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The news of Waterloo shocked American readers, writes Donald D. Horward, and most writers and editors refused to believe Wellington’s famous dispatch of June 19th, 1815.
Bonaparte, First Consul, by Ingres
On June 18th, 1815, the fate of Europe was decided on the wheat fields near the village of Waterloo. The results of this momentous struggle aroused avid and passionate discussion in America as well as in Europe. The young republic had only recently concluded its own war with Great Britain. Ties of alliance and friendship had long joined France with America.
The exploits of Napoleon had occasioned much interest and considerable admiration. Now Americans confronted an event that clearly portended a shocking alteration of the balance of power in Europe, an event destined to be ‘stamped upon the pages of future history’.
After Napoleon’s escape from the island of Elba and his restoration to the French throne, the people of the United States intently followed accounts of his preparation for war against the members of the Seventh Coalition. Information about the Emperor flooded into the United States from France; but the Maryland Gazette considered that ‘public curiosity remained ungratified’.
When the details of Napoleon’s advance into Belgium were first published, an Ohio newspaperman anxiously wrote, ‘No longer have we cause to complain of the delay of the actors in the grand tragedy now performing in Europe. The curtain is drawn up, the scene is opened, and torrents of blood have begun to flow.’
The news of Waterloo first reached America from British sources. On the last day of July the brig Favorite, commanded by Captain Foster, reached the port of Boston after a thirty-five-day crossing from Liverpool. Captain Foster landed a packet of English newspapers describing in detail the French defeat at Waterloo, but the Bostonians sceptically refused to believe it.
To add further credence to the story, several of the British journals included the Duke of Wellington’s famous dispatch of June 19th which not only described in considerable detail the manoeuvres and actions of the belligerents at Waterloo, but also claimed a decisive, but costly, victory over the French. At the same time other vessels, sailing from Plymouth, England, arrived at American ports with additional intelligence of the battle.
Almost immediately, Wellington’s account of Waterloo was reproduced in the journals of the towns around Boston. By August 2nd, every major newspaper in the city of New York carried the British account of Napoleon’s defeat. Reaching Philadelphia during the second week of August, the story was taken across the Appalachian Mountains by horse to the villages of Harrisburg and Carlisle.
The settlers of Pittsburgh learned of the great battle on August 12th, but the frontiersmen at the hamlet of Canton, at the western extremity of American expansion, did not read of the startling reverse suffered by the French until August 24th.
At the same time, accounts of Wellington’s victory filtered south through the nation’s capital to Alexandria, Virginia, by August 10th. Nevertheless, the citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, only learned of the events attending Napoleon’s defeat during the third week of August.
Without exception American readers were shocked by the contents of Wellington’s account of the battle in their local newspapers. In fact, the great majority of writers and editors refused to accept the English account as authentic. A large number actually ignored Wellington’s claim of victory and interpreted the battle as a French triumph.
Citing a report from Captain Oxnard of the Cora who had just landed in Boston, many American writers claimed, ‘Bonaparte in person... and Lord Wellington’ engaged in a battle ‘in which the French were victorious’ (the Pennsylvania Republican, Harrisburg). To substantiate this claim further, an announcement from Brest, published in Boston, indicated ‘that illuminations had been ordered in France, in consequence of the victory gained over Wellington’ (thePatriot, Boston).
Rather than ignore Wellington’s claims of decisive victory at Waterloo without evidence to the contrary, another group of American writers searched for discrepancies in the British account in order to impugn Wellington’s alleged success. A leading citizen of Albany, New York, asked his readers to remember that the Allies described their losses at 40,000 men. Therefore, Americans need not believe ‘that Napoleon should be totally defeated’.
Noting that the English acknowledged the capture of 7,000 Frenchmen in battle, the writer concluded, ‘These circumstances confirm in our mind... that the balance of success down to the 20th [June], was on the side of the French’ (the Argus, Albany). In the same vein, a resident of Chillicothe, Ohio, reminded his readers that although ‘we find... the English claim victory, yet they remain at the point to which they retreated [Waterloo]’. Moreover, he ventured to predict that ‘the English will have been attacked once more before the 20th [June] and that the French will be in Brussels before the first of July’.
In a more argumentative mood, the editor of the Western Herald of Steubenville, on the banks of the Ohio River, noted that Wellington claimed to have captured ‘as far as could be judged 150 pieces of cannon’. Questioning Wellington’s use of the word ‘judged’, the writer reasoned, ‘Surely one day, or a half day, or even one hour, would have afforded time enough to count the number of cannon taken the day preceding, particularly as the cannon is considered one of the principal trophies of victory.’
