The Napoleonic wars illustrate how warfare, seemingly the most conventional object of history, defies history’s most conventional questions.
Trying to locate the Napoleonic Wars as an event, or a constellation of events in time and space, only reveals the historical dislocations produced by war on a global scale. Like many of the wars of the twentieth century, the Napoleonic wars illustrate how warfare, seemingly the most conventional object of history, defies history’s most conventional questions: when, where, who? Yet these particular wars also pose distinctive difficulties to our efforts to pin them down. This essay examines how the Napoleonic wars, in their scale, their repetitions and infiltration of cultural forms, keep history – and the historical event – an open, persistent question.
When did the Napoleonic Wars begin and when did they end? Where did they take place? Who participated? Even before launching into any discussion of cause and effect, we run into trouble answering these simple questions of conventional history: when, where, who? Certain moments have their dates, places and actors locked into the historical record, yet the large penumbra of events that fall under the label “Napoleonic Wars” – not to mention the lived experience of that wartime – defies such certainty. Like other times of war (one need think only of the Vietnam War), but in an idiosyncratic way, the Napoleonic Wars illustrate the limits of periodization, linear chronology, and the conventions of naming we reach for when we try to nail down the past. Both in its own lived present and in subsequent commemorative and historical reflections, the Napoleonic Wars open wide the very idea of history, dating and pastness.
Within the set of events generally referred to as the Napoleonic Wars, specific dates and places seem unequivocally fixed; they have been chiseled into stone monuments and seized upon for anniversary celebrations throughout the British Empire: 21 October 1805, Battle of Trafalgar; 18 June 1815 Battle of Waterloo. Decisive military victories provide especially satisfying dates and with them a sense of formal closure: such victories can then be revisited, even re-enacted without the danger of unleashing residual violence. In this way, Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia and the Russians’ desperate burning of Moscow receive a sort of secure commemoration with each performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (formally titled The Year 1812, Festival Overture in E flat major, Op. 49), where booming cannon-fire has been subsumed into highly synchronized music. An earlier, comparable impulse for composed commemoration found Jane Austen and companions in their parlors during the Napoleonic Wars, tracing out the steps to the popular dance tune “The Battle of Prague,” a battle fought decades earlier during the Seven Years’ War and set to music in 1788 by Frantisek Kotzwara. Like the measures of music, dating itself loans an intelligible, rehears-able, even pleasing structure to otherwise overwhelming events.
The very performance of commemoration nevertheless helps to blur the dated markers and historical specificity that enable memorialization in the first place: the Seven Years’ War infiltrates the home front during the wars with Napoleon even as “1812” resurfaces at a time of Russian imperial expansion in Central Asia. Trafalgar Square with Nelson’s column and Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe in Paris are such fully established landmarks of their respective cities, they stand almost indifferent to their specific military referents. Each conversion of infantry into dancers, armaments into instruments, battles into cityscape, threatens what Karl Marx (in his tribute to the Napoleonic moment) understood as a translation from tragedy to farce. In commemorating Waterloo, or any other battle, scenes of great carnage are recast and rehearsed in public spectacles and everyday routines (dance steps, a pop tune on the radio, a poster in the underground). We recast to reduce. As Philip Shaw has pointed out, what came to be known as “Waterloo” became the shorthand for a series of hostile encounters over the course of three days, which took place in various locations outside Brussels. If General Wellington’s Prussian ally General Blucher or British Poet Laureate Robert Southey had prevailed, Waterloo (the name of the nearby village where Wellington set up his headquarters) would have been called “La Belle Alliance” (the name of a farmhouse at the heart of the fighting on the last day) (Shaw 84, 95-113). Finally meeting your . . . Belle Alliance.
