Why didn’t Napoleon escape to the United States?

After his 1815 abdication from the French throne, Napoleon Bonaparte wanted to start a new life in the United States. Why didn’t he?

Le César de 1815 (The Caesar of 1815): “I came, I saw, I fled.”

Le César de 1815 (The Caesar of 1815): “I came, I saw, I fled.”

Destination America

After losing the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, Napoleon returned to Paris with the aim of shoring up his domestic support before continuing the war. When he arrived on June 21, the Chamber of Deputies and the Chamber of Peers called for his abdication. (See Lucien Bonaparte’s remarks to the Deputies and the Marquis de Lafayette’s response.) On June 22, Napoleon relinquished the throne in favour of his son, Napoleon II, whom the provisional government soon deposed.

Napoleon knew he was in danger. If captured by the coalition, he would face either imprisonment (favoured by the British) or death (Prussian Field Marshal von Blücher’s preferred way of dealing with him). That evening Napoleon asked naval minister Denis Decrès to place two French frigates at Rochefort at his disposal. Decrès said he would be happy to do so, as soon as he received orders from the provisional government, which was led by Napoleon’s former police minister, Joseph Fouché. Unbeknownst to Napoleon, Fouché wanted to use him as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the coalition.

Count Lavalette recounts that when he met with Napoleon at the Elysée Palace on June 23,

The Emperor had been for two hours in his bath. He himself turned the discourse on the retreat he ought to choose, and spoke of the United States. I rejected the idea without reflection, and with a degree of vehemence that surprised him. ‘Why not America?’ he asked. I answered, ‘Because Moreau retired there.’ … He heard it without any apparent ill-humour; but I have no doubt that it must have made an unfavourable impression on his mind. (1)

That same day Napoleon sent General Henri Bertrand to renew the request for the frigates, and to apply to Fouché for passports that would enable him to go to the United States.

On June 25, as the Anglo-Allied and Prussian forces continued their march towards Paris, Napoleon left the city to wait for the passports at Malmaison. There he conferred with family and friends. Many urged him to escape immediately, but Napoleon appeared to be in no hurry to get away. The imperial treasurer, Baron Peyrusse, remarked on Napoleon’s calm when he learned that the first English and Prussian runners had been seen. The fallen emperor “continued to read a work by M. de Humboldt on America.” (2)

On June 26, the provisional government decreed that “two frigates in the port of Rochefort may be armed for the purpose of transporting Napoleon Bonaparte to the United States.” However, the frigates were not to “leave the roadstead of Rochefort until the passes shall have arrived.” (3)

Napoleon sent René Savary, the Duke of Rovigo, to ask for the passports. According to Savary, Fouché asked him,

‘Where does the Emperor intend to go?’ ”

‘Where else can he go,’ I resumed, ‘but to America? I thought you were aware of it.’

‘I know it!’ said Fouché, ‘this is the first time the subject is mentioned to me. He is quite right; but I will not take upon myself to let him depart without adopting every precaution for his safety: otherwise, I should be blamed if any accident were to happen to him. I will apply to Lord Wellington for passports for him, as it behoves me to protect my individual responsibility in the eyes of the nation. I should never be forgiven for acting without the requisite precaution.’ (4)

In so doing, Fouché was alerting the British to Napoleon’s escape plan. As Fouché must have anticipated, the Duke of Wellington responded on June 28 that he had “no authority from his government, or from the Allies, to give any answer to the demand of a passport and assurances of safety for Napoleon Buonaparte and his family to pass to the United States of America.” (5)

Meanwhile the provisional government directed Napoleon to proceed to the frigates and wait in Rochefort for the passports. Napoleon offered to stay and fight the coalition, but Fouché ignored the offer. On June 29, with the Prussians about to pounce, Napoleon left for Rochefort. According to Savary, he was still under the impression that passports would be forthcoming.

He could not suppose that the least opposition would be offered to his voyage to America; and he so confidently indulged in the idea of establishing himself in that part of the world, that he had already made choice of horses and other objects calculated to promote his comfort in his new existence. They were on their way to the coast by easy journies, and were to be shipped in any port where a vessel could be freighted to convey them. (6)

Dithering at Rochefort

Map of the Basque Roads (port of Rochefort)On July 3 Napoleon arrived at Rochefort. The French frigates, the Saale and the Méduse, were ready to sail, but the winds were contrary and the port was blockaded by the British, making it hard for the French to get out to sea. On July 4 Napoleon and his advisors met with the local maritime authorities. They discussed two options:

  • One of the frigates could occupy the British while Napoleon escaped on the other.

