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The Napoleonic Wars, 1799-1815

The Napoleonic Wars were a continuation of the wars of the French Revolution, in which the Habsburgs and other European dynasties combined in an effort to overthrow the revolutionary government of France and restore the rule of the French monarchy.


Between 1793 and 1797, France fought against an alliance consisting of Austria, Prussia, Great Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, and Sardinia.

Between 1796 and 1797, Napoleon Bonaparte was entrusted by the Directory with conducting military operations against Austrian forces in northern Italy. He was subsequently made the leader of an expedition to conquer Egypt as a base for future attack against the British possession of India (1798-1799).


Napoleon's success in his northern Italian campaign put an end to the First Coalition. During his absence in Egypt, however, a new alliance of European nations was formed, on December 24, 1798; this alliance comprised Russia, Great Britain, Austria, the kingdom of Naples, Portugal, and the Ottoman Empire.

Italian Campaign

The Austrians and Russians, under the leadership of Russian General Count Aleksandr Suvorov, defeated the French in the battles of Magnano (April 5, 1799), Cassano (April 27), the Trebbia (June 17-19), and Novi (August 15). They also captured Milan; put an end to the Cisalpine Republic, which had been formed under French auspices in 1797; and occupied Turin.

Swiss Campaign

After a defeat at Zürich (June 4-7, 1799) by Charles Louis John, Archduke of Austria, French forces under General André Masséna defeated a Russian army under General Alexander Korsakov (September 26).

Having defeated the French in Italy, Count Suvorov led his forces across the Alps to join those of Korsakov in Switzerland, but arrived too late. He himself was forced to take refuge in the mountains of the canton of Grisons, where, during the early fall, his army was practically destroyed by cold and starvation.

On October 22, 1798, alleging lack of cooperation by the Austrians, the Russians withdrew from the Second Coalition.

In November 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte, by now a member of the Consulate, offered to make peace with the Allies, but they refused.

Italian and Austrian Campaigns

Napoleon crossing the AlpsAfter the Allies refused his offer of peace, Napoleon planned a series of moves against Austria and various German states for the spring of 1800. He himself crossed the Alps into northern Italy with a newly raised army of 40,000 men and, on June 14, defeated the Austrians in the Battle of Marengo.

right: Napoleon crossing the Alps

Meanwhile, French forces under General Jean Victor Moreau crossed the Rhine into southern Germany, took Munich, defeated the Austrians under Archduke John of Austria in the Battle of Hohenlinden (December 3), and reached the city of Linz, Austria.

The French success forced Austria to capitulate. By the Treaty of Lunéville (February 9, 1801), Austria and its German allies ceded the left bank of the Rhine River to France, recognized the Batavian, Helvetian, Cisalpine, and Ligurian republics, and made other concessions.

On March 27, 1802, Great Britain made peace with France through the Treaty of Amiens.

Renewed Conflict with Great Britain

The Treaty of Amiens called for Great Britain to return the island of Malta to its original "owners," the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem. The people of Malta wished to remain British subjects, and Britain refused to surrender the island, so war again broke out between Great Britain and France in 1803. Napoleon abandoned the war after a short time, however, preferring instead to concentrate his resources in continental Europe.


In 1805 Great Britain was joined in a new war against France by Austria, Russia, and Sweden. Spain allied itself to France, as did a number of German states, including Bavaria, Württemberg, and Baden.

Austrian Campaign

the Battle of AusterlitzAfter the formation of the Third Coalition, Napoleon (now known as Emperor Napoleon) moved his troops to meet the Austrians, who, under Ferdinand III, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and General Karl Mac von Leiberich, had invaded Bavaria. He subsequently defeated the Austrians at Ulm, taking 23,000 prisoners, and then marched his troops along the Danube River and captured Vienna. Russian armies under General Mikhail Kutuzov and Alexander I, Emperor of Russia, reinforced the Austrians, but Napoleon crushed the combined Austro-Russian forces in the Battle of Austerlitz.

left: the Battle of Austerlitz

Austria was once again forced to capitulate, and signed the Treaty of Pressburg on December 26, 1805. Among the terms of this treaty was the concession by Austria to France of territory in northern Italy and to Bavaria of territory in Austria. In addition, Austria recognized the duchies of Württemberg and Baden as kingdoms.

Battle of Trafalgar

Napoleon's continental successes were largely offset by the victory on October 21, 1805, off Cape Trafalgar, of the British under Admiral Horatio Nelson over the combined fleets of France and Spain.


