Narcisse & Antonia Rigaud: Survivors of the Champ d’Asile

Narcisse-Périclès Rigaud (Rigau or Rigaux) and his sister Antonia were the children of General Antoine Rigaud, one of Napoleon’s officers. They joined their father in the 1818 Bonapartist attempt to form an armed colony in Texas called the Champ d’Asile (Field of Asylum). Narcisse’s distaste for Charles Lallemand in Napoleon in America stems from his experience at the colony.

General Antoine Rigaud

Antoine Rigaud was born to a family of modest social position at Agen, France on May 14, 1758. In 1779, he joined the French army as an infantry private. Promoted to captain in 1792, he fought in many battles of the French Revolutionary Wars. He subsequently participated in Napoleon’s campaigns in Italy and Austria.

Rigaud acquired a reputation for bravery in combat, attested to by numerous wounds, including a shot through his jaw that left him almost unable to speak. For his service at Austerlitz he was decorated with the cross of the Legion of Honour. In 1807, he was made a general of brigade, and, in 1808, a baron of the Empire.

On February 16, 1788 Antoine Rigaud married Anne-Joseph Loyens, with whom he had three sons:

  • Dieudonné – born March 18, 1789, died circa 1850;
  • Joseph – born 1792, died 1807 in the service of Napoleon’s household as a page; and
  • Narcisse-Périclès – born at Lille on May 20, 1794.

The couple also had two daughters:

  • Sophie and
  • Antonia.

Anne-Joseph died in 1804. The following year Rigaud senior married Marguerite Probst (1781-1865), with whom he had a daughter, Marguerite Antoinette Eugénie, born on March 21, 1806. She later became the wife of 19th century French politician and industrialist Charles Kestner.

Dieudonné and Narcisse followed in their father’s footsteps and became soldiers. Narcisse graduated from the Saint-Cyr military academy in 1812. As his father’s aide-de-camp, he fought at the Battle of Dresden in August 1813, during which he was wounded. In 1814, Narcisse became a captain.

General Antoine Rigaud was well treated by the Bourbons after Napoleon’s 1814 abdication. Louis XVIII named him head of the Department of the Marne. Nonetheless, Rigaud rallied to Napoleon when the Emperor escaped from Elba in 1815. Rigaud sheltered General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes after the failure of the latter’s plot to take the La Fère arsenal with Charles Lallemand. Rigaud also liberally distributed drinks to two passing royal regiments, thus inducing them to desert to Napoleon. He took the money for the drinks – 10,000 francs – from the local civil administration, a charge that was later used against him. (1) Once in Paris, Napoleon confirmed Rigaud’s appointment as commander of the Marne.

In July 1815, after Napoleon’s final abdication, General Rigaud was captured by the Russians at Châlons-sur-Marne. His captors took him to Frankfurt, where he was later freed. Unable to return to France – he was proscribed by the Bourbons in the ordinance of July 24, 1815 – Rigaud went to Sarrebruck. Dieudonné (a cavalry colonel) and Narcisse joined him. The Rigauds began to circulate seditious pamphlets among the French troops stationed across the Rhine River, encouraging them to desert. On May 16, 1816, General Rigaud was sentenced to death in absentia. When the French government began extradition proceedings against him, he fled to the United States with Narcisse and Antonia.

The Champ d’Asile

An idealized depiction of the Champ d’Asile

An idealized depiction of the Champ d’Asile

Arriving in New York in November 1817, the Rigauds joined the Lallemand brothers’ planned expedition to found an armed colony in Texas (then under Spanish control) called the Champ d’Asile. General Antoine Rigaud helped Charles Lallemand recruit colonists from among the expatriate French soldiers along the east coast.

On December 17, 1817, the Rigauds left Philadelphia on a hired ship, the Huntress. They were ostensibly bound for Mobile, but actually headed for Galveston. General Rigaud was in charge of the 80-90 men on board. Once the colonists were in Galveston, pirate Jean Laffite was compelled to put up with them as they outnumbered and outgunned his followers. As the group waited for Charles Lallemand and his men to join them, Rigaud had difficulty maintaining discipline, a harbinger of later troubles.

Once Lallemand reached Galveston in March 1818, the group headed up the Trinity River to the present location of Moss Bluff, south of Liberty. Some of the men went by boat with Lallemand; this group also carried the provisions. The bulk of the force, under Rigaud’s command, took an overland route. Lallemand’s party got lost in the wetlands and took six days to arrive. Rigaud’s men, who had only three days’ rations, went hungry. Food shortages continued over the next two months, until Lallemand worked out a reliable system for bringing food up from Galveston.

Apart from low rations, the colonists had to contend with sickness, raids by Native Americans, and fighting amongst themselves. They also contended with Charles Lallemand’s harsh discipline as they attempted to build a military fort. General Rigaud was second in command. It was said of him:

General Rigaud, although of advanced age, gave way in nothing to the young men. He was to be seen with pick and spade in hand, never losing a moment and regularizing the work of each one. (2)

Antonia was notable for being one of only four women at the Champ d’Asile, among some 150 men (there were also four children).