Ponée, who commanded the French frigate Méduse, offered to fight the [British frigate] Bellerophon single-handed, while the Saale, should pass out. But Philibert [commander of the Saale] refused to play the glorious part assigned him. (7)

  • Napoleon could slip out on a corvette called the Bayadère, which was anchored at the mouth of the Gironde estuary, south of Rochefort. Though Captain Charles Baudin was pleased to put his vessel at Napoleon’s service, he noted that it was not particularly fast. Instead, he recommended two American ships, the Pike and the Ludlow, also at the mouth of the Gironde.

As corsairs they escaped, by their rapid speed, all the English cruisers during the last war. I will bring them with me, and if necessary, I’ll put the Emperor on one of them. In case of an encounter with the British, I’ll block the passage of the enemy with the Bayadère and the Infatigable [another ship under Baudin’s command]. (8)

Baudin was confident he could get Napoleon to the United States, as long as he came on board soon and secretly, with only two or three companions and the least amount of baggage possible.

It would not be difficult to pass from the Charente to the Seudre in a well-armed boat, and then make a circuit of some miles to Royan, where Napoleon could embark. As the attention of the English was much more directed to the Charente than the Gironde, there was every possibility of being able to put to sea and gain the coast of America in safety. (9)

Napoleon approved of this plan. He also considered slipping through the blockade on a Danish brig, called the Magdeleine, commanded by a Frenchman named Besson. Count de Las Cases was authorized to put 25,000 francs at Besson’s disposal to provide the necessaries for the voyage.

But Napoleon failed to depart. Though people in his entourage, as well as the provisional government, urged him to leave, Napoleon gave excuses. These ranged from wanting to wait for the passports, to reluctance to board a foreign vessel, to not wanting to abandon the majority of his companions (over 60 people had come with him to Rochefort).

As Napoleon dithered, the number of ships in the British blockade grew. On July 8, with the provisional government ordering him to go (his continued presence in France made peace negotiations difficult), Napoleon boarded the Saale and proceeded to Île-d’Aix. On July 10, Savary and Count de Las Cases met with Captain Frederick Maitland, commander of the British frigate Bellerophon. They gave him a letter from General Bertrand.

The Emperor Napoleon having abdicated the throne of France, and chosen the United States of America as a retreat is, with his suite, at present embarked on board the two frigates which are in this port, for the purpose of proceeding to his destination. He expects a passport from the British Government, which has been promised to him, and which induces me to send the present flag of truce, to demand of you, Sir, if you have any knowledge of the above-mentioned passport, or if you think it is the intention of the British Government to throw any impediment in the way of our voyage to the United States. (10)

Savary and Las Cases asked Maitland whether he would allow Napoleon to leave the port. Maitland, who had orders to intercept Napoleon and take him to Torbay, advised:

I cannot say what the intentions of my Government may be; but, the two countries being at present in a state of war, it is impossible for me to permit any ship of war to put to sea from the port of Rochefort.

As to the proposal … of allowing the Emperor to proceed in a merchant vessel; it is out of my power, – without the sanction of my commanding officer, Sir Henry Hotham, who is at present in Quiberon Bay, and to whom I have forwarded your despatch, – to allow any vessel, under whatever flag she may be, to pass with a personage of such consequence. (11)

Privately Maitland told Hotham that the force at his disposal “was insufficient to guard the different ports and passages from which an escape might be effected, particularly should the plan be adopted of putting to sea in a small vessel.” (12)

On July 11 Napoleon sent General Charles Lallemand to the Bayadère to see if Captain Baudin was still prepared to try his plan. Baudin was, although it would be considerably more difficult to get past the British. That same day Maitland learned that the best pilot on Île-d’Aix had been offered a large sum to pilot a vessel to sea from the entrance of the Gironde, indicating that it was Napoleon’s intention to escape either in the Bayadère or in the Danish brig. Maitland sent the British frigate Myrmidon to block the entrance to the Gironde. General Charles de Montholon tells us:

The 11th was passed amidst a number of schemes proposed and abandoned, in a state of hesitation, like that which had lost all at Elysée and Malmaison. (13)

On July 12, newspapers arrived from Paris announcing the return of Louis XVIII to the throne. Rochefort would soon be under royalist orders.

On July 13, Napoleon’s brother Joseph joined Napoleon on Île-d’Aix. He offered to stay and disguise himself as Napoleon while the latter escaped to the United States.

The Emperor could not resolve to accept the offer. He would never consent that his brother should expose himself to dangers which belonged to his destiny alone, and therefore forced him to leave the Isle of Aix, and gain the Gironde, whilst the communications were still sufficiently open, and that he might avoid the risk of falling into the hands of the royalists, who were already become threatening. (14)

Some young French naval officers offered to form the crew of a small sailing ship (a chasse-marée), and try to slip through the British cruisers. Napoleon seemed to trust them, and a few of his personal effects were carried on board.

