NAPOLEON AND AMERICA
(Translated by Jonathan House)
In choosing this title, “Napoleon and America,” we have embarked upon a subject that is much greater than it might at first appear. Napoleon never set foot in America, even though he was tempted repeatedly to make the trip. Despite this, his influence on the American continent was both definite and considerable. The relations between these two giant countries had both ups and downs, due principally to changes in the politics of the United States; while the Federalists were sympathetic to the British, primarily because of a shared economic vision, the Republicans were naturally attracted to France, which claimed to be the chief heir of the Revolution. Despite these political shifts, a reciprocal fascination connected France and the United States, and Napoleon eventually gained the approval of a majority on the far side of the Atlantic.
When one studies the history of these two continents, the old and the new, it is also obvious that the actions of First Consul Bonaparte and later of Napoleon I were taken in the context of a second Hundred Years’ War between the English and French. The stakes in this war were nothing less than the domination of the New World and especially of its northern half. At the end of the Seventeenth Century, France appeared to have the advantage over its rival Britain, having possession of a gigantic empire extending from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico. Yet, French policy was so preoccupied by the convulsions of the old Europe that it was unfortunately unable to profit from its privileged position in America. France was so little interested that, under Louis XV, it lost Canada. As the First Consul, responsible for France’s future, Napoleon Bonaparte saw in Louisiana, which represented a good quarter of the modern United States, an opportunity to simultaneously reconstitute the great French colonies and to struggle against the maritime hegemony of Britain. Despite this, as we shall see later, the course of events blocked his grandiose project, finally putting an end to his American dream. The British themselves saw their own pretensions laid low, because America was destined to belong only to Americans!
The first time that Napoleon turned his attention to America, he was only a young lieutenant of artillery. With an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, he consumed his readings and took notes that have survived to this day. Concerning the United States, he first noted that “the Archbishop of Canterbury hounded the Puritans with such vigor that they fled to Virginia.” This simple phrase is laden with meaning. It indicates, in effect, the cause that led to the creation of a new world. Fleeing a country and especially a political system, the Puritan colonists attempted to create something new, corresponding to their own aspirations. The schism with Britain was thus already completed and the colony carried within itself the seeds of its future independence. This observation did not escape the analytical spirit of Napoleon, or even of a young Bonaparte.
His notes were taken from the “English Spy” or “the Secret Correspondence between Lord All-Eyes and Lord All-Ears,” a pamphlet that appeared in London in 1784. Napoleon demonstrated a touching interest in the geography and economy of the newly-formed United States of America.
The English colonies (in America) have only about 150 miles in depth by 800 in length from the 31 st to the 46 th degree of latitude. 120,000 square miles of surface area. Britain contained within its three kingdoms 205,624 square miles. In 1760, the population was 2,500,000 Whites and 43,000 Blacks. The population doubled every 20 years, which suggests that today it has 4 million inhabitants.
It takes four acres to live in France, but 40 in America.
Boston has ten degrees of frost more than in London.
North Americans were obliged to live on fish. There is wood for construction, but the distances make export impossible or at least very expansive. The fur trade is declining, producing only 35,000 pounds sterling today. They have an unfavorable balance of trade with the Antilles. They have some manufacturing, especially at Dartmouth. The mulberry is well known. Cotton and silk grow extensively. The central part of America grows tobacco, but this plant destroys the soil.
The two Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida grow rice, although they once traded in cotton.
Fog and rain inhibit the cultivation of vines.
This summary of American produce is taken from a letter of Mr. Kerguelen and appears somewhat inaccurate.
Buffon’s natural history, which he read in March 1789, gave him information that was in accord with his scientific spirit. He obtained some statistics as well as ethnological information concerning America:
Habits of Various Peoples (Buffon)
The Indians of the isthmus [of Panama] plunge thoughtlessly into cold water to refresh themselves when they are sweaty. Their women throw them in when they are drunk, so as to sober them up more quickly. Mothers bathe with their infants in cold water immediately after giving birth; by this means, very few women die in childbirth.
The Siamese, Japanese, Indians, negroes, the Canadian savages, those of Virginia, Brazil, and the majority of peoples in North America put their children to bed naked on suspended cotton beds or in a fur-lined covered cradle rather than dressing them. The ancient Peruvians allowed the children to have their arms free in very large shirts; when they took the children out, they placed them in a shallow hole in the ground that came up to the child’s waist. As soon as they could walk, the mothers stopped breast feeding . . . In the northern part of America, one sprinkles the bottoms of cradles with woodworm powder taken from nearby trees. This powder absorbs the humidity, and is changed frequently. By this means they eliminate the need for diapers. This power is said to be softer than a feather.
In Virginia, infants are attached to planks wrapped with cotton and pierced to allow excrement to escape.
