Napoleon III, the Last Emperor of France
Napoleon III of France: Fast Facts
Born: Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte
Date of birth: April 20, 1808
Place of birth: Ajaccio, France
Place of death: Chislehurst, Kent, England
Father: Louis Bonaparte
Mother: Hortense de Beauharnais
Siblings: Napoleon Charles Bonaparte (1802-1807), Napoléon-Louis Bonaparte (1804 – 1831)
Maternal grandmother: Joséphine Bonaparte (formerly Joséphine de Beuharnais)
Maternal grandfather: Alexandre de Beauharnais
Uncle: Napoleon I
Spouses: Eugénie de Montijo (married in 1853)
Children: Louis-Napoleon (also known as Napoleon, Prince Imperial)
President of France: 1851-1852; 1848-1850
Emperor of France: 1852-1871
Napoleon III, a nephew of famous French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, was the democratically elected president of the Second Republic of France from 1850 to 1852. Prevented by the French constitution at the time from seeking reelection, he used his popular support to completely seize power and make himself emperor of France, i.e. the Second French Empire. For the next two decades, he steadily steered France into an era of prosperity, which allowed the country to gain some of its former glory it had under Napoleon Bonaparte. However, it all came crashing down for Napoleon III after a disastrous showing in the Franco-German War of the early 1870s. He was forced to surrender to Otto Van Bismarck and there after deposed as emperor. This marked the end of monarchy in France, making Napoleon III the last emperor of France.
Napoleon III is sometimes fondly remembered for the huge and beneficial infrastructure projects he carried out, including the various boulevards and parks he constructed in Paris, France. Also, it was during his reign that the famous Suez Canal in Egypt was built. His efforts were also instrumental in Italy’s unification, as he was able to deploy in an effective manner his large French merchant navy, which was at the time the second largest in the world. Also during his reign, Savoy and Nice became part of the French Empire. In the nutshell, France thus became prosperous under Napoleon III’s government, which in turn helped the country reassert its power and influence in Europe.
What else was France’s last emperor, Napoleon III, most known for? In the article below we explore the life, military career, major contributions, and legacy of Napoleon III.
Napoleon III’s connection to Napoleon I
A number of years into his reign, French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon I, Emperor of the French) had grown very worried about his heirless situation. His wife, Joséphine Bonaparte (1763-1814), had failed to produce any child for him. It must be pointed out that the Emperor did have many illegitimate children by many of his mistresses. Josephine also had two children from her previous marriage, including a daughter called Hortense. Wanting to keep the line of succession within the family, the Emperor arranged for his stepdaughter Hortense to marry his younger brother Louis Bonaparte. It was from this union that France’s last emperor, Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (later Napoleon III) was born.
The marriage between Hortense and Louis Bonaparte was anything but a blissful one. First of all, Hortense was not so enthused about marrying the Emperor’s brother. It’s been said that she was forced by her sister into the union. Secondly, Louis wasn’t in a good frame of mind at the time as years of depression had blighted the young man’s life. Neither Josephine nor the Emperor gave a slightest care to those concerns because an heir needed to be produced.
It’s also been said that Hortense was forced to head to Holland with her husband after her husband had been made king of the country by Emperor Napoleon I. To her amazement, life in The Hague was a lot more interesting than the one she had in Paris. As queen of Holland, Hortense was loved by the people.
As if the troubles in their marriage was not enough, their first son, Napoleon Louis Charles, died in 1807. A year later, in 1808, Charles-Louis Bonaparte was born, much to the relief of the Napoleon family. About two years after his birth, he was baptized at a ceremony held Palace of Fontainebleau. His uncle, Emperor Napoleon was chosen as his godfather. His godmother was Marie Louis I (1791-1847), the Austrian princess who later married Emperor Napoleon.
In 1810, his uncle, Emperor Napoleon, divorced his grandmother Joséphine in order to marry an Austrian princess. Napoleon is said to have taken this decision in order to have a direct heir to the throne.
After a bitter disagreement between the Emperor Napoleon and his brother, Louis Napoleon, King of Holland, the latter was forced to abdicate his throne in Holland in 1810. The abdication allowed Hortense, who quite frankly was unhappy, to seek divorce from the marriage.
