Category Archives: Miscellany

Miscellany The Man

200th Anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Loss at Waterloo


Battle of Waterloo 1815, William Sadler II, Pyms Gallery, London

On June 18, 2015, people around the world who either admire or despise Napoleon Bonaparte will pause to remember his greatest loss, the Battle of Waterloo.

Two hundred years later, endless arguments continue. Did the French Marshal Ney betray Napoleon? Or was it Napoleon’s reluctance to send Ney reinforcements that caused the loss? Why didn’t the French general Grouchy, when he heard the distant sounds of battle, rush his troops back to the site of the fighting? Why did Napoleon attack so late in the day? Was the Emperor sick or at forty-six years old already past his prime? And which general was responsible for Napoleon’s defeat, the British general Wellington or the Prussian general von Blücher? I’ve seen people get red in the face over these and a hundred other details about the battle.

Napoleon addresses guard at WaterlooA few things are clear. The Allied victory was, as Wellington himself said, “a near-run thing.” The count of dead and wounded for that one battle amounted to an astonishing 47,000 men, about 55% of them on the French side. And in the end, when a valiant charge of Napoleon’s revered Imperial Guard failed, the French army fled in disorder, as word spread that “La Garde recule! Sauve qui peut!” (The Guard is retreating! Every man for himself!)

Certainly, the Battle of Waterloo destroyed any prospect of Napoleon Bonaparte’s remaining ruler of France. While his enemies, if defeated, could have gone on to fight more battles, Napoleon’s position was so precarious and France so weak that one great loss was enough to bring him down for good. Thus, the name Waterloo became synonymous with resounding defeat.

A few months ago, I was amused to hear the battle mentioned at (of all places) the Kennedy Center during a revival of Lerner & Loewe’s musical, Gigi. In the play, a young Gigi sings Say a Prayer for Me as she prepares to go out on her first assignation with the man she loves. Here’s a charming rendition by Julie Andrews who was originally going to sing the song in My Fair Lady.

In case, you missed them, the lyrics are:

On to your Waterloo, whispers my heart

Pray I’ll be Wellington, not Bonaparte



Miscellany The Man

Napoleon Bonaparte: Always Relevant, Always Current

War Games by Donna Lomangino (Fun Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte)


War Games, by Donna Lomangino, available at

My brother Jimmy and my sister-in-law Helen gave me this fun portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte playing video games. That someone would even think to paint it reminds me how much Napoleon remains a part of our collective memory.


Miscellany The Man

Finding Napoleon in Richmond, Virginia (and Spain)

Jean-Claude Bonnefond, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Napoleon Bonaparte was a brilliant military and political leader, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t make disastrous mistakes. In that regard, the Russian Campaign of 1812 deserves top billing. His misadventures in Spain, poignantly illustrated in this painting from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, come in a close second.

I won’t presume to explain the Spanish debacle in detail, but for those who don’t know much about it, here’s a brief primer. When Napoleon came to power, Spain and France were allies, particularly in their opposition to England. In 1805, Napoleon’s French navy joined with the Spanish fleet to challenge Britain’s great naval hero, Admiral Lord Nelson, in the Battle of Trafalgar. Although Nelson died in the conflict, the Spanish and French were so thoroughly trounced that neither mounted a substantial navy again for years. Worse, the British established a continental foothold in Portugal.

Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's older brotherThe Spanish-French alliance never recovered. First, Napoleon moved French troops onto Spanish territory, using a proposed joint invasion of Portugal as a pretext. Then, in 1808, Spain’s King Charles IV lost a feud with his eldest son and fled to France, expecting Napoleon to support him. Instead, Napoleon used the opportunity to depose both Charles and his son, the newly crowned Ferdinand VII. Installing his brother Joseph Bonaparte as king in their place, Napoleon made Spain a client state of the French Empire.

Joseph, usually a man of good intentions, tried to be an enlightened ruler. Unfortunately, only a small number of educated city dwellers, the so-called afrancesados, wanted modern reforms. Understandably, the Spanish population resented foreign intervention in their cultural traditions. The Spanish Catholic church, forced to end the Inquisition, called upon the peasants to save their souls from the invaders’ influence. 

goya.shootings-3-5-1808Who can say who committed the first atrocity against the other side? Asymmetrical warfare ensued, as Spanish guerrilla fighters picked off, tortured and killed unwary French soldiers. The French responded with overwhelming force, sometimes against civilians. Francisco de Goya, initially the favored painter for Joseph Bonaparte’s court, depicted the French atrocities with a series of horrific images.


