Alternate History by Napoleon

Napoleon at the burning of Moscow in 1812. What if the fire hadn’t happened?

Napoleon at the burning of Moscow in 1812. What if the fire hadn’t happened?

In view of all the alternate history about Napoleon, of which Napoleon in America is an example, it is worth noting that a prolific speculator about Napoleonic “what-ifs” was Bonaparte himself. Napoleon often posited counterfactuals, particularly when he was in exile on St. Helena. Here are some of Napoleon’s alternate history scenarios.

If his father had not died young

Napoleon’s father, Carlo Maria Buonaparte (Charles Bonaparte), died of stomach cancer in February 1785, when Napoleon was 15 years old.

If my father, who died before he attained the age of forty, had survived some time longer, he would have been appointed deputy from the Corsican nobility to the Constituent Assembly. He was much attached to the nobility and the aristocracy; on the other hand, he was a warm partisan of generous and liberal ideas. He would, therefore, have been entirely on the right side, or at least in the minority of the nobility. At any rate, whatever might have been my own personal opinions, I should have followed my father’s footsteps, and thus my career would have been entirely deranged and lost. (1)

If his invasion force had reached England

Between 1803 and 1805 Napoleon gathered an army of 200,000 men on the north coast of France and built a flotilla of barges with the intention of invading England. He called the invasion off when his plan to gain temporary control of the English Channel failed.

Had I succeeded in effecting a landing, I have very little doubt that I should have accomplished my views. Three thousand boats, each to carry twenty men and one horse, with a proportion of artillery were ready. Your [the British] fleet having been decoyed away…would have left me master of the Channel…. Four days would have brought me to London. In a country like England, abounding in plains, defence is very difficult. I have no doubt that your troops would have done their duty, but one battle lost, the capital would have been in my power. You could not have collected a force sufficiently strong to beat me in a pitched battle. Your ideas of burning and destroying the towns, and the capital itself, are very plausible in argument, but impracticable in their accomplishment. You would have fought a battle and lost it. …

I would have offered you a constitution of your own choice, and have said ‘Assemble in London deputies from the people to fix upon a constitution.’ I would have called upon Burdett and other popular leaders to organize one according to the wishes of the people. I would have declared the [king] fallen from the [throne], abolished the nobility, proclaimed liberty, freedom, and equality.

Think you, that in order to keep the house of [Hanover] on the [throne] your rich citizens, merchants, and others of London, would have consented to sacrifice their riches, their houses, their families, and all their dearest interests, especially when I had made them comprehend that I only came to [send the king] away, and to give them liberty? No, it is contrary to history and to human nature…. Your principal people have too much to lose by resistance, and your canaille too much to gain by a change. If…they supposed that I wanted to render England a province of France, then indeed l’esprit national would do wonders. But I would have formed a republic according to your own wishes, required a moderate contribution, barely sufficient to have paid the troops, and perhaps not even that. Your canaille would have been for me knowing…that I am the man of the people, that I spring from the populace myself, and that whenever a man had merit or talent, I elevated him without asking how many degrees of nobility he had; knowing, that by joining me, they would be relieved from the yoke of the aristocracy under which they labour. (2)

If he had known warships could transport a lot of water

Napoleon also contemplated invading India.

[Admiral Plampin] says that a seventy-four gun ship will take about eighty tons more water by means of the tanks. Had I known this in 1806 or 1808, I would have sent an army of thirty-thousand men to invade India. I had made several calculations about the possibility of sending so large a body of men to India, but always found that they would have been short of water for a month. …

