Two hundred years ago, yesterday, Napoleon Bonaparte, reduced from Emperor of the French to the Emperor of Elba, left his tiny island kingdom. He set sail for the south coast of France with over a thousand men under his personal command, intent on regaining his former title and power. His arrival in Paris three weeks later marked the beginning of the "Hundred Days," which would culminate that June on the battlefield of Waterloo.
The how and why of Napoleon’s escape . . .
Though Bonaparte was not pleased to be exiled to Elba, a small island situated between the western coast of Italy and his home island of Corsica, he feared distant exile more than he feared death, and he was relieved to remain within the realm of Europe. For the first few months of his exile there, he was able to distract himself by expanding and refurbishing the buildings given over to him and his entourage. He then moved on to organizing and improving the infrastructure of the island, despite the fact that the British had placed Colonel Sir Neil Campbell on the island as the allied commissioner. The Colonel has been described as rather dim and unambitious. He was a complacent man who was content to leave Napoleon to his own devices. Campbell assumed that the former emperor would adhere to the terms of the Treaty of Fontainebleau, to which he had agreed upon his abdication in April of 1814.
Unfortunately, the French King, Louis XVIII, refused to honor the terms of that same treaty. Not only did he refuse to allow the pension payments to Napoleon for his support and that of his family, which were guaranteed in the treaty, he also had all of Napoleon’s personal assets seized, also against the terms of the treaty. Napoleon and his representatives complained to Louis XVIII and when that failed, they appealed to the allies. However, to ensure peace in France, the allies had given King Louis nearly absolute power and they had little leverage to force him to honor a treaty with a man he hated. Louis even boasted publicly that he was determined to let Bonaparte "squirm and sink."
By the terms of his exile, the Emperor of Elba was not forbidden guests. Over the long months of his residence there, he had many visitors who were granted access to his island realm. Some were loyal friends and associates, while others were either French or allied spies, all with their own agendas. Many of them brought news of the French king’s boasts, while others apprised Napoleon of the rising tide of frustration and anger among the populace against their incompetent and totalitarian monarch. Still others filled his ear with tales of the disillusion in the ranks of his former armies, assuring him that many of them longed for his return. Over the course of January 1815, more than one ship carrying the Bourbon flag had been seen slowly sailing along the coasts of Elba. Napoleon was convinced the French and/or the allies were plotting to assassinate him, or worse, kidnap him and carry him off to exile is some very remote location.
By the middle of February of 1815, Napoleon had come to the conclusion that he must to return to France. His financial situation was intolerable, as all payments from the French government had stopped and most of his expenses were being paid by his sister, Pauline, who had followed him into exile. News from France was becoming increasingly encouraging. Louis XVIII, now commonly called "la Graisse de Porc" (the Fat Pig), was widely hated by the people and many of Napoleon’s former military commanders were disillusioned and dissatisfied by how the country was now governed. Though he felt that his marshals had betrayed him when they demanded that he abdicate the previous spring, the intelligence he received convinced him that they would once again throw their allegiance to him if he returned to France.
On 16 February 1815, Colonel Sir Neil Campbell was planning to depart on a trip to the Italian mainland "for his health," which would include an extended visit with his Italian mistress. Bonaparte’s spies learned that Campbell would be away for ten days to two weeks and Napoleon decided that would be the ideal time to make his move. Campbell’s ship had barely cleared the harbor of Portoferraio, when Bonaparte ordered L’Inconstant, the small brig which made up the flagship of his diminutive "navy," into dry dock. The hull was scraped and cleaned while her two masts were reinforced. The ship was then repainted to make it look like a British warship. In addition to the brig, Napoleon commandeered two xebecs, L’Etoile and the Saint-Joseph, trading vessels which could transport about three hundred men each. Not long after, Saint-Esprit, a 194-ton polacca was seized, major repairs were completed on the Caroline, a lateen sailing ship, and two small tartanes, Abeille and Mouche, were added soon thereafter to complete Bonaparte’s personal navy.
