5 People Driven to America by the Napoleonic Wars
Like the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars – which raged across Europe from 1803 to 1815 – caused a number of French people to flee to America. Some regarded themselves as Frenchmen living in exile and returned to France at the first opportunity. Others stayed and became part of American society. Here are five prominent French refugees who wound up in the United States during the Napoleonic Wars.
John James Audubon
Before he became a famous ornithologist, naturalist and painter, John James Audubon (1785-1851) was Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon, born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) and raised in France. Initially Audubon’s father – a naval officer – wanted his son to follow in his footsteps, much against the boy’s inclinations. Audubon suffered from seasickness and was not keen on navigation. After a year of studies in Rochefort, he returned to his father’s villa on the Loire below Nantes.
Audubon’s father eventually changed his mind about his son’s career. In 1803, fearing Audubon would be conscripted into the forces Napoleon was mustering for a planned invasion of England, his father arranged for him to sail to the United States to superintend a property there. Audubon was 18 years old.
[M]y affections were with those I had left behind, and the world seemed to me a great wilderness. At length I reached the country in which my eyes first opened to the light; I gazed with rapture upon its noble forests, and no sooner had I landed, than I set myself to mark every object that presented itself, and became imbued with an anxious desire to discover the purpose and import of that nature which lay spread around me in luxuriant profusion. (1)
In 1805 Audubon returned to France to make his father aware of problems with a business associate, and to request his father’s permission to marry an American, Lucy Bakewell.
France was at that time in a great state of convulsion; the republic had, as it were dwindled into a half-monarchical, half-democratic era. Bonaparte was at the height of success, overflowing the country as the mountain torrent overflows the plains in its course. Levies, or conscriptions, were the order of the day, and…my father felt uneasy lest I should be forced to take part in the political strife of the days.
I underwent a mockery of an examination, and was received as a midshipman in the navy, went to Rochefort, was placed on board a man-of-war and ran a short cruise. (2)
Audubon’s father obtained a leave of absence for this son and arranged a false passport for him, which stated that Audubon was born in New Orleans. In 1806, Audubon again found himself on a ship bound for New York, along with other Frenchmen travelling under assumed names to avoid conscription. The ship was overtaken and robbed by an English privateer. Audubon kept his gold safe by hiding it in a woolen stocking under some cable in the bow of the ship.
Audubon became an American citizen in 1812. After years of field observations, he wrote, illustrated and published a magnificent book, The Birds of America, which includes 435 hand-coloured, life-size prints of 497 North American bird species. This was followed by a sequel, Ornithological Biographies. Audubon discovered 25 new species and 12 new subspecies, and made a significant contribution to the understanding of bird anatomy and bird behaviour. John James Audubon died in New York City in 1851.
Jean-Victor-Marie Moreau (1763-1813) was a skillful general of the French Revolutionary Wars who helped Napoleon come to power in the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire (November 9, 1799). As a reward, Napoleon gave Moreau command of the Army of the Rhine. Moreau resented taking orders from the younger Corsican general and initially refused to follow instructions. Napoleon began to regard Moreau as a rival, a feeling that was exacerbated by Moreau’s stunning victory over the Austrians and Bavarians at the Battle of Hohenlinden on December 3, 1800. Napoleon feared that Moreau, a republican, was plotting against him.
In 1801 Moreau quit his command and returned to Paris, where his wife, Eugénie Hulot, hosted a social circle of people dissatisfied with Napoleon’s rule. General Moreau’s disdain for Napoleon was well-known. At a dinner for officers who had served under him, Moreau joked that the maître d’hôtel should be presented with a “saucepan of honour,” a dig at the Legion of Honour Napoleon had recently instituted to secure political and military loyalty. (3)
Moreau renewed his friendship with Jean Pichegru, an exiled French general who was involved in a plot to overthrow Napoleon (see “Assassination Attempts on Napoleon Bonaparte”). Moreau was arrested in February 1804. Although a trial found him not guilty of being a conspirator, Moreau was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for failing to report the plot to the authorities. At Moreau’s request, and in light of the general’s popularity with the army and the public, Napoleon changed the sentence to banishment from France.