In Brest, I had at one time as many as fifty-six sail of the line, and often forty-six. In forty of these line-of-battle ships, I intended to have dispersed thirty thousand soldiers, eight hundred in each, and only four hundred sailors. There were to have been a proportionate number of frigates and other smaller vessels. Ten of the line-of-battle ships would have been old and of little value. They were also to take on board six or eight hundred dismounted cavalry, and a portion of artillery, with everything necessary for an army to take the field, and be provisioned for four months. They were to make the best of their way to the Isle of France, where they would have watered and provisioned afresh, landed their sick, and taken on board some other troops to replace them, with three thousand blacks to form colonial regiments. From thence they were to have proceeded to India, and to have disembarked in the nearest possible place, so as to have allowed the Mahrattas, with whom I had an understanding to join them. They were to form the cavalry of the army. A few of the French were also to be mounted, and all the horses they could procure purchased. After landing, they were to have burnt the ten old ships, and divided their crews amongst the rest, who would have been thus full manned. They would then proceed in different directions, and do you all possible mischief in your settlements. …

All this plan, however, was frustrated by the calculations I had made, which showed me that the ships must fall short of water by a month. Had I known of those tanks, I certainly would have made the attempt. (3)

If Moscow had not been burnt

In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia. He made it as far as Moscow, only to find that the Russians had evacuated the city. Fires set by Russian saboteurs then destroyed most of Moscow. Napoleon retreated without having attained a decisive victory. The failure of the Russian campaign is considered one of the reasons for Napoleon’s downfall.

[If Moscow had not been burnt] I should then have held up the singular spectacle of an army wintering in the midst of a hostile nation. … On the first appearance of fine weather, I should have marched against the enemy: I should have beaten them; I should have been master of their empire. [Russian Tsar] Alexander, be assured, would not have suffered me to proceed so far. He would have agreed to all the conditions which I might have dictated, and France would then have begun to enjoy all her advantages. And, truly, my success depended upon a mere trifle. For I had undertaken the expedition to fight against armed men, not against nature in the violence of her wrath….

Peace, concluded at Moscow, would have fulfilled and wound up my hostile expeditions. It would have been with respect to the grand cause, the term of casualties and the commencement of security. A new horizon, new undertakings, would have unfolded themselves, adapted, in every respect, to the well-being and prosperity of all. The foundation of the European system would have been laid, and my only remaining task would have been its organization.

Satisfied on these grand points, and everywhere at peace, I should have also had my Congress and my Holy Alliance. These are plans which were filched from me. In that assembly of all the sovereigns, we should have discussed our interest in a family way, and settled our accounts with the people, as a clerk does with his master. …

On my return to France…I would have proclaimed the immutability of boundaries; all future wars as purely defensive, all new aggrandizement as anti-national. I would have associated my son with me in the empire; my dictatorship would have terminated and his constitutional reign commenced.

Paris would have been the capital of the world, and the French the envy of nations! … My leisure and my old age would have been devoted, in company with the Empress, and, during the royal apprenticeship of my son, to visiting slowly and with our own horses, like a plain country couple, every corner of the empire; to receiving complaints, redressing wrongs, founding monuments, and doing good everywhere and by every means! (4)

If things had gone differently at the Battle of Waterloo

On June 18, 1815, Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo by a coalition of British, German, Dutch-Belgian and Prussian forces led by the Duke of Wellington and Prussian Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher. I have already written about Napoleon’s general thoughts on the battle. Here are a few of his alternate history speculations.

If Marshal Blucher had not arrived at eight with his first and second corps, the [French] march on Brussels with two columns, during the battle of the 17th, would have been attended with several advantages. The left would have pressed upon and kept in check the Anglo-Dutch army; the right, under the command of Marshal Grouchy, would have pursued and restrained the operations of the Prusso-Saxon army; and in the evening the whole of the French army would have effected its junction on a line of less than five leagues from Mont Saint Jean to Wavres, with its advanced posts on the edge of the forest. …

The horse grenadiers and dragoons of the guard, under the command of General Guyot, engaged without orders. Thus at five in the afternoon, the army found itself without a reserve of cavalry. If, at half past eight, that reserve had existed, the storm which swept all before it on the field of battle would have been dispersed, the enemy’s charges of cavalry driven back, and the two armies would have slept on the field, notwithstanding the successive arrivals of General Bulow and Marshal Blucher: the advantage would also have been in favour of the French army, as Marshal Grouchy’s 34,000 men, with 108 pieces of cannon, were fresh troops and bivouacked on the field of battle. The enemy’s two armies would have placed themselves in the night under cover of the forest of Soignes. …

If Marshal Grouchy had encamped in front of Wavres in the night between the 17th and 18th, no detachment could have been sent by the Prussians to save the English army, which must have been completely beaten by the 69,000 French opposed to it. (5)

If he had made his brother governor of Corsica

When Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to France in 1815, his brother Joseph advised him to appoint their younger brother Lucien as governor of Corsica, which is where Napoleon and his family came from. Lucien would thus have been in that position when Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo.

