Even as that pretty visage faded from French memory the image of Napoleon himself took on a new living form in recollection and imagination. As time closed old wounds, and filled the places—in families, fields, and shops—of those millions who had gone to the wars and never returned, the picture of the age of Napoleon grew brighter and more heroic beyond any remembered precedent in secular history.
First of all, the old soldiers recalled their exploits and forgot their “groans”; they embellished Napoleon’s victories, and seldom blamed him for a defeat; they loved him as probably no other commander has ever been loved. The aging grenadier became an oracle in his village, and was enshrined in a thousand poems, tales, and songs. In “Le Vieux Drapeau” (The Old Standard) and a hundred other lays Pierre de Béranger (1780–1857) idealized Napoleon and his campaigns, and satirized the domineering nobles and the land-hungry bishops with such point and verve that he was imprisoned by the Bourbon government (1821, 1828). Victor Hugo wrote an “Ode to the Column,” celebrating the Vendôme pillar and its historical reliefs and crowning figure of the Emperor, taken down (1815) and then restored (1833). Balzac in Le Médecin de campagne (1833), vividly pictured a proud veteran denouncing the Bourbons for issuing the report that Napoleon was dead; on the contrary, he affirmed, Napoleon was still alive, and was “the child of God made to be the father of the soldier.”9 Stendhal not only sprinkled his novels with praise of Napoleon, he published in 1837 a Vie de Napoléon whose tenor was announced in the preface—”The love of Napoleon is the only passion that is left in me”; and he called Napoleon “the greatest man the world has seen since Caesar.”10
Napoleon would probably have accepted this estimate, with some uncertainty about Caesar. He had never lost hope that France would come back to him. He solaced his exile with the hope that Gallic resentment of his imprisonment would restore French devotion to him. “When I am gone,” he told O’Meara, “there will be a reaction in my favor…. It is my martyrdom that will restore the crown of France to my dynasty…. Ere twenty years have elapsed, when I am dead and buried, you will see another revolution in France.”11Both of these predictions were fulfilled.
So he dictated his memoirs to revitalize his image, and they served their purpose well. His account of the battle of Waterloo, told to Gourgaud, was smuggled out of St. Helena and was published in Paris in 1820; Las Cases tells us that it made a sensation.12 In 1821–22 six more volumes of his dictated autobiography were issued in France. Rapidly the Emperor’s own story made its way, and played a major part in molding the “legend” that made him, dead, a living force in France.
His companions became his apostles. O’Meara defended him bravely (1822) in the land of his sturdiest enemies. Las Cases made him faultless in four volumes (1823) that became the bible of the new inspiring creed. The Comte de Montholon’s extensive report did not appear till 1847, Gourgaud’s and Bertrand’s only after their deaths; but meanwhile their living testimony fed the faith. Montholon brought back, also, the Emperor’s “Deathbed Instructions to His Son,” recommending virtues that might improve upon the imperial past: caution, moderation, constitutional rule, freedom of the press, and, toward the world, a policy of peace. Now, too, came a favorite counsel: “Let my son often read, and reflect on, history; this is the only true philosophy.”13
Even in the testimony of his devout companions the great Emperor, amid the irritations of confinement and disease, had developed the faults natural to old age; but these weaknesses were now forgotten in the perspective of his martial triumphs, his administrative legacy, and the penetrating sharpness of his mind. He had in effect repudiated most of the Revolution, replacing liberty with absolutism, equality with aristocracy, fraternity with discipline; but in his refurbished image he was again the Son of the Revolution, and the Jacobins, once his devoted and persecuted enemies, now gathered around his memory. But, while Napoleon was purifying his record with punishment, the Bourbon rule that had replaced him outwore its initial acceptance; Louis XVIII, himself a reasonable man, touched with the Enlightenment, had allowed his court to be dominated by royalists who had forgiven nothing and wanted everything, including their old estates and authority, and a government unhampered by representative institutions. Resistance had been met with a “White Terror” of spies and hunts and hasty executions. Old soldiers could not forget the hounding and shooting of Ney. Against all this the Army still cherished its memory of the Petit Caporal who had chatted with conscripts around a campfire, who had promoted them without class prejudice or bureaucratic delay, and who had made the Grande Armée the terror of kings and the pride of France. The peasants remembered that Napoleon had protected them against the demands of the nobility and the clergy; the proletariat had prospered under his rule; the middle classes had grown in wealth and social acceptance. Millions of Frenchmen felt that with all his autocracy Napoleon had preserved the essentials of the Revolution: the end of feudalism and its toilsome tolls and dues; the opening of advancement to ability of whatever class; the equality of all before the law; the administration of justice according to explicit, written, and nationally uniform law.
