“The Tiger has broken out of his den!“ - Napoleon slipping his cable and fleeing from Elba

26 February 1815, Napoleon slipped his cable and fled from Elba, his exile after the signing of the Treaty of Fontainebleau one year earlier.

“The Tiger has broken out of his den!“ (Parisian newspaper headline from March 1815)

French history painter Joseph Beaume’s interpretation of “Napoléon Ier quittant l'île d'Elbe. 26 février 1815“ (1836)

The small convoy sailed close to the broadside of the 38-gun frigate “Melpomene” that flew the white flag of the Bourbon restoration when Elba’s watchdog, the 18-gun sloop HMS “Partridge” appeared to the north-east. The emperor knew, of course, that the royalist’s frigate’s captain Joseph Collet was sympathetic to his cause, just as the commanders of the two other Bourbon men-of-war in the Ligurian Sea were. The emperor knew when “Partridge” would leave her station and sail for Leghorn to pick up General Sir Neil Campbell, his former escort to Elba. And if it weren’t for a calm, they wouldn’t have caught sight of the sloop at all. Nonetheless, Captain Adye of HM sloop “Partridge” saw nothing suspicious in the French brig, the “Inconstant” and the two schooners in her wake and didn’t close in on her. He might just have. Besides the emperor, the brig carried 400 grenadiers, not that easily hidden on vessel just 100’ long. Later, the other French commanders shrugged off the question if they hadn’t seen the ”Inconstant” leave Elba. The logs of the three ships had disappeared as well, quite mysteriously. The emperor himself was back on French soil three days later. The Hundred Days of Napoleon had begun.

Ambroise Louis Garneray (1783 - 1857), ex-corsair and naval painter, and his imagination of "Inconstant" sailing past a French cruiser flying Bourbon colours (1852)

There was the rumour, of course, that the allies and the Bourbons planned to assassinate Napoleon or at least take him out of Europe. Payment of his appanage, granted him as one of the conditions under the Treaty of Fontainebleau during his surrender a year before, was stopped by the Bourbons already and he knew about the disjointedness of the victorious powers at the Congress of Vienna as well as the general unhappiness of the French with the old new regime of Louis XVIII. Actually, there was not much he did not know down there in Elba. And he simply had to pick it up and give it a go. “Give the order for the Brig to enter the dock and turn it around on its keel, shine it, seal the water ways, resurface the careening and everything else necessary for taking it to the sea“, he wrote to the Sage of the Grand Armée, General Drouot who had accompanied him into exile, with remarkably detailed knowledge of naval affairs, he whose neglect of the navy was the spoke in the wheel that probably had brought him to Elba in the first place. “Have it painted as an English Brig. Everything shall be done in anticipation as if I were to arrive tomorrow. You will supply the Brig with biscuits, rise, legumes, cheese, half of the provisions in aquavit and the other half in wine, and enough water for 120 men for three weeks. As much salted meat to last for 15 days. You will ensure enough wood and that there is absolutely nothing lacking. I wish that from the 24th to the 25th of this month that everything will be as I have asked and ready at the anchorage.”

Charles de Steuben (1788 - 1856): "Napoleon's Return from Elba" (1818)

Drouot received the emperors letter on February 16th and even if the departure of the “Inconstant” was delayed for one more day by a calm, unusual for Ligurian waters, even in February, as if the sea would want to topple him one last time, Napoleon’s meticulous planning was worth the while. The broadsheets in Paris marked his progress with snappy headlines: the Ogre was three days at sea, the Wretch has landed at Frejus, the Brigand has arrived at Antibes, the Invader has reached Grenoble, while all garrisons along the trail that later became known as “Route Napoleon” defected to him until he met with a Bourbon line regiment for the first time, the 5e régiment d’infanterie under Colonel Charles de la Bédoyère, sent to intercept him. Allegedly, Napoleon dismounted, stepped in front of them and cried out: “If any of you will shoot your Emperor, shoot him now." Famously, nobody did. Ney, le Brave des Braves, who had left King Louis with the words he’d bring Napoleon back to Paris in an iron cage, joined him with 6,000 more men at Auxerre on March 18th and when Napoleon arrived in the capital a few days later, the Bourbon had fled and the headlines ran: “His Imperial Majesty will address his loyal subjects tomorrow!“

And more about the “Hundred Days” on: