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  • James Houser

April 4, 1814 - Napoleon's (First) Abdication

Updated: Jun 7, 2021

April 4, 1814. Out of options and with the walls closing in, Napoleon, Emperor of the French, decides to abdicate the throne. With enemy armies occupying Paris and his generals having turned against him, there is no other choice. As Napoleon heads into exile, it may seem like the Napoleonic Wars that have wracked Europe for a decade are over. But looks can be deceiving…

I have a lot of French Revolution and Napoleon posts coming up over the next year, so I’m not going to give the whole backstory here. We’ll start as close to today’s actual event as possible, and I will try not to let my near-fanboy obsession with Napoleon factor too hard into today’s post.

Napoleon had dominated Europe until his disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. Having lost most of his army there, the European powers of Austria, Prussia and Russia had finally joined Great Britain in a Grand Alliance – the Sixth Coalition (the other five didn’t work) – against the French upstart. For the first time, all the major nations of Europe had combined to fight the greatest general modern Europe had ever seen.

At first, it seemed like even this might not be enough. Even with an army built of bits and pieces and filled out by new recruits, Napoleon rolled back into Germany with prejudice to square off with his foes. The French trounced the Russian/Prussian force at Lutzen and Bautzen in May 1813, and in one of Napoleon’s most brilliant victories punished a huge Allied army at Dresden in August.

The overwhelming allied numbers finally told, though, and at the colossal Battle of Leipzig in October – the Battle of the Nations, it was called – Napoleon was pinned against a river by an Austrian, Prussian and Russian force three times larger. Even Napoleon the Great could not stand against this, and in this decisive defeat he lost his hold on Europe. It was one of the few times Napoleon had ever been defeated in battle out of the over 60 he had fought.

By January 1814, Napoleon and the remnants of his army had been forced across the Rhine River and would now have to defend France itself from invasion. The Allies were oddly hesitant. Now that Napoleon was no longer a mortal threat, it was time – as always happens – to bicker amongst themselves. The Russians wanted France brought low, since it was their major rival for the most powerful nation in Europe. The Austrians, led by the brilliant diplomat Metternich, wanted to keep Napoleon and France in the game to serve as a counterweight to both Russian and British ambition. The Prussians were almost as hungry as the Russians to defeat France, but the territory they wanted out of their victory would make them a future problem for Austria. The British wanted France strong enough to keep anyone else from disrupting their commerce.

With this in mind, and fearing that Napoleon was still dangerous, the Allies made a peace proposal in November 1813. They would allow Napoleon to remain the Emperor of France, but he would have to give up many of his conquests. France would be allowed to keep Belgium as well as territories in Italy and the valuable Rhineland of Germany, but they would have to give up all their other conquests. Metternich told Napoleon that these were the best terms he would probably ever get – as the war went on, and the ring closed in, Napoleon’s bargaining position would fall sharply. Keep in mind that this was part of Metternich’s game all along: keep Napoleon around and play him off against the Russians.

Napoleon was the outstanding general of his time, one of the most brilliant men of history, and an incredible human being, but he had drunk too deeply of his own Kool-Aid. His insatiable ego and refusal to accept limits had dogged him throughout his career as Emperor of the French, and now they led him to refuse the Allied proposal. Napoleon, somehow, believed he could still win. And he set out to prove it.

By December 1813, the Allies withdrew their offer of peace and sent their armies across the Rhine into French territory. Two forces invaded France: 75,000 Prussians and Russians in the center under the ancient, fiery cavalrymen Prince von Blucher, and 200,000 Austrians in the south under the cautious but clever Prince Schwarzenberg. 120,000 more troops under Prince Bernadotte, Napoleon’s former subordinate and now Prince of Sweden (that is a whole story on its own) were on their way from the Netherlands to the far north, but would not arrive until March. Against this force totaling almost 400,000, Napoleon had 80,000 French soldiers remaining.

In the far south, Wellington’s British and Portuguese army was advancing through the Pyrenees from Spain into France. Napoleon decided that he had to beat the Allies before Wellington could arrive. It was a long shot. France’s resources were almost exhausted, his Marshals were looking over their shoulders at the fancy estates and palaces they stood to lose, and the French people were sick of ten years of war. Even badly outnumbered, with underage conscripts, and a country on the verge of ruin, though…he was still Napoleon.

