Gaëtan-Octavien d’Alvimart: Soldier, Adventurer, Artist
When writing Napoleon in America, I considered making French officer Gaëtan-Octavien d’Alvimart one of the characters. Like Generals Lallemand and Humbert, d’Alvimart was a spirited adventurer who tried to make his way into Mexico when it was still a possession of Spain. D’Alvimart claimed to be acting on the direct orders of Napoleon, whom he had known since his youth. But was he really Napoleon’s emissary? Here is the curious tale of a self-styled general, who was also an artist and a poet.
Gaëtan-Octavien Souchet d’Alvimart – also known as Octavien (or Octavian) Dalvimart, and Octaviano d’Alvimart (or d’Alvimar) – was born at Versailles on May 13, 1770. His father, Octavien, was an officer in the dragoons, who later became governor of King Louis XVI’s pages. D’Alvimart’s mother was Joséphine Geneviève Dupont. Her father, Gaëtan Lambert Dupont, was a lawyer and counsellor to the crown, and treasurer of the royal military school in Paris.
In September 1784, Gaëtan-Octavien d’Alvimart was admitted as a gentleman cadet to the military school where his grandfather had formerly worked. One month later, Napoleon Bonaparte became a fellow pupil. They were probably not close friends, but they certainly knew one another.
In 1785, d’Alvimart became a lieutenant, and in 1788 he was appointed to the Queen’s Dragoons. His time with the regiment was short-lived, as he had to flee to England after killing an officer in a duel. Meanwhile, the French Revolution was underway and, as royalists, d’Alvimart’s family did not fare well. In July 1794, d’Alvimart’s father was guillotined for having called the uniform of the National Guard a “monkey suit.” (1)
Turkey and Egypt
In 1795, d’Alvimart joined the Turkish army. He took part in a campaign against the Russians. He was then sent to Anapa, to supervise the building of a fortress. After difficulty in getting paid for his work, he left the service of the Turks and travelled around the region, visiting the ruins of Troy and Halicarnassus, among other things. D’Alvimart went as far as Persia. He then journeyed to Egypt. He was at Rosetta when the French army, under Napoleon, landed at Alexandria in 1798. This led the Egyptian authorities to question d’Alvimart’s motives and throw him in jail. He was liberated by the French seven harrowing days later. D’Alvimart asked for an interview with Napoleon. He was perhaps hoping to secure a high appointment from his former classmate, who was now the country’s most impressive general. Napoleon instead proposed that d’Alvimart join the scientific and artistic mission that would accompany the army sent to the Upper Nile. Preferring to be a soldier, d’Alvimart returned to France.
Back in France
D’Alvimart was allowed to join the Republican army. Napoleon may have pulled some strings, as it was then hard for a former émigré to serve. In early 1800, d’Alvimart was employed as a cartographer on the Swiss border. He then became a captain in a regiment of light cavalry and was present at the Battle of Marengo. Shortly thereafter General Masséna provisionally nominated d’Alvimart to the rank of chef de brigade (equivalent to colonel), “in consideration of his bravery and military talents.” (2) However, the French Ministry of War confirmed him only in the rank of chef d’escadron (major). D’Alvimart complained vigorously. Thanks to Napoleon’s intervention, he was sent, in 1801, on the expedition led by General Leclerc – the husband of Napoleon’s sister Pauline – to put down a rebellion in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti).
The expedition failed. Leclerc died of yellow fever. The disease decimated the French troops, and Saint-Domingue gained its independence in 1804. However, d’Alvimart’s talents were put to good use. Since money for the expedition was scarce, he and some other officers were dispatched to nearby Spanish colonies to ask for material and financial help. D’Alvimart successfully negotiated some aid. He was also charged by Leclerc with recruiting a collection of native animals for the menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. The governor of Cartagena responded favourably to this appeal and sent a collection of lions, tigers, panthers, monkeys, parrots, etc., to Saint-Domingue. Baron de Norvins wrote:
Dalvimart was a diplomat with a sword at his side; a penetrating spirit and pleasant form were combined with a character armed from head to toe. He did what he could to continue to make us like and respect him, and to arouse benevolence if necessary. (3)
General Rochambeau, who replaced Leclerc as head of the expedition, wrote to his superiors that “the missions [d’Alvimart] filled in Caracas, Havana and the Kingdom of Santa Fe make his opinion very useful on all questions concerning these countries.” (4)
Rochambeau requested that d’Alvimart be promoted to chef de brigade. The Ministry responded that he did not yet have the four years of requisite service as chef d’escadron. Furious, d’Alvimart wrote to Napoleon that he led a deplorable existence and had experienced nothing but misfortune.