In 1806, Napoleon made his elder brother, Joseph Bonaparte, King of Naples, and his third brother, Louis Bonaparte, King of Holland (the former Batavian Republic). On July 12, he established the Confederation of the Rhine, which eventually consisted of all the states of Germany except Austria, Prussia, Brunswick, and Hesse.

Economic warfare between Great Britain and France began in 1806, when Napoleon formulated his "Continental System," a series of decrees forbidding British trade with all European nations. Great Britain retaliated with the Orders of Council, prohibiting neutrals from trading between the ports of any nations obeying Napoleon's decrees. British mastery of the seas made it difficult for Napoleon to enforce his decrees, and the "Continental System" broke down.


In 1806, Prussia joined in a Fourth Coalition with Great Britain, Russia, and Sweden.

Prussian Campaign

On October 14, 1806, Napoleon crushed the Prussians in the Battle of Jena. On October 29, his troops entered Berlin. He then defeated the Russians in the Battle of Friedland and forced Alexander I to make peace.

By the principal terms of the Treaty of Tilsit, Russia gave up its Polish possessions and became an ally of France. Prussia was reduced to the status of a third-rate power, deprived of almost half its territory, and crippled by heavy indemnity payments and severe restrictions on the size of its standing army.

Swedish Campaign

Through military action against Sweden on the part of Russia and Denmark, Gustav IV Adolph was forced to abdicate in favor of his uncle, Charles XIII, on the condition that the latter name as his heir General Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte, one of Napoleon's marshals. Bernadotte became king in 1818, as Charles XIV John, founding the present royal line.


By 1808 Napoleon Bonaparte was master of all Europe except Russia and Great Britain, but his power was already starting to decline. That decline was fueled by the rise of nationalism in the various nations he had defeated, and by the persistent opposition of Great Britain, which continued to organize and subsidize new coalitions against Napoleon.

Peninsular War, 1808-1813

In 1808, after ousting King Charles IV, Napoleon made his brother Joseph Bonaparte king of Spain. The Spanish revolted, however, and drove Joseph out of Madrid.

The French were intent on restoring Joseph as king of Spain, but the Spanish, aided by British forces under Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, were equally intent on ridding their country of Napoleon's influence. The French were eventually defeated, suffering losses in manpower that severely handicapped Napoleon when he was forced to meet new enemies in the east and north.

Fifth Coalition

In 1809, Austria entered into a coalition with Great Britain against France.

In July 1809, Napoleon defeated the Austrians at Wagram, and then forced them to sign the Treaty of Vienna, by which Austria gave up Salzburg, part of Galicia, and a large part of its southern European territory.

In April 1810, Napoleon divorced his first wife and married the daughter of Francis II of Austria. His hope was that this marriage would keep Austria out of further coalitions against him.

War with Russia

In 1812, war again broke out between France and Russia because of Tsar Alexander's refusal to enforce Napoleon's Continental System. Although he already had one large army occupied with retaking Spain, Napoleon invaded Russia with an army of 500,000. He defeated the Russians at Borodino and took Moscow (September 14, 1812). However, the Russians had burned the city prior to Napoleon's arrival, making it impossible for Napoleon's troops to establish winter quarters there. The French were forced to retreat across Russia into Germany, sufering the loss of most of their men through cold, starvation, and Russian guerrilla attacks. Russia then joined the Fifth Coalition, which by then also included Great Britain, Prussia, and Sweden.

Prussian Campaign

In 1813, Prussia waged a War of Liberation against Napoleon. Napoleon easily defeated the Prussians at Lützen and Bautzen. On August 27, 1813, a French force of about 100,000 defeated a combined Austrian, Prussian, and Russian force of about 150,000 at the Battle of Dresden.

In October 1813, Napoleon was forced by the Battle of Leipzig to retreat across the Rhine, thus freeing Germany.

the Russians enter Paris in 1814In 1814, the Russians, Austrians, and Prussians invaded France from the north. In March 1814 they took Paris, whereupon Napoleon was forced to abdicate and was sent into exile on the island of Elba.

left: the Russians enter Paris is 1814


Following Napoleon's abdication and exile, the members of the Fifth Coalition assembled at the Congress of Vienna to restore the monarchies Napoleon had overthrown. Meanwhile, Napoleon managed to escape from Elba, return to France, and raise an army. He then marched into Belgium to meet the forces of Great Britain, Prussia, Russia, and Austria. He was victorious at Ligny, but then defeated at Quatre-Bras. His final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, on June 18, 1815, marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

right: the Battle of Waterloo

Great Britain
the Netherlands
Napoleon Bonaparte
Admiral Horatio Nelson
Alexander I
King Charles IV
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington

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This page was last updated on May 26, 2017.