‘Perhaps,’ continued the writer, ‘after the English took those cannon, the French would not let them take the cannon away—or perhaps they did not remain in possession of the English so long as their number might have been ascertained.’ Analysing the details of Wellington’s dispatch, a perceptive resident of Baltimore sarcastically observed: ‘There is much of the mysterious and unaccountable in these rumours, for instance the disappearance of 6,000 men left at Beaumont, under Mortier.’
This ‘legion no doubt sank into the earth—perhaps to keep company with their slaughtered enemies to the shades! But, if we believe this miracle, there is another which we cannot swallow, how Bonaparte lost 30,000 men, “which he had first taken from the enemy”—Match that who can!’ (the American and Commercial Advertiser, Baltimore).
A large number of American journalists and their readers rejected Wellington’s victory announcement, recalling the numerous distortions incorporated into British reports during their war with the United States. Remembering ‘the shameful misrepresentations of the Ministerial Courier and Times in what ever related to our late war, we have a right to suspect everything they say about their war against France’.
‘If the contents of the Moniteur were not mentioned so circumstantially [in the British newspapers] we would laugh at the whole romance’, confessed an editor of the New York Columbian. In a more chauvinistic manner, another New Yorker pointed out,
‘What credit ought to be attached to a British report, may be inferred from the usual accuracy and impartiality of their officials—for instance, the glorious victories they pompously claimed over our own troops at the battles of Chippewa and Bridgewater’ (the Argus, Albany). Cautioning his readers to ‘call to mind the character of the British official statements of land and naval battles during the late war with this country’, the Pennsylvania Republican predicted, ‘We do not conceive that the cause of France and of Bonaparte can be at all endangered by the results of the late battle.’
Some American writers responded to the British claim of victory at Waterloo with the utmost contempt. A leading citizen of Petersburg, Virginia, referred to it in the Courier as an ‘idle report’ and announced ‘We do not believe one jot or tittle of the... report—it is too vague’.
There were, of course, a number of American journalists who accepted the British claim of success, but they were a distinct minority. Most of these were, in fact, members of the Federalist Party who believed that Napoleon was in league with their opposition—the Democrats. Assuming Wellington’s account of the battle to be true, a Bostonian expressed surprise that certain ‘democratick papers’ refused to accept it.
Another writer of Charleston, South Carolina, exhibited amazement in the Daily Courier that ‘some here have affected to doubt the reality of this victory’, because Wellington had admitted appalling losses. ‘It is the character of his Lordship to state candidly all the difficulties by which he had been environed... and to say as little as he possibly can about his own actions. If such modesty is not convincing evidence that victory was gained... we know not what further testimony can possibly be required.’
Unconvinced by the deluge of English information supporting their claim of victory at Waterloo, the mass of the American public resolved to await French accounts of the battle. During the second and third weeks of August, the first French document supporting the British claim of success was published; this was a narrative of the French debacle by Marshal Louis Davout, Napoleon’s Minister of War. Soon, another account of Napoleon’s defeat, taken from the French Government organ, Le Moniteur, appeared in American journals.
Simultaneously, a speech by the commander of the Prussian army, Field Marshal Gebhard Bliicher, was published congratulating the men of his Army of the Lower Rhine for their decisive role in defeating Napoleon at Waterloo. Even after a narrative by a Spanish eyewitness to the battle, General Alva, appeared in New York, many Americans still doubted the authenticity of the evidence.
This scepticism disappeared, however, when Marshal Michel Ney, the French field commander at Waterloo, submitted his account of the battle to the news media, followed a few days later by a letter presented to the French Chamber of Peers by Comte D’Erlon, commander of the French ist Corps, describing the French defeat. There was no longer any reason to doubt the validity of Wellington’s dispatch. The Imperial army had died at Waterloo, and Napoleon again appeared helpless before the advance of a united Europe.
The battle of Waterloo had been lost, France was again being invaded, but most Americans concentrated their attention on the fallen Emperor. Rumours travelled along the Atlantic seaboard confirming and denying the fate of Napoleon. ‘The public mind feels anxious to know’, wrote the editor of the Publick Ledger of Norfolk, ‘what is to be the fate of a man, who, for [more than] twenty years, has more than any other mortal that has preceded him, attracted public attention.’