Earlier, we noted Napoleon’s attraction for the sciences. This leads us to speak of a genial American inventor who crossed the path of Napoleon Bonaparte: Robert Fulton. Born in Pennsylvania on November 14, 1765, from a young age Fulton displayed astonishing aptitude at invention, creating household utensils for his mother and fireworks for his town festival. Equally gifted in painting, he began at age seventeen to study his art in Philadelphia. Entering into employment with a jeweler, he gained some reputation in painting portraits and other miniatures. In Philadelphia he also had the opportunity to meet Benjamin Franklin, the inventor of the lightning rod. One can imagine that these two men must have shared their interests in long discussions. At age 21, he made the long journey to England to exercise his talent as an engineer. He invented notably a machine to spin hemp and improved the system of canals and navigation. Encountering indifference from the British authorities as well as from British scientific circles, he moved to France in 1796. There he developed his most celebrated invention. In 1797, he proposed to the Directory a prototype submarine, but it was not yet fully operational. By 1801, however, First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte was present at the unveiling of the Nautilus. 6.48 meters long with a diameter of 1.94 meters, the Fulton submarine was capable of sinking a warship by emplacing, on the hull of that ship, a “torpedo,” a marine mine activated by a cable. The first test in the Seine estuary on June 3, 1801, was very promising. The Nautilus submerged to a depth of eight meters and remained there for a full hour. Anther attempt at Brest saw the Nautilus sink an old schooner after submerging for four hours! Nonetheless, the French government did not see a practical application for this invention. From a military point of view, the submarine was far slower than sailing vessels. Yet it would take more than this to discourage Fulton, who next attempted to perfect his famous “steamboat.” The first prototype was tested in the Seine at Paris in 1803. Unfortunately for Fulton, the experiment was cut short when his boat went straight to the bottom after being broken by the weight of the machinery. His mistake repaired, Fulton, after reinforcing the hull and repairing the machinery, sailed a new steamboat in front of several members of the French Institute. Yet it was too late, for Napoleon Bonaparte no longer had time to interest himself in such inventions. War again threatened Europe, preventing Bonaparte from dedicating his time to new inventions or similar developments. Besides, the time necessary to construct a flotilla of steamboats was excessive. His hopes dashed, in 1804 Robert Fulton offered his services to the British Admiralty, but that office was equally unenthusiastic. Finally, Fulton returned home to the United States in 1806. There, he finally received the support and funding of the American government. On August 17, 1807, the Clermont made the first steam voyage from New York to Albany, a distance of 241 kilometers. The vessel was 43 meters in length. Working thereafter for his country, Robert Fulton developed a steam warship, armed with 30 guns, and named it the Demologos. He did not live to see the completion of his last work, however, dying on February 24, 1815.
After this brief diversion, let us return to our story.
Preoccupied first with his campaign in Italy and then with that of Egypt, General Bonaparte somewhat forgot the America that had made the young lieutenant ponder. Yet, once he became First Consul in 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte as head of the French state had to defend French interests throughout the world, which again caused him to consider the place of the French nation on the American continent.
At the end of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), Louisiana had passed under Spanish control and with it went New Orleans, the key to the Mississippi. The United States obviously coveted this strategic position, because a large portion of American commerce had to pass that vulnerable point. The location of New Orleans appeared so vital to the new American nation that President Thomas Jefferson had been moved to write: “In the entire world there is only one point whose possessor is our natural and habitual enemy, and that point is New Orleans.” By the Pinckney Treaty of October 27, 1795, Spain authorized the American merchants to use the port of New Orleans for their trade. But what would happen to this right if Spain abrogated the treaty or, worse still, sold Louisiana to another European power? The American government’s concerns in this last eventuality were not without foundation, as we shall see.
By the very beginning of the Nineteenth Century, Spain and France were once again on excellent terms. Profiting from this opportunity, Napoleon Bonaparte asked Spain to cede Louisiana to him, since this territory belong by right to France because French explorers such as the Chevalier d’Iberville first explored the territory. This request by the First Consul responded to two imperatives: the first was based on the strong heritage of the former kingdom of France, and the second was dictated by the Anglo-French rivalry that was about to reach its height. In obtaining the restitution of Louisiana, Napoleon Bonaparte had not the slightest intention of injuring the United States, and that country would undoubtedly have enjoyed commercial access to New Orleans regardless of circumstances. Only Albion was the target of this cession, which could not fail to create some cracks in the British supremacy over the seas.
By the Treaty of San Idelfonso, secretly concluded between France and Spain on October 16, 1800, and confirmed by the Convention of Aranjuez on March 21, 1801, Spain relinquished Louisiana to France. One of the clauses of this treaty specified that the French Republic could defer for its convenience the actually possession of the colony. This point was significant, because France was not yet ready to occupy officially this vast territory. Moreover, Napoleon Bonaparte undoubtedly wished to avoid needlessly alarming the American government by the sight of a French flag planted in the estuary of the Mississippi. It was also true that France did not wish to attract British attention to a locality that it was incapable of defending.
With the Peace of Amiens, concluded March 25, 1802, the First Consul could finally foresee the feasibility of the American adventure. Yet, that hope did not allow for the events that were about to thwart his plans. Before occupying Louisiana, he first needed a nearby bridgehead. That site already existed in the form of Santo Domingo.
