean Baptiste Jules Beradotte (France/Sweden, 17 - )

The Riksdag formulated a new constitution and elected Gustavus IV's uncle as King Charles XII. The Constitution of 1809, which was in force right up until 1975 and then was the second oldest Constitution in the world after the United States’, was formulated in accordance with Montesquieu’s theory of the separation of powers, taking into account constitutional developments in Sweden. The King was to be the sole ruler of the realm, but had at his side a Council of Ministers, who must countersign, i.e. approve, all decisions. Legislative power was divided equally between the King and the Riksdag, while the Riksdag alone could levy taxes.Territory was ceded to Russia and a pro-Napoleonic policy adopted. Charles was, however, aging and childless. A successor to the throne had to be found. First, the Danish prince, Karl August of Augustenborg, was chosen, but he died shortly after his arrival in Sweden. In an effort to appease Napoleon, the Riksdag chose one of Napoleon's trusted marshals as crown prince--Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte, Prince of Pontecorvo. The marshal accepted. One of the reasons for chosing Prince Bernadotte was a desire for an alliance with France and Napoleon in the hope of gaining the latter’s support for winning Finland back from Russia. After his arrival in Sweden, Prince Bernadotte soon became the dominate force in Sweden, in reality Regent of the Realm. In 1812, he initiated quite a different policy, joined the coalition against Napoleon and in the Kiel peace treaty won Norway from Denmark and after a short campaign forced Norway to enter into a union with Sweden in 1814. This union was not dissolved until 1905.

Blücher (Prussia, 17 - )

Figure 1.--This dramatic painting depics the death of the Emperor Napoleon at Longwood House on St. Hellens (May 5, 1821). The man at the left pointing is his suspected killer, Gen. Charles de Motholon. His devoted friend Count Bertrand is seated on the left. The artist was Charles de Steuben.

Napoleon Bonaparte

A fascinating footnote of modern history is that perhaps the greastest French leader of all time, Napoleon Bonaparte, as a boy did not speak French and grew up hateing France. He was sent by his father, who has decided to coolaborate with the French invaders, to study in a French military school. Napoleon never really forgave his father for collaborating with the French. It was in these schools, however, where he was dismissed as a foreign nobody that Napoleon virtually slowly became French--although he was unaware of it at the time. The French Revolution and Napoleon's extrodinary military genius bought a conflict unlike any dynastic war, complicating the European political landscape. Europe was continually at War during the Naopoleonic era with only short period's of truce. Napoleon pursued the diplomatic struggle as vigorously as military conflict. Rge wars did not end until his defeat at Waterloo in 1815.

King Charles IV (Spain, 17 - )

The ineffectual King Charles IV of Spain largely turned the Government over to his wife's favorite Manuael Godoy. They joined the First Coalition to fight the French Republic and then later joined the Republic to fight the British. The resullts were disastrous and after Trafalgur (1805), Spain ceased being a naval power of any importance. Napoleon conspired with Charles to seize Portugal and make Charles Empeor of the Americas. Instead he duped Charles into a meeting in France and inprisoned him and his sone with whom Napoleon had also been conspiring.

King George III (England, 17 - )

George III (1738-1820) was one of the longest reigning British monarchs--reining for an incredible 60 years. He is one of the best known English kings to Americans as he was king at the time of the American Revolution and played an important role in it. He is also well known for the mental illness he suffered in the later years of his reign.

King George IVEngland, 17 - )

King George IV, was Prince Regeant, during the Napoleonic Wars and only became king in 1820 on the death of his father. George did, however, servevasc Prince Regent during the later phase of the Napoleonic Wars beginning in 1811. Although he thought his father insane, George IV appears to have been delusional himself. He go it into his head that he had commanded troops during the War, in particular a calvafry charge at Salamanca--one of Wellington's victories. At a dinner party after recalling his exploits, he asked Wellington, "Was that not so?" Wellington obviously put on the spot, tactifully replied, "I have often heard your majesty say so."

Thomas Jeffereson (United States, 17 - )

American President Thomas Jefferson was a great admirer of French culture and at first a supporter of the French Revolution. He does no feature prominently in Napoleonic War history, but in fact made the most important decesion made by any individual during the era. When Napoleon's plans to rebuild a North American empire collpsed and short of cash, he offered to sell the Americns the Louisiana Territory. Jefferson who a strict constructionist wondered if he had the authority to act, but in the end struck a deal. Ironically with all the massive movement of armies and trasfers of territory in Europe, the sale of Louisana was the most important and played a centrl role in the building of modern America with all the consequences dor Europe in the 20th century .

