The period from March 1, 1815, when Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from Elba, to June 18, 1815, when the Duke of Wellington and his command routed the French at Waterloo, is called “The Hundred Days.” Many Frenchmen politically compromised themselves during those three months. Some went to the wall. Others went abroad.
In July 1815, the Commerce, a brig of 200 tons out of Charleston, South Carolina, Captain Misservy commanding, sailed early from Bordeaux—some say even before receiving her cargo of cognac. Someone paid him 18,000 gold francs to depart immediately for New York. Misservy never said whom. On July 24, the Commerce made an unscheduled stop off Royan, at the mouth of the Gironde. Several passengers boarded that night from an open boat. One was a dignified man whose passports called him the Comte Surviglieri. Misservy didn’t closely examine the papers. Perhaps ignorance was best. On August 19, 1815, the Commerce raced through the Narrows under full sail, outrunning two British frigates in Lower New York Bay.
The man whose passports called him the Comte Surviglieri took rooms in Mrs. Powell’s boarding house on Park Place, just off City Hall Park, under the name of Monsieur Bouchard. One afternoon, the man who called himself Monsieur Bouchard was strolling on Broadway as another Frenchman, an ex-grenadier who had served with the Imperial armies in Spain, walked past. The veteran glanced at Bouchard. Then he stopped. Bouchard gazed back with polite reserve. The old soldier fell to his knees, bawled out "Majesty," and kissed the hands of Bouchard, before whom he had so often passed in review, whom he had recognized as His Most Catholic Majesty José, by the Grace of God King of the Spains and of the Indies.
Bouchard was Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s older brother.
He was born in 1768 at Ajaccio, the capital of the Mediterranean island of Corsica. After realizing he didn’t have a calling to the priesthood (neither celibacy nor chastity ran in the Bonaparte family), Joseph earned a law degree and returned home to practice law.
For all the sound and fury, the French Revolution, which began as Joseph completed his studies, essentially involved the violent substitution of one elite for another with a massive transfer of wealth to the new ruling class from the old. The Bonapartes sided with the Revolution. This was a good idea. Thus Napoleon was a general at 25; Joseph was elected mayor of Ajaccio in 1790 and then a deputy to the National Assembly.
But Joseph understood who was boss. A wealthy, powerful uncle, on his deathbed, said to him: "You, Joseph, are the eldest, but Napoleon is the real head of the family. Never forget it." Neither man did. After 1795, no one did. Nonetheless, Napoleon complained of his siblings’ ingratitude, "...my brothers are nothing without me; they are great only because I have made them great."
Napoleon began finding Joseph jobs, first with the army, paying 6000 francs a year. At this time, Joseph met Julie Clary. She was short and plain. She was also kindhearted, intelligent, and heiress to her father’s fortune. In its own way, the marriage was a success: they had two daughters; she would become Queen of Naples and then of Spain; and she would be with Joseph at the end.
In 1797 he served as French ambassador to the Papal States, with a salary of 60,000 gold francs. All the while, Joseph was making a fortune from insider trading using knowledge from his brother.
In 1799, Napoleon overthrew the Republic, instituting a military dictatorship. On May 18, 1804, the Senate proclaimed Napoleon Emperor of the French. As he then had no son, Joseph was nominated as his heir, proclaimed a Prince of the Empire, appointed Grand Elector (the emperor’s representative in the Senate) and given the Luxembourg Palace as his residence. Joseph insisted on an annual allowance and expense account of more than 1.3 million gold francs.
On December 2, 1804 at Notre Dame Cathedral, Napoleon took the golden crown from the Pope’s hands and crowned himself. Before the ceremony, Napoleon took Joseph by the arm and whispered, "If our father could see us!" In Jacques-Louis David’s painting of the ceremony, Joseph appears at the extreme left, dressed in a white silk tunic and a flame-colored, ermine-lined mantle, wearing a velvet hat with turned-up brim and ostrich plumes.
