Monday, May 21, 2018

The Rescue Of Napoleon

The Rescue of Napoleon

As a tour guide my goal is to tell a story as accurately as possible.  Like many people, I research the stories of old New Orleans hoping to find evidence that backs up the tale.  I want all of the things that are repeated over and over to be true but as I go rooting through evidence I find that much mythology has become so deeply rooted that it is taken (and repeated) as fact.  Once in awhile, though, I find something that backs up a story and when I do, I feel as if I struck gold.  Sometimes the evidence backs something up entirely but more often I see the roots of a story that has become not so much embellished, but misunderstood over time.  One of the most enduring stories involves the rescue of Napoleon Bonaparte from exile and his intended home in New Orleans.  For those who don’t know that story, here it is in a nutshell:

When Napoleon was exiled to the island of Ste. Helena there was a plot to kidnap him, rescue him and bring him to New Orleans to live in comfort and security.  The plot was hatched at (pick one) Pierre Maspero’s, The Old Absinthe House, The Cabildo, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, The Hustler Club,  (Fill In The Blank)________________________.  The pirate, Jean Lafitte, was enlisted in the coup to provide ships, supplies and sailing crew and Mayor Nicholas Girod offered an entire floor of his home to be Napoleon’s apartments.  Napoleon’s personal physician, who had made his way to New Orleans, was a key participant in the intrigue.  The plot was hatched, the ships set sail but before they could arrive to the island Napoleon had died and all was for naught.  Mayor Girod’s house became forever known as The Napoleon House and remains so to this day.

I’ve told the story many times.  I’ve never said that it is a myth but I’ve also never stated it as fact.  I’ve told people that, although we have no concrete evidence to back it up, there is plenty out there to suggest that story might ring with some truth.  Napoleon’s physician, Dr François C. Antommarchi, did make his way to New Orleans and brought him Napoleon’s death mask.  So, I call it a legend and tell it using the safety net of “The story goes...” 

And then -

When I actually found the orders for the rescue of Napoleon Bonaparte from exile and his transport to the United States, my jaw dropped! 

It took a lot of digging and years of searching but they exist and it really did happen.  Although not quite the way “the story goes.”  The plot was not hatched in New Orleans, Lafitte (as usual) figures into a coup that did not involve him, the rescue was commanded by the French Government, not Mayor Girod, and it happened while Napoleon was being temporarily detained on the Île-d'Aix before his transfer to Ste. Helena.  In fact, the orders to orchestrate the rescue were given to the Duc Decres, the French Prefect of the Maritime, who issued them in strictest secrecy.  How they ended up being published in London would require more digging than I care to commit to.  But published in London they certainly were.  Nowhere is New Orleans mentioned in the orders.  The ports of entry specifically named were Philadelphia and Boston.  However, one phrase “or in any such other port of the United States as it would be quicker and easier to reach” is most interesting. Given the utmost secrecy of the affair this one phrase suggests that New Orleans was not specifically mentioned for security reasons.  It does stand to reason they would not say exactly where he was going nor in whose home he would dwell.  We may never know for certain that New Orleans or her Mayor were specifically involved but given the fact that this legend dates back two centuries now, it’s almost certain that Mayor Girod offered his home to become an Imperial Palace.

What events lead up to the affair and why the whole thing fell through is something I’ll leave to scholars.  My job is to give a tour, not to teach a history class.  All I will say is that the orders did exist and the plan was very real.  They were written and published in French. I’m sure native French speakers would cringe at my imprecise translation but the document was written in 1815 and even the French language has evolved since then.  Here are the orders, notated by me, published in London in 1819:

Instructions for captains Philibert, Commander of the Saale, and Poncé, Commander of the Méduse. 
Top Secret

The two frigates are appointed to transport the one who a short time ago was our emperor to the United States.

He will embark on the Saale with such people from his suite that he will designate[1]; the others will be on the La Méduse.

The baggage will be distributed on the two frigates as he orders.

If, either before departure or in the crossing, the Méduse has been recognized as being much better than the Saale, he will embark on the Méduse, and Captains Philibert and Poncé will change their command[2].

The greatest secrecy must be kept on boarding which must be done by the Maritime Prefect, as well as the personnel on board.

Napoleon is to travel incognito and he will, himself, make known the title and the name under which he is to be called.

Immediately after disembarkation, all communication with land must cease.

Commanders of the frigates, officers and crew will find in their hearts that they must treat their person with the regard and respect due to his situation and the crown he has worn.[3]

On board the highest honors will be returned unless he refuses. He will have the interior of the frigates for housing without harming the means of defense.  His table and his personal service will take place as he will order.[4]

We will arrange for, and the Prefect has received the order, whatever may contribute to the convenience of his journey, without regard to expense[5].

The prefect will send as much provision for him and his suite, as the utmost secrecy is to be observed on his stay and his embarkation.

Napoleon being embarked, the frigates will have to sail within twenty-four hours at the latest, if the wind permits, and if the enemy ships do not obstruct the departure.  

