The Era of Napoleon Bonaparte Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Eighteenth century warfare prior to the 1789 French Revolution had been shaped by the political, social, and economic conditions of the day.

Political Considerations

Eighteenth century warfare prior to the 1789 French Revolution had been shaped by the political, social, and economic conditions of the day. Wars were fought over narrow dynastic issues by small Professional militaries;Europeanprofessional armies. These armies were composed of soldiers from the lowest levels of society, commanded by aristocratic officers. Casualties were kept to a minimum, because each soldier represented a major investment of state resources, and battles fought using rigid linear tactics were seldom decisive. However, the French French Revolution (1789-1793)Revolution dramatically altered the basis of eighteenth century warfare. The revolution opened the way for an era of mass armies and full national mobilization and set in motion the transformation of France from a royal kingdom to a modern nation-state. The revolution enabled France to institute the Levée en masse (French draft)[Levee en masse]levée en masse, aDrafts;Francedraft of citizen soldiers that supplied unprecedented levels of manpower for military service. To support this enlarged French army, the revolutionary government was compelled to mobilize the economic resources of the nation fully. After 1792, faced with the threat of internal counterrevolution and foreign intervention, France became a nation at arms; a full national response was needed to save the revolution from its many enemies. Armies increased dramatically in size, higher casualty rates became acceptable, and war became more decisive and total.Napoleon INapoleon I (Bonaparte)[Napoleon 01]Napoleon I (Bonaparte)[Napoleon 01]France;nineteenth century

Revolutionary France could afford neither the expensive professional armies that were the hallmarks of the old style of warfare nor the time needed to train rough conscripts in the ways of rigid eighteenth century linear warfare. The revolution served to undermine the traditional aristocratic officers’ corps. In the place of the old royal army, a new national army was formed, composed of conscript citizen-soldiers commanded by officers who advanced through their talent rather than their titles. The poor economic conditions in France produced armies that had to survive on the fruit of the countryside rather than depend on long baggage trains with overstretched lines of communication. The benefit of this otherwise unfortunate sitation was that the French army gained greater speed and mobility. The new armies of revolutionary France dominated the battlefields of Europe and won victory after victory. It took the military genius of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), emperor of France from 1804 to 1814, to realize the full potential of this new type of warfare.

Between 1792 and 1815 seven anti-French coalitions were formed by Great Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia. France’s dynastic opponents had little choice but to follow the French military example or face defeat. With the exception of Great Britain, all the great powers copied the French military system to a greater or lesser degree. With its chief reliance on sea power, Britain remained conservative in its military thinking and committed to linear warfare fought by a small professional army. This system proved remarkably successful against the French in Spain and later against Napoleon at Waterloo, Battle of (1815)Waterloo. The combination of British financial resources and command of the sea made Great Britain;nineteenth centuryBritain the central power in the resistance to France’s imperial ambitions. In the end, Napoleon’s goal of achieving European mastery proved beyond the resources of France in the face of determined resistance by the other great powers.

Following Napoleon’s downfall, the armies of Europe largely reverted to the traditional pattern of long-service professional armies. The conservative political and social order reasserted itself across Europe. While the nobility continued to dominate the ranks of the officers’ corps in many armies, they did so to a lesser degree. With the reduction of foreign troops so widely employed in the armies of the eighteenth century, the rank-and-file soldiers of the nineteenth century chiefly served in the armies of their respective nations. A period of relative peace settled over Europe after Napoleon’s defeat. No wars on the scope and scale of the French Revolutionary Wars French Revolution (1789-1793)(1792-1802) or the Napoleonic Wars Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815)(1803-1815) were waged. Nevertheless, the rise of modern nationalism and the spread of industrialization in the nineteenth century laid the foundations for the total world wars of the twentieth.

Military Achievement

The foundations for the age of Napoleon were laid by the French Revolution, which is widely considered to have begun with the storming of the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The Napoleonic Era ushered in a revolution in warfare: No longer was military power limited by the economic, political, and social conditions of the eighteenth century. The French Revolution produced the age of National warfarenational warfare, in which the near-total resources of a nation were placed into pursuit of victory. Not only were large pools of manpower mobilized, but civilian resources were also tapped. War became more mobile, more destructive, and more decisive. To a large degree, the elements of this new type of warfare were in place prior to Napoleon’s rise to power. Prerevolutionary military thinkers in the French royal army had published writings advocating change, and the various revolutionary governments of France had swept away the old army, opening the way for new military innovations. Apart from substantially improved artillery, the weapons used by armies of the Napoleonic period had changed little since the start of the eighteenth century. Key to the changes in warfare were the overall changes produced by an age of revolution. France’s opponents had little choice but to adopt the new way of war or face defeat. The armies of Britain, France, Austria, Prussia, and Russia would decide the fate of Europe on the battlefield.