Napoleon III’s maternal grandparents during the Reign of Terror
His maternal grandparents were Joséphine de Beauharnais (later Empress Josephine Bonaparte) and Alexandre de Beauharnais (1760-1794). Both of them suffered immensely during the Reign of Terror (1793-1794), a chaotic and bloody period during the French Revolution that ushered in the First French Republic. Charged with the crime of treason, Alexandre was executed (guillotined actually) by the Committee of Public Safety.
Joséphine was fortunate to get only a prison sentence (in the Carmes Prison in Paris). By her first husband Alexandre, Joséphine gave birth to Eugène de Beauharnais and Hortense de Beauharnais.
Line of succession
In terms of the line of succession, Charles-Louis Napoleon was behind his cousin Napoleon II (also known as the Duke of Reichstadt), his uncle Joseph Bonaparte (1768-1844) and his father Louis Bonaparte (1778-1846). In 1832, Louis-Napoleon, the Duke of Reichstadt and Napoleon I’s only legitimate son, died. This meant that Louis claim to the French throne even became stronger, being only one step behind his father, who was not remotely interested in becoming emperor. Therefore Louis began preparing himself adequately for the big future that lay ahead of him. He also signed up for many military training ventures.
He also took to writing as a means to spread his vision for his fatherland. In one of his works, “Rêveries politiques” (1832), he makes it clear that his vision is to create a glorious French Empire that will have strong ideals of liberty.
He and François-René Chateaubriand were friends. Chateaubriand, who was also a French diplomat in Italy, is widely considered the father of romanticism in French literature. The two first met when Bonaparte was in his teens.
Time in exile
Following Napoleon I’s bitter loss at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, many of his family members were exiled out of Paris, France.
After Napoleon I’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, many of the Bonaparte family members went into exile, including his mother was initially sent to the Russian Empire. He and his mother would then move to Switzerland and then later Germany, where he attained much of his formative education.
Growing up, he was tutored by French archaeologist and translator Philippe Le Bas whose family was associated with famous French statesman Maximilien Robespierre.
As a result much of his childhood was spent in exile in many European countries. For example, Louis had long spells of his childhood education in Germany, where he enrolled at a grammar school in Augsburg. This explains his German accent.
Growing up, his mother constantly told him stories about the personal achievements of Napoleon I. As a result, Louis developed a strong affinity for his fatherland, even though he spent his childhood moving from one European country to another. He dreamed of one day returning to France and following in the footstep of his uncle Napoleon I.
Swayed by the plight of poor Italians living under the control of Austria and the papal government in Rome, he and his brother partook in a rebellion in Italy in the early 1830s. His brother did not make it out alive.
Time in Italy and activities with the Carbonari
While in Italy, he and his older brother Napoleon-Louis got themselves involved in revolutionary activities of the Carbonari, an organization that resolutely fought against Austria’s hold in Northern Italy. In 1831, the brothers fled Italy as Austria had begun an operation to rid the area off groups like the Carbonari, the Filadelfia, and the Adelfia. It was during this frantic escape from Italy that his brother came down with measles, resulting in his death on March 17, 1831.
With the help of his mother, he was able to hide from the Austrian authorities and make it safely to France. While in Paris, France, he and his mother had to stay under the radar, something the French king Louis Philippe agreed to it. Louis also volunteered to be an ordinary soldier in the French Army. However, he was asked to drop the Bonaparte name as the French monarchy was afraid of the effect he could have on the stability of the army and nation at large. Louis vehemently refused to change his name.
Time in the Swiss Army
When news broke out of the presence of Louis and his mother’s stay in France, the French king panicked and evicted them from France. Louis and his mother across the English Channel into Britain before making their way back to Switzerland, where he joined the Swiss Army as an officer. It was during this time that he took to writing his political pamphlets, which expressed his ideas on foreign and domestic policies concerning the nation of France. By the age of 25 he had published a pamphlet titled Rêveries politiques (1833), translated as “political dreams”, which was in turn followed up by Considérations politiques et militaires sur la Suisse (“Political and military considerations about Switzerland”) in 1834 and then Les Idées napoléoniennes (“Napoleonic Ideas”) in 1839.
The underpinning theme of his work was universal suffrage for all French citizens. He talked at length about how a monarchy could secure the rights of the people and at the same time ensure that order prevails in France.
