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Napoleonic Era

Napoleonic Era

The Rhineland around 1800. Above, you see from the left to the right: soldiers from Kleve-Berg in Napoleon's army, Joachim Murat, the ruins of Heisterbach, the Code Dvil and a canon in Bonn.

The French Revolution shattered Europe's monarchies. When the Royal Family made an attempt to escape and Prussian and Austrian troops marched against Paris, the Jacobins got the upper hand and proclaimed the republic. King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, youngest daughter of Maria Theresia, were found guilty and executed in 1793.

The End of the Old Empire

The French troops stopped the first march on Paris and stroke back. The Revolutionary Government introduced mass conscription (in French: levée en masse), and the mercenary armies of Prussia and Austria were confronted by a people's army of men who fought for their country and the ideas of the revolution. Their war song, the Marseillaise, became the national anthem of France. French troops occupied the left bank of the Rhine. Bonn fell on October 6, 1794. De facto, the Rhine was now the border between the Revolutionary France and the Holy Roman Empire, although it was not recognized as such yet.

Nonetheless, many people welcomed the French, because some achievements of the French Revolution now came to Germany: liberation from serfdom, freedom of trade, abolition of the aristocracy's privileges, and end of the manorial system. The Napoleonic Code assured equality of all citizens before the law, and administration and economy were reorganized along the lines of the French model. Many changes were changes for the better.

In the meantime, Russia, Austria and Prussia had divided Poland among themselves for a second (1793) and third (1795) time, and Prussia under King Frederick William II (in German Friedrich Willhelm, 1786-1797) had annexed large territories. To concentrate on his new territories in the East, the King negotiated peace with France. As soon as compensation for lost Prussian territories on the left bank of the Rhine (Cleves) was guaranteed, the Peace of Basel was concluded in 1795, and Prussia quit the coalition against Revolutionary France for more than a decade. Already in the same year, French troops crossed the Rhine to fight against the imperial Austrian troops. Soldiers of both armies marched through our region, and the imperial troops needed quarters and food.

Napoleon Bonaparte

One of the extremely capable revolutionary generals was Napoleon Bonaparte. He seized power in his coup d'état of November 9, 1799. Five years later, in 1894, he crowned himself Emperor. For years, Austria, Prussia and Russia were not match for him. Napoleon defeated the Austrians in Italy. In the Treaty of Campo Formio of October 17, 1797, Holy Roman Emperor Francis II (in German Franz II.) had to cede Habsburg territories to France. Moreover, he had to formally acknowledge the Rhine river as border between France and the Empire; the occupied left bank became French territory. Four years later, on February 8, 1801, the treaty of Lunéville was concluded; it confirmed the annexation of the left bank by France and obliged the Holy Roman Empire to compensate those princes who had lost territories there.


On February 23, 1803, the Reichstag (Imperial Diet) passed a resolution on how to settle these compensations, referred to as the "Reichsdeputationshauptschluss" (in English: Principal Conclusion of the Extraordinary Imperial Delegation). Ecclesiastical states would be secularized and given to other, usually neighboring secular principalities. In other words: most of the bishops and archbishops were dispossessed. Moreover, almost all small states lost their sovereignty and became part of other, bigger states (mediatization). Almost all the small and medium states disappeared. On the other side, some princes who were on good terms with Napoleon gained more for compensation than they had lost. Among the winners of 1803 were Bavaria and Württemberg, both elevated to kingdoms shortly after.

Also the Archbishopric of Cologne, an ecclesiastical state, was secularized. Its territories in our region eventually fell to the Counts of Berg, who then ceded them to Napoleon in 1806. The Monastery of Heisterbach was dissolved and its demolition ordered. The last Archbishop Maximilian Franz of Habsburg, Maria Theresia's youngest son, had to flee.

Trafalgar and Austerlitz

Austria, Sweden, Russia and England again joined forces against Napoleon. In the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805, the French fleet suffered a devastating defeat by the British Royal Navy under the command of Admiral Lord Nelson. Two month later, in the Battle of Austerlitz on December 2, 1805 Napoleon, supported by troops from Bavaria and Württemberg, defeated the armies of the Russian Tsar Alexander I and Emperor Francis II.

