March 7 1815: News of Napoleon’s Escape Reaches Vienna

“On Tuesday, March 7, after three in the morning, Metternich climbed the marble steps to his private rooms on the third floor of the Chancellery, where he crawled into bed for a well-deserved sleep. Another lengthy meeting of the Committee of Five had finally ended, and he was exhausted. “I had forbidden my valet to disturb my rest,” he said. Only a few hours later, his valet entered the chamber with a dispatch marked “URGENT.” Metternich took the envelope, glanced at the faraway sender, and then promptly set it on his nightstand. He then tried to go back to sleep, but as he put it, “sleep once disturbed, would not return.”

About half past seven, he gave up his tossing and turning, and opened the dispatch. It was a letter that he would never forget. The commissioner on Elba, Neil Campbell, reported that Napoleon was nowhere to be found and wondered if anyone had seen him. The Austrian foreign minister sprang out of bed, threw on his clothes, and raced over to the Hofburg to inform Emperor Francis. By eight in the morning, they were deep in discussion. “Napoleon apparently wants to play the adventurer; that is his business,” the emperor told Metternich. He continued: Our business is to secure for the world that peace which he has troubled all these years. Go at once to the Emperor of Russia and the King of Prussia; tell them that I am prepared to order my army once again to march back into France. I have no doubt that the two Sovereigns will join me.

As Metternich described the historic morning, he had a meeting with the tsar over in the Amalia wing of the palace at 8:15 and then hurried across the inner court to meet with the king of Prussia. By nine that morning, he was back at the Chancellery for a meeting with Austrian field marshal Prince Schwarzenberg. “It was in less than an hour,” he boasted with some exaggeration, “that war was declared.” Meanwhile, a few blocks away at Kaunitz Palace, Talleyrand was still in bed. Dorothée was seated next to her uncle, drinking chocolate and looking forward to her dress rehearsal later in the day for a theater production that opened that evening.

A white-wigged footman in gray livery brought in a note from Prince Metternich. “It is probably to tell me what time today’s meeting of the Congress is to begin,” Talleyrand predicted without much concern, as he handed the note to Dorothée. She opened it and read its contents. “Bonaparte has escaped from Elba. Oh, Uncle, what about my rehearsal?” “Your rehearsal, Madame, will take place all the same,” Talleyrand replied with an unruffled composure. Equally calm, he rose from the bed, summoned his assistants, hurried through his ritual levee, and then headed over to the Austrian Chancellery.

BY TEN O’CLOCK, the Allies were already gathering in Metternich’s study for an emergency meeting. Talleyrand was the first to arrive at the Chancellery, and Metternich took the opportunity to read the dispatch. “Do you know where Napoleon is headed?” Talleyrand asked. “The report does not say anything about it.” “He will land somewhere on the Italian coast and fling himself into Switzerland,” Talleyrand predicted. “No,” Metternich answered, “he will go straight to Paris.” This viewpoint was by no means obvious at the time. The road to Paris would mean progressing through many parts of southern France that had been bastions of royal support and scenes of bitter opposition to Napoleon. Given his unpopularity there, a French destination seemed unlikely, to say the least. If Napoleon “sets foot there,” Russia’s Corsican adviser, Pozzo di Borgo, would soon predict, “he will be seized the moment he lands, and hanged from the nearest tree.” At this point, Prince Hardenberg and Count Nesselrode entered Metternich’s study. The Duke of Wellington also arrived, having quickly changed his plans upon hearing the news. He had hoped to spend the morning hunting in the park. When the ministers began discussing the dispatch, it was clear that they had no idea of Napoleon’s intentions. One thing that they did agree on, however, was the importance of keeping everything quiet, as they did not want to alarm the town. Napoleon’s escape would not appear in the next morning’s newspapers, Wiener Zeitung and the Österreichischer Beobachter.

On the following day, there was only a small notice in the latter paper, buried in the “Foreign News” section under the headline for Italy. Even Metternich’s assistant, Friedrich von Gentz, who had shouldered so many duties as secretary of the Congress, was not informed. Gentz would come by Metternich’s office that same morning, as usual, where the two discussed congress business, though there was no hint of Napoleon being on the loose. Gentz would not find out until later that day, when his old friend Wilhelm von Humboldt told him.”

— Vienna, 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna by David King

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