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When a young sub‑lieutenant at Auxonne in 1788, Napoleon, making some notes about English possessions, entered in his copy-book these words, "St. Helena." This entry was followed by a blank page. Twenty-seven years later Fate filled in the blank space.
St. Helena was one of the places under consideration by the Congress of Vienna when Napoleon was sent to Elba in 1814. The Tower of London, Dumbarton Castle on the Clyde, and Fort St. George in Scotland were some of the spots suggested as a prison for the Emperor after Waterloo. England was determined there should be no repetition of the escape from Elba and the Hundred Days. "The best place," wrote Liverpool to Castlereagh, "would be one far removed from Europe. The Cape of Good Hope or St. Helena would seem to serve the purpose best." When word came to Napoleon on board the Bellerophon that he was to be banished to St. Helena he exclaimed, "St. Helena! The very idea fills me with horror. To be relegated for life to an island within the tropics, at a vast distance from any continent, cut off from all communication with the world, and from all that it holds that is dear to my heart. That is worse than the iron cage of Tamerlane."
p242 On Sunday morning, the 14th of October, 1815, Napoleon came on deck and saw rising out of the sea before him an immense lava rock, with angry waves breaking against it. St. Helena was a masterpiece of isolation. To the east the nearest mainland to St. Helena was Africa, •1140 miles away. To the west the ocean rolled for •1800 miles before it washed the shores of Brazil. Yet even this remoteness of the island was not considered a sufficient safeguard from an attempt to rescue Napoleon, for one of the first things Admiral Cockburn did was to seize Ascension Island, •1200 miles north of St. Helena, and then the island of Tristan d'Acunha, a mere spot in the lonely Atlantic, hundreds of miles to the south. Such was to be the prison of him "who had cast a doubt on all past glory and made future glory impossible."
Was the escape of Napoleon from St. Helena ever a possibility? The policy pursued by the British Government shows that it always took into consideration the chance of an attempt to rescue Napoleon. The tiny island was garrisoned with as many as 3,000 troops; fast sailing cruisers circled the island day and night; no one was allowed abroad after nine in the evening. Napoleon's presence at Longwood had to be reported twice daily, and after nine in the evening sentinels were posted in the gardens of the estate. Sir Hudson Lowe had devised an elaborate system of communication. Every mountain and every high hill was a signal station. One flag meant, "General Bonaparte is at Longwood House;" two flags, "He has just crossed the •four‑mile limit;" three flags, "He has just crossed the •twelve-mile p243 limit with escort;" four flags, "He has just crossed the twelve-mile limit without escort;" five flags, "He has disappeared." When this signal appeared, a blue flag was to be displayed and the troops and the ships were to assemble immediately at their stations. Lowe issued orders that failure to report any plot to escape would be regarded as complicity in it, and by an Act of Parliament, April 11, 1816, death "without benefit of clergy" was to be the punishment for any one who was convicted of an attempt at rescue. Talking one day with Sir Pulteney Malcolm, Napoleon pointed to a sentinel on a distant hill and exclaimed, "What you are doing at St. Helena is absurd, ridiculous. Look here, that soldier on the tip of the rock over there, what good is he? Do you fear that I shall escape? Could even a bird escape?"
Confined and guarded by a small army and navy on a bit of volcanic rock •twenty-eight miles in circumference, it would indeed seem that escape was altogether impossible. But over against this there must be placed the fact of Napoleon's desire to escape, the ardent longing of his friends, the fervent wish of thousands of admirers in all countries of the world, and last but by no means least, the potent influence of money. Before he left the island one of Napoleon's chief companions, General Gaspard Gourgaud, had the following conversation with Baron Sturmer, the Austrian Commissioner at St. Helena.
Sturmer: "Does he speak sometimes of his future?"
Gourgaud: "He is convinced that he will not stay at St. Helena."
p244 Sturmer: "Do you think he can escape from St. Helena?"
Gourgaud: "He has had the opportunity ten times, and he still has it at this moment."
Sturmer: "I confess that does not seem impossible."
Gourgaud: "What is not possible when one has millions at his disposal? He can escape alone and go to America whenever he wishes."
When he reached London, Gourgaud had a talk with Marquis D'Osmond, French Ambassador. To Gourgaud's declaration that it was possible for Napoleon to escape, the Ambassador commented, "Easily said." "No," replied Gourgaud, "easily done, and in all kinds of ways. Supposing, for instance, that Napoleon were placed in one of the barrels that are sent to Longwood full of provisions and returned to Jamestown every day without being inspected. Do you believe it impossible to find a captain of a craft who for a bribe of one million francs would undertake to carry the barrel on board a vessel ready to sail?"
Another plan proposed was to disguise the Emperor as one of the Chinamen who carried the garbage from Longwood's kitchens to a distant ravine. The sentinels saw the coolies do this every day and their suspicions would not have been aroused. Moreover, since they did not know Napoleon by sight, they would not have been able to recognize him in this disguise. On the way to the shore Napoleon was to change from his coolie disguise to that of a sailor, and at a little cove embark in a small boat which was carrying barrels of water to a ship in the offing. When inquiry for the Emperor would be p245 made at Longwood, the answer was to have been that he was not well, and to fortify this deception, a request was to have been made for an unusual supply of water for the warm baths of which he was known to be so fond.
