Napoleon Bonaparte: His Successes and Failures


Jani Helle
30 Jan 2001
History – Mackaill

Napoleon Bonaparte His Successes and Failures

Few can deny that Napoleon Bonaparte one of the most brilliant military figures in history. Militarily a very successful man, yet he wasn’t always successful. His successes outweigh his failures greatly. Yet it was these few failures that became his downfall.

Napoleon was born on August 15, 1769, in Ajaccio on the Mediterranean island of Corsica to a family of lower nobility. His father was an anti-French lawyer and as a youth Napoleon despised the French because he saw them as oppressors of his land. One reason for him becoming a conqueror was thought to be that he came from a radical family.
Napoleon was born as Napoleone Buonaparte, a Corsican-Italian, yet he went on to lead France. His home island of Corsica became French territory three months prior to his birth. Napoleon’s father had fought for Corsican independence, but after the French occupied the island in 1768, he served as a prosecutor and judge and entered the French aristocracy as a count. Through his father’s influence, Napoleon was educated at the expense of King Louis XVI, at the École Militaire in Paris. Napoleon graduated in 1785 and at the age of 16 joined the artillery as a second lieutenant. No Bonaparte before him had ever been a professional soldier.
[original high school essay found at please do not copy.]
Napoleon was handed his first opportunity after the Revolution began. During the Revolution many officers of noble background were forced to go into exile. This allowed Napoleon to rise to positions that would have been impossible for him before as he lacked a title or a powerful benefactor. In 1793 he was assigned as a captain to an army attacking Toulon, a naval base that, aided by a British fleet, was in revolt against the republic by the Corsicans. He seized ground where his guns could drive the British fleet from the harbor and Toulon fell. As a result he was promoted to brigadier general at the age of 24 and gave him recognition in the new government of France.

With the fall of Robespierre and the “Reign of Terror”, Napoleon’s career came into jeopardy. Nevertheless, his savior came when he saved the National Convention from an attack by an angry mob. After saving the government, Napoleon was made commander of the French army in Italy. In what was his first big campaign, he defeated four Austrian generals in quick succession and every time the armies against him were bigger and bigger. Yet he defeated them on all occasions. He came within 80 miles of Vienna before the Austrians surrendered. . In the treaty from this campaign, France gained territory and was bale to stretch it’s borders. The Austrian campaign was the first sign of Napoleon’s military genius and an example of the years to come. He became a national hero in France. He had started his conquest to rule Europe

One nail on Napoleon’s coffin was the Royal Navy of Great Britain. Napoleon marched into Egypt in 1798 with his army in an attempt to conquer Egypt and thus cut British trading routes to the Middle-East and India and give the French naval dominance in the Mediterranean. Napoleon easily took over Egypt but as he was conquering Egypt, the British fleet, commanded by Lord Nelson, destroyed the French fleet and left napoleon and his army stranded. Although militarily the Egyptian campaign accomplished little, the French presence in Egypt had great significance in other areas. Napoleon took with him many experts to Egypt to study the artistic and literary treasures of the country. Their most significant find was the Rosetta Stone, the key to understanding ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Because of his failure to accomplish his goals for Egypt, Napoleon returned to France with a handful of his soldiers. To his luck, the French people had not heard of his defeat in Egypt and had been falsely told that it had been a success. This gave him immense support from the French people. Had the people known of his failure when he arrived back in France, there would have been little chance of him ever reaching anywhere near as high as he eventually did.
The Egyptian campaign was not the only time when Napoleon was bested by the Royal Navy. After having his navy annihilated by the British on several occasions, Napoleon decided that invasion of England was impossible as long as the Royal Navy patrolled the waters of England. Great Britain was the only European country that Napoleon did not manage to invade, all thanks to the Royal Navy. Napoleon may have had the greatest army on earth but Great Britain had the greatest navy.
[original high school essay found at please do not copy.]
Upon return in France from his Egyptian failure, Napoleon became aware that the French people were not happy with the Directory and was crying for a new government. What Napoleon did next began his path to success. With two other directors, Napoleon overthrew the Directory and set up the Consulate, with the three men themselves as the Consuls. Napoleon, being the First Consul, was given almost dictatorial powers and after three years he revised the constitution to make him consul for life. The French people didn’t object to it even though it, to some extent, brought France closer to returning back into a monarchy. The French people loved their hero. They loved him even when two years on he crowned himself Napoleon I, Emperor of France.