If Lucien had gone to Corsica, he would still have remained master of the Island, and what resources would it not have presented to our persecuted patriots? To how many unfortunate families would not Corsica have afforded an asylum? [Napoleon] repeated that he had perhaps committed a fault, at the time of his abdication, in not reserving to himself the sovereignty of Corsica, together with the possession of some millions of the civil list; and in not having conveyed all his valuables to Toulon, whence nothing could have impeded his passage. In Corsica, he would have found himself at home; the whole population would have been, as it were, his own family. He might have disposed of every arm and every heart. Thirty thousand or even 50,000 allied troops could not have subdued him. (6)

You  might also enjoy:

Napoleon in Alternate History

What if Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo?

Could Napoleon have escaped from St. Helena?

Why didn’t Napoleon escape to the United States?

Alternate History Books by Women

  1. Emmanuel-Auguste-Dieudonné Las Cases, Memoirs of the Life, Exile and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. II (New York, 1855), p. 132.
  2. Barry O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, or, A Voice from St. Helena, Vol. II (London, 1822), pp. 378-380. O’Meara notes, “Napoleon frequently used the word canaille, not in a degrading sense, but as the people, distinct from the nobles.”
  3. Ibid., pp. 197-198.
  4. Las Cases, Memoirs of the Life, Exile and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. III (New York, 1855), pp. 164-166.
  5. Las Cases, Memoirs of the Life, Exile and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. II, pp. 186, 187, 192.
  6. Ibid., p. 215.

Alternate History Books by Women

Yes, women do write alternate history books.

Yes, women do write alternate history.

The BBC Radio 4 “Open Book” program recently characterized alternate history as “an exclusively male domain in terms of authorship.” While some exceptions were noted, including speculative fiction by Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood and Marge Piercy, neither the presenter nor her guest appeared familiar with more recent alternate history books by women. Fortunately, female-authored alternate history is alive and well. To clear up the BBC’s misconception, and to introduce you to some novels you may not have come across, here’s a list of alternate history books written by women.

Alternate History Books by Women

This list is intended to be a starter, rather than exhaustive. With one exception (to show that women writing alternate history is nothing new), it includes a sample of novels published in English within the last decade. It thus does not include short stories, novellas and anthologies. It also leaves out the many alternate histories by women that fall into the science fiction, steampunk, fantasy or time travel categories, as well as books intended primarily for children and youth.

The Professor in Erin by Lily (Charlotte Elizabeth) McManus (1918)
What if Hugh O’Neill won the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, ending English rule in Ireland?
(This is the oldest alternate history book by a woman listed on Uchronia.)

The Romanitas Trilogy by Sophia McDougall (2005-2011)
What if the Roman Empire never fell?

The Small Change Series by Jo Walton (2006-2008)
What if Britain made peace with Adolf Hitler in 1941?

Eleanor vs. Ike by Robin Gerber (2008)
What if Eleanor Roosevelt replaced Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 election?

Clopton’s Short History of the Confederate States of America 1861-1925 by Carole Scott (2011)
What if the Confederacy won the American Civil War?

Margot by Jillian Cantor (2013)
What if Anne Frank’s sister Margot escaped the Nazis and went to the United States?

The Boleyn Trilogy/Tudor Legacy Series by Laura Anderson (2013-2015)
What if King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn had a son?
What if Queen Elizabeth I and King Philip II of Spain had a daughter?

