Abdication, Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria, Battle of Dresden, Emperor Alexander I of Russia, Emperor Napoleon I of the French, Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain, Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon II, War of the Sixth Coalition
Napoleon Bonaparte (August 15, 1769 – May 5, 1821), later known by his regnal name Napoleon I, was a Corsica-born French military commander and political leader who rose to prominence during the French Revolution and led successful campaigns during the Revolutionary Wars.
He was the de facto leader of the French Republic as First Consul from 1799 to 1804, then Emperor of the French from 1804 until 1814 and again in 1815. Napoleon’s political and cultural legacy endures to this day, as a highly celebrated and controversial leader. He initiated many liberal reforms that have persisted in society, and is considered one of the greatest military commanders in history. His campaigns are still studied at military academies worldwide. Between three and six million civilians and soldiers died in what became known as the Napoleonic Wars.
War of the Sixth Coalition
Napoleon assumed command in Germany and inflicted a series of defeats on the Coalition culminating in the Battle of Dresden in August 1813.
Despite these successes, the numbers continued to mount against Napoleon, and the French army was pinned down by a force twice its size and lost at the Battle of Leipzig. This was by far the largest battle of the Napoleonic Wars and cost more than 90,000 casualties in total.
The Allies offered peace terms in the Frankfurt proposals in November 1813. Napoleon would remain as Emperor of the French, but it would be reduced to its “natural frontiers”. That meant that France could retain control of Belgium, Savoy and the Rhineland (the west bank of the Rhine River), while giving up control of all the rest, including all of Spain and the Netherlands, and most of Italy and Germany.
Metternich told Napoleon these were the best terms the Allies were likely to offer; after further victories, the terms would be harsher and harsher. Metternich’s motivation was to maintain France as a balance against Russian threats while ending the highly destabilizing series of wars.
Napoleon, expecting to win the war, delayed too long and lost this opportunity; by December the Allies had withdrawn the offer. When his back was to the wall in 1814 he tried to reopen peace negotiations on the basis of accepting the Frankfurt proposals.
The Allies now had new, harsher terms that included the retreat of France to its 1791 boundaries, which meant the loss of Belgium, but Napoleon would remain Emperor. However, he rejected the term. The British wanted Napoleon permanently removed, and they prevailed, though Napoleon adamantly refused.
Napoleon withdrew into France, his army reduced to 70,000 soldiers and little cavalry; he faced more than three times as many Allied troops. Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s older brother, abdicated as king of Spain on December 13, 1813 and assumed the title of lieutenant general to save the collapsing empire.
The French were surrounded: British armies pressed from the south, and other Coalition forces positioned to attack from the German states. By the middle of January 1814, the Coalition had already entered France’s borders and launched a two-pronged attack on Paris, with Prussia entering from the north, and Austria from the East, marching out of the capitulated Swiss confederation.
The French Empire, however, would not go down so easily. Napoleon launched a series of victories in the Six Days’ Campaign. While they repulsed the coalition forces and delayed the capture of Paris by at least a full month, these were not significant enough to turn the tide.
The coalitionaries camped on the outskirts of the capital on March 29. A day later, they advanced onto the demoralised soldiers protecting the city. Joseph Bonaparte led a final battle at the gates of Paris. They were greatly outnumbered, as 30,000 French soldiers were pitted against a combined coalition force that was 5 times greater than theirs. They were defeated, and Joseph retreated out of the city.
The leaders of Paris surrendered to the Coalition on the last day of March 1814. On April 1, Emperor Alexander I of Russia addressed the Sénat conservateur. Long docile to Napoleon, under Talleyrand’s prodding it had turned against him. Emperor Alexander told the Sénat that the Allies were fighting against Napoleon, not France, and they were prepared to offer honourable peace terms if Napoleon were removed from power. The next day, the Sénat passed the Acte de déchéance de l’Empereur (“Emperor’s Demise Act”), which declared Napoleon deposed.
When Napoleon proposed the army march on the capital, his senior officers and marshals mutinied. On April 4 led by Ney, the senior officers confronted Napoleon. When Napoleon asserted the army would follow him, Ney replied the army would follow its generals.
While the ordinary soldiers and regimental officers wanted to fight on, the senior commanders were unwilling to continue. Without any senior officers or marshals, any prospective invasion of Paris would have been impossible.
Bowing to the inevitable, on April 4 Emperor Napoleon abdicated in favour of his son, Napoleon II, Emperor of the French, with his mother Marie Louise as regent. However, the Allies refused to accept this under prodding from Emperor Alexander, who feared that Napoleon might find an excuse to retake the throne. Napoleon was then forced to announce his unconditional abdication only two days later.