Erik Slader
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Napoleon v Nelson

Napoleon Bonaparte: 1769 – 1821

                                                                            The Napoleonic Wars: 1799-1815

Napoleon crossing the alps on horseback (iconic pose)

“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

Previously on (Part One: Napoleon the Epic) a young Corsican soldier named Napoleon Bonaparte rose through the ranks of the French Army to prominence as the country collapsed around him during the events of the (first) French Revolution (commonly referred to as the Reign of the Terror). He then led a series of military campaigns across Europe, furthering his career and celebrity status back home. Then Napoleon took a trip to Egypt where he attempted to cut off Britain’s trade routes to India, but had his ass handed to him by Admiral Horatio Nelson. Finally General Napoleon decided to seize power in his own country, and through a coupe d’état, slyly promoted himself to France’s First Consul before heading off to famously cross the Alps… little did he know, his luck was about to change.


Napoleonic Europe

At the height of his career, Napoleon crossed the Alps through the Great St. Bernard Pass to reinforce his troops in Italy with the Reserve Army. This was a big deal for a couple reasons, namely the last time an army crossed the Alps was during the Second Punic War in 218 BCE when the Great Carthaginian commander Hannibal marched an army of war elephants towards the legions of the Roman Empire. Napoleon had the moment commemorated in a series of five paintings by Jacques-Louis David. This of course was just one in a line of propaganda pieces illustrating Napoleon’s career in an effort to pump up his avid fans. Napoleon’s maneuver through the Alps was an attempt to surprise the Austrian forces laying siege to Genoa, but by the time they arrived, it was already too late.

Meanwhile back home Napoleon initiated his sweeping social reforms with the Napoleonic Code. The economy, legal system, and education flourished under his direction, and in 1802 he was voted Dictator Consul for Life. It was that same year that France signed a peace treaty with Great Britain. The very next year Britain says “BAZINGA!” and re-declares war on France, thus the Napoleonic Wars ensued a conflict that would have global reaching ramifications that would irreversibly alter history…


                                    “I found the crown of France in the gutter, and I picked it up.” – Napoleon

painting of Napoleon on the Imperial throne.

(and then he proceeded to place it on his head… presumably after washing it)

Following a failed assassination attempt, Napoleon became paranoid of his position of power. After having the (innocent) Duke of Enghien executed, Napoleon set about making a grand statement to France and the world: he decided to crown himself as Emperor Napoleon the First. He then immediately set about establishing his family members and closest friends as rulers of various conquered states. So yes, after leading in a revolution against a hereditary monarchy, he turned right back around and reestablished himself as a hereditary monarch.

Famous painting of Napoleon crowning Josephine.On December 2nd, 1804, at Paris’s Norte Dame Chapel, Napoleon had invited Pope Pius VII to crown him as France’s Emperor for life. The Pope agreed in hope of gaining favor with the new ruler of Italy. During the coronation ceremony, Napoleon impatiently grabbed the crown from the Pope and placed it on his own head establishing that he was not divinely appointed, that no one was above him, and that he was a colossal dick. The newly crowned Emperor then turned to his wife Josephine and crowned her empress (more on her in a bit). The entire event cost the country 8.5 million francs. Imperial France adopted a new Napoleonic style under his reign, highly evocative of Ancient Rome.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world started to become very wary of this self-appointed Emperor and with good reason…

Drama with Josephine

JosephineAs a rising star in the French military, Napoleon fell head over heels for Joséphine de Beauharnais (Marie-Josèphe Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie) a widow with two children whose aristocratic husband had been guillotined during the Revolution’s Reign of Terror. They married in 1796.

While Napoleon was away on campaigns in Italy and Egypt (between a full-time job of kicking ass and taking names), he would write her long passionate letters of devotion. In response she essentially said, ‘That’s nice,’ before shacking up with another, younger, military guy.

From then on his heart turned colder than Mr. Freeze’s refrigerator. He went on to have several affairs of his own, the most notorious of which was Pauline Fourès whom the tabloids dubbed ‘Napoleon’s Cleopatra’, the wife of one of his junior officers while he was in Egypt.  He once set the record straight and explained, “Power is my mistress.” 

