The Emperor's New Digs

An Interview with Mark Braude

OR: What is going on within Napoleon as he adjusts to life on Elba? Do we know from his correspondence?

Braude: Over the course of his time there, it does seem like he is settling in and maybe not enjoying himself, but starting to find a purpose. He puts a lot of his energy into building up the society, as I said. He gets into gardening. He creates a giant topiary in the shape of an N. He plays practical jokes on his soldiers. He puts little fish in their pockets and asks if he can borrow a handkerchief. He's finding ways to while away the time and all the while he's stating publicly that he is happy, that he has retired, and that he will live out his days on Elba.

Now meanwhile, his second wife Mary Louise and their relatively young son are bouncing between France and Vienna. There's some question as to when she will join him. That's the big “what if” of the scenario. She is politically useful and powerful, and of course has her own ambitions and her own desires for what she wants to do that don't include Napoleon. There's a lot of back and forth in letters that are interesting to read and see what levels of honesty and deceit are going on between both parties as to when she will come to Elba. In the end, she never does come. That certainly must've had a large role to play in his mental state and in his desire to return to France.

OR: How does Napoleon go about effecting his escape? What is it like for him and what is it like for France when he returns?

Braude: We have this wonderful source in Neil Campbell, the Scottish colonel I mentioned earlier — the guy watching over Napoleon in this very unofficial capacity. He's just there as an observer, he has no real power. But he's the closest thing to someone in charge (who isn't Napoleon) and keeps this detailed diary. We see through his conversations with Napoleon that Napoleon is starting to ask more and more about what's going on in Europe as though he's just interested in the news. But in fact, he's trying to find out through Campbell, who is his contact with the mainland, if he would be killed the instant he set foot on French soil.

That's up in the air. It's hard for anyone to get a grip on public opinion at this time, just because of the ways that the press and news circulated. Even now we have no real sense of how popular or unpopular he was. There was nothing to guarantee that he should have come back or that he would be embraced. It's actually one of the most miraculous, or at least unexpected and unlikely events in modern history that he was able to not only escape but for a time be embraced.

The escape plan itself is dumb and obvious. It works, I think, because of its simplicity. He waits for Campbell to go back to the mainland, which Campbell did occasionally. Campbell himself was getting a little bit bored and stifled, especially as the heat started to rise, and felt that he needed some breaks. He may also have had a girlfriend on the mainland that we think he was going to visit. In any case, he, Napoleon waits for Campbell to go back to the mainland and gets the all clear. They take three boats, they paint them in British colors, and they sail toward France.

Meanwhile, there are British ships patrolling the area. There are French ships patrolling the area. In the course of their sailing, these ships pass by Napoleon’s and even communicate and ask how it's going and they fool everyone. It's a simple straight-ahead sailing. Eventually, Campbell realizes what's going on and heads off in hot pursuit, but he actually ends up going the wrong way. Everyone thought Napoleon would be going to Naples where his brother-in-law Murat was also clinging to some power and these two men together would form this army of those disaffected and upset about the changes and then march upwards from the south of Italy. Nobody, really nobody, expected him to land in France as he did.

OR: What are the Hundred Days like for Napoleon?

Braude: He and about 1,000 followers have come from Elba and land on the beach by what is now present-day Antibes and Golfe-Juan and camp out there. The news spreads that it's actually Napoleon and he's back. What happens is, I think, that people are so awestruck and dumbfounded by this return that nobody has encountered this before, so they don't really know what to do. He just passes along with his men for quite a while, moving eastward and northward toward Paris. There's a quite dramatic scene that's actually the scene with which I end my book because I'm focused on the Elban exile, where they meet the first Royalist troops in a place called Laffrey.

It's a big wide open plain, so both sides can see each other very clearly. These are French soldiers who are now sworn, since the defeat of Napoleon and since the negotiations with their former enemies in how France is going to continue, to loyalty to a Bourbon king, Louis. They've sworn to protect him with their life and they owe their duty and their livelihood to this new king. By all accounts, they should shoot Napoleon on sight. Napoleon by leaving Elba has become an outlaw. He is beyond the pale of any law as stated by the treaty that sent him to Elba. Anybody is fully in their rights to kill him on sight.

What happens is they meet in this big field and Napoleon has this little ragtag army behind him and here are the Royalist troops on the other side. He walks out in front of his own soldiers, tells them to stay back, and walks up toward the opposing side. He opens his greatcoat and says, "Here I am, it's me, it's Napoleon. I'm your emperor, do what you will." Somebody calls out “fire,” but nobody fires. What happens is that everyone throws their weapons down and both sides get together and embrace and celebrate. They've decided now that they're on Napoleon's side. From that point on he's really got the army and public opinion on his side and he does this lightning march. It's the audacity of it, it's not the sanity or the rationality of it. Nobody's thinking that life is necessarily going to be better under Napoleon, but it's certainly more exciting.