“The night before Napoleon left he had been reading a life of Emperor Charles V of Austria, which he left open on the table. His elderly housekeeper kept it untouched, along with ‘written papers torn into small bits’ that were strewn about. When British visitors questioned her soon afterwards, she gave them ‘unaffected expressions of attachment, and artless report of his uniform good humour’.
Napoleon left Elba on L’Inconstant on the night of Sunday, February 26, 1815. Once the 300-ton, 16-gun ship had weighed anchor, the 607 Old Guard grenadiers aboard were told they were headed for France. ‘Paris or death!’ they cried. He took generals Bertrand, Drouot and Cambronne, M. Pons the inspector of mines, a doctor called Chevalier Fourreau, and a pharmacist, M. Gatte. They were attempting to invade a great European country with eight small vessels, the next three largest of which were only 80, 40 and 25 tons, carrying 118 Polish lancers (without their horses), fewer than 300 men of a Corsican battalion, 50 gendarmes, and around 80 civilians (including Napoleon’s servants) – a total force of 1,142 men and 2 light cannon.105 A moderate breeze carried them to France, and they narrowly missed two French frigates on the way. Napoleon spent a lot of time on deck, chatting to officers, soldiers and sailors. The commander of the lancers, Colonel Jan Jermanowski, recorded: Lying down, sitting, standing, and strolling around him, familiarly, they asked him unceasing questions, to which he answered unreservedly and without one sign of anger or impatience, for they were not a little indiscreet, they required his opinions on many living characters, kings, marshals and ministers, and discussed notorious passages of his own campaigns, and even of his domestic policy.”
— Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts
“On February 26, 1815, the very day of his departure, Napoleon had made sure that everything seemed normal. The soldiers had been planting trees, working in the garden, and carrying out other standard duties, as they had done for months. Napoleon went to Mass in the morning, dined with his mother and sister in the evening, and then rode down to the harbor, passing many curious cheering and waving Elbans. Everything had been loaded onto the sixteen-gun brig Inconstant. After nine months and twenty-two days, Napoleon and his crew were ready to set sail.
Napoleon had earned a reputation for daring enterprises, but this one was to be his riskiest venture yet. He was invading one of the most powerful countries on earth, and he had about 1,100 men, seven small boats, and four cannons. The emperor liked the odds. “I shall reach Paris,” he announced, “without firing a shot.””
— Vienna, 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna