Returning to military duty in France, Bonaparte was associated with the Jacobins and first attracted notice by his distinguished part in dislodging the British from Toulon (1793); he was promoted to brigadier general and sent to the Italian front. Returning to military duty in France, briefly under arrest in the Thermidorian reaction (1794; see Thermidor), he was released but remained out of favor.
A political event was to reopen his career overnight. In Oct., 1795, the Convention was assailed by a royalist Parisian uprising (see Vendémiaire), and Paul Barras persuaded the Convention to place Bonaparte in command of the troops. Napoleon dispersed the mob with what he called
a whiff of grapeshot—which killed about 100 insurgents. He was given command of the army of the interior. After drawing up a plan for an Italian campaign, he was, again with Barras's help, made commander in chief of the army of Italy.
He left for Italy in Mar., 1796, after marrying Josephine de Beauharnais (see Josephine). Assuming command of an ill-supplied army, he succeeded within a short time in transforming it into a first-class fighting force. The brilliant success of his Italian campaign was based on three factors: his supply system, which he made virtually independent of the financially exhausted Directory by allowing the troops to live off the land; his reliance on speed and massed surprise attacks by small but compact units against the Austrian forces; and his influence over the morale of his soldiers.
Napoleon swept across N Italy, forcing Sardinia to sign a separate peace in May, 1796. After his victory at Lodi (May 10), he entered Milan (May 14) and laid siege to Mantua (July, 1796). After the great victories of Arcole (Nov., 1796) and Rivoli (Jan., 1797) and the fall of Mantua (Feb., 1797), Bonaparte began to cross the Alps toward Vienna. However, the slow advance of the northern French armies in Germany and the danger of being cut off in the rear caused him to arrange—without instructions from Paris—the truce of Leoben (Apr., 1797), sealed in October by the Treaty of Campo Formio.
Now the idol of half of Europe, Bonaparte returned to France. His plan for an invasion of Britain across the channel was canceled, and he made alternative plans to crush the British Empire by striking at Egypt and, ultimately, at India. The plan was supported by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand and by the directors. Bonaparte sailed in May, 1798, succeeded in evading Horatio Nelson, and took Malta on the way to Egypt. Shortly after landing at Aboukir (Abu Qir), he won a brilliant victory over the Mamluks in the battle of the Pyramids (July, 1798). His successes, however, were made useless when the French fleet was utterly destroyed (Aug. 1–2) by Nelson in Aboukir Bay.
The Ottoman Empire, of which Egypt was a province, declared war on France. A French expedition to Syria was repelled at Acre. Back in Egypt, Napoleon defeated Ottoman forces attempting to land at Aboukir (July, 1799). Meanwhile, in Europe matters were going from bad to worse for the French. They were expelled from Italy by the forces of the Second Coalition (see French Revolutionary Wars), and at home the Directory faced political ruin. Unannounced, Napoleon returned to France, leaving General Kléber in charge of a hopeless situation in Egypt, and joined a conspiracy already hatched by Emmanuel Sieyès, one of the directors.
Sections in this article:
- Early Life
- Early Campaigns
- The Consulate
- The Empire
- Decline and Fall
- Napoleon's Legacy
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: French History: Biographies