Friday, April 12, 2013

Great Moments in Stupidity: Napoleon Bonaparte (Round Three)

Napoleon's fortunes took an immediate turn for the better as soon as his Corsican feet were back on French soil. The French government had been doing a little trash-talking regarding the rest of Europe and, as a consequence, had talked itself into a put up or shut up situation with Europe in general and the Austrians in particular, who had recaptured Italy while Napoleon and the French Army had been on their extended tour of the Holy Land.

Fortunately for France, the Austrians were willing to call the fight a draw if French would stop causing trouble for the rest of Europe. In one of those rarest of moments since the beginning of the Revolution, common sense managed to gain a tenuous foothold on the minds of the French leadership, who decided to go along with the Austrians. This sudden pacifist sentiment on the part of the French was not so much based on the desire for peace and harmony as it was the fact that France was bankrupt (again) and would have been hard pressed to field a herd of cattle, much less an army.
By the time Napoleon had made his way to Paris, a plot had formed that would overthrow the Directory and replace it with a committee composed of M. Sieyės, Lucien Bonaparte (Napoleon's brother), Roger Ducose, and Charles Maurice de Talleyrand. The only thing that the planned coup didn't have was a military commander, a problem that resolved itself when Napoleon Bonaparte hopped on the bandwagon. Although M. Sieyės had expected to be the dominant power in the new government he was quickly out maneuvered by Napoleon who, in turn, was given the title First Consul of France. This title proved to be only temporary because after 2 years Napoleon had the French Constitution changed to allow his appointment as First Consul of France for Life.
Napoleon, like any competent dictator, knew that the best way to unite an otherwise divided citizenry was to provide them with the threat of a common enemy. Since the Austrians had nosed their way back into Italy while Napoleon was fighting in Africa, they became the demon that Napoleon would exorcise in the name of the People and the Glory of France. Since the Austrians seemed to have learned little from their first defeat at the hands of Napoleon, this was quickly accomplished. But then a new problem arose, this time in the New World.
By 1803 France's New World colony of Haiti was in the midst of a full rebellion which was being led by a former slave named Toussaint L'Ouverture, who seems to have no lost love between himself and his former French masters. To deal with the problem Napoleon dispatched a force of French Marines, who were promptly defeated by a combination of former slaves and a mysterious illness known as Yellow Fever. Realizing that sooner or later he would be at war with Great Britain, whose navy would make it virtually impossible to maintain its colonies, Napoleon directed his former co-conspirator Talleyrand to strike a deal with the Americans regarding the sale of whatever territory the Americans wanted to buy. The Americans emerged from the French yard sale with the purchase of the Louisiana Territory at a price of some 3 cents per acre, which gave Napoleon enough money to raise an army that would eventually control most of Europe.
Napoleon wasted no time putting the money to what he considered to be a good use, which was preparing to invade England. These plans went onto the back burner when his old nemesis from the days of his Egyptian campaign, Horatio Nelson, turned the French Navy into a fleet of 19th century submarines at the Battle of Trafalgar. Since barges filled with French soldiers would be easy targets for the English Navy, Napoleon abandoned his plans to invade England but, instead of waiting for a more favorable time start a military campaign, ordered his troops to march into Russia.
As any student of history will be more than happy to point out, winter is not the time of year to invade anything, much less Russia, which is a country that is separated from the North Pole by only a wooden fence. The Russian Army may not have been up to the task of defeating the French, but with the Russian winter, who needs an army? Napoleon marched into Russian territory with about 650,000 men under his command. When he finally retreated due to concerns that he was losing control back home in France, there were only about 40,000 survivors of the Russian Campaign. And, to add to his problems, Napoleon had to return over territories that he his men had plundered on the way into Russia, which did not exactly endear the French to the local populations.
After the disastrous Russian invasion, Napoleon was able to win a few battles but the costs in lives and money had sapped France of its ability to fight on. Realizing that he had finally been defeated, Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated his position as ruler of France and was exiled to the Island of Elba, near the coast of Italy.
But, as the old saying goes, "You ain't seen nothing yet."

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