Napoleon III’s first and second attempts at seizing power in France
Believing that the destiny of France was put into his hands by providence, Napoleon was willing to do whatever it took to gain what he believed was his birthright – the emperorship of France. The young man had grown up hearing stories from his mother and tutors about how his uncle Napoleon I was brave and charismatic. Therefore he reasoned that he would follow in his uncle’s footsteps by marching on Paris, hoping to use the people’s nostalgia for the Napoleonic era to seize power from then King Louis-Philippe.
He had fruitful discussions with the colonel of a regiment in Strasbourg in eastern France. Donning a military uniform, almost like the one that his uncle had worn in the 1815 march to Paris, he made his way to Strasbourg on October 29, 1836. With winds in his sails, he was able to bring the prefecture under his control. The prefect of the area was arrested, while the commanding general of the garrison fled in order to bring more reinforcements. Napoleon’s position quickly deteriorated as he and the mutineers were rounded up. He managed to escape by the skin of his teeth, fleeing to Switzerland.
Due to the fact that he was a member of Swiss Army as well as a Swiss citizen, he was not extradited back to France. This decision of the Swiss infuriated King Louis-Philippe, who responded by placing French troops on the Swiss border. In the end, Louis Napoleon left the Switzerland as he did not want his presence in Switzerland to result in an open confrontation between the French and the Swiss.
In his second attempt, he appeared more prepared than his first attempt. Fully clothed in military uniform, he was in the company of about sixty armed men when he sailed from England to Boulogne, a coastal city in Northern France. No sooner had he arrived on the shores of France than did his coup attempt hit a solid brick wall. The port authorities took his crew into custody. Also the soldiers that he was expecting to mutiny did not do so. If anything, Louis Napoleon’s second attempt at seizing power in France was considered comical.
Time as a prisoner in Fort of Ham in Northern France
Following his disastrous second attempt at seizing power in France, Louis Napoleon was described by the French authorities as a crazed man who deserved to be sent to a psychiatric facility. And so Louis Napoleon was imprisoned in the fortress of Ham in Northern France.
During his time behind bars, he fathered two children with a local laundress called Alexandrine Éléonore Vergeot. He also took to writing many political pamphlets and articles, some of which were published in magazines in France. Works like his L’extinction du pauperisme (“The Extinction of Pauperism”), which tried to analyze the root causes of poverty in France, made him a very popular among the masses. He argued strongly for elevating the working class from their impoverished position. He suggested building a banking system that gave the working class ample credit. Upon becoming emperor, he thrived to implement many of the ideas he espoused in the book, including having agricultural colonies.
How Louis Napoleon broke out from prison
After about six years behind bars, Louis Napoleon simply walked out of his prison cell disguised as one of the prison laborers. He was said to have been aided by some local friends and his physician. At the coast, he went aboard a boat that took him to back to England.
During his stay in England, he was friends with the likes of English politician Benjamin Disraeli and English scientist Michael Faraday. He also had the opportunity to meet with famous English writer Charles Dickens. He also had a romantic relationships with famous French actress Elisabeth Felix (also known as Mademoiselle Rachel) and a wealthy English woman called Harriet Howard. It was from the latter that he received immense ffinancial support for his political ambitions.
Time in the United States
After making a few stops in London and then Brazil, he headed to New York. United States at the time had developed a reputation for being the host of revolutionaries and dissidents fleeing Europe and other places in the world. Therefore it came as no surprise that Louis Napoleon fled to the U.S.
Death of his mother
In New York, he associated with many important people, particularly writers such as American short-story essayist and historian Washington Irving. His tour of the U.S. was cut short when he received news of his mother’s fast deteriorating health. He packed up and headed back to Switzerland. Just a few days after arriving, his mother died, on August 5, 1837. Considered France most wanted at the time, he could not attend his mother’s funeral in Paris.
Using his inheritance from his mother, he sailed to Britain in October 1838. To his amazement he found the English society to be very welcoming.
The Second Republic
February 1848 could not have been a better period for Louis Napoleon to give his quest for power one final swing. The 1848 Revolution, as it came to be called, resulted in the overthrow of King Louis Philippe and then the creation of French Second Republic which was temporarily headed by French statesman Alphonse de Lamartine. It’s said that Louis Napoleon left for France the very day deposed King Louis Philippe left the country. Upon arriving, Napoleon penned a letter to de Lamartine, informing him of his presence in France. Unfortunately for Napoleon, the response from de Lamartine was not so welcoming.
