Napoleon had barely launched the Consulate when he took to the field again. The second coalition was falling to pieces.
Czar Paul of Russia alarmed Britain and Austria by his interest in Italy, and Britain offended him by retaining Malta, the headquarters of his Knights. Accordingly, the czar formed a Baltic League of Armed Neutrality linking Prussia, Sweden, and Denmark with Russia against Britain.
He even contemplated joining with France to drive the British out of India; this scheme collapsed when he was murdered in 1801 and succeeded by his son, Alexander I. The Baltic League disintegrated in the same year after Nelson violated Denmark’s neutrality to bombard its fleet in port at Copenhagen. Napoleon defeated the Austrians in Italy and negotiated the Treaty of Luneville (1801), whereby Austria recognized the reconstituted French satellites in Italy and agreed that France should have a hand in redrawing the map of Germany.
After Luneville, Britain again remained alone at war with France. British taxpayers, however, wanted relief from their heavy burden; British merchants longed to resume trading with the Continental markets partially closed to them since 1793. Though Britain had been unable to check Napoleon’s expansion in Europe, it had very nearly won the colonial and naval war by 1801. The British had captured former Dutch and Spanish colonies, and Nelson’s fleet had expelled the French from Egypt and Malta. The British cabinet was confident that it held a strong bargaining position and could obtain favorable terms from Napoleon. Yet in the Peace of Amiens (1802) the British promised to surrender part of their colonial conquests and got nothing in return. The French failed either to reopen the Continent to British exports or to relinquish Belgium.
The one-sided Peace of Amiens provided only a year’s truce in the worldwide struggle of France and Britain. Napoleon soon aroused British exporters by a more stringent tariff law and jeopardized British interests in the Caribbean by a grandiose project for a colonial empire based on Haiti and on the vast Louisiana territory ceded back to France in 1800 by Spain. In Haiti, the blacks revolted against the efforts of the Consulate to reimpose slavery. Stubborn black resistance under Francois Toussaint LOuverture (c. 1744-1803) and Jean Jacques Dessalines (c. 1758-1806), ex-slaves, and an outbreak of yellow fever took a fearful toll of French troops and forced Napoleon to abandon the American project. In 1803 he sold to the United States for 80 million francs (about $16 million) all of the Louisiana territory.
When the Louisiana Purchase was completed, France and Britain were again at war. From 1803 through 1805 Napoleon actively prepared to invade England. He assembled more than 100,000 troops and a thousand landing barges on the French side of the Straits of Dover. In 1805 he sent Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve (1763-1806) and the French fleet to the West Indies to lure the British fleet away from Europe. Villeneuve was to slip back to Europe to escort the French invasion force across the Channel while Nelson was still combing the Caribbean in search of the French fleet.
Villeneuve failed to give Nelson the slip; back in European waters, he put in at a friendly Spanish port instead of heading directly for the Channel, as Napoleon had ordered. Nelson engaged the combined French and Spanish fleets off Cape Trafalgar at the southwest corner of Spain (October 1805). He lost his own life, but not before he had destroyed half of his adversaries’ ships without sacrificing one of his own. The battle of Trafalgar gave the British undisputed control of the seas and blasted French hopes of a cross-Channel invasion.
By the time of Trafalgar, Austria and Russia had joined with Britain in a third coalition. Austria in particular had been alarmed by Napoleon’s efforts to promote a major revision of the political map of Germany by abolishing more than a hundred German city-states and small ecclesiastical principalities. The chief beneficiaries of this readjustment were south German states that Napoleon clearly intended to form into a bloc dominated by France, as opposed to Austria and Prussia.
Napoleon routed the Continental members of the coalition in the most dazzling campaign of his career. At Ulm, on the upper Danube (October 1805), he captured thirty thousand Austrians who had moved westward without waiting for their Russian allies. He met the main Russian force and the balance of the Austrian army near the village of Austerlitz.
The ensuing battle (December 2, 1805) fittingly celebrated the first anniversary of Napoleon’s coronation as emperor. Bringing up reinforcements secretly and with great speed, Napoleon completely surprised his opponents; their casualties were three times greater than his own. Within the month he forced the Habsburg emperor, Francis II, to sign the humiliating Treaty of Pressburg, giving the Austrian Tyrol to Bavaria, and Venetia to the Napoleonic puppet kingdom of Italy.
A still harsher fate awaited the Prussians, brought back into the war for the first time since 1795 by Napoleon’s repeated interventions in German affairs. In October 1806 the French smashed the main Prussian contingents in the twin battles of Jena and Auerstädt and occupied Berlin. But Napoleon postponed a final settlement with Prussia until he had beaten his only remaining Continental opponent, Russia, at Friedland in June of 1807.
Even though Napoleon’s great string of victories against the third coalition resulted partly from the blunders of his enemies, the French army was now the most seasoned and feared force in Europe. New recruits were furnished by conscription, which raised an average of eighty-five thousand men a year under Napoleon, and they were quickly toughened by being assigned in small batches to veteran units.
French officers were promoted on the basis of ability rather than seniority or influence, and they were, on the whole, more concerned with maintaining the morale of their men than with imposing strict discipline. Napoleon seldom risked an engagement unless his forces were the numerical equal of the enemy’s; then he staked everything on a dramatic surprise.
Yet even his seemingly invincible French army had defects. The medical services were poor, so that most deaths on campaigns were from disease or improperly treated wounds. Pay was low and irregular, and supplies were also irregular, since it was French policy to have men and horses live off the land as much as they could.
Napoleon reached the pinnacle of his career when he met Czar Alexander I on the “neutral ground” of a raft anchored in the Niemen River at Tilsit, on the frontier between East Prussia and Russia. There, in July 1807, the two emperors drew up a treaty dividing Europe between them. Alexander acknowledged France’s hegemony over central and western Europe and secured in return the recognition of eastern Europe as the Russian sphere. Napoleon pledged Russia a share in the spoils of the Ottoman Empire if it were dismembered. He demanded no territory from the defeated czar, only a commitment to cease trade with Britain and to join the war against it.
While the two emperors negotiated on the raft, Frederick William III (r. 1797-1840), the Prussian king, nervously paced the banks of the Nieman. He had good cause to be nervous, for Tilsit cost him almost half his territory. Prussia’s Polish provinces formed a new puppet state, the grand duchy of Warsaw. Prussian territory west of the Elbe River went to Napoleon to dispose of as he wished.
Thus all Europe was divided into three parts: first came the French Empire, including France proper and the territories annexed since 1789; second were the satellites, ruled in many cases by relatives of Napoleon; and third came Austria, Prussia, and Russia, forced by defeat to become allies of France. The only powers remaining outside the Napoleonic system were Britain, Turkey, and Sweden.
In central Europe Napoleon decreed a further reduction in the number of German states, and in 1806 he aided the formal dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. Francis II, the reigning Habsburg, now called himself emperor of Austria. To replace the vanished empire, Napoleon created the Confederation of the Rhine, which included almost every German state except Austria and Prussia. At the heart of this confederation Napoleon carved out for his brother Jerome the kingdom of Westphalia, which incorporated the Prussian holdings west of the Elbe seized at Tilsit.
Napoleon longed to give dignity and permanence to his creations. It was not enough that his brothers and his in-laws should sit on thrones; he himself must found a dynasty, must have the heir so far denied him in fifteen years of childless marriage. He divorced Josephine, therefore, and in 1810 married Marie-Louise, the daughter of the Habsburg Francis II. In due time Marie-Louise bore a son, called “the king of Rome” but destined never to rule in Rome or anywhere else.