The painting at the top of this blog is by a Frenchman, Jean-Claude Bonnefond (1796-1860). The information card at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts reads in part:

At a well in a courtyard of a monastery, two soldiers have just discovered a comrade’s epaulet and shako, or hat, and traces of a bloody struggle. A monk furtively retreats in the background. Although not a specific incident in the Peninsular War, this scene directly alludes to the tensions that flared between Napoleon and the Catholic church. 

In 1813, the British led by Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, defeated the French troops in Spain. Joseph Bonaparte beat a hasty retreat across the Pyrenees and home to France.


Corsica Miscellany Paris Saint Helena Sources The Man

Finding Napoleon Bonaparte FACE-to-FACE

During my travels to do research on Napoleon Bonaparte, I’ve taken hundreds of photographs of Napoleonic sites, art, memorabilia, and related objects. I’ve learned a lot about about military campaigns, geopolitics, and daily life in his times. I’ve become fascinated (and distracted by) the countless characters who surrounded Napoleon, from his birth in Corsica through his time in power to his death on St Helena. And I’ve enjoyed new friendships with many people, particularly members of the Napoleonic Historical Society, who share my enthusiasm for The Man and his times. But the biggest challenge has been coming to terms with who that man, Napoleon Bonaparte, really was.

In his time, without photography, video or voice recordings, it was easier that it is today to be opaque. On one hand, Napoleon Bonaparte was the first modern celebrity so everything from the sleeve of a discarded coat to his camp toilet was scrupulously preserved. There must be thousands of images of his face. Until recently, however, I thought those images so varied that it was impossible to know what he really looked like. Then my husband Bert and I gathered together seventy-three photographs into the slide show featured above. Certainly Napoleon’s appearance changes as he ages, but these photos helped me to come face to face with the man I’ve been trying to understand. Bert and I hope you enjoy them! 


Miscellany Saint Helena The Man

Finding Napoleon in London — Admiral Cockburn

 London's Big Ben seen from the National Gallery

The more you learn about Napoleon Bonaparte the more likely you are to find connections to him. As I mentioned in my last blog post, “Finding Napoleon” was particularly easy during my recent trip to London.  Still, here’s a London connection among Napoleon Bonaparte, the burning of the American capital during the War of 1812, and my sixth grade school that surprised me. 

This charming family portrait hangs in London’s National Gallery. The museum’s identification card lists the artist as Sir Joshua Reynolds and the subject as “Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons, 1773.” When I read the children’s names, I realized that the darling cherub peeking over his mother’s shoulder was none other than the future Admiral Sir George Cockburn who, at age 43, escorted Napoleon Bonaparte to his exile on St Helena Island. 

Sir Joshua Reynolds' Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons, 1773 in London's National GalleryAccording to many reports from the time, Napoleon and his head jailer did not always see eye-to-eye. First, Admiral Cockburn immediately implemented the British policy of denying Napoleon his imperial title. Henceforth, he insisted, the former emperor was to be addressed as “General.” More than that, in a effort to delegitimize his right to lead the French, the British used the Corsican spelling of his name so “Bonaparte” reverted to the Italian-sounding “Buonaparte.” Napoleon himself refused to play the role as prisoner. He reasoned, if he were a prisoner of war, well then, those wars were over and, by international accord, all prisoners were to be released. Moreover, by European tradition, deposed sovereigns were granted dignified asylum. Why should he be treated any differently?

Needless to say, the British and their allies didn’t buy those arguments. Admiral Cockburn delivered Napoleon to St Helena on October 16, 1815. He stayed on the island long enough to turn over custody of Europe’s most famous prisoner to the island’s new governor, Sir Hudson Lowe.

The connection to the burning of my country’s capital? A year before escorting Napoleon to St Helena, Admiral Cockburn had been second-in-command of the British naval forces in the War of 1812. For two years, he had waged war against American ships and ports in the Chesapeake Bay.

Admiral Sir George Cockburn by John James Hall, Royal Museum GreenwichOn August 24, 1814, following orders that included “laying waste to towns,” he led the torching of Washington. The White House, the Library of Congress, and the Capitol were all but destroyed. You can see the city burning in this portrait of Cockburn by John James Hall, now in the Royal Museum in Greenwich, England.

And my sixth grade school? I was living in France and gaining my first knowledge of Napoleon. As a US Navy dependent, I attended a small school named after the American naval hero, Commodore Joshua Barney.

In the summer of 1814, Commodore Barney had led a US Navy flotilla in the Chesapeake Bay, causing Admiral Cockburn a great deal of trouble.

Unfortunately for Commodore Barney, Napoleon Bonaparte’s future jail warden had the last word: Barney had to scuttle his fleet to avoid its capture. He and his troops joined in the defense of Washington under the personal leadership of President Madison. Ultimately, all fled in what was deemed at the time to be the American military’s greatest humiliation. It took the September Battle of Baltimore—which is memorialized in “The Star Spangled Banner”—to turn the tide against Cockburn’s navy.