In 1806, Napoleon had Joseph proclaimed King of Naples, where he proved quite popular. Two years later, in March 1808, massive riots forced the King of Spain, Charles IV, to abdicate in favor of his son, Ferdinand VII. Charles, who could charitably be described as unintelligent, sought Bonaparte’s help in regaining the throne. In late March 1808, Napoleon invited the two kings to visit him in Bayonne, just beyond the northeasternmost border of Spain. Evidence that brains had been bred out of the Spanish Bourbons is that they accepted. On arrival, they found a large French army and a genial emperor who firmly suggested that Charles remain a former King and that Ferdinand VII also abdicate in favor of another man. Proof that courage, too, had been bred out of the Spanish royals is that both men signed the papers.
Overnight, French agents in Spain created an artificial agitation that Joseph become the new king. Joseph apparently believed the Spanish people wanted him. They didn’t. Within days, Madrid was torn by riots, put down savagely by French troops.
Joseph found the streets empty and the windows barred against him. The only persons who welcomed him were French soldiers and Spanish collaborators on the French payroll. Spanish nationalist propaganda painted Joseph as a monster, a lecher and a drunk—Pepe Botellas (Joe Bottles), the Intrusive King. Then the guerilla wars began, “the Spanish Ulcer,” which Napoleon couldn’t put down, despite millions of francs and hundreds of thousands of lives. It would bleed the French Empire to death.
If intentions were realities, Joseph would’ve been a good king. He was kindly and affable, and enough of a Revolutionary to decree constant social improvements: universal suffrage, representative bodies in local, provincial, and national governments, and universal free education for boys and girls (the latter truly revolutionary in Spain). Today, the Prado, Spain’s greatest museum, grudgingly admits it was founded by decree of King José in 1809.
Despite his uniforms and medals, Joseph had never commanded troops in battle. Only in 1812, when Napoleon shifted his first-rate military talent to the Russian campaign, did Joseph become supreme commander of Imperial forces in Spain. A succession of disasters followed, culminating first in the fall of Madrid in July 1812 and then the final, grotesque defeat on June 21, 1813, at Vitoria.
As the sun rose on the morning of battle, Joseph commanded some 57,000 men and over 150 cannon. Joseph’s bad luck held. The opposing commander was Wellington, commanding 57,000 British, 16,000 Portuguese, and 8000 Spanish troops. While commanding a small force in the center to bluff the French, Wellington had sent the bulk of his force around the French right flank, crossing ground the French had believed impassable. Marshal Jean-Baptiste Jourdan, whose job was to be the real commander, had been laid up with a fever and unable to make a battle plan. Neither had Joseph, who was distracted by a mistress.
Perhaps Wellington’s opposing commander was his most effective ally. There was no planning, no leadership. The roads through the city of Vitoria were jammed with hundreds of wagons of Joseph’s loot. He had even failed to burn the bridges over the River Zadorra, the one natural barrier between the Allies and the French.
Wellington had carefully planned and skillfully executed his attack. Joseph’s forces were attacked from the south, west, and north while a fourth Allied column sought to cut off Joseph’s last escape route. The Allies easily broke the French lines. Around one p.m., King José ordered a general retreat. A competent commander plans an orderly withdrawal in the event of defeat. Joseph hadn’t done that, either. Consequently, his soldiers simply ran for their lives. Even his artillerymen abandoned their guns and galloped away on their trace horses.
Amidst the chaos of the rout, a British cavalryman, Captain Windham of the 14th Light Dragoons, galloped up to Joseph’s coach and fired his pistols into its near window. The Intrusive King extruded himself out the other side, leapt onto a gray horse, clapped spurs to its sides, and rode for his life.
The Allied forces, having already marched 20 miles that day, were in no shape to pursue Joseph’s troops. However, they were ready to seize the loot. In her biography of Wellington, Elizabeth Longford describes how the wagonloads of gold, silks, and jewels distracted the British. "It was as nothing the world had seen since the days of Alexander the Great: 151 cannon, just on two million cartridges, immense quantities of ammunition." The French army’s payroll, some $5,000,000, had arrived at Vitoria just before the battle. It vanished, only a small part of the $150 million looted from the French that day.
