Napoleonic Wars: History, Causes & Major Outcomes
One of the most defining periods in France’s history was the 12-year period of bloody conflicts she found herself waging in the early 19th century. Now known as the Napoleonic Wars, the origin of the wars can be traced to the French Revolution, which left France on shaky grounds after the execution of its monarch.
As the new French Republic emerged, many other European monarchies feared the same fate could arrive at their doorsteps. Therefore, those European powers turned against France, hoping to restore some semblance of monarchy in the country.
From 1803 to 1815, France, under the generalship and later emperorship of Napoleon Bonaparte, defended itself from the other powers. The military prowess Napoleon put on display during those wars etched him into the history books as one of the greatest generals of the modern era.
The Napoleonic Wars transformed Europe and much of its consequences and effects are still seen and felt in modern times.
Below, we present all the pertinent details about the Napoleonic Wars, including the actual cause of the wars.
The State of France before the Napoleonic Wars
Towards the end of the 1700s, France was deeply embroiled in economic hardship that were largely caused by its participation in the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), as well as the callous and excessive spending culture of the out-of-touch French royal family.
These financial constraints, coupled with periods of famine, increasing taxes, and sharp rises in previously more affordable foodstuffs like bread, had left the French people, especially the poor, to resent the French government.
In a bid to combat their situation, the citizens attempted to alleviate their economic issues by protesting and embarking on strikes.
By 1789, the French revolution was in full swing and throughout most of the 1790s, France saw a significant shift in its governance as it transitioned from the feudal and monarchy systems into a more democratic one. It wasn’t an easy transition and is perhaps one of the bloodiest periods in French history, which led to the public executions of King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette in 1793. About a year prior to that Louis had served for a year as a constitutional monarch.
Reason for the Napoleonic Wars
The French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) was European monarchies response to the very chaotic and bloody French Revolution that had done away with the French monarch. The wars saw the new French Republic lock horns with anti-French coalition which included Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia. Largely under the guidance of the French military commander Napoleon Bonaparte, France was able to secure resounding victories over the coalition in a number of very important battles.
The First Coalition
With the death of the French king and queen, and neighboring European powers, including the United Kingdom, Prussia, the Austrian Empire, the Kingdom of Naples, the Kingdom of Sardinia, and the Spanish Empire, came together to form the First Coalition.
Consumed by fear of their citizen rising up against them, the goal of those European monarchies was to thwart France’s attempt to establish a republican system of government. Therefore, the First Coalition declared war against France to put an end to its revolution as well as the spread of those ideas.
One major thing that the French Revolution led to was the dismantling of the practice of giving high positions to people based on their blood rather than merit.
And for one Corsica native called Napoleon Bonaparte, this period was the perfect opportunity to claim the power he had once craved but was constantly overlooked by his superiors simply because he did not hail from a well-to-do family.
The burgeoning Republic of France successfully defended itself from the First Coalition by adopting several strategies, including conducting mass military drafts, adopting military reforms, and using the best war generals like Napoleon.
If he wasn’t known then, Napoleon certainly became a recognizable face after defeating the Austrian Empire and forcing the Austrians to sign the Treaty of Campo Formio on October 17 1797. Following the treaty, the Great Britain was the only enemy in battle with France.
The Second Coalition (1798-1801/2)
But the Great Britain wasn’t alone in the fight against France for long. By 1798, the British had reunited again with Austria, Prussia, and the Kingdom of Naples to fight the French. This time, they were joined by the Papal States, Portugal, and the Ottoman Empire and formed the Second Coalition.
It was a rough time for the French Republic. There were cases of corruption, divisions within the Directory, and financial constraints. The new republic couldn’t afford the services of its war minister Lazare Carnot. At the same time, Napoleon had embarked on a military campaign in Egypt, which was not going as the general had planned.
France was down on its luck and the outlook wasn’t promising as it had been the first time. During that period, the French were defeated in several battles but they were about to see a turnaround in their fortunes with the return of Napoleon from Egypt.
The military general’s first task upon his arrival to France in 1799 was to lead a coup d’état and seize the Directory, eventually taking control over the country’s affairs between November 9-10, 1799 (also known as the Coup d’état of 18 Brumaire).
From quite humble beginnings, Napoleon had finally risen through the military and political ranks to become the First Consul of France; and with his newfound power, he brought stability to France.
One of the first things he did was make strategic changes in the military. He stationed officers at all of France’s fronts. Through the new restructured military, the French military embarked on campaigns along the Rhine and in Italy, effectively taking out the Russians in the Second Battle of Zurich in September 1799.