Aware that if Napoleon were captured by the Allies, ‘his liberty, if not his life, will be forfeit’, a citizen of Albany, New York, lamented in the Argus, ‘He can no longer be a terror to “evil doers” [the Allies] and we confess that our sympathies, excited by an admiration of those traits of greatness which have astonished the world, and extorted high eulogium from his bitterest enemies, are strongly excited on his behalf.’ In conclusion the writer admitted, ‘Nor will we suppress the wish that he may yet find security beyond the reaches of his pursuers’.
Despite widespread concern for Napoleon’s well-being, ominous reports reached America announcing his death. A tale published in a Baltimore paper declared ‘that Napoleon had been hung at Paris, every branch of his family [had been] massacred, and the members of both houses shot—the number consisted of eight hundred’.
Another story unofficially maintained that Napoleon had lost an arm at Waterloo, while his brother, Jerome, had been killed in the fighting. A third account circulating stated that Napoleon had fled the field of battle in disguise and upon his return to Paris, he was ‘seized as a prisoner’ (Pennsylvania Gazette). Probably the most widespread report of Napoleon’s fate was brought by Captain Robb of the Warrior 74, that Bonaparte had been tried by a military court and beheaded.
Not all Americans, however, were disturbed by the various reports announcing the execution of the Emperor. In fact, a small group of citizens actually clamoured for the life of Napoleon. A Connecticut editor reminded his readers that Napoleon ‘can surely have no claims on their [the Allies] justice for permission to live. The injuries of Europe, the spirit of thousands he has murdered, and the future peace of the world demand his life forfeited’.
But when a Baltimore editor received information that Napoleon had died in the French capital at the hands of a mob, he was incensed, and wrote, ‘If the Parisian savages have massacred this man, eternal infamy must be their portion’. Four days later, however, the story was proven false and the same writer jubilantly announced,
‘We rejoice to learn that the Parisians have not massacred Napoleon; on the contrary, the French Legislature... had shewn a solicitude for his safety. Thus, Napoleon the Great, like another Hannibal... seems destined to become a fugitive in the world... The conqueror of Europe, it would appear, is to be deprived of a resting place, and nothing but his death will satisfy his inveterate enemies.’
Nevertheless, the writer was unwilling to give up Napoleon’s cause as hopeless. On too many occasions certain disaster was transformed into unprecedented success by Napoleon. ‘If he escapes this storm, he may again raise his head, and again astonish the nations.’
Once Americans were convinced Napoleon was still alive, rumours circulated up and down the coastal regions suggesting his possible whereabouts. Was he fleeing to a distant shore or had he been captured by his numerous and powerful enemies?
‘The fate of Napoleon is still involved in mystery,’ deplored an Ohioan, ‘and the various reports that are circulated about him, while they shew the deep interest with which the world contemplates his greatness and his misfortune, tend only to perplex our judgment, and confound our reasoning.’ In more precise terms, the ‘universal inquiry’ of the day according to the Bedford Gazette (Pennsylvania) is: ‘What has become of Bonaparte?’
As early as August 18th, rumours began to spread throughout New England that Napoleon was ‘about to embark, from France, with a few faithful adherents, for the United States’. ‘If he [has] not fallen into the hands of the British cruizers,’ wrote a New Yorker, ‘this celebrated man is at this moment near our shores [to seek] asylum from the persecutions, of the old world.’
Further credibility was added to this account when Captain Madge of the brig Ludlow, forty days out of Bordeaux, was halted by an English man-of-war, and ‘strict search was accordingly made over every part of the vessel; but not finding him, the boarding officers proceeded to examine the phizes of every passenger on board, to see if there was not a Bonaparte among them. They stated that... he [Napoleon] intended to make his escape in some American vessel, for this country; and that they would search everyone they might fall in with to find the Emperor’ (Pennsylvania Republican).
When American citizens were satisfied that Napoleon was, at that moment, crossing the Atlantic Ocean, they reacted in various ways. One ardent Napoleonic advocate in Philadelphia implored, ‘I humbly hope, and devoutly pray, that the Lord our God may protect and preserve the person of Napoleon and those of his honourable suit from all harm, [and] danger in the course of their voyage, and that they may be all safely conveyed to this land of freedom and equality.’
With regard to his reception, the writer suggested, ‘I trust that every mark of respect, honor and attention will be shewn to this illustrious visitant, the greatest and most consummate of all military heroes, great in prosperity and still greater in adversity.’
Conversely, another observer, remembering the financial losses suffered by American merchants after Napoleon implemented his Continental System, asserted in the Salem Gazette ‘that should Bonaparte arrive in this country, he should be seized and held as property of the Government and exhibited for money—the first proceeds to be applied to the indemnification of the merchants whose property has been seized by his orders—the remainder to be retained by government in part pay of the expenses of the war waged on his account and in obedience to his command’.
