How did Napoleon escape from Elba?

Napoleon leaving Elba by Joseph Beaume, 1836

Napoleon leaving Elba by Joseph Beaume, 1836

In April 1814, with a European coalition occupying Paris, Napoleon Bonaparte was forced to abdicate the French throne. He was sent into exile on Elba, a small Mediterranean island located 260 km (160 miles) south of France and 10 km (6 miles) west of the Italian coastline. Ten months later, in one of those life-is-stranger-than-fiction episodes, Napoleon managed to spirit himself off the island and regain the French crown. How did Napoleon escape from Elba?

Why Elba?

Napoleon signed his abdication on April 6, 1814, at the Palace of Fontainebleau, on the understanding that suitable provisions would be made for him and his family. Negotiations were entered into between Armand de Caulaincourt, supported by Marshals Ney and MacDonald, on behalf of Napoleon, and the Russian representative, Karl Nesselrode, on behalf of the coalition. According to Caulaincourt, “The question of the residence of the Emperor was discussed with great animation.” (1) The coalition and the French provisional government wanted to keep Napoleon at a distance, while Napoleon wanted to be close to France and Italy. Caulaincourt suggested Corsica, Corfu, Sardinia or Elba. The French were unwilling to give Napoleon Corsica. The House of Savoy didn’t want to part with Sardinia. Corfu was considered to be too close to Greece.

Caulaincourt favoured Elba, a French possession, because of its climate and its fortifications. It would give Napoleon some protection against attack or assassination. Napoleon’s opponents were concerned about Elba’s proximity to Italy, which was “still under the spell of Napoleon.” (2) Caulaincourt took the matter directly to Tsar Alexander of Russia, who took his side.

Alexander raised no other opposition than its nearness to Italy, but himself wanting to avoid prolonging the fight, and wanting to see Napoleon consent to the abdication, which he believed he had the means to continue to dispute, he did not completely reject this accommodation, which must, in his opinion, please Napoleon because of its climate and language. (3)

The Treaty of Fontainebleau was signed by the representatives of Russia, Prussia and Austria on April 11, and by Napoleon’s representatives two days later. Napoleon was allowed to retain his title of Emperor and was given sovereignty over Elba. His wife Marie Louise was given the Duchies of Parma, Placentia and Guastalla. Napoleon was to receive an income of 2 million francs a year, and members of the Bonaparte family were promised pensions. These were to be paid by the French government, which would soon be in the hands of Bourbon King Louis XVIII.

Emperor Francis I of Austria (Marie Louise’s father) was not pleased. Elba had been taken from Tuscany and annexed to France by Napoleon in 1802. Now that Napoleon was defeated, Francis considered the island to be part of Austria’s Italian interests. He wrote to Austrian Foreign Minister Clemens von Metternich on April 12:

The important thing is to remove Napoleon from France, and God grant that he may be sent very far away. I do not approve of the choice of the Island of Elba as a residence for Napoleon; they take it from Tuscany, they dispose of what belongs to my family, in favour of foreigners. Besides, Napoleon remains too near to France and to Europe. (4)

British Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh was also not keen on the choice.

I should have wished to substitute another position in lieu of Elba for the seat of Napoleon’s retirement, but none having the quality of security, on which he insisted, seemed disposable to which equal objections did not occur, and I did not feel that I could encourage the alternative which M. de Caulaincourt assured me Bonaparte repeatedly mentioned, namely, an asylum in England. (5)

Napoleon’s life on Elba

Map of ElbaThe night of April 28, 1814, Napoleon boarded the British frigate Undaunted at Fréjus on the French coast. He arrived off Elba’s main harbour of Portoferraio on May 3. The next day he disembarked.

Napoleon busied himself as best he could in his miniature kingdom, some 100 km (60 miles) in circumference, population 12,000. He established his palace and other residences, designed a new flag, reorganized the island’s administration, extended roads, improved fortifications, and issued a stream of directives regarding agriculture and other matters, down to the smallest detail. He organized his army and a tiny navy. His mother Letizia and his sister Pauline moved to Elba, occasioning the arrangement of concerts, balls and theatre performances. His mistress Marie Walewska came to visit, along with his illegitimate son, Alexandre Walewksi. Though Napoleon hoped that Marie Louise and their young son would join him, that was not to be (see my post about Marie Louise’s lover).