Even the women displayed a courage and spirit which astonished us and evoked our admiration…. [W]e are forced to admit that the so-called weaker sex possessed a strength which at times abandoned us. (3)

Mademoiselle Rigaud was notable for her tender attachment to her father; she was a model of piety and filial love. One could not set eyes on her without finding himself better, without feeling the desire to be like her, without resolving to imitate her. (4)

The colony’s propaganda could not disguise that life was hard. A number of men died. Others deserted. Lallemand and Rigaud disagreed. When Lallemand got word that Spanish troops were en route from San Antonio to eject them, he ordered the colony disbanded. The survivors arrived at Galveston in July 1818. An anonymous colonist later wrote:

We remained [at the Champ d’Asile] for five months, after which General Lallemand, no doubt seeing his project falling through, or else having lost his taste for the enterprise, had us evacuate the post and return to Galveston. During the two months that the General still remained with us on the island, we did not know which way to turn nor which side to take; for the leaders would not tell us a word of their projects, and I firmly believe that they had nothing else in mind but to abandon us there and to go off, each his own way, after withdrawing the subscription money from France, which actually arrived. Lallemand left for New Orleans, promising us on his word of honor that he would return within forty days with provisions and with troops. The food he left us for that period was just enough to furnish the meager ration of one pound of bread a day and nothing else. He turned the command over to General Rigaud, and from then on disorder and misunderstanding commenced again worse than before. (5)

On Galveston there was a tense stand-off between partisans of Lallemand and those of Rigaud. This was exacerbated when the island was hit by a hurricane in September. The majority of the colonists fell into a neutral third faction that rejected the authority of either general and wanted only to return to the United States. Unfortunately there were not enough ships to take them to New Orleans, or enough provisions for such a trip. The majority decided to try their luck overland. The remainder – including the sick, the women and the children – set sail on an old Spanish sloop provided by Laffite. Once in New Orleans:

how many tears our story caused to flow, we who looked as if we had returned from another world. The women above all, aroused pity, their pale features, melancholy aspect and weakened voices evoking a respect which cannot be described. (6)

As described in my post about Lallemand, squabbling between the Lallemand and Rigaud factions heated up again over the distribution of funds for the colonists from the French newspaper La Minerve. Writing some years later, General Vaudoncourt (who was not at the colony) summarized the Champ d’Asile experience as follows:

Frederic II said…that four Frenchmen couldn’t meet outside their country without fighting and tearing each other apart. This sentence…applied in all its meaning at the Champ d’Asile. General Lallemand, who wanted to dominate everything and didn’t know how to suffer either superiors or equals, began to browbeat and bully General Rigaud. The discord between these leaders spread everywhere; each one wanted to command and none to obey. Improvidence and incompetence presided over the choice and establishment of the colony, and complete scarcity was soon felt. General Lallemand then left the colony to go and find help, which never arrived. During his absence penury and disorder only increased. The unfortunate Rigaud…could remedy nothing…. [He] died of sorrow to see himself the target of the most ignoble and atrocious calumnies…. They even tried to ruin the reputation of his daughter by branding her with an indelible stigma. (7)

Once in Louisiana, the Rigauds settled in St. Martinville. Narcisse set up a business which grew prosperous enough to have two employees. Antonia became a teacher in a private home. General Antoine Rigaud died on September 4, 1820 of yellow fever. According to Dieudonné, Narcisse also died “in exile,” sometime before 1846. (8) Antonia – referred to by Dieudonné as his father’s Antigone – married a man named N. Dubois. She died in Paris on September 1, 1871.

For more about the Champ d’Asile, see the article by Kent Gardien and Betje Black Klier in the Handbook of Texas Online.

You might also enjoy:

General Charles Lallemand: Invader of Texas

The Texas Hurricane of 1818

What happened to the Bonapartists in America? The Story of Louis Lauret

General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes: Unhappy in Alabama

Jean Laffite: Mexican Gulf Pirate and Privateer

What did Americans think of the Napoleonic exiles?

5 People Driven to America by the Napoleonic Wars

  1. Rafe Blaufarb, Bonapartists in the Borderlands: French Exiles and Refugees on the Gulf Coast, 1815-1835 (Tuscaloosa, 2005), p. 88.
  2. Hartmann and Millard, Le Texas, ou Notice historique sur le Champ-d’Asile (Paris, 1819), p. 40.
  3. Ibid., p. 78.
  4. Ibid., p. 65.
  5. Jack Autrey Dabbs, “Additional Notes on the Champ-d’Asile,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Jan. 1951), p. 355.
  6. Hartmann and Millard, Le Texas, ou Notice historique sur le Champ-d’Asile, pp. 106-107.
  7. Guillaume de Vaudoncourt, Quinze années d’un proscrit, Vol. 2 (Paris, 1835), pp. 287-288.
  8. Dieudonné Rigau, Souvenirs des Guerres de l’Empire (Paris, 1846), p. 308.

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Mademoiselle Rigaud was notable for her tender attachment to her father; she was a model of piety and filial love. One could not set eyes on her without finding himself better, without feeling the desire to be like her, without resolving to imitate her.

Le Texas, ou Notice historique sur le Champ-d’Asile