The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna

Clint Foster, Christopher Sailus
  • Author
    Clint Foster

    Clint Foster has been a substitute teacher for K-12 classes for five years, primarily working in the middle and high school. He has a bachelor's degree in history from Central College, where he graduated Cum Laude. He has written lesson plans for multiple classes, as well as published one research paper about the Civil War and dozens of short stories, a novel, and more.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Sailus

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

Learn about the events which brought about the fall of Napoleon. Discover the outcomes of the congress of Vienna and how they reinforced European monarchy. Updated: 04/22/2022

The Fall of Napoleon

Born August 5, 1769 in Corsica, an Italian island recently annexed by France, Napoleon Bonaparte was brought into an Italian family that was actively resisting French occupation at the time. As such, even after having moved to France, Napoleon felt himself an outsider. In 1778, Napoleon and his brother, Joseph, were accepted into the military College d'Autun in continental France. He graduated in 1785, only two years before the start of the French Revolution.

One of the biggest reasons for Napoleon's rise to power was the French Revolution, which began in 1787. Throughout the Revolution, Napoleon fought against the monarchy and he would rise through the ranks quickly owing both to his skills as an officer and to some convenient familial connections. By 1795, Napoleon was the military advisor to the new provincial government, called the Directory, that had been established in the wake of the monarchy.


Napoleon rose swiftly through military ranks in part due to the French Revolution

A picture of Napoleon Bonaparte


In the next two years, Napoleon helped France annex parts of Italy before launching a campaign against Egypt that was meant to threaten British supply lines through India. This campaign was ultimately a failure, and unrest back in continental France led Napoleon back home.

In 1799, Napoleon helped overthrow the government yet again in what is widely considered to be the end of the French Revolution. This time, the government was set up as a Consulate. Of the three consuls chosen to serve as the leaders of this government, Napoleon was elected First Consul. As he wrote the laws that would govern his France, he made sure to steer as much direct power to his own office as possible, and while he did this to consolidate power, he also used this newfound autonomy to make changes for the better in France. In 1800, following the Battle of Marengo against Austria, France became the undisputed dominant power in continental Europe.

In 1804, his Napoleonic Code became one of the first civil-law structures in Europe and it is still modeled after today. He made reforms to make education more accessible as well, and even reestablished an old treaty with the Pope. Also in 1804, Napoleon declares that France is now a hereditary empire and crowns himself the first French Emperor. Over the next five years, culminating in the Treaties of Tilsit in 1807 and the Treaty of Schonbrunn in 1809, Napoleon led France to a series of victorious land battles. Though he was never able to replicate his success at sea, he was content with conquering mainland Europe. By the end of the decade, the French Empire was in control of Europe from the English Channel to borders with Russia. He had secured treaties with Russia to keep continental trade flowing between his empire and his neighbor to the east, as well as to explicitly prevent them from trading with the British. Though Europe was already conquered, Napoleon set his eye on the vast Russian Empire.


The French Empire had a border of vassal states that sent troops and protected the Empire itself from attack

A map of the first French Empire and its vassal states


Napoleon's Failed March on Russia

The first fall of Napoleon was put in motion in 1806 with the establishment of the Continental System. This was essentially an embargo on goods leaving the European continent, specifically to keep those nations from supplying Great Britain. After only a few years, Russia could no longer sustain this economic plan and began to trade with Britain once again. Frustrated and angry, as he had always viewed Russia as a friendly neighbor with whom he had no gripes, Napoleon began to gather troops for a massive invasion. With this invasion of Russia on June 24th, 1812, Napoleon would feel his first taste of utter defeat.

Expecting the Russians to fight him for their land, Napoleon hoped to crush them decisively in a single engagement and march his troops to Moscow. Instead, the Russians retreated back into the interior, burning farmland and supplies as they did so to leave nothing the French invaders could use for themselves. The first large Russian stand was at Borodino, only 75 miles from Moscow. On September 7th, both sides began the battle with an artillery barrage and by the end of one day of fighting there were an estimated 70,000 casualties on both sides. The Russians retreated, but as they did, so they abandoned Moscow. A fire burned down part of the city shortly after leaving the French nowhere to winter in shelter.

A month later, on October 19th, Napoleon decided to leave. Initially, he planned to take a different route back home than that by which he had arrived. However, the Russian army had retreated and resupplied, advancing back on Napoleon as his force beat their retreat. Denied the southerly road he had intended to use, the army was forced to march along the path they had already traveled, thus, there was no new food to forage. Things got worse as they returned to Smolensk, a city captured earlier in the invasion. Expecting a store of food and supplies that they had left behind, Napoleon and his army were dismayed to find it all gone, either consumed by straggling French soldiers or by raiding Russians.


The French campaign into Russia left the army vulnerable and ultimately led to its downfall

A picture of the French during their retreat from Russia


Finally, as if these setbacks were not enough, an early winter set in. Men and horses were dying by the dozens, ill-equipped and malnourished. Napoleon himself left the army behind after hearing about a supposed coup and his army returned across the Niemen River on December 14th, 1812. An estimated 612,000 soldiers marched into Russia with Napoleon and only 112,000 returned. Of the roughly 300,000 European soldiers who died, only about a third of those deaths came in combat, the rest came from other means, mostly disease and the effects of the cold. There were an estimated 150,000 deserters and another 50,000 wounded were left behind in hospitals.

The other nations of Europe saw this defeat and costly retreat as a sign that perhaps Napoleon was not infallible, nor his army invulnerable. With the loss of such a huge number of soldiers, Napoleon could not hope to put new recruits into formations of well established veterans, nor would he ever be able to replace the trained soldiers and cavalry horses.

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.

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: The Agricultural Revolution: Timeline, Causes, Inventions & Effects

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
 Replay
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:07 Fall of Napoleon
  • 0:38 French Empire at 1811
  • 2:04 Russian Campaign
  • 4:01 Fall, Return and…
  • 6:03 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Timeline
Autoplay
Autoplay
Speed Speed

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.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Video Transcript

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.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Frequently Asked Questions

What happened at the Congress of Vienna?

The Congress of Vienna reset European borders. They created a peace in Europe that lasted for nearly a hundred years.

What was the purpose of the Congress of Vienna?

The purpose of the Congress of Vienna was mainly to reinstate borders to pre-1793 Europe. It was also in order to try and prevent future revolutions and to create a lasting power balance in Europe.

Why did Napoleon's reign end?

Napoleon's reign ended because his expansion was stopped and a huge portion of his army died or deserted in Russia. He could no longer hold the massive land empire he had created and could not replace the veteran soldiers he lost.

How was Napoleon defeated?

Napoleon was defeated by a united British and Prussian force under the command of the Duke of Wellington. Napoleon was routed at the Battle of Waterloo.

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about Study.com
Try it now
Create an account to start this course today
Used by over 30 million students worldwide
Create an account