Selected Battle Sites in the Napoleonic Wars

Considered one of the most gifted generals in history, Napoleon dominated this period in the history of warfare. The French Revolution provided him with the tools of success and opened the way for his rise to power. Napoleon personally embodied the motto of careers open to talent. He fought nearly fifty pitched battles and won most of them. More than one hundred years after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, generals were still trying to copy his achievements. The stress on offensive operations became the accepted road to victory for all military establishments with the goal of quick decisive victories on the battlefield. It should be noted that the Napoleonic era also produced a number of capable generals other than Napoleon, including Louis-NicolasDavout, Louis-NicolasDavout, Louis-NicolasDavout (1770-1823) and André Masséna, AndréMasséna, André[Massena, Andre]Masséna (1758-1817), two of Napoleon’s own marshals, as well as Arthur Wellington, duke ofWellington, duke of (Arthur Wellesley)Wellesley, the duke of Wellington (1769-1852), Archduke Charles, archduke of AustriaCharles, archduke of AustriaCharles of Austria (1771-1847), and Russian prince and field marshal Mikhail IllarionovichKutuzov, Mikhail IllarionovichKutuzov, Mikhail IllarionovichKutuzov (1745-1813). This period, with the introduction of systematic military education, ushered in the beginning of military Professional militaries;Napoleonic eraprofessionalism. In 1802 the Royal Military Royal Military CollegeMilitary educationCollege was opened at Sandhurst, England; WestWest PointPoint was established in the United States in the same year; in 1808 St.St. Cyr (French military academy)[Saint Cyr]Cyr opened in France; and Prussia’s war academy, the Allgemeine Allgemeine Kriegsschule (Prussian military academy)Kriegsschule, was created in 1810.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

The Armor;nineteenth centuryUniforms;nineteenth centurybattles of Napoleonic era were noisy, Smoke;on the battlefield[battlefield]smoky affairs with the discharge of a great deal of black powder. Battlefields were often covered in dense, black smoke that limited visibility. A soldier in combat could rarely see much beyond the few yards in front of him as a battle unfolded. The primary infantry weapon of the period was the Smoothbore weaponssmoothbore, muzzle-loading, FlintlocksMusketsflintlock musket. The most famous muskets of the period were the British Brown Brown Bess (musket)Bess and French Model Model 1777 musket1777. These weapons had changed little from the beginning of the eighteenth century; all were highly inaccurate and unreliable, with an effective range of 300 yards. The caliber of the weapons varied widely, and their low rate of accuracy made a high rate of volley fire essential. Army manuals of the day often stressed that soldiers should concentrate on rapid fire over aim. A well-trained soldier could produce a rate of fire of three shots per minute. Misfires in battle were common. Each soldier carried an angular sleeve Bayonetsbayonet that varied between 15 and 18 inches in length. The bayonet was used for shock on the battlefield and rarely for hand-to-hand combat. In addition to the smoothbore musket, soldiers were equipped with muzzle-loading rifles. RiflesRifles had greater accuracy than muskets but had a substantially reduced rate of fire of ten shots in ten minutes. Muskets were the chief weapon of the line infantry. Rifles were employed chiefly by light infantry units for skirmishing.

French uniforms during the Napoleonic period (from left): for infantry, grenadiers, and cavalry.

(North Wind Picture Archives via AP Images)

Cavalry relied upon the saber and, to a limited extent, the lance. Cavalry;nineteenth centuryCavalry units were divided into light and heavy formations. Light cavalry was used for reconnaissance and security and carried curved swords for cutting. Heavy cavalry was used to break the line of enemy infantry and carried longer and straighter sabers.