The next few months witnessed maybe the most brilliant campaign he ever fought. Napoleon maneuvered his small army through the cracks between the much larger forces, striking at their weak points and keeping them separate. On January 29, he launched a surprise attack on Blucher at Brienne, captured the bitter old Prussian’s headquarters and drove him into retreat. When Napoleon drew back towards Paris, Blucher charged after him once again, and throughout February 9-14 the French spun a web of confusion about the Allies before again puncturing their bubble at Vauchamps on February 14. After this “Six Days Campaign,” one of the most well-orchestrated military actions in history, Blucher had to retreat all the way back to his starting line, leaving Napoleon with huge numbers of prisoners and guns. Napoleon immediately pivoted south, striking Schwarzenberg’s Austrians with a series of hard jabs to keep them from uniting with the Prussians.

Napoleon, though, had run out of time. When he attempted to crush Blucher once and for all at Laon on March 10, he came to the sudden realization that Bernadotte’s forces from the far north had finally arrived. Heavily outnumbered, he was defeated and forced back, but he dodged and weaved in his retreat, escaping the Prussian-Russian trap. He wheeled south to strike Schwarzenberg again, but after inflicting heavy losses found his way blocked again at Arcis-sur-Aube on March 20.

Under these circumstances, Napoleon tried to reopen negotiations with the Allies: he would now accept the terms they had offered him back in November. The Allies coldly refused; that ship had sailed. Now, they were out to remove Napoleon from power for good.

All this maneuvering and fighting had only delayed the inevitable. Brilliant as it was, it failed to change the circumstances. The Allies were closing in, Blucher and Bernadotte from the north and Schwarzenberg from the south. Napoleon couldn’t keep the two apart forever, and eventually they would crush him. He decided to secretly move east, to try and cut their supply lines and force one or both armies to retreat out of France. Then, maybe they would reopen negotiations and Napoleon could retain his throne. By now, even the arrogant genius realized that his ambitions had to be scaled back.

When Napoleon moved east on March 22, the first impulse of the Allied armies was to follow him – exactly what he wanted. However, Schwarzenberg and Blucher both realized that Napoleon’s maneuver left Paris wide open. For years, Napoleon had made his opponents march to the beat of his drum, setting the terms, defining the scope of operations. Now, it was finally their turn. Both the Austrians and the Prussians made a beeline for Paris.

Defended by Napoleon’s old friend and companion Marshal Auguste Marmont, Paris could have held out for days as Napoleon doubled back to relieve it. Marmont, in a bid to save his own position, titles, and lands, surrendered to the Allies in exchange for immunity from any punishment. This betrayal, which the French collective memory bore against him for the rest of his life, saved Marmont’s riches but destroyed his reputation. Many years later when he attempted to defend King Charles X from the July Revolution of 1830, his composure was shattered and he was sent from the room a broken man when the King shouted, “Will you betray us, as you betrayed him?”

With Paris in enemy hands, Napoleon at first vowed to fight on, but he was confronted by his remaining Marshals with a mutinous ultimatum on April 4, 1814. The French Senate had surrendered to the Coalition and passed a decree deposing Napoleon, the Allied armies were overwhelming, the troops were willing to follow – but to what end? The game was up. Napoleon formally abdicated in favor of his son, Napoleon II, but the Coalition refused to accept this condition. They planned to restore the Bourbon Dynasty, overthrown what had seemed like a lifetime ago in the French Revolution of 1789. Napoleon finally signed his unconditional abdication on April 6.

In the Courtyard of the Palace of Fontainebleau, Napoleon bid an emotional farewell to his Imperial Guard (pictured), saddled his horse, and was led away by Allied troops. He would go into exile on Elba, a tiny island in the Mediterranean, and would never see the Empress Marie-Louise or his young son again. With a small stipend and a tiny honor guard, Napoleon would be condemned to the rock for the rest of his life.

The Allies could now begin planning the New Order of Europe. With Napoleon out of the way, things could be fixed. A grandson of the guillotined Louis XVI, named Louis XVIII, had been placed on the French throne, and it was time to put things back to rights.

Or was it? Napoleon, stewing on his tiny island, could not stay there forever. His most bitter personal enemy, Tsar Alexander I said it best:

“Napoleon remains – there is the difficulty. In vain will he promise to remain quiet in the retreat which will be assigned to him. You know even better than I his devouring activity, his ambition. Some fine morning he will put himself at the head of the regency, or in its place: then the war will recommence, and all Europe will be on fire.”

Tune in on June 16 for Napoleon to return and set Europe to fire one last time. It is the road to Waterloo.

Book Recommendation: A very good biography of Napoleon is Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life (New York: Viking Press, 2014), though it is quite sympathetic towards its subject. For a more critical view, see Charles J. Esdaile’s Napoleon’s Wars: An International History (New York: Penguin, 2009).

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