Napoleon III Essay

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Louis-Napoleon was born on April 20, 1808, at the apogee of the empire of his uncle, Napoleon I. Louis Napoleon was the son of Napoleon’s brother Louis, whom Napoleon had made the king of Holland, and Hortense de Beauharnais, the daughter of Josephine de Beauharnais.

In April 1814 Napoleon I was forced to abdicate his throne, bringing to an end the Napoleonic adventure, except for the Hundred Days in 1815, when Napoleon suddenly won back his imperial crown only to lose it again permanently at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. With the fall of the Napoleonic empire and the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty in the person of King Louis XVIII, Louis-Napoleon found refuge with his mother in Switzerland and Germany. From an early age, Louis-Napoleon sought to emulate the martial glory of his uncle, and he joined the Swiss army, where he rose to the rank of captain.

Louis-Napoleon was also animated with the revolutionary spirit that Napoleon and the French had brought across Europe. Following in his uncle’s boot steps, Louis-Napoleon would become involved in the revolutionary ferment that swept Italy, once Austrian power had been reestablished following the defeat of Napoleon. In 1830 revolutions swept over Europe, in spite of the efforts of the Great Powers to end political liberalism after the defeat of Napoleon and his subsequent death in 1821. Louis-Napoleon became involved in the revolutionary ferment in Italy. In France, the last of the Bourbons, Charles X, was forced to abdicate in favor of Louis-Philippe, the “Citizen King.”

Louis-Napoleon’s personal ambitions were given an unexpected boost with the death of Napoleon’s only son, Napoleon II, in the cholera epidemic of 1832. With the death of Napoleon II, Louis-Napoleon became the standard-bearer of the Napoleonic cause, and his political ambition gradually emerged to take the place of his illustrious uncle. He thus became a direct threat to the rule of Louis-Philippe in France. As a political conspirator for most of his adult life, Louis-Napoleon must have realized that France was still content under the reign of the “Citizen King.” Thus he lived the life of an English gentleman, biding his time for another chance at imperial glory.

He had only two years to wait. In 1848, when liberal revolutions swept over Europe again, Louis Philippe fell from power. The new provisional authorities gave Louis-Napoleon permission to settle in France. Presenting himself as a reformist candidate, Louis-Napoleon was elected to sit in the new assembly. However, it was soon evident he was not content with only that.

Louis-Napoleon set about imprisoning his opponents and waging a coup d’état. Given the bloodiness of the Paris revolution of 1848, most Frenchman received Louis-Napoleon as their new emperor with a measure of relief, as an earlier generation had his uncle after the chaos of the French Revolution. Napoleon III, as he was now named, and his empress Eugénie attempted to bring to life again the glamour of the First Empire of his uncle, with the imperial eagles prominent in Paris again for the first time since Napoleon I’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815.

Foreign Adventures

Like Napoleon I, his nephew could not resist being drawn into foreign adventures. In 1854 Napoleon III entered the Crimean War to defend Turkey from Russian aggression. The idea of France and England being allies after the long Napoleonic Wars was a surprise for many on both sides. Together they helped bring about the Russian surrender at the Treaty of Paris in 1856.

Remembering his earlier attempts to liberate Italy, in 1859 Napoleon III invaded Italy, where, allied with the Kingdom of Piedmont under Victor Emmanuel II, he was determined to break the hold of Austria on northern Europe, as his uncle had done in 1796–97. On June 24, 1859, the Austrians were defeated decisively at the Battle of Solferino, leading the way to the unification of Italy under Victor Emmanuel. Henri Dunant, a Swiss, was so appalled by the suffering of the wounded on the battlefield that he took the initial steps that would lead to the foundation of today’s Red Cross and Red Crescent associations. However, the growing might of France alarmed the British and created a war scare that led to many volunteer regiments who feared Napoleon III would invade England.

If Louis-Napoleon desired to imitate his imperial uncle in all things, he also did so by reaching beyond his ability. As Napoleon I was permanently weakened by his invasion of Spain in 1808, so too was Napoleon III by his adventure in Mexico. From 1857 to 1860 Mexico was embroiled in a civil war, which endangered the investments of foreign countries there. On October 31, 1861, England, France, and Spain occupied Mexican fortresses to guarantee repayment of Mexican debts. The new Mexican president, Benito Juárez, was compelled to agree.

Mexican Interests

However, when England and Spain withdrew in April 1862, Napoleon III, taking advantage of the American Civil War, attempted to establish a Mexican empire ruled by the Austrian archduke Maximilian. Juárez was able to unite Mexico against the French occupiers, and the Mexicans never viewed Maximilian as more than Napoleon’s puppet. After four years of guerrilla war, Napoleon III was forced to evacuate Mexico in 1866 when the United States, with its civil war won, deployed a large army under General Phillip Sheridan on the border with Mexico. Maximilian, who did not leave with the French, was shot by a Mexican firing squad.

Napoleon III was now confronted by the growth of Prussia, under the leadership of its chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck was determined to unite Germany under Prussia’s king, Wilhelm I. In 1866, in a mere six weeks, Prussia defeated Austria, the only other real claimant to power in Germany. Napoleon III felt that a united Germany under Prussia represented a clear threat to France.

The two countries finally clashed over Bismarck’s attempt to put a relative of the Prussian king on the throne of Spain. On July 19, 1870, Napoleon’s France declared war on Prussia and the North German states supporting it. In the war that followed Napoleon proved no match for the Prussian troops. He himself and Marshal MacMahon were surrounded at the fortress city of Sedan and forced to surrender to the Prussian army on September 1, 1870. Napoleon III was forced to undergo the humiliation of imprisonment at the hands of the Prussians, after which he was permitted to leave for exile in England in 1871. He would die there on January 9, 1873. Any hopes of a Bonapartist resurgence ended when his son, Louis Eugène, the prince imperial, was killed in a minor skirmish by Zulus as he accompanied British troops during the Zulu War of 1879.


  1. Cronin, Vincent. Napoleon. New York: HarperCollins, 1995;
  2. Howard, Michael. Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France 1870–1871. London: Routledge, 2001;
  3. Jordan, David. The History of the French Foreign Legion from 1831 to the Present Day. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2005;
  4. Lefebvre, Georges. Napoleon. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970;
  5. Thorburn, W. A. French Army Regiments and Their Uniforms. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1976.

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