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The Fall of Napoleon & the Congress of Vienna: Definition & Results

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  • 0:07 Fall of Napoleon
  • 0:38 French Empire at 1811
  • 2:04 Russian Campaign
  • 4:01 Fall, Return and…
  • 6:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the fall of Napoleon's French Empire after his fateful decision to invade Russia in 1812. In turn, we also discuss the Congress of Vienna that convened after Napoleon's defeat and attempted to plan post-Napoleonic Europe.

Fall of Napoleon

Literature is full of characters whose pride and vanity are their ultimate downfall. Whether it's the hubris of Oedipus Rex or Dr. Frankenstein, literature teaches us that sometimes the very ambition which has led a character to greatness can also ruin them if they don't humble themselves.

In the same way, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction: history has numerous great figures who were brought down by their own blind egotism. However, few can match the arrogance and ultimate fall of France's first Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte.

French Empire at 1811

After seven years of sitting on the imperial throne, Napoleon had fought off numerous European enemies multiple times. He'd also increased French possessions and client states to include nearly all of continental Europe, from Paris to Poland to the Iberian Peninsula and into Italy. Though Napoleon's attempts to pave the way for an invasion of Great Britain had proved unsuccessful, the diminutive French Emperor had implemented the Continental System, whereby no continental states controlled or beholden to France were allowed to trade with Great Britain, essentially setting up a blockade of the islands.

While this system intended to destabilize the English economy, it actually hurt the regions of France that depended upon trade more. It also stretched the French army and allied French forces thinly across the continent attempting to enforce the system. Additionally, Russia experienced internal grain shortages after the system was implemented because it had previously relied heavily on British imports to feed its populace. As a result, Russia broke the system in December 1810 and resumed trade with Great Britain.

This angered Napoleon, who had previously come to terms with Russia after defeating the Russians in 1807 at the Battle of Friedland. The two powers had signed the Treaty of Tilsit, which recognized Russian and French spheres of influence and Russia also agreed to abide by the Continental System. In response to Russia's breaking of the treaty, Napoleon spent the entire year of 1811 mobilizing troops and supplies in preparation for an invasion of Russia.

Russian Campaign

Napoleon's intentions were not a well-kept secret, and in May of 1812, Russia, Sweden, the Spanish rebels, and Great Britain formed the Sixth Coalition to oppose Napoleonic France. The following month, Napoleon crossed the Niemen River, which had been set in 1807 as the boundary between Russian territory and French-controlled states.

Napoleon's armies advanced slowly across the Russian countryside, unable to gather supplies along the way as the Russian army burnt crops and towns as they retreated. Napoleon's first major battle of the campaign, the Battle of Borodino, proved successful, though his army took heavy casualties in winning the clash.

The battle laid Moscow open to Napoleon and his troops. When he reached the city in September, Napoleon found the city deserted and in flames, set ablaze by the city's inhabitants. With little else to accomplish in Russia and his supply train too strung out to maintain a winter camp in the city, Napoleon was forced to retreat from Moscow in October in the midst of a ferocious Russian winter, losing scores of troops to frostbite and disease along the way.

French Setbacks

Napoleon's nominal victory weakened the French cause against Russia more than the burning of the capital helped. Soon after Napoleon returned to Paris in December of 1812, Russia promised to help Prussia regain the territory the Prussians had lost in the Treaty of Tilsit, and Prussia promptly declared war on France.

Despite early French successes against this alliance, there were problems elsewhere. The Duke of Wellington arrived in Spain to lead the Spanish rebels, who had intermittently fought French control in Iberia since 1807. Additionally, Austria joined the anti-French coalition in August of 1813 after negotiations between Napoleon and the great Austrian statesmen, Metternich, broke down.

At the Battle of Leipzig in October of 1813, the allies dealt Napoleon's army a severe defeat, and by the end of the month, Napoleon's armies were retreating all across Europe. By December, nearly all of the French territorial gains of the previous decade had been erased.

Fall, Return and Congress of Vienna

By early 1814, the allies were invading France itself and in March, one of Napoleon's chief generals, Joachim Murat, defected to the allies. Paris surrendered by March. In the first week of April, the French government deposed Napoleon from the imperial throne, and only a few days later, Napoleon officially abdicated in favor of his son. He further agreed to exile on the island of Elba off the coast of Italy.

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