Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Corsica in 1769 and was trained in France as an engineer and artilleryman. In the army he rose from the rank of second lieutenant in the artillery to general in command of the French army in Italy (1796-97) and in Egypt (1798-99). Returning to France, he helped seize power to become First Consul (there were 2 others). In 1804, he crowned himself Emperor of the French. War with Britain resumed in 1803, soon involving other European countries as well, and this struggle lasted until 1814. Napoleon abdicated in April and was exiled to Elba, but returned to France in February 1815. His reign and the Napoleonic Wars ended with his defeat at Waterloo 18 June 1815.
Napoleonic Wars in Europe
As a military leader Napoleon combined energy, imagination, and speed of movement to repeatedly defeat Austrian, Prussian and Russian armies. He forced the rulers of those countries and others to sign treaties recognizing his conquests and supporting his economic warfare against Britain. The British, while financing continental allies with subsidies, relied on their navy for protection against invasion and to wage war by seizing French overseas territories, blockading European ports controlled by Napoleon, and maintaining forces in the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal and Spain).
Napoleon showed his intention to dominate all Europe by creating puppet states, making his brothers kings in neighbouring countries with himself King of Italy. In 1807 he invaded Portugal (ally of Britain) and used his troops in Spain to force its king to abdicate so he could replace him with his brother Joseph. The result was a sudden and widespread uprising of the people against French occupation, which led to bitter guerrilla warfare that tied down thousands of French troops in the Iberian Peninsula. This Peninsular War had consequences throughout the wide overseas empires of Portugal and Spain.
For many years the British blockade cut off the Spanish-American colonies from their European master and made them dependent on English trade for European goods, which contributed to their successful struggle for independence. Faced with the mounting financial pressures of incessant warfare, in 1803 Napoleon sold to the US the Louisiana Territory, the entire western drainage basin of the Mississippi River, precluding a French West in that part of North America. The acquisition doubled the size of the US land mass, and in many areas displaced Native Americans or destroyed their way of life.
Britain gained mastery of the seas from Nelson's naval victory at Trafalgar 21 Oct 1805. In response to the Royal Navy's blockade, Napoleon's Berlin and Milan Decrees (1806-07) closed the ports of western Europe to British ships as well as to neutral ones if they had previously been to a British port, beginning what was called the Continental System. Britain responded with a series of orders-in-council (1807) that imposed severe restrictions on neutral vessels seeking to trade with continental ports. Many of the neutral ships were American and the result was increasing Anglo-American antagonism that led to the American declaration of war on Britain on 18 June 1812 (WAR OF 1812).
Effect of the Napoleonic Wars on Canada
The European wars greatly stimulated the export economy of the Canadas (Upper and Lower) and the Maritimes, for they provided a secure source of timber needed in enormous quantities by Britain's navy, the American Revolution having left the supply from the former Atlantic colonies uncertain and the Continental System having closed the Baltic. The result was development of the Canadian forest industry, especially in New Brunswick, accompanied by some growth of the trade in grain. The Canadian colonies also benefited from unstoppable smuggling during the war with the US, for Americans brought supplies across the border to sell and sought to buy British goods.
After Napoleon's exile to St Helena, a legend of his glorious reign and military genius became stamped upon this period of history. Portraits of him in uniform with right hand tucked into his vest, a portraiture convention of the time, are instantly recognizable.
Author WES TURNER
Links to Other Sites
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
The War of 1812: An Introduction
An overview of the complex international issues that eventually led to the onset of hostilities between Great Britain and the United States. Also, click on “Chronology of Events” on the left side menu to view a timeline of interrelated political and military events in North America and Europe. From the "War of 1812 Website."
Battle of the Châteauguay National Historic Site of Canada
This site offers a summary of issues that precipitated the War of 1812 as well as details of the role of British commander Charles-Michel d’Irumberry de Salaberry in the 1813 Battle of the Châteauguay. From Parks Canada.
Sir George Prevost
A biography of Sir George Prevost, army officer and colonial administrator. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
Napoleonic Wars and the Economy
A brief account of the economic impact of the Napoleonic Wars on Newfoundland and Labrador. From the website heritage.nf.ca.
Frigates and Foremasts
This page provides a synopsis of "Frigates and Foremasts," a book about Royal Navy operations in North America from 1745 to 1815. Scroll down to "Sample Chapter" and click on the link to read the Preface to this book. From the website for UBC Press.
The Napoleon Series
An extensive online resource that offers studies and reports about major international events during the Napoleonic Era. In the "select" window at the top of the page, click on "Military Section" for a listing of articles and other features relating to Napoleonic-era military conflicts.
John Coape Sherbrooke
A biography of John Coape Sherbrooke, army officer and colonial administrator. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
The Duke of Wellington, the Peninsular War and the War of 1812
An article about the significant, but rarely discussed, connections between the Napoleonic Wars and the outbreak of the War of 1812 in North America.