In 1800 Napoleon and Josephine move into the Tuileries palace. They lived together as a marriage of convenience for several years. However, in 1809 Napoleon divorced Josephine on the grounds that she hadn’t contractually produced an heir for him. Napoleon then married an 18 year old Archduchess (Marie-Louise). The very next year, lil Napoleon Jr. (Napoleon II) was born.

Despite all the soap-opera-level drama, it’s clear from Napoleon’s letters to Josephine that he still loved and cared for her, even after their divorce, which was most likely a purely political move. In a statement of devotion at the official divorce ceremony, Josephine said, “I know how much this act, called for by politics and greater interests, has pained [Napoleon’s] heart; but glorious is the sacrifice that he and I make for the good of our nation.” And while Napoleon let her keep her mansion and gave her an exuberant ‘allowance’, we can’t entirely be sure of her own feelings on the matter, especially at a time when women were considered property – she may very well have felt like a prisoner under house arrest, with virtually no control over her own destiny.

scene from the indie game 'Braid' - "I'm sorry, but the Princess is in another castle."

When Pope Pius VII refused to come to his wedding, Napoleon lashed out at the Pope, who in turn excommunicated him. Napoleon responded by capturing Castel Sant’ANgelo, pointing cannons at the papal bedroom, and the Pope was kidnapped by Napoleon’s men! Although Napoleon didn’t order the kidnapping, he didn’t offer his release either. Napoleon decided to take advantage of the situation, using the Pope like a chess piece, constantly moving him throughout his territories, sending delegations of supporters to pressure the Papacy on numerous issues, forcing him to yield power and sign a concordat with France. Pius remained captive for six years until 1814 when the Allied forces freed him.

The Haitian Revolts

portrait of General Toussaint L'Ouverture

Général François-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture – roughly translates to: BADASS

The French colony of Haiti was at the center of the Trans-Atlantic Slave-Trade at the turn of the Nineteenth Century, as a central trading hub for sugar, coffee, cocoa, and cotton the colony was desperately dependent on slave labor. A well-educated former slave of color, a man by the name of Toussaint L’Ouverture (often referred to as Black Napoleon) was a brilliant military commander in his own right, led a slave rebellion against French rule during the French Revolution back home.

L’Ouverture eventually helped bring about the French abolition of slavery in the colonies of the Caribbean, becoming an ally of France against Britain, and rallied for Haiti’s sovereignty. Problem was when Napoleon Bonaparte came to power he changed his mind about letting the Haitians have their freedom and stuff, so responded by dispatching an enormous expeditionary force to quell ‘rebellion’. The French troops moved in under the guise of reestablishing order with secret instructions to restore slavery, by any means necessary (including but not limited to ethnic cleansing).

This is where the true cruelty of Napoleon’s inhumane character really began to creep to the surface. Napoleon’s vengeance was swift and beyond brutal in its savage execution. He ordered the genocide of the Haitian people, and planned to replace them with more docile slaves shipped in from central Africa. Those who were captured were muzzled and beaten. Those who resisted were roasted alive, stabbed to death, thrown overboard, ripped apart by hungry dogs, or filled with gunpowder and blown to pieces. Even back then many a French naval officer condemned such savagery risking court martial rather than selling their souls. 

According to historian Claude Ribbe, Napoleon was a proto-Hitler. In fact, contemporary research has recently discovered that over 100,000 Haitians were gassed to death in the hulls of French ships utilizing Sulfur-Dioxide extracted from Haitian volcanoes (a horrific method of mass execution later modernized in the Concentration Camps of Nazi Germany), confirmed by Antoine Metral’s 1825 account of his expedition to Haiti. One could argue that Napoleon didn’t commit these atrocities first-hand, but in some ways that makes it worse. 

The Haitian Revolution against Napoleon led by L'overture

Haiti’s charismatic leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, was also deceived by the French. When he was offered freedom in exchange for integrating his remaining troops into the French army, he was seized by French troops and shipped to Fort-de-Joux were he died a prisoner. In his absence, Toussaint’s loyal rebels under their second-in-command: Jean Jacques Dessalines valiantly resisted until 1804 when they successfully drove Napoleon’s minions out of Haiti forever. 

