The most striking aspect of this incarcerated life is the constant and intense fidelity of the aides who accompanied Napoleon to St. Helena. Presumably the intoxicating aura of fame shared in stimulating their services, but their persistence in them despite the restraints and homesickness of exile, the quarrels of competition for the Emperor’s favor, and the irritation of a depressing climate and a disagreeable governor, lends to their record almost the quality of an Arthurian legend, darkened with jealousies but ennobled with devotion.
Noblest of them was Comte Henri-Gratien Bertrand (1773–1844). He entered history as a military engineer under Napoleon in the first Italian campaign. In the Egyptian expedition he commanded a battalion at the battle of the Pyramids, and was wounded in the victory at Abukir. The bridges that he built across the Danube in the campaign of 1809 were rated by Napoleon as the finest such work since the Romans.17 In 1813 he was made grand marshal of the palace. He remained loyal to Napoleon through the bitter years of retreat before the Allies, accompanied him to Elba, stayed with him during the Hundred Days, rode with him to Rochefort, and sailed with him to England and St. Helena. There he continued as grand marshal, checking visitors, cooling tempers, keeping truce between Napoleon and the governor, and bearing with forgiving patience the attempt to seduce his wife.*She was an English Creole, niece of Lord Dillon, and related to Josephine. She bore with impatient fidelity her isolation, in St. Helena, from the social life of Paris. Bertrand took her back to France five months after Napoleon’s death. He had compiled three volumes of a diary in St. Helena, but refused to publish them. They were deciphered and published in 1949–59, a century after his death. He was buried in the crypt of Les Invalides, beside the remains of Napoleon.
Almost equal in devotion was the Irish surgeon Barry O’Meara (1786–1836). As ship’s doctor on the Northumberland, he attended Napoleon, talked with him in French or Italian, half agreed with his opinion of physicians, and became so strongly attached to him that he asked—and received-permission of the British government to remain in attendance on Napoleon in St. Helena. Sir Hudson Lowe did not approve of such intimacy between a British doctor and a French criminal; he suspected O’Meara of a plot to have Napoleon escape; he insisted on assigning a soldier to accompany the surgeon wherever he went; O’Meara protested; Lowe had him recalled to Britain (July, 1818). In 1822 O’Meara published Napoleon in Exile, or A Voice from St. Helena, a passionate plea for a better treatment of the fallen Emperor. The two volumes had a wide sale, and started a wave of English sympathy for Napoleon. The book contains some errors,19 having been written from memory; but Las Cases defended O’Meara’s account, and all those around Napoleon seem to have had a high opinion of him both as a physician and as a gentleman.
The eventful devotion of Comte Emmanuel-Augustin-Dieudonné de Las Cases (1766–1842), and his voluminous Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène have placed him only next to Napoleon and Lowe in the dramatis personae of the island. He was a minor noble, fought in Condé’s army against the Revolution, emigrated to England, joined in the attempt of some émigrés to invade France at Quiberon, failed to land, returned to England, and lived by teaching history. He drew up an Atlas historique which later won high praise from Napoleon. Soon after the 18th Brumaire he ventured to return to France. He judged Napoleon to be the right medicine for the Revolution; sought every opportunity to serve him, and rose to be a member of the Council of State. Waterloo did not cool his admiration for the Emperor; he went to Malmaison to help him, followed him to Rochefort, to England, and to St. Helena.
Of all the companions he remained closest to the Emperor, was the most zealous in recording his dictation, and kept his high estimate of him through all the storms of the exile’s temper. He noted everything about Napoleon except the faults; he did not, like Cromwell, believe in immortalizing warts. His report of Napoleon’s recollections and observations does not claim to be verbally precise. “The Emperor dictated very rapidly, almost as fast as he speaks in ordinary conversation. I was therefore obliged to invent a kind of hieroglyphic writing; and I, in my turn, dictated this to my son”; or “I sat beside my son as he wrote the Emperor’s dictation…. I always read to the Emperor what he had dictated the preceding day, and then he made corrections and dictated further.”20However, the language in which Las Cases expressed his own views is so much like that which he ascribes to Napoleon that we cannot accept his report as revealing Napoleon as impartially as in the more vividly immediate journal of Gourgaud.
Anxious to arouse Europe to the hardships which Napoleon was suffering, Las Cases wrote an account of these on a piece of silk, addressed it to Lucien Bonaparte, and entrusted it to a servant who was about to return to Europe. The servant was searched; the message was discovered; Sir Hudson Lowe had Las Cases arrested, confiscated his papers (including conversations with Napoleon), and deported Las Cases and son to Cape Town (November 25, 1816). From that remote point the Count began years of wandering—usually under hostile surveillance—in England, Belgium, and Germany. In October, 1818, he presented to the Allies’ Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) a petition from Napoleon’s mother for the release of her son. He himself sent appeals to the rulers of Russia, Prussia, Austria, and England. No answer came. After Napoleon’s death he was allowed to return to France (1822). He secured from the British government his confiscated manuscripts, and published nearly all of them in the Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène (1823). The volumes became the literary event of the year; Las Cases and his heirs were enriched by the sale; and his ardent testimony to the treatment which, he believed, had caused Napoleon’s death became a continuing factor in the “Napoleonic legend” that raised Napoleon III to a more lasting reign than his uncle’s, and gave Las Cases, Jr., a senatorial seat in that Second Empire.
The other companions were jealous of Las Cases as being most frequently and intimately near Napoleon. Especially irked was General Gaspard Gourgaud (1783–1852), who had many claims to favor. He had fought for the Emperor in Spain, Austria, Russia, and France, and had saved his life at Brienne. He was the most expressive and exuberant of the exiles, ardent in friendship, passionate in enmity, challenging Montholon to a duel, and loving Napoleon with a jealous love intolerant of other lovers; “he loves me,” said Napoleon, “as a lover loves his mistress.”21 To restore peace in the camp, Napoleon sent him to Europe (1818) with a message for Czar Alexander. Even so, Gourgaud’s Journal inédit de Sainte-Hélène (1899) is the most fascinating and realistic of all the echoes from St. Helena.
Comte Charles-Tristan de Montholon (1783–1853) hardly deserved Gourgaud’s hatred, for he was the most polite and accommodating of the imperial quartet. He had proud memories of having been taught mathematics, when he was ten, by a young artillery captain called Bonaparte. Later he followed Napoleon’s star in its rise and fall, and insisted on accompanying him to St. Helena. His wife, Albinie de Vassal, had come to him from two divorced and living husbands, so that Montholon was never quite sure of her. Gossip in St. Helena said she had helped Napoleon to warm his bed; the Russian representatives at Jamestown put the matter harshly: “Though old, debauched, and fat, she is today the mistress of the great man.”22 When she left the island (1819) Napoleon wept.23Montholon himself remained to the end, shared with Bertrand the long watch over the dying gladiator, and was named coexecutor of the imperial will. Returning to France, he shared seven years of imprisonment with Napoleon’s nephew, and helped him to become another emperor.