There is little reason to doubt that such a plan of escape would have been successful, had Napoleon consented to the humiliation which it involved. It is certain that he never would have done so. At Rochefort the Emperor had declined a proposal that he be hidden in casks being loaded on a vessel bound for the United States. The coolie disguise was unthinkable.
Discussing one day with Montholon some of the plans of escape and how he might great away from "this damnable country," Napoleon said, "It is all very alluring, alas! it is foolishness. I must die here, or France must come and deliver me."
Napoleon told his doctor, O'Meara, that his chances of escape were five out of a hundred, and on several occasions he let drop remarks which created the impression that he regarded his escape as impossible. These remarks filtered through to Sir Hudson Lowe and the English authorities, and it may well have been that the friends of Napoleon were trying to create in the minds of the English guards the idea that Napoleon and all his companions regarded an attempt at escape as preposterous, while all the time they hoped for it and discussed it. On the whole, we may conclude that while escape would have been a most difficult thing, it was quite within the bounds of possibility. An important fact to remember is the friendly attitude towards Napoleon p246 on the part of the natives of the island and of even the troops stationed there.
When in 1822 Sir Hudson Lowe sued Dr. O'Meara after the publication of his book, "Napoleon in Exile," Major Poppleton of the 53rd Regiment, and two captains and two lieutenants, not only testified against Lowe, but attacked his administration. The troops on the island had a great admiration for their prisoner. On one occasion, when Napoleon expressed astonishment that a young Irish lieutenant, Fitzgerald, had the drums beaten and presented arms as he passed by, the officer exclaimed, "Yes, certainly we salute you, all of us, Monsieur l'Empereur." When the officers and soldiers of the 53rd Regiment were leaving St. Helena after a stay of two years, seeing the Emperor for the last time, they shouted, "Hurrah for the Emperor!" It seems well established also that Dr. O'Meara when he quit St. Helena had won over several of the officers of the garrison to his project for the release of Napoleon. When Balcombe returned to England he paid, upon Napoleon's order, the debts of two officers, amounting to six thousand francs. The inference is that these officers were in the plan to deliver the Emperor.2
One of the first to plot for the rescue of Napoleon was his physician, Barry O'Meara. After a quarrel with Sir Hudson Lowe, O'Meara left St. Helena and went to London. There he made serious accusations against Lowe, charging that Lowe had tried to persuade him to "get rid" of Napoleon. He was dismissed from the p247 British service, and then turned his attention to the project of accomplishing the release of the Emperor. He was in correspondence with Napoleon's mother and Cardinal Fesch, Napoleon's uncle. Napoleon's mother was willing to invest in the project, but would pay only when the rescue was an accomplished fact; and Cardinal Fesch told O'Meara that if it pleased God that his nephew should be delivered, he would be delivered "without any human combinations."
One of O'Meara's co‑conspirators was Maceroni, a former officer in Murat's army and a refugee in London. Maceroni was later the inventor of a steam carriage. Steamboats were then just coming into use and Maceroni wrote concerning the plot to rescue Napoleon, "The mighty powers of steam were mustered to our assistance." O'Meara also had enlisted the help of a former smuggler, Johnstone. Johnstone had escaped from Newgate Prison, and at the battle of Copenhagen was a pilot for Nelson's ships. He had once planned to kidnap Napoleon at Flushing and deliver him to a British cruiser. As early as that, St. Helena was mentioned as the island to which Napoleon might be taken. Johnstone commenced the construction of a submarine craft on the Thames for accomplishing the rescue of Napoleon; but his operations aroused suspicion and the craft was seized by the government. Johnstone's craft was to be so constructed that it could be sunk or raised by manipulating weights. His plan was to sink the boat by day, thus eluding British cruisers, and then approach the island by night.
p248 Every wind that blew over St. Helena carried with it some rumor of an attempt to rescue Napoleon. Many of these were, of course, wild imaginations and absurd fantasies. It was in the two Americas that the serious plots were conceived and developed for the release of the Emperor from his island prison. We know that a delegation from Mexico came to Bordentown, New Jersey, and offered Joseph Bonaparte, former King of Spain, the throne of Mexico. This was regarded, particularly by the French, as a scheme associated with the plot to rescue Napoleon. The French Ambassador at Washington, Baron Hyde de Neuville, linked the insurrectionary movements in Mexico and in Brazil with schemes to effect the rescue of Napoleon. There is no doubt about such association in the case of Brazil. As to Mexico the facts are not so clear. To one of the French Ministers, de Neuville wrote, "Where should we be if this marvellous man reached Mexico to find it already conquered?"
Until Napoleon went on board the Bellerophon and gave himself up to the English, his friends and family all took it for granted that he would go to the United States. Passports had been promised him and two French frigates had been put at his disposal. Lying in his hot bath, where he spent so many hours during the days of indecision and vacillation after Waterloo, Napoleon one day said to Lavalette at the Elysee, "Where am I going? Why not America?"
"Because Moreau went there!" answered Lavalette.