The drawback of such a vessel was that for want of water and food it would be forced to stop somewhere along the coast. They did not follow through with the plan and the personal effects were unloaded. (15)

Instead Napoleon seemed prepared to try the Magdeleine. Baron Gaspard Gourgaud writes:

Bertrand, the Grand Marshal, told me that His Majesty had made up his mind to go to sea in the Danish ship, whose captain (Besson) had been a French naval officer of the Guard; that he had just bought at Rochelle a cargo of brandy to be loaded on his ship, in which there was a hiding-place; that he had all his papers, a passport, etc. …

[Napoleon] told me … that when he reached America he should live there as a private gentleman; that he should never return to France; that in America two or three months would be necessary to get news from Europe, and as much to make the return passage; therefore, such an enterprise as he had made from Elba would thenceforth be impossible. … I repeated that he would, I thought, have done better to do to England. … He answered that my reasons were good; that it would be the wisest thing to do; that he felt sure of being well treated in England; that it was also the advice of Lavalette, but that good treatment in England would be somewhat humiliating for him. He was a man, and could not bear the idea of living among his most bitter enemies; that he could not conquer this repugnance; and besides, that history could not reproach him for having sought to preserve his liberty by going to the United States.…

The Emperor…assured me that when he grew bored in the United States, he would take to his carriage, and travel over a thousand leagues, and that he did not think any one would suspect that he intended to return to Europe. (16)

According to Napoleon’s second valet, Louis-Étienne Saint-Denis:

[The Emperor] had given me orders to put all the arms in good condition; they consisted of several pairs of pistols and four fowling pieces, one double with a revolving breech. The sailors of the ship came to get them and the ammunition for them in the evening. They also carried away things for the Emperor’s use, and linen, clothes, etc., for the needs of the voyage. These sailors, who were three in number, were accompanied by M. Besson.

The persons who were to embark with His Majesty to go to America were the Duke of Rovigo [Savary], the Grand Marshal [Bertrand], and General Lallemant [sic]. I had been chosen to accompany the Emperor, as being the one who could best endure seasickness and fatigue. All was prepared; I was waiting, fully equipped, when I learned, about midnight, that in a family council and after mature deliberation it had been decided that the Emperor should surrender to the English. (17)

Why England?

Napoleon Bonaparte on board the Bellerophon in Plymouth Sound, by Sir Charles Locke Eastlake, 1815

Napoleon Bonaparte on board the Bellerophon in Plymouth Sound, by Sir Charles Locke Eastlake, 1815

On July 14, Napoleon sent Lallemand and Las Cases to the Bellerophon to find out from Maitland what might lay in store for him if he went to England. He had already drafted his letter to Britain’s Prince Regent, throwing himself under the protection of British laws (see my post on All Things Georgian). Maitland said Napoleon would receive all the attention and respect to which he could lay claim in England, but noted he was expressing only his personal opinion, having received no instructions on the subject.

Montholon writes:

On the return of Count Las Cases, the Emperor hesitated long as to the course which he ought to pursue, and I have reason to believe that he would have gone secretly on board the Bayadère … had not private interests exercised a powerful influence in restraining him from a course which would have necessarily excluded a considerable number of us from having the honour of accompanying him, and delivered us up to the enmity and malice of the royal administration, which was already in action in Rochefort.

It is true, however, that ever since the Emperor’s sojourn in Malmaison his mind was impressed with the conviction of the grand marshal [Bertrand] and Count Las Cases, that he had reason to expect a magnificent impression in England, and that the extent and greatness of the popular ovation would be increased by the testimony of esteem, which would be given by the Emperor in throwing himself upon the hospitality of England. (18)

Napoleon’s first valet, Louis-Joseph Marchand, tells us:

Much time had been wasted in Rochefort, and the delay can only be blamed on the uncertainty of the orders issued by the provisional government, the passports that were expected, the unfavorable winds, and the blockage of the exit by British vessels. …

Before reaching a final decision, the Emperor wished to have the advice of the people around him: he gathered them together, and submitted to their deliberation whether he should surrender to the British; several opinions were given. One of the witnesses told me that Count de Las Cases, the Duke of Rovigo (Savary), and Count Bertrand … thought His Majesty would be greeted in England with all the respect due adversity. The others, Generals Lallemand, Montholon, and Gourgaud, did not share that opinion: less confident of British hospitality, they advised against it and begged His Majesty not to come to such a decision. General Lallemand…said that there were in the Bordeaux River several vessels without sails that had offered their services, and stated they would escape the British cruisers: all vied for the honor of saving the Emperor and taking him to America. … [T]he Emperor could easily reach them by land; it only required tricking the surveillance around us by pretending to be ill. … This plan was disputed, the opposition won out, and the Emperor returned to his room, saying to the grand marshal who accompanied him: ‘Bertrand, it is not without danger to place oneself in the hands of one’s enemies, but it is better to risk trusting their honor than to fall into their hands as a rightful prisoner.’ (19)

