Crazy generals trying to conquer the world were a feature of nearly every civilization before Napoleon Bonaparte showed up, but few changed the very nature of culture and warfare to quite the same extent. Winston Churchill called the Napoleonic Wars the first "world war," and his global conflict certainly initiated a variety of firsts, many of them singularly unpleasant.
In 1789, the French Revolution kicked off. In the course of the next ten years, the citizens of Franceoverthrew the Bourbon Monarchy (specifically King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette), implemented a Republic, and in 1799 took several steps backward with the accession of Napoleon to the Consulate. Later, he made himself emperor. It was almost a mirroring of the events that led to the creation of the Roman Empire.
Napoleon was even more successful than the ancient Romans, however. The French Empire encompassed almost all of Europe (excluding the British Isles, Russia, and Scandinavia), and while his efforts in Africa were unsuccessful, Napoleon accomplished all this in a few years, rather than a few centuries. He was the scourge of Europe.
Contrary to popular opinion, he was not short. He was about 5'7"; the confusion originated from British newspaper caricatures, and from discrepancies between French and English measurement. 5'7" was average for his day, so whatever else we can attribute his need to conquer the world to, his supposed small stature isn't one of them.
By all accounts, in fact, Napoleon was an intelligent, cultured, brilliant man. His program for conquest included mass education, a respect for native cultures, and humanitarian treatment of the defeated. He also invented things like mass conscription (building citizen armies was not an exclusively American innovation), new ways to kill people, and more new ways to kill people.
Probably the most effective and terrifying of these was his use of artillery. A former artillery officer, Napoleon rejected the traditional rhetoric that suggested artillery was only to be used in sieges and to break down walls and fortifications. Instead, he loaded cannons with chains, nails, and bullets and aimed them at infantry, using the nightmarish ammo to destroy men rather than buildings. This tactic greatly influenced warfare in the United States, particularly the Mexican War and the War Between the States.
The term "Napoleonic Wars" is somewhat nebulous. No one agrees when it began or when it officially ended, but most agree that it includes both the wars of expansion and the coalition wars against France undertaken by a harried Europe. Some of the most iconic battles of all time were fought during this period: the Battle of Austerlitz, the naval Battle of Trafalgar, the invasion of Russia in 1812, and the climactic Battle of Waterloo.
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