Moreau was a name Napoleon hated. When he was banished from France for alleged complicity in a royalist p249 plot against Napoleon's life, Moreau went to America and lived for a time at Morrisville, Pa. Returned to Europe, he joined the armies of the Allies, and was fatally wounded by a cannon ball as he stood by the side of the Russian Czar at the battle of Dresden. It was said that Napoleon himself aimed the gun that took Moreau's life. When a dog with Moreau's name on his collar and with Moreau's boot in his mouth came into the French lines, Napoleon exulted over these tokens of the death of Moreau and felt that his star was again in the ascendancy.
But in spite of Lavalette's suggestion, Moreau's brief exile in Pennsylvania had not spoiled the United States as a place of refuge for the Emperor. Lucien, now reconciled to Napoleon, wrote to his sister Pauline a few days after Waterloo, June 26, 1815; "You will have known of the recent disaster to the Emperor, who has just abdicated in favor of his son. He will depart for the United States of America, where all of us will join him." In similar tone Cardinal Fesch, Napoleon's uncle, wrote to Pauline: "Lucien set off yesterday for London in order to get passports for the rest of the family. Joseph and also Jerome will wait for their passports. Lucien has left here his second daughter, who has just arrived from England; she will set off again in a few days. I foresee the United States will be the end of the chase."
The British frigates, both on the French coast and off New York, had been warned to watch for Napoleon in his attempted flight to the United States. The frigates which afterward stopped or pursued the ship on which p250 Joseph went to America were looking of course for Napoleon. The rumor of Napoleon's coming to the United States reached America before it was known that he had been condemned to St. Helena. A Colonel King of Somerset County, Maryland, according to popular report at the time, had sent a ship to La Rochelle to bring Napoleon to America. He was to be brought to Accomac County, Virginia, where Stephen Girard was believed to have selected a residence for him. On the strength of the rumor that Napoleon had escaped to America, Colonel King marched the local Maryland militia down to the Virginia line to greet him.
It was fortunate for Napoleon's fame that he did not escape to the United States; but there is no doubt that had he done so, he would have received a warm welcome, although some of the more thoughtful of our citizens might have had serious misgivings. Napoleon himself expressed regret that he had not gone to the United States. "In America," he said, "I should have established the center of a new French fatherland. Within a year I should have had sixty thousand men grouped around me. It would have been the most natural place of refuge — a land of vast expanse, where a man can live in freedom. If I had a fit of the blues, I should have mounted a horse, ridden hundreds of miles and enjoyed travel with the ease of a private individual lost amid the crowd."
As long as Napoleon lived, the possibility of his escape to the United States was in the minds of all his old officers and followers, many of whom had already found asylum there. Philadelphia was the scene of the chief p251 plot in the United States for the release of Napoleon. It was devised by French refugees in and about Philadelphia and was to be carried out in cooperation with plotters in Brazil. Two Americans involved in the plot were a Captain Jesse Hawkins and Joshua Wilder. The knowledge of the conspiracy was communicated to George Robertson, the British Consul at Philadelphia, who in turn sent the documents to Charles Bagot, the British Minister at Washington. These documents, or copies of them, can be seen today in the Hudson Lowe papers in the British Museum.
The first appearance of the plot is in a letter addressed by Hawkins to James Carret, the secretary of Joseph Bonaparte, then living at Bordentown, New Jersey. In this letter of May 29, 1817, Carret writes that the Count of Survilliers (the name Joseph Bonaparte took in America) is ignorant of any interviews Hawkins may have had with "some persons," and that he has made it a rule "not to interfere in the business alluded to." This "business" had to do with plans for the release of Napoleon. The next we hear of Captain Hawkins is in a letter written to him from New York, July 24, 1817, by one Samuel Burrell. Burrell tells Hawkins of his arrival in New York from Baltimore, where he had received a draft on a house in Boston for $1,050. He says that he has "settled his business" there, and that a schooner sailed a few days before for Galveston, Texas.
This information was secured by the always efficient British Secret Service through the treason of Joshua Wilder, who gave up letters which Hawkins had received, p252 or written, to George Robertson, British Consul at Philadelphia.
Wilder, evidently bought by British agents, had stolen the documents from Hawkins. On the 28th of July, 1817, Wilder made a declaration that he had been boarding in the same chambers as Hawkins for several months, and that Hawkins had shown him the letters which had passed between him and the French officers. He also told of an interview he had with Joseph Bonaparte, who would not forward money himself, but promised Hawkins that if the plan succeeded he should not want for money. Two fast sailing vessels were to be fitted out and chartered by Hawkins, as if for the China trade. But instead of going to Canton, they were to hover off St. Helena, and when a favorable opportunity presented itself, launch a boat which was to be carried on one of the vessels. This boat, a very fast sailer, was to be •forty feet in length, made of cedar and birch plank, and decked over with Spanish rawhides. The plan was to hide the small boat in a cove and then contact a man who knew the island well and was acquainted with a Col. Bouker, living at "The Briars." General Lallemand, one of the French refugee generals, was to supply Hawkins with the necessary money.