With this new strategy, the Napoleon led the French military to victory over the Austrians in 1800 at Marengo and later along the Rhine.
The biggest wrench in the works of the anti-France coalition had to do with the fact that those allied powers all had different strategies. As a result, France was able to emerge victorious once again. Under the Treaty of Lunéville in February 1801, France kept the gains of the War of the First Coalition as well as got its hands on new territories like Italy and Tuscany.
Following its defeat, the Austrians signed the Treaty of Lunéville in February 1801. Two months later, the British were also forced to sign the Treaty of Amiens. Other powers in the anti-French coalition followed suit, signing respective peace treaties with the victor, France.
Persistent tensions mark the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars
Napoleon had only two main ways to curb Britain’s influence over the other European powers: defeating them or signing a peace treaty, and he was successful with the latter thanks to the Treaty of Amiens in March 1801. But for how long would these two be at peace with each other? It turned out to be not for long.
The War against Britain (1803-1814)
In 1803, the British Prime Minister Henry Addington declared war against France. This declaration of conflict ended the 14-month old Treaty of Amiens. But it wasn’t out of the blue. During those months, both Britain and France failed to adhere to the terms of the treaty.
The main reason behind the war involved the island of Malta. Napoleon and his troops had invaded Malta in 1798 as part of his mission to conquer Egypt, India, and other British colonies in East Asia. Initially, the French army was welcomed by the Maltese, who preferred them over their rulers called The Order of St John.
However, that all changed when the Maltese quickly realized that the Napoleonic style of ruling contrasted heavily against the Church, as well as their culture. Eventually, the locals turned against the French and sought help from the British to boot out the French. With that move, Malta fell into the orbit of British influence.
When the British and French signed the Treaty of Amiens in 1801, one of the terms stated that the former had to leave Malta. But Britain broke those terms by refusing to leave. While this had been the primary driving force behind the war, it had also been built on decades of mistrust and other term-breaking activities between the two, including France’s constant violation of the peace accord of Lunéville, as well as Britain’s attempts to fortify its navy along the Channel to ward off any possible French invasion.
Aside from Napoleon’s plan to restructure much of Western Europe, the British were further angered when the military general – despite the British monarch George III being an elector of the Holy Roman Empire – told Britain to keep out of European matters. The general also attempted to limit negative news about him from the British press.
So, it was no surprise when on May 18, 1803, Britain declared war against France to curb Napoleon’s rising power, and from that time, the two sides were plunged into decade-long battles.
Exactly a year later, Napoleon went ahead to declare France an empire and named himself its emperor in December 1804. It was a strategic move, one that ensured that Napoleon’s supporters and their properties would be protected after his death. It was also a move to keep the former royal family and its supporters out of power.
The Third Coalition
In 1805, Britain, yet again, formed another anti-France coalition with Austria, Sweden, Sicily, the Kingdom of Naples, and Russia. This time around, France had the backing of other allies like Italy, Spain, and Bavaria.
Infuriated by Napoleon’s aggressive stance in Germany and Italy, Austria and Russia aligned with Britain against France. Prussia stayed neutral throughout the War of Third Coalition.
In April 1805, Britain and Russia agreed and signed to the terms of the St Petersburg Union Treaty, which presented the building block for the establishment of the Third Coalition. The Austrians joined a few months later, and the parties set the plan to fight against France.
The war commenced when the Austrians, led by Karl Mack von Leiberich, invaded Bavaria, which was France’s ally. When word reached Napoleon, he marched with his army to Bavaria and defeated Leiberich. The other Austrian forces endured the same fate against other French military generals and, as a result, Napoleon was able to occupy Vienna.
But he had a far bigger challenge against the larger-sized Austro-Russian army at Austerlitz in December 1805. The French troops defeated their enemies and the Battle at Austerlitz became one of Napoleon’s biggest war accomplishments. Following their defeat, the Austrians signed the Treaty of Pressburg and left the Third Coalition. Part of the terms of the treaty required them to give the cities of Venetia and Tyrol to the French and Bavarians, respectively.
By the end of this war, Napoleon had control over many other European states, including Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, and a large portion of Western Germany. Whether Napoleon had wanted to put an end to his conquests or not remains under debate.
The Fourth Coalition (1806-1807)
Shortly after the Third Coalition fell apart, a new Fourth Coalition came into power. This new group included Britain, Saxony, Sweden, Russia, and Prussia. Unlike the other powers, Prussia was the latest member and had only joined out of fear following Austria’s defeat against France.
