General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes: Unhappy in Alabama
Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes was a loyal and gifted Napoleonic cavalry commander. Sentenced to death after Napoleon’s 1815 abdication, Lefebvre-Desnouettes fled to the United States where he settled on the Vine and Olive colony in Alabama. Despite his wealth, he was miserable and longed to return to France. He finally received permission to do so, only to meet a tragic end on the journey home.
A determined soldier
Born on September 14, 1773 in Paris, the son of a cloth merchant who supplied the French army, Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes was determined to become a soldier. Three times he ran away from school to enlist. The first two times his parents bought his release. The third time they let him go. In December 1789, he succeeded in becoming a light cavalry soldier (chasseur) with the National Guard of Paris. By February 1793 he was a dragoon. He fought in most of the French Revolutionary army campaigns.
Lefebvre-Desnouettes proved to be a highly skilled horseman and a capable commander. In early 1800, he became an aide-de-camp to then First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte. He served with Napoleon at Marengo, fought at Elchingen and Austerlitz, and served in the Prussian campaigns of 1806-07.
In 1806 Lefebvre-Desnouettes married Stéphanie Rollier, fourteen years his junior. Stéphanie was the daughter of a first cousin of Napoleon’s mother, Letizia Bonaparte. As a wedding gift Napoleon gave the couple the house on Rue Chantereine (now Rue de la Victoire) in Paris in which he and Josephine had first lived after their marriage. He also promoted Lefebvre-Desnouettes to general. By 1808 Lefebvre-Desnouettes was commanding the chasseurs à cheval of the Imperial Guard. Napoleon awarded him the title of Count of the Empire.
Later in 1808 Lefebvre-Desnouettes was sent to Spain. He conducted the first unsuccessful siege of Saragossa. At the Battle of Tudela in November, his cavalry made a charge that was key to the French victory. Things did not go as well at the Battle of Benavente (December 29, 1808). Lefebvre-Desnouettes’s horse was wounded and thus unable to carry the general back across the River Esla during the French withdrawal. Lefebvre-Desnouettes was captured either by a German hussar named Johann Bergmann or by an English hussar named Levi Grisdale, who later ran an inn in Penrith named the General Lefebvre (for more about Grisdale, see The Wild Peak blog). Napoleon wrote to Josephine on December 31:
Lefebvre has been captured. He took part in a skirmish with 300 of his chasseurs; these idiots crossed a river by swimming and threw themselves in the midst of the English cavalry; they killed several, but on their return Lefebvre had his horse wounded; it was swimming, the current took him to the bank where the English were; he was taken. Console his wife. (1)
Transported to England as a prisoner of war, Lefebvre-Desnouettes spent the next few years in comfortable captivity. He lived on parole at Cheltenham, where Stéphanie was allowed to join him. The couple became extremely popular with the locals. In 1812, Lefebevre-Desnouettes broke his parole and escaped back to France. Napoleon’s second valet, Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, wrote:
The Emperor was at Saint-Cloud when he received General Lefebvre-Desnouettes, who had escaped from England. The Emperor was at dinner. He received him rather coldly at first, and reproached him with having sacrificed his chasseurs in the affair at Benavente. The general defended himself as well as he could, and then told his experiences from the time he had been made prisoner till his return to France. I think I recollect that it was an English lady who aided his escape. The result of the general’s visit was that the Emperor restored him to the command of his chasseurs. At St. Helena an English officer who had been at Waterloo said, in speaking of the chasseurs of the Guard, that they had been the admiration of the English troops who were opposed to them, and he added, ‘These valiant soldiers were so many lions; they were commanded by General Lefebvre-Desnouettes.’ (2)
Lefebvre-Desnouettes fought in the Russian campaign, during which he was wounded. He left the campaign when Napoleon did, following the latter’s carriage back to Paris in a little sleigh. In 1813-14, he commanded the Guard cavalry throughout the campaigns in Germany and France. When Napoleon bid farewell to the Old Guard at Fontainebleau after his 1814 abdication, he embraced Lefebvre-Desnouettes as representing them all.
Lefebvre-Desnouettes was well treated by Louis XVIII during the First Restoration. However, upon learning of Napoleon’s escape from Elba in 1815, Lefebvre-Desnouettes went with Charles Lallemand to La Fère to attempt to seize the arsenal for Napoleon. When the plan was found out, Lefebvre-Desnouettes traveled to Compiègne and tried to bring his regiment over to Napoleon. This also failed.
During the Hundred Days, Napoleon again appointed Lefebvre-Desnouettes commander of the chasseurs à cheval of the Imperial Guard. Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes led his division into action at the battles of Ligny, Quatre-Bras and Waterloo, where he is said to have fought with the “rage of desperation.” (3)
Life in Alabama
Condemned to death by the returning Bourbons, Lefebvre-Desnouettes caught a ship to the United States, disguised as a commercial traveller. He joined the Society for the Cultivation of the Vine and Olive, which – as described in my post about the Bonapartists in America – petitioned Congress to grant the French emigrants land on the Tombigbee River in Alabama. Unlike the Lallemand brothers, Lefebvre-Desnouettes actually settled on the grant. As becomes clear in Napoleon in America, he thought little of Charles Lallemand’s expedition to Texas and refused to take part in it.