Hawkins had arranged with an agent to go to Europe and take passage from England to the East Indies in the stores ship. When the ship stopped at St. Helena, he was to leave descriptions written in cipher, and so placed that they could be found when Hawkins and his party landed. As much as $1,000 was to be laid out in plate to be used by Napoleon on the trip from St. p253 Helena. If they succeeded in getting Napoleon off the island, they would take him at once to France, or, if that seemed at the time impossible, to South America, to join the patriots in Brazil in rebellion against Portugal. Hawkins expected to make the attempt in January or February, 1818. Early in August, 1817, the British Ambassador in Washington, Bagot, wrote to Lord Castlereagh at the British Foreign Office, enclosing copies of letters about the conspiracy which had been received from Robertson, Consul at Philadelphia. Bagot states that there is no doubt that an active correspondence was being carried on between the French officers in the United States and the disaffected in France and in other parts of Europe.
The next important clue to the Philadelphia plot is found in a letter in French written at Philadelphia, July 24, 1817. This important letter, unsigned, was forwarded to the British Foreign Office by Charles Stuart, British Ambassador at Paris, who had received it from the Duke de Richelieu, the French Foreign Minister. Stuart speaks of this letter as having been "taken" from General Raoul, one of the chief figures in the plot.
According to this letter, the plot to kidnap Napoleon was conceived by Joseph Bonaparte and its execution committed to General Raoul. One of Napoleon's personal servants at St. Helena, Rousseau, had come recently to America with an engraved map of the island of St. Helena. Lefebvre-Desnouettes, another of the refugee generals, was to purchase two schooners of 310 tons burden, armed with twelve guns. The brothers Lallemand were to recruit the officers and the men, who p254 were to assemble at Annapolis, where Galabert, a former colonel of the 50th regiment of the Line, and Adolphe de Pontecoulant, a nephew of Marshal Grouchy, had already established themselves. The rendezvous of the expedition was to be the island of Fernando , a convict station •seventy leagues off the coast of Brazil. Colonel Latapie, one of the chief figures in the plot, was already at Pernambuco in Brazil with thirty‑two officers. The French officers, all of them Napoleon's veterans, were to number eighty, and the United States recruits seven hundred. A frigate of seventy-four guns, with eight hundred sailors, was to be under the command of Lord Cochrane, a former British Admiral. The ships of the conspirators were to attack the English cruisers guarding St. Helena and then make their attack on the island. A sham attack against Jamestown was to be followed by the principal attack at the middle of the island. A third party was then to go to Longwood, seize Napoleon, place him on the fastest ship and sail for the United States.
A light fast-sailing schooner, armed with four 12‑inch guns, was preparing to leave Philadelphia to observe the position of the British cruisers at St. Helena, ascertain the strength of the English garrison, and then come back to meet the expedition sailing from Brazil and report its findings. The ship was being fitted out by Stephen Girard, whose niece married General Henri Lallemand. The vessel's articles were made out as if for privateering against the Spaniards. Rousseau and Archambault, Bonaparte's servants at St. Helena, had p255 reported all that was transpiring there and the friendly feeling of the island's inhabitants toward Napoleon.
This letter reveals also a plot on the part of Paoli, an ex‑Colonel of the French Army and commander of the fort near Genoa, to kidnap the King of Rome, Napoleon's son, and take him to Lucien, Napoleon's brother. Joseph Bonaparte had supplied money to William Cobbett to write articles against England. Cobbett, a former English soldier, had published the Weekly Register, in London, and afterward edited the paper Peter Porcupine in Philadelphia. He was many times in prison in England, and in 1832 was elected to the House of Commons. He wrote among other works "The American Gardener," said to be one of the best books on rural agriculture. Neuville informed Bagot, the British Minister, that Cobbett was the principal agent in the plot to rescue Napoleon.
The account of the plot contained in this French letter "taken" from General Raoul is supplemented by further information secured by the French and British Secret Services. M. Hyde de Neuville, French Ambassador at Washington, got hold of papers addressed to Joseph Bonaparte in the writing of Joseph Lakanal, the French politician and educator, former member of the National Assembly, afterwards President of the University of Louisiana, and at this time resident at Lexington, Kentucky. These papers told of the organization of an association of French refugee officers called the Napoleonic Confederation.3 Neuville had Richard Rush, Acting Secretary of State, identify the p256 handwriting as that of Lakanal. Through bribery Neuville secured further information about a plot to put Joseph Bonaparte on the throne of Mexico. Neuville was convinced that this was all part of the conspiracy to release Napoleon from St. Helena. He secured an interview with President Madison and requested him to take steps to quell the conspiracy and prevent citizens of the United States from assisting in it. The Alabama settlement of the French refugees on the Tombigbee River was regarded by Neuville as one of the bases for the conspiracy against Spain and Mexico. Madison told Neuville that as the conspiracy existed thus far only in design, nothing could be done to suppress it without violating the principles of individual liberty. The President said he would have the movements of the supposed conspirators watched. But it is quite evident that he intended to take no strong measures, for one of the things he had to consider was the popular feeling against Spain in the Western States. The British Minister, Bagot, in forwarding to Castlereagh an account of these proceedings, adds that Joseph Bonaparte had gone to Niagara Falls, so as to appear unconnected with the conspiracy, but says Neuville was convinced that his purpose in going to Niagara was to be nearer to the Mississippi when the hour struck.
