Today on April 11, 1814, Napoleon abdicated his throne by signing the Treaty of Fontainebleau and was subsequently exiled to Elba.
The Treaty of Fontainebleau was established and signed by Napoleon Bonaparte and delegates from Austria, Prussia, and Russia. The once seemingly invincible emperor of France was forced to abdicate the crown and leave his beloved country. It was only four years earlier that Napoleon was riding high at the pinnacle of power — living his 19th century best life. By 1810, the emperor had conquered most of continental Europe and cemented himself as one of the greatest military commanders of all time. After winning countless victories against his rivals — Austerlitz, Wagram, and Friedland, just to name a few — he had created a new continental system in Europe. At its peak, the French empire stretched from the Iberian peninsula to Poland, with Napoleon ruling over seventy million people.
However, like many other generals in history, Napoleon made the mistake of invading Russia. His ambition simply got the best of him. The emperor suddenly broke the Treaty of Tilsit and launched an attack on Tsar Alexander I. But the Russian Campaign of 1812 would cost him dearly. The Grande Armee's long eastward march saw them eventually reach Moscow after winning Borodino. But Alexander stubbornly refused to capitulate and forced the French army to abandon the city. Their slow retreat from Moscow under the brutal winter conditions turned into a complete disaster. It's estimated that three out of four soldiers never returned home.
Sensing weakness and vulnerability, the leading superpowers of Prussia, Austria, Russia, Britain, and Sweden allied against him — a period known as the War of the Sixth Coalition. Over the next two years, Napoleon ceded would lose most of his newly acquired territories. In October 1813, the emperor's vastly outnumbered army was beaten in the Battle of Leipzig, becoming a watershed moment of the Napoleonic Wars. The Allies then marched directly to Paris. Despite overwhelming odds, Napoleon put on an impressive show of resistance during his final Six Days' Campaign but ran out of manpower and resources to continue.
His enemies initially sought to negotiate a peace settlement with the French government sans Napoleon. The emperor wished to continue fighting, but his generals refused. On April 11, 1814, he reluctantly signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau at a palace outside of Paris. Napoleon's abdication and terms of unconditional surrender were now locked in. As punishment, the Allies exiled him to Elba, a small island located off the coast of Italy. British negotiators protested the terms and wanted to label Napoleon as a usurper. Furthermore, they believed the island's close proximity to France was far too dangerous — and they were right.
The Treaty of Fontainebleau permitted Napoleon to retain the title of emperor yet only over the island's 12,000 inhabitants. His mother and sister moved with him to Elba, and the royal family was put up in a lavish mansion. Even his Polish mistress was permitted to visit him on occasion. The emperor was also given command over a small division of soldiers and a few vessels. Some might have called this exile in luxury. But for a great man like Napoleon, this was certainly a prison.
Within a few months, the military mastermind began plotting his escape. On February 26, 1815, Napoleon daringly escaped from Elba, marking the beginning of the Hundred Days' Campaign. In a matter of weeks, he returned to Paris at the head of a loyal army and reclaimed control of the government. The emperor hastily assembled a group of veteran soldiers but was decisively beaten at the Battle of Waterloo. The Allies once again exiled Napoleon, but this time to the remote island of Saint Helena. Interestingly, a French court charged two American history professors, John Rooney and Marshall Pierce, for stealing a copy of the Treaty of Fontainebleau from the French National Archives.