Confederation of the Rhine

Napoleon's armies now controlled much of the Holy Roman Empire. Most German states on the right bank grouped together into the "Confederation of the Rhine" (1806) under French protection, most of the others joins later until finally only Prussia, Austria, Danish Holstein and Swedish Pommerania were left out. De facto, the Holy Roman Empire did not exist anymore. Pushed by Napoleon, Francis II abdicated and declared the abolition of Holy Roman Empire. From now on, he was "Emperor of Austria".

The Grand Duchy of Berg as model state for the Confederation of the Rhine

In March 15, 1806, the Duke of Berg, in personal union King of Bavaria, ceded the duchy to Napoleon, who enlarged its territory and elevated it to Grand Duchy of Berg. Also Königswinter with the mountains Wolkenburg and Drachenfels now fell to the new Grand Duchy of Berg. By decree of March 26, 1806, Napoleon assigned it to his cavalry general and brother-in law, Joachim Murat. When Murat became King of Naples in 1808, Napoleon himself took over the Grand Duchy of Berg. On February 12, 1808, serfdom was abolished in the Grand Duchy of Berg, on January 1, 1810, the French Franc was introduced and the Code Civil, also referred to as Code Napoléon, entered in force and assured equality of all citizens before the law. Administration and economy were reorganized along the lines of the French model, the manorial system was abolished, allowing freedom of trade, and in 1812, a uniform jurisdiction followed. Many changes were changes for the better.

But Napoleon also forcibly enlisted soldiers from the Confederation of the Rhine to fight in his campaigns. Military service in the French army became mandatory, since 1806 the Grand Duchy of Berg had to recruit 5,000 men a year for Napoleon's wars. Soldiers from Berg fought against Prussia and in Spain. In the later Napoleonic war, countless French and auxiliary soldiers would lose their lives.

The breakdown of Prussia

Finally, the Prussian King Frederick William III (in German Friedrich Wilhelm, 1797-1840) took up arms against Napoleon, but now he was on his own. In the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt, Prussia suffered a devastating defeat, the King and his family fled to Memel in Eastern Prussia, and Napoleon rode into Berlin at the top of his troops. Under the treaty of Tilsit in 1807, Prussia lost almost half of her territories, including all possessions west of the Elbe river. In vain Queen Louise asked for milder terms.

Napoleon established the Kingdom of Westphalia and gave it to his younger brother Jérome, to become a model state for the Confederation of the Rhine. Prussia was occupied by French troops, and forced into a military alliance with France. In these times of hardships, great men such as Stein and Hardenberg, set about reforming and modernizing the Prussian state; the peasants were liberated from serfdom, the Jews emancipated, and the municipalities were granted self-administration. The school system was reformed and free trade was introduced. General Gneisenau reformed the Prussian army.

Continental system and beginning resistance

Since Napoleon could not conquer England, he intended to fight her by economic means, and decreed the Continental system: no country was allowed to trade with England, no harbor was allowed to let English ships moor. At first, these measures hit England's economy, but then English tradesmen found new markets for their merchandises in their colonies, and eventually the continental system rather strengthened England as a naval and trading power, whereas people on the continent suffered.

Still Napoleon was far more powerful, but resistance gradually grew. The Spaniards waged a guerilla war against French occupation, and only after long negotiations did Napoleon get military assistance from the Confederation of the Rhine. In Prussia and other German states, there was at first only little resistance. But the pressure of Napoleon's dominance made patriotism grow, the word "my country" (in German Vaterland, fatherland) became meaningful. Yet, patriotism did not go against tolerance and cosmopolitanism, loving one's own country and culture included respect for other cultures. This is what great men of that time exemplified through their own lives, such as the universal scholar Wilhelm von Humboldt and the Brothers Grimm. Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm did not only collect German fairy tales, but legends from all over the world, had them translated and published them all together.

The disaster in Moscow

The Continental System finally led to a breakup between the Tsar Alexander I and Napoleon, and Napoleon took up arms against Russia. On June 23, 1812 the enormous Grande Armée of 650,000 men crossed the Njemen River. Among them were about 270,000 Frenchmen and many soldiers from Prussia, Austria and the Confederation of the Rhine. The Grande Armée defeated the Russians in the bloody Battle of Borodino in September 1812 and shortly after captured Moscow. But the city was abandoned, and the same night the Russians burned it down. With victory out of sight and all supplies and quarters gone up in flames, Napoleon finally ordered retreat.