For a man who had ruled an empire, Elba was a huge comedown. Napoleon soon grew bored, as did the members of his court and the soldiers he had brought with him from France.

Less than two years had elapsed since the Emperor had led an army of half a million men across Europe. He was now forming brigades consisting of two mules and a Corsican horse, three mules and a Corsican horse, three French horses and two Elban horses. … It was with the deliberate intention of deceiving himself that he made use of the word ‘brigade.’ A conscientious acceptance of facts might have unhinged the brain. (6)

Napoleon also ran into money problems. It quickly became apparent that Louis XVIII had no intention of paying the annual 2 million francs promised in the Treaty of Fontainebleau. Once the money Napoleon had brought with him from France ran out, the income on Elba would be insufficient to cover his substantial expenses. In November 1814, Colonel Neil Campbell – the British commissioner on the island whose job it was to keep an eye on Napoleon – wrote to Lord Castlereagh:

If pecuniary difficulties press upon him much longer, so as to prevent his vanity from being satisfied by the ridiculous establishment of a court which he has hitherto supported in Elba, and if his doubts are not removed, I think he is capable of crossing over to Piombino [the closest town in Italy] with his troops, or of any other eccentricity. But if his residence in Elba and his income are secured to him, I think he will pass the rest of his life there in tranquillity. (7)

In December, Campbell wrote:

The Intendant-General of the island of Elba informs me that Napoleon’s troops and vessels cost him one million of francs per year, while all his sources of revenue…will not net four hundred thousand this year. In addition to the discharging of a number of servants lately, he has reduced to one-half the salary of his surgeon, treasurer, and some others who hold civil appointments in his household, and who accompanied him from Fontainebleau. (8)

In early February 1815, Campbell noted:

For some time past Napoleon has suspended his improvements, as regards roads and the finishing of his country residence. This is, I think, on account of the expense. Some of the roads, as well as a bridge built entirely for his own use, and unconnected with the public, have yet, by his order, been paid for entirely by the inhabitants [of Elba]. (9)

Napoleon’s attempts to get people to work without pay, and to collect taxes for periods preceding his possession of the island, alienated the Elbans. In fact, Napoleon had sufficient private funds to cover his expenses for at least another year, and he could have borrowed money or laid off some of his Guard (the Treaty of Fontainebleau limited him to 400 men, and he had come with almost 700). Though Napoleon’s financial situation is thought to have played some part in his decision to leave Elba, it was not the only reason.

The decision to leave

When Napoleon was in his final exile on St. Helena, he told his followers that he had already been thinking of leaving Elba even when he was still at Fontainebleau.

The abdication of Fontainebleau had been merely conditional, in my innermost thoughts. Davout, the Duke of Bassano, and Caulaincourt were aware of it. They alone were the confidants of my hope in the resurrection of the Empire; like me, they believed that the Bourbons were incorrigible, that they would return to what they had been when they left, feudal kings. (10)

In conversations on Elba, Napoleon indicated that he expected the Bourbons would not remain in power for long. In May 1814, he gave them six months, after which he expected he would be sent for “to tranquilise the country.” (11) Through informants, visitors and smuggled communications (mail destined for him was opened and much of it confiscated), he kept abreast of what was happening in France. He knew the Bourbon government was unpopular.

As early as June 1814 there were rumours on Elba that Napoleon was making arrangements to leave the island. In July, Campbell referred to how Napoleon’s “schemes begin to connect themselves so openly with the neighbouring continent,” and how “all possible means are taken to disseminate the idea of Bonaparte’s future return to influence and power.” (12) In August, it was reported in France that Napoleon had actually left the island. In September, spies reported that preparations were being made for Napoleon’s departure from Portoferraio.