Capitalizing on the still significant political goodwill of the Bonaparte name, he ran in the June 4 election that year. His performance in the election was very good, as he received tremendous amount of support from the working class and the peasantry.
Perhaps sensing the possibility of an outbreak of violence, he decided not to stay in France. Lo and behold, violence did break out in the form of the June Days Uprising (in June 1848), which saw the French Army brutally crack down on far left protestors in the working class areas of Paris. The military’s suppression, which resulted in the deaths of over 4,800 people, did a lot of damage to the already fragile moderate republican provisional government. The violence was a big blessing in disguise for Louis Napoleon as it helped the people see him as neither part of the people who suppressed the protests nor part of the protestors.
How Louis Napoleon became the first president of French Republic
At the September 17-18 National Assembly elections, Louis Napoleon had very good results in five out of the thirteen departments that he contested in. Pleased by the support he received, particularly in Paris, where he secured close to half of the votes cast, he returned to France to take his seat in the National Assembly.
On November 4, 1848, the National Assembly passed a constitution that formally established the Second French Republic. The French Constitution of 1848 allowed for the president of the Republic to be elected by popular vote. In addition to placing wide powers in the executive function, the constitution also granted universal male suffrage. All of those articles proved extremely beneficial to Louis Napoleon, who quickly filled his candidature for the December 1848 general election.
With adequate financing from his mistress Harriet Howard, Louis Napoleon was able to marshal a strong campaign that appealed greatly to the people on both sides of the aisle. He rode on campaign promises that included offering the French public a number of social welfare programs, supporting religion, family, and providing work for the unemployed. The French conservative leader Adolphe Thiers backed him as he hoped that Louis Napoleon would be the easiest to control. Louis Napoleon also received the support of veteran soldiers and former officials of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s regime.
In the end, Louis Napoleon claimed a handsome victory, wining about 74 percent of the votes cast. His closest rival, General Cavaignac, managed to secure about 19 percent of the vote. Louis Napoleon’s campaign had been well-received by the public, including the peasants that were pleased with his promise to reduce prices and the intellectuals who were very happy with some of his liberal policies.
After his election victory, he moved into the Élysée Palace, the official residence of the executive. He styled himself “Prince-President” and donned the uniform of the General-in-Chief of the National Guard.
In addition to Louis Napoleon and General Cavaignac, the candidates for presidency of the Second Republic in December 1848 were:
In the election he was up against three candidates – French philosopher and poet Lamartine, who was the leader of the provisional government Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, the socialist candidate, French chemist and physician François-Vincent Raspail, leader of the far left wing of the socialist
Support for the Papacy in Rome
Prior to becoming president of France, Louis Napoleon was a staunch supporter of the Italian republicans that were fighting against the Austrians and the Pope. However, he made a U-turn during his presidency by lending support to the Pope. He then called on the Pope to adopt liberal policies in the Papal States. As a result of this, he received enormous support from the French Catholics.
The June 11, 1849 uprising
Instigated by French lawyer and politician Ledru Rollin, an uprising almost broke out on June 11, 1849, when a group of socialists and radical republicans mounted road blocks in the some parts of Paris. President Napoleon was quick to move and quelled the uprising before it spread to other parts of the country. Many of the leaders of the unrest were arrested, including the socialist leader Raspail.
How Napoleon III become Emperor of the Second French Empire
In the early part of 1850, the National Assembly passed a law that restricted universal male suffrage in France by requiring voters to meet the three-year residency requirement. President Napoleon strongly came out against the law. He went on nationwide tour in order to portray himself as the people’s defender of universal male suffrage. His relationship with the National Assembly soured even further after he propose amending the French constitution so that he could run again. The 1848 Constitution allowed for one term limit for the president. In July that year, he was able to secure majority votes in the National Assembly for the proposed constitutional amendment. However, the 446-278 votes fell below the two-thirds majority required for an amendment in the constitution.
With the help of his close associates, plans were drafted as early as November 1851 for Napoleon to retain power by all means. On December 3, the people of France woke up to the news that the National Assembly of the Republic had been dissolved. Napoleon also ordered the restoration of universal suffrage. The coup also saw the arrest of more than a dozen members of the National Assembly. Napoleon ordered the suppression of protests, including the one organized by about 220 deputies. Napoleon quickly deployed the military to quell every manner of resistance to his coup. He also maintained a strong grip on the press, preventing them from putting out any information that was critical of the coup.