Miscellany Saint Helena The Man

Finding Napoleon Bonaparte in Iceland?

I’m on vacation in Iceland for a dozen days, but even there I’ve been on the look-out for references to Napoleon Bonaparte. I had begun to despair of finding any when I came across this sympathetic puffin. He obligingly posed in the exiled Emperor Napoleon’s iconic posture, hands clasped behind his back, staring out from St Helena’s shores in the direction of his beloved France. 

Please admit that you see the resemblance!

Puffin at Latrabjarg, Iceland


Miscellany The Man

Finding Napoleon in Washington, DC


National Mall - Smithsonian Castle

On this, the three-year anniversary of this website, I decided to do a post about Finding Napoleon in my own hometown.

Napoleon Banner on the National Mall in DCThankfully, last weekend, we had a break in the nasty winter weather. I headed downtown to “our nation’s front lawn,” the National Mall, to catch a few sightings of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Of course, the National Gallery of Art has Jacques Louis David’s full-length portrait of Emperor Napoleon which I featured in a post on October 12, 2012. This weekend the Gallery had promotional banners flying from lampposts in the National Sculpture Garden. Sure enough, there was the extract of Napoleon’s face from that magnificent painting. 

The next Napoleon sighting was at one of the most popular spots in the Smithsonian complex: the gem exhibit at the Natural History Museum. Most people go there to see the Hope Diamond. That famous blue diamond once belonged to French kings, but the revolutionary government forced Louis XVI to turn over the crown jewels. In 1792, the diamond disappeared, only to resurface in England twenty years later. Napoleon never had the chance to own it.

Empress Marie-Louise's crown 2 Marie-Louise w crown

However, the crown of Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise, is displayed in the same room as the Hope Diamond. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, Marie Louise fled home to Austria, taking the crown with her. Eventually, it ended up in the possession of Marjorie Merriweather Post, who donated it to the Smithsonian. The museum information says that in the mid 20th century, the crown’s emeralds were replaced with the less precious turquoise. Interestingly, this painting shows the Empress Marie Louise wearing a similar crown but set with rubies.

Napoleon's Napkin from ElbaOn a last poignant note, a linen napkin, bearing Napoleon’s imperial “N”, is on display in the Smithsonian’s castle building. The exiled Napoleon used it on Elba. He gave the napkin to a visiting American, William Blake, on February 26, 1815. That same day Napoleon escaped from Elba to begin his short-lived triumphant return to France. 

Like so many items that touched Napoleon Bonaparte’s hands, the napkin became a coveted keepsake.


Miscellany The Man

Family Legends about Napoleon


Emperor Maximilian I of MexicoThe most frequent communication I get from readers of this blog goes something like this: 

“I grew up being told that my great-great-great-(grandfather/uncle, etc) was a (close friend/servant/doctor/personal guard) of Napoleon. Have you come across our family name in your research?”

I’m always happy to respond. Sometimes I can point the questioner to a website where they might get help. Occasionally, particularly if the ancestor in question hailed from St Helena, I might put their information in a blog post.

But how much scrutiny can most family legends take? In this holiday season, filled with Santa Clauses, elves, and flying reindeer, it’s appropriate to tell the legend from my own family that comes closest to touching on Napoleon—in this case, Napoleon III, the first emperor’s nephew who ruled France from 1852 – 1870.

One of Napoleon III’s more dubious exploits—and he had several—was the installation of Maximilian of Austria as Emperor of Mexico. Needless to say, many locals weren’t thrilled. A rebellion ensued and the French forces were routed.

Shirt Emperor Maximilian wore at his ExecutionIn 1864, my grandmother’s grandfather, Ferdinand Heinrich Englebert Osthaus, had followed Maximilian to the New World, expecting to make his fortune as “a gentleman farmer.” From here, I’ll quote the document my father left me:

“After the army of Juarez captured Mexico City in 1867, Maximilian and his followers took refuge in Querétaro north of Mexico City. Querétaro, too, was captured and Maximilian tried by court martial and executed in June of that year. Family tradition has it that Maximilian was “shot in Grosspapa’s shirt,” because his clothing was in such disrepair after being in prison that Osthaus lent him a shirt, which he was wearing when he was executed.”

It turns out there was a photographer, François Aubert, who took photos of Maximilian’s body and his effects. In this photo,  Aubert memorialized the very shirt my ancestor claimed as his own. Since the photograph was famous in its time, I do wonder if it prompted my great-great grandfather to claim a little of its gory glory after he fled Mexico to join his brother in Wisconsin.

