In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Napoleon Bonaparte

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Primary Sources
  • Correspondence
  • Memoirs
  • Historiographies
  • Religion
  • The Foundation of the Empire and the Coronation
  • Resistance and Opposition
  • Foreign Policy
  • Elba and the Hundred Days
  • Legend and Legacy

Military History Napoleon Bonaparte
Philip Dwyer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0095


Napoleon Bonaparte was born on the island of Corsica, in Ajaccio, on 15 August 1769, one year after the island had been taken over by the French. He was the second surviving child of Carlo Bonaparte and Maria Laetizia Ramolino. Despite being involved with the Corsican independence movement, the father ingratiated himself with the French authorities and was able to obtain certificates of nobility and scholarships for his children. Napoleone, as he was known, was sent to the military college of Brienne, in the north of France, at the age of nine, and later went to the École Militaire in Paris, where he graduated as an artillery officer in September 1785. The advent of the Revolution in 1789 saw him return to Corsica to take part in local politics until, after falling foul of the dominant faction, led by Pasquale Paoli, he and his family were forced to flee the island in 1793. Napoleon first came to notice during the siege of Toulon that same year, and again in 1795 in Paris when he helped put down a royalist uprising. His first command in Italy followed soon after, where from 1796 to 1797 he made a name for himself as a brilliant general. Next came the Egyptian campaign from which he returned in 1799 to take part in a coup to overthrow the government, which led to the establishment of a new government—the consulate. Napoleon was able to quickly consolidate his hold on power during the early months of the consulate by stabilizing the domestic political situation as well as the military situation. There followed shortly after the Concordat with the Catholic Church (July 1801), bringing to an end years of religious discord in France; the Peace of Amiens with the only remaining power at war with France, Britain (March 1802); and the introduction of the Civil Code (1804). On the strength of his successes, Napoleon was elevated to consul for life in August 1802 by plebiscite. Again by plebiscite, in 1804, he was confirmed as emperor of France, with a coronation ceremony in Notre Dame Cathedral on 2 December 1804. In May 1805, he was crowned King of Italy in the cathedral of Milan. After the resumption of war with the Third Coalition, a number of prominent battles against the great European powers (Austerlitz, Jena, Friedland, Eylau) led to the French occupying most of central Europe. The invasion of Russia in 1812 was Napoleon’s undoing. It compelled him to fight a defensive campaign to keep central Europe in 1813, and, when that was lost after the battle of Leipzig, to fight to save France from foreign invasion and occupation in 1814. Napoleon was obliged to abdicate a first time in 1814 and was exiled to Elba. He was there less than a year before returning to France in a doomed attempt to regain control. Waterloo was his last battle. Exiled to Saint Helena, he died there in 1821.


The eminent French historian of Napoleon and the empire, Jean Tulard, maintains that more books have been written about Napoleon than days have passed since his death. There is a lot to the claim, but the quantity is by no means a reflection of the quality of the work. Much of it is what the French call de la petite histoire (anecdotal history). The works cited here, a smattering of the more recent books as well as some well-worn classics, can hardly do justice to the vast historiography at our disposal. The list is, on the other hand, a useful introduction to the topic and focuses in particular on works that are directly related to Napoleon and his life. There are many more biographies in languages other than English, but for the purposes of this article, the content has been limited to biographies, mostly in English, and mostly written since the end of the Second World War.

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