The Philadelphia letter of July 24, 1817, which gave a detailed account of the conspiracy, speaks of a "Colonel Latapie, who has already gone with thirty‑two officers to Pernambuco." We hear much of this Col. Latapie in a communication to Castlereagh from H. Chamberlain, the British Charge d'Affaires at Rio de p257 Janeiro. A copy of this letter was sent by British warship to Sir Hudson Lowe. This communication tells of the arrest of Col. Latapie and his companions at Pernambuco. In the fall of 1817 an American schooner landed four refugees at Pernambuco. They turned out to be Frenchmen and put under arrest. Under examination they acknowledged that they had come from America for the purpose of obtaining employment in the army in Brazil, then in revolt against Portugal. The leader of these men was Col. Latapie. He and one of his companions were sent down to Rio de Janeiro by a warship. Latapie had been a Lieutenant-Colonel in the French Army, and his companion, an Austrian, had been a Captain in the French Cavalry. The Brazilian Minister of State, believing that Latapie was implicated in the revolt at Pernambuco, and with the hope of getting fuller information about that conspiracy, offered him his liberty and free passage to the United States if he would disclose the whole object of his coming to Pernambuco.
Latapie thereupon related how he had planned to assist the rebels in Brazil in establishing their independence, and that he had hoped to become the commander of their troops. His true purpose was not hostility to the King of Portugal, but that he might establish an independent post south of the line for a base to carry out his design for the liberation of Napoleon. All the Frenchmen in America, he said, were determined to make this effort, as they regarded Napoleon as their lawful sovereign and were ready to "sacrifice the last drop of their blood" for his release. After an independent p258 state had been established in Brazil, fast-sailing vessels were to be fitted out and manned by adherents of Napoleon. On these vessels small "steamboats" were to be carried. When the ships reached the vicinity of St. Helena, the steamboats were to be sent off at night, with the hope that one of them might be fortunate enough "to succeed in setting their late emperor at liberty."
The British representative at Rio de Janeiro, Chamberlain, comments that "the notion of employing steamboats upon such an expedition is entirely new and is worth attention, particularly when a landing is to be made at St. Helena." The steamboat project was not impossible, for steamboats at that time were running regularly from London to Margate. One would think, however, that steamboats approaching the island at night would be more likely to betray the plot than small sailing boats. Not only steam boats, but submarines, were in the thoughts of those who were planning to carry off Napoleon. This, as we have seen, was the plan of Johnstone, whose ship was seized at London by the British government. Admiral Plampin, Commander of the British Squadron at St. Helena, sent to London a letter he had received from Captain Sharpe, commanding the Hyacinthe, which told of a young man recently come from Brazil who had brought designs of a submarine boat which could be rowed under water and carried six men.
Colonel Latapie did not get the free trip to America he had been promised, but on November 20, 1817, was sent to Lisbon, and confined there until the wishes of p259 the French government concerning him could be made known. The arrest and deportation from Brazil of Colonel Latapie was undoubtedly a chief factor in the failure of the Philadelphia and Brazil plots to rescue Napoleon.
The Philadelphia letter mentions also a General Brayer. This General Brayer was a distinguished soldier who rose to the rank of Division General. During the Hundred Days he was Governor of Versailles and the Trianon. After the Bourbon restoration he went to South America and reorganized the armies of the government of Buenos Aires. Brayer was to send to the rendezvous near Pernambuco French officers who were under his command in Buenos Aires. The arrest of Latapie prevented the cooperation of Brayer, and the French and English agents kept him under strict surveillance at Buenos Aires.
Another sidelight on the Philadelphia-Brazil plot is found in letters to Hudson Lowe from London telling of a correspondence between persons at Bahia, a city on the coast of Brazil between Rio de Janeiro and Pernambuco, and St. Helena, via the Cape of Good Hope. The Bahia correspondent had been twice at St. Helena and had interviews with persons at Longwood. A notorious privateer, the True-Blooded Yankee, had put in at Bahia and its crew had disclosed their intention to take part in an expedition to rescue Napoleon. It was on the ground of this information that the British Admiral, Sir Pulteney Malcolm, was ordered to occupy the tiny island of Tristan d'Acunha at once. American whalers were accustomed to stop there for turtles. The p260 letter informing Hudson Lowe of all this, May 14, 1816, expresses great anxiety lest the American schooner which had put in at Bahia should seize and occupy Tristan d'Acunha before Malcolm could get there. , the British Secretary of State for War, wrote to Lowe warning him against persons coming from Bahia to St. Helena and saying, "There is no doubt that measures have been in contemplation to proceed with a party of French and other adventurers from Pernambuco to St. Helena for the rescue of General Bonaparte."
The Philadelphia documents which had been seized by British and French agents spoke of a scout schooner which was to lie off St. Helena, secure what information it could, and then return to meet the expedition. A dispatch of Hudson Lowe from the British government tells of a report of an East India captain to the effect that an American ship had put into St. Helena on the plea of distress. But her only lack was water, and it was supposed that this deficiency had been purposely created. At the same time a vessel had been observed off St. Helena. She was a fast sailer and outran all the cruisers by whom she was chased. After being chased, she would reappear in her original station and continue for some time to hover around the island. Hudson Lowe communicated with Admiral Plampin about this same suspicious ship which had appeared in the offing. The mysterious craft was probably one of the scouts of the Philadelphia-Brazil expedition to kidnap and rescue the Emperor.
p261 Napoleon had many partisans and supporters in South America. Among them was Madame Foures, who had been Napoleon's mistress in Egypt, also called "Cleopatra" by the army, and who under the Empire became Madame de Ranchoup. In 1816 she abandoned her husband and went to Rio de Janeiro, where she was in the company of a former officer of the Guard. She spent her whole fortune on plots to rescue Napoleon. Another friend and supporter of Napoleon in South America was General van , who had been Minister of War in Holland for a brief period and was Napoleon's aide-de‑camp during the Waterloo campaign.