Moreau arrived in New York City in August 1805. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, visited him.
Such is his modesty that I was obliged frequently to revive in my mind the idea that I was in company with the first hero and general of the age. I asked him if Bonaparte’s military talents were as great as fame had reported them to be. He said yes – he had consummate military abilities – [but] that he was however not without [many] faults, but such was the activity of his genius, that he always corrected them before his enemies had time to take the advantage of them…. I was much struck in hearing him speak in such respectful & dispassionate terms of a man who had attempted to take his life, who had afterwards robbed him of a large part of his fortune, and finally made him an exile from a country over which his victories more than Bonaparte’s had made him an Emperor & a King. (4)
Moreau settled in Morrisville, Pennsylvania with his wife and young daughter. He bought an estate near the Delaware River, where he fished, hunted and entertained visitors. Moreau discussed military strategy with American officers, while his wife shocked the locals by dancing and playing cards on Sunday.
General Moreau returned to Europe in 1813 at the request of Russian Tsar Alexander I, to help defeat Napoleon. While speaking with the Tsar during the Battle of Dresden on August 27, 1813, Moreau was struck by a cannonball that shattered his right leg, passed through his horse, and destroyed the calf of his left leg. The general reportedly told those around him, “Be calm, gentlemen; this is my fate.” (5) Both legs had to be amputated below the knee. Moreau died of his wounds on September 2, 1813.
Jean-Guillaume Hyde de Neuville
Jean-Guillaume Hyde de Neuville (1776-1857) was in England plotting a French royalist uprising when he learned of Napoleon’s 1799 coup d’état. He returned to France to try to persuade Napoleon to restore the Bourbon monarchy.
I was deeply moved at the thought of finding myself face to face with the man who held in his hand the destiny of the cause to which I had devoted my life…. The door opened. Instinctively, I looked at the man who came in, short, thin, his hair plastered on his temples, his step hesitating; he was not in the least what I had pictured to myself. I was so much wanting in perception, that I took him for a servant…. He leaned his back against the chimney-piece, raised his head, and looked at me with such an expressive, such a penetrating glance, that I lost all my assurance under the fire of that questioning eye. (6)
When Napoleon and his police minister became convinced that Hyde de Neuville had played a role in the “infernal machine” attempt on Napoleon’s life on December 24, 1800, Jean-Guillaume and his wife Anne-Marguerite went into hiding. After their estate was seized, Anne-Marguerite met with Napoleon to ask for clemency. Napoleon agreed to restore the confiscated property, but only if the Hyde de Neuvilles went into exile in the United States.
They arrived in New York City in 1807. Hyde de Neuville founded a school for the children of French refugees from Saint-Domingue. He organized balls and concerts, and edited a monthly literary magazine to support the school’s operation. Anne-Marguerite painted watercolours, a number of which she published in a book called American Sketches. In 1811 they bought a small estate near New Brunswick, New Jersey, where they raised merino sheep. General Moreau tried to entice Hyde de Neuville to join him in serving with the allies against France, but the latter refused.
After Napoleon’s 1814 abdication, the Hyde de Neuvilles returned to France. When Napoleon escaped from Elba in 1815, Hyde de Neuville accompanied Louis XVIII into exile. Although a firm royalist, he felt sympathy for Napoleon when the latter was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo and exiled to St. Helena.
