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.