Napoleon III (Charles-Louis Napoléon Bonaparte; April 20, 1808 – January 9, 1873), the nephew of Napoleon I, was the first president of France, from 1848 to 1852, and the last French monarch, from 1852 to 1870. First elected president of the French Second Republic in 1848, he seized power by force in 1851, when he could not constitutionally be re-elected, and became the emperor of the French. He founded the Second French Empire and was its only emperor until the defeat of the French Army and his capture by Prussia and its allies in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. He worked to modernize the French economy, rebuilt the center of Paris, expanded the French overseas empire, and engaged in the Crimean War and the Second Italian War of Independence.
The Battle of Sedan was a total disaster for the French—the army surrendered to the Prussians and Napoleon himself was made a prisoner of war. MacMahon arrived at Sedan with one hundred thousand soldiers, not knowing that two German armies were closing in on the city (one from the west and one from the east), blocking any escape.
The Germans arrived on August 31, and by September 1, occupied the heights around Sedan, placed batteries of artillery, and began to shell the French positions below. At five o’clock in the morning on September 1, a German shell seriously wounded MacMahon in the hip. Sedan soon came under bombardment from seven hundred German guns. MacMahon’s replacement, General Wimpffen, launched a series of valiant cavalry attacks to try to break the German encirclement, with no success. During the battle and bombardment, the French lost seventeen thousand killed or wounded and twenty-one thousand captured.
As the German shells rained down on the French positions, Napoleon III wandered aimlessly in the open around the French positions. One officer of his military escort was killed and two more received wounds. A doctor accompanying him wrote in his notebook, “If this man has not come here to kill himself, I don’t know what he has come to do. I have not seen him give an order all morning.”
Finally, at one o’clock in the afternoon, Napoleon emerged from his reverie and ordered a white flag hoisted above the citadel. He then had a message sent to the Prussian King, who was at Sedan with his army: “Monsieur my brother, not being able to die at the head of my troops, nothing remains for me but to place my sword in the hands of Your Majesty.”
At six o’clock in the morning on September 2, in the uniform of a general and accompanied by four generals from his staff, Napoleon was taken to the German headquarters at Donchery. He expected to see King Wilhelm I of Prussia but instead he was met by Bismarck and the German commander, General von Moltke. They dictated the terms of the surrender to Napoleon.
Napoleon asked that his army be disarmed and allowed to pass into Belgium, but Bismarck refused. They also asked Napoleon to sign the preliminary documents of a peace treaty, but Napoleon refused, telling them that the French government headed by the Regent, Empress Eugénie, would need to negotiate any peace agreement. The Emperor was then taken to the Chateau at Bellevue near Frénois (Ardennes) [fr], where the Prussian King visited him. Napoleon told the King that he had not wanted the war, but that public opinion had forced him into it. The Prussian king politely agreed.
The news of the capitulation reached Paris on September 3, confirming the rumors that were already circulating in the city. When the news was given to the Empress that the Emperor and the army were prisoners, she reacted by shouting at the Emperor’s personal aide, “No! An Emperor does not capitulate! He is dead!…They are trying to hide it from me. Why didn’t he kill himself! Doesn’t he know he has dishonored himself?!”.
Later, when hostile crowds formed near the palace, and the staff began to flee, the Empress slipped out with one of her entourage and sought sanctuary with her American dentist, who took her to Deauville. From there, on September 7, she took the yacht of a British official to England. On September 4, a group of republican deputies, led by Léon Gambetta, gathered at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris and proclaimed the return of the Republic and the creation of a Government of National Defence. The Second Empire had come to an end.