That island, today divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was once (under Louis XIV) a French possession in the western portion, the eastern portion being under Spanish dominion. With the aid of an army of slaves from Africa, the French half quickly prospered, becoming famous for its production of tobacco, sugar, and leather. Then, the echoes of the French Revolution reached the island, encouraging the Black population to rise up. On August 23, 1791, 500,000 men and women of color began a struggle against perhaps 10,000 Caucasian colonists. Blood ran in the plantations and in the town streets. Finally, the slaves, led by Toussaint Louverture, were masters of the terrain. In France, the Convention and later the Directory obtained Louverture’s services, naming him first brigadier general and then commander in chief, and thereby annexing the Spanish portion of the island. Yet, they very quickly lost all vestiges of control as Toussaint Louverture got rid of the representatives of the French Republic sent from the metropole. It was clear that Toussaint Louverture saw himself as sole master of Santo Domingo and had the means to protect his position with an army of some 40,000 men. Thus, by the time that Napoleon Bonaparte became First Consul, Santo Domingo had already distanced itself from France. Wishing to restore that colony to French tutelage, Bonaparte sent polite but firm letters to Toussaint Louverture, enjoining him to submit to French orders in return for the post of Captain General of the island. In response to the “Leader of the Whites,” the “Leader of the Blacks,” as Toussaint Louverture styled himself, formed an assembly of ten members at Santo Domingo. These men, carefully chosen by their peers, adopted a constitution of 77 articles. This constitution proclaimed the equality of all men and confirmed the abolition of slavery, but also named Toussaint Louverture governor-general for life with the right to designate his successor. Unable to tolerate such an affront, and wishing to retain Santo Domingo for his plan to occupy Louisiana, the First Consul dispatched a corps to retake the island. With General Charles Leclerc at its head, the French expeditionary corps sailed on December 14, 1801, and reached Santo Domingo on January 29, 1802. Toussaint Louverture welcomed this invasion by having General Christophe set fire to the town of Cap. By this gesture, he offered the French nothing but blood and tears. Recapturing each coastal town was very costly to Leclerc’s men. After two months of almost daily clashes, General Leclerc finally put an end to the organized resistance on Santo Domingo, obtaining the surrender of Generals Toussaint Louverture, Dessalines, and Christophe. Captured, Toussaint Louverture was sent to France and imprisoned in the Fort of Jaux, where he died on April 7, 1803, undoubtedly unequal to the rigors of climate in the Jura Mountains.
After the euphoria of victory, the French Army on Santo Domingo suffered heavy losses when half of the soldiers, more than 10,000 men, contracted terrible diseases. Because misfortune never comes alone, the climate again became rebellious. Ordered to surrender their arms, the Black inhabitants rebelled, giving the signal to seek revenge for the defeated generals. Dessalines, who had taken Toussaint Louverture’s place at the head of the regular army, re-conquered the interior of the island, aided in this task by Generals Christophe, Pétion, Clairvaux, and Bélair. At the same time, gangs set out to exterminate the last European colonists still present on Santo Domingo. Only the cities held out, but for how long? The head of the French expedition, General Leclerc, died on November 2, 1802, after struggling vainly against yellow fever. With this death, Napoleon Bonaparte lost an officer of great worth, a friend, and above all a brother in law, Leclerc having married Pauline Bonaparte. Donatien de Rochambeau, named to head the skeletal remnants of the French expeditionary corps, attempted to resist as much as possible, often employing terror tactics. But his actions were for naught. Following the rupture of the Peace of Amiens, the British government had sent frigates to blockade the ports of Santo Domingo and to supply the rebellion with arms and ammunition. Perceiving that it was no longer possible to contain this struggle of an entire people for its independence, Donatien de Rochambeau ended by negotiating with Dessalines.
In 1803, Santo Domingo was definitely lost, and with it the hope of possessing part of North America. Louisiana receded like a beautiful dream that disappears at daybreak.
Although it had now become inaccessible in French eyes, Louisiana still risked falling into the hands of the British, whose navy had no rival in that part of the world. On the other hand, the United States continued to covet a territory that would not only ensure the free flow of its economy (by rendering it master of the Mississippi), but also open its door to the west. By ceding Louisiana to the United States, France might hope to create a valuable ally. The idea of selling the colony to the Americans became not only conceivable but desirable.
The American government had only belatedly learned of the Treaty of San Idelfonso. This was no accident, because every precaution had been taken to keep the agreement secret. Concerned about the future of New Orleans, President Jefferson had instructed his minister to Paris, Robert Livingston, to negotiate the purchase of that city as well as the contiguous territory each of the Mississippi. To assist Livingston in his task, Jefferson sent James Monroe, who would himself become president of the United States in 1817.
The United States naturally accepted the deal, because such an opportunity had never and would never come again. Talleyrand proposed to double the American territory by ceding to them a land stretching from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains, for a total of 2,144,476 square kilometers! The treaty of sale, combined with two other financial conventions, was signed on April 30, 1803. Louisiana was sold for the sum of 15 million dollars. Of these 15 million, 11.25 million, representing 60 million francs, went directly to the treasury of the French state; the surplus of 3.75 million dollars was used to compensate American citizens for the loss of ships and cargoes as a result of the maritime war between France and Britain.
After the signing of this historic treaty, opening the American west to a pioneer people, President Jefferson declared that “now, we are a great nation.” As for Napoleon Bonaparte, he congratulated himself on having achieved a fine stroke against the English nation; “I have given England a rival that, sooner or later, will shatter its arrogance.”
Thereafter, the United States’ attitude towards France and its leader was sometimes neutral and sometimes favorable.
