The War of the Fourth Coalition


Napoleon and his soldiersAlarmed by France’s growing power, the Prussians now challenged Napoleon, who made short work of them. “The idea that Prussia could take the field against me by herself,” he said, “seems so ridiculous that it does not merit discussion.”

Within three weeks in October of 1806, he brought the Prussians to their knees. Defeating the Prussian army at the battles of Jéna and Auerstädt, Napoleon captured 140,000 prisoners and left 25,000 dead or wounded. The might of the Prussian army had been entirely crushed.

On October 27, Napoleon marched triumphantly through Berlin to the strains of the Marseilles, invoking the Revolution, equality, and the abolition of privilege. But as 1806 drew to a close, Napoleon was still at war. Austria and Prussia had both surrendered, but the Russians — bloodied after Austerlitz — and Great Britain — all powerful on the seas — remained dangerous enemies. To defeat Russia, Napoleon marched his soldiers deep into Poland.

Napoleon was in Warsaw when he was stunned by the news of a surprise Russian attack. He struck back at once, first at Eylau, just 130 miles from the Russian border, then, later in nearby Friedland.

The carnage in both battles was terrible: 70,000 French and Russian soldiers killed or wounded. Napoleon’s army was torn and bloody; the Tsar’s army was in ruins. Alexander puzzled over what to do next.

On June 25, 1807, Alexander traveled to Tilsit on the western border of the Russian empire to discuss peace with the Emperor of France. To signify their equal status, they met on a raft moored precisely in the center of the Niemen River — the boundary between Russia and Europe.

Napoleon’s peace terms were generous. He demanded no Russian territory at all. In return, the Tsar agreed to become France’s ally – to join the Continental Blockade and refuse to trade with Britain.

Only ten days before, they had been bleeding each other dry. Now the two old enemies were acting like old friends. The Tsar and Napoleon spent long hours together, inspecting each other’s armies, awarding medals to soldiers on both sides. After two weeks, the two men seemed to have grown genuinely fond of one another.

Napoleon was charmed by Alexander, describing him as “especially handsome, like a hero with all the graces of an amiable Parisian.” The Tsar, in turn, seemed in awe of Napoleon and his sheer power. As they said goodbye, Napoleon was convinced he had turned the Tsar into a friend and ally. “If Alexander were a woman,” he wrote Josephine, “I would make him my mistress.”

France rejoiced at the signing of the treaty between the two giant powers. Once again, peace in Europe seemed secure.

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