James Chandler has argued that much Romantic writing organizes itself around “dated specificity” and “the problematic of the date” (74, 53). We can see in that concentrated focus a strong desire to determine what was contemporary or “news” but also what was truly past and done. So while the newspapers and periodicals offered up daily or monthly news of the on-going events – news that was usually reported with considerable lag-time, often mistaken and in need of subsequent correction – poets, often in the pages of these same periodicals, offered up poems set on distant battlefields, in remote times. New battles and old: the wartime public ate up both voraciously. In doing so they hoped perhaps to wed the reassurances of datedness to the uncertainties of the present
In this way, the Napoleonic wartime was itself desperately commemorating battles from the past. Southey’s “Battle of Blenheim” or his popular Joan of Arc; Robert Burns’ oft-revived “Scots! wha hae wi’ Wallace bled”; Wordsworth’s “Sonnet, In the Pass of Killcranky,” “Ye Men of Kent,” or “Prophecy, February 1807”; Joanna Baillie’s historical dramas or most of the poems in Felicia Hemans’ England and Spain; or Valour and Patriotismcelebrate the military exploits of days –and wars – far gone. Like the sixteenth-century combat scenes in Walter Scott’s remarkably popular verse narrative The Lady of the Lake, these poems of battles long ago could re-animate but also secure, determine, and fix war as something bygone. Dating practices verified the past-ness of these past conflicts: a measurable distance (the “60 years since” of Scott’s Waverley, or the nearly 300 years of his Lady of the Lake) gave a finished structure or at least the hope of such structure to the seemingly never-ending experience of the present war. In the contemporary public imaginary then, the Napoleonic Wars were fought simultaneously on at least two temporal fronts; ancient battles gave form to the turbulence and indeterminacy of the present while present warfare reported in newspapers motivated the reimagining of Britain’s past, especially its military history. The Napoleonic Wars gained legibility from a host of prior wars: the Seven Years’ War, the Jacobite Uprisings, the War of Spanish Succession, wars with Scottish clans, the Hundred Year’s War, the Crusades, and so on.
Name, Date, Place
Dating and the increasingly self-conscious understanding of datedness that arose at the very time of the conflict with Napoleon could help remove events from the uncertainties of an open-ended present. Yet even as they moved into the past and became written as history, the Napoleonic Wars managed to be distinctly resistant to dating and sometimes even naming. British historians debate whether it makes more sense to refer to the “Great War with France,” lasting from 1793 to 1815, or to a “Second Hundred Year’s War” with France, extending from 1689-1815; in either case the name eliminates other participants as well as various periods of peace. Part of the difficulty lies in the plural form: several individual wars determine the set, and those wars sometimes overlap, succeed or run parallel to each other. Historians hoping to ease the difficulty date by isolated wars. They disarticulate the Napoleonic Wars in a linear series:
- War of the Second Coalition 1798-1802
- War of the Third Coalition 1805
- War of the Fourth Coalition 1806-
- War of the Fifth Coalition 180
- War of the Sixth Coalition 1812-1
- War of the Seventh Coalition 1815
The successive numerical coordinates for the Coalitions offer regularity, but that regularity is undercut by the shifting make-up of that Coalition (sometimes Prussia was in, sometimes not; sometimes Russia, sometimes not) and by the discontinuity and ambiguity of the dates. The War of the Second Coalition begins before Napoleon names himself first consul of France but well after he began leading military attacks against Coalition forces. The series does not acknowledge the often separate military actions of the British: some historians add to the list the “British War with France,” which they date from the declaration of war in 1793 (after the execution of Louis XVI) until the Peace of Amiens in 1802, followed by the “British War with Napoleon,” dated from 1803 (the end of the Peace) until 1815. Here too nomenclature and dating look for too much simplicity. From 1799-1802 Napoleon was the unambiguous leader of France, yet, in the reckonings above, these years are part of Britain’s War with France, not yet their War with Napoleon.