It’s really unfortunate that Napoleon who rose to power, because of a revolution would then go on to subjugate another revolution.

The Louisiana Purchase – 1803

Oklahoma: The reason the Louisiana Purchase was so cheap!After usurping North American territories from Spain, Napoleon had prospects of establishing an American Empire, but with an impending war with Britain and the slave revolts in Haiti, those plans were ‘temporarily’ put on hold. With the entire world against him, Napoleon decided to make a ‘little’ deal with the United States. In 1803 Napoleon offered to sell France’s extensive territory to the former English colonists for a whopping $15 million dollars for two reasons: he needed the cash and it would piss off the Brits. President Thomas Jefferson eagerly agreed to the 828,000 square mile purchase for three reasons: expanding their borders, getting France out of their business, and even back then you just couldn’t beat 3 cents an acre!

Regardless of a few minor set backs, it seemed as though nothing could stop Emperor Napoleon from seizing total control like the villainous mastermind he was…

Doc-Ock (Alfred Molina) in Sam Raimi's "Spider-man 2"

After combining his forces with that of Spain, Emperor Napoleon once again set his sights on conquering Great Britain and with his track record of being as unstoppable as the T-1000, things back in London were looking about as bleak as the cliff-hanger of a melodramatic comic book. Much like Doctor Octopus, Napoleon was a mad genius whose will was far reaching, but it turns out he did have a weakness – Admiral Nelson: The Khan to his Kirk.

Kirk vs Khan in "Star Trek into Darkness" (J. J. Abrams)

“Shall we begin?”

Napoleon’s sworn nemesis had returned to finish what he’d started. As we learned before at the Battle of the Nile, Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson was basically Napoleon’s Kryptonite or Great Britain’s Death Star. Since last they met, Nelson lost his right eye *and* right arm to cannon fire, so he probably looked a lot like Grand Moff Tarkin cosplaying as a pirate.

The Battle FAIL at Trafalgar – 1805

poster from the game 'Napoleon - Total War'

When word got to England that the Emperor of France was building up his navy for a full-scale assault on the British Isles, Admiral Nelson decided to make a preemptive strike against the entire French Naval fleet. On October 21st, 1805, they engaged the enemy off the coast of Spain. Nelson’s British fleet of 27 were outnumbered by the combined armada of the Spanish and French vessels totaling 33 fully armed ships of the line.

Admiral Nelson during the Battle of TrafalgarThe plan was to launch a two pronged attack aimed directly at the center of their line with the primary goal of taking out the enemy’s flagship as quickly as possible to leave them leaderless and confused, followed up by a relentless assault by a second wave of ships.  It was a bold move, but Nelson had the no nonsense demeanor of a high-stakes Vegas gambler and with the luck to back him up. The Admiral led the assault – personally. Nelson calmly observed as a hail storm of cannonballs and splinters tore his ship apart and cut down 50 of his mates. 

By the end of the day 6,000 soldiers and nineteen ships had been obliterated by the British Navy, and captured 20,000 prisoners of war. However, during the conflict, from his flagship (HMS Victory), Nelson was hit in the chest by a sniper. His loyal crew dragged him below deck to tend to his wound. Upon hearing the news that victory was imminent, Nelson spoke with his last breath, “Now I am satisfied. Thank God I have done my duty.”

painting of Nelson's navy taking out Napoleon's

Admiral Nelson had ultimately crushed Napoleon’s plan to invade Britain and died during his greatest moment of victory, and died content with the knowledge that he’d once again bested his long-time foe.

The Battle of Austerlitz – 1805

At this point, quite a few countries had had enough of Napoleon’s bull, so decided to do something about it. The United Kingdom, the Holy Roman Empire, and Russia, among others, joined forces to become the Third Coalition, with the sole purpose of putting an end to Napoleon’s rule.

They failed. Napoleon on horse silhouette

The Battle of Austerlitz went down in history as the most epic battle of Napoleon’s career. On December 2nd, 1805, Napoleon’s forces single-handedly took on the Third Coalition which included the combined might of his rogues gallery. Bonaparte is credited with using the fog and terrain to hide his troops, while marching them 70 miles in under 48 hours off the radar. The French Emperor successfully set a trap by goading the Austrians and Russians into attacking his weak flank. Perfectly set up for a sneak attack he went in for the kill.

