5) Legacy of Greatness


The memory I leave behind consists of facts that mere words cannot destroy…. I shall survive–and whenever [historians] want to strike a lofty attitude, they will praise me.


StatuecropIn the aftermath of Waterloo, having done what he could to secure the army’s route of retreat and arrange for its scattered units to rally in French territory, Napoleon returned to Paris, arriving in the capital on the morning of 21 June. At this point, there was still a chance to continue the fight. Early reports from the army commanders at Philipeville suggested that the losses sustained during the retreat from Waterloo had not been as disastrous as first imagined. Many of the troops had stayed with the colors and over half the artillery pieces had been rescued in the retreat. With still-intact armies in the Vendée and the upper Rhine, as well as some 100,000 militia forces in and around the capital, the physical means to mount another determined defense of the French homeland were readily at hand. Recognizing that such an all-out effort would require a full-scale mobilization, Napoleon’s new Minister of War, Davout, urged him to declare a martial emergency and assume wide powers. Such a move would violate both the constitution and Napoleon’s recent promise, yet only by taking immediate action, Davout argued, could the emperor head off organized resistance to his authority and remain in control of the situation. Napoleon’s politically astute brother, Lucien, agreed. Much of working-class Paris was still behind the Bonapartist cause, and with the enemy bearing down on the capital there was no time to build a political consensus.

For Napoleon, however, there was the larger judgment of history to consider. Throughout his career, from the machinations of 18 Brumaire to the various plebiscites by which he had become emperor, he had been careful to create the impression that his power derived from the will of the French people. Now, any attempt to resort to extra-legal measures would only prove what his enemies had been saying all along: that he had seized control through a military take-over and maintained it in violation of the very democratic principles he presumed to champion. Thus, dispirited and physically exhausted after three days without sleep, he merely requested that he be granted full powers, hoping the Assembly would defer to his leadership in the crisis. It would prove a forlorn hope. Recognizing that the Allies would never agree to a peace settlement while Napoleon was still in power, the Assembly determined that the Emperor must either abdicate or be deposed.

Napoleon received the news with a mixture of resentment and defiance, and for a moment considered assuming control in spite of all. By this time, however, the moment for decisive action had passed, and with his political power ebbing away, he made a final, futile effort to assert the legitimacy of his dynasty, agreeing to abdicate in favor of his son, Napoleon II. The Allies, of course, had no intention of allowing the Bonapartists to remain in power, and on 30 June Wellington arrived in force outside the city with a clear warning for the Assembly: restore France’s rightful rulers (the Bourbons) or suffer the dismemberment of the country. Having little choice, the people’s representatives complied, following the lead of the ever-nimble Minister of Police, Fouche, who had already been in touch with Louis XVIII (soon to be known as ‘Louis the Unavoidable’), and was busy preparing for yet another restoration of Bourbon rule.

With Allied troops entering the suburbs of Paris and British ships blockading the Channel coast, Napoleon fled the capital for the coast of Brittany, where he hoped to slip away on a ship bound for America. By the time he reached Rochefort, however, the British warship Bellerophon had taken up a vigil in the harbor; once again the Royal Navy had managed to thwart his plans. For the next two weeks, he remained in Rochefort, unable to settle on a course of action. Then, in a final, delusional bid for clemency, he decided to request asylum from his oldest and bitterest enemy, fondly hoping that he might be allowed to live in England. On the evening of 15 July, having arranged to surrender to the captain of Bellerophon, he and a small entourage of supporters boarded the ship and were soon on their way to England.

The next day the ship arrived in the harbor at Torbay on the coast of Devon, where word quickly spread of its notorious passenger. Soon an armada of small craft surrounded the ship, as hundreds of English curiosity-seekers rowed out to get a glimpse of the man who had held all of Europe in thrall for so many years. Appearing on deck with as much dignity as the occasion allowed, Napoleon–who understood very little English–assumed the flotilla of gawking onlookers was an expression of his popularity among the English people. Everyone seemed pleased to see him, and his spirits lifted at the thought of spending his exile somewhere in the island nation. A few days later, however, he and his followers were transferred to a larger ship, Northumberland, to begin a long sea voyage to the South Atlantic, where he was to be imprisoned on the desolate island of St. Helena. He would catch his last glimpse of France while cruising south across the Bay of Biscay.