But it was too late; the Grande Armée got into the Russian winter and was again and again attacked by Cossacks. With the last bit of strength, the soldiers fought their way through enemy lines. Among the Frenchmen, only 18,000 survived, among the Bavarians only 3,000, and of 500 soldiers from the Duchy of Berg, only 190 came back alive. General Yorck, commander of the Prussian regiments in the Grande Armée and a Prussian patriot, signed a truce with the Russian General Diebitsch, without being authorized by the Prussian King (Convention of Tauroggen of December 30, 1812). It became the start of the Wars of Liberation.

Hunger and Poverty in the Great Duchy of Berg

Although the Grand Duchy of Berg had close economic ties to France, Napoleon accepted its decline for the sake of his continent system. The Rhine was the customs border, also goods from Berg were classified as "hostile" and taxed high, so that Berg was de facto cut off from the French and Dutch markets. Soon the economy had reached a lot, people impoverished, hunger and poverty spread. The mandatory service in Napoleon's army strained the people so much that in it came to open opposition against further recruitment in January 1813. Troops from Berg were no longer used.

Wars of Liberation

King Frederick William III decreed general conscription and called all men to defend their country against Napoleon, the soldiers fighting in the regular army and everyone else who could bear a weapon. A wave of enthusiasm and dedication went through the lands, many volunteered and new military forces were created. Men not serving in the regular army joined forces in the Landwehr (defense of the country) regiments and marched with the regular regiments into combat. Another new military unit was the Landsturm (national storm) forces, yet they remained at home to defend their towns and villages. Volunteers came together in Free Corps (voluntary forces), among them the famous Lützow Free Corps, named after its commander Ludwig Adolf Wilhelm von Lützow. Men from all over Prussia and the German states fought with him, among them the poet Joseph von Eichendorff. The colors of their uniforms were black-red-gold, and later these colors became a symbol of freedom and national unity, and eventually the flag of democratic Germany.

In summer 1813, Prussia, England, Sweden, Austria and Bavaria stood against Napoleon. In the Battle of Leipzig on October 16-19, 1813, also referred to as the "Battle of the Nations", Napoleon's army was defeated and had to retreat.

Landsturm vom Siebengebirge (Seven Mountains Landsturm)

The Prussian army chased them. The Prussian Major von Boltenstern and his troops came to Königswinter and were met with enthusiasm. On November 10, 1813, the people from Königswinter and other villages formed the "Landsturm vom Siebengebirge", and 3,000 armed men protected the right bank of the Rhine River from Bad Honnef to the conjunction of the rivers Rhine and Sieg.

In New Year's night 1813/14, Prussian troops under field marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher crossed the Rhine at Caub, Palatinate. Cologne was still occupied by the French. On January 3, 1814, the Prussian troops under von Boltenstern and 150 volunteers from the region set out to re-conquer the city. But the attack failed and von Boltenstern lost his life. The same day, Prussian troops and Landsturm men attacked from the Island of Nonnenwerth the French troops on the left side of the Rhine. Josef Genger of the Landsturm died in combat. A memorial on the Drachenfels, the Landsturmdenkmal, reminds us of both, von Boltenstern and Genger.

On January 14, 1814, the French had to withdraw from the Rhine frontier and from Cologne, in March 1814 the left bank was re-conquered. On March 31, 1814, the Allies finally entered Paris. Napoleon had to abdicate and go into exile on the island of Elba. The Bourbon monarchy was restored.

Waterloo and Congress of Vienna

Statesmen from all over Europe convened in the Congress of Vienna to reorganize Europe. But soon rivalries between the Allies arose, and they were at the verge of taking up arms against each other when alarming news reached them: on March 1, 1815, Napoleon and some hundred followers had landed in Southern France. Many people hailed him, and troops that should have fought him had defected and joined him. Quickly the allies found an agreement; the last act was signed on June 9, 1815, some days before the battle of Waterloo.

After the victory over Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna compensated Prussia for her lost territories. The whole of the Rhineland, Westphalia, and some other territories fell to Prussia. The German states remained and grouped together into a loose "German Federation" (1815-1866). The Congress also reestablished the old feudal order.

One last time Napoleon defeated the Prussian Army, but some days later, at Waterloo in Belgium, he was finally defeated by the united Prussian and English armies under the command of Wellington and Blücher. Napoleon had to abdicate a second time and was exiled to the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. Here, he died in 1821.


The photos are from the German Wikipedia, public domain section.