Tag Archives: Margaret Rodenberg

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


Paris Saint Helena The Man

The 193rd Anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death

Napoleon Bonaparte died in exile on remote St Helena Island on May 5, 1821. His body was laid to rest in this modest site in the island’s Valley of Geraniums. The British government, fearing his influence even from the grave, kept the location carefully guarded.

MAR at Les Invalides sarcophagusIn 1840, Queen Victoria allowed the French to return their hero to his adopted homeland. The French king, Louis Philippe I, dispatched his son, the Prince of Joinville, along with two of Napoleon’s generals, to bring the Emperor home. With great ceremony and according to Napoleon’s own wishes, his body was laid to rest near the banks of the Seine.

During my visits, I’ve been surprised how Napoleon’s charisma envelopes both of the gravesites. They are solemn, sacred places.

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.


The Man

Napoleonic Historical Society 2013 Conference

Mark Schneider as Napoleon at the Napoleonic Historical Society 2013 Conference

I just attended the Napoleonic Historical Society’s annual conference, held this year in Alexandria, Virginia, not far from where I live. The schedule was packed with interesting, informative talks on battles, personalities, and culture of Napoleonic times. Even I gave a brief presentation about my voyage to St Helena

The highlight for me was our final dinner where the guest of honor was Napoleon himself . . . well, it did seem like that at the time.

It was actually one of the world’s foremost Napoleon enactors, Mark Schneider. As you can see from the photos, Mark has the right look (his mother’s French; his father American), but his talent goes beyond appearances.

Napoleon, my husband and meHe claims to have had a fascination with the Emperor since he was a toddler who clutched a tiny figurine of the Great Man as other children might cuddle a stuffed animal. Mark’s mobile features capture Napoleon’s commanding stare, then transform into a swift smile of melting charm. His movements are abrupt―decisive rather than awkward―and slightly self-conscious as I suspect Napoleon’s own to have been.

Having spent the last several years living in Napoleon’s head, trying to see the world through his eyes, imagining the next words he’d say, the next thought he’d try to conceal, I was transfixed to meet the man in the flesh.

I wanted to bring him home with me, but my husband said Best not.


Finding Napoleon in Alaska?

Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska

Finding Napoleon Bonaparte in Alaska? Unlikely. Nonetheless that’s where I am. I’ll be back thinking about Napoleon again sometime late next week.

Miscellany The Man

Napoleon and Louisiana Purchase

On July 4, 1803, two hundred and ten years ago today, Thomas Jefferson’s administration announced the United States had the opportunity to double its territory.

A few months earlier, President Jefferson had sent James Monroe to France to purchase New Orleans or at least negotiate trade access to its port. Much to everyone’s surprise, Napoleon sold him not only New Orleans, but most of the Mississippi River Basin, a total of 827,000 square miles of land for $15,000,000. 

1803-Louisiana Purchase

Why did Napoleon do it?

Lacking a strong Navy, France’s hold in the New World had always been tenuous. By 1803, its richest colony, Santa Domingue (now Haiti) had seen a decade of bloody slave uprisings and savage reprisals against the black population whom the French Revolution had theoretically freed. When French troops arrived to restore order (and slavery), yellow fever decimated them.

Sugar BeetFrance would have to do without Haiti’s precious sugar cane. Building on new methods to extract sucrose from sugar beets, Napoleon began a program to replace imports with home-grown production. France’s foothold in the New World became less important.

Meanwhile, in Europe, although Napoleon’s army had been triumphant in every battle, new wars were brewing. France had to concentrate its resources at home, leaving New Orleans unprotected. Convinced he’d lose it and the Louisiana territories anyway, Napoleon abruptly sold them.

Today, due to Napoleon’s ingenuity, France is the world’s largest producer of sugar beets. And the United States, without the Louisiana Purchase, wouldn’t be the country we celebrate on this July 4th holiday.

The Man Writing Links

Finding Napoleon in St Petersburg, Florida

 Salvador Dali Museum, St Petersburg, Florida

Napoleon as First Consul, Unknown Artist, MFA, St Petersburg FLThis past weekend I attended the Historical Novel Society’s annual convention (more on that later) in St Petersburg, Florida. For a city of 250,000 residents, St Petersburg has a surprising trove of art museums, including the Salvador Dali Museum shown in the photo above.

Of course I was on the lookout for Napoleon. Sure enough, in the Museum of Fine Arts, I found this early 1800s bust of him as First Consul. It’s a somewhat commonplace piece by an unknown artist who modeled it after work by the artist Joseph Chinard who in turn was influenced by the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova. Personally, I prefer Canova’s work because it exudes the power and determination of its subject. Both busts are fine examples of Napoleon’s desire to be portrayed as a Roman hero. 

But judge for yourself. Here’s a photo I took two years ago, in the Chateau de Malmaison, of Canova’s bust of Napoleon: 


Napoleon bust by Antonio Canova at Malmaison


Memorial Day at My Parents’ Grave

Dad's funeral caisson; photo by Toby Marquez

This morning, Memorial Day, my husband and I visited my parents’ grave in Arlington National Cemetery. This weekend the military places a small American flag at each of the 250,000 grave stones there. The President, of course, brings a wreath for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers.

Mom's gravestoneIt’s a privilege to be buried in one of our country’s sacred spots, especially with full military honors as my father was.  The photo above is from his funeral in 2005.

I understand that Arlington is a cemetery dedicated to those who served our country. Still, it saddens me that my mother, who spent most of her adult life as a Navy wife, is listed on the reverse side of the headstone. Next year, I’ll plant a second flag in her honor.

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