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“Napoléon” on the silver screen… and at Geneanet!

Posted by Sean Daly on Nov 24, 2023

Ridley Scott’s film about the emperor Napoléon Bonaparte — and his empress Joséphine de Beauharnais — starring Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby, is the cinematic event of the season. Want to learn more about Napoléon’s era? Geneanet is the right place, as we are France’s #1 genealogy site, with many Premier Empire resources you might not know about!

This week, “Napoléon” is just a film, and not the first. But at the dawn of the 19th century, Napoléon was a figure loved and revered — but also feared and reviled — throughout Europe. Did you know about Napoléon’s role in bringing you civil vital records registration of your European ancestors? Geneanet has resources about Napoléon to interest you.

An extremely brief historical overview of Napoléon

Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821) — called today Napoléon I, because his nephew Napoléon III was in power years later — was a defining figure of European history from the turn of the 19th century. Born in Corsica to an established, well-educated family of modest means the year after the island was ceded to France, Napoléon was recognized as a fast learner and when his father was posted to Paris in 1778, young Napoléon learned French and attended military academies. Teased by his classmates for his accent and poorer origins, he excelled in mathematics and studied history with great interest. He became a second lieutenant in an artillery regiment while still a teenager, revisited Corsica, and continued studying history. As the Révolution unfolded from 1789, he rose through the ranks rapidly at a time the young republic needed officers since monarchies throughout Europe were forming coalitions against France. A brilliant military strategist and tactician, Napoléon was promoted general in 1793 following the decisive victory at Toulon and became well-known in Paris. He refused a command repressing the insurrection in Vendée but in 1795 played a key role checkmating a royalist insurrection in Paris. Promoted twice in the immediate aftermath, he became chief of the army of the interior while his whirlwind romance with Joséphine de Beauharnais led to marriage several months later in the spring of 1796. Off to Italy, in what should have been a sideshow campaign, he scored victory after victory against Austrian armies. A hero now known throughout France, he was sent to Egypt which he conquered, but his forces were trapped when British admiral Horatio Nelson eliminated the French fleet at the Nile. Returning to France in 1799, Napoléon recognized the ineffectiveness of the Directory regime and staged a coup d’état, establishing the French Consulate with himself as First Consul. He stabilized France’s finances and developed the professional army. In 1804, he established the Civil Code, a milestone in civil law in continuity with the principles of the Revolution although far from perfect (there were reduced rights for women). And late that year, he also crowned himself Emperor (and Joséphine as Empress). In 1805, Lord Nelson decimated the French and allied Spanish fleets at Trafalgar, a major setback for Napoléon’s ambitions. Throughout the early years of the 19th century, the seven (depending on how you count!) Napoleonic Wars pitted France against European coalitions, sowing death and destruction throughout Europe. Napoléon’s disastrous campaign in Russia contributed to his defeat by the Sixth Coalition which exiled him in 1814. But he escaped exile and bounced back the following year; during the “Hundred Days”, he rallied the military and regained power. At Waterloo, the Seventh Coalition finally defeated him for good and the victors established a new European order through the Congress of Vienna. Napoléon had hoped for exile with his family in the United States, but was sent instead to the lonely South Atlantic island of Saint Helena where he lived his remaining years of declining health in harsh conditions.

For those who wish to learn more about the man and his influence we suggest the Napoléon Foundation, which encourages research of the Premier and Second Empire periods, promotes access to knowledge about Napoléon, and participates in safeguarding Napoléon’s heritage

two photos of the coronation scene from the film "Napoléon" and detail of the painting on the same topic by Jacques-Louis David
The coronation of Emperor Napoléon and Empress Joséphine in 1804 is portrayed in the scene at left from Ridley Scott’s new film, doubtless inspired by the contemporary painting by Jacques-Louis David… which itself was inspired by the 17th century Rubens painting of the coronation of Marie de’ Medici!

Napoléon’s soldiers: a collaborative project

What was Napoléon without his Grande Armée? Over the past decade, volunteers at Geneanet have been indexing Napoléon’s military muster roll registers from the French military’s historical archives. Over 1.1 million soldiers’ names have been indexed already, and their parents’ names too! Between 1802 and 1815, Napoléon I was at war with the principal countries of Europe. The enormous recruitment of men for his army was exceeded only by World War I over a century later. Perhaps your ancestor was made prisoner during the disastrous campaign in Russia? A source such as this 1826 list at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France can be cross-referenced to Geneanet’s database for more information. Soldiers volunteered and were conscripted from France of course, but also from allied or occupied countries: Belgium, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Poland. Read about this database — available only at Geneanet — here, or try a search on a soldier’s name directly:

A soldier's register entry from the Grand Armée military muster rolls
A typical soldier’s entry in the military muster rolls. A gold mine of information about his parents, birth date and place, physical description, and military career!

Parlez-vous français ? Help us index Napoléon’s soldiers here!

Postcard with map and images of Napoléon's route from Cannes in 1815
This is one of over 800,000 images in Geneanet’s fabulous Postcards collection! Uploaded by member jose75017


The Emperor left his mark in France and throughout Europe; his victories have been immortalized — everyone recognizes the Arc de Triomphe in Paris — but his defeats too — in particular the final one at Waterloo. French genealogists compiled a list of all 662 names on the Arc de Triomphe. Over a hundred monuments concerning Napoléon have been photographed and uploaded to Geneanet by community members. And our huge Postcards collection also has hundreds of images related to Napoléon: monuments including his tomb at the Invalides; images from French châteaux; town streets, squares, and bridges which bear his name, and so on. Remember, you don’t need to have Napoléon in your town to photograph and upload monuments, or scan and upload postcards!

Photo of a commemorative plaque of Napoléon over a doorway in Nice in the south of France
This memorial plaque in the southern city of Nice was uploaded by Geneanet member ploupi!

Geneastar, genealogies of famous and influential people

Geneastar is our sister site with over 18,000 genealogies of famous people from around the world in arts & culture, business, science, exploration, politics, religion, sports, broadcasting… Napoléon’s imperial family has a tree. But so does Joaquin Phoenix! And learn about Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, a member of Napoléon’s extended family through marriage, another brilliant general made a Marshal of France… who became King of Sweden, founder of the current royal house!

screenshot of the Napoléon family tree page at Geneastar
The Geneastar site has over 18,000 genealogies of famous and influential people. Are any your cousin?

A lasting contribution to genealogy: Napoléon’s civil registers

Finally, there is an important detail to keep in mind when researching ancestors in Europe. Napoléon’s Civil Code of 1804 included in its Book I, Titre II section chapters on civil register of births (Chapitre II), marriages (Chapitre III), and deaths (Chapitre IV). The Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, but many formerly occupied countries recognized the benefits of standardized civil registration and kept the system while other countries further away adopted it as a model. Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Alsace (which changed hands 4 times since Napoléon), Italy (where religious marriage was however obligatory for Catholics until 1865), Bavaria, Westphalia, Switzerland, Romania, even the grand duchy of Warsaw (which deleted however the civil marriage and divorce sections). Although some countries eventually replaced the Civil Code, its principles concerning civil registration continued in new forms. And long after Napoléon’s passing, his Civil Code continued to inspire registration law in 19th century Québec, Louisiana, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Haiti… and influenced the civil law of Egypt, Turkey and even Japan!

First page of the French Civil Code, 1804
The Civil Code reaffirmed the rights of the individual and in particular, set the rules for the civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths.

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I am an 18th cousin +8 removed of Napoléon Bonaparte. We are both descendants of Raynald Châtillon (abt. 1125 – 1187).

very informative

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