In 1806, he formed the Confederation of the Rhine, which constituted numerous small German states and parts of Western Germany. He combined many of these states in larger kingdoms and regions; and the two rulers of the biggest joined states, Saxony and Bavaria, were made kings. The main reason behind the formation of the confederacy was to create a buffer state between France and Germany against any future attacks from Prussia and Russia.
In October 1806, the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm III declared war against France but was defeated a few days later at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt. Overall, it took Napoleon only 19 days to completely defeat Prussia and occupy Berlin.
Meanwhile, France was more involved in a war of economic power with Britain. So, while in Berlin, Napoleon passed several laws and policies, including the Continental System. This policy was designed to strip Britain of its economic power as it slapped a comprehensive embargo against the British. While the French vastly outnumbered the British army, the latter had an exceptional navy and through that had amassed immense wealth through trade. Britain was too rich for France to gain complete control over Europe.
With the Continental System struggling to meet its goals, Napoleon turned his sights to Russia and managed to oust them from Poland. He continued to pursue the Russians who were allies of the Prussians; and after many battles, the two parties made peace in 1807 at Tilsit, Prussia. Meanwhile, Napoleon’s appointed Marshal of the French Empire, Guillaume Brune, had fully occupied Swedish Pomerania and Sweden left the war.
In 1808, at the behest of Napoleon and the Russian Emperor Alexander I, Russia attempted to force Sweden to join the Continental System. However, this resulted in the Finnish War of 1808-1809, which caused Sweden to split into two with its eastern region renamed Russian Grand Duchy of Finland.
The Fifth Coalition (1809)
The Fifth Coalition War centered mainly between Austria and France, with the former receiving backing from Britain, Spain, Portugal, as well as the Kingdoms of Sicily and Sardinia. France, on the other hand, received support from the Duchy of Warsaw (from its occupation of Poland), the Confederation of Rhine, and the Kingdom of Italy.
Before the start of the war, France had committed some of its troops to fight against the British, Portuguese and Spanish in the Peninsular War. Austria seized the opportunity to attack France and reclaim the territories it lost during the Third Coalition War. They asked Prussia for support; however, Prussia decided to remain neutral in the conflict.
Led by Archduke Charles, the Austrians reached the Bavarian border in April 1809. Initially, the French troops were unprepared. However, Napoleon’s arrival to the area brought the army back into formation. The French army won several battles, including the Battle of Wagram in July 1809 but not without suffering setbacks in Aspern-Essling. The French also blocked other attempts to invade the Duchy of Warsaw and Saxony. The British troops also attempted to capture Antwerp, Holland, which was a French client state at the time.
Austria was compelled to sign the Treaty of Schönbrunn on October 14, 1809; and as part of the terms, were required to give up its Mediterranean ports, as well as 20% of its population. Austria was also ordered to cover the cost of the war. They also decided to ally with France in any future conflicts and the agreement was further sealed with Napoleon’s marriage to the Austrian Archduchess Marie Louise, the eldest child of Austrian Emperor Francis I. His marriage was also an attempt to birth an heir, which his first wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais, couldn’t do.
The War of the Fifth Coalition came to an end, but Napoleon and the French army’s defeat at Aspern-Essling encouraged the anti-French powers and showed that the military general could be defeated.
The Sixth Coalition & the 1812 Invasion of Russia (1812-1814)
By 1812, Napoleon had reached his peak and he decided to invade Russia. His troops, called the Grande Armee, numbered 650,000 officers consisting of French and other allied soldiers. The invasion was in response to the likely possibility of Russia invading Poland, as well as its decision to not partake in the plot to limit Britain’s economic power throughout Europe.
The French invasion of Russia in 1812 did not go according to Napoleon’s plan. The close to six-month (from 24 June to 14 December) endeavor, however, did start on a rather positive note for the French. With his army, they entered Russia and won many battles, including the Battle of Smolensk in August 1812. The very determined French troops entered Moscow but they quickly realized that the Russians had burnt the city down and fled. This rattled the Grande Armee and it took some time for them to defend themselves. However, that was all the Russians needed and the French lost about 95,000 men within a week.
It was a brutal time for the French while they were in Russia. The Battle of Borodino in September, which was fought between the two parties, was perhaps the goriest and most disastrous of all battles fought in the Napoleonic War. Even though the French had several advantages, they could not defeat the Russians. With this failure, Napoleon and his remaining troops managed to make their way back to France.
The events of 1812 and Napoleon’s failure in Russia inspired the other anti-French states to form yet another coalition. Austria, Sweden, and Prussia left the French and joined Britain and the other original anti-French powers.