At the dawn of the Nineteenth Century, the American nation was already known for its commercial activity. With a merchant marine of more than a million tons in 1806, it had nothing to envy in the other great maritime nations. However, it viewed the resumption of hostilities between France and Britain with much anxiety. It knew perfectly well that the terrible conflict would ultimately be prejudicial to commercial trade. America’s first reaction to the new earthquake that rocked Europe was to remain neutral. Initially, this neutrality proved quite profitable. In effect, because the belligerent nations could no longer transport goods themselves, the United States became a privileged intermediary, notably for the trade with the Antilles, and further expanded its commercial activities. However, with the increased coercive measures on both sides of the channel, it became more and more difficult for the American merchant marine to ply its trade. Between 1803 and 1812, the United States lost 1,500 ships. Under such circumstances, how could it remain neutral when it saw its ships forbidden, under penalty of confiscation, from using ports, or boarded by warship or privateers? In this game, the British practiced the most humiliating policies with regard to the United States. In 1807, London promulgated the “Orders in Council” which authorized the seizure of any ship bound for Europe that did not first obtain a license in a British port. Moreover, the British seized and forcibly conscripted American sailors, under the pretext of pursuing British deserters. Thus, in June 1807 the British ship Leopard opened fire on the American frigate Chesapeake for the alleged purpose of seizing four supposed British deserters. The result of this action was the death of three American sailors and the wounding of 18 others.
At the same time, Napoleon made the following proposal to the United States: he would cancel the continental blockade in favor of the United States, abrogating all decrees harmful to the American merchant marine, if the United States would end any commercial relations with Great Britain based on the latter’s refusal to annul the Orders in Council. Given that Britain’s aggressive foreign policy was unlikely to change, the Emperor’s offer might be summarized as follows: cease all commerce with Great Britain and I will open all the ports of the European continent.
Caught between the carrot and the stick, the new president of the United States, James Madison, obviously chose the carrot offered by Napoleon. In response, Britain forced war on the United States and sent its fleet against this impudent America that dared defy it. The “Second War of American Independence” began in 1812. The first engagements went in favor of the Americans, who inflicted a crushing defeat on their enemies: under the orders of Commodore Oliver Perry, the American ships destroyed the English ones on Lake Erie. Touched in its pride and drunk with a desire for vengeance, the British proceeded to attack Washington and burn the residence of the president of the United States. This residence thereafter became known as the White House when it was painted completely white to conceal the ravages of the fire. The last victory of the Americans over the British was at New Orleans. Defeated there by General Andrew Jackson, the British went home only to increase Wellington’s ranks by 8,000 men at Waterloo, five months later. One should note that the Battle of New Orleans occurred several weeks after the peace treaty between the United States and Britain, signed at Ghent on December 24, 1814; General Jackson had not yet learned of this treaty.
After the defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon, having abdicated for the second time, stopped at Malmaison to rest and consider the future. His decision appeared made: he would seek refuge in the United States under a false identity, that of Colonel Muiron, the name of the aide and friend who had saved his life on the bridge at Arcole. In preparation, Napoleon began to learn about his new country by immersing himself in a work by Alexander von Humboldt: Voyages to the Equatorial Lands of the New Continent. The book in question was a purely scientific essay, dealing with both the botany and the geography of America. This was because Napoleon had only one desire, to focus entirely upon his first love: science! Thus, he confided to the savant Gaspard Monge,
Idleness would be the cruelest of tortures for me. Henceforth, without armies or empire, I will look only at the sciences, which speak most strongly to my spirit. Yet, it will not suffice just to learn what others have already discovered. I wish a new career, involving work and discoveries worthy of me. I need a companion who will rapidly bring me up to date on the current state of the sciences. After that, we will together travel the new world from Canada to Cape Horn, and during this immense voyage we will study all the phenomena of the physical globe.
His project was so serious that he purchased a number of instruments to study, among other things, physics and astronomy. He also asked General Henri-Gratien Bertrand to organize the transport of the imperial library, without forgetting furniture and tableware for two households. Finally, he instructed his treasurer, Guillaume Peyrusse, to send three million francs to the United States. Thus, everything was prepared for a studious and happy retreat in America. Fate would decide otherwise, as we shall see.
Informed in confidence of the voyage that Napoleon envisioned, Joseph Fouché agreed to place two frigates at his disposal, but did not deliver the necessary safe-conducts. Sensing a trap, the Emperor nonetheless traveled to Rochefort, where the safe-conducts were supposed to be. There, he found ship captains such as the Chevalier Ponée, captain of the frigate Medusa, willing to sacrifice their vessels, their crews, and their lives to permit him to reach America. But Napoleon refused to allow people to take the least risk for his sake. He had seen too much good French blood spilled for the honor of France. He surrendered to his eternal enemy, perfidious Albion, which did not hesitate to use deceit to ensnare the greatest man of his age in its traps.
According to legend, during his time on the island of Aix, Napoleon saw a bird that he considered to be a sign of destiny. While he was speaking to Gaspard Gourgand and telling him that he could not imagine living in the midst of his enemies, a small bird flew in the window and allowed Gourgand to capture it in his hand. “It’s a sign of good luck!” exclaimed Gourgand. “Ah!” replied the Emperor. “Set it free; there are enough unhappy creatures.” As the bird took flight, Napoleon added, “Let us watch the auspices.” “Sire!” exclaimed the general in a voice of triumph, “It flew towards the English cruiser!”
This was supposedly what prompted Napoleon on July 14, 1815, to write his famous letter to the Prince Regent: “I go, like Themistocles, to seat myself in the halls of the British people.”
Departed Paris on June 30, about ten in the evening, seeking to rejoin the Emperor. I reached Niort during the night of July 2. On the 3d, about three in the morning, he entered Rochefort where I arrived two hours later.
