“Head of the army,” Napoleon Bonaparte whispered as he breathed his last on May 5, 1821. His health had failed rapidly over the last few months of his exile on Saint Helena near the west coast of Africa. British physicians had attended him, but there was little they could do. In his will Napoleon had requested a final resting place on the Seine, but his unfeeling custodian refused to comply. As he was buried in a nameless tomb on Saint Helena, the grandiose dreams and romantic hopes of many were buried with him. But he was never forgotten. Twenty years later his remains were brought back to France in a display of respect.
Many of Napoleon’s faithful soldiers, also exiled to various places around the world, had been plotting a daring rescue and restoration of the dethroned emperor. Even among the British parliament and citizenry there was much sympathy for Napoleon’s cause. His military exploits excited much admiration in England, and when he had at last surrendered himself, those of a quixotic turn were crest-fallen. Stories of the harsh treatment Napoleon had suffered at the hands of his custodian roused the indignation of some who had at first rejoiced at his exile. In spite of an autopsy which determined the cause of his death to be stomach cancer, rumors began to circulate that the authorities had deliberately poisoned him to remove the possibility of escape and another military nightmare.
Napoleon’s past feats lent some credence to the speculation. He had crowned himself emperor over chaotic post-revolutionary France and put an end to the anarchy and arbitrary slaughter with the firm dictates of the Napoleonic Code, containing all the laws of France consolidated into the first coherent code in legal history. He had raised a Grande Armée and hurled it against all who defied him. He had dissolved the Holy Roman Empire, stripped Prussia of half its territory, set puppet rulers on the thrones of the German states, and successfully waged war against every major power in Europe. He had brought France to glory.
His pride was his downfall. Napoleon was never content to rest on his laurels. He always had to be conquering more territory, even if it wore his army thin. He never lost a field battle except against insurmountable odds, but he sometimes failed to realize that the odds were insurmountable. He had been exiled once before after being hemmed in by the armies of Britain, Russia, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Prussia, and Sweden. In less than a year, he had escaped to rule again.
The Battle of Waterloo had almost been his. Although the British had firmly planted themselves in an ideal position and repulsed his repeated attacks, Napoleon might still have carried the day had his health, his drive, and his subordinates not failed him. The British line began to crack, and for a moment a flicker of hope glimmered, but it was too late. The Prussians had arrived. The flicker of hope died out as they splintered his army into confused, terrified fragments.
For nearly six years Napoleon had lingered on in captivity. But now he was dead. The hopes of the faithful remnant were destroyed forever. France’s brief era of power had passed, leaving only a nameless tomb and the code of the emperor.
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821)
Brief biography from the BBC.
Helpful maps of Corsica, the place of Napoleon’s birth.
The Louisiana Purchase
Napoleon sold the territory to the Americans in 1803.
The Civil Code
Full text of the Napoleonic Code.
Farewell to the Old Guard
Speech given by Napoleon after his failed invasion of Russia in 1814.
Map: St. Helena
The place of Napoleon’s final exile.
Napoleon at His Country House
Simple interactive for younger children showing children’s games in Napoleon’s time.
Using the story of Napoleon crossing the Alps.
Arc de Triomphe, France
Commissioned by Napoleon in 1806 after a victory. Papercraft by Canon.
Battle of Waterloo
You can participate as Napoleon or Wellington, making battlefield decisions in this interactive effort from the BBC.
You Are There: Napoleon Returns from Elba
From the old radio series.
Various paintings of Napoleon. DiscoveryEducation.com suggests paying attention to what each painting says about how Napoleon was viewed at the time, and noticing the following features:
Napoleon’s body language
Other people in the painting
Napoleon’s actions in the painting
Items in the painting with symbolic meaning
The Story of Napoleon by H.E. Marshall
One of our favorites. Free online from the Baldwin Project.
How Napoleon Crossed the Alps
Very simple telling from Fifty Famous Stories Retold by James Baldwin.
You can read about his event in this chapter from Alfred J. Church’s Stories From English History, Part Third.
Napoleon Notebooking Pages
Simple notebooking set for narrations and wrapping up.