At the time when you landed in Egypt, you cannot have forgotten the lowness I sunk to in order to tie my fate to your fortune at a time when nobody else was doing so. They seek to bring your name closer to that of Henri IV; but never would the victor of the League have behaved in this way towards those he had known when he was still only the poor Béarnais. (5)
Holland & Prussia
Napoleon sent d’Alvimart to Holland. Any hope that he might be satisfied there was soon dashed. General Marmont wrote a crushing letter to the Ministry regarding the new arrival.
This officer, full of pretensions and devoid of zeal and willingness to serve, intensely expresses regret at being employed in an active army and the desire to be inactive; this opinion is a scandal here. (6)
In letters, d’Alvimart alluded to having some difficulties with his superiors. He admitted that he had been sent to jail because he was suspected of having embezzled some money. In June 1804, Marmont asked d’Alvimart to leave the army. When Napoleon passed through Mons later that year, d’Alvimart gave him a letter full of excuses and protests of repentance. He said that he was completely disappointed in his hopes of advancement, that his manner of expressing himself was to blame, and implored the Emperor’s clemency.
In September 1805, d’Alvimart was appointed officer attached to the headquarters of the French army in Strasbourg. He never filled this position, because he had already left France again, probably for Spanish America. By June 1806, he was back in Nantes. That fall, d’Alvimart followed the French army in the Prussian campaign. He later claimed he had been wounded at the Battle of Jena, a claim supported by his mother, who tried to present him “as an able officer afflicted with a bad temper.” (7)
By September 1807, d’Alvimart was in Madrid, asking his government, through the French ambassador, for permission to return to the Spanish colonies.
His letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs mentions that he had brought back from his previous trips ‘several objects of interest for the Institute,’ and that he was responsible for the sending to France of the llamas ‘that are now at the Museum of Natural Sciences, after living I do not know for how long in the gardens of Saint Cloud or Malmaison.’ As a motive for this new voyage, he asserted that he was ‘ashamed of his family,’ and that he wanted to visit his brother who for many years had been in the service of the King of Spain. (8)
D’Alvimart received permission and was soon on his way to New Spain (Mexico) via the United States. He later claimed that Napoleon had sent him on an important mission, namely to reconcile Mexico to Joseph Bonaparte’s rule. In letters to the French Minister of War in 1825 and 1829, d’Alvimart wrote:
After the Peace of Tilsit, I went to Venice, where Napoleon was when he transferred Joseph from the throne of Naples to that of Spain. The matter was urgent. In view of the political crisis that might ensue it was feared that New Spain might separate from the mother-country. Joseph did not understand anything about his new kingdom. He was helped by his minister of colonies, the famous Azanza, whom I had already met on a previous mission. (9)
There are no records to confirm d’Alvimart’s statements. In fact, Napoleon did not transfer Joseph to the Spanish throne until 1808, many months after d’Alvimart had left for Mexico. Historian Jacques Houdaille, who carefully examined the primary sources, concluded that d’Alvimart was not Napoleon’s emissary.
“General” d’Alvimart in Mexico
D’Alvimart – calling himself a general, though he had never attained the rank – arrived in Philadelphia at the beginning of 1808. He met General Moreau, Napoleon’s rival. He then went to Louisiana, where, in July 1808 he was received by Don Carlos de Granpré, the Spanish governor of Baton Rouge. Louisiana had become part of the United States in 1803, but Baton Rouge remained a Spanish possession until 1810. Granpré treated d’Alvimart as the representative of a friendly country and put a boat at his disposal so he could travel on the Red River. D’Alvimart left his trunk with Granpré, who promised to keep it safe until his return. Meanwhile, William Claiborne, the American governor of Louisiana, alerted the Spanish consul in New Orleans to d’Alvimart’s presence. The consul wrote to the Viceroy of New Spain, describing d’Alvimart as “a man of talent, high enterprise, capable of insinuating himself into the hearts of the most imperturbable and of playing upon the ignorant at will.” (10)
Dr. John Sibley observed d’Alvimart’s passage through Orleans Territory.