We would only stay twenty-four hours after Napoleon's embarkation, as long as he would say so, for it is important to leave as soon as possible.   The frigates will sail as quickly as possible to the United States, and they will disembark Napoleon and his suite, either at Philadelphia or at Boston or in any such other port of the United States as it would be quicker and easier to reach.

It is forbidden for the commanders of the two frigates to engage in harbors whose exit would become slow and difficult. They are only allowed to do so, in the event that it is necessary for the salvation of the ship.

You will avoid all the ships of war[6] that you might meet; if you are obliged to fight superior forces, the frigate which does not carry Napoleon will be sacrificed to hold back the enemy and to give the one on which he is aboard the means to escape[7].

I need only recall that the Chambers[8] and the Government have put the person of Napoleon under the safeguard of French loyalty.

Once arrived in the United States, disembarkation must be done with all possible speed, and under any pretext whatsoever, unless the frigates are prevented by supreme forces, they can not remain there more than twenty-four hours, and they will immediately have to return to France.

The laws and regulations on the police of ships at sea, and on the military subordination of persons embarking as passengers towards the commanders of these war ships, will be observed in all their rigor.

I recommend to the sentiments that the captains have of their duty, as well as to their delicacy, all the objects which could not be foreseen by the present ones.[9]

I have nothing to add to what I said before, that the person of Napoleon is put under the safeguard of the loyalty of the French people, and this deposit is entrusted especially in this circumstance to the captains of the Saale and the Méduse, and the officers and crew of these two war ships.

Such are the orders that the commission of the Government charged me to transmit to the Captains Pilibert and Poncé.

                                                                                                Signed, Le Duc Decres.

[1] Interesting that Napoleon had personal staff with him in exile.
[2] I would love to know why it was so important that Philibert be the one who was to captain whichever ship Napoleon was on board.  Perhaps he knew how to make a quick getaway if necessary?
[3] It is interesting that it’s phrased as “you will find in your hearts to treat him with respect” and not as “you are ordered to treat him with respect.”
[4] Another reference to his personal staff. 
[5] Money is no object.  The French Government is footing the bill.
[6] The actual French word used here is bâtements which technically means buildings and could imply military forts.  However, it also means war ships and the same word is used to describe the Saale and the Méduse.
[7] Perhaps this is why it is essential that Philibert be in command of the bâtement carrying l’Empereur.
[8] Chambers meaning Governmental departments, i.e. Département de la Maritime, of which Decres was the Prefect.
[9] In other words, do what you have to do.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Steamboats Fact & Fiction

A question I am asked from time to time is "How long did it take to travel by steamboat?" Well, let's look at a random steam packet - we'll choose the Ohio Belle under the command of Captain John Sebastian.

In 1859 the Ohio Belle left New Orleans March 5th.  She arrived in CairoIL on March 13th and then arrived in CincinnatiOH on March 17th.  In 1860 she left CincinnatiOH at 5 pm on November 30th, passed by VicksburgMS on December 7th and arrived in New Orleans on December 10th.   (She left New Orleans for the return trip on December 12th.)   .......So:

            12 days to go upriver from New Orleans to Cincinnati.
            10 days to go downriver from Cincinnati to New Orleans.

On the 1860 trip to New Orleans she was fully freighted, carrying "moderate passengers."

Check out the freight that arrived in New Orleans.

MEANWHILE – From New Orleans to St. Louis...

In 1875 the Susie Silver, under the command of David H. Silver (do you think he named it after his wife or daughter?) left St. Louis for New Orleans on September 1...

The Susie Silver left St. Louis on Sept 1, 1875; arrived in Cairo on Sept. 3, departed Sept. 4; arrived & Departed Memphis on Sept. 6; arrived in New Orleans on Sept. 10.

On the return trip:  Departed New Orleans on Sept. 12; passed Vicksburg Sept. 14; departed Memphis, Sept. 17; arrived & Departed Cairo Sept. 19; arrived in St. Louis Sept 21
9 days each way.

Interesting little side note on the Susie Silver – just below Memphis was a treacherous little bar called Reeve’s Bar where the water was normally only about 4 ½ feet deep.  On this particular trip down, the Susie Silver lost her fuel barge.  Her fuel, of course, would have been wood or coal, not petroleum.  It did not, however, delay her progress.  Not sure how that happened.  According to the media – which, obviously, is not always trustworthy, the hull of the barge was formerly of a steamboat called The Armada which was said to be the first steamboat Abraham Lincoln ever traveled on.  Maybe, maybe not...

It’s fascinating that the newspapers of the day published the arrivals and departures of steamboats from city to city.  Today we can go online and track our FedEX shipping but back then this was the way it was done.  Imagine, you have family arriving from Cincinnati and every day you run to the newspaper to see where the Ohio Belle is.  Or you have a shipment arriving from St. Louis only to find out that the fuel supply sunk on a bar – then find it made it safely to Vicksburg on schedule!  Amazing stuff, this.  (Of course, it also increases newspaper circulation!  ‘Nuff said.) 