The lance was most effective against infantry or retreating cavalry. Short carbines and pistols supplemented the sabers, swords, and lances. Little armor was used in the Napoleonic era. Heavy cavalrymen known as Cuirassierscuirassiers were equipped with partial body armor that covered the upper part of the torso. They also wore helmets, gauntlets, and heavy leather boots. The evidence would suggest that such body armor offered its wearer little protection.

Artillery Artillery;Napoleonic eraduring the Napoleonic era was, along with the infantry and the cavalry, one of the three main combat branches of the army. The effective use of artillery could often decide the outcome of a battle. Guns were divided into siege and field Cannons;Napoleonic eracannons. Prior to the French Revolution, artillery improvement had stood as the most important single advance in military technology. During this time, artillery pieces were made lighter and more mobile, so that they could be quickly concentrated on the battlefield wherever they were most needed. Artillery varied from the largest pieces, weighing more than 2,000 pounds and shooting 12-pound balls with ranges up to 900 yards, to smaller and lighter Howitzershowitzers with ranges of more than 500 yards. Teams of draft Horses and horse riding;Napoleonic erahorses were used to pull artillery pieces into action. Six horses were required to pull a heavy 12-pounder. Teams of four horses were required for the smaller 8- and 4-pounders. Three different projectiles were used. Round shot composed of a solid iron ball was the most widely used type of projectile. It was particularly effective against men lined up in dense formations. Explosive shells were fired by howitzers. For close work, canisters composed of many smaller iron balls in a metal casing were used to great effect against infantry. The British also used Shrapnelshrapnel or spherical cases packed with balls in an exploding shell. A unique artillery weapon was the Congreve Rockets;Napoleonic erarocket, invented by British artillerist Sir William Congreve, WilliamCongreve, WilliamCongreve (1772-1828) in 1808. The rocket, weighing between 5 and 32 pounds, produced much noise but proved highly inaccurate and unreliable in battle.

After the Napoleonic Wars, the percussion Caps, percussioncap replaced the flintlock in firearms. The percussion cap allowed for a much greater rate of fire and fewer misfires. By 1849 Claude-Étienne Minié (1804-1879) of the French army had invented a conical-pointed cylindrical bullet called the Minié ball for muzzle-loading rifles, which provided increased rates of fire, accuracy, and range. With the Minié Minié balls[Minie balls]ball, killing range on the battlefield went from 100 to 400 yards. The rifled musket came to replace the smoothbore musket as the chief infantry weapon by the time of the American Civil War American Civil War (1861-1865)(1861-1865).

The advance of Industrialization;weapons manufactureindustrialization in the first half of the nineteenth century had a significant impact on military affairs. Introduction of the system of interchangeable parts made the mass production of weapons possible. Industrialization and the development of the steam locomotive had given rise to the development of the railroad by the 1820’s. RailroadsRailroads revolutionized warfare by providing armies with greater mobility and speed. The shift in military technology from smoothbore muskets to rifled muskets was not accompanied by a similar change in tactics on the battlefield. The consequences would be the heavy casualty rates of the American Civil War. Technological developments began to shift the battlefield advantage from offensive to defensive operations.

Although the Napoleonic period is often remembered for its elaborate uniforms, the reality was frequently far from ideal. Most troops, except for certain elite groups such as guard formations, had to make do with whatever clothing they could get. Few soldiers were ever fully outfitted in regulation uniforms. The scope of Napoleonic warfare placed great strain on governments’ abilities to produce enough clothing for the needs of European armies. At times, even in the best-regulated armies, soldiers wore civilian gear.

Military Organization

Prior to the French Revolution, innovators in the old royal army introduced the practice of organizing armies into Division (army unit)divisions that contained both artillery and infantry. Later, after the revolution, the divisional organization that contained infantry, cavalry, and artillery was introduced. Each division was capable of independent operations, greater speed, and increased mobility. In effect, each division functioned as a mini-army combining all three combat arms. By the time of Napoleon, with larger armies reaching numbers of 200,000 or more soldiers, divisions were grouped into corps for administrative purposes and for better command and control. Each division was organized into two or three infantry Brigade (army unit)brigades of two regiments each and one brigade of artillery composed of two batteries. Corps (army unit)Corps were made up of two to four divisions under a single commander. Most armies followed the French organizational pattern. Nevertheless, the British army was still organized into independent brigades until 1807, when they followed the French model and adopted divisional organization. For the ill-fated Russian campaign, Napoleon organized his vast army into three army groups composed of two to three corps each.

