He entered St Cyr, and in 1836 joined the Zouaves, becoming lieutenant of the Foreign Legion in 1838, and aide-de-camp to King Louis Philippe. It was in the African expedition that he first came to the front. In 1842 he was captain in the Zouaves; 1847, colonel of the Turcos; in 1850, lieutenant-colonel of the 1st Zouaves; 1851, colonel; 1854, brigadier-general. In the Crimean War he commanded a portion of the Algerian troops; and at the Alma, Inkerman and Sevastopol Bourbaki's name became famous. In 1857 he was made general of division, commanding in 1859 at Lyons. His success in the war with Italy was only second to that of MacMahon, and in 1862 he was proposed as a candidate for the vacant Greek throne, but declined the proffered honour. In 1870 the emperor entrusted him with the command of the Imperial Guard, and he played an important part in the fighting round Metz.
A curious incident of the siege of Metz is connected with Bourbaki's name. A man who called himself Regnier, about September 21, appeared at Hastings, to seek an interview with the refugee empress Eugénie, and failing to obtain this he managed to get from the young prince imperial a signed photograph with a message to the emperor Napoleon. This he used, by means of a safe-conduct from Bismarck, as credentials to Marshal Bazaine, to whom he presented himself at Metz, telling him on the empress's alleged authority that peace was about to be signed and that either Marshal Canrobert or General Bourbaki was to go to Hastings for the purpose. Bourbaki at once went to England, with Prussian connivance, as though he had a recognized mission, only to discover from the empress at Hastings that a trick had been played on him; and as soon as he could manage he returned to France.
He offered his services to Gambetta and received the command of the Northern Army, but was recalled on November 10 and transferred to the Army of the Loire. In command of the hastily-trained and ill-equipped Army of the East, Bourbaki made the attempt to raise the siege of Belfort, which, after the victory of Villersexel, ended in the repulse of the French in the three days' battle of the Lisaine. Other German forces under Manteuffel now closed upon Bourbaki, and he was eventually driven over the Swiss frontier with the remnant of his forces. His troops were in the most desperate condition, owing to lack of food; and out of 150,000 men under him when he started, only 84,000 escaped from the Germans into Swiss territory. Bourbaki himself, rather than submit to the humiliation of a probable surrender, on January 26 1871 delegated his functions to General Clinchant, and in the night fired a pistol at his own head, but the bullet, owing to a deviation of the weapon, was flattened against his skull and his life was saved. General Clinchant carried Bourbaki into Switzerland, and he recovered sufficiently to return to France.
In July 1871 he again took the command at Lyons, and subsequently became military governor. In 1881, owing to his political opinions, he was placed on the retired list. In 1885 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the senate.
A patriotic Frenchman and a brilliant soldier and leader, Bourbaki, like some other French generals of the Second Empire whose training had been obtained in Africa, was found wanting in the higher elements of command when the European conditions of 1870 were concerned.