That same month, the Congress of Vienna began meeting to draw up the map of the post-Napoleonic world. One of the points under discussion was Napoleon’s future. It was recognized that Napoleon was too close to continental Europe, but there was no consensus on what to do about him. On October 13, French Foreign Minister Talleyrand wrote to Louis XVIII:

A very decided intention of removing Bonaparte from the island of Elba is manifesting itself. As yet no one has any settled idea of a place in which to put him. I have proposed one of the Azores; it is five hundred leagues from any coast. Lord Castlereagh seems inclined to think that the Portuguese might be induced to agree to such an arrangement but when it comes to be discussed, the question of money [to compensate Portugal for giving up an island, and to provide for Napoleon] will turn up again. (13)

St. Helena, Saint Lucia and Trinidad were mentioned in informal conversations. In a meeting with Campbell on January 14, 1815, Napoleon

spoke of the statements which had appeared in some of the newspapers respecting his removal to St. Helena or St. Lucia, in a way which showed his belief in them, said he would not consent to being transported from Elba, but would resist the attempt by force to the last. (14)

The account Napoleon gave at St. Helena regarding his decision to leave Elba cites a fear of being deported, the failure to pay him, and opinion in France.

Napoleon was residing at the Island of Elba, on the faith of treaties, when he learned that at the Congress of Vienna some idea was entertained of transporting him from Europe. None of the articles of the treaty of Fontainebleau were fulfilled. The public papers informed him of the state of feeling in France, and he accordingly formed his determination. (15)

Regarding conditions in France, in mid-February 1815, Napoleon learned of a conspiracy in favour of the Duke of Orleans.

The auditor Fleury de Chaboulon brought me the news. Davout was particularly urgent for my immediate return. ‘If you hesitate,’ he wrote me, ‘everything is lost, no more hope is possible. The Duke of Orleans will accept the crown.… Davout was quite right, there was not a moment to lose; it was necessary at any price for my presence to reawaken the people’s love for me, before the Orleanist conspiracy exploded; because the coronation of the Duke of Orleans would have been for many people, and especially for the foreign powers, a sort of compromise between the Revolution and the Restoration. (16)

Historian Philip Dwyer argues that “Napoleon left Elba not to save France, but to save himself from oblivion.” (17)

Napoleon’s escape from Elba

Napoleon’s return from the Isle of Elba by Ambroise-Louis Garneray. Napoleon’s ship Inconstant, on the right, crosses the path of the French ship Zéphir.

Napoleon’s return from the Isle of Elba by Ambroise-Louis Garneray. Napoleon’s ship Inconstant, on the right, crosses the path of the French ship Zéphir.

Nothing in the Treaty of Fontainebleau stipulated that Napoleon had to stay on Elba. As an independent monarch, he was in theory entitled to complete freedom of action. He might go where he pleased, provided he obtained a passport or other permission to land on foreign soil. Unlike his later situation on St. Helena, Napoleon was not under guard, merely under watch, and a loose one at that. Practically, however, it was well understood that Napoleon was expected to remain on Elba, and that his departure from the island would be treated as an assault on the peace of Europe.

On February 16, the day Fleury de Chaboulon left Elba, Neil Campbell left for Livorno on HMS Partridge, carrying a dispatch for Lord Castlereagh in which he expressed his anxiety about Napoleon’s intentions. Napoleon immediately issued orders to prepare the Inconstant, a brig of about 300 tons, for a sea voyage, though he did not specify the destination. She was to be painted like an English ship. She was to be re-armed and furnished with biscuit, rice, vegetables, cheese, brandy, wine and water for 120 men for three months. She was to carry as many boats as possible. The army was prepared; the Imperial cash was put in strong boxes for a voyage. Napoleon let very few people in on his plans. He continued to issue orders and act as though life was continuing as normal on Elba.

On the night of February 23, the Partridge returned to Elba, without Campbell, and anchored in the harbour at Portoferraio. Napoleon ordered the Inconstant to put out to sea so its condition would not be discovered. He directed the soldiers of the Guard to set to work gardening, so the ship’s captain would notice nothing unusual. The Partridge left on the afternoon of the 24th, the captain having told Napoleon’s staff that he planned to collect Campbell from Livorno on the 26th. After the Partridge left, Napoleon placed an embargo on all shipping, including fishing boats, so that anyone inclined to alert the outside world to his plans was unable to leave the island.

