Review of J. David Markham’s The Road to St. Helena: Napoleon After Water. Notes, Bibliography, Index, 204 pages. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword, 2008.
David Markham has written an excellent in-depth account of Napoleon following the defeat of the French army at Waterloo until the ex-Emperor sailed from England to his final destination at St. Helena. Historians have written extensively about the Waterloo campaign and the Emperor’s life and death on St. Helena, but little of the period in between. Markham fills that gap with a detailed account of the plotting, the intrigue, and the maneuvering behind the scene in Paris that led to the removal of Napoleon from the throne and his decision to seek asylum with the British. Drawing on the memoirs and correspondence of the men who shaped the history of France – and Europe – in the summer of 1815, one can follow Napoleon’s movements and frame of mind day by day.
Following the French defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon turned over command of the army to Marshal Soult and returned to Paris where he arrived on June 21. But he was unable, or unwilling, to make the decisions as to what should be done to save his throne. The army fell back to defend Paris, but the political scene changed rapidly. Under the influence of Joseph Fouché, the Minister of Police, the Chamber of Deputies created a provisional executive with Fouché at its head. Marshal Louis N. Davout, Minister of War, was given command of the army to defend the capital. Fouché opened negotiations with the Allied commanders Field Marshal Gebhard Blücher and Sir Arthur Duke of Wellington and with Louis XVIII who was returning from self-imposed exile in Belgium. Pressure was brought on Napoleon to abdicate; and as the Prussian and Anglo-Dutch armies approached the capital from the north and two more, the Russian and Austrian, from the east, it became clear that continued resistance would only prolong the inevitable defeat. When asked, Davout informed the government that he could only defend Paris for about three weeks, but that in the end the city would have to give up. If the army was to be saved, it would have to retreat south of the Loire River before the Allied army completely surrounded the capital.
Markham deals with the negotiations between Napoleon and the Chamber of Deputies and with the Emperor’s frame of mind in the days after his return to Paris. In the end, Napoleon was convinced to abdicate (23 June) in favor of his son the King of Rome. Needless to say, few took seriously the idea of placing the four year old boy on the throne of France. He was with his mother in Vienna under the protection of Prince Metternich. With the Allied armies at the gates of Paris, and considering that they had declared the war was against Napoleon, not France, the ex-Emperor was ordered to leave the city at once for “his safety.” He departed on 25 June and took up residence at Malmaison where his step-daughter Hortense (Beauharnais), the wife of his brother Louis and once Queen of Holland, was living. However, to prevent himself from falling into the hands of Prussians, who would have first tried him and then executed him, Napoleon wisely left Malmaison (29 June) and traveled west to the coast at Rochefort.
Napoleon had been promised a passport and two ships at his disposal to take him, presumably, to the United States. But as the British blocked the port, and the passport did not arrive, he decided to throw himself on the mercy of his enemy and seek asylum in England. He hoped to be allowed to live out his life quietly in the English countryside. However, as he had returned to France from Elba, the British government decided that England was too close to Paris. Much to his dismay and disappointment, Napoleon was ordered to St. Helena where he died in 1821.
Through the memoirs and correspondence of the men and women of the period, David Markham has accurately and skillfully provided an interesting and very reliable account of the events that shaped the history of Europe for the next one hundred years. He provides a book that should be on the shelf of every serious library that deals the Napoleonic era, and read by any one curious or fascinated by Napoleon as well as scholars of the period.
John G. Gallaher