Among those mentioned as having a part in the Philadelphia-Brazil plot was Lord Cochrane. According to the Philadelphia letter, he was to have command of a frigate of seventy-four guns, with eight hundred sailors on board. Lord Cochrane, tenth Earl of Dundonald, was one of the famous and picturesque admirals of the British Navy. He had distinguished himself in the French wars and took part in the expedition which burned Washington, D. C. Together with an uncle and other associates, he was found guilty of perpetrating a fraud on the Stock Exchange by circulating a false report of the death of Napoleon, and was expelled from Parliament and deprived of the Order of the Bath. In 1817, the year that his name appears in connection with the plot to rescue Napoleon, he took command of the naval forces of the Chileans in their revolt against Spain and performed many feats of valor.a He then entered the service of Brazil in its revolt against Portugal. After p262 that he served in the Greek Navy, and in 1832 was reinstated in the British Navy. If there was a man living who could have carried out a successful raid on St. Helena, that man was Lord Cochrane. It seems, however, altogether unlikely that a British admiral, although at that time dismissed and in disgrace, would have laid himself open to the charge of treason by attacking a British post. On the other hand, there must be considered the appeal that there was for a man of Cochrane's nature in the St. Helena plot. According to the information which Neuville sent Bagot, Lord Cochrane and Sir Robert Wilson were deeply engaged in the plot, and a correspondence was carried on through the agency of a female relative of Wilson, who resided in Brussels.
Another magnetic name which appears in connection with American plots to carry off Napoleon is that of the renowned Commodore Stephen Decatur, who in the conflict with Tripoli in the War of 1812 had written his name in letters of gold. Decatur was associated with one of the Napoleonic generals, Clausel, in a plan to rescue the Emperor. Lakanal says this plan was submitted to Joseph Bonaparte, but he rejected it because of his pusillanimity and greed.4
There have been some who have raised a question as to the loyalty of Joseph Bonaparte to his brother the Emperor and to the French refugees who were plotting in America for his release. In 1817, Maurice Persat, a former cavalry captain under Napoleon, and who had p263 received from his hand the Legion of Honor, hearing that Joseph Bonaparte was preparing an expedition for the release of Napoleon, took with him what fortune he had, some thousands of francs, and sailed for America, where he repaired at once to Joseph at Bordentown. There Joseph assured him in touching terms that he would have given his life and fortune for the deliverance of the Emperor, but that he had been compelled to abandon the project because of information he had received from London that the British Government had issued barbarous orders, to the troops at St. Helena, that in case of an attack on the island Napoleon was to be put to death. Joseph advised Persat to enter business in New York. But business did not appeal to a former captain of cavalry under Napoleon, and Persat, after serving with a company of filibusters in an attack on Florida, became a follower of Bolivar in his war for independence in Colombia.
New Orleans was the center of a plot headed by the then Mayor of New Orleans, Nicholas Girod.b1 He and other well-to‑do Frenchmen built a fast sailing schooner, the Seraphine, and fitted her out for a voyage to St. Helena. To disarm suspicion, the Seraphine was put in commission for pleasure cruises in the Gulf of Mexico. The crew were all ardent admirers of Napoleon, picked men, whose valor and desperate courage were established. The vessel was under the command of Captain Boissiere. Boissiere's father had been an officer under Rochambeau at Yorktown. "He thought and dreamed of nothing but scaling the heights of St. Helena with his cutlass between his teeth, his trusty p264 pistols under his belt, and followed by his desperadoes, rushing upon the guard and breaking into Napoleon's chamber, securing his person, and bearing it to the chair attached with a rope to block and tackle, and lowering him upon the deck of the Seraphine, which, taking advantage of the dark night, had eluded the guard ships and crept noiselessly into the position assigned in the carefully drawn plan. When once deposited on the deck of the Seraphine he could trust to her heels and defy pursuit by the whole British navy."5
Associated in the same enterprise was Dominique , a comrade of Lafitte, the notorious filibuster of Southern waters.6 Dominique had charge of a 24‑pounder when Jackson repelled the British attack at New Orleans. His gun crew was made up of ex‑privateers from Lafitte's Baratarian Colony. "Old Hickory" said of this gun crew, "I wish I had fifty such guns on this line, with five hundred such devils as those fellows behind them." Dominique was buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 2. A high-sounding epitaph, in French and in verse, proclaims him, "The intrepid hero of a hundred battles on land and sea, who without fear, and without reproach, will one day view unmoved the destruction of the world."7
So confident were Girod and his companions of the success of their enterprise, that they built in New Orleans p265 a handsome house for Napoleon. The house still stands at the corner of Chartres and St. Louis Streets. It is in excellent state of preservation and is a fine relic of Southern Colonial architecture, with its mansard and the octagonal cupola roof surmounting it.b2
The "Napoleon House," New Orleans
(From "The Logical Point," Vol. I; Press of Steeg Publishing Co., New Orleans.)
