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.

 
       
   

MOSCOW DESTROYED

   

DISASTER

 
   

RETREAT FROM RUSSIA

 
     
   

A SOLDIER SPEAKS

 
     

A FEMALE SOLDIER

 
     
     
 

A CRIMINAL NAPOLEON HUMILIATED

     

REDUCED CIRCUMSTANCES

     

CONGRESS OF VIENNA

     

NAPOLEON RALLIES

     

MILITARY DEFEAT

   

ALLIED VICTORY

     
   
 

DEATH

   
   

CRITICS SPEAK OUT

 

GRUDGING ADMIRATION

 
 

A POPULAR VIEW

 
 
   

CONTINUING INSPIRATION

 
 
   
 
 

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