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Napoleon I

Decline and Fall

Great Britain had never submitted, and the Continental System proved difficult to enforce. Napoleon's first signs of weakness appeared early in the Peninsular War (1808–14). The victory of 1809 over Austria had been costly, and the victory of Archduke Charles at Aspern (May, 1809) showed that the emperor was not invincible. Everywhere forces were gathering to cast off the Napoleonic yoke.

Napoleon's decision to invade Russia marked the turning point of his career. His alliance with Czar Alexander I, dating from the treaties of Tilsit and extended at the Congress of Erfurt (1808), was tenuous. When the czar rejected the Continental System, which was ruinous to Russia's economy, Napoleon gathered the largest army Europe had ever seen. The Grande Armée, some 500,000 strong, including troops of all the vassal and allied states, entered Russia in June, 1812. The Russian troops, under Mikhail Kutuzov, fell back, systematically devastating the land.

After the indecisive battle of Borodino (Sept. 7), in which both sides suffered terrible losses, Napoleon entered Moscow (Sept. 14), where only a few thousand civilians had stayed behind. On Sept. 15, fires broke out all over Moscow; they ceased only on Sept. 19, leaving the city virtually uninhabitable. With his troops decimated, his prospective winter quarters burned down, his supply line overextended, and the Russian countryside and grain stores empty, Napoleon, after sending an unsuccessful feeler to the czar for peace, began his fateful retreat on Oct. 19. Stalked by hunger, the Grande Armée, now only a fifth of its original strength, reached the Berezina River late in November. After the passage of that river, secured at a terrible sacrifice, the retreat became a rout.

In December Napoleon left his army, returning to Paris to bolster French forces. Of his allies, Prussia was the first to desert; a Prussian truce with the czar (Dec. 30) was followed by an alliance in Feb., 1813. Great Britain and Sweden joined the coalition, followed (Aug., 1813) by Austria, and the "War of Liberation" began. At the Battle of the Nations at Leipzig (Oct. 16–19), Napoleon was forced to retreat. In November the allies offered Napoleon peace if France would return to her natural boundaries, the Rhine and the Alps. Napoleon rejected the offer, and the allies continued their advance. They closed in on Paris, which fell to them on Mar. 31, 1814.

Napoleon abdicated, first in favor of his son and then unconditionally (Apr. 11). He was exiled to Elba, which the allies gave him as a sovereign principality. His victors were still deliberating at the Congress of Vienna (see Vienna, Congress of) when Napoleon, with a handful of followers, landed near Cannes (Mar. 1, 1815). In the course of a triumphant march northward he once more rallied France behind him. King Louis XVIII fled, and Napoleon entered Paris (Mar. 20), beginning his ephemeral rule of the Hundred Days.

Attempting to reconstruct the empire, Napoleon liberalized the constitution, but his efforts were cut short when warfare began again. Napoleon was utterly crushed in the Waterloo campaign (June 12–18). He again abdicated and surrendered himself to a British warship, hoping to find asylum in England. Instead he was shipped as a prisoner of war to the lonely island of Saint Helena, where he spent his remaining years quarreling with the British governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, talking with his ever-dwindling group of followers, and dictating his memoirs., He died May 5, 1821, officially from stomach cancer, but the presence of arsenic in samples of his hair have led some modern researchers to suggest he was poisoned. Napoleon's remains were ordered to be returned to France by Louis Philippe in 1840 and were entombed under the dome of the Invalides in Paris.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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