Role of Napoleon Bonaparte During The French Revolution

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821) graduated from the prestigious Royal Military School of Paris in 1785 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the La Fère artillery regiment of France. His initial military career was unexceptional as he took long leaves of absence. The French Revolution was widespread and violent by 1793. Some citizens had began supporting the Royalist faction and had taken up arms against the Revolutionary forces. France was at civil war and it was also engaged with other countries, who wanted to take advantage of the political scenario.

Siege of Toulon

Toulon was an important naval base in the south coast of France where the rebels had invited British Ships to take on the Revolutionary army. Toulon had excellent defenses and reclaiming it was a challenge. The Revolutionary army began the siege of the port on 29th August, 1793. As destiny would play itself, the commander of the artillery division was injured during the conflict and the 24 year old Napoleon was promoted to his place. Napoleon showed great skill with his keen maneuvers and understanding of the terrain. He captured a hill from where the republican guns dominated the battle. The British were eventually forced to flee and the port fell soon afterwards. This remarkable victory made Napoleon an overnight hero and he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General.

Napoleon at the Siege of Toulon
Napoleon at the Siege of Toulon

Revolt on 13 Vendemiaire

Although the social reforms resulting from the French Revolution were received favorably by most people in France, many considered the Revolutionary Government as anti-Catholic. On 5th October 1795 or 13 Vendemiaire Year 4 according to the French Republican calendar, the Royalists gathered enough support to raise an armed rebellion against the National Convention, the first government of the French Revolution. This led to the Battle of 13 Vendémiaire between the Royalists forces and the Revolutionary Government on the streets of Paris. Outnumbered at 5,000 against the 30,000 Royalist army, the government found itself in a precarious situation.

Napoleon arrived at the Convention to inquire about the commotion. He was quickly ordered to take command under Paul Barras and defend the Republic. Barras, who knew of Bonaparte’s military exploits at Toulon, was content to let him take control. Napoleon commanded throughout the two-hour engagement and the legend of his calm and strategic military leadership grew. The defeat of the royalist insurrection ended the threat to the Convention and made Napoleon a household name in France. He was promoted to Major General and Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Interior.

13 Vendemiaire painting
Crushing of the Royalist revolt on 13 Vendemiaire

The Italian Campaign

Revolutionary France was considered dangerous by the other European monarchies who viewed it with both fear and anger. This led to the French Revolutionary Wars, a series of military conflicts lasting from 1792 until 1802. The First Coalition was established against France in 1792. It comprised of several nations including Austria; Prussia; England; and Piedmont and numerous other smaller Italian states. In March 1796 Napoleon was made commander of France’s Army of Italy. He attacked promptly with his 37,000 men against a larger Austrian army in the Battle of Montenotte. He then launched an all-out invasion of Piedmond, knocking them out of war within a few weeks. Placing Mantua under siege he inflicted a series of defeats on the First Coalition in the battles of Lodi, Lonato, Castiglione, Bassano, Arcole and decisively at Rivoli in January 1797. France thus won the War of the First Coalition and Bonaparte became increasingly influential in French politics.

Coup of 18th Brumaire

By June 1799, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes was the most influential figure of the French Directory, a five-member committee which governed France. The Directory had become involved in corruption, political conflict and financial problems. Moreover, it became more and more reliant on the Army in foreign and domestic affairs, as well as finance. On his return from an expedition in Egypt, Napoleon got together in an alliance with Sieyès, his brother Lucien and others to overthrew the Directory and close down the Council of Five Hundred, the lower house. This coup took place on 9 November 1799 and is famously called the Coup of 18th Brumaire referring to the date according to the revolutionary calendar. Napoleon was made “first consul” for ten years confirming it by the new “Constitution of the Year VIII” and vetting it with a direct popular vote of over 99 percent with about 300,000 votes in his favor. The Coup of 18th Brumaire is regarded as the end of the French Revolution.

Coup of 18 Brumaire painting
General Bonaparte surrounded by members of the Council of Five Hundred during the Coup of 18 Brumaire

Spreading The Revolution

Hugely popular among the masses, Napoleon carried out various influential reforms including the implementation of Napoleonic Code, a legal code which would serve as a model for many countries across the world. His victory in the French Revolutionary Wars allowed the spread of revolutionary principles over much of Europe. Napoleon would go on to make France the dominant power in Europe till his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

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