The Roma Nova Series by Alison Morton (2013-2016)
What if a small, female-ruled remnant of the Roman Empire survived into the modern era?

The Secret Daughter of the Tsar and The Tsarina’s Legacy by Jennifer Laam (2013, 2016)
What if a secret fifth daughter of the Romanov family continued the Russian royal lineage?

Napoleon in America by Shannon Selin (2014)
What if Napoleon escaped from St. Helena and wound up in the United States?

The Enemy Within by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (2014)
What if FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was murdered three months after John F. Kennedy’s assassination?

My Real Children by Jo Walton (2014)
What if John F. Kennedy was killed by a bomb in 1963? Or what if he chose not to run in 1964 after an escalated Cuban Missile Crisis led to the nuclear obliteration of Miami and Kiev?

A Set of Lies by Carolyn McCrae (2015)
What if the British Secret Service convinced Napoleon to work with them after his 1815 defeat, substituting a double for him on St. Helena?

I invite readers to add other alternate history books by women in the comments.

You might also enjoy:

Napoleon in alternate history

What if Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo?

Could Napoleon have escaped from St. Helena?

Alternate History by Napoleon

What if Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo?

Napoleon winning the Battle of Waterloo is one of the ten most popular scenarios in English-language alternate history, and the most popular one in French. (1) The Waterloo “what if?” pops up repeatedly in alternate history forums and has been the subject of numerous books, stories and articles. Broadly speaking, exploring what might have happened if Napoleon had won at Waterloo involves pursuing one or more of the following questions.

How might Napoleon win the Battle of Waterloo?

The Battle of Waterloo by Clément-Auguste Andrieux

The Battle of Waterloo by Clément-Auguste Andrieux

Napoleon himself spent time reflecting on how Waterloo might have gone differently, as discussed in my post about his comments on the battle. When the question is considered by others, answers range from specific changes in the campaign…

  • Marshal Grouchy and his men arrive on the battlefield. – Robert Aron, Victoire à Waterloo [Victory at Waterloo] (1937); Steven Marthinsen, Napoleon’s Waterloo Campaign: An Alternate History (2 volumes, 2003)
  • Napoleon captures Hougoumont farm. – Joseph Edgar Chamberlin, “If James Macdonnel Had Not Closed the Gate of Hugomont Castle” in The Ifs of History (1907)
  • The British abandon Quatre Bras. – Peter Hofschröer, “What if Constant Rebecque Had Obeyed Wellington’s Order of 7 pm, 15 June 1815, and Abandoned Quatre Bras?” in The Napoleon Options: Alternate Decisions of the Napoleonic Wars edited by Jonathan North (2000)
  • Napoleon defeats Wellington and continues the fight against the Prussians on June 19th. – Andrew Uffindell, “Napoleon and Waterloo” in The Napoleon Options
  • Napoleon is defeated at Waterloo but finds fresh troops at Quatre Bras, with which he organizes an ambush of the pursuing Prussians. – John R. Elting, “Ambush at Quatre Bras” in The Napoleon Options
  • Napoleon, taking into account a message from Grouchy that the Prussians are marching to join the British, changes his plan of attack. – Antoine Reverchon, Et si Napoléon avait gagné à Waterloo? (2015)

To more fanciful factors…

  • Napoleon does not have an attack of hemorrhoids on the day of the battle. – Luc Mary and Philippe Valode, Et si…Napoléon avait triomphé à Waterloo? [And if…Napoleon had triumphed at Waterloo?] (2011)
  • Various small things happen differently, beginning in the 14th century, leading to Napoleon’s victory. – Roland C. Wagner, Chroniques du désespoir [Chronicles of Despair] (1991)
  • Lavoisier’s invention of dynamite in 1794 leads to Napoleon’s victory at Waterloo. – Jean-Claude Dunyach, “La dynamique de la revolution” [“Revolutionary Dynamics”] in Déchiffrer la trame (2001)
  • Napoleon has a dirigible to supply aerial intelligence at Waterloo. – Tony Keen, “Napoleon’s Airship” in Visions, Vol. 4, No. 3 (1990) (2)

If Napoleon wins, do the allies make peace or does the fighting continue?

