On the evening of February 26, 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte and 1,028 of his loyal men snuck onto seven ships and escaped the Mediterranean island of Elba. It had been almost a year since he abdicated the throne and was exiled by the restored Bourbon Monarchy, and he refused to wait any longer. It was time to take back his empire.
In order to do so, Napoleon would have to get from France’s southern coast all the way up to Paris without running into the crown’s vastly superior military force. Napoleon knew from several trusted allies that he had widespread support in the mountainous southeastern part of France known as the Dauphiné, and believed that he would be able to pass through safely. As he reached the shores of France, Napoleon declared: “I will reach Paris without firing a single shot.”
Over the next week, the emperor and his cohort diligently marched through the Alpine foothills, braving the harsh winter cold on the steep mountainside. As predicted, they were warmly greeted by both the dignitaries and peasants of every town they crossed. On the morning of March 7, Napoleon reached the town of La Mure, on the Matheysin plateau. Once again, he was greeted as a savior. Little did he know, a battalion of soldiers from the royal Fifth Regiment of the Line awaited him, hiding on the banks of Lake Laffrey just north of town.
Napoleon rushed to meet them, catching the battalion off-guard. In a moment that would become legend, Napoleon walks right up to the enemy’s front line, unbuttons his frock coat, and defiantly declared: “Soldiers of the Fifth, I am your Emperor. Do you not recognize me? If there is one of you that wants to kill his Emperor, here I am!” Almost instantly, the royalist soldiers respond with a collective cheer: “Vive L’Empereur!” or “Long live the Emperor!” and proceed to join his ranks. Less than two weeks later, Napoleon arrived in Paris, true to his word: Not a single shot was fired.
The mountain path that Napoleon and his men took from Golf Juan to the city of Grenoble was inaugurated as the Route Napoleon in 1932 and is indicated by golden eagle statues along the side of the road. The exact location of Napoleon’s encounter with royalist forces has been appropriately named Lieu de Rencontre (Field of the Encounter), and features a triumphant equestrian statue of the emperor, facing north. Also on the field are a couple dozen placards mounted on white poles that provide insightful first-person accounts of the encounter. As you stand there reading about the words of one of Napoleon’s men, surrounded by mountains that probably looked the same to him, it’s easy to be transported.