He had crossed France, followed by several carriages, traveling almost always without escort, refusing that which he was offered at Niort. He was warned that the area of the Vendée would not afford him the same security. He accepted only a few men, and his movement was untroubled. Everywhere he received testimonials of devotion and respect. On all sides one heard the expression of regrets and vows of which he was the object; He was received in like manner at Rochefort on board the frigates and on the island of Aix. He was invited to again place himself at the head of an army; he was urged to rejoin troops at Bordeaux, Rochefort, La Rochelle, and in the center of France; numerous supporters rejoined him from all corners of the country. But the favorable opportunity for France had passed. Napoleon was also accused of exciting civil war without a public utility. He considered such a role unworthy of him and rejected such propositions.
The Emperor received in those unfortunate days many testimonials of devotion. A crowd of sailors demonstrated a praiseworthy zeal. Various projects with favorable chances were submitted. Above all, the preparations at the mouth of the Gironde showed a chance of success.
Napoleon left Rochefort on July 8 to board the frigate La Saala in the harbor of the island of Aix. He might easily have taken from this a decision to seize the moment for one last desperate effort. There, various seamen of great experience against demonstrated that the plan to embark at the mouth of the Gironde was evidently the plan on which to focus.
Yet many officers who accompanied the Emperor were those who, having served for years, were close to him and possessed his confidence and influence to a very high degree. These men saw nothing but obstacles in all courses of action; they brought only delays to the preparations and they caused a fatal delay in all resolutions that depended upon speed. The lukewarm reception they gave to these projects, this irresolution that they continued to display, was occasioned principally by the desire they had announced, even before they departed Paris, to see the Emperor go to England. One is struck simultaneously by astonishment and sadness to see these men, whose judgment should have been developed by experience and who had given the Emperor so many proofs of devotion, acting to aid their enemies. Even those who had again shed their blood for Napoleon, who sought the honor of sharing his misfortune, yet tried to help him towards his fate. This is the secret of the destiny that the Emperor suffered; such were the causes that precipitated his interment alive. He might have conserved his liberty and attained an hospitable land!
General Lallemand also explained how, in the process of negotiating with the British to obtain the Emperor’s passage to America, these men alerted the British to his presence in Rochefort:
Far from improving the Emperor’s position by contacting the English, they had made it more difficult by informing the [English] of his presence, of which they had hitherto been unaware, provoking on the English part a more active surveillance.
During a further interview with Captain Frederick Maitland on board HMS Bellerophon, these men allowed themselves to be duped by the fine words of the British captain, who proposed to conduct the Emperor to England where he would be treated as a guest, with all the attention that the term implied. Only Lallemand was not deceived, as he demonstrated to us:
The Emperor, having received the report of this meeting with Captain Maitland, which gave not the slightest hint of duplicity, was much more inclined to accept the proposition because that proposition was in accordance with what the majority of the men around him had already advocated.
Not wishing to decide the fate of his entourage without their consent, he called together the officers around him, the others having already embarked to await orders to continue their journey.
The officers who met with the Emperor were Generals Bertrand, Savary, Montholon, Gourgand, Lallemand, and M. de Las Cases. The Emperor asked each of these officers for his opinion.
Five officers declared without hesitation that they thought it advisable to accept this proposition that seemed so honest. Only I disagreed, arguing that he should not be seduced by the offers we had received; that only in the United States could the Emperor find liberty; that the Emperor could still hope to reach that land and maintain his independence; that he still had favorable odds if he acted quickly; that even if the odds turned against him, we would have done everything possible for the Emperor’s welfare; that there could be no outcome more unfortunate than to board an English vessel where one would be forced to depend on a minister in whom it would be foolish to place any confidence.
I have shortened this meeting but have rendered the gist of it faithfully. I remained alone in my opinions, and the Emperor ended the discussion by stating ‘If it were a question of giving liberty to a nation, I would attempt to return to Elba. I seek only rest and I have been offered that in England. I accept. I do not know the Prince Regent, but I must have confidence in his character. I will write to him tomorrow; at dawn we will board the English vessel.’
What followed is well known. On July 15, 1815, Napoleon boarded HMS Bellerophon where he became a de facto prisoner. Britain dishonored itself by violating its sworn oath, and transferred the Emperor on board the Northumberland to the accursed island of Saint Helena.
Napoleon was not the only exile. After the Hundred Days, the royalists wanted revenge against all who had followed the Emperor in his formidable team. There followed the time of the White Terror and other violent actions. Soldiers did not escape the royal vindictiveness. As soon as he returned to power, Louis XVIII dismissed 20,000 officers. These honorable men went on the famous “half-pay.” Although a great number were able to turn to agriculture and commerce, more than 5,000 knew a life of misery. These men had nothing more to expect from a country that had rejected them despite their glorious service. They went into voluntary exile, joining those who had been banished by the new regime. Among these brave soldiers, some found refuge in neighboring lands. Such was the case of the former Trumpeter-Major of the Chasseurs of the Guard, who was welcomed by one of his former comrades in Belgium. When he lamented having to leave France, his friend pointed out the moral in a few words: “do not complain about those who have betrayed the country and the Emperor. Honor the exiles whom France ignores.”
Yet, a large number of these exiles decided to travel farther to the promised land of America. Their destination? New Orleans, of course! In that city which included 40,000 Frenchmen, they were sure to find a population that understood them in all senses of the word: not only did people speak French, but they demonstrated Bonapartist sympathies. They therefore received a warm welcome. Even the truly American population exhibited much sympathy for them, as demonstrated by the Skinner Affair. Skinner was the postmaster of Baltimore, Maryland, who provoked a diplomatic incident. During the Independence Day celebrations of July 4, 1816, Skinner offered a toast to the French expatriates: “To the French generals in exile, the glory of their country; they cannot be dishonored by the proscriptions of an imbecilic tyrant.”