Undeterred, Napoleon set forth on his quest to create an army bigger than what he had taken with him to Russia. It worked, and the Battles of Lützen and Bautzen, fought in May 1813, became some of largest (in troop size) during the wars. That same year, the Austrian Prime Minister Klemens von Metternich offered the French emperor the Frankfurt Memorandum. The terms of the proposal allowed Napoleon to remain Emperor but he had to give up control over Germany, the Netherlands and Italy.
Believing that he had the upper hand in the war, Napoleon rejected the proposal. He did, however, change his mind in 1814, when the Sixth Coalition started gaining more victories. The coalition presented a new proposal, one with significantly much tougher terms. Napoleon refused to accept the new terms.
The War of the Sixth Coalition went differently as Napoleon had expected. He was vastly outnumbered by the coalition and withdrew from many of the states under his control, including Germany after his loss in the Battle of Leipzig. Eventually, France lost Denmark-Norway to the coalition.
Napoleon still put up a fight without his allies and even won some battles. But he was driven by his incomprehension of how his power had started to wane. Although he was very popular among the foot soldiers of his army, he had come to be despised by some of his senior officers. Michel Ney, a leading French military commander who once described as Napoleon as “le Brave des braves” (the Bravest of the Brave), led his fellow marshals to mutiny.
Having lost the support of his marshals, Napoleon was left with no other choice than to abdicate per the Treaty of Fontainebleau on April 11, 1814. The French emperor’s abdication paved the way for the return of the Bourbon dynasty to power in France. A month later, the Sixth Coalition War came to an end on May 30 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Napoleon was forced to go into exile in Elba, an island in Tuscany, Italy. In the months that followed, European leaders conveyed at the Congress of Vienna to redraw the map of Europe.
Following Napoleon’s abdication, the French House of Bourbon was restored, with Louis XVIII and Charles X, both siblings of the executed King Louis XVI, going on to reign from 1815 to 1830.
The Seventh Coalition (1815)
In March 1815, Napoleon escaped from Elba. While traveling back to France, he gathered many supporters who helped him overthrow the Bourbon French monarch, King Louis XVIII. Upon hearing of the deposed emperor’s return on March 20, the Seventh Coalition was formed. The coalition, which boasted more than half a million troops, included Britain, Prussia, Russia and Austria.
This period was known as the Hundred Days. Now back in power, Napoleon decided to build another army which included men from his previous campaigns. It was the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815 that decided the fate of all parties involved in the war. Unfortunately for Napoleon, he lost the battle and was then forced to abdicate four days later, closing the curtain on the First French Empire.
Perhaps having learnt their lesson, the European coalition decided to imprison Napoleon a bit far away from Europe; he was sent to Saint Helena, which was a South Atlantic island under Britain’s control. This time, he remained there until 1821, when he died.
The Seventh Coalition signed the Second Treaty of Paris, restored King Louis, and the Napoleonic Wars finally came to an end.
Even though the Napoleonic Wars were fought in Europe, it also played a huge role in other wars worldwide, including:
The Latin American Revolutions
In 1808, Napoleon’s brother Joseph-Napoleon Bonaparte was made King of Spain after two former kings, Carlos IV and Fernando VII, abdicated. However, his accession to the throne sparked civil wars in many of Spain’s territories in the Americas, with many of its people still supporting the former kings.
Again, the Spanish American Independence wars were also caused by Napoleon’s activities in Spain. The former emperor’s loss at the Battle of Waterloo also drove many French soldiers to move to the Americas, where they joined other nationalist groups. Some of these men fought in world-changing battles like the Capture of Valdivia.
The Barbary Wars
During the era of the Napoleonic Wars, other conflicts like the Barbary Wars took place between the United States, Sweden, and Sicily, against Barbary pirates from North Africa and Mediterranean.
As the Napoleonic Wars took place and Britain and France were preoccupied, the United States used it to its advantage and expanded its global trade and commerce. Then-president Thomas Jefferson also used Napoleon’s early financial struggles to purchase Louisiana (i.e. the Louisiana Purchase) in 1803.
But while the United States tried to stay out of the conflict, they discovered that their ships were being captured by the Barbary pirates on the Mediterranean Sea. Formerly, the American ships had been under the protection of the British and even the French Navy.
Together with Sweden and Sicily, the United States fought two wars: The First Barbary War (1801-1805) and the Second Barbary War, which lasted three days. By the end of the wars, the United States had shipping rights over the Mediterranean Sea and there were fewer pirate attacks.