So, within twenty years after his death, Napoleon had been reborn, and again dominated the minds and imagination of men. “The world belongs to Napoleon,” wrote Chateaubriand; “… living, he failed to win the world; dead, he possesses it.”14 The modest Revolution of 1830 was helped by the new Bonapartist sentiment. The direct Bourbon line ended with the abdication of Charles X; the new King, Louis Philippe, of the Orléanist branch of the Bourbons, was the son of Louis-Philippe-Joseph, Duc d’Orléans, who had called himself Philippe-Égalité and had voted for the execution of Louis XVI. The new King for a time courted the support of the Bonapartists; he adopted the tricolor emblems of the imperial regime, and ordered the restoration of the figure of Napoleon to the top of the Vendôme Column.
Meanwhile the dead man’s will had been published, and its second clause seemed to be the final imperial command: “It is my wish that my ashes may repose on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of the French people, whom I have loved so well.” Throughout France, quietly here and there, then more widely and audibly, rose the appeal of the nation: “Bring him home!” Let France give its hero the funeral that such a man deserved: let the Triumph of the Ashes (so it came to be called) redeem the shame of that dreary imprisonment! The cry reached the government; its Minister of Foreign Affairs, Louis-Adolphe Thiers (1797–1877)—who would write the greatest of all histories of Napoleon,*and who was to be elected (in 1871) first president of the Third Republic—was apparently the one who suggested to his associates, and then, with them, to the King: Let us ask Great Britain’s consent for the removal of Napoleon’s remains to Paris. Louis Philippe agreed; to identify himself with such a move would win the hearts of the French people. The Cabinet sounded out the heads of the British government. Lord Palmerston replied at once and handsomely: “The government of her Britannic Majesty hopes that the promptness of its answer may be considered in France as a proof of its desire to blot out the last trace of those national animosities which, during the lifetime of the Emperor, armed England and France against each other.”15
The King commissioned his son François, Prince de Joinville, to go to St. Helena, and bring back the remains of Napoleon. On July 7, 1840, the Prince sailed from Toulon on the Belle Poule, accompanied by Generals Bertrand and Gourgaud, the Comte de Las Cases, and Napoleon’s most intimate servant, Marchand, who together would decide the authenticity of the corpse. They reached St. Helena on October 8; after many formalities they saw the body exhumed; they identified it; and on November 30 they arrived with it at Cherbourg.
There began what was surely the longest funeral in history. The coffin was transferred to the steamer Normandie, which took it to Val de la Haye, on the Seine below Rouen; there it was transferred to a river barge, on which a small temple had been improvised; under this temple—guarded, one at each corner, by Bertrand, Gourgaud, Las Cases, and Marchand—the coffin was borne in leisurely state up the Seine, stopping at major towns for celebrations on the bank.16 At Courbevoie, four miles north of Paris, it was transferred to a decorated funeral coach, which was drawn in a procession of soldiers, sailors, and diverse dignitaries through Neuilly, and under the Arc de Triomphe, and along the Champs-Élysées lined on either side by applauding and rejoicing multitudes.17Late on that bitter-cold day, December 15, 1840, the corpse at last reached its destination, the magnificently domed church of the Hôtel des Invalides. The aisles and nave were crowded with thousands of silent spectators as twenty-four seamen bore the heavy coffin to the altar, where the Prince de Joinville addressed his father the King: “Sire, I present to you the body of the Emperor of France”; to which Louis Philippe replied, “I receive it in the name of France.” Bertrand laid Napoleon’s sword upon the coffin; Gourgaud added the Emperor’s hat; a requiem Mass was sung to Mozart’s music; and the Emperor was at last where he had wished his remains to be—in the heart of Paris, on the banks of the Seine.