When he passed through this neighbourhood he wore a plain dress, but put on the uniform of a French dragoon as soon as he crossed the Sabine and immediately assumed some authority. There are I believe a large majority of the old French inhabitants of this territory whose spirits are much exhilarated with what they believe so fair a prospect of being united to the French government. (11)
On August 5, 1808, d’Alvimart arrived at Nacogdoches, a town just across the Mexican border from Louisiana (Texas was then part of Mexico). When he was asked to show his passport, he declared that he had received orders from Napoleon to go directly to Mexico City. He produced a permit to leave France, delivered in Bordeaux on November 25, 1807. He also boasted of being a relative of Napoleon.
D’Alvimart was arrested and taken under military guard to San Antonio, where he arrived on September 8. José Antonio Navarro witnessed the scene.
We saw him enter the plaza of San Antonio with his flamboyant uniform. Covered with insignia and brilliant crosses it challenged the genial sun – which nevertheless continued to illuminate the plaza of San Antonio until its decline in the west. (12)
D’Almivart was sent to Monclova. He was paroled and at night tried to escape. Soldiers captured him two miles from the city and brought him back. Meanwhile, Granpré was getting worried about what might be in d’Alvimart’s trunk. A letter d’Alvimart had written to the Spanish viceroy, asking for help in sending his baggage back to France, had been published by a New Orleans newspaper. Granpré had the trunk opened in the presence of witnesses. “It contained a few books such as the works of Machiavelli and a treatise on the art of war, which were judged quite compromising, as well as a few French uniforms, which made matters worse.” (13) However, among the papers seized from d’Alvimart, there was nothing to prove he had been sent by Napoleon.
From Monclova, d’Alvimart was taken to Veracruz where, in January 1809, he was imprisoned in the fort of San Juan de Ulúa. When d’Alvimart was passing through Dolores, he met Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, who, in 1810, led the first rebellion against Spanish rule in Mexico. A pro-Spanish newspaper in Mexico City claimed that d’Alvimart had promised Hidalgo the rank of general (probably in the French army) and the ribbon of the Legion of Honour.
D’Alvimart spent eight months in San Juan de Ulúa, where he was poorly treated. No Spanish captain was willing to take him to Spain because it was feared the crew might kill him. The viceroy thus sent him in September 1809 on a British brigantine. Mexican authorities also seized d’Alvimart’s property, which amounted to 294 gold louis (2940 pesos, a sizable sum), and a casket containing some jewels. Houdaille concluded:
We may…surmise that d’Alvimart, who had already travelled in Spanish America and knew how weak was the power of the viceroys, had taken advantage of information he had concerning Napoleon’s intentions against the Spanish crown to venture his wealth on a private expedition that might have brought him profit and honors. In the following years, many other foreign adventurers were to indulge in such chimerical dreams. (14)
D’Alvimart was taken as a prisoner to England, where he spent a few months at a place he called “Odiham” in his letters. He protested to the British government and was shipped back to Cádiz. The Spanish junta (a government set up in opposition to Joseph Bonaparte’s rule) sent d’Alvimart to Ceuta in Spanish Morocco. He remained there as a prisoner even after Napoleon’s army was defeated in Spain. When Napoleon abdicated the French throne in 1814, d’Alvimart wrote to the French ambassador in Madrid asking to be released. He also requested 500,000 pesos to compensate him for the jewels he had lost in Mexico. He did not gain his liberty until 1820.
After d’Alvimart’s release
Upon his return to France, d’Alvimart represented himself as a victim of Napoleon. He claimed that Napoleon had been his enemy since adolescence and had always persecuted him; had admitted him to his general staff to cause him inconvenience; had offered him a place as governor of pages instead of a command, and, irritated by his refusal, had sent him to Holland to humiliate him, to Saint-Domingue to destroy him, and to Mexico to keep him away. He probably hoped that, in thus distancing himself from Napoleon, he would find favour with the Restoration government. Amid his diatribes, he threw in some more thoughtful reflections.
All I had to do was seize the moment; I was always sure to find favour with Bonaparte. At every moment, I was free to remind him that we had come from the same benches, that we had sucked the same milk, and a thousand other things that seem crazy today under the reign of the Bourbons….
Bonaparte put in his hand on a report of the ministry that he was aware that I had more talent than it takes to make a good general, but that I knew it too well, that patience and submission should be my motto, and that then I would not lack rights with the government. (15)
D’Alvimart asked the Ministry of War for 20,000 francs to cover his expenses. He presented a statement to the effect that, in April 1819, a military court had absolved him of all the crimes of which he had been accused.
