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Continental System

From Academic Kids

The Continental System was a foreign-policy cornerstone of Napoleon I of France in his struggle against the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Napoleon was a very successful general, and could probably have defeated the British had he managed to land an army in England. However, he lacked the resources to take on the Royal Navy. His one attempt to do so ended with the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Napoleon resorted instead to economic warfare. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, the British were emerging as Europe's manufacturing center, and were thus vulnerable to a trade embargo.

The Continental System was just such an embargo. In November 1806, having recently conquered or allied with every major power in European continent, Napoleon issued the Berlin Decree forbidding his allies and conquests from trading with the British. Ultimately the embargo failed. Napoleon's exclusively land-based customs enforcers could not stop British smuggling, and British merchants aggressively sought out other markets. The British, by Orders in Council (1807), prohibited her trade partners from trading with France. This eventually led to the United States of America engaging the British in the War of 1812.

Portugal was the only European country that openly refused to join the Continental system. After the Tilsit Treaty of July 1807, Napoleon attempted to capture the Portuguese Fleet and the House of Braganza, to occupy the Portuguese ports and to expel the British from Portuguese soil, and failed. King John VI of Portugal took his fleet and fled to Brazil with a Royal Navy escort. The Portuguese population rose in revolt against the French invaders, Wellington's British Army intervened and the Peninsular War began in 1808.

In fact, the Continental System caused more collateral damage to the nations of the "Grand Empire" than it did to Britain. Russia in particular chafed under the embargo, and in 1812, that country reopened trade with Britain. Napoleon raised the Grande Armée, a force of well over half a million men from across Europe, and invaded Russia.

War and downfall

The Russian generals, fearful of Napoleon's vast force and legendary skill, retreated towards Moscow. This retreat wasn't as systematic as some have made out and was in reality simply the result of Russians continually running from any engagement with the French. The only conscious employment of scorched earth policy was when the governor of Moscow, Rastopchin, decided to burn the city to force out the French. It was a strategy of last resort, but it exploited two key weaknesses of the 'Grande Armée'. First, foreseeing a quick victory, Napoleon had failed to supply warm clothing for his troops. The Russian retreat lasted well into the winter, and the French could not glean enough from the ravaged countryside to support themselves. By the time of the key battles at the end of 1812, Napoleon's army had been reduced to approximately 100,000. The Russians were then able to turn the tide and drive Napoleon back across their border. Revolts sprung up in Prussia and Austria as the frontline advanced through those regions, and Napoleon was finally defeated in 1814.de:Kontinentalsperre nl:Continentaal stelsel sv:Kontinentalsystemet

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