The Death of Napoleon


His remarkable career at the forefront of European affairs having come to an end, Napoleon would spend the last five and half years of his life on a modest estate known as Longwood in the interior of St. Helena. Here, in the company of the small group of friends and supporters who had chosen to join him in exile, he devoted much of his time to dictating a history of his great campaigns and the political circumstances surrounding them. The work was a chance to shape his legacy and helped provide a purpose and structure to his days. From the first, however, he succumbed to a growing bitterness toward the island’s governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, whose repeated efforts to conciliate his illustrious prisoner were haughtily rebuffed. Though responsibility for the ensuing enmity between them was largely his, Napoleon refused to make peace, seeking instead to win the sympathy of the outside world with stories of abysmal treatment at the hands of his captors.

To this end, Napoleon forbade all social intercourse between the British and French enclaves on the island and took perverse pleasure in playing favorites with the principal members of his entourage, several of whom eventually sought and received permission to return to France. This left only his long-time aide-de-camp, General Bertrand, and a lesser nobleman named Charles Tristan de Montholon, who managed to win Napoleon’s confidence despite a dubious military record and relatively brief acquaintance. In February 1818, the household was further reduced when Napoleon’s butler, Cipriani, suddenly died after experiencing intense abdominal pain and vomiting. Weeks later, this death was followed by those of a maid and the child of another servant at Longwood, both of whom died of unknown causes. No autopsies were performed, however, and life at Longwood continued as before.

Over the next two years, Napoleon continued to wage a propaganda war against Governor Lowe, complaining of insufferable living conditions and accusing his captors of attempting to poison him. His health had indeed begun to decline, with bouts of severe stomach cramps and nausea. Applying the limited diagnostic methods of the day, his doctors pronounced the cause to be hepatitis, but their efforts to cure him had no effect, and in several cases only added to his suffering.

During the summer of 1820, Napoleon’s symptoms became severe, with stabbing abdominal pains accompanied by vomiting, and by spring of the following year, his health had deteriorated such that he was confined to his bed in constant pain. Recognizing that he was dying, he set about drawing up his will–no small undertaking for one who, despite his political misfortunes, remained a very wealthy man with over seven million francs in a French bank and some 200 million more in funds and property to which he could make a legal claim. Over the course of three days, he drafted the main text of the will, to which he would add numerous codicils for the next two weeks. Testifying to the remarkable powers of memory and concentration that had been such a large part of his success both as an administrator and military commander, the resulting document would include bequests to friends and relations going back to his childhood, and account for very nearly all of his far-flung estate.

Even as he completed his final arrangements, his condition became dramatically worse. No longer able to hold down the simplest liquids, he began vomiting blood and became thoroughly emaciated. By 3 May his mind had begun to wander, and during long periods of delirium, he became childlike, begging his attendants for a spoonful of coffee in a manner that brought tears to the eyes of his old friend, Bertrand, who had long been accustomed to the power of his personality and his instinct for command. Early on the morning of the fifth, he spoke his last words: “France–armée–tete d’armée–Josephine.” Throughout the rest of the day, he continued to linger, his breathing becoming more and more labored. Then, just after sunset, he sighed three times and died. He was fifty-one.

An autopsy performed on the body shortly after his death revealed a large tumor on the stomach, leading to the conclusion that Napoleon had died of stomach cancer like his father before him. Recent forensic evidence based on samples of hair, however, suggests the possibility that the immediate cause of death was arsenic poisoning, and according to historian Alan Schom, the likely culprit was Count Montholon. Promised a substantial income in Napoleon’s will, Montholon is thought to have been eager to gain access to this inheritance (in the end he would be cut out of the will by the surviving heirs). The truth is scarcely knowable, however, and like so much of Napoleon’s life, the circumstances of his death seem destined to remain shrouded in controversy.


