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 Post subject: Waterloo @ 200 - The Flight of the Eagle: Paris
Unread postPosted: 20 May 2015, 00:12 
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Waterloo @ 200

The Flight of the Eagle: The March on Paris

By Matthew Groves


“It was really those who had nothing to gain who brought me back to Paris. It was the second lieutenants and the privates who did it all – it is to the people and the army that I owe everything.”

Panic in Paris

By the time Napoleon had arrived at Auxerre the situation in Paris was chaotic, the King himself seemed unaware that his government was ceasing to function, his ministers talked endlessly without coming to any useful conclusion. The ministers deceived themselves with their own boasts about the royalist armies, the found it very easy to assail Napoleon with verbal abuse but when it came down to it they could find no one prepared to fire a bullet at him. Marshal Macdonald was one of the few realists, he returned from Lyons on the 15th March to warn the King that he should arrange plans to leave Paris. The ministers however desperately tried to form a liberal government in an attempt to gain support from the people but it was hopeless. During these hectic times the King went to the Palais Bourbon to meet the peers and deputies. As he left the Tuileries he showed the Duc d’Orleans that he was wearing the star of the Legion of Honour. ‘I see it, sire but I would rather have seen it sooner’, the duke remarked, it was a gesture that was as tardy and futile as his speech to the deputies in which Louis, who had never shown any enthusiasm for the constitutional Charter, now hailed it as ‘my proudest claim before posterity’.

King Louis XVIII, the brother of the executed Louis XVI. He was well known for being considerably overweight and being afflicted with gout. He was also extremely reactionary and was unwilling to adapt to more liberal ideas, he failed to realise how different France now was and how impossible it was to restore the ancient regime.

As the King and the princes rode through Paris the crowd seemed sympathetic by the soldiers who lined the route were in the sullen mood which had preceded outright mutiny all the way from Grenoble, and not even the distribution of money and spirits had roused them to cheer, On the 18th March Louis issued a new proclamation to the army, which repeated the threat of approaching civil war and an ensuing Allied attack. It did nothing for morale and worried those who were already frightened; it caused a small exodus as crowds rushed to the passport office and coach station, in the prosperous sections of Paris people were shutting up, selling up, packing up and departing. On the 19th Marshal Macdonald arrived at the Tuileries in the middle of the day to find carriages being loaded with royal baggage, he suggested that they be kept out of sight until darkness fell, for fear of starting a riot. Paris was eerily silent all day, then at seven o’clock in the evening it became clear that Louis XVIII was going to take Macdonald’s advice and flee for Brussels. The King did not warn the royalists in the city of his departure, because of his girth and gout he was half-helped, half-carried into his carriage, and then at midnight his carriage left and the Bourbon king fled the city.

Napoleon Enters Paris

Contemporary cartoon image of Napoleon’s arrival in Paris

Napoleon had spent all of Sunday 19th March travelling in order to get to Paris as quickly as possible. In the evening Napoleon stopped at the small town of Pont-sur-Yonne for dinner. Some men who had been sent on in boats were there ahead of him and he urged them to travel through the night, but one boat was dashed against a bridge and thirty-three men from the 76th regiment of infantry were drowned. They were the only casualties of the entire journey. At midnight he left the town and kept moving despite disagreeable weather, he then made his way for the palace of Fontainebleau, where he had signed his abdication eleven months before. He arrived there at five in the morning and was seen to his apartment by an eager former servant, Napoleon slept half dressed, he had been travelling for twenty hours and he needed to march another forty miles if he was to arrive at Paris to celebrate his son’s birthday. Throughout Monday morning couriers arrived with despatches for the Emperor, reports of regiments defecting, reports from commanders and welcomes from the ardent Bonapartists like Hortense Beauharnais, the daughter of Napoleon’s late first wife Josephine. Most importantly Napoleon also received the news that the King had fled the capital. This settled the matter and Napoleon’s convoy began the journey to the Tuileries. Macdonald, who had been left to man a defence line at Villejuif, realised his troops were simply waiting for Napoleon to welcome him, he therefore took what loyal troops there were with him north.

In the north of Paris, General Excelmans knew the Emperor was going to arrive soon, he quickly raised a scratch force of half-pay soldiers, cavalrymen and a few gunners with a pair of cannon, and led them to the centre of Paris. It was two in the afternoon when he came clattering along towards the Tuileries, a huge tricolour wrapped around him like a toga, a few minutes later the tricolour was hoisted over the royal palace. Soon afterwards the pensioners at the Invalides raised the tricolour and fired a saluting cannon, within the hour the national colours were flying everywhere in the capital, including Nortre-Dame.

Despite showers of rain crowds cheered Napoleon as his cavalcade came riding past, they formed up behind in a procession and cheered the Emperor on. When Napoleon reached Essonnes at six o’clock in the evening there was a vast informal rendezvous of soldiers, peasants, clerks, shopkeepers, members of the National Guard, and hundreds of men, women and children who had flocked to see the Emperor return. Waiting for him there were just two of the marshals of France, the ever loyal and masterful Davout was there after returning from his exile outside of France and the ageing, plain-spoken Lefebvre, both gave Napoleon a spontaneous welcome. The other marshals of France, other than Ney, were all, for now, keeping their royal oaths, waiting cautiously to see what happened before they changed one cockade for another.

That evening the streets of Paris were astonishingly quiet, despite this the supporters of Napoleon had been making their way to the Tuileries for several hours, the domestic staff in the palace put everything back into imperial style, even ripping off the fleurs-de-lis which had been stitched on the furnishings to cover the Napoleonic emblems. The self-invited guests spilled up the stairways and into the reception rooms. There were former ministers and councillors of state, generals, colonels, majors, functionaries and policemen, all in uniform with the red ribbon of the Legion of Honour. Down below, in the courtyard, there were hundreds of officers and soldiers filled with excitement. It was a little before nine o’clock when Napoleon and a small escort entered Paris through the Villejuif barrier, crossed the Seine and turned into the Tuileries.

Napoleon’s valet recalled that they drove ‘Up to the gates, there being plenty of room, we travelled freely. But once we were inside the courtyard…it was impossible for me to drive the carriage up to the steps. The Emperor, seeing he could go no further, got out in the middle of the huge crowd which pressed around him.’ Napoleon made no speech to the throng of people around him, for his words would have been drowned out by the cheering. Napoleon was carried up the steps of the Tuileries as the crowd of soldiers and citizens cried out repeatedly ‘Vive l’Empereur! Vive l’Empereur! Vive l’Empereur!’

Napoleon is carried up the stairs of the Tuileries palace with his supporters cheering in joy.


Mackenzie, Norman, The Escape from Elba: The Fall & Flight of Napoleon 1814-1815, (Oxford University Press, 1982).

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