While his ships were being prepared, Napoleon was supervising the collection of supplies for the voyage, including what arms and munitions he could commandeer on the island. He was also writing proclamations which were to be printed and distributed when he made landfall, as well as preparing communiques to those in France he believed would support his return. On Wednesday, 22 February, he ordered his saddler to refurbish his campaign riding bags and his map case. He had the small reserve of gold he had been hoarding placed in several trunks, with a layer of books from his library laid over the gold. On that same day, he ordered the horses belonging to his Polish lancers be brought from a distant pasture into Portoferraio.
By Sunday, 26 February 1815, all Bonaparte’s preparations were complete. The day dawned fair and clear, with a light breeze. He had assembled a force of over a thousand men and more than fifty horses, though in the end there was only enough room aboard his ships for about thirty horses. While his ships were being loaded and his men were boarding, Napoleon let it be known he was indisposed and remained in the building which had served as his "palace" while he lived on Elba. He burned all of the documents which he was not taking with him, including the first draft of his memoirs. He dined early with his mother and sister, then played a few round of cards with them, as they often did on winter evenings. Finally, he took his leave of the two people he probably loved most in the world, with the exception of his son. His mother is said to have wished him the fate of a hero, hoping he would die with sword in his hand. His sister, Pauline, gave him her precious diamonds to help him finance his upcoming campaign.
Napoleon arrived at L’Inconstant at about eight o’clock that night and all the ships in the small flotilla were ready to sail by nine o’clock. That same day, Colonel Campbell, still on the Italian mainland, had heard rumors of activity on Elba which suggested that Napoleon was planning to depart. He found it hard to believe, but decided he must return to Elba to investigate. Campbell sailed from Livorno at about eight o’clock on that same Sunday evening, but his ship passed Napoleon’s little fleet in the night without sighting them. Colonel Campbell was stunned when he arrived at Elba to find that Bonaparte had departed.
Campbell assumed the erstwhile Emperor would travel to Italy, probably south to the Kingdom of Naples, which was ruled by his brother-in-law, Joachim Murat. However, Napoleon had no interest in trying to fight his way through Italy, where he was not popular and had little, if any, support beyond the hot-headed Murat. His small navy sailed north so he could land on the southern coast of France. Though they passed a number of ships in that part of the Mediterranean, including at least two French battleships, none of them challenged them or made any attempt to intercept them. It is likely that the captains of these ships mistook L’Inconstant for the Zephir, which had been built in the same shipyard, since they all believed that Napoleon would be sailing south to Naples, not north to France.
At about ten o’clock on the morning of Wednesday, 1 March, the captains of Bonaparte’s flotilla sighted the mountains of Cape Antibes, on the coast of France, a few miles north of Cannes. All of the ships then lowered the Elban flag and raised the French tri-color. The small squadron sailed around the Cape under a bright blue sky and entered the calm water of Golfe Juan, where they anchored and debarked men, horses and supplies. Napoleon met little resistance in this remote area and was soon moving north, ever deeper into France. Four days later, news reached Paris that he was marching north, gathering more and more troops to him as he came. By the time he reached the French capital on 20 March, Louis XVIII had fled and Bonaparte entered the city with only one violent incident. An elderly woman selling roasted chestnuts shouted Vive le Roi! as the troops marched into the city. One of Bonaparte’s soldiers demanded she say Vive l’Empereur and she hit him with her ladle.
As he had intended, Bonaparte was able to return to Paris and take control of the army, and thus the government, with little violence and no bloodshed. The French people were weary of war and wanted peace, but Napoleon still had enough power and charisma left to bring many of them, if only grudgingly, to his cause. Certainly, by comparison, he was less objectionable than the lazy and selfish Louis XVIII. Almost as soon as he arrived in Paris, Bonaparte began planning how to deal with the allies who would certainly try to depose him once again. He knew this would be his last chance to regain his power and position, which is why he had taken the drastic step of leaving Elba and invading France. And so it was that two centuries ago today, a desperate man, living in his own deluded reality, was sailing toward the coast of France and his last hope.