Research Subjects: Napoleon Himself

A Press Conference Fit for an Emperor

By Thomas J. Vance
Lieutenant Colonel, United States Army Reserve

If press conferences had been held in Napoleon's day, this is how one may have gone following his death at the Longwood estate on the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic, May 5, 1821:

Napoleon's Public Affairs Officer:

Good evening ladies and gentleman. Thank you coming on such short notice. I have a brief statement:

The Emperor died this evening at 5:49 o'clock following a long and painful illness. Sixteen people were present during his final moments. He was 51 years old. According to his wishes, an autopsy will be performed so that his son, the King of Rome, may someday benefit from this knowledge. It has been a long night, but we of the Imperial household are relieved that his Majesty is no longer suffering and has finally been freed from this island.

What are your questions?

What was the cause of death? Didn't his father die of stomach cancer?

I really cannot speculate on this prior to the autopsy results. Yes, stomach cancer was the cause of the Emperor's father's death.

What were Napoleon's last words?

I can tell you that his thoughts were of his family. At the foot of his bed, the same camp bed used during Austerlitz, hung a picture of his son. According to those who heard his last intelligible words, they were something like "At the head of the Army." He spoke constantly of his son while he was still lucid.

What about funeral plans?

If the Governor will allow it, it is the Emperor's wish to be returned to Paris. Baring that, the Emperor has selected a site near Longwood, called Hutsgate, where he enjoyed the weeping willows. If he is buried here, I know he will be honored to have the garrison participate in his ceremony. He greatly enjoyed his interactions with the British troops here.

Why did he never try to escape?

Without betraying any local confidences, I can say that he did, indeed, have several opportunities to attempt an escape. The Emperor, however, thought it beneath him.

Would Napoleon have conquered Europe if Wellington had not stopped him at Waterloo?

You give the Duke too much credit. We had him beat until the Prussians arrived. It is true that the Emperor had a vision of a united Europe, but united through alliances, not by military occupations. He encouraged nationalism and would have liked to create a harmonious, parliamentary, nation-based United States of Europe.

Speaking of Waterloo, what were his reflections on this great battle?

He spent many hours discussing this, the battle of Mont-St.Jean as he referred to it. Suffice it to say that he truly believed the French army had never fought better than on that day. Although we lost due to the last-minute arrival of the Prussians, the Emperor did not believe that meant the overall campaign was lost. Being the strategic genius he was, he had contingencies and plenty of reserves with which to defend Paris. He always regretted that the Chambers (our legislature) denied him the privilege of remaining in command long enough to halt the Allied advance on Paris.

Did he ever say what he would have done had he been victorious at Waterloo?

Yes, according to the Emperor's plans, Wellington's forces would have been defeated early in the day and, in turn, we would have beaten Blucher's Prussians by nightfall. With these stunning victories, yet the anticipation of enemy forces converging on France, the Emperor planned to sue for peace -- the peace he declared upon his dramatic return from Elba.

What about his other regrets?

Of course, as a husband and father, he missed his family intensely while held captive here -- an imprisonment, I must add, that violated the terms of his surrender to a British ship of war. He would have enjoyed spending his final years with his wife and son at his side. He admitted to being too ambitious, which would come as no surprise to those who have followed his career.

Speaking of ambitions, he must have regretted the Russian and Spanish campaigns.

Much of his time at Longwood dictating his memoirs included discussions of how these two campaigns could have turned out differently. Actually, both were carried out to enforce our boycott on England, referred to as the Continental system. In retrospect, we certainly would have approached enforcement of this boycott differently. The Russians burning their own capital was just totally unprecedented in history. The Emperor was convinced that had the Russian government not torched Moscow, they would have had to make terms, thereby avoiding our difficult march back to France and subsequent heavy losses.

Regarding our efforts in Spain and Portugal -- the Peninsula -- he realized this was his undoing, saying that his final downfall could be traced to this conflict. Our occupation of Spain proved a mistake from both a military and political view and we learned the difficulty in interfering with the Spanish line of succession.

How do you explain General Bonaparte's war crimes?