Napoleon, mounted on a white horse, at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805.

(The S. S. McClure Company)
Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

Prior to the French Revolution, warfare had focused on avoiding costly, uncertain battles. The object of war was not to destroy the enemy but to achieve limited objectives with limited means. The French Revolution ushered in an era of total Total warAttack as strategywarfare, in which the objective became the destruction of the opposing force. With the advent of mass armies and the concept of the nation-at-arms, war grew in scope and scale. Military doctrine, strategy, and tactics reflected this change. The emergence of new military formations, especially the division and army corps, and the old concept of combined Combined armsarms, or blending infantry, artillery, and cavalry together on the battlefield, made Napoleonic warfare possible.

Inspiration also came from the campaigns of King Frederick the Frederick II the GreatFrederick II the Great (king of Prussia)[Frederick 02]Great (1712-1786) of Prussia, who stressed speed and mobility in war. Many of the ideals applied in the Napoleonic era were rooted in the writings of prerevolutionary French military thinkers such as Maurice of Saxe, Maurice, comte deSaxe, Maurice, comte deSaxony (1696-1750), Pierre-Joseph de Bourcet, Pierre-Joseph deBourcet, Pierre-Joseph deBourcet (1700-1780), and François-Appollini de Guibert, François-Appollini de Guibert, François-Appollini de Guibert (1744-1790), among others. Although many of the elements of Napoleonic warfare had been present prior to the French Revolution, they were not fully realized until the time of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

Napoleonic warfare stressed quick decisions and decisive battles achieved by destruction of enemy field forces. The goal was to destroy the opponent’s state of balance and will to fight while achieving economy of force in the pursuit of particular political goals. Better roadways and the combined arms divisional formation made this type of warfare feasible. Prior to the beginning of a campaign, detailed Strategic planningplanning was conducted in order to leave little to chance. Alternative plans were also made to allow for the accommodation of changing circumstances. Flexibility, mobility, and opportunity were stressed. Once the campaign was under way, efforts were made to maintain good field security to conceal the intentions of the attacker from the enemy. Deception;Napoleonic eraDeception was often used. A cavalry screen was placed forward to disguise the line of operations and the makeup of the army. Each unit would march in self-contained divisions by different routes, staying within one or two days’ marching distance from each other. Once contact was made with the opposing army, rapid, concerted effort took place, with the goal of achieving superior force on the battlefield and a quick victory. At this tactic, Napoleon stood out as the greatest strategist of the time; no other commander equaled his abilities.

Limitations of the weapons of the day determined battlefield tactics. From the onset of the French Revolutionary Wars, France relied on the Column (marching formation)column for attack. The often poorly trained citizen soldiers of France initially lacked the discipline and training to fight in the linear formation that was the standard for all other European armies. At first, large numbers of Skirmishingskirmishers would be placed in front of the attacking column. Napoleon came to rely increasingly on huge attack columns with a reduced number of skirmishers out front. One by one, except for the British, the other European powers followed the French example. Britain retained the line that was often formed into two ranks. The combination of steady troops, well trained in rapid musket fire, and the greater firepower offered by the line over the column accounts for the Duke of Wellington’s victories over the French in Spain and at Waterloo. The British soldiers were noted for their ability to load and fire quickly on the battlefield. Wellington, duke ofWellington, duke of (Arthur Wellesley)Wellington usually preferred to fight on ground, the reverse slope, which offered the best protection from artillery fire and masked portions of his army from the enemy. Confident in the steadfastness of his troops and in the superiority of the line that offered greater firepower over the attack column, Wellington was perhaps the only general of the era not intimidated by the new French tactical system.

Napoleon (center) examines a group of French soldiers at the Battle of Jena in 1806.

(Library of Congress)

The advances in artillery allowed for greater battlefield mobility and concentration. Light cavalry units were used in scouting and skirmishing roles. Heavy cavalry was used on the battlefield for its shock impact. The chief defenses against cavalry were concentrated artillery fire and the formation of infantry units into squares such as those employed by the British at Waterloo.