Wellington, outraged by the collapse of discipline, wrote in his official dispatch, “We have in the service the scum of the earth as common soldier.” He swiftly restored order. But except for a few looters hanged as an example to the others, the British government made little inquiry into the disappearance of the money, jewels, and treasure.
Joseph lost his state papers, his private correspondence (including some interesting love letters that provided general amusement when published), and the crown and regalia of a King of Spain. His large silver chamber pot was taken by the 14th Light Dragoons, which christened it "The Emperor." The rest of the British Army then nicknamed the 14th “the Emperor’s Chambermaids.” Today it’s an armored cavalry unit named the King’s Royal Hussars. At mess dinners, the regiment uses The Emperor for drinking toasts in champagne. Once empty the pot is placed ceremoniously on the head of the most junior officer or the man who emptied the pot.
Napoleon ordered Joseph to his private estate at Mortefontaine, where he passed his time in sulking, shooting, boating, playing music, and fornicating. Finally, Joseph was appointed Lieutenant General of France, the traditional title of a Protector of the Realm, responsible for the defense of Paris. Joseph surrendered Paris to the Allies nearly without a shot. Upon Napoleon’s first abdication, he exiled himself to Switzerland.
When Napoleon returned from Elba, Joseph returned to Paris (after burying five million francs of uncut diamonds on his Swiss estate). Amazingly, Napoleon appointed Joseph Prime Minister. Whether he did anything during his brief tenure is unclear. After Waterloo, the Imperial regime collapsing about him, he rejoined Napoleon. Joseph’s agents had chartered the Commerce to transport him to America.
A few days before, Joseph had been mistaken for Napoleon, arrested, and then released. Joseph now offered to remain, impersonating his brother, while Napoleon sailed for America. Whether Napoleon thought this beneath an emperor’s dignity or resisted owing Joseph a favor is unclear. Instead, he surrendered to the British, believing they would grant him asylum in England. He was wrong. Two months later, they landed him at St. Helena, some 2000 miles off South Africa, where he remained a prisoner until his death in 1821.
Once Joseph’s presence in New York City was exposed, the press lionized him as a heroic figure of the Napoleonic adventure. He liked that. Joseph purchased an estate at Point Breeze, near Bordentown, New Jersey, in 1816. He rebuilt the house into a luxurious mansion.
He also purchased a hunting lodge in Jefferson County, New York, where he kept a mistress, Annette Savage, a Quaker girl whom he’d met in Philadelphia. They had a daughter, Caroline, who grew up to be strikingly beautiful. Joseph gave her a dowry and paid for her wedding, one of the most elaborate ever seen in Watertown, New York. Alas, her improvident husband lost everything and she ended up teaching French in Richfield Springs, near Utica.
Joseph frequently entertained his neighbors, who found him polite, unpretentious, and kind. Queen Julie remained in Europe and, despite Joseph’s frequent requests, never came to America with their daughters.
He didn’t lack for female companionship. In addition to Annette Savage, he maintained a principal mistress, Madame Sari, and fathered a child by a Creole lady, Madame Lacoste, whom he was rumored to have bought from her husband.
Joseph spent 17 happy years in America. He imported the first company of ballet dancers seen in the United States. He was also denounced by the high-minded ladies of the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance for serving champagne at breakfast.
Under the Law of Succession of 1804, Joseph would succeed to the Imperial throne if Napoleon’s descent failed. When Napoleon’s sole legitimate son died in 1832, Joseph became the Bonapartist claimant. Later that year, Joseph called on President Andrew Jackson to thank him for the hospitality of the American people. He then returned to Europe and reunited with Queen Julie.
He died in Florence in 1844 with Julie at his side. His remains lie in Paris in a magnificent marble sarcophagus among the heroes of France in the Hôtel des Invalides. He was buried wearing the grand collar of the Distinguished Order of the Golden Fleece, Spain’s oldest and most noble order of chivalry. He had awarded it to himself.