Many historians argue that a French victory at Waterloo would not have made much difference to the ultimate outcome, as Napoleon would have gone on to be defeated within a matter of weeks or months. See for example, All About History’s interview with Alan Forrest and Mark Adkin.

In an intriguing version of “it wouldn’t have mattered much,” Nick Tingley notes that Napoleon’s nephew wound up on the French throne anyhow. See “What if Napoleon Bonaparte had won the Battle of Waterloo” on the History is Now magazine blog.

What are the implications for Europe?

Historian G.M. Trevelyan argued that even if a victorious Napoleon became a man of peace, his former enemies would maintain their standing armies, stifling reformist movements on the continent for decades. See “If Napoleon Had Won the Battle of Waterloo” in Clio: A Muse (1913).

Alternatively, Andrew Roberts suggests in “Why We’d Be Better Off if Napoleon Never Lost at Waterloo” (Smithsonian Magazine, June 2015) that liberalism would have flourished.

Does the French empire expand?

French expansion to England and/or other continents is often mooted. Historian Helmut Stubbe da Luz speculates that Napoleon would have invaded Russia again and potentially extended his empire as far as China (see “If Napoleon won Waterloo, French-speaking Europe, no world wars?”). Alternate history writers have also imagined some far-reaching consequences.

  • 150 years later, England is part of the French empire. – George Collyn, “Unification Day” in The Traps of Time, edited by Michael Moorcock (Penguin, 1979)
  • After a Great War in the early 20th century, England falls to the European federation, leaving – by the 1930s – only the New Hanseatic League (chiefly Scotland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Estonia) as hold-outs. – Jenny Davidson, The Explosionist (HarperTeen, 2008) and Invisible Things (HarperCollins, 2010)
  • Assassination attempts are constant in 1958 New Orleans, capital of New France and home of the Emperor-in-exile of Eurasia. – Felix C. Gotschalk, “The Napoleonic Wars,” in Beyond Time, edited by Sandra Ley (Pocket Books, 1976)
  • Hitler leads an Amerind-Negro army against Europe. – Paul Van Herck, “Opération Bonaparte” originally in Dutch, translated into French by Michel Védéwé as Caroline, oh! Caroline (Champs-Élysées 1976) 

Read more

For further discussion of “what if Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo,” see Alternate History Weekly Update, the Alternate History Discussion Board, the AltHistory Wiki, the Total War CenterThis Day in Alternate History and this post by Michelle R. Woods.

If you enjoy alternate history, see my posts about Napoleon in alternate history and Alternate History by Napoleon, and check out Napoleon in America.

You might also enjoy:

Could Napoleon have escaped from St. Helena?

10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon Bonaparte

Alternate History Books by Women

How were Napoleonic battlefields cleaned up?

  1. Evelyn C. Leeper, “Alternate History 101,” http://leepers.us/evelyn/ah101.htm accessed May 29, 2015.
  2. Thanks to Uchronia for the descriptions of the short stories referred to in this post.

Napoleon in Alternate History

The retreat of Napoleon from Russia by Victor Adam. What if Napoleon had defeated the Russians in 1812?

The retreat of Napoleon from Russia by Victor Adam. What if Napoleon had defeated the Russians in 1812?

What if Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo? What if he defeated Russia in 1812? What if he escaped from exile on St. Helena? Napoleon in America is part of a long tradition of alternate history books about Napoleon Bonaparte. In fact, the first novel-length alternate history was about Napoleon. The Napoleonic era offers many opportunities for divergence from the historical timeline, and authors have let their imaginations roam. Here are some of the results.

Alternate history books about Napoleon

(I am looking at books that focus on Napoleon, rather than books about other characters that are set in an altered Napoleonic scenario. The descriptions are brief, to avoid spoilers.)