As soon as I saw him in misfortune, an outlaw as I had been myself, I pitied him, and forgot the persecution I had undergone. I was sorry that Napoleon, when in Elba, had not abandoned his terrible design, and accepted the offer I had been empowered to make to him of exile in America. On that virgin soil of liberty, the name of the great Conqueror would have commanded the respect of Europe; it would have been a background worthy of him, and the renunciation of his ambition would have been an heroic end. (7)
The Hyde de Neuvilles returned to America in 1816, when Jean-Guillaume was appointed French ambassador to the United States. He kept a close watch on Napoleonic exiles in the United States, including Joseph Bonaparte, Charles Lallemand and Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes. Despite the surveillance, Hyde de Neuville was generous to his political opponents, knowing what it was like to be a political refugee.
I felt deep pity for these Frenchmen, exiled to this land as I had been. Were they not suffering for the crimes and errors caused by the ambition of one man; expiating, far from their families and country, faults, committed it may be, from blindness and fidelity? (8)
Jean-Guillaume Hyde de Neuville was recalled to France in 1820. He returned to Washington in 1821-22 to negotiate a commercial convention with the United States. He later served in the French Chamber of Deputies, and as France’s naval minister.
Jean Frédéric de La Farge
In 1802, Jean Frédéric de La Farge (1786-1858) sailed as a 15-year-old midshipman on an expedition sent by Napoleon to put down a slave revolt in Saint-Domingue. Tempted by promotion to the rank of lieutenant, La Farge joined the land forces upon arrival and was eventually taken captive by the insurgents. After the withdrawal of the French in December 1803, La Farge remained in newly-independent Haiti. When he heard rumours of an impending massacre of all remaining whites, he escaped, arriving in Philadelphia in 1807.
Having no desire to again be pressed into French military service, La Farge decided to try his hand at commerce. He moved to New Orleans and used his French connections to build his wealth in international shipping and the mercantile business. He partnered with Joseph Russell in the importing and exporting firm of Russell and Lafarge, which was the business employed by President James Monroe in 1817 to acquire French furniture and other goods to decorate the White House in Empire style.
La Farge also speculated in real estate. He purchased large tracts in upstate New York, an area favoured by French exiles like Joseph Bonaparte and Pierre-François Réal. After 1820, he moved to Watertown, NY to manage his holdings. La Farge became a prominent developer in Jefferson County, where he made enemies by evicting squatters and fighting over property rights. He gave his name to La Fargeville, where he built an ostentatious mansion.
‘The dwelling…was occupied by its owner in princely style, entertaining royally whenever he could get anyone to entertain,’ a local newspaper taunted, ‘although it is hinted that the manner in which he made his wealth was somewhat questionable.’ (9)
In 1823 La Farge married Louisa Josephine Binsse de Saint-Victor, the daughter of a wealthy family that had fled France during the Revolution. Within a few years, John Frederick La Farge (he Anglicized his name) liquidated his holdings in upstate New York and settled in Manhattan. He invested in commercial properties, acquiring a fortune that caused him to be referred to in the same category as the Astors and the Vanderbilts. He and Louisa had nine children, including the painter, stained glass artist, and writer John La Farge (1835-1910). John Frederick de La Farge died at his summer home at Glen Cove, Long Island, in 1858.
Jean Joseph Amable Humbert
Another participant in the unsuccessful French expedition to Saint-Domingue was Jean Joseph Amable Humbert (1767-1823), a French Revolutionary general who had earlier led a failed invasion of Ireland. The commander of the Saint-Domingue expedition, General Victoire Leclerc, accused Humbert of indiscipline and other infractions and soon sent him back to France. Humbert’s rumoured affair with Leclerc’s wife, Napoleon’s sister Pauline Bonaparte, did not help.
In 1803, Humbert was stripped of his rank and dismissed from the army “for embezzling army rations and selling them for profit, and for having illicit relations with the leaders of the brigands.” (10) Humbert retired to Brittany, where he became a farmer and a horse dealer. After being briefly recalled to service, he was discharged from the army in 1810.
