IV. THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY: MARCH 1–20, 1815

The little fleet, carrying “Caesar and his fortune,” sighted Cap d’Antibes at dawn of March 1. Soon after midday, in the Golfe Juan, the eleven hundred men began to debark, some jumping into the shallow water and wading to the shore. Napoleon, last to land, ordered a bivouac in an olive plantation between the sea and the road from Antibes to Cannes. He sent a small group to Cannes to buy horses and provisions, and to pay in cash; he had brought 800,000 gold francs from Elba. He bade another group go to Antibes and persuade its garrison to join him; its commander rebuked and imprisoned the messengers. Napoleon refused to go and attempt to free them; he was resolved to gain Paris without firing a shot.

He found no welcome in Antibes. The passersby, on being told that the little man studying maps at an open-air table was the Emperor, voiced no enthusiasm. The region had been hard hit by the wars, the conscriptions, and the double blockade; it had no appetite for more of the same. The mayor of Antibes came to examine the invaders, and told Napoleon, “We were beginning to be happy and tranquil; you will trouble everything.” Napoleon, recalling this at St. Helena, said to Gourgaud, “I shall not tell you how this remark moved me, nor the pain it gave me.”16 A passing courier partly reassured him: the Army and the commonalty, he reported, were for him, from Paris to Cannes, but the people of Provence were against him.

Napoleon knew this well, recalling his bitter experiences at Orgon eleven months before, and these memories now determined his route to Paris. Rather than follow, at the risk of bloody encounters, the well-traveled and mostly level highways from Cannes to Toulon, Marseilles, and Avignon to Paris, he chose the mountainous route from Cannes to Grasse, Digne, Grenoble and Lyons. The region south of Grenoble was lightly populated, the garrisons were small and notoriously anti-Bourbon. The mountain passes were still covered with snow; the Old Guardsmen and the grenadiers would grumble, but they would never desert him.

So, about midnight of March 1–2, the eleven hundred set out on the road to Cannes. Some sixty of them had been able to buy horses, but, to keep pace and friendship with the rest, they walked beside their baggage-laden mounts. Napoleon usually rode in a carriage. In the center of the procession some guardsmen watched over Napoleon’s gold. Tough Corsicans brought up the rear.17

At Grasse they left their cannon as too big a problem for icebound mountain roads. Napoleon’s veterans, used to winning wars with their legs, set a good pace for the rest. On March 5 they reached Gap, having walked (most of them) 150 miles in four days. At La Mure, twenty miles south of Grenoble, they encountered their first serious challenge.

The commander of the Fifth Division of the Army, stationed at Grenoble, had received orders from Paris to arrest Napoleon, and had sent a battalion of five hundred men to stop the approaching rebels. As the opposed columns neared each other Napoleon ordered his defenders to ground their arms. He stepped out in front and walked toward the oncoming troops. Nearing them, he stopped and addressed them: “Soldiers of the Fifth, I am your Emperor; do you recognize me?” He opened his military greatcoat, and said, “If there is among you a soldier who would like to kill his Emperor, here I am [me voilà] “Almost to a man the battalion lowered its arms, and cried out, “Vive l’Empereur!” It disbanded, and the happy soldiers gathered around Napoleon, seeking to touch him. He spoke to them affectionately, returned to his group, and told them, “Everything is settled; in ten days we shall be in the Tuileries.”18

That evening they approached Grenoble. Hundreds of peasants and proletaires flocked to welcome him; and when they found one of the city gates closed they broke it down to let the little army in. Bidding his exhausted men find a good rest till the next noon, he himself went to the Inn of the Trois Dauphins. The mayor, the municipal officers, even the military commanders came to greet him. On the next morning he received a larger delegation, which asked him to pledge himself to constitutional government. He knew that Grenoble had been in the forefront of the Revolution, and that it had never lost its thirst for freedom. He addressed them in terms that repudiated his past absolutism and promised reform. He acknowledged that he had assumed excessive power, and that he had allowed his wars, originally defensive, to become wars of conquest, nearly exhausting France. He pledged himself to give France a representative government loyal to the principles of 1789 and 1792. Now, he told them, his dearest hope was to prepare his son to be the worthy and liberal leader of an enlightened France.19

That afternoon (March 8) he bade his followers resume their march; he would remain a day more at Grenoble to issue directives to those towns that were accepting his lead; but he promised to rejoin his band in time to help them to peaceful victories. On March 10 he caught up with them, and led them on to Lyons.

By this time the news of Napoleon’s escapade had reached Louis XVIII. He was not at first alarmed, feeling confident that the culprit would soon be stopped. But as the march continued, and approached a Grenoble known for its hostility to the Bourbons, Louis issued on March 7 a proclamation exhorting every citizen to help take this troublesome criminal and bring him to a military court for trial and execution; and the same punishment was decreed for all who aided him. The King summoned Ney from retirement, and asked him to lead a force against Napoleon. Ney agreed, but the story that he vowed to bring Napoleon back in an iron cage is probably a fable.20 Ney hurried south, took command of a battalion at Besançon, and called upon Generals de Bourmont and Lecourbe to join him with their forces at Lons-le-Saunier (northwest of Geneva). To the six thousand troops so assembled he made a fiery speech to stir their courage. “It is well,” he said, “that the man from Elba has attempted his foolish enterprise, for it will be the last act of the Napoléonade”21 There was little response from his men.