Contemporary Sources

The two most influential military thinkers of the period were Swiss soldier Antoine-Henri de Jomini, Antoine-Henri deJomini, Antoine-Henri deJomini (1779-1869) and Prussian army officer Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831). Each of these men provided influential interpretations of Napoleonic warfare. Jomini had served on the military staff of Napoleon and that of Russian czar Alexander Alexander IAlexander I (czar of Russia)[Alexander 01]I (1777-1825) as well. His most influential work, Précis de l’art de la guerre (1838; Summary of the Art of War, Summary of the Art of War (Jomini) 1868), came to be widely used by all Western armies. In it Jomini sought to identify what he saw as the unchanging principles of war by studying the conduct of military campaigns. He laid great stress on seizing the opponent’s lines of communication. Once that had been achieved, a successful battle would follow, because the victorious army would have the overall strategic advantage as well as superior manpower and matériel. Jomini’s writing, with its stress on unalterable principles of war, tended to prevent a careful review of the changing circumstances of nineteenth century warfare.

Clausewitz Clausewitz, Carl vonClausewitz, Carl vonserved in the Prussian army against Napoleon and went on to become the head of the Allgemeine Kriegsschule, the Prussian war college. His famous philosophical reflections on war were published after his death under the title of On War (Clausewitz) Vom Kriege (1832-1834; On War, 1873). Clausewitz argued that war was in fact a political act in which the chief goal was total victory. Unlike Jomini, Clausewitz rejected the ideal of unchanging principles of war. He argued that the conduct of war always changed due to new technological advances and altered circumstances. He contended that the main objective in war should be the destruction of the enemy’s military forces. The ideals of Clausewitz had their greatest impact in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Napoleon, the greatest soldier of the era, never wrote in a systematic way about his art of war. His writings and remarks were formed into a collection of a little more than one hundred maxims that served as the closest expression of his ideals of tactics and strategy.Napoleon INapoleon I (Bonaparte)[Napoleon 01]France;nineteenth century

Books and Articles
  • Addington, Larry H. The Patterns of War Since the Eighteenth Century. 2d ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
  • Bell, David A. The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
  • Black, Jeremy. “Revolutionary and Napoleonic Warfare.” In European Warfare, 1453-1815, edited by Black. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
  • Bruce, Robert B., et al. Fighting Techniques of the Napoleonic Age, 1792-1815: Equipment, Combat Skills, and Tactics. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2008.
  • Chandler, David. On the Napoleonic Wars. London: Greenhill Books, 1999.
  • Doughty, Robert A., and Ira Gruber. Warfare in the Western World: Military Operations from 1600 to 1871. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1996.
  • Esposito, Vincent J. A., and John R. Elting. Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars. New York, Praeger, 1964. Reprint. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1999.
  • Gates, David. “The Napoleonic Era and Its Legacy.” In Warfare in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
  • Isemonger, Paul Lewis, and Christopher Scott. The Fighting Man: The Soldier at War from the Age of Napoleon to the Second World War. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 1998.
  • Keegan, John. Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda. London: Hutchinson, 2003.
  • McNab, Chris, ed. Armies of the Napoleonic Wars: An Illustrated History. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2009.
  • Muir, Rory. Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998.
  • Paret, Peter, ed. Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986.
  • Pois, Robert A., and Philip Langer. “Napoleon in Russia, 1812.” In Command Failure in War: Psychology and Leadership. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.
  • Rothenberg, Gunther E. The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.
  • Weigley, Russell Frank. “The Climax of Napoleonic War: To Austerlitz and Jena-Auerstadt.” In The Age of Battles. 1991 Reprint. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.
  • Weller, Jac. On Wellington: The Duke and His Art of War. London: Greenhill Books, 1998.
Films and Other Media
  • Biography: The Great Commanders: Napoleon Bonaparte. Documentary. Biography Channel, 1998.
  • The Duellists. Feature film. Enigma Productions, 1977.
  • Foot Soldier: The Napoleonic Soldier. Documentary. A&E Home Video, 1998.
  • Horatio Hornblower. Television series, Meridian Productions, 1998-2003.
  • Master and Commander. Film. Twentieth Century Fox, 2003.
  • Napoleon and Wellington. Documentary. A&E Home Video, 1999.
  • Waterloo. Feature film. Paramount Pictures, 1970.

European Wars of Religion

The Era of Gustavus Adolphus

The Era of Frederick the Great

The Crimean War

The American Civil War

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