He prided himself on avoiding atrocities, but I assume you refer to the Turkish prisoners during the Egyptian campaign. You may remember that we were pardoning prisoners at that point because we had neither resources in men or food to hold large numbers of captives. About 2,000 Turkish prisoners who surrendered at Jaffa in Syria were discovered to have broken parole from an earlier surrender, having promised never again to raise arms against us. While regrettable, the incident cannot be called a crime; the Emperor agonized for three days before deciding they must be shot.

Then what about the execution of the French Duke d'Enghien?

Yes, regarding the young duke. His arrest followed several conspiracies and one attempt on the Emperor's life. This Bourbon loyalist was kidnapped from a neighboring state by our dragoons on good authority that he was involved in the British-supported Bourbon efforts to murder the Emperor. The duke admitted that he would, himself, march on Paris to topple the government if he could. The quick finding of guilt by a courts-martial and the immediate execution has surely caused the Emperor much damage. We could say such a speedy decision was more a misjudgment than a crime.

He has been accused of abandoning his armies in time of need?

His actions at the end of the campaigns in Egypt and Russia have been questioned. Those who take the time to study these campaigns, however, will clearly see that there was no dereliction of duty involved. Following the defeat of all opposing forces in Egypt and Syria, the Emperor, at that time General Bonaparte, returned to France alone because of reverses in the military situation in Europe -- the threat to our borders and the unstable political situation. Also, the army was in no danger at that point.

As for the Russian campaign, it was a no-win situation regarding the various points during which he could leave the army in good hands to resume duties as head of state. In retrospect, he realized that he was equally needed in both places.

How true was he to the Revolution when he established his own monarchy and ruled as a dictator?

It is true that to maintain order, he insisted on censorship of the press and in theaters. It should be remembered, however, that he twice abdicated by his own choice while still in command of the Grand Army. There were advisors in both instances who encouraged him to take control of the government by force, but in both cases he did what was best for France. A dictator would not have deferred to the wishes of the legislature. He did believe in constitutional rule and put great faith in public opinion.

Yes, but wasn't he a war monger? Many young men died fighting his battles.

You will pardon me if I take exception to this. Most of our wars were preventive in nature. Very early one, actually in 1802, after the peace of Amiens, he truly believed that his fate, and that of France, was settled. He looked forward to devoting himself entirely to the administration of the country. Yes, many good men have died and he was with them at every turn, facing their same danger and hardships. Remember that the Emperor himself was wounded and had a total of 19 horses shot out from under him. The men admired him and he them. He often said that he wished he had died a soldier's death in Moscow or at Waterloo.

Could you describe some of his simple pleasures during his captivity?

Yes. He enjoyed his gardening very much. And he was always thrilled upon the arrival of a new box of books -- that would liven up several of his mornings as he poured through each volume. It was a pleasure for his Majesty to visit with the English soldiers. Overall, he certainly made the best of a difficult situation.

How does Napoleon wish to be remembered? What is his legend?

The Emperor saved our country from her enemies during the Revolution and then tamed the Revolution itself. He stabilized French society and consolidated the gains of the Revolution. He would like to be remembered along with the great commanders of history such as Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar and Frederick. He recently reflected about what a romance his life had been. And during these six years, although separated from his family and the affairs of Europe, he successfully completed his last campaign -- the writing of his memoirs.


Napoleon's Press Officer: I think that has to be the final question. We have a funeral to plan and the return of the household to France. Thank you for coming.

Postscript: The official autopsy reported that Napoleon died of stomach cancer. He was buried on St. Helena with honors equal to that of a British general with the entire garrison volunteering to participate in the ceremony. The grave was never marked since the British governor insisted the inscription be "Napoleon Bonaparte," while Napoleon's staff thought it should simply be: "Napoleon." His second wife, Marie Louise, remarried and their son, by then renamed Duke of Reichstadt, died of tuberculosis at the age of 21. Napoleon's body was returned to France in 1840 and interned at the Invalids where it remains to this day.

Editor's Note: LTC Vance has been studying Napoleonic history for the past 20 years and has worked as an Army Public Affairs Officer.


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