When were the Napoleonic Wars?
Jonathan Scott explains how to find family history records from the Napoleonic Wars
From 1803 to 1815, Britain waged the Napoleonic Wars against the French Empire under Napoleon, with the names of battles such as Trafalgar and Waterloo living on throughout history.
Despite the lack of formal record keeping, there are a range of historic resources to help you trace your ancestors who fought in the Napoleonic Wars.
The best family history websites for the Napoleonic Wars
The National Army Museum has a range of articles on the Napoleonic Wars including details of some of the battles and the major players, as well as fascinating insights into some of the items in their collection, from the ‘coatee’ worn by Major Thomas Harris at the Battle of Waterloo to two samovars owned by Napoleon himself. Although there’s not much here for family historians looking for records, there’s plenty to get you inspired and give you some background to the era.
This free National Archives database records more than 18,000 individuals who fought for the Royal Navy in the crucial Napoleonic Wars turning point of the Battle of Trafalgar, drawn mainly from ships’ musters. Results include service histories and biographical details, where known. There’s a research guide to records of the Napoleonic Wars, which links to related subjects and you could also try the Genuki-hosted Trafalgar Roll compiled from awards made to the seamen who fought with Nelson, which lists commanding officers, crew and casualties.
There are lots of digitised history books on the Napoleonic Wars available through the Internet Archive. You can read and download accounts of Nelson’s death, battles on sea and land, or this edition of the Waterloo Roll Call from 1904. It’s a Who’s Who of the key Napoleonic Wars battle, with all kinds of ‘biographical notes and anecdotes’, but not just relating to the great and good. For example, there’s Colour Sergeant Jonathan Thomas of the 23rd Regiment of Foot, whose brief entry records simply that he died at the Union Workhouse, Swansea, Wales in December 1867.
Family history website Findmypast has an article on the Battle of Waterloo that links to the site's Napoleonic Wars records.
"The most stimulating of the many websites I used when writing my book about the Napoleonic Wars was definitely The Napoleon Series," explains historian Carole Divall, author of Napoleonic Lives. “The homepage conveys the range of Napoleonic Wars material on this site, some definitely for the expert, but much is designed for a more general interest. The list of ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ demonstrates this range, and I would particularly advocate ‘Recommended Sources’ as a good starting point.”
The site also contains the Peninsular Roll Call – an index of officers who served in the 1808-14 Peninsular Wars, originally compiled by Captain Lionel Challis, who began working on the project soon after the First World War. The Napoleon Series is so vast that this is just the kind of page that you could easily miss while trawling through the site.
The Royal Mint Museum has now digitised its copy of the Waterloo Medal Roll, awarded to all those who took part in the Battle of Waterloo, and the records can be searched by name.