He used the December 1851 referendum, which saw him secure about 92 percent of the vote, to justify his continued stay in power. His critics, including French writer and poet Victor Hugo, however, criticized the result, citing its legality in the first place. Regardless, he firmly believed that he had the unflinching mandate of the people. With his critics silenced, he moved quickly to draft a new constitution that removed the term-limit of the presidency. The number of years in the term was increased from four to ten. He placed enormous amount of power in the presidency. And even though the National Assembly was allowed to stay, the legislative body was given significantly less power than it had in the previous Republic.
Still not content with his vast executive powers, Napoleon decided to take it one step further. He began making preparations for his coronation as emperor of the French. This was supported by the so-called plebiscite result of November 21-22, 1852 that showed 97 percent of the voters wanting Napoleon to be made emperor. And so the Second Republic was brought to an end. In its place, the Second French Empire sprang up. Napoleon was crowned Napoleon II, Emperor of the French.
Napoleon III’s notable accomplishments
As emperor of France, Napoleon III was very much committed to improving France’s infrastructure so that it could be at par with the United States. He also invested strived very hard to modernize the economy so as to help France reclaim its dominance in Europe. His goal was to place his government at the heart of developmental projects in the country. This in turn gave the private sector the enabling infrastructure to thrive. Some of the notable accomplishments of Napoleon III are as follows:
With the introduction of a number of beneficial reforms in the banking industry and the stock market, resources were readily available to be injected into the construction of ports, railways, canals and other transport infrastructures. For example, it was during reign as emperor that banks like Crédit Lyonnais, Crédit Mobilier and Société Générale were founded. Those banks played instrumental role in the rebuilding of Paris and many other cities in France.
France’s industrial and agricultural outputs increased during the reign of Napoleon III. This was buoyed on by the nationwide extension of railway lines and the construction of roads. Dilapidated ports in places like Le Havre and Marseille were repaired. New ones were also constructed, providing more stimulus to the French economy. Many of those ports helped connect France within Europe as well as beyond, to places in the Americas, North Africa and Asia.
His investments in the maritime industry helped make France have the second largest maritime fleet in the world, behind England. It was also during his reign that the Suez Canal was constructed. Known as one of the greatest construction works of the 19th century, the Suez Canal helped connect the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. With this goods could easily move between Asia and Europe. What’s even more interesting is that funding for the Canal was raised on the Paris stock market. When the project was completed in 1869, Napoleon III’s wife Empress Eugenie was invited to open the canal.
Napoleon III’s quest to modernize the French economy saw him remove a number of entry barriers into the French industry. Trade restrictions were removed, allowing the French economy to benefit from foreign goods and innovations. This is also placed healthy pressures on French businesses to adopt efficient management systems in order to be able to compete.
With Paris being the prized jewel of the French people, Napoleon III sought to make it a city fitting for a powerful monarch as himself. His rebuilding of Paris saw the opening of many markets and department stores, including modern department store Le Bon Marché in 1852; La Samaritaine in 1870; and Au Printemps in 1856. To handle the Paris’ growing population, new houses, paved roads, and squares were constructed. The city’s authorities constructed an aqueduct to transport water from the Vanne River to the city’s inhabitants. Old sewers were renovated and new pipes laid to handle both the water and sanitation needs of Paris. Several parks and gardens were placed across the city to give the city a more natural look, notably the bois de Vincennes, the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, The Parc Monstsouris, and the Bois de Boulogne.
Did you know: It was during Napoleon III’s reign that railway stations the Gare du Nord and the Gare de Lyon got constructed?
Other notable achievements
In Paris, several thousands of people were employed by the government to handle water and sanitation issues.
His reign witnessed the reforestation of about 10,500 square kilometers of moorland, which helped make France home to the largest maritime pine forest in Europe.
He introduced a number of social reforms that proved very helpful to the working class in France, including in areas such as health, housing, legal aid, and workers’ insurance.
He is credited with introducing policies in the labor market that gave French workers the right to strike in 1848. This was particularly praised by factory workers across France who since 1810 had been banned from engaging in any industrial action. Working hours were also shortened, and conditions of apprentices were improved during his reign.
In the education sector, he encouraged women to enter into institutes of higher learning. It was during his reign that Julie-Victoire Daubie etched her name in history by becoming the first woman in France to achieve the baccalauréat diploma. It was also during Napoleon III’s reign that famous French pediatrician Madeleine Brès got enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Paris. Brès thus became the first woman to do so.
