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.)