Maitland writes that on July 14 he received:

information that it was the intention of Buonaparte to escape from Rochefort in a Danish sloop, concealed in a cask stowed in the ballast, with tubes so constructed as to convey air for his breathing. I afterwards inquired of General Savary if there had been any foundation for such a report; when he informed me that the plan had been thought of, and the vessel in some measure prepared, but it was considered too hazardous; for had we detained the vessel for a day or two, he would have been obliged to make his situation known, and thereby forfeited all claims to the good treatment he hoped to ensure by a voluntary surrender. (20)

On the night of July 14, Louis XVIII’s orders for Napoleon’s arrest reached Rochefort. On July 15, Napoleon boarded the Bellerophon, which took him to Plymouth Harbour. On July 31, Napoleon learned he was going to be exiled to St. Helena. He was transferred to the Northumberland, which set sail for his island prison on August 8.

Later, ruing Waterloo and its aftermath, Napoleon told Gourgaud:

I might have thrown the Deputies into the Seine, and so have dissolved the Chamber, but then I should have had to reign by terror, and foreigners might with justice have declared that it was against me, and me only, that they made war. I should have shed rivers of blood, with no result. I might perhaps, while I remained at Malmaison, have put myself at the head of the troops as Lieutenant-General of Napoleon II. The army had no confidence in anyone but me. Had I been able to act alone I could have signed a capitulation, but when I saw that the Chambers, instead of rallying to me, were conspiring against me, I knew that all was lost. Besides that, by going to the United States I might have come back again in a few months. It is true I had better have given myself up to Austria, rather than to England. But that is another question. This subject is too melancholy to talk about. (21)

For the British side of this tale, see “Catching Napoleon” on Adventures in Historyland and “An Extraordinary Rendition” by Norman Mackenzie in History Today. J. David Markham’s book The Road to St. Helena explores the immediate post-Waterloo period in more detail, as does Napoleon After Waterloo: England and the St. Helena Decision by Michael John Thornton. If you’re curious about what might have happened if Napoleon wound up in the United States, read Napoleon in America. You might also enjoy:

Could Napoleon have escaped from St. Helena?

What did Napoleon say about the Battle of Waterloo?

What if Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo?

How did Napoleon escape from Elba?

  1. Antoine Marie Chamans Lavalette, Memoirs of Count Lavalette (London, 1895), pp. 327-328.
  2. Guillaume Joseph Roux Peyrusse, 1809-1815: Mémorial et archives de M. Le Baron Peyrusse (Carcassonne, 1869), p. 317.
  3. Anne Jean Marie René Savary, Memoirs Illustrative of the History of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. IV, Part 2 (London, 1835), p. 115.
  4. Ibid., p. 117.
  5. John Gurwood, ed., The Dispatches of Field Marshal The Duke of Wellington, During his Various Campaigns in India, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, the Low Countries, and France, from 1799 to 1818, Vol. 12 (London, 1838), p. 515.
  6. Memoirs Illustrative of the History of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. IV, Part 2, p. 140.
  7. Gaspard Gourgaud, Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena, translated by Elizabeth Wormeley Latimer, 2nd edition (Chicago, 1904), p. 12.
  8. Revue des Deux Mondes, Vol. 73 (Paris, 1886), p. 761.
  9. Louis Adolphe Thiers, History of the Consulate and the Empire of France Under Napoleon, Vol. XII (Philadelphia, 1894), p. 294.
  10. Frederick Lewis Maitland, The Surrender of Napoleon (Edinburgh and London, 1904), pp. 27-28.
  11. Ibid., pp. 30-31.
  12. Ibid., p. 29.
  13. Charles de Montholon, History of the Captivity of Napoleon at St. Helena, Vol. I (New York and Philadelphia, 1846), p. 34.
  14. Ibid., p. 34.
  15. Louis-Joseph Marchand (Proctor Jones, ed.), In Napoleon’s Shadow (San Francisco, 1998), p. 282.
  16. Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena, pp. 16-17.
  17. Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, translated by Frank Hunter Potter (New York and London, 1922), pp. 153-154.
  18. History of the Captivity of Napoleon at St. Helena, pp. 34-35.
  19. In Napoleon’s Shadow, pp. 283-284.
  20. The Surrender of Napoleon, pp. 45-46.
  21. Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena, p. 184.

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It is not without danger to place oneself in the hands of one’s enemies, but it is better to risk trusting their honor than to fall into their hands as a rightful prisoner.

Napoleon Bonaparte