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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: Napoleon and America

By Tom Morrow

One might ask “What does the history of French Emperor Napoleon have to do with American history?” A lot – about half of our continental land mass.

Napoleon Bonaparte emerged to become Emperor following the chaos of the French Revolution in the late 1700s.

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,” 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 his short stature and the rank from which he started in the Grand Army.

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 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 middle 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, in 1803, Napoleon sold all of France’s territory to the United States. The prairie land between the Mississippi River from New Orleans, which was France’s Louisiana territory 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 former French 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. Napoleon out-ran his supply lines and being ill-equipped for winter along with Russia’s “scorched earth” tactic (burning everything and then retreating, leaving nothing for the enemy to survive on), In 1812, Napoleon had to retreat from Moscow. 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 off 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.

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.

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.