Other Outcomes of the Napoleonic Wars
The Napoleonic Wars left some lasting consequences that directly changed the world. Here are a few:
Gave Rise to the Industrial Revolution
Before the Napoleonic Wars, feudalism was the main social system in France and other European kingdoms. Following the wars, this system became outmoded and capitalism grew more popular, which sparked the industrial revolution across Europe, particularly in England.
When France became a republic in 1804, it issued the Napoleonic Code, which stressed on the importance of liberty and equality, all essential factors for modern human rights. It also helped many other countries establish other democracies.
Additionally, despite restoring the French monarchy, the system of governance was different. Monarchs no longer had absolute power and the lower classes could now voice out their opinions.
World Wars I & II
The end of the Napoleonic Wars also created waves of nationalism across Europe, some good and some bad. But with it also came rising tensions within Europe. For example, the assassination of the Austrian archduke Ferdinand on June 28 1914 started the First World War.
The same nationalism also bred competition, especially in Nazi Germany under the Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship, and the desire to consolidate Europe under one ruler, much like Napoleon, resulted in the Second World War.
The Napoleonic Wars in Popular Culture
The world-changing events that occurred during the period of the Napoleonic Wars have inspired many creative works since the 19th century:
Many notable writers have recounted the events of the Napoleonic Wars in bestselling novels. Some of these include “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy, “Shirley” by Charlotte Brontë and “The Charterhouse of Parma” by Stendhal.
The wars have also served as a backdrop in many other popular books with fictional characters often depicted as military officers. In Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” for example, the events of the play occur during the wars. In the novel “Vanity Fair”, written by William Makepeace Thackeray, one of the main characters dies during the Battle of Waterloo.
Other fictional novels where characters interacted with Napoleon include “Bloody Jack” by Louis A. Meyer and “The Idiot” by famed Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Film & TV
Historical accounts of the Napoleonic Wars have been retold through several films and TV shows, including “Waterloo”, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”, “Napoléon”, “War and Peace”, and “Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N.” among many others.
Other Interesting Facts about the Napoleonic Wars
There is no bit of doubt that Napoleon Bonaparte was a skilled military general. Such is the reverence many military historians and generals hold for him that the wars his French army waged against European powers between 1803 and 1815 ended up being named after him.
Here are some interesting facts about the Napoleonic Wars:
The start date is heavily contested
Many historians have argued about when the Napoleonic Wars actually began. Some believe it started when Napoleon seized the French Directory in the 1799 coup d’etat, whereas others believe the wars commenced at the start of the Third Coalition War on May 18, 1803, when Britain and France backed out of the Treaty of Amiens. Others are also of the view that the wars began on December 2, 1804, being the date that Napoleon declared himself emperor of France.
Napoleonic Wars caused Britain and the U.S. to fight each other
In 1812, the United States declared for the first time war against another nation. For many years during the Napoleonic Wars, Britain, a naval superpower, had interfered with American ships in the Atlantic and even gone as far as forcing American seamen to join the Royal Navy. The U.S. was not having any of it, and so, on June 18, 1812, U.S. President James Madison, declared war on Britain. The declaration received a 79-49 votes in favor. In the Senate, 19 people supported declaring war on Britain, against 13.
America’s declaration of war against Britain ushered in the War of 1812, which ended in no side winning after about three years of fighting. In the end, both sides were able to reach a peace agreement (i.e. the Treaty of Ghent) on December 24, 1814. In effect, both sides were required to return provinces they captured in the three-year war. Basically, the pre-war condition of both nations was restored, meaning American failed to attain its pre-war objective of halting British violations of U.S. maritime rights.
Did you know: At some point in time the United States considered declaring war on France as the French navy was also engaged in impressing U.S. merchants?
Napoleon planned to invade Britain before the wars
Britain’s rush to declare war against France wasn’t out of the blue. At that time, Napoleon was already deep in plans to invade Britain by using funds received from the United States after selling the state of Louisiana to the US government.
Over 2 million casualties
By the end of the wars, over 2 million soldiers had died in battle, making it one of Europe’s bloodiest wars. The damages incurred were estimated to have been around €1.2 million and France had pay about €1 million in reparations.
The Wars showcased Napoleon’s excellent military skills
Before the onslaught of the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon was already regarded as an exceptional military tactician. And even before that, he had little to no chances of acquiring this much power due to his family history. However, following the wars, he rose to become one of the world’s most influential military generals with future generals adopting some of his strategies. His biggest victory during the wars happened at the Battle of Austerlitz where he led about 68,000 French officers to defeat 90,000 Austrian and Russian officers. The battle is also called the Battle of the Three Emperors.