On February 25, Napoleon met with Elba’s chief dignitaries and formally announced his impending departure. He prepared proclamations, which were printed that evening, to be ready for distribution in France.

On Sunday, February 26, Napoleon announced that the departure would take place that evening. The embarkation began at 5 pm. At 7 pm, Napoleon embraced his mother and his sister at the Mulini Palace. He drove to the quay in Pauline’s small carriage (his was on the ship), with his generals and household following on foot. The crowd gave some faint-hearted cheers as he boarded the felucca Caroline and was taken to the Inconstant. At 8 pm, the firing of a cannon signalled departure.

Napoleon’s flotilla consisted of the Inconstant, which normally carried 18 guns and now had 26; the French merchant brig Saint Esprit, hired for the occasion; the bombard Étoile, with 6 guns; the Caroline, and three smaller vessels. On these boats were some 1,150 people: 600 Old Guard (grenadiers, chasseurs, sailors, gunners); 100 Polish Lancers (with their saddles but not their horses); 300 members of the Corsican Battalion; 50 gendarmes (mostly Italians and Corsicans); and 100 civilians, including servants. (18) Each ship carried Napoleon’s Elban flag.

Barely out of Portoferraio, the flotilla was becalmed. By dawn it had travelled only 10 km (6 miles). Light winds continued to be a problem. Passing north of the island of Capraia on February 27, the Inconstant spotted the Melpomène, one of two French frigates whose job was to patrol the waters between Corsica and Elba. The Melpomène did not approach the flotilla, however, and the French frigate Fleur-de-Lys, cruising northwest of Capraia, did not even see Napoleon’s little navy.

That afternoon, the French brig Zéphir spotted the flotilla and came close enough for its Captain Andrieux to have a brief conversation with Captain Taillade of the Inconstant.

[Andrieux] hailed and Taillade, according to Napoleon’s instructions, gave the name of the ship. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘To Leghorn [Livorno],’ came the answer; ‘and you?’ Still prompted by Napoleon, Taillade replied: ‘To Genoa. Have you any commissions for me there?’ ‘No thank you. And how is the great man?’ Napoleon told him to shout back: ‘He is wonderfully well.’ So they separated. (19)

On the morning of February 28, Campbell arrived back at Elba on the Partridge to discover that Napoleon and his troops had left. He didn’t know where Napoleon had gone, and no one in Napoleon’s household would tell him. He sent an English visitor in a fishing boat to Livorno with the news. Campbell boarded the Partridge to sail for Antibes on the south coast of France. On the way, the Partridge encountered the Fleur-de-Lys. The French captain said the Imperial flotilla could not have passed him without being observed. He convinced Campbell to spend time searching around Capraia for Napoleon.

At dawn on March 1, 1815, the flotilla was off the cape of Antibes. The French tricolour was hoisted. At 1 pm the vessels were at anchor at Golfe-Juan, between Cannes and Antibes. The disembarkation commenced.

Napoleon made it all the way to Paris without a shot being fired against him. On March 20, he entered the capital and began his second term on the French throne. In June 1815, he lost the Battle of Waterloo and had to abdicate again. He was sent into exile on the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena, from which there was no escape, except in Napoleon in America.

With regard to the failure of the British government to prevent Napoleon’s escape from Elba, Lord Castlereagh told the House of Commons on April 7, 1815:

The Allied Powers who concurred in the treaty of Fontainebleau never intended to exercise a police, or any system of espionage either within or without the residence which they had ceded to him; it was never in their contemplation to establish a naval police to hem him in, or prevent this man’s committing himself, as he has done, to his fortunes; in fact, if they were so inclined, they were without the means of enforcing such a system, for the best authorities were of opinion that it was absolutely and physically impossible to draw a line of circumvallation around Elba; and for this very conclusive reason, that, considering the variation of weather, and a variety of other circumstances, which could not be controlled, the whole British navy would be inadequate for such a purpose. If this force had been actually there, they could not have circumscribed Buonaparte in the manner in which some persons expected he should have been, without a violation of the treaty which had been granted him. (20)

On his return to Britain, Campbell was summoned to a private interview with the Prince Regent. The Prince cleared him of all blame for Napoleon’s escape from Elba. In 1826, Campbell was appointed Governor of Sierra Leone, where he died on August 14, 1827.