Also many schools and vocational training centers were opened for women.
With the help of Victor Duruy, the minister of public education, the illiteracy rate was brought down significantly as new libraries and schools were opened and school curricula was changed to include subjects like philosophy, modern languages, art, music, and contemporary history. The illiteracy rate among army conscripts fell from 40 percent in 1852 to around 25 percent in the late 1860s.
He rolled out relatively lower tariffs on imported goods. By so doing he was able to open up the French markets. To remove fears from the hearts of French industrialists and farmers, he struck a trade deal with Britain, which secured lower tariffs on goods exported from France into Britain. He also secured trade and tariff deals with other European countries, including Italy and the Netherlands. Those tariffs ensured that French industrialists became more creative and innovative in order to be more efficient.
Wife and children
Following his coup of 1851 that propelled him to emperor of the French, Napoleon III sought to affirm his status by marrying a woman from one of Europe’s royal families. He could not tie the knot with his mistress Harriet Howard as she was not a royal member.
After getting rejected by King Gustav IV Adolf of Sweden to marry his daughter Princess Carola of Vasa, Napoleon III married Eugénie du Derje de Montijo, the 23-year-0ld countess of Teba. Eugénie was the daughter of Cipriano de Palafox y Portocarrero, 8th Count of Montijo. A spectacular marriage ceremony was held at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris in January 1853.
By Empress Eugénie, Napoleon III fathered Napoleon, Prince Imperial (1856-1879).
Although Napoleon-Louis was his only legitimate son, he had a number of other children by different women, including Alexandrine Éléonore Vergeot, Maria Anna Schiess, French actress Elisa Rachel Felix (also known as Mademoiselle Rachel), Harriet Howard, Maria-Anne Walewska, Virginia Oldoini, and many others. For example, by Maria Anna Schiess, he fathered a son called Bonaventur Karrer (1839-1921). And by Vergoet, he fathered two sons – Alexandre Louis Eugène Bure and Louis Ernest Alexandre Bure.
In the late 1870s, Napoleon’s only legitimate son Louis-Napoleon (also known as Napoleon, Prince Imperial) joined the British Army. Wanting to see more field action, he joined Britain’s war effort against the Zulus in South Africa, where he died in battle in 1879.
Napoleon III’s conflict with Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck
Beginning around the 1860s, Prussia’s power in Europe became more pronounced, resulting in its chancellor Otto von Bismarck to begin pushing for a unified Germany. Prussia’s growing influence was seen as a threat to France. Prussia decided to move against Austria and France, two countries it considered impediments to its goal of a German unification.
Napoleon III on his part began looking for European leaders that would constitute a coalition to halt Prussia’s ambitions. Both Russia and Britain declined to join Napoleon III’s fight against Prussia.
Just as the war between Prussia and Austria was about to start, Napoleon III entered into secret agreements with both nations. He promised France’s neutrality in the event of a war. In the end, Prussia defeated Austria. As agreed between France and Prussia, the French were expecting Prussia to come through on the agreement by handing the Palatinate region on the Rhine to France.
With the French public largely favor of war with Prussia due to what they felt as Prussia’s complete disrespect of France, Napoleon III was forced to declare war against Prussia in July 1870.
Many people France expected the French army to walk over Prussia’s forces. However, Napoleon was concerned about France’s army size, which was fewer than Prussia. His generals however assured him that the French forces were more capable and well trained than their Prussian counterparts.
Perhaps wanting to emulate heroics of his uncle Napoleon I, Napoleon III decided to march with his troops into the Franco-Prussian War. This came in spite of his sharply declining health. The emperor at one point even struggled to ride his horse. Owing to the Germans superior weapons, supply routes and leadership, France suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Prussia. Such was the shock of France’s defeat that both the chief of staff Marshal Edmond Le Boeuf and Prime Minister Olivier resigned from their post. In 1870, France’s capitulation was complete at the Battle of Sedan. The French army surrendered and Emperor Napoleon III was taken prisoner by the Prussians.
The shock and disappointment in France was palpable after the news of Napoleon III’s surrender to Otto von Bismarck. Empress Eugénie was absolutely furious about her husband’s decision to surrender instead of fighting to the bitter end. With the city of Paris more than annoyed by the military humiliation at the hands of the Germans, a group of angry Parisians crowded around the palace, forcing the Empress to flee to England.