Histoire de la Monarchie universelle: Napoléon et la conquête du monde (1812–1832) [History of the Universal Monarchy: Napoleon and the Conquest of the World (1812-1836)] by Louis-Napoléon Geoffroy-Château (1836, revised in 1841 as Napoléon Apocryphe) – What if Napoleon pursued and defeated the Russian army in 1812?

Histoire de ce qui n’est pas arrivé [History of What Never Happened] by Joseph Méry (1854), a novella published in Les Nuits d’Orient: contes nocturnes. Translated by Brian Stapleford as The Tower of Destiny (2012) – What if Napoleon captured the citadel at Acre and pressed on with his quest to vanquish Britain by capturing India?

It May Happen Yet: A Tale of Bonaparte’s Invasion of England by Lawrence Edmund (1899) – What if Napoleon invaded England in 1805?

Victoire à Waterloo [Victory at Waterloo] by Robert Aron (1937) – What if Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo?

The Eagle Flies from England by Edward Atiyah (1960) – What if Charles and Letizia Bonaparte fled to Britain in 1769 and Napoleon was born a British subject?

La Mort de Napoléon [The Death of Napoleon] by Simon Leys (1986) – What if Napoleon escaped from St. Helena and returned to France? (reissued in 2015  by New York Review Books)

Chroniques du désespoir [Chronicles of Despair] by Roland C. Wagner (1991) – What if various small things happened differently, beginning in the 14th century, until, finally, Napoleon won at Waterloo?

The Napoleon Options: Alternate Decisions of the Napoleonic Wars edited by Jonathan North (2000) – Not a novel, but an anthology of essays looking at a range of Napoleonic “what ifs.”

Napoleon’s Waterloo Campaign: An Alternate History (2 volumes) by Steven Marthinsen (2003) – What if Marshal Grouchy responded to the urging of his subordinate commanders and marched to the sound of the guns at Waterloo?

Napoleon’s Wolf by Scott Langley (2008) – What if, in 1820, Lord Thomas Cochrane launched a plan to rescue the exiled emperor and place him on a South American throne? (There is also a sequel: The River Wolf.)

La Victoire de la Grande Armée [The Victory of the Grand Army] by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (2010) – What if Napoleon retreated from Moscow before winter and drew the Russian army into battle?

Napoléon: L’Exil en Amérique [Napoleon: Exile in America] by Ginette Major (2 volumes, 2010, 2011) – What if Napoleon took refuge in the United States after his 1815 abdication?

Napoléon – Résurrection by Martial and Nicolas Mutte (2013) – What if the facts of Napoleon’s death are not as they appear, and his remains are not buried in the Invalides?

Napoleon in America by Shannon Selin (2014) – What if Napoleon escaped from St. Helena and wound up in the United States in 1821?

A Set of Lies by Carolyn McCrae (2015) – What if the British Secret Service convinced Napoleon to work with them after his 1815 defeat, substituting a double for him on St. Helena?

More Napoleon alternate history

If you search for Napoleon on Uchronia, you’ll find a list of Napoleon-related alternate history essays and short stories, as well as novels.

Napoleon is a popular topic in online alternate/alternative history discussions. For example, see the Alternate History Discussion Board and check out the timelines on the Alternate History Wiki. A number of Napoleon alternate history scenarios have appeared on YouTube. See also my posts: “What if Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo?” and Alternate History by Napoleon (regarding his own alternate history speculations).

If you like alternate history in movies, the 2001 film “The Emperor’s New Clothes” was based on Simon Leys’ novel (above). The 2003 film “Monsieur N” suggests that Napoleon escaped from St. Helena to the United States.

You might also want to read “Liberty, Tyranny, Empire and Republic: Napoleonic Alternate History” by Tyler Bugg on Alternate History Weekly Update.

And you might enjoy:

What did Napoleon like to read?

10 Things Napoleon Never Said

10 Napoleon Bonaparte Quotes in Context

What did Napoleon look like?

10 Interesting Facts About Napoleon Bonaparte

What were Napoleon’s last words?

What did Napoleon like to eat and drink?

Napoleon in Historical Fiction

Alternate History Books by Women