Two hundred and three years ago today, Napoleon was marching through France on his way back from Elba to Paris. It was probably the most astonishing return of a fallen ruler in history.
We’ve already seen how he escaped from his island exile and sailed back to France. Here’s how things went after he landed.
THE MARCH ON PARIS
Napoleon’s landing generated more surprised than alarm in Paris. Nobody thought that he was heading toward the capital. It had always been assumed that if Napoleon had escaped from Elba he would have moved against Italy and now people said that his plan was to move through Piedmont to attack Italy from the North, intending to join his brother-in-law, the King of Naples.
Had they been able to hear the declarations that were being made on the south coast, they would have been less sanguine. Bonaparte was promising that he had returned to rouse the country to a due sense of its inglorious sufferings and to avenge its wrongs. He promised to restore the French border to the Rhine (regaining land lost to Prussia) and to reverse the laws that the Bourbons had introduced.
Bonaparte moved fast, skirting any areas where he feared he might face opposition. He led his small force from the coast towards Grenoble. This was a bold move, as Grenoble was the main depot for French troops in the area and the commander, General Marchand, was loyal to the new regime. It is possible, though, that Napoleon knew that he had supporters amongst the Grenoble garrison.
Marchand sent troops to detain Napoleon and the little band of exiles found themselves stopped by a vastly superior force. Napoleon is said to have gone on foot to the head of his men and stepped forward towards Marchand’s troops. Opening his coat, he said, “Behold me: if there be one among you who would kill his Emperor, let him fire.” The troops, rather than open fire, called “Vive l’Empereur,” and promptly switched sides. Marchand fled with the keys to the city, and in response the townspeople pulled down the city gate, surrendering Grenoble to Napoleon’s troops.
Only when news of the defection of the Grenoble garrison reached Paris did the Bourbon government take Napoleon seriously. The garrison at Lyons was prepared to stop Napoleon, with two thousand troops ready to defend the city. On 10 March, the mayor issued a proclamation ordering citizens to stay indoors and trust in the law. Again, though, the troops proved disloyal.
[Napoleon’s] appearance before Lyons awakened the cries of ” Vive l’Empereur!” from the soldiers, in which they were joined by the populace, and he entered without resistance.
By the 11 March, the mayor was proclaiming his loyalty to Napoleon.
Up until the fall of Lyons, Napoleon had styled himself Lieutenant-General. He had always wanted to see his son succeed him as ruler of France and so he maintained the fiction that he was simply a general in his son’s army. After Lyons, though, this pretence was dropped and he began to style himself ‘Emperor’ again and issue imperial decrees.
Marshal Ney, who had been one of Napoleon’s most trusted generals, was now in Paris where he had sworn his allegiance to Louis. He asked the king to put him in command of a force to stop Napoleon. Louis promptly made him a field marshal and gave him command of the troops in the area of Lons-le-Saulnier on Napoleon’s line of march sending him on his way with a substantial amount of gold to pay his men. Ney is widely said to have promised Louis that he would bring Napoleon back to Paris “in an iron cage” Instead, Ney, too, defected, taking with him all the troops under his command, as well as the cash.
Napoleon now commanded a force of around 15,000 well-armed men. More importantly, the repeated desertion of soldiers sent to stop him made the government believe that sending any other forces south from Paris would simply add to the number of men deserting to Napoleon’s banners. The government decided to make a last stand just south of Paris, with ten thousand men of the new National Guard (which, unlike the army, owed no allegiance to Napoleon).
Suddenly, a single open carriage appeared from the woods in front of the National Guard, coming toward them at full speed. It was Napoleon, waving his hand and opening his arms to the troops. With cries of “Vive l’Empereur” discipline in the royal army collapsed.
Louis was finally forced to admit that he had lost the country and he fled Paris at one in the morning on 20 March 1815.
Throughout the following day, the people of Paris waited, uncertain of what was to come. Crowds of Royalists, crying “Vive le Roi” faced off against crowds of Bonaparte’s supporters with their own cries of “Vive l’Empereur”. Bloodshed was only avoided by the intervention of National Guardsmen who preserved an uneasy peace. By afternoon, with Napoleon’s advance guard already arriving, people had, as people do, decided to welcome their new master. Napoleon requisitioned all the wine and Paris was soon partying.
The health of the Emperor, General Bertrand, and of the Old Guard, was toasted with an enthusiasm that can only be perfectly understood by those who were present, while the most lively imagination is quite inadequate to furnish a picture of the exhilarating scene that Paris presented on this occasion; tricoloured ribbons and bunches of violets decorated almost every bosom.
Napoleon waited until after dark to arrive at the Tuileries, perhaps uncertain of the reception he would be offered in Paris. He arrived without ceremony, still in his travelling coach, at nine that night. A huge crowd, though, waited to welcome him to the Tuileries and he was carried up the great staircase into the king’s apartments on the shoulders of his officers.
Napoleon was back in control of France and the countdown to Waterloo had begun.
Helen Maria Williams: A narrative of the events which have taken place in France, from the landing of Napoleon Bonaparte on 1 March, 1815, till the restoration of Louis XVIII, with an account of the present state of society and public opinion at that period. Although this was published in 1895, it consists of letters written from France at the time.
William Mudford (1817) An Historical Account of the Campaign in the Netherlands in 1815
William Hodgson (1841) The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, Once Emperor of the French, who Died in Exile, at St. Helena, After a Captivity of Six Years’ duration
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