On This Day in Napoleonic History – 26 February 1815

Napoleon leaves Elba

26The brig Inconstant, with Napoleon on board and accompanied by a small flotilla of six ships, departed at nine o’clock from the island of Elba. Profiting by the British commissioner Neil Campbell’s absence, Napoleon was able to escape with a little over 1000 men. ‘Paris or death!’ cried the grenadiers, once they were told on board The Inconstant that they were headed for France.
There were many reasons behind Napoleon’s decision to leave Elba. Had Emperor Francis allowed Marie Louise and Napoleon’s son to join him in exile, it is very probable that Napoleon would have been content to stay on the island. Without his wife and son, however, Napoleon was bored. His active nature rebelled against the boredom. There were rumours about his planned removal from Elba and even execution and he was concerned. Australian penal colony of Botany Bay and remote island of Saint Helena in the Atlantic were suggested. And finally, out of inexplicable stubbornness, Louis XVIII refused to pay the pension that was promised Napoleon. Without this pension he couldn’t support the men that agreed to follow him to Elba. Tsar Alexander tried to no avail to convince the king to pay, saying, ‘Why should we expect him to keep his word with us when we did not do so with him?’
Louis XVIII made a number of errors that had turned the public opinion in France against him. Although the king signed a charter guaranteeing civil liberties, it was widely feared that he was going to re-establish the ancient regime. The king’s rule was officially dated from the death of his brother Louis XVI, as if everything in between – the Revolution, the Directory, the Consulate, the Empire – had never happened. The borders returned to those of 1791, Catholic Church regained some of its pre-revolutionary power and prestige, to the greatest chagrin of liberals and republicans, and food prices and taxes were raised. The tri-colour, under which the French had won their most brilliant victories, had been replaced by the while flag and the fleur-de-lis. Large numbers of officers were retired and put on half-pay. The old soldiers longed for the glory days of the French Empire. In defiance to orders, many of them celebrated Napoleon’s birthday in 1814 with cannon fire salutes and cries of Vive l’Empreur.
France was ready for Napoleon’s return and he was on his way!

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