Napoleon reached Elba’s Portoferraio on May 3, 1814. He landed the next morning, amid the wild acclaim of the town’s population, which thought that he was bringing millions of francs to spend; eight days earlier they had hanged him in effigy as a man madly in love with war.6 They escorted him to the governor’s palace, which would now take on imperial dignity. For the next nine months he was to be emperor over eighty-six square miles and twelve thousand souls. He surrounded himself (partly, it may be, because he believed that display is half the game of rule) with all the paraphernalia of majesty—uniforms, royal guard, chamberlains, domestics, musicians, a hundred horses, twenty-seven carriages.7 On May 26 four hundred members of his Old Guard came to serve him as the nucleus of a miniature army. Some two hundred volunteers came from France, others from Italy or Corsica; altogether he had soon about sixteen hundred men ready to fight off any attempt to harm the hated and beloved Emperor. For further inviolability he fortified the harbor and organized a fleet—one brig (the Inconstant) and four small vessels, all armed.
How did he finance all this—and the public works and enterprises with which he improved the island? The Treaty of Fontainebleau had promised him an annuity from France, but it was not paid.8 However, Napoleon had brought with him 3,400,000 francs in silver and gold, and he collected 400,000 lire annually in taxes and other revenues. After half a year he began to wonder how he was going to meet his expenses if he stayed there beyond a year.
For a time he was reasonably happy, considering his expansive ways. On May 9 he wrote to Marie Louise: “I arrived here fifteen days ago. I have had a pretty dwelling fixed up…. My health is perfect, the country is agreeable. It lacks news from you, and the assurance that you are well…. Goodbye, my beloved. Give a kiss to my son.”9
Another son, with his mother the faithful Countess Walewska, was among his early visitors. The sailors and citizens mistook her for the Empress, and gave her a royal welcome. Napoleon was disturbed, since he had hoped to have his wife and the “King of Rome” join him on the island. He relaxed for a day or two in Walewska’s arms,10 then lovingly dismissed her for reasons of state. Perhaps Marie Louise received some expanded gossip about those two days.11
In October his mother and his sister Pauline came to stay with him. Pauline offered him her jewels, and asked pardon for Murat’s disloyalty. Madame Mère gave him motherly care and comfort, and offered him all her savings. She and Pauline remained with him though they sorely missed the warm vitality of Italian life.
We can imagine how bored he was, after the first few months, with the small scope and leverage that the little island could give to his character and dreams. He tried to escape ennui by physical activity, but almost daily some news from the mainland added to his restlessness. Méneval, who was serving Marie Louise in Vienna, informed him of the discussions in the Congress about removing him to a safer distance,12 and added that the Congress would probably end by February 20. Other informants told him of the discontent in the Army, the fears of the peasantry, the agitations of the Jacobins, the enforcement of Catholic worship. In February, 1815, Hugues Maret, Duc de Bassano, sent him a message via Fleury de Chaboulon, confirming all these reports.13
Excited by them, and stirred with hopes for a nobler end than death by inanition, he told his mother of his temptation, and asked for her advice. She suspected that if she let him go now she would never see him again. “Let me,” she said, “be a mother for a while, and then I will give you my opinion.” But she knew that he had already decided for the last gamble. “Go, my son,” she told him, “and fulfill your destiny.”14
He felt that he must act soon. A little time more, and he would have no means of his own to pay those thousand Frenchmen who were serving him and must be maintained. The conditions had developed for an attempt to regain his throne, defend it, and transmit it to his son, as beautiful as Adonis, whom he would train to be a king. The Allies were disbanding their Congress, and were going home with their troops; perhaps, separately, they would be open to an appeal for peace. The nights were still long; in the darkness his little fleet might escape detection, and he would be again on the soil of France.
He prepared as inconspicuously as possible, but with his usual foresight and thoroughness. He bade the Imperial Guard and eight hundred grenadiers—eleven hundred men in all—pack their belongings, and be on the dock on the evening of February 26 for a voyage of several days to an unstated destination. Nevertheless they surmised that they were bound for France, and they rejoiced.
On the appointed evening he embraced his mother and sister (who would soon go to friends in Italy), joined his little regiment, boarded, with it, the Inconstant and five other vessels, and sailed off quietly in the dark. The winds did not favor them, sometimes leaving their helpless fleet becalmed, sometimes driving it too near the shore; they feared to be recognized and stopped and ignominiously jailed. For three days they moved northward along the Italian coast, then westward past Genoa and the French Riviera. En route those men who could write made hundreds of copies of a proclamation composed by Napoleon, to be distributed in France:
I have heard, in my exile, your lamentations and your prayers: you long for the government that you chose, and which alone is lawful. I have crossed the sea, and am coming to reclaim my rights, which are yours. To the Army: your possessions, your rank, your glory, the property, rank, and glory of your children, have no greater enemies than those princes whom foreigners have imposed upon you…. Victory will march at full speed; the eagle, with the national colors, will fly from steeple to steeple, even to the towers of Notre-Dame. You will be the liberators of your country.15