With no member of Bonaparte’s family to lead France, French deputies, under the leadership of French politician Léon Gambetta proclaimed the end of Napoleon III’s reign and the establishment of the French Third Republic. In other words, the Second French Empire had met its end. The provisional government in France entered a truce deal with Prussia.
Napoleon’s removal from power was officially confirmed by the newly elected National Assembly members on March I, 1871. A few days later, on March 19, Napoleon was given his freedom. He and some of his entourage sailed to England, where he would spend the remainder of his life writing political articles and letters. He still harbored the dream of one day going back to France to reclaim his lost throne.
How did Napoleon III die?
Ousted Emperor Napoleon III and his family, which included his wife Eugénie and their son, settled in a small house in Chislehurst, Kent, a county in South East England. It’s said that then queen of England Victoria extended a warm welcome to the deposed French ruler. Queen Victoria even visited him in Kent, England.
Beginning around the middle of 1872, Napoleon’s health started getting worse with every passing day. The two operations conducted by his physicians to remove his gallstones made him even worse. The former emperor was also troubled mentally by the humiliating defeat he suffered at the hands of the Germans. On January 9, 1873, Napoleon passed away. His last words came in the form of a question to one of the attendants by his bedside, French physician François-Alexandre-Henri Conneau (1803-1877). “Isn’t it true that we weren’t cowards at Sedan?”, Napoleon asked Conneau before breathing his last.
The former emperor was laid to rest at a Catholic church in St Mary’s (also known as Chislehurst). In 1888, his body and that of his son, Louis-Napoleon, was moved to a crypt at St Michael’s Abbey in Hampshire, England.
The Crimean War
Napoleon III formed an alliance with Great Britain during the Crimean War (1854-1856), a war which saw England and France and their allies the Ottoman Empire and Piedmont-Sardinia defeat Russia. Napoleon and his English counterpart Queen Victoria wanted to halt Russia’s gains against the Ottoman Empire as a way to maintain the balance of power in Europe.
Efforts in Mexico and Asia
His quest to have Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian become Emperor of Mexico did not go according to plan. Napoleon’s efforts were stifled by President Benito Juárez, the head of the republican government in Mexico. Juárez was received ample support from the United States, who demanded the removal of French troops from the Mexico. With his army stretched thin across three continents – Africa, Europe and Central America – Napoleon had no other option than to comply with the United States’ demand. He removed his troops from Mexico in 1866.
Unlike in the Americas, his Southeast Asia empire expansion efforts were more successful. For example, he was able to secure a protectorate over Cambodia in 1863.
More on Napoleon III
On the back of his victory in the Crimean War, Napoleon III annexed the Duchy of Savoy and the County of Nice under the Treaty of Turin in 1860. This was the Italians way of compensating France for its effort in assisting the Kingdom of Sardinia during the Italian unification. He also fought against Italian troops that tried to annex the Papal States from the Pope in Rome.
His foreign policy was one underpinned by “L’Empire, c’est la paix” (“The Empire means peace”). This policy stressed his commitment to not attack any European nation in order to expand the boundaries of his French Empire.
Louis Napoleon supported the “principle of nationalities” (principe des nationalités) that states that empires should be based on nationality instead of having a multinational group of people forming an empire.
His massive infrastructure projects and expenditure on social reforms resulted in France’s debt stacking up. The country had large annual deficits, which averaged around 90 million gold-francs. It’s national debt was in the region of 1,000 million gold-francs.
As it was the 1800s, his urinary tract problem was treated with opium. It was diagnosed that he suffered from gallstone. His worsening health condition was not allowed to get out, as his advisors feared that the people would force him to abdicate in favor of his son.
It’s been said that when Emperor Napoleon III realized that France wasn’t going to win against Prussia, the emperor sought death by moving aimlessly on the battlefield, wanting to be martyred instead of being captured alive.
In terms of the legacy he left behind, his reputation in the annals of history does not come near to the one chalked by his uncle, Napoleon I. This has to do with his losses in Mexico and against Prussia.
Famous French poet and writer Victor Hugo, who became a huge critic of Napoleon III after he seized power to become emperor, described Napoleon III as “Napoleon the Small” in his 1852 political pamphlet Napoléon le Petit. The writer contrasts the leadership styles of Napoleon and his uncle, who he describes as Napoleon I The Great.