Militarily Napoleon at this time was an undoubted genius. Fighting was not the only thing he knew how to do. He proved to be a superb civil administrator. In 1802 the English and German states were tired of fighting and signed a peace treaty with France. With all other European countries allied to or under the control of Napoleon, it was the first time since 1792 France was at peace with the whole world. During those 14 months of peace Napoleon drastically changed Europe. One of Napoleon’s greatest achievements was the revision and collection of French laws into codes. Under the Code Napoleon, feudalism and serfdom were abolished, and freedom of religion established everywhere except Spain. Each state was granted a constitution, providing for universal male suffrage and a parliament, and containing a bill of rights. French-style administrative and judicial systems were required. Schools were put under centralized administration, and a system of free education was planned. Higher education was open to all who qualified, regardless of class or religion. Constitutional government remained only a promise, but progress and increased efficiency were widely realized. The Code napoleon became the law in all kingdoms under Napoleon, but it was not until after Napoleon’s fall did the people of Europe fully appreciate the benefits he had given them by giving the continent a common law. Today, the impact of the Code Napoleon is apparent in the law of many European countries.

The one country that Napoleon could never influence or invade was Great Britain. Having experienced that he could not defeat the British because of its superior navy, Napoleon established the Continental System, a French-imposed blockade of Europe against British goods. He figured if he couldn’t beat Great Britain with common warfare, he would do it with economic warfare. This began the sequence of events that led to the weakening of his empire and his demise. Portugal was one of the few countries that defied the Continental System and in 1807 Napoleon seized Portugal, placing his brother Joseph as king of Spain. This set off a rebellion there, which became known as the Peninsular War. Napoleon himself appeared briefly and scored victories, but after his departure the fighting continued for five years, with the British backing Spanish armies and guerrillas. The Peninsular War cost France 300,000 casualties and untold sums of money, and contributed to the eventual weakening of Napoleon’s empire.
[original high school essay found at please do not copy.]
Another country that defied the Continental System was Russia. Being defied, Napoleon set out to conquer Russia with the biggest army Europe had ever seen. He marched on to Russia with half a million soldiers. The Russian army was weak and was easily pushed back. When Napoleon reached Moscow he found it deserted and a fire mysteriously broke out, destroying a large part of the city. With 500,000 to feed and provide shelter for, Napoleon had nothing to do so with. As winter fell upon his army, Napoleon, in humiliation, gave in and began the long, treacherous journey back to France. He returned with 20,000 soldiers by his side, having suffered enormous losses in the cold of the winter. Upon return, he found that his allies and former enemies had taken to the example of Spain and Portugal and began to oppose the empire. With all of Europe united against him, he was forced into exile on the small island of Elba off the coast of Italy where he was allowed to keep his title of emperor and build a small empire. In a year’s time he escaped and marched through France, collecting the support of his former subjects. Napoleon asked peace of the allies, to no avail. The result was a campaign into Belgium, which ended in defeat at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. In Paris, crowds begged him to fight on, but the politicians withdrew their support. Napoleon surrendered and was exiled once again, this time to St Helena, a remote island in the south Atlantic Ocean, where he remained until his death on May 5, 1821.

Although Napoleon was sometimes a tyrant and always dictatorial or authoritarian, he and his army spread the Code Napoleon into every country within his empire. He was also an enlightened monarch, a concept that did not fit the time. Napoleon’s influence is evident in France even today. Reminders of Napoleon are everywhere in Paris, the most notable of them being the Arc de Triomphe, which was built to honor his victories. France’s basic law is still the Code Napoleon, and the administrative and judicial systems are still essentially Napoleonic. Napoleon’s radical changes of Europe in his time laid the groundwork for the revolutions of the 19th century.

Napoleon had a dream that he would be the next Alexander the Great. And he came close achieving the same as Alexander. Both extended the Where Alexander the Great had spread Hellenism into the lands he conquered, Napoleon introduced an enlightened government and society into the lands he conquered. Though both men fought great enemies, Napoleon ran into an enemy that Alexander the Great never faced. The enemy that brought on the harshest blow to Napoleon was winter. A military genius who had conquered most of mainland Europe fell to the bitter Russian winter, an enemy he hadn’t thought about.
[original high school essay found at please do not copy.]
At St Helena, Napoleon said, “Waterloo will erase the memory of all my victories”. He was wrong. For better or worse, he is best remembered as a general and a military genius, not for his enlightened government. Not to say that the latter should be omitted from the history books or have less significant importance. Quite the opposite. Had Napoleon not spread the enlightened government around mainland Europe, Europe, and in turn the rest of the world, would probably not be what it is today and we might still be living through major revolutions in Europe.

This essay was written by Jani Helle in 2001 for a high school history class. No guarantees can be given for historical accuracy as this is not a peer reviewed piece of work, although the essay was well researched. For your own sake, do not use as a reference. Original essay at