In America, some exiles succeeded in integrating perfectly and in establishing themselves. Having perfectly understood the “American dream,” they rolled up their sleeves and went to work, establishing a number of new businesses. The best example of such a success was unquestionably General Simon Bernard. A talented engineer, he made himself indispensable to the American government while his natural modesty enabled him to manage the sensitivities of American superior officers. Arriving in 1816, this equal of Vauban was named brigadier general in the U.S. Army only two months after he set foot on American soil. Assigned to improve existing fortifications and to create new ones (it is to him that the Americans owe the construction of Fort Monroe in Virginia), General Bernard soon gained the respect and even admiration of his American colleagues.
Yet, aside from this unique case, one must acknowledge that the majority of exiles encountered great difficulties in adapting to their new existence. With heads still stuffed with dreams of the Napoleonic epoch, those who had conquered the entire world thought that they were still gathered around the bivouac fires, and never missed an opportunity to drink a toast to the Emperor. Wounded in their pride as soldiers (had they not been sent packing?), they dreamed of again taking up arms, if only to free the Emperor from his tragic island. In the meantime, various projects fed their conversations and gave them an opportunity to hope again. These projects consisted of the construction of new cities (Aigleville or Eagleville, Demopolis), not to mention introducing the cultivation of vines and olives or the occupation of virgin lands—the “Field of Refuge,” of which we will speak later. Unfortunately, all these attempts came to naught, perhaps because it was impossible to transport a model of old Europe to America.
Among the prestigious exiles that found refuge in the United States could be found Marshal Grouchy, Generals Vandamme, LeFebvre-Desnittes, and Lallemand, and above all Napoleon’s own brother, Joseph Bonaparte. In contrast to his unfortunate brother, Joseph succeeded in reaching America, having sailed on the American brig Commerce. The captain of this vessel, Misservey, who asked Joseph for the exorbitant sum of 18,000 francs to transport him to America, had little doubt that his passenger, traveling under the name of Bouchard, was not an ordinary customer. Yet, far from suspecting that he transported the Emperor’s brother, he thought he was dealing with Lazare Carnot.
At Point Breeze, the name of this property of some 85 hectares near Bordentown, New Jersey, Joseph Bonaparte called himself the Count de Survilliers, in memory of an estate he had possessed in France. The happy owner added two wings to the house and created a magnificent park including an artificial lake. At his own expense, he also improved the roads of the neighborhood for the benefit of the inhabitants. Dividing his time between reading and walks through gardens of magnolias and rhododendrons, the new Count de Survilliers did not forget his previous life. He gave receptions attended by his neighbors as well as eminent members of American society, such as John Adams, the second president of the United States. Joseph Bonaparte’s company was much sought after. His refinement and his great erudition were truly charming, and people enjoyed hearing him talk about the events he had witnesses as well as about literature. As for his art collections, including works by Rubens, Velasquez, and Leonardo da Vinci, they were an incredible treat for the eyes. His door was always open, and each veteran of the Grand Army did not fail to visit upon arriving in America.
Besides several glorious memories that it evoked, Point Breeze also heard several messages from the prisoner of Saint Helena, transmitted by Rousseau or Archambault among others. What is certain is that none of these visitors departed without some financial support. More disturbing for the brother of Napoleon were various proposals to assume positions that he no longer sought. Thus, in 1817 Javier Mina asked Joseph to lead the insurgents in Spanish America and ascend the throne of Mexico. Naturally, Joseph Bonaparte refused any political role, even one offered on a platter. By contrast, he was much more receptive to plans to help his brother escape, or to requests that his brother sent to him by the intermediary of those leaving Saint Helena. Among Napoleon’s requests, there was one that was particularly important to the Emperor. Seeking to revenge himself against all those perjured kings who had worked for his downfall, Napoleon asked a great service of his brother: the publication of the letters written by sovereigns against whom he had to fight, letters that he believed firmly were in Joseph’s possession. At the moment of his second abdication, Napoleon had ordered his state secretary, Hugues-Bertrand Maret, to copy all his correspondence received from European monarchs and to then send all the copies to Joseph’s mansion. The Count de Survilliers well remembered the correspondence left in the care of his secretary and his wife, and wrote to her asking that she forward the letters to him in America. Yet, upon opening the trucks containing these precious documents, Queen Julie had to report that the letters had been stolen. The originals, left in the ministerial archives of the Duke of Basano, had also disappeared. These disappearances smelled of Fouché, but there was no proof. The famous correspondence surfaced in London as if by some miracle, to be sold to the implicated sovereigns. (The tsar spent the tidy sum of 10,000 pounds sterling to regain possession of these incriminating letters.)
Meanwhile, life continued at Point Breeze like a long, quiet stream until January 4, 1820, the date of which Joseph’s house fell prey to flames. The population of Bordentown, alerted to the fire, hurried to assist the Count de Survilliers whom they so appreciated. Before his amazed eyes, they succeeded in saving almost all of his books, paintings, furniture, linen, etc. The fire was reportedly an accident, but rumors also circulated of a criminal action (a foreign embassy allegedly paid one of the servants to commit this act, undoubtedly to destroy the above-mentioned correspondence that was suspected of being in Joseph’s hands.) Naturally, the Count de Survilliers had Point Breeze rebuilt. The house that he had constructed under the direct of master mason Theodore Mauroy was placed farther back, sheltered from the wind. On the lintel of the entryway, Joseph had the following words inscribed: “Non ignara mali, miseris succurere.” (Not ignoring misfortune, I will not fail to aid the weak.)
