Governor Bonaparte?

Most people are somewhat familar with the history of Napoleon at least with regard to the “sound bite” historical notes.  They will remember vaguely that he was exiled to Elba and then returned.  They will recall that he lost the battle of Waterloo and went off the pages of history about then.  That is about it for the man on the street knowledge of him and his deeds.  The actual events are a bit more complex and offer some insight into the headlines of today.   After his failures in the Russian campaign and defeats in 1813/1814 he was forced to submit to a negotiated peace deal.  He had negotiated many of these during his reign with England and the other European powers that were opposed to his expansion of the French revolutionary ideas and the exanding spheres of influence of the French.  When he went to Elba it was not a true exile in the sense that he wasn’t run out of town on with the mob calling for his death.  He had his enemies even in France but the main cause of his exile was the military defeats and the exhaustion of the French in figHehting everyone for so many years.  They had essentially been at war since the mid 1790’s with most of western Europe and the English.  Napoleon entered into a treaty with his opponents and it was by that treaty that he went to Elba to be its new ruler.  He was allowed a small army contingent to go with him to Elba and he immediately started rewriting its laws as he had done everywhere he had obtained a military victory over the years.  He was granted a certain payment by the new French government every year as part of the deal.  He was allowed to do pretty much as he pleased as long as he remained on Elba.  There really weren’t travel restrictions placed on him specifically but it was understood that he needed to stay there if he wanted peace.  The French reneged on the payments.  They breached the treaty and that was what made it legal for him to feel he was no longer bound by the treaty terms.   Thus he left and began the famous 100 days in the spring of 1815 which culminated in the ultimate defeat at Waterloo.  That was a close run thing as Wellington himself said.  It was not a foregone conclusion at all that he would lose that battle but events on the battle field and a few mistakes resulted in that defeat. 

After Waterloo Napoleon returned to Paris quickly to reorganize and determine what the future course of action should be.  The Allies were hot on his heels and approaching Paris rapidly.  There was a fever pitch of political intrigue over the course of a few days and his political support waned.  Talleyrand and Fauchot both undermined his position.  There was still large segments of the French army on the lose as it were and even the stragglers from Waterloo were drifting in.  The Allies didn’t want to allow time for Napoleon of the French to regroup. They retained a formidable fighting force even if weakened and demoralized by the defeat at Waterloo.  As his political position eroded he moved out of Paris proper to the suburbs which probably further weakened his political power.  He was advised that there was no support for any further fighting against the Allies.  Most of the politicians were against that and they thought they could cut a better deal with the Allies for peace if Napoleon was removed from the scene.  They were quite right about that assumption.   The Allies were still fearful that Napoleon could exact a high price in blood if allowed to reorganize his scattered army. 

Napoleon recognized the inevitable and moved away realizing that he had no future in France.  His day in the Sun had passed and he had to flee somewhere.  There were lots of discussions with his advisors on where  to go. Austria and Italy were obvious choices because of his marriage to the Austrian princess and his family being still in place in Naples.  Then the suggestion of America arose.  Over a period of a few days that became the favored port of call and refuge for Napoleon.  There was still strong empathy and sympathy between the two nations because of their close ties and even alliances during the Revolutinary War and later the French revolution and the sympathy  for it among many Americans.    Napoleon started preparations for going to America.  He began the process of seeking a passport to travel and acquired books on America.  He fled to the coast on the Bay of Biscay and unfortunately dithered a while.  The Allies were eager to capture him if they could.  Just like we have been seeking Bin Laden.  The Allies didn’t want to precipitate a full blown insurgency in France but they did want to take Napoleon if they could and then decide want to do with him.  The English were already blockading every port they could to interdict any travel plans he might have to flee the country.  Napoleon even thought he had it arranged and went on board a ship at Rochefort to visit and make final preparations for his departure to America.  He was tricked and the departure was delayed and he didn’t press hard to leave.  He was captured there by the English.  Rather than going to American and making a new start he was ultimately sent into exile to St. Helena in the far southern Atlantic ocean.  It was a small place a long way from any where and escape would be impossible unless you had a large ocean going vessel which the English could always prevent with their navy. 

The mayor of New Orleans had even set up a house for Napoleon to use when he arrived.  Not suprisingly it is still called the Napoleon House and is a bar and restaurant in the French Quarter in New Orleans.  You recall it was Napoleon who had sold the Lousisiana Purchase to Thomas Jefferson in 1803.  He had a dynamic personalty and was a real “celeb” of his day.  Even when he was in exile on Elba lots and lots of folks went there to see and meet him.  He was famous.  If he had come to the US he might well have ended up with a significant political role in US history.  You recall that Aaron Burr was tried for treason for promoting a rebellion to split off the Louisiana purchase territories from the US.  What a remarkable ally Napoleon would have been for that venture that could have been revived if he had gone to New Orleans.  Alas, he spent his final years on St. Helena because he delayed and dithered.  Procrastination cost him his freedom.


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Filed under Culture, Foreign Affairs, geography, history, military history, Politics, War

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