The New Orleans plot to rescue Napoleon was known to Napoleon's companions at St. Helena. Antommarchi, his Italian physician, and Marshal Bertrand visited New Orleans some years after the death of Napoleon and so testified. Antommarchi presented to the city a marble bust of the Emperor as a token of his appreciation of the friendly feeling of New Orleans toward Napoleon. It was long preserved in the City Hall. "Marshal Bertrand, who visited the city in the forties, and was accompanied by young Ney, the Duke of Moskowa, and was received with great eclat and the most enthusiastic demonstrations by the old Napoleonists, often referred to the plot which had been concocted in New Orleans, and which he believed would have been successful; and repeated Napoleon's frequent expressions of his great desire to spend the remainder of his days in that great free country, and among the noble Republican people of the United States of America."8
Before the Seraphine was ready to sail on its great expedition, another and a greater Rescuer, one not to be denied, made his appearance at St. Helena. Napoleon died on the 5th of May, 1821.
During Napoleon's stay at his rock prison in the South Atlantic, there were many false and fantastic rumors of his escape. The liberal opposition in France p266 encouraged these legends because they increased the feeling against the government. A General Canuel, commanding the department of the Rhone, in order to strengthen his position with the government, denounced a pretended conspiracy which he himself had invented. According to the supposed information of his spies, Napoleon had escaped from St. Helena and with five regiments was at Tabagoº in the West Indies. The Emperor of Austria, the Kings of Saxony, Bavaria and Spain were associated in the conspiracy, the object of which was the destruction of all the nobles and priests. Pamphlets published in 1817 under the title, "The Christ of the People," announced that according to American papers Napoleon had been set free. A proclamation signed "Napoleon," and countersigned "Lallemand," affirmed that Divine Providence and brave soldiers had delivered him from the English, and that American vessels were bringing him to France where his companions in arms would rejoin him. The proclamation concluded with these words, "I will come to deliver you, be calm! Do not light the flame of Civil War. Wait for the opportune time." Among other absurd reports that found currency, was the tale that sailors disguised as Turks had set out on a ship for St. Helena under command of a son of Marshal Ney. Another report had it that Napoleon had been delivered by the Emperor of Morocco in recognition of the kindness that Napoleon had shown his son when in Egypt. This legend went so far as to name one of the English ships which had been taken, Le Coq, and its captain, Bacon. At Lyons the police seized a proclamation of p267 Napoleon to the Americans, of which this was the grandiloquent address: "Ocean, on board the Grand Amiral of the combined fleets of Africa and America, we, by the grace of God, Emperor of the French, King of Italy, President of the Grand Congress of Africa and America, Commanding General of the Orient, Amiral of Asia, of Africa and America —"9
According to a book published in Paris in 1816, "Napoleon at St. Helena," as related by James Tyder, Surgeon in the English Navy, Napoleon boasted that he could escape any time he wished, in a balloon. He planned to go to Africa and there found a kingdom. This book inspired another, published in London in 1840, called "Napoleon's Second Life," where Napoleon becomes Emperor of the Kaffirs.
The tales of the supposed escape of Napoleon from his island prison take their place beside the legends that Lord Kitchener did not perish in the North Sea when the cruiser Hampshire, on which he was traveling on a World War mission to Russia, was torpedoed in 1916; that John Wilkes Booth was not shot in the Virginia barn by Sergeant Corbett after the assassination of Lincoln; and that the Czar Alexander I, Napoleon's great adversary and real conqueror, because the Czar was the head and front of the Allied opposition, did not die in 1825 at Taganrog, the far‑off Crimean village on the Black Sea whither he had gone for the sake of the Czarina's health, but went instead to a far‑off monastery in Palestine or Siberia, there to expiate his sin of p268 having participated in the murder of his father, Czar Paul I. Indeed, the wonder is that there were not more tales and rumors about the escape of Napoleon, seeing he was so extraordinary a person and had cast so deep a spell over his age.
Napoleon was said to have had a double who took his place on certain occasions. This double, Francois Eugene Robeaud, had been a soldier under Bonaparte, was about this age, and was born at Baleycourt in the Department of the Meuse. He is recorded in the town registry of Baleycourt to have died at St. Helena, date not given. According to the legend, Robeaud, in the year 1818, substituted himself for Napoleon at St. Helena and died there, supposedly the Emperor, in 1821.
Another, and even more absurd tale, made the pseudo Napoleon a cousin, who went to St. Helena in the guise of a priest and there died of cancer of the stomach. But, if the English jailers were deceived as to the man who died at Longwood on that wild night in May, 1821, what became of the real Napoleon? One tale was that he made his way to Verona in Italy and there opened an optical shop, and on the night of September 5, 1823, was shot by a sentinel as he was attempting to scale the wall of the park at Schonbrunn, the Austrian royal palace near Vienna. The unknown man died murmuring the words, "Duke of Reichstadt — king — son —" Napoleon's son, the King of Rome and Duke of Reichstadt, was at that time being brought up at the Austrian court of his father-in‑law, Francis I. Another fantastic tale finds the liberated Napoleon the p269 commander of the Turkish army at Iraktscha in the war between Turkey and Russia in 1828. The passage of time, no doubt, will add to the number of these wild tales of the escaped Napoleon.