Before concluding this section concerning the Emperor’s brother, two more points should be made:
-In addition to Point Breeze, Joseph Bonaparte owned an immense property of 10,000 hectares in New York State, near the Canadian border. In the center of this property was a magnificent lake of 500 hectares which is still called Lake Bonaparte!
-Being separated for many years from his wife, the Count de Survilliers took an American mistress named Anne Savage. She gave him a daughter who sweetened his exile.
Finally, after great changes had ensued in France, Joseph Bonaparte left the United States in 1832.
If the Count de Survilliers left his imprint on the America that became for a time his country, another Frenchman wrote directly into the history of the country: General Charles Lallemand. As we have seen, this brave general, having recognized the British trap, did everything possible to protect the independence of the Emperor, but in vain. Wishing to share the Emperor’s fate, he was denied even that possibility by the British, who imprisoned him in Malta. General Anne Jean Savary arranged his release, but Lallemand could not dream of returning to French territory. Had he not been condemned in absentia? He therefore began a life of wandering that took him to Persia by way of Smyrna. Finally, in 1816 he reached America. There, he found his brother as well as a multitude of companions in misfortune, exiled like him. Despite this rediscovered fraternity, his heart still bled at the thought of his Emperor in the hands of British jailers. Naturally, he dreamed of helping Napoleon escape and bringing him to this hospitable land of the United States. Yet, another project also preoccupied his thoughts to the point of becoming an obsession: the establishment in Texas of a colony to be known as the “Field of Refuge” (Champ d’Asile.)
Arriving in New Orleans, General Lallemand was soon bursting with activity. He built contacts, obtained funds, bought arms and ammunition, and even the trinkets used to win the good graces of the Indians. He was clearly preparing for an expedition of great breadth. Aided in this task by his brother and by Colonel Louis-Jacques Galabert, he attracted several hundred men, all veterans of the Grand Army. Except for a few key leaders, the majority knew nothing of the destination. What did it matter? The adventure was too tempting. Besides, together were they not once again the invincibles whom no one could stop? They were unknowingly the instruments of the American government, which secretly encouraged the colonization of these virgin lands where the city of Houston would one day be built, southwest of the famous Field of Refuge, in an area claimed by both Spain and the United States. Thus, 100,000 acres on the Gulf of Mexico was promised to General Lallemand simply for occupying it.
General Lallemand’s motives in seeking to seize this part of America are unclear. Did he wish to establish a fortified camp that would provide a liberated Napoleon with security? Did he intend to use that location as a base from which an expeditionary corps would set out to seize Mexico, the natural center of a new empire that he would offer to the prisoner of Saint Helena? Or was he simply trying to create a haven of peace for those rejected by royalist France?
If we are still unable to answer these questions today, we can be certain of one point concerning General Lallemand: the determination which animated this enterprise despite the opposition of the majority of exiled generals who thought this attempt was doomed to failure.
On December 17, 1817, the hour of departure came for the first contingent, led by General Antoine Rigaud. Leaving Philadelphia, Rigaud’s men traveled to New Orleans, where Lallemand told them their next destination: Galveston, Texas. That island, controlled by the pirate Jean Laffitte, was the assembly point before the last journey that would lead them to the promised land. There Lallemand and the rest of the troop rejoined them on March 20, 1818. On March 24, they finally departed for the designated point. The group divided into two segments: Generals Lallemand and Rigaud chose the more difficult land route to reach the future Field of Refuge, while Colonel Sarrazin, equipped with boats, was to sail up the Trinity River with arms and baggage. After crossing hostile territory for six hours, the men who had crossed the plains of Europe finally succeeded in reaching the much-coveted site. In his memoirs, Captain Just Girard gives us a detailed description of the corner of paradise that met their eyes:
A vast inhabited plain with various sprawling areas, forming a semi-circle crowned all around by woods, with the Trinity River making the cord. A rich soil, with plants and flowers in profusion, a river as large as the Seine, but infested with alligators; the sky of great purity and a temperature as gently as that of Naples; such was the location chosen for us to establish ourselves, and which we named the Field of Refuge.
Upon arrival, General Lallemand established a strict military discipline and organized the dispositions of the future colony. He took particular care with the defenses. There were, of course, the Indians, with whom they sought to parlay, but whose intentions were as yet unknown. (In a proclamation in the American Bee of May 11, 1818, Lallemand declared that “we will respect the independence, the habits, the lifestyle of the Indian nations, with whom we will not interfere in their hunting, nor in any other aspect of their existence.”) But above all there were the Spaniards who might react strongly to the undesirable new presence. Thus, four forts, built with logs and equipped with the few cannon they had been able to obtain, quickly came into existence. These military works, although built out of wood, were imposing and were laid out with an evidence science of strategy. Behind these forts, the first houses began to rise. Of course, the French flag flew over them all, the tallest tree having been used as a flagpole. At the same time, rules were established that would permit each one to live for the benefit of him and of the colony. For example, each colonist owed six hours of service per day to the community. In exchange, he received 20 acres of land, or more if he were married with children. Each new arrival was fed free of charge for a year (and was issued farming tools), the time necessary for him to obtain his first harvest. Similarly, if a colonist married, the colony owed him food for a year and helped him both to build his house and to farm his land. In this microcosm, slavery was formally prohibited, as were alcohol and games of chance. The children were not forgotten, but were offered a free public education. Thus, everything appeared perfect in the best of all possible worlds.
