Bonjour fellow historians and welcome back to This Week in History! This week we venture to the beautiful country of France, home to baguettes, delectable cheeses and lovely wines; but most importantly, incredible historical events. In fact, this week hones in on a series of events occurring solely in France: the return of Napoleon Bonaparte from his exile to the island of Elba. So, stop imagining all those delicious croissants, and let’s look at some history!
In early 1815, Napoleon was perhaps at the lowest point of his career. After a decade of staggering military conquests and hard-fought victories such as the Battle of Marengo, Napoleon faced bitter defeats and stagnation in his 1812 campaign in Russia and by 1813, his Continental System faced total collapse. It was not purely a matter of Napoleon faltering strategically — for instance, the Battle of Dresden in late 1813 was a critical success — but rather, it was a matter of France itself succumbing to years of warfare.
It was this very fatigue that led to the collapse of the French Empire. By 1814, despite Napoleon and his army crushing two allied armies approaching Paris, the French populace succumbed to a united Europe committed to ending Napoleon’s Empire.
By the end of the year Napoleon was ousted by his senate and forced by the British into exile on Elba, a small French possession near Tuscany. Remarkably, he was given total governmental control of the island, establishing his own court, rebuilding the educational systems and greatly improving the island’s infrastructure.
Can you imagine that as a citizen of Elba, the man who was once infamous across Europe for his conquests was now confined to your homeland? Rather than fearing him, many citizens were entranced by Napoleon, who acted on his revolutionary ideas even after years of campaigning. But Napoleon’s ideas perhaps got the best of him on the evening of Feb. 26, 1815, when during a masquerade party, Napoleon and some 700 of his guards fled the island.
That’s where this week’s events begin. Napoleon, the deposed emperor of France and past conqueror of Europe was now sailing from exile to a continent that he had just been cast out of. The victorious allied leaders probably spat out their tea when they received the news while working to restore order across Europe through the Congress of Vienna.
The little corporal was back! On March 1, 1815, Napoleon landed in Golfe-Juan, Southern France. He had few soldiers to defend himself and hardly a chance of standing up against the countless royal divisions sent to take him down, but he held a power far greater than gunpowder — influence. To put it simply, his reputation as a leader far preceded him.
Napoleon cunningly used his influential legendary status to his benefit, no doubt due to his impressive knowledge of the political landscape through thousands of letters sent to him while in Elba. The old emperor was ready to rekindle a revolutionary spirit in the French people, now disheartened by the restored monarchy under Louis XVIII. They had been stripped of their representation and forced into their pre-war borders, two things that Napoleon promised to reverse.
While cruel, conniving and violent, Napoleon always had a way of finding success in the most difficult of circumstances. One of which was his landing in France, known as the Route Napoleon. From March 1 to March 20, 1815, the emperor’s party embarked on a two-week long, 200-mile journey across southern France, aiming to arrive in Paris by the end of the month.
The monarchy and French military acted quickly and decidedly. Advised by the British and Allied powers, Louis XVIII ordered that the Fifth Regiment of the French Army under Marshal Ney be sent to capture Napoleon. Ney even declared that he would bring back Napoleon to Paris in “an iron cage.”
Napoleon and his few devout soldiers encountered this military force outside the city of Grenoble on March 7, 1815. Instead of a direct confrontation, Napoleon rode his horse forward alone, ordering his troops to hold their fire. Then, in one of history’s most remarkable moments, Napoleon asked simply of the thousands of soldiers in front of him, “Here I am. Kill your Emperor, if you wish.” Imagine, Ney and his soldiers swore allegiance to the monarchy, they were under oath to bring Napoleon to an end, but how could they shoot their emperor? Countless young soldiers had barrels locked and loaded, aimed right at the most infamous man in Europe, but would they fire?
A horrifying moment of silence perhaps lingered over the potential battlefield, until finally, Ney’s troops responded rapturously: “Vive L’Empereur!” It was done. Ney rode to Paris side by side with Napoleon, and Louis XVIII fled to Paris soon after hearing of his army’s defection to Napoleon. Without firing a shot, Napoleon was now the emperor of France once more.
In only a few months, Napoleon would rally some 200,000 Frenchmen to his aid, in what is known as his infamous “100 Days.” Of course, the Allied powers raised hundreds of thousands of troops to crush Napoleon once more at the Battle of Waterloo later that year. In turn, forcing him into exile at St. Helena where he would ultimately die. But, Napoleon’s return from Elba stands as one of history’s greatest moments, showing the power of a revolutionary man and a revolutionary country.
And that concludes This Week in History! Thank you for reading through that glimpse of French history, hopefully you feel inspired at the revolutionary spirit which burnt so fiercely in France! If you’re looking for some more information, “Napoleon.org” is a fantastic historical resource and the movie “Waterloo” from 1970 covers the “100 Days” extremely well. See you next week!