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The Man and the MythNapoleon and JoesphinePolitics in Napoleon's TimesNapoleon at War

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Napoleon in battle

First Italian Campaign | The Egyptian Campaign | Second Italian Campaign | The Ulm-Austerlitz Campaign | The Prussian Campaign | The Peninsular War | The Austrian War | The Russian Campaign | From Lützen to Elba | The Waterloo Campaign


The Austrian War, 1809

Inspired by the rebellious Spaniards' success against Napoleon, Austria launched a campaign to liberate neighboring countries from Napoleon's rule. Hoping to inspire large-scale revolution throughout the Confederacy of the Rhine, Austrian troops invade Bavaria on April 8, 1809, proclaiming a War of German Liberation. But the people of Bavaria, who had profited from Napoleon's earlier defeat of Austria, rallied once again around Napoleon as he assembled his troops for battle.

"Austria wants to get slapped; she shall have it," Napoleon boasted. "If the Emperor Francis attempts any hostile move, he will soon have ceased to reign."

Two weeks later, Napoleon battered the Austrians, forcing them to retreat back across the border. He then swooped down on Vienna once again, capturing the city on May 13. Even with the capital in enemy control, Emperor Francis I refused to sign a peace treaty. Napoleon would have to crush the massive Austrian army to bring him to the negotiations table.

From marshy Lobau Island west of Vienna, Napoleon's army launched an attack against the Austrians on May 22. Despite being outnumbered almost two to one, the French pushed their enemy out of the village of Essling, inflicting heavy losses. However, Austrian troops upstream from the island cut loose a floating flour mill that smashed Napoleon's pontoon bridges. His troops were cut off from vital reinforcements and supplies. He crossed the river to help reassure them.

ELTING: If he's needed up at the very front to encourage people, he's there. The Austrians got the jump on him for once and he was having to counter their moves and he's described as sitting under a canopy of cannon balls. Most of his staff had their horses killed or wounded.

Napoleon ordered a withdrawal to Lobau by rowboats and gave command of his troops to Gerneral Lannes, one of his oldest friends and most competent warriors. Not long afterwards, a cannonball shattered Lannes' legs. He was rushed to Napoleon's personal surgeon, who amputated one of his damaged limbs. But it was to no avail. Within nine days, Lannes was dead.

Napoleon had lost his most valuable marshall. Handsome, brave, and always dependable, Lannes' death was a crushing blow to Napoleon. His soldiers mourned; Napoleon wept openly. He wrote to Lannes' widow:

"I [have lost] the most distinguished general in my army, my companion in arms for sixteen years, and… my best friend."

Undaunted by defeat at Essling, Napoleon readied his troops for a second assault. After rebuilding the bridges, Napoleon moved his troops over the river again under the cover of a heavy thunderstorm on the night of July 4. Two days later, 155,000 Austrians fought Napoleon's 173,000 troops, the largest army Napoleon ever led into battle. After two days of relentless fighting, 32,500 soldiers of the Grand Armée were dead or wounded, along with 37,146 Austrians.

"The enemy is retreating in disorder, and all is going as well as possible," Napoleon wrote to Josephine. "My losses are heavy, but the victory is complete and decisive." He nonchalantly added, "I am sunburned."

In October 1809, Francis I signed a peace treaty with Napoleon. Their terms of the agreement were very favorable to the Emperor of the French — three million of Francis' subjects (out of sixteen million) become subjects of Napoleon. It was the fourth, and last, time the Austrians would be beaten by the Corsican upstart.

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