Exile and Escape
Somewhat hypocritically, the defeated Napoleon wrote one last letter to Josephine, in which he said, "Never forget him who has never forgotten you and will never forget you." On April 20, 1814, the dethroned Emperor left France for the isle of Elba, where he was exiled under the terms of the Treaty of Fontainebleau. Napoleon would be allowed to rule Elba, which had 12,000 inhabitants. Perhaps cruelly, the treaty allowed him to retain the title "Emperor." On May 4 1814, Napoleon, now 45 years old, arrived at Elba's capital, Portoferraio. Saying, "I want to live from now on like a justice of the peace," Napoleon actually worked hard to improve Elba, and to all observers, it seemed as though Napoleon was content to a life of relative retirement. All the while, however, he was plotting his return to Europe.
On Elba, Napoleon was under the constant watch of Austrian and French guards. Nonetheless, he was not isolated: he received thousands of letters from all over Europe and read major newspapers that kept him abreast of events throughout the world. It was probably via these sources that he learned of Josephine's death on May 29, 1814.
On February 26, 1815, Napoleon managed to sneak past his guards and somehow escape from Elba, slip past interception by a British ship, and return to France. Immediately, people and troops began to rally to the returned Emperor. French police forces were sent to arrest him, but upon arriving in his presence, they kneeled before him. Triumphantly, Napoleon returned to Paris on March 20, 1815. Paris welcomed him with celebration, and Louis XVIII, the new king, fled to Belgium. With Louis only just gone, Napoleon moved back into the Tuileries. The period known as the Hundred Days had begun.
Napoleon, trying to increase his support, started making minor reforms, promising a more liberal, democratic society. His major action was the hollowly worded "Additional Act to the Constitution of the Empire." However, people were quick to discern the half-hearted spirit of the reforms this act provided for, and Napoleon's support base began to decline. Meanwhile, in Western France, pro-Bourbon Royalists remained active.
At the Congress of Vienna, where the European powers were meeting to discuss how to rearrange Europe in the aftermath of Napoleon's conquests, news of Napoleon's escape from Elba delivered an intense shock to all. On March 13, 1815, the nations represented there declared Napoleon an outlaw.
While at Elba, Napoleon worked to improve the island's infrastructure, ordered hospitals built, and tried to increase the availability of drinking water. He also spent time drilling the 400 continental soldiers who had volunteered to follow him there. After so many years of dominating nearly all of Europe, it is impressive that he actually seemed to care about the welfare of the tiny island's inhabitants, and that he did not simply "give up" while in exile. Napoleon's emotional stability and optimism was doubtless greatly aided by the presence of his mother and his sister Pauline who joined him in exile. (His mistress, the Countess Marie Walewska, also came for a visit, bringing the couple's illegitimate son along. His wife Marie Louise, however, was appalled that Napoleon would ask her to join him on Elba. Instead, Napoleon was forced to write her letters asking for news of her health, or the health of their son.)
Meanwhile, back in France, many people were worried that the new king, Louis XVIII, might try to reverse the positive effects of the Revolution, such as legal equality. With Napoleon gone, a pro-Bonaparte movement started to form. Napoleon learned of this development by reading the newspapers. Figuring that the French army would remain loyal to him, he debated whether he should make an attempt to return to Europe. When he asked his mother for her counsel, she told him to "fulfill your destiny." As his previous accomplishments had indicated, this destiny was an extraordinary one; Napoleon made it off Elba with a large contingent of his volunteer troops.
When Napoleon escaped Elba and returned to France, the ease with which he rallied troops was a true measure of his popularity. Napoleon drew most of his support from the workers and peasants. They loved him not so much because he was an "Emperor", but because they believed he was a true son of the Revolution who would never reverse the Revolution's reforms, something many feared Louis XVIII might soon do. Furthermore, Napoleon pledged himself to constitutional government in hopes of winning more support. The aristocracy and the middle class were unsure of how to feel about Napoleon's return. However, since he had the support of the lower classes, the aristocracy and middle class said little, waiting to see what would happen. Thus, Napoleon was able to regain control of France bloodlessly; indeed, not a shot was fired. Yet, while beloved in France, Napoleon was hated in the rest of Europe: international conflict was inevitable.