Nonetheless, boredom soon overcame the veterans, who dreamed of their past glories around improvised bivouacs. In addition, women were sorely lacking (only four had accompanied their husbands or fathers.) Worse than all, the good relations initiated with the Indians began to decay.
At first, the French benefited from a reputation that preceded them. Had not Napoleon’s armies always defended the oppressed peoples? Thus, when Captain Just Girard fainted after falling from a horse, and woke up surrounded by Comanches, he had the good sense to show them his Legion of Honor and say the name “Napoleon.” An admiring murmur spread among the Indians, who were fired with a desire to aid the injured man. Girard benefited from the best care, but he was confronted with a terrible problem: considering him to be a cult object, the Comanches refused to let him leave, so he had to escape! This did not prevent the ratification of a treaty between Comanches and French, whose leader, General Lallemand, was honored by receiving a pipe and a headdress decorated with eagle feathers.
The Carancahaw Indians were a different matter. Several members of that tribe, having captured some Spanish missionaries, were preparing to execute them when several French officers, who had become lost in the forest, liberated the men of God in time. Not willing to leave matters thus, the Carancahaws returned in strength and killed the officers Albert and Fallot after inflicting horrible tortures on them. The column of 200 men that Lallemand sent to rescue the lost men found only a few pieces of the two unfortunates.
Let us add to this picture the floods that destroyed crops and the spread of various illnesses, and one can well understand the failure of the colony when a last event dealt it the final blow.
The Spaniards had not previously dared appear, for fear of initiating a conflict with their American neighbors. (Let us recall that at that time the boundary between Louisiana and Texas was not well defined.) Abandoned by the American government, the French thus found themselves along against an enemy animated by a reciprocal hatred (the war in Spain was still relatively fresh in the memories of both sides.) Two Spanish units, coming from San Antonio de Béjar and Labadie, respectively, came to lay siege to the Field of Refuge. Summoned to abandon the territory of King Ferdinand VII, the French at first contemplated resistance, and they would undoubtedly have defeated the aggressor. However, having learned that the colony was dealing only with the advance guard of a much larger Spanish force that was still en route, General Lallemand preferred to throw in the towel, not wishing to lose his men in vain resistance. Everyone packed up their baggage and sailed down the river to Galveston and ultimately to New Orleans. This marked the end of the Field of Refuge, which had only existed for a few months.
While some attempted to found colonies, others lived only for the liberation of the Emperor. Such was the case of Colonel Paul-Albert-Raymond Latapie, who was originally from Cahors. Searching desperately for a means to help Napoleon escape, he seized upon a revolt in the province of Pernambuco in Brazil. On March 6, 1817, this province rose up against Portuguese authority and declared its independence. Knowing that this independence was fragile, the young republic quickly sought foreign help, especially from the United States. Unable to obtain the support of the American government, it attracted a number of volunteers, including several French officers, veterans of the Grand Army. Among these was naturally Colonel Latapie. If he poured out his services for the Brazilian rebels, it was above all to profit from the strategic location of Pernambuco province and one of its islands, the island of Fernando do Noronha, a natural base for an expedition to Saint Helena. After confiding his plan to Joseph Bonaparte, who appeared to approve, Latapie allied himself with General Miguel Brayer and former Admiral Thomas Cochrane to implement his plan. Three well-armed vessels, transporting 80 officers and 700 troops, would sail from the island of Fernando do Noronha. Everything had been planned to the last detail, and the little squadron had every chance of success. Unfortunately, the course of history decided otherwise. When Latapie disembarked at Pernambuco, the republic had been destroyed and the central power’s armies had harshly repressed the insurrection. Colonel Latapie was arrested, and the project died at birth.
Meanwhile on Saint Helena, Napoleon several times expressed his regret at not having gone to America. One day, he confided to Barry O’Meara that
Had I gone to America, I would have farmed, I would have cared for my garden, I would have welcomed several old remnants of my army who came to find me, and together we would have lived quietly. You laugh, doctor! My tastes are simple, I need very little. I have always envied the life of a good middle-class resident of Paris, with a private income of 12,000 pounds per year, able to study the arts and letters. I would add the happy home life of a family, without which no happiness is possible, regardless of what class you are from.
Just at the end he again regretted the lost opportunity, as indicated by his words to General Bertrand in March 1821, “I would have been very happy in America, I would have re-established my health, I would have spent the next six months traversing the country; 500 sites would take me some time to visit.”
Yet, the Emperor’s destiny was already sealed, and he would indeed draw his last breath on that accursed island. One question remains to be addressed: Would the Napoleonic legend have remained the same if the Emperor had met a completely different end? In other words, would the great Napoleon have achieved the same immortal renown if he had succeeded in reaching America? Without a tragic end there would be no hero. Napoleon recognized this himself: “When I no longer exist, my memory shall be honored, and I shall be revered for having foreseen the events that occurred and which I had attempted to oppose. My memory will be respected, which would not have happened without you, Signori Inglesi [English Lords].”
Let the reader know only that the tomb of a “Peter Stuart Ney” does exist in the little cemetery of Third Creek Church, and that in 1946, the centenary of Peter Ney’s death, a grand military ceremony was held there, in the presence of the French consul!
Pascal Cazottes, FINS