“As far as I am concerned,” Napoleon wrote in 1801, “there is no immortality but the memory that is left in the minds of men.” If his purpose had been to achieve such immortality–and everything about his career suggests nothing less–then he succeeded to a degree beyond any figure in modern history. So fearful was the British government of his continuing influence over the affairs of Europe that despite his wish to be buried “on the banks of the Seine, amidst the French people whom I loved so well,” his remains were not allowed to leave St. Helena. Instead, he was buried beside a stand of willows at one his favorite spots on the island, a place known as Torbett’s Spring.

In the end, however, he was to have the final say, for memories of the horrors of war were soon mitigated by the realities of Louis XVIII’s reactionary regime, and amid a general nostalgia for the grandeur of the past, Napoleon would become the center of a growing cult. By 1840 his hold on the French imagination was such that King Louis Philippe–partly seeking to bolster the popularity of his own pedestrian regime–sent an expedition to St. Helena to bring the emperor’s remains back to France. In Paris, large crowds flooded the streets to witness their ceremonial return, and as surviving veterans of the Old Guard led the procession down the broad expanse of the Champs Elysees, cries of “Vive l’Empereur!” rang out once again, 25 years after the end of Napoleon’s reign. Truly, the Emperor lived on.

Napoleon’s legend would continue to haunt French politics for the rest of the century, playing a part in the Revolution of 1848 by which his nephew, Louis Napoleon (later Napoleon III), would eventually come to power. Ultimately, of course, his influence would reach far beyond French politics, becoming a source of intense historical and psychological interest. Perhaps no figure in history has ever become as thoroughly identified with his times as Napoleon, and very few have ever inspired such a vast body of histories, biographies, memoirs, novels, and published works of all kinds. As might be expected, his own account, published in 1823, is full of justifications for his actions and condemnations of his enemies and critics. The way he saw it, as a champion of the French people he had been forced to wage endless wars in response to the persistent treachery of the monarchist oppressors of Europe, and far from controlling events, he had been controlled by them. Many historians were to take a different view, of course, and thus the controversy that had surrounded him in life would continue unabated long after his death. In the end, the profile that emerges remains mixed at best, many tending to view his career as a cautionary tale on the evils of absolute power.

And yet, the opinions of historians must be weighed against those of generations of admirers for whom the era is of more than academic interest. In Paris, where the Corsican trainee witnessed first-hand the turmoil of revolution and rode its conflicting currents to the heights of political and military power, the cult of Napoleon is still in evidence, most prominently at the former veteran’s hospital known as L’Hotel des Invalides. A masterpiece of seventeenth-century architectural splendor at the center of the city, the Invalides is well known as the site of Napoleon’s Tomb, a massive marble crypt that attracts many thousands of visitors each year. Upstairs, several floors of the vast Musée de l’Armée are devoted to the period, and on the streets of the city monuments and place names recalling the era abound–much more so than those dedicated to the Republic or the Revolution itself, public remembrances of which tend to be few and far between. For all of the destruction and loss of life wrought by its many wars, the age of Napoleon is remembered for something beyond the reach of historical analysis, beyond even the compulsions of national honor. Known simply as La Gloire–Glory–it was a sentiment first experienced by newly recruited citizen-soldiers on a hillside at Valmy in 1792. In the years that followed, Napoleon would become its chief architect as well as its living embodiment, his name and image becoming synonymous with a larger Romantic age whose artistic and emotional heritage are still with us. The fact that so many of his contemporaries followed him in its pursuit is no mystery of a bygone era. Its ongoing appeal for people of all nationalities is still to be seen in the faces of the crowds at Les Invalides and wherever his story is told.