So many people want to think of steamboating as river pirates coming aboard to rape and loot and pillage or gamblers losing entire plantations in a poker game and challenging each other to duels.  Well, far be it from me to say stuff like this never happened but the day to day truth about steamboats was a little more mundane.  It was shipping, it was travel, it was (yes!) showboats – but generally speaking, it was watching the newspapers to track your shipment of pigs’ feet.  However, March 15, 1856 the Ohio Belle did have an amazing incident that made all the papers and is a prime example of media slant.  According to Capt. Sebastian’s statement, the Ohio Belle had just shoved out of Smithland Kentucky (which is located where the Cumberland River meets the Ohio River) when a man on the shore flagged her down.  She landed again and took him on as a passenger.  (Interesting that you could flag a steam boat down from the shore and board it.)  The man identified his name as Jones.  That afternoon he went to the ship’s barber (barber services aboard a steamboat - never thought about that but, of course!) and paid for services with a ten dollar bank note from a bank in ShelbyvilleTennessee.  The barber then took the bill to the ship’s clerk, whose name was Stephens. He deemed it to be counterfeit and, long story short, a fight between Jones and Stephens broke out during which Jones whipped out a pistol and fired at Stephens, fatally wounding him.  He didn’t live ten minutes.

After firing the pistol, Jones tried to run and escape but was apprehended by the crew.  At first, Captain Sebastian was afraid that some of the passengers may try to lynch Mr. Jones but Sebastian assured them that Jones would be handed over to authorities.  Jones was taken to the engine room and tied, bodily, to a staunchion as the Ohio Belle steamed ahead.  She reached Cairo where Captain Sebastian ordered a coffin for Stephens.  No family for Stephens is mentioned but friends will be receiving the coffin and arranging burial.  Sebastian notified the authorities.  Cairo, however, had no jurisdiction over the incident, having occurred elsewhere, so it was decided to head on down to HickmanKentucky and have him arrested there.  Mrs. Sebastian (the captain’s wife) was onboard and came to tell the Captain that Jones had begun to slump and the rope had slipped around his neck, putting him in danger of being strangled.  They went down, untied him from the staunchion, wrapped the rope around his hands and body and sat him in a chair, however not secured to the chair.  Nor, may I add, was anyone left to stand by and guard him.  At about 8:00 pm they went to check on him, finding the chair empty, the cut ropes laying on the floor and Jones gone.

Although in his statement Sebastian makes no mention of what happened to Jones, newspapers tell a vivid tale of pure fiction.  They have Jones as the victim, his money was not counterfeit, he was lynched and thrown overboard, still tied to the chair, by the Captain and his angry mob.  In this drama, Captain Sebastian, standing like Basil Rathbone on the prow of the ship, shouts to people on the river banks “If you find a damned scoundrel floating by on a chair, take him out and hang him!”  (Although in some accounts there is the sound of a loud splash and the ropes are found on the floor but Jones and the chair have vanished.)  In his statement, Sebastian says the witnesses will attest to Jones not being secured to the chair and no word exchanged between Sebastian and anyone onshore.  The newspapers also say there was a man from California onboard who boasted that he’d hung over fifty men for as little as five dollars and he’d happily “dispose of this damned scoundrel for a damned sight less!”  Sebastian answers that the only passenger onboard who’d even been to California was a doctor from Philadelphia who was confined to his bed due to an injury – to which witnesses will attest.

Well, come to find out, Jones’ name was not Jones at all.  (Is anyone surprised?)  His name was Joseph Cooke, Jr. and he was a fugitive from the law, having also killed a man in Mississippi.  On March 18th it was reported that Jones-Cooke had jumped overboard to escape and drowned in the river.  AND YET – the media still makes him out as a victim and lays all the pity on Joseph Cooke, Sr. having to put his “ill-fated son” to rest.  The fact that Captain Sebastian had to order a coffin for Stephens and arrange to have his body shipped home for burial apparently means nothing.  There is no report on whether or not the ten dollar bill was or was not actually counterfeit.

So, of course, there are these stories and this is the stuff of showboat melodramas!  This is exactly how history becomes distorted and stories are told that have no bearing on reality.  All that's missing is for Captain John Sebastian (with a parrot and a peg leg) making poor ill-fated Mr. Jones walk the plank at Cave-In-Rock, followed by absinthe for the crew of the feared and notorious Ohio Belle as she heads down to wicked New Orleans to deliver her freight of cabbages, ham, butter and beef tongue before murdering a few pimps in a riverfront gin mill and then heading back up to Cincinnati.  In reality, this affair happened on March 15, 1856 and six days later, on March 21st, the New Orleans Picayune thanked the clerk of the Ohio Belle for delivering the latest newspapers from Cincinnati and Louisville (and other favors) and announced the Ohio Belle's departure for the return trip to Cincinnati on Saturday, March 22nd at 5:00 pm.

As scheduled.

Heroes and villains notwithstanding, the Ohio Belle toted that barge, lifted that bail and kept on rolling along.