Lieutenant General Przhebishevsky wrote of it later, “I was… under fierce and continuous canister fire… Many soldiers, now incessantly engaged in battle from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., had no cartridges left. I could do nothing but retreat…” This battle was also known as the Battle of Three Emperors and was featured heavily in Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”. Tolstoy refers to Napoleon through the eyes of one of his disillusioned characters, remarking often on his incredible ego:  “so petty did his hero with his paltry vanity and delight in victory appear, compared to that lofty, righteous and kindly sky which he had seen and comprehended.” 

Napoleon at war

The Peninsular War – 1808

At this point Napoleon’s French Empire had conquered much of Europe, with the exception of Great Britain. Turns out, much to his surprise, both Spain and Portugal weren’t cool with this…

Francisco De Goya's "The Third of May"Bonaparte responded the only way he knew how: with extremely over-the-top acts of mass violence. Francisco Goya’s famous painting, ‘the Third of May 1808’ exposed the horrors of Napoleon brutally putting down any and all resistance. Civilians risked their lives and fought back against their oppressors. A brave woman by the name of Agustina de Aragón took up an abandoned cannon post and inspired a resistance during the Siege of Zaragoza.

In the end, Spain was left in ruins and anarchy like Tokyo post-Godzilla-rampage, while the Portuguese royal family fled to Brazil. When Napoleon gave the Spanish throne to his brother Joseph, he alienated the Spanish nation, and unknowingly sowed the seeds of his inevitable defeat.

Next Napoleon made the worst decision of his entire career: while simultaneously fighting a multi-front war with Britain and dealing with guerrilla warfare in Spain, Napoleon decided this would be a good time to attack Russia… which would prove to be about as successful as trying to fit a grand piano in a Volkswagen bug.

'Think small.' - a VW bug advertisement.

Yeah, sorry, not happening.

To Be Concluded in Part Three: The Final Fails of Napoleon!

                                                                                        Erik Slader

Hope you enjoyed this edition of “Epik Fails!”, if you have any comments, questions, concerns, or suggestions let me know in the comments below! Also, be sure to ’Like’ EPiK FAILs on Facebook, or Followon Twitter, and SHARE IT with your friends!

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Wants to end French monarchy - makes himself Emperor.“Napoleon: The Path to Power” by: Philip Dwyer

“NAPOLEON for Dummies” by J. David Markham

“Napoleon and His Collaborators: the making of a dictatorship” by Issuer Woloch

“Europe Under Napoleon: 1799-1815″ by Michael Broers

“Icons of Power: Napoleon” (2007) – National Geographic documentary

“A&E – Biography: Napoleon Bonaparte” by Elaine Landau

“Battles that changed the world: Waterloo” by Samuel Willard Crompton

“Badass” by Ben Thompson

“The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity have changed History” by Erik Durschmied

Erik Slader
Erik Slader
Erik Slader is the creator of “Epik Fails of History” a blog (and podcast) about the most epic fails… of history. With Ben Thompson, Erik is the co-author of the Epic Fails book series. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Digital Media, once managed a comic book shop, has a weakness for fancy coffee and currently lives in Green Cove Springs, Florida with too many cats.


  1. […] To be continued in: Part 2 – NAPOLEON FAILS! […]

  2. A. van Nerel says:

    Awesome (well, for the Haitians not so much:S)…but great read…Am I correct in assuming there is a part three underway, as the word ‘Waterloo’ hasn’t appeared yet?;)

    • ErikSlader says:

      I originally intended to do a two-parter, but this one (Part 2) ended up being WAAAAAY too long, so had to cut it in half. So keep an eye out for the final chapter! (which covers Napoleon vs Russia, Napoleon in Exile, and of course Waterloo) It’s going to be … EPIC! 😉

  3. […] Previously on – Napoleon Bonaparte was instrumental in overthrowing the French monarchy during the (first) French Revolution (the Reign of Terror). He then rose through the ranks and as General helped to conquer much of the European continent (Napoleon – Part One: The Epic). Next he crowned himself Emperor of France and took on Great Britain in a series of campaigns called the Napoleonic Wars (Napoleon – Part Two: The Fail). […]

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