King Maximillian I (Austria, 17 - )

Kurfürst Max IV Joseph, a distant cousin of Kurfürst Karl Theodor, succeeded to the throne. He was elevated in 1806 to King Maximilian I Joseph by Napoleon through the treaty of Pressburg, , in thanks for Bavaria's joining the French cause. Bavaria was now a kingdom for the first time in its history. The king, formerly the Elector Maximilian I Joseph, assisted Napoleon in his wars, and in return received large additions of territory. In 1813, however, Maximilian contrived to change sides opportunely, and thus managed to have confirmed to him, by the treaties of 1814-15, an extent of territory nearly as valuable as the possessions which he had gained as an ally of Napoleon, and which he had now to restoreto Austria. A new constitution was granted in 1818 which restablished the the authority of the Crown. Max Joseph arranged a grand festival in 1810 to mark the wedding of his son, crown prince Ludwig, to Therese Charlotte Luise, Princess of Saxony-Hildburghausen. This was the first Oktoberfest. Another son is noted for a daughter, the Princess Elizabeth, a future Queen of Belgium.

Joachim Murat (France, 1767-1815)

Joachim Murat was perhaps Napoleon's most dashing cavalry commanders. He was born (1767). Murat joined the French royal army just beforfe the Revolution as a mere cavalry trooper when he was only 20 years old. He first saw the rising General Napoleon Bonaparte when he was involved in the suppression of the Vendemaire coup. It was in Italy that Napoleon became a phenomenon. Winning promotion, Murat joined Bonaparte in Italy and was involved in the figting at Tagliamento (1796). Napoleon next conducted his Egyptian campaign. During the fighting, Napoleon awarded Murat a battlefield promotion to general of brigade. Murat commanded the French cavalry at Marengo to great affect in the defeat of the Austrians (1800). Marengo and successive events gave Napoleon control of Italy. Murat's skill and dash won him the admiration of the Emperor who by this time looked on him as one of his most trusted generals.

Horatio Nelson (England, 1758-1805)

Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson is widely seen as the greatest naval commander of all time. He was born into a comfortable middle class family in Norfolk (1758). From an early age he desired to join the Royal Navy. This he managed though the influence of his uncle, Maurice Suckling. His talents were noted early. He rose rapidly through the ranks and benefitted by serving with leading Royal Navy commanders. He received his first command (1778). He became widely respected for inspirational leadership, an unsurpassed grasp of strategy, and most notably unconventional tactics. These led to a series of decisive naval victories over the French and Spanish during the Napoleonic Wars. He led front the front and paid a orice for it. He was wounded several times in his many combats. He lost an arm in the failed attempt to conquer Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands. He lost the sight in one eye in Corsica. He was finally shot and killed during the critical Battle of Trafalgar (1805). Nelson was first British commander to engage Napoleon in an important ways. While Napoleon was engaging the Mamelukes in suceesful, but pointless battles, Nelson was engaged in the critical effort to find and destroy the French fleet. He defeated the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile fought in Aboukir Bay (1799). [Meyerson] This isolated Napoleon and the French army. Napoleon had to sabandon his army and somehow eluded the British fleet to get back to France where he proceeded to seize control of the Fovernment. Nelson had gained two great victories over the French earlier. But not since the Great Armada had the Royal Navy faced such a massive naval forece. The British First Sea Lord appointed Admiral Lord Nelson as Commander in Chief of the British Fleet which was being assembled to engage the French and Spanish ships. Nelson selected His Majesty’s Ship Victory as his flagship. He sailed south towards the bastion at Gibraltar to organize the Fleet. Nelson's stunning victory at Trafalgur against a larger Frenvh and Spanish fleet gave the British unquestioned naval supremecy for a century and in cooperation with America meant that the Anglo-Americans promoting democracy and capitalism would powerfully shape the modern world.