Given his dim prospects at home, in 1812 Humbert requested a passport to the United States, which Napoleon issued on the condition that he never return to France. Humbert went to Philadelphia, where he became involved in a plot to assist Mexican revolutionaries, who were seeking independence from Spanish rule. By September 1813 Humbert was in New Orleans, recruiting for an “army” to invade Texas (then part of Mexico). A number of his colleagues – veterans of earlier Texas filibustering expeditions – created a “Provisional Government of the Free Men of the Interior Provinces of Mexico.” Humbert was given a general’s commission and command of the so-called Republican Army of the North. In June 1814 Humbert sailed to Mexico to meet with rebel leaders. Upon his return to New Orleans, General Andrew Jackson recruited him to help defend against an impending assault on the city by British forces.
During the Battle of New Orleans (January 8, 1815), when the British overran the American line on the west bank of the Mississippi River, Jackson sent Humbert with reinforcements to attempt to retake the position. The British withdrew of their own accord, which was just as well, as the American officers on the west bank were unwilling to relinquish command to a French officer.
After Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815, Humbert stayed in the United States. He again took up the idea of an expedition to Texas, but infighting among the filibusters, as well as full Spanish knowledge of the scheme, derailed his attempts. When he was offered the position of military commander of the Laffite brothers’ base on Galveston Island, Humbert eagerly accepted. He did not join General Charles Lallemand and other Napoleonic exiles in their quest to establish a military colony in Texas, but he did help them get back to New Orleans when the colony failed. For this service, Humbert received a share of the money collected for the colonists by the French newspaper La Minerve. He also received a military pension from the French government.
The collection of this stipend, doled out to him every quarter by the French Consul…afforded him the occasion for a great official ceremony. Attired in his old costume of a General of the Republic, the same, perhaps, which he had worn on the heights of Landau or at Castlebar, with his faithful sabre resting across his arm, he would repair, erect and proud, to the consular office on Royal street to receive the pittance allowed by Bonaparte, as the price of his blood on the fields of Europe. Thence, he would gravely walk down the pavement towards his friend…and, after partaking of a glass or two of his unique ‘petit gouave,’ he would return to his humble lodgings and doff his military trappings. (11)
Jean Joseph Amable Humbert died in New Orleans in 1823. A death notice observed:
For the last five years his mind had been disordered and a deep melancholy preyed upon his spirits, the consequence of a poverty which left not sufficient to pay the expenses of his funeral. (12)
Both Jean-Guillaume Hyde de Neuville and General Humbert appear as characters in Napoleon in America.
You might also enjoy:
- John James Audubon, Ornithological Biography, or an Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America, Vol. II (Edinburgh, 1834), p. v.
- John James Audubon, Maria Rebecca Audubon, Audubon’s Story of His Youth, Scribner’s Magazine, Vol. XIII, No. 3 (March 1893), pp. 281-282.
- John Philippart, Mémoirs, &c. &c. of General Moreau (London, 1814), p. 189.
- “To John Adams from Benjamin Rush, 21 September 1805,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-5102
- Philippart, Mémoirs, &c. &c. of General Moreau, pp. 218-219.
- Frances Jackson, ed. and trans., Memoirs of Baron Hyde de Neuville, Vol. I (Edinburgh and Glasgow, 1913), p. 126.
- Frances Jackson, ed. and trans., Memoirs of Baron Hyde de Neuville, Vol. II (Edinburgh and Glasgow, 1913), p. 57.
- Ibid., p. 81.
- James L. Yarnall, John La Farge, A Biographical and Critical Study (New York, 2016), p. 11.
- Frédéric Masson, Napoléon et sa Famille, Vol. II (Paris, 1901), p. 230.
- Henry C. Castellanos, New Orleans as it Was: Episodes of Louisiana Life (New Orleans, 1905), p. 43.
- B. Collyer, T. Raffles, J.B. Brown, eds., The Investigator or Quarterly Magazine, Vol. VII (London, 1823), p. 222.
Levies, or conscriptions, were the order of the day, and…my father felt uneasy lest I should be forced to take part in the political strife of the days.
John James Audubon