For more about Napoleon’s time on Elba, see “Napoleon on Elba – An Exile of Consent” by Peter Hicks in Napoleonica. La Revue. Neil Campbell’s memoir, Napoleon at Fontainebleau and Elba (1869), is available for free on the Internet Archive, as is the book Napoleon in Exile: Elba by Norwood Young (1914).

You might also enjoy:

Caricatures of Napoleon on Elba

Could Napoleon have escaped from St. Helena?

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10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon

Able was I ere I saw Elba: 19th century palindromes & anagrams

  1. Armand de Caulaincourt, Recollections of Caulincourt, Duke of Vicenza, Vol. II (London, 1838), p. 86.
  2. Ibid., p. 86.
  3. Armand de Caulaincourt, Mémoires du général de Caulaincourt, duc de Vicence, Vol. III (Paris, 1933), p. 226.
  4. Norwood Young, Napoleon in Exile: Elba (London, 1914), p. 43.
  5. Ibid., p. 48.
  6. Ibid., p. 150.
  7. Neil Campbell, Napoleon at Fontainebleau and Elba (London, 1869), p. 319.
  8. Ibid., p. 344.
  9. Ibid., p. 354.
  10. Charles de Montholon, Récits de la Captivité de l’Empereur Napoléon à Sainte-Hélène, Vol. I (Paris, 1847), p. 225.
  11. Napoleon in Exile: Elba, p. 257.
  12. Napoleon at Fontainebleau and Elba, pp. 266, 268.
  13. G. Pallain, ed., The Correspondence of Prince Talleyrand and King Louis XVIII During the Congress of Vienna (New York, 1881), p. 26.
  14. Napoleon at Fontainebleau and Elba, p. 352.
  15. Emmanuel de Las Cases, Memoriale de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. III, Part 6 (London, 1823), pp. 156-157.
  16. Récits de la Captivité de l’Empereur Napoléon à Sainte-Hélène, Vol. I, pp. 225-226.
  17. Philip Dwyer, Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power (New Haven & London, 2013), p. 522.
  18. Napoleon in Exile: Elba, p. 309.
  19. Ibid., p. 312.
  20. Archibald Alison, Lives of Lord Castlereagh and Sir Charles Stewart (Edinburgh and London, 1861), p. 325.

10 commments on “How did Napoleon escape from Elba?”

  • Jaime Gutierrez says:

    Very interesting aspects of the war.

  • Allan says:

    My ancestor drove that “getaway” carriage on Elba.

  • anup singh says:

    Excellent article…very detailed and with references….Napoleon as a leader always excites me.

  • Gareth Glover says:

    Hi, you do not mention the almost cast iron certainty that the French warships off Elba actually turned a blind eye to his escape and were in on the whole thing- See my book Waterloo Myth & Reality

  • Susan Kelly says:

    How may British sailors/soldiers were watching Elba when Napoleon escaped? If we know that he openly stated twice that he was going to leave the island, how did the sailors/soldiers watching not know? I read that Talleyrand and Castlereagh “colluded” to allow Napoleon to escape so he could be officially finished off. Is that true? If true, how many English sailors/soldiers died after Napoleon’s “escape” from Elba? How many casualties on the French side? Being able to look back at this history is fascinating. Another thought comes to mind; how different the outcome of the second war between Britain and the United States could have been if there had been no Napoleon to drain the blood and treasure of the British Empire.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      It does seem like the Brits should have been paying more attention, though I’m not aware of any collusion between Talleyrand and Castlereagh regarding the escape. That’s a great alternate history scenario, Susan. Without Napoleon, would the War of 1812 have happened, and what would have been the outcome if it did?

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It was necessary at any price for my presence to reawaken the people’s love for me, before the Orleanist conspiracy exploded.

Napoleon Bonaparte