Did Napoleon wish to escape? Would he have availed himself of an opportunity to escape if one had offered itself to him? On this, as on so many other subjects, the sayings of Napoleon are often contradictory and irreconcilable. There were times when he indulged his fancy in plans for escape, and there is no doubt that he hoped for a change of government in France and a change of policy in England which would result in his formal release. In the pathetic letter written to Joseph Bonaparte informing him of the death of Napoleon, Count Bertrand says: "The hope of leaving this dreadful region often presented itself to his imagination. He sometimes fancied we were on the eve of starting for America. We read travels, we made plans, we arrived at your house, we wandered over that great country where alone we might hope to enjoy liberty. Vain hopes, vain projects, which only made us feel doubly our misfortune."
Napoleon frequently spoke as if he regarded escape as altogether impossible. Yet every sail seen on that lonely ocean must have stirred his hopes. What we do know is that he definitely declined one offer of escape. Montholon tells of a naval captain whose vessel was returning from the Indies, and who had made arrangements to receive the Emperor in a boat at an agreed upon place and to convey him to his ship, without any risk of being detected. This captain asked no reward p270 for himself, but wanted one million francs for the unnamed person whose concurrence and assistance were necessary. The money was not to be paid, however, until the Emperor reached America. He was to be accompanied by only two persons. Napoleon asked Montholon to get further and full information. When they brought him this, he paced to and fro in silence several times, and then said to Montholon, "You must decline the offer." He asked Montholon to thank the captain but said that his resolution not to struggle against his "destiny" was immovable.
On another occasion when the matter of escape was being discussed, Napoleon said to Montholon: "I should not be six months in America without being assassinated by the Count d'Artois' creatures. Remember the Isle of Elba. Did he not send Bruard thither to organize my assassination? Had it not been for the brave man whom chance had placed master of the quarters of the gendarmery in Corsica, and caused me to be warned of the mission of this life guardsman, who confessed everything, I should have been assassinated. Everything is written in heaven. It is my martyrdom which shall restore the crown of France to my dynasty. I see in America nothing but assassination or oblivion. I prefer St. Helena."
It was the opinion of Gourgaud that Napoleon would never make a real effort to escape. He had grown soft, he said, and while he might compromise any number of people, "at the garden gate he would say that he was too tired and did not want to be a target for gunshot." p271 The chief obstacle in the way of escape, according to Montholon, was indeed the mental attitude of Napoleon, whose mistrust was such that he would never confide himself to any one but a member of his own family, or former servants, "for," said Montholon, "if he gets on board, who knows whether when he was •three leagues distant from the land he might not be thrown into the sea?"
In his not infrequent exalted and prophetic moments, moments when he thought of the future grandeur of his name and the opinion of posterity, Napoleon clearly saw that captivity and death at St. Helena were infinitely to be preferred to the lot of a rich planter in the United States or that of a revolutionary leader in Mexico or South America. "If I were in America with Joseph," he once sighed, "instead of suffering here, nobody would ever think of me and my cause would be lost. If Christ had not died on the Cross, He would not have become the Son of God." This same thought was ably expressed by Napoleon III in his "Idees Napoleoniennes," where, writing of the sufferings and death of Napoleon at St. Helena, he says: "Great men have this in common with the Divinity, that they do not wholly die. Their spirit survives them, and the Napoleonic idea has sprung from the tomb of St. Helena, as the moral of the Evangelist rose triumphant from the agony of Calvary."
Although he chafed against the bars of his wave-washed prison, Napoleon foresaw that St. Helena would add a lustre to his name not second to that of Marengo, Austerlitz and the Pyramids. Fate, which p272 seemed so cruel to Napoleon in that it exiled him to a lonely South Atlantic rock, was, after all, kind to him. Had any of the plots to rescue him from St. Helena been carried out, the gorgeous and solemn Sacrament of Entombment under the gilded dome of Invalides would never have been celebrated.
1 Careful search by the authors in the Hudson Lowe papers in the British Museum resulted in the discovery of facts about these plots never before made public.
2 Brice, Medecin General, Les Espoirs de , p181. Payot, Paris.
4 Aubry, St. Helena, p430. J. B. Lippincott Co., Philadelphia. 1936.
5 W. H. Coleman, Historical Sketch Book of New Orleans.
6 Kendall, History of New Orleans and Castellano, New Orleans as it Was, name as the captain of the Seraphine. Coleman's Historical Sketch and Guide Book to New Orleans names Boissiere as captain. Aubry, St. Helena, names as the captain.
7 Saxon, Lafitte the Pirate. Century Co., N. Y. 1930.
Intrepid warrior on land and sea,
In a hundred engagements he marked his valor;
And this new Bayard, without reproach and without fear
Could have watched unmoved the destruction of the world.
The French quatrain, said to be taken from a work by Voltaire, is given in full by Grace King along with a charming drawing of his tomb, in New Orleans, The Place and the People, p209.
8 The Logical Point, Vol. I.
9 Brice, Les Espoirs de , p238. Payot, Paris. 1938.
b1 b2 See also the story as told, more dubiously, in Kendall's History of New Orleans, pp93‑94 and notes.
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