On that day, March 10, Lyons was acclaiming Napoleon. The manufacturers there had generally prospered under the Continental Blockade, which had opened all Europe except England to Lyons products, and they had no love for the émigrés who had returned to the city and were behaving as if there had never been a Revolution. In this resentment their employees agreed, for reasons of their own; many of them were ardent Jacobins, part of an underground current that now rose to the surface to welcome Napoleon in the hope that he would lead them back to 1789. The peasants of the hinterland trembled for their unblessed lands, and looked to Napoleon to quiet the priestly campaign for the restoration of the nationalized and redistributed ecclesiastical domains. And the soldiers of the garrison were eager to replace the red cockade on their bayonets.

So Lyons opened its gates, the royalists fled, the bourgeoisie smiled, the workers and soldiers cheered, as Napoleon led his regiment into the city. The municipal officials, the judges, even some military leaders came to offer their allegiance; he replied by promising a constitutional government and a policy of peace. The entire garrison, except its noble officers, joined his swelling army when he resumed the march on Paris. He had now twelve thousand troops to fight for him, but he still hoped to win without a shot. He wrote to Marie Louise, promising to be in Paris on March 20, the third anniversary of their son’s birth, and telling her how happy she would make him if she could join him in Paris soon. He wrote to Ney a note as cordial as if there had never been a cloud on their friendship; he invited him to a meeting at Châlons, and promised to receive him as after the battle of Borodino—as “Prince of the Moskva.”

On March 14, still at Lons-le-Saunier, Ney called his troops together and read to them the proclamation that was to cost him his life: “Soldiers, the cause of the Bourbon is lost forever. The legitimate dynasty that France has adopted is about to reascend the throne. It is the Emperor Napoleon, our sovereign, who is henceforth to reign over our glorious country.” The soldiers shook the ground with their repeated cries of “Vive l’Empereur! Vive le maréchal Ney!”22 He offered to lead them to join Napoleon’s forces; they agreed; and Napoleon found them at Auxerre on March 17. On the 18th Napoleon received Ney, and their old friendship was renewed. No one dared, thereafter, to impede the march to Paris.

On the evening of the 17th, Louis XVIII, in royal apparel, appeared before the combined chambers in the Palais-Bourbon, and announced his determination to resist Napoleon. “I have labored,” he said, “for the happiness of my people. Could I, sixty years old, better end my days than in dying in its defense?” He ordered the mobilization of all loyal forces. Some answered, but they were chiefly his household troops; the regular Army was slow to respond, and no able leader appeared to lead or inspire them. The royalists began to emigrate again.

Mme. de Staël’s salon buzzed with rumors, and she too thought of flight. On March 19 the Journal des débats published an article by her intermittent lover Benjamin Constant reaffirming his support for Louis XVIII and constitutional government. That evening he went into hiding.

Louis himself, always reluctant to move, delayed departure till word came, on March 19, that Napoleon had reached Fontainebleau, and might be expected in Paris the next day. At 11 P.M. Louis and his family rode out from the Tuileries and headed for Lille. That city was strongly royalist, but doubtless the King thought, now and then, of a brother who had set out on a similar trip in 1791, and had been brought back a prisoner of the people.

On March 20 some enthusiastic Bonapartists, learning that the Tuileries was free of the King and his household troops, entered it in a gay impromptu, and prepared the royal chambers to receive Napoleon. All that day his swelling army marched toward its goal. Napoleon himself remained in Fontainebleau till 2 P.M., dictating messages and instructions, and presumably wandering fondly about the palace that had seen so much history, including an abdication now to be canceled and avenged. He reached Paris about 9P.M., accompanied by Bertrand and Caulaincourt. They drove almost unnoticed until they reached the Tuileries. There a crowd of relatives and friends greeted him with wild ecstasy, lifting him bodily up the stairs. He submitted to one embrace after another, until he stood before them exhausted and bewildered, but happy to the point of tears. Hortense came; he reproached her for having accepted favors from Alexander; she defended herself; he melted, took her in his arms, and said, “I am a good father; you know it…. And you have been present at poor Josephine’s death. Amid our many misfortunes her death pained my heart.”23

So ended the incredible journey: 720 miles from Cannes to Paris in twenty days, accomplished by most of his companions on foot; and the vow kept that no shot should be fired in this reconquest of France. Now for the task of restoring internal peace and unity, forming a new government, and preparing to face 500,000 troops gathering from Russia, Prussia, Austria, and England to send him back to his little island or a more distant one, or to a firing squad.

Every end is a beginning; and on this March 20, 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte began his Hundred Days.

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