As a child, this family myth fascinated me. Now it makes me realize how much I wish there had been photography (Video! Audio!) in the Age of Napoleon I. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a candid shot of the Great Man? Think of all we could learn that can’t be discerned from the staged portraits of his day.


Miscellany The Man

Dying Gaul, Once a Guest of Napoleon Bonaparte

Dying Gaul, from 100 AD, seen at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Yesterday when I saw this beautiful, life-sized statue at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, I was surprised to learn of its history with Napoleon Bonaparte.

National Gallery of Art, Washington, DCOriginally crafted about 100 AD, it was rediscovered in 1623 during construction of a Roman villa. Its fame swiftly spread throughout Europe. King Philip IV of Spain and Louis XIV of France had full-sized replicas made. Lord Byron mentioned it in his poem Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage, and painters from Velázquez to David were inspired by it. Thomas Jefferson hoped to acquire a copy for an art gallery he envisioned at Monticello.

Scholars say it depicts a defeated Gallic warrior in the moment before his death. The mortally wounded man, who probably was the sculptor’s enemy, is portrayed with dignity, compassion, and humanity. Although made of marble two thousand years ago, Dying Gaul almost breathes in agony. 

What does this all have to do with Napoleon? It turns out the statue’s trip to DC is only its second voyage ever. The first took place in 1797. While conquering Italy, Napoleon confiscated the Dying Gaul as a war prize and had the statue transported to Paris where it was displayed in the Louvre. In 1816, after Napoleon was ensconced in St Helena, Dying Gaul was repatriated to Rome.

Don’t judge Napoleon too harshly for stealing artworks from his conquered foes. He was following the custom of his time. At least he didn’t destroy them as many other conquerors have done.

Miscellany Paris The Man

Poem about Napoleon’s general, Marshal Michel Ney

Michel Ney, Marshal of the French Empire, by François GérardNapoleon’s general, and later Marshal of the Empire, Michel Ney was born the son of a cooper (a wooden-barrel maker). Originally a non-commissioned officer, Ney rose through the ranks due to his courageous leadership in battle. Tradition holds that he was the last Frenchman to leave Russian soil during the disastrous retreat from Moscow in 1812. For that, Napoleon nicknamed him “the bravest of the brave.” 

His performance in subsequent years is more ambiguous. In 1814, he helped force Napoleon’s first abdication, telling the Emperor that the Army wanted peace and would obey its chiefs rather than the Emperor himself. Napoleon then accepted exile on Elba, and the Bourbon dynasty was restored to power. The new king, Louis XVIII, rewarded Ney with honors.

Ten months later, Napoleon escaped his exile and started his 500-mile march to Paris, gathering soldiers along the way. Ney bragged to Louis XVIII that he would bring “Napoleon to Paris in a iron cage.” However, when Ney encountered Napoleon, Ney’s soldiers deserted him to join the Emperor’s forces. Napoleon, in his typical fashion, forgave Ney and reinstated him as a Marshal of his army.

The Battle of Waterloo took place three months later. Ney is often blamed for Napoleon’s defeat on that day. It’s true that Ney and his forces were not where Napoleon had designated they should be and that Ney diverted other French troops away from the main fighting. That might have been enough to tip the balance against the French in a battle even Wellington called a “near-run thing.”

If Ney contributed to Napoleon’s loss at Waterloo, he ended up paying the ultimate price, as you shall see at the conclusion of this poem:

            To a Young Girl in Washington Square Park*

                        A poem by George Green


            Lolling beneath the Garibaldi statue,

            you look like some pre-Raphaelite Cordelia,

            except you’re tarted up for rock and roll.

            Your beauty is the barrel you’ll go over


           Lord Byron's Foot by George Green the falls in, and you’re copping now, I see—

            I hope it’s only pot. Oh I would row

            you back to Astolat, and swiftly too,

            but that’s just not my job. You’re on your own,


            And while you gambol off to get your buzz,

            the statue tries to pull its damaged sword,

            snapped off by hooligans eons ago.

            That sword reminds me now of Marshal Ney,


            who charged at Waterloo with half a saber

            brandished above his powder-blackened head.

            Five horses fell from under him, before,

            unscathed, he made it out, at last, on foot,


            only to find disaster on the roads,

            and gallantry in short supply; though he

            would tramp along, apparently unshaken,

            to Paris and a Bourbon firing squad.


*Copyright 2012 by George Green. Reproduced with permission, from Mr Green’s poetry volume, Lord Byron’s Foot, published by St Augustine Press: I highly recommend the book.

Copyright © 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 Margaret Rodenberg