Michel Ney (France, 1769-1815)

Michel Ney was one of Napoleon's great marshals. He cam from himble origins. His father was a coper. He was born in Sarrelouis, Moselle (1769). He joined a hussar (light cavalry) regiment as a teenager just before the Revolution (1787). His elan and personality combinind with skills as a horseman and fencing won him quick promotions. Marshal Ney was known as the 'Bravest of the Brave' which is evidenced by his many wounds and injuries. There was never a question about his courage, but caution and reflection is a different matter. His temperment and inclination to attack commitment to the often overcame sound military thinking. He had a well-established military reputation before the rise of Napoleon--becoming a General of the Revolution. He than was an important commander for Napoleon at Neerwinden, Mainz, Mannheim, Winterthur, Hohenlinden, Elchingen, Jena, Eylau, Friedland, Bussaco, Smolensk, Borodino, Beresina, Weissenfels, Lutzen, Bautzen, Dennewitz, Leipzig. Napoleon made him a prince of the Empire--Prince de la Moscowa. At the end of Napolon's campahigns after the disaster in Russia (1812) and failed German campaign (1813), his relationship with the Emperor became strained. He was one of the French commanders who urged Napoleon to abdicate. He then joined the service of the restored Bourbons. He switched sides again to join Napoleon for the climatic Hundred Days' Campaign. Many militry historians believe that he made major mistakes at Quatre Bras which upset the Emperor's strategic plan, leading to final debacle at Waterloo. After Waterloo and the Emperor's exile to St. Helena, Ney was tried to treason bu the again restored Bourbons. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was executed December 7, 1815.

Edward Pllew (England, 17 - )

Edward Pellew in his time was the most admired Royal Navy commander and this included Nelson until Trafalgur. He is the inspiration for C.S. Forester's Hratio Hornblower's mentor. He is the inspiration for Patrick O'Brian' Jack Aubrey. Pellew commanded Indeigable. He was of humble Cornish oigins and rose fom the bottom to fleet command. He developed a poular following rising from brilliant frigate victoies against the French, but hw antagonized his better born peers which caused him problems. He redemed his reputation wih a campaign against against the Barbary states at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, taking on Algiers. He managed to free thousands of Europeans eslaved by the pirates.

Karl Philipp, Prince of Schwarzenberg (Austria, 17 - )

Karl Philipp , Prince of Schwarzenberg (1771–1820) was the only Austrian commander to inflict achieve decisive victories on Napoleon. Actually Napoleon held Schwarzenberg in great esteem. He gave the Prince command of the Austrian auxiliary corps in the Russian campaign (1812). Austria after the disaster in Russia reluctntly took the took the field against Npoleon was part of nother alliance. Schwarzenberg was promoted to Feldmarschall, was appointed commander-in-chief of the allied Grand Army of Bohemia. He was thus the senior of the allied generals who conducted the decisive German campaign (1813). Napoleon mauled the Allies at Dresden (August 26–27 August and droven them back into Bohemia, bur Swartzenberg struck a pursuing French forces at the Second Battle of Kulm. He then led the Allied army north again and played a major role in the decisive Battle of Leipzig (October 16–18). Napoleon had to withdraw into France and now faced massivly superior Allid forces. Schwarzenberg captured Paris (March 31) led to Napoleon's surrender.

Arthur Wellesley (England, 1769-1852)

Sir Arthur Welleslley, the Duke of Wellington, was one of the great mulitary commanders in British history. Considering the fact that he played a key role in Napoleon's defeat, the similarities between the two commanders are remarkable. They were born in the same year. For men who are now judged as quissential represenatives of their nations--neither were born in their countries. Rather both were born in modest circumstances on the fringe of their nation's territory, Napoleon in Corsica and Wellington in Ireland. Both attended French military accademies. Both revered Hannibal and Caeser. Both men had mistresses who became legends. [Roberts] Both were loved by their men and grudgingly admired by their foes. There were important differences. The most important accoirding to at least one biographer was that Wellington unlike lacked innate military talent. [Davies] Wellington learned is craft in India. There he learned not only battlefield tactics, but how to plan a campaign, orgab=nize logistics, and obtain intelligence. Perhaps most of all he learned the importabnce of politics and managed to master the very complicated Indian political tapestry. These were all skills that Wellington put to work in the Peninsular Campign. And they were skills that the military brilliant Napoleon never fully mastered. And as Wellington demonstrated at Waterloo, he had mastered battlefield tactics. After the Wa, Wellington would play a major role in British politics as a conservative primeminister. The Protestant Wellington's impact beyond the military was less important, but after the War played a vital role in of all things -- Catholic emancipation.


Davies, Huw J. Welligton's Wars: The Making of a Military Genius (2012).

Roberts, Andrew. Napoleon & Wellington: The Battle of Waterloo--and the Great Coimmanders Who Fought It (Simon & Schuster, 2003), 350p.


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Created: 9:24 AM 7/27/2016
Last updated: 9:24 AM 7/27/2016