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September 15, 2019

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Napoleon’s Empire of Elba

As part of the general settlement of European affairs after Napoleon's abdication in April of 1814, he was granted the right to select among the islands of Corsica, Corfu, and Elba as a place of exile, which would be his in full sovereignty, with the title "Emperor." Probably reasoning that even he couldn’t tame his unruly fellow Corsicans, and not being able to speak Greek, thus making Corfu moot, Napoleon settled upon Elba, a modest-sized island between Italy and his native Corsica. He arrived at Porto Ferraio, the capital of the island, aboard a the British frigate H.M.S. Undaunted on May 3, 1814, accompanied by a small staff and representatives of the various Allied powers. Napoleon's new domain was quite small, little more than 90 square miles, and included a number of nearby tiny islets, among them the later fictionally famous Monte Cristo. The whole “empire” had perhaps 12,000 inhabitants.

Almost as soon as he settled in, requisitioning a modest residence for himself, Napoleon set about managing his new empire. Displaying his characteristic energy and curiosity, Napoleon made personal inspections of the famous iron mines and salt works which provided most of island's revenues, and proposed various improvements in the works. He also planned to establishment of a number of model farms, on which he would settle some of his veterans, proposed the introduction of several new industries, notably orchards, silk, and horse breeding, and thoroughly reformed the island's finances. These measures brought some increased prosperity to the island, not least because Napoleon's arrival brought a good deal of new money into the local economy: he had about five million francs when he landed. The Emperor's arrival also wrought a considerable change in the social life of the sleepy little island, notably so after he was joined by his sister Pauline, subject of the famous nude by Canova. Later their mother joined them, and most loyal lover, Madam Walweska, showed up for a short visit, bringing with her their "love child," who later served as Foreign Minister to Napoleon III. There were regular balls, receptions by the foreign representatives (who were really there to keep an tabs on Boney), and fetes for visiting dignitaries, while the Royal Navy made it a point to make regular port calls, just to keep an eye on the exile.

Being a soldier, Napoleon paid particular attention to the state of his defenses, on the one hand out of concern that his enemies in Europe might attempt a coup against him, and, on the other hand, that the Barbary pirates, who had become increasingly active during the long wars, might raid the island as they had so often done in the past. He directed that existing fortifications be improved and selected sites for new ones, including several on the outlying islet of Pianosa. Napoleon also began to acquire a small fleet. He would eventually have eight vessels, of which three were armed and suitable for coast defense and anti-piracy patrol, while two were small merchant vessels, and three were oared barges suitable for pleasure outings.

Principal Vessels of The Imperial Elban Navy
ShipTypeTonsGuns
Carolineaviso261
Etoilesloop836
Inconstantbrig30018

Of course it was on his army that Napoleon lavished the most attention. The powers permitted him to have an army of 300 men, provided he could afford it. Naturally, Napoleon paid no attention to this limitation. He began with about 800 veterans of the Garde Imperial, men who arrived on Elba at the end of May, with Vicomte Pierre Cambronne at their head. These troops, veterans all, formed the core around which Napoleon built his army, which was under the immediate command of Comte Antoine Drouot.

Order of Battle
The Imperial Elban Army
FormationTroops
Battalion Napoleon607(6 coys)
    Chasseurs300(3 Coys)
    Grenadiers300 (3 Coys)
Battalion Corse400 (4 Coys)
Battalion Elba400 (4 Coys)
    Light Cavalry460 (6 Sqns)
    Chasseurs380(5 Sqns)
    Polish Lancers76(1 Sqn)
Artillery100(1 Btty)
Engineers25
Total1992

The Corsican and Elban battalions were supposedly militiamen recruited from local personnel. All of the engineers were locally recruited, aside from two or three regularly trained officers, and served primarily as a fire brigade. Including a small staff, the total paper strength of the army was somewhat more than 2,000 men. However, the militia units were never properly organized, so that in practical terms the army does not seem to have exceeded about 1,200. Moreover, since he had a shortage of horses, and in any case Elba was unsuited to cavalry (or horse raising), being very rugged, Napoleon dismounted most of his troopers, turning them into fortress artillerymen, retaining only 22 Polish lancers as a mounted escort.

By the winter of 1814-1815 Napoleon was well-settled on Elba. Superficially he appeared happy. As one of his staff observed, "The Emperor lives very contentedly on his island. He seems to have forgotten the past." But Napoleon was growing restless. The island was too small to occupy his energies, too confining for his ambitions, and too exposed to his enemies. Moreover, he was slowly going broke. Although his resources were now severely limited, Napoleon could not break the habit of lavish spending acquired whilst master of Europe. He spent prodigally; for example, Henri Bertrand, former Chief Marshal of the Imperial Household and head of the civil government of Elba, had an annual salary of 80,000 francs! So Napoleon’s personal fortune was rapidly diminishing, as was an enormous sum his sister Pauline brought with her, and the revenues from Elba were insufficient to make up the difference. Moreover, the Bourbons, newly restored to the throne of France, were showing signs of reneging on their pledge to provide him an allowance of a million francs a year, not that it would have lasted long, given the way he spent money. Soon Napoleon began making various economies in his lifestyle and curtailing development projects. With his usual attention to detail, he even specified the amounts to spent on chairs to be purchased for his dinning suite, noting that the price ought not to exceed five francs apiece, and quibbled about 280 francs requested by his Stores Department for petty cash. This sort of penny-pinching saved some money, but not enough. Finally Napoleon he had to make reductions in his armed forces, not a good idea in view of the fact that the Bourbons were quietly offering considerable sums for his head.

Meanwhile, Napoleon was keeping in touch with events in France and Europe at large through a complex network of agents, friends, and family members. By winter he sensed that the time was ripe to return to power. So on February 26, 1815, he took ship with his little army for France. Just 110 days later he met his Waterloo.

 

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