One citizen of Norfolk, Virginia, went so far as to claim he had seen a Frenchman travelling in the guise of Joseph Bonaparte and, according to him, it was in fact the Emperor himself. The observer rejoiced, ‘Oh how he has hoax’d Johnny Bull.’
When the Americans learned of Napoleon’s surrender to a British war vessel at Rochfort, they were stunned. The more militant denounced him as a coward, declaring, ‘If he had bravely died sword in hand, at the battle of Waterloo, he would have acted a consistant part, and finished his “political life” as a Soldier’ (American and Commercial Advertiser, Baltimore).
Although other Americans thought Napoleon ought ‘to have devoted himself in battle, rather than cling to life when it opened no prospect but ignominy’, they were ‘not so rigorous in [their] judgment as some pius political Christians, who pronounced him a coward... because he did not commit suicide’ (Pennsylvania Republican, Harrisburg).
In response to these critical editorials, a writer in New York lashed back denouncing ‘certain self-willed, presumptuous fools, on this side of the Atlantic, apeing the folly of the meanest class on the other, who openly avow that they would wish to see him assassinated, and are even stupid enough to say, he is no general and a coward’. A citizen of Raleigh, North Carolina, came forward to defend Napoleon’s action, declaring that ‘the last virtual act of this wonderful man, is perhaps more extraordinary than all his preceding operations.
For his surrender of himself to England leaves him no longer a free agency as a public character. He is now dead to the world, as a Warrior and Statesman, for even his advocates would think the counsels of the Allied powers were imbecile, were he again suffered to agitate subjugated France’. In further defence of Napoleon, the writer concluded, ‘The resolution of putting himself upon the honor and generosity of the British nation could not originate in cowardice, as it has been illiberally asserted.’
A New Yorker agreeing with this view wrote,
‘Of all the wonderful events of the day, it is perhaps the most wonderful, that Bonaparte should have thrown himself upon the mercy of the British Government; yet such is the fact—He tells the Prince Regent, that he comes like Themistocles to throw himself upon his magnanimity.’
Now that the Emperor was a prisoner of England, his adherents began to ponder his fate. An optimistic Baltimore citizen recorded, ‘We cherish a faint hope, that England will at least treat with humanity and dignity, her voluntary prisoner, the matchless hero of the age, whose splendid military and political talents maintained the independence and enhanced the glory of France, during a struggle of twenty-five years against Europe combined.’
Reports soon reached the American public that Napoleon had been imprisoned at Dunbarton Castle, while a more widely circulated rumour placed him in the Tower of London awaiting trial. Nevertheless, an astute citizen of Raleigh observed, ‘Imprisonment for life will doubtless be the future destiny of this extraordinary character, for neither the Prince Regent nor the Allies would jeopardize their popularity by putting him to death.
“A great man struggling with the storms of fate” will ever excite commiseration in such minds as are not warped from humanity by the indulgence of strong political prejudices, and... yet all allow it is, the height of meanness to kick at the dead lion.’ A South Carolinian, although he had little sympathy for Napoleon as a man, pleaded for his life—not to be rescued from death but to suffer by living, tormented by his defeats.
‘Let him live, if he endure life, divested of his crown—without an army—and almost without a follower. Let him live—he, who never spared his friends, if he can withstand the humiliation of owing his life to an enemy. Let him live, and listen to the voice of his conscience. He can no longer drown it in “the clamorous report of war”.’
The writer concluded, ‘Let him reflect on his miserable self; and with the map before him, retrace his bloody career. Let him live and repent—let him seek to atone in humility and solitude, for the sins of his political life—an example of the catastrophe of the wicked, and the vanity of false greatness.’
Nevertheless, there were many Americans who did not envisage great disaster in Napoleon’s surrender and probable imprisonment. One Virginian, writing in the Norfolk Publick Ledger, was convinced that ‘the residence of this great man, will ever be the spot of fame, and whether he is confined in the tower of London, or secluded in the most remote region of Europe, he will shine as the most resplendent luminary of the world’.
Assured that ‘emperors, kings, and princes would be eclipsed in glory, should they ever appear within the circle in which he moves’, the author—believing erroneous reports that Napoleon had been taken into London—continued his editorial in the same vein.
‘His entrance into London must have been equal to a triumph, as the universal anxiety of thousands and tens of thousands to behold a warrior of his pre-eminence, gives an idea, not of leading a criminal into the city, but of the victorious entry of a hero! How lost amidst the brilliancy of his character, must be all the mighty personages of England!’