While he was in Paris, D’Alvimart wrote a book called Mentor des Rois in which he expounded his ideas about the education of princes. He sent a copy of one its chapters to the Minister of War soon after the birth of the Duke of Bordeaux, the Bourbon heir.
Return to Mexico
D’Alvimart continued to write letters trying to get reinstated in the French army. When this didn’t happen, he returned to Spanish America to try to reclaim the property that had been seized from him. He might have hoped to play a part in the rebellions then underway in newly-independent Mexico. D’Alvimart arrived in 1822 and presented himself to President-turned-Emperor Agustín de Iturbide. He asked to be named a general in the Mexican army.
But once more d’Alvimart seems to have acted in a rather tactless way. He published a short pamphlet in which he quoted his own work, the Mentor des Rois, to show that freedom of press was a very dangerous weapon in the hands of demagogues. (16)
In 1823 d’Alvimart took part in a plot try to replace Iturbide. He was arrested and put in jail, from which he tried in vain to escape. He was shipped back to Europe by the end of the year. “His description was furnished to all port captains in Mexico, in order to prevent the return of this undesirable alien.” (17)
Artist and writer
D’Alvimart sent numerous letters to various French ministers of war asking to be reinstated to his army rank. In 1832 he asked the new King, Louis Philippe, to be sent to Portugal as a military counselor in the army of King Pedro. Most of his letters appear to have been filed without being read.
D’Alvimart had pursued a hobby as an artist since at least his time in Turkey. In 1802, a volume of coloured engravings taken from his drawings, entitled The Costume of Turkey, was published in England under the name of Octavien Dalvimart. A later edition is available for free on the Internet Archive.
D’Alvimart did some paintings based on his sketches, including a watercolour of the mosque of Santa Sophia in Constantinople and a tempura painting of the Plaza Mayor in Mexico City.
D’Almivart also wrote and published poetry, including an “erotic epic” of Hero and Leander. In addition, he wrote fragments of memoirs, which remained unpublished. He was less than complimentary about some of the people he had encountered.
The Americans of the Western states remind me of the Russians, that is to say that however civilized they may be, there is something wild and savage in them, like the bears, even when this animal has been well licked by its mother….
[The Mexicans] are fickle and unsettled people, for a long time accustomed to changes of government. They never go out of their homes, and as they always see the same society without ever leaving that monotonous life, they are usually ill-bred and do not have any frankness or openness in their behaviour…. They do not care at all for fame, although they have more vanity than any other people I ever saw….
When I returned from New York to Paris…what struck me most in this capital of France was the filthiness of the people, their miserable looks and the Cossack type that I saw in so many faces – which gave doubts as to the faithfulness of French women to their husbands during the invasions of the allies in 1814 and 1815. (18)
Gaëtan-Octavien Souchet d’Alvimart died in 1854, at the age of 84. He never married and had no children.
You might also enjoy:
- Arthur Chuquet, La Jeunesse de Napoléon: Brienne (Paris, 1897), p. 444.
- Jacques Houdaille, “Gaetan Souchet D’Alvimart, the Alleged Envoy of Napoleon to Mexico, 1807-1809,” The Americas, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Oct. 1959), p. 115.
- de Lanzac de Laborie, ed., Souvenirs d’un Historien de Napoléon, Mémorial de J. de Norvins, Vol. III, 1800-1810 (Paris), 1897, pp. 23-24.
- Houdaille, “Gaetan Souchet D’Alvimart,” p. 116.
- Chuquet, La Jeunesse de Napoléon, p. 257.
- Ibid., p. 257.
- Houdaille, “Gaetan Souchet D’Alvimart,” p. 117.
- Ibid., p. 118.
- Ibid., p. 118.
- Ibid., p. 120.
- Julia Kathryn Garret, “Dr. John Sibley and the Louisiana-Texas Frontier, 1803-1814,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, 46, No. 3 (Jan. 1943), p. 272.
- David McDonald, José Antonio Navarro: In Search of the American Dream in Nineteenth-Century Texas (Denton, 2010), p. 20.
- Houdaille, “Gaetan Souchet D’Alvimart,” p. 121.
- Ibid., p. 125.
- Chuquet, La Jeunesse de Napoléon, p. 258.
- Houdaille, “Gaetan Souchet D’Alvimart,” p. 128.
- Ibid., p. 129.
- Ibid., pp. 129-130.
Dalvimart was a diplomat with a sword at his side; a penetrating spirit and pleasant form were combined with a character armed from head to toe.
Baron de Norvins