Lefebvre-Desnouettes was the wealthiest of the emigrants at Vine and Olive, and the highest-ranking officer in the colony. He was said to be handsome and intelligent, possessed of considerable charm and sound judgement. The French ambassador to the United States, Jean-Guillaume Hyde de Neuville, wrote of him:
His character was admirable, whatever cause he was serving. He was both gentle and firm and devoted, without any display of words, to the man he had followed. (4)
Lefebvre-Desnouettes’s property at Demopolis reportedly included a log cabin, in the centre of which stood a bronze bust or statue of Napoleon, surrounded by swords and pistols and walls draped with imperial flags. He wrote that he had “a commodious house and a good life.” (5) He hoped he would be joined by Stéphanie and their daughter, Charlotte, who had been born after he left France. But Stéphanie was unable to make the crossing.
The Irish writer Sydney, Lady Morgan, visiting Paris in 1817, recalled:
the hotel de Victoire and the accomplished circle I found collected round its graceful and elegant mistress, the Countess Lefebvre-Desnouettes (the Comtesse Desnouettes lived in great retirement during my residence in Paris in consequence of the exile of her husband). This beautiful little pavilion, as it now stands in the midst of its blooming garden, and in the most fashionable quarter of Paris, was presented by the French nation to the modest conqueror of Marengo on his return from the most splendid of his Italian victories. Here General Buonaparte resided until he took possession … of the royal apartments of the Tuilleries…. The hotel de Victoire had been presented by Napoleon to his fair cousin, the Comtesse Desnouettes, and it retains all the elegant draperies and furniture which belonged to it when it was presented to himself. Peculiar taste and studied elegance rather than any effort at splendor and magnificence, characterise this pretty bijou. Draperies of lilac and primrose satin, fastened by his own brilliant and fallacious star, are surmounted by arabesque friezes of great delicacy and beauty, and the furniture is appropriately elegant and simple. (6)
With another exiled Napoleonic general, Bertrand Clausel, Lefebvre-Desnouettes for a time ran a general store at the Vine and Olive colony, but this proved to be a disaster. Under the operation of an untrustworthy junior officer, the store lost its entire inventory, with money still owed to creditors.
Lefebvre-Desnouettes yearned to return to France. In 1818 he and Stéphanie began working hard to secure his pardon from the French government. On November 1, 1821 he wrote to Hyde de Neuville, imploring him to transmit an enclosed position to Louis XVIII:
Death is a thousand times preferable to my dreary, hopeless existence here. If I am not granted a recall, I shall go present myself to my judges, not in the hope of clearing my name, having no reason to give, but to put an end to all my ills at once. I must admit that I no longer have the courage to endure such a long exile; I feel that I shall find enough of it to die like a Frenchman should die. I shall leave for Europe in four or five months and, one way or another, I shall go to live or die in France. You know what kind of life I have led in this country; except for a journey to Washington, I have not left my fields. In distancing myself from cities, I followed my opinion rather than my inclinations; unfortunate as I was, I had to fell people’s pity or curiosity. I wore myself to the bone with hard field work in a burning climate so as to kill my mind’s activity. Now I have destroyed my strength and health and remain alone with my thoughts. (7)
A tragic end
Finally, in early 1822 Lefebvre-Desnouettes obtained permission to return to Europe. On April 1, 1822, he boarded the packet ship Albion bound for Liverpool. Tragically, on April 22 the ship encountered a fierce storm and wrecked on the Irish coast (see my article about the loss of the Albion). Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes was among the dead. He was 48 years old.
Stéphanie was heartbroken. In 1852 she erected a monument to her husband at Sainte-Adresse, near Le Havre. It is known as the le pain de sucre (sugar loaf) memorial. Stéphanie died in 1880, age 93, and – as per her request – was buried in the monument (click here to see a portrait of Stéphanie in her old age).
Charlotte, who inherited the 100,000 francs Napoleon had willed to her father, died in France seven years after her mother. She had married in 1836 and had two children.
The site where Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes lived in Alabama has been marked with a plaque, inscribed – with an incorrect birth year – as follows:
On this site stood the Alabama home of General Count Charles Lefebvre Desnouettes (1772-1822), friend of Napoleon Bonaparte, General of the French Army, Count of the Empire and leader of the Vine and Olive colony that founded Demopolis in 1817. Desnouettes erected log cabins on this site, one of them being used as a shrine to Napoleon and containing souvenirs of the Emperor’s battles arranged around a bust of Napoleon on a pedestal made in cedar. Desnouettes died in a shipwreck off the coast of Ireland in 1822.
A street in Demopolis is named “Desnouettes.” His name is also inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
You might also enjoy:
- Diana Reid Haig, The Letters of Napoleon to Josephine (Welwyn Garden City, 2004), p. 162.
- Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, translated by Frank Hunter Potter (New York and London, 1922), pp. 14-15.
- Jesse S. Reeves, The Napoleonic Exiles in America: A Study in American Diplomatic History, 1815-1819 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1905), p. 28.
- Ines Murat, Napoleon and the American Dream, translated by Frances Frenaye (Baton Rouge, 1981), p. 88.
- Ibid., p. 94.
- Lady Morgan, France, Volume 1 (Philadelphia, 1817), pp. 41-42.
- Eric Saugera, Reborn in America: French Exiles and Refugees in the United States and the Vine and Olive Adventure, 1815-1865 (Tuscaloosa, 2011), p. 356.
Death is a thousand times preferable to my dreary, hopeless existence here. If I am not granted a recall, I shall go present myself to my judges, not in the hope of clearing my name, having no reason to give, but to put an end to all my ills at once.