Comparing the Prince Regent with the French Emperor, the writer noted, ‘How mortifying a contrast! One the defender of his country’s honor in the midst of innumerable personal dangers, while the other has been sauntering about St. James’s, defaming his wife and attempting to destroy the affections of his daughter.’
Retreating into the realm of fantasy, the author admonished his readers, ‘we should not have been surprised, from the frequent miraculous circumstances of Bonaparte’s elevation, if the shouts of the enthusiastic Englishmen [on the road to London] had been Vive I’Empereur Napoleon!
And even if they had risen en masse, and proclaimed him king, it would not have been more wonderful and unexpected, than his entrance into Paris [March 1815]. And even prophecy may not be a vague conjecture, if on the death of George III the Emperor Napoleon should be received as the legitimate monarch of England’.
It was not until August 23rd that the American public learned of Napoleon’s banishment to the rocky island of St. Helena situated in the South Atlantic. The majority of American journalists and writers lashed out with contempt at the English decision to exile Napoleon. After expressing amazement that the Emperor had not received ‘everything that the most exalted generosity could dictate’ from the British Government, a journalist of Harrisburg declared, ‘To the eternal disgrace of the English regent, his country, and his “friends in America”, Bonaparte received less generosity than felons transported to Botany Bay.
The vilest rogues are permitted to take their families with them under certain circumstances; Bonaparte was not only robbed of his money and deprived of his friends, but even this is exalted generosity for a prince who has cast every indignity upon his own wife and child, who lives in a state of double adultery.’ The incensed writer ended describing the Prince Regent ‘as a vile miscreant and debauched wretch’. Comparing Napoleon to his antagonists, a Philadelphian noted, ‘Whatever history records to his [Napoleon’s] shame, it must assign more magnanimity to him than to his enemies.
He entered their capitals, and spared them; they entered Paris, and laid it waste. He overran their territories, and gave back their sceptres; they conquered France, and (the narrative may run) imprisoned him in a sequestered island for life.’ A bitter Boston editor, dismayed by Napoleon’s fate, denounced the English, ‘If Napoleon flattered himself, for a moment, that he would be treated “like Themistocles”,’ he has made a great mistake.
‘If he placed any reliance on the generosity of the British nation, he betrayed the like ignorance of their real character. Read the history of that people,’ admonished the writer, from the Saxons to this ‘last race of imported monarchs... and you will find that hard heartedness marks their character.’ Examine their ‘bloody code of laws’ and ‘you will confess, that Napoleon had little reason for expecting that the executive of Great Britain would treat the greatest man of the age as Artaxerxes treated Themistocles’.
Despite the irreparable disasters suffered by Napoleon during the summer of 1815, the great majority of Americans remained sympathetic to the French Emperor. They were so accustomed to reading of Napoleon’s extraordinary feats, that overwhelming evidence was necessary to convince them of his failure. When the proof was conclusive that Napoleon had not only been defeated, but had been also forced to throw himself on the mercy of his most bitter enemy, Americans responded with astonishment and disbelief; to them, he was still the ‘Conqueror of Europe, the hero of heroes’.
A Boston editor typified the American reaction when he wrote, ‘The tornado of European events which almost overwhelmed us last week, has passed over, and a momentary calm succeeds. We still hear it rumbling... where every newspress staggers beneath the shower of astonishing intelligence. We venture to say,’ wrote the editor, ‘that never, in so short a space of time, since the invention of our art, has it fallen to the printer to circulate accounts of such tremendous events, in such rapid succession.’
No doubt many Americans grieved for the fallen French Emperor because he was involved in a struggle with America’s traditional enemy —England—while others predicted that if France succumbed ‘Great Britain will turn her resentment upon us... until she will menace our national independence’. In spite of the motives, the indisputable fact remained: the majority of the people of the United States, disturbed by the demise of Napoleon, had a sincere and lasting interest in his present disposition and future safety.
True, many of Napoleon’s foreign policies had crippled American trade and threatened the national economy, but, according to the editor of the Boston Patriot, ‘A great portion of the American people... view him as a man of transcendant talents, who devoted himself, not only to his own aggrandizement, as his enemies allege, but to the support of the national glory and independence of France.’
In an editorial upon the fate of Napoleon, a journalist of Lexington, Kentucky, observed, ‘Victor and victim, one is induced to view him as a strange production of a fabulous age, the like of whom never was—the like of whom may never be again. But Napoleon Bonaparte passes from the busy scene: he sinks all at once from observation—we lose his trace, and pause to think in what character we will next see him.’
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