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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Rise and Fall of Napoleon

By Tom Morrow

Just as the power of Adolf Hitler was created following World War I by the Treaty of Versailles, which left Germany stripped of its military, manufacturing, and national pride, plunging it into economy chaos, Napoleon Bonaparte emerged as emperor of France following the chaos of the French Revolution.

After King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were executed, chaos reigned over France. Neighboring nations such as Austria, Prussia (Germany), Spain, and Great Britain declared war on France. After the Revolution’s “Reign of Terror” during which much of France’s aristocracy and leaders had been executed or imprisoned, a young artillery officer quickly rose through the ranks capturing the hearts of his countrymen much as he had overwhelmed his enemies on the field of battle. Napoleon was quick to capitalize on his popularity. He became known as “The Little Corporal,” which referred to where he started in the Grand Army and his short stature.

Firmly in control of the army, which meant he controlled the nation, in 1804, Napoleon was crowned Emperor of France. During the coronation ceremony in Paris’ historic Notre Dame cathedral, the Little Corporal did something that shocked everyone witnessing the ceremony: just as the pope was about to place the crown on his head, Napoleon grabbed it and put it on himself. He would later explain that no mortal man was above the Emperor, so how could anyone but Napoleon himself place the crown?

With Napoleon firmly in control of what would soon become the most powerful army in Europe, France went on the offensive, conquering nearly all of Europe and much of Russia. Because of early explorers and fur trappers, France controlled half of what is today the continental United States, plus much of the middle portion of settled Canada. The only thing stopping him from complete European domination was the British Royal Navy, the most powerful in the world. In order to raise money to build up his army and navy, Napoleon sold all of France’s territory to the United States in 1803. The prairie land between the Mississippi River, from New Orleans, which was France’s Louisiana capital city, north and west to the Rockies and Canada were included. It became known as “The Louisiana Purchase.” The selling price was a staggering $15 million, less than 3 cents an acre. Today, nearly all of this land produces enough food to feed millions of people around the world.
In 1805, Napoleon lost a critical sea battle at Cape Trafalgar off the coast of Spain. Realizing his Grand Army could never cross the English Channel as long as the Royal Navy controlled the seas, Napoleon marched his Grand Army across Europe, invading Russia. Just as Hitler would do a century and a half later, Napoleon over reached his capabilities. He out-ran his supply lines, and being ill-equipped for winter, the weather and Russia’s “scorched earth” tactic (burning everything and then retreating, leaving nothing for the enemy to survive on), Napoleon had to retreat from Moscow in 1812.   Napoleon was harassed and attacked by Cossacks all during the retreat to the Russian border. He entered Russia with 600,000 troops, but only 40,000 survived to return home.

Napoleon returned to France where he was stripped of his crown and exiled to Elba, a small, desolate Mediterranean island off the coast of Italy. Napoleon was given a personal guard of 600 French troops, but the sea around Elba was patrolled by the Royal Navy. He managed to escape and return to power. In 1815, Napoleon led his reorganized Grand Army against the British and the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo in present-day Belgium.

Once again in defeat he was stripped of his power and exiled to the even smaller and more desolate British-owned island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic of the coast of Africa where he died mysteriously on or before May 15, 1821. It’s long been a debate whether he died of natural causes or was murdered. This is one of history’s great mysteries.

ONE MORE THING — Napoleon’s influence is still around us today. Every nation Napoleon conquered or controlled drives its vehicles on the right side of the road. The British drive on the left side of road. The reason has been argued, but the most common explanation is that Napoleon wanted his cavalry to be able draw their swords and fight as they road down a road with the weapon on the “outside of the column, instead of the inside. It makes sense if everyone was right-handed. Still, like his death, no one knows for sure.   And, why you ask, do we, as well as Canada, Mexico and Latin America drive on the right? Remember, France at one time controlled half of Canada before the British took it away from them. Mexico and all of South America were conquered by Spain and Portugal, both of whom were allies of France. As far as the United States is concerned, I figure it was just contrariness on the part of our Founding Fathers not to stay on the left, but take the right course.    Ask any Brit today and they’ll explain, “You Americans drive on the right side of the road, whereas we British drive on the ‘correct’ side of the road.


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