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The Continental System

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The Continental System and Britain:

The Continental System is a unique measure to which a country resorts for the purpose of crushing a political enemy by economic means and at the same time building up its own commercial and industrial prosperity. In the Napoleonic wars, it was the blockade designed by Napoleon to paralyze Great Britain through the destruction of British commerce. Although it stimulated manufacturing in some parts of France, the system damaged regions dependent on overseas commerce. Napoleon hoped Britain would fall into a severe depression, hurting the nation's economy and ability to maintain such a powerful navy. Meanwhile, Napoleon was building ships of his own. Napoleon wanted to hurt the British economy and give France a chance to build up its own manufacturing and industry. Because the British had the strongest navy in the world, enforcing the system proved to be disastrous for Napoleon. His efforts to halt evasions of his blockade stretched French forces too thin, and ultimately provoked his invasion of Russia in 1812.

The Continental System caused many problems in Britain before Napoleon’s fall: * In 1806, British exports were worth 40.8 million pounds (about 79.9 million dollars) and in 1808 they were only worth 35.2 million pounds (about 58 million dollars) * In 1807 Liverpool imported 143,000 sack of cotton. In 1808 only 23,000 sacks were imported * Corn prices rose about 30% between 1807 and 1808 * Reduced demand for manufacturers led to low wages and limited working hours or unemployment. * There were three bad harvests in a row (1809,1810,1811)
Belgium and Switzerland benefited the most. They had significantly increased profits due to lack of competition from Britain.

Napoleon’s Decrees:
The Continental System began in 1806 with Napoleon's Berlin Decree, which banned British ships from entering European ports. Britain made an effort to undermine the decree by contracting out its shipments to neutral ships. Napoleon next issued the Milan Decree in December 1807. This decree, aimed against smuggling, said that neutral ships that stopped in Britain before landing in Europe could be Britain's retaliated through sea power, creating a blockade of all European ships. If Europe wouldn't allow British ships to dock at European ports, Britain wouldn't allow European ships to sail on what was then “Britain’s” ocean.
The Berlin Decree:
The Berlin Decree was Napoleon’s attempt to control ports and blockade Britain indirectly. British ships passing by French-controlled ports could be sunk.
The Milan Decree:
The Milan Decree was issued in 1807. It expanded the blockade of continental ports to neutral ships trading with Britain and eventually affected U.S. shipping.
The Peninsular War: In 1808, Napoleon made a new enemy by assuming the Spanish throne for his brother. The Spanish uprising that followed encouraged Britain to help Portugal. In 1807, Napoleon moved about 35,000 troops into Spain. This was when Napoleon “gave” the throne to his brother. The uprising followed soon after and Britain had a new ally. Britain and Spain were too much for France and they never reached Portugal. Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia: Napoleon’s army, or the “Grande Armée” invaded Russia in 1812. His supposedly unbeatable army went from 600,000 troops to 40,000 within six months. They suffered from freezing temperatures, food shortages, disease, and battles with the Russians. This invasion proved to be the beginning of the end for Napoleon. Napoleon’s goal was to win a quick victory and force Russian czar Alexander I to negotiate about Russia’s involvement with the affairs of “civilized” Europe. The Russian troops let France capture the city of Vilna on June 27th with almost no fighting. That night, an electrical storm killed many troops and horses when soldiers were already in search of more food. Napoleon was still confident. In late July, Russians abandoned another city, burning military stores and bridges on their way out and in late August, they did the same thing to another city. Many Russian peasants even burned their crops to prevent the French from getting them. Even though thousands died from small battles with Russia, they didn’t make a real stand until September 7th at the Battle of Borodino, a city 75 miles from Moscow. The French and Russians battled back and forth with artillery and heavy gunfire. About three canon shot and seven musket shots rang out every second. Both armies lost a lot of men. Total casualties were about 70,000 people in just one day. The Russians retreated and left the road to Moscow open and on September 14th, Napoleon’s army entered Moscow. They found it burned down. There was little food left behind. He stayed in Moscow for about a month. He led his army out of Moscow knowing he would not survive the winter there. By this time, Napoleon was down to about 100,000 troops. Originally he planned a retreat, but his troops were forced back to the road they took in after the Russian army attacked them. All food along that route had already been eaten. Horses were dying and the Grande Armée’s flanks and rear guard faced constant attacks. An unusually early winter set in with high winds, sub-zero temperatures and lots of snow. On extremely cold nights, thousands of men and horses died from exposure. In late November, Napoleon’s army narrowly escaped complete annihilation when it crossed the Berezina River, but they had to leave thousands of wounded behind. On December 5, Napoleon left the army under the command of Joachim Murat and fled toward Paris because he heard rumors of someone trying to overthrow him. Nine days later, what little remained of the army crossed back over the Niemen River.

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