These methods of dating rely on identifying (and thereby restricting) the main antagonists in the conflict. But other aspects of the wars emerge when identification comes from location rather than political entities: the Peninsular Wars were fought in Spain and Portugal intermittently between 1807-1814 (parallel with four Coalition wars); the invasion of Russia occurred during the latter half of 1812. Indeed, when our attention turns to sites of conflict, we have to move well beyond the European theater and recognize that warfare spun out across the globe. When Napoleon invaded Egypt, the British sent troops to capture the port at Cape Town in South Africa. At that moment Tipu Sultan, France’s ally in Mysore in southern India, sought to expel the British again in the Fourth Mysore War, vainly anticipating French assistance. (A young Wellington led the British forces in defeating Tipu). The island of St. Domingue, now Haiti, changed hands several times, as its revolutionary government of ex-slaves fought French colonists and imperial armies. In Mexico, a revolutionary army rose up in 1810 against Spanish colonial power, now overseen by Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother; the war there continued until Independence was declared in 1823. Meanwhile, between 1807-1812, the Danish–Norwegian kingdom found itself fighting a guerrilla war (called The Gunboat War) in northern waters after its neutral ports and ships were repeatedly attacked by the British Navy, which was in turn provoked by Russia’s alliance with Napoleon in 1807, which sparked in its turn the Anglo-Russian War of 1807-1812. What the United States calls the War of 1812 was fought within a sprawling theater: the Great Lakes region, the western frontier of the new nation, the Chesapeake Bay area, and the Mississippi Delta. Its dated name belies the temporal span of military activity (from 1812-1814) between the U.S., Great Britain, Canadian colonists and indigenous peoples. Arguably the most famous battle of that war, the Battle of New Orleans (also commemorated in popular song), took place after peace treaties had been signed but before they were ratified. All of these “events” have their place within the constellation we refer to simply as the Napoleonic Wars, and yet the common understanding of the term limits itself to the European theater, and primarily European actors. Depending where you stand on the planet, other stars in that constellation may burn as bright or brighter.
The end of warfare is conventionally dated with the signing of treaties: the Napoleonic Wars distinguish themselves for the repeated abrogation of peace treaties. The wars kept not being over:
- 9 February 1801 Treaty of Lunévillw
- 27 March 1802 Treaty of Amiens
- 26 December 1805 Treaty of Pressburg
- 7-9 July 1807 Treaty of Tilsit
- 14 October 1809 Treaty of Schönbrunn
- 30 May 1814 (First) Treaty of Paris
- 14 December 1814 Treaty of Ghent
- 20 November 1815 (Second) Treaty of Paris
The list above offers only the better-known treaties, between some of the larger states involved. They suggest the nebulous border between war and peace. Consider for instance this lesser-known wartime/ peacetime episode. Having signed the Treaty of Gent with the United States, Britain continued to press the U.S. to surrender large portions of land in Maine and leave Midwestern territories to indigenous inhabitants. Simultaneously the British were preparing three different invasions into American territory, mostly in areas the young nation had acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase (1804). Britain aimed to enforce its treaty demands by further warfare; to that end the Prime Minister Lord Liverpool wrote to recruit the services of Wellington, fresh from his victories in the Peninsular campaigns. Europe was by all accounts at peace: a Treaty had been signed that spring in Paris and Bonaparte exiled to Elba. If Wellington had agreed to Liverpool’s request, he would have been across the Atlantic, trying to conclude the Napoleonic Wars in Canada at the moment Napoleon returned to France, General and Emperor once more.
Most wars submit to the techniques of dating fitfully at best; Napoleon’s return crystallizes the acute challenge of this wartime to the rationality and consolations of dating, both in his own time and in ours. His Hundred Days in 1815 epitomize the more general difficulty; they have the temporal waywardness of a dream: Napoleon escaped from exile, landed with 600 men in southern France, and, in defiance of the (First) Treaty of Paris, marched his reassembled army through France, returning to Paris in triumph (again) before sending his armies on to meet the (Seventh) Coalition forces at Waterloo. Imagine the disbelief: hadn’t the enemy been decisively defeated? Hadn’t the usurper been sent into exile, the Bourbon monarchy restored? Troops had been sent home; a peace treaty had (again) been signed; the Coalition’s diplomats were busy at the Congress of Vienna, dividing up the world. The wars that had ripped the world for decades had ended. And, then, they hadn’t.
