Realizing he would soon be sent to an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Napoleon Bonaparte made a daring escape from his exile to Elba on February 26, 1815. Once the bane of Europe, he returned to the continent bent on restoring his military legacy, sealing his fate just 111 days later at Waterloo.
After seizing power in 1799 with France in upheaval during the Revolution, Napoleon quickly proved himself an adept military mind and focused commander. Victories over old enemies — Austria, Britain and Italy — provided him with a platform and credibility in the eyes of the people. Over the course of more than a decade’s worth of leadership, his presence at the top of the French government provided much-needed consistency and a modernization of law. (The Napoleonic Code remains the bedrock of the French legal system to this day.)
Through the first five years of his reign, Napoleon hardly put a foot wrong on the battlefield, facing down three separate coalitions raised to defeat him by a variety of European nations. By 1812, his empire extended from the western border of modern Spain into eastern Poland. Perhaps overconfident after his numerous successes, Napoleon gathered his armies for an assault on Russia. Forced to retreat after advancing all the way to Moscow, his Grand Armee succumbed to harsh conditions and starvation as the Russians engaged in guerilla attacks all the way to the Berezina River.
Fighting in the west at the same time, French soldiers were attempting to fend off the Sixth Coalition, engaging in a back-and-forth with British, Portuguese and Spanish forces for more than two years. Vastly outnumbered — several times by 100,000 or more men — Napoleon’s troops were eventually cornered in Paris. The French fought valiantly to protect their capital up against more than half a million Coalition soldiers before allowing the Allies to enter the city on March 30, 1814.
Despite having captured the center of French territory, Coalition leadership sought one prize above all: Napoleon himself. Known as Emperor for a decade, the former general officially abdicated on April 6th and accepted exile on the island of Elba in the Mediterranean Sea. With their nemesis six miles off the western coast of Italy, the victors restored the Bourbon dynasty to the French throne and signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau, agreeing to meet for a Congress of Vienna to divide Napoleon’s Empire.
Off on the picturesque landmass home to just 12,000 people, Napoleon made himself busy in his role as a ghost of his former self: he organized and trained a small navy, instructed work crews on the manufacture of mines and created a small regiment of loyal troops. Still Emperor, if in name only, he treated Elba as his own kingdom with a watchful eye on events back in France.
For the newly-installed King Louis XVIII, taking on his family’s crown proved to be a more difficult task than he could have imagined. Attempting to graft Napoleon’s reforms onto the traditional practices associated with royalty, Louis did his best to inflate the power of the wealthy while diminishing the political voice the middle and lower classes gained in the wake of the French Revolution 25 years before.
Some 600 miles to the northeast in Vienna, Coalition representatives were looking for a more remote island to send Napoleon to, hopefully further out in the Atlantic Ocean. Determined to avoid isolation and sensing an opportunity amidst the social unrest in France, the little general gathered approximately 1,000 men and slipped away from his palace on Elba during the night of February 26, 1815, a little more than ten months after his arrival.
Two days later, he arrived on the French coast and brought his force ashore with designs on a march to Paris. Passing through the southeast of France without much in the way of resistance, Napoleon and his men finally stood before resolute opposition at Laffrey. According to legend, the soldiers realized it was their former commander and could not believe their eyes — Napoleon stood within range of their pistols and yelled, “Let him that has the heart kill his Emperor!”
Amazed, the men are said to have lowered their weapons and shouted, “Vive l’Empereur!” before joining the ranks behind him. As the days passed, battalion after battalion lined up with Napoleon. Less than a month after setting foot on French soil again, Napoleon was in control of Paris on March 20th.
In response, a Seventh Coalition quickly formed, creating a million-strong force to march on France and remove Napoleon for a second time. The restored Emperor managed to secure a significantly smaller army — maybe 300,000 — and pushed his men north into Belgium, gaining victory over the Prussians at the Battle of Ligny in mid-June.
Everything came to a crashing halt two days later. Facing a combined British and Prussian line at Waterloo on the outskirts of the Belgian capital of Brussels, Napoleon’s men were overrun on June 18, 1815. Four days later, officials from the Coalition demanded Napoleon abdicate again.
This time, the French hero was sent to the island of Saint Helena, a British territory more than a thousand miles south of West Africa. There would be no escape: Napoleon would die there some five-and-a-half years later.
Also On This Day:
1266 – Victory at the Battle of Benevento gives Charles of Anjou the kingdoms of Sicily and Naples
1935 – Adolf Hitler violates the Treaty of Versailles signed at the end of World War I by creating a new Luftwaffe
1966 – The Saturn IB rocket, carrier of NASA’s Apollo space modules, is launched for the first time
1971 – Secretary General of the United Nations U Thant proclaims the vernal equinox Earth Day
1993 – A truck bomb explodes in a parking garage beneath the North Tower of the World Trade Center
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