The Hundred Days. Some historians date them from March 1, the day Napoleon landed in France, to June 18, his defeat at Waterloo: 109 days. Others start from March 20, Napoleon’s return to Paris, and end it with the (second) restoration of Louis XVII on July 8 1815: 111. But counting misses the point: the supra-rational, too perfect 102 is an ideal number, independent of ordinary reckoning. Napoleon’s Hundred Days suggest the Napoleonic Wars reprised in condensed form. They remind us numbers are also symbols, their meaning spiraling out beyond our chronologies.
For all its surfeit of dates, the set of events we call the Napoleonic Wars can drive linear history a little mad – or send it dreaming. The dates of battles, of treaties, of coalitions and wars pile up in no good order – just as the six million dead by battle and disease (and these are only the numbers in Europe) pile up in no good order. Erratic starts and stops, constant realignments and a near-planetary scale make difficult even the simplest task of the historian. When and where did this all take place? To various degrees, this difficulty can be assigned to most large wars: the longer their duration, the wider their geographical scope, the more complex the challenge to historians and the stronger the desire to reduce and fix. The Napoleonic Wars offer a cautionary tale about our understanding of historical events, one among too many. Particularly in its repetitions and returns – the wars they rehearsed and the wars they spun forth; the battlefields they consecrated for future battles (in Flanders, the Mideast, Central Europe); the undying ghost of Napoleon Bonaparte; but also the repeatable tunes and routines planted in our cultural imaginary – the Napoleonic Wars continue to baffle our histories.
- Beethoven’s “Wellington’s Victory, or the Battle of Vittoria” (1813) commemorated a recent British victory in Spain; it too has been performed with live cannon, though cannon were not part of the original composition.
- Tchaikovsky conducted his “1812 Overture” to great acclaim at the opening concert of Carnegie Hall in New York City in May of 1891, despite the fact that “1812” had less triumphal associations in the United States. Nevertheless six months earlier, in December 1890, the U.S. military had fought its last major battle (some call it a massacre) against the native nations at the Battle of Wounded Knee.
- Marx makes the famous statement that history repeats itself “first as tragedy, then as farce” in his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852), written after Louis Napoleon, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, tried to replicate in 1851 the 1799 coup d’état by his uncle. An online version of the text is available at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1346/1346-h/1346-h.htm.
- The references to past warfare range widely, and these are but a small sampling. The Battle of Blenheim (also known as the Second Battle of Blenheim) took place in 1704 during the War of Spanish Succession. Joan of Arc’s battles with the British took place in the mid 15th century, during the Hundred Years’ War. Burns commemorates the Battle of Bannockburn, in 1314. In “The Pass of Killcranky,” Wordsworth recalls a moment from the first Jacobite uprising in 1689, where the Scots defeated the British under William of Orange; but it was a pyrrhic victory, which in the end sped the Scots’ downfall. ”To the Men of Kent” refers to a tradition that the men of this region were not defeated at the time of the Norman invasion (11th century). In his “Prophecy,” addressed to the German nation-states, Wordsworth invokes Arminius, the leader of a coalition of German chieftains who had defeated the invading Romans in the first century A.D.
- Among the significant innovations to dating that shape this period, of course, is the introduction of the revolutionary calendar in France, with its renaming of the months of the year and its announcement of the first year of the Republic as the Year 1.
- Launched by British efforts to curtail the United States, a nominally neutral nation, from trading with France, the drive to war in North America was exacerbated by the British practice of impressing sailors (some of whom were deserters from the British navy) from U.S. ships and by the American power grab in the north, invading Canadian territory.
- Or nightmare. The phrase, “les Cent Jours,” was first used to welcome back to Paris King Louis XVIII, after Napoleon’s final defeat and exile.
- Chandler, James. England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1999.
- Shaw, Philip. Waterloo and the Romantic Imagination. Houndmill: Palgrave, 2004.