On the night of August 21, 1803, an English frigate, commanded by Captain Wright, brought across the Channel from England eight Frenchmen under the lead of Georges Cadoudal, a fervent leader of the irreconcilable Chouans. They landed on a rocky cliff near Biville in Normandy, where natives in league with them drew them up by ropes. On December 10 Captain Wright brought from England to Biville a second group of conspirators, including the émigré noble Armand de Polignac. On a third crossing, January 16, 1804, the captain brought Jules de Polignac, and the French émigré generals Pichegru and Lajolais. Pichegru, after well-led victories with the Revolutionary armies, had plotted to restore the Bourbons, had been detected, and had escaped to England (1801). All three groups made their way to Paris, where they were concealed in the homes of royalists. Cadoudal later confessed that he had planned to kidnap Napoleon, and, if Napoleon resisted, to kill him.79 We may believe that “Cadoudal was furnished by the British Government with drafts for a million francs to enable him to organize the insurrection in the capital”;80 but there is no evidence that the British government consented to assassination.
The plotters delayed action in the expectation that the Comte d’Artois, younger brother of Louis XVI, would join them in Paris,81 ready to replace Napoleon; but he did not come. Meanwhile (January 28, 1804) Pichegru visited General Moreau and asked his cooperation; Moreau refused to join in any attempt to restore the Bourbons, but offered himself as ruler of France if Napoleon should be removed.82 About this time Bernadotte gave Juliette Récamier the names of twenty generals who, he declared, were devoted to him and were eager to restore “the true Republic.”83 “I may fairly say,” Napoleon recalled at St. Helena, “that during the months from September, 1803, to January, 1804, I was sitting on a volcano.”84
On January 26 a Chouan named Querelle, who had been arrested three months before and was soon to be executed, revealed the details of the conspiracy in return for the commutation of his sentence. Guided by his confession, the slow-moving police of Claude Régnier found and arrested Moreau on February 15, Pichegru on February 26, the Polignac brothers on February 27, and Cadoudal on March 29. Cadoudal proudly admitted that he had planned to remove Napoleon from power, and that he had expected a French prince to meet him in Paris; but he refused to name any of his associates in the plot.85
Meanwhile an English agent named Drake had been collecting another group of conspirators in or near Munich, with a plan to raise an insurrection against Napoleon in the newly French regions on the west bank of the Rhine. If we may believe Méneval, “an order of the [British] King’s Privy Council enjoined on the French exiles to betake themselves to the banks of the Rhine, under penalty of forfeiting their pensions; and a regulation fixed the amount of pay allotted to each officer, and each soldier.”86 When Napoleon’s spies notified him of these developments he concluded that the Bourbon prince whom the London conspirators had awaited was among these émigrés. The Comte d’Artois could not be located among them; but in the little town of Ettenheim, some six miles east of the Rhine in the electorate of Baden, Napoleon’s agents discovered—living in apparent quiet except for occasional but suspicious visits to Strasbourg87—Louis-Antoine-Henri de Bourbon-Condé, Duc d’Enghien, son of the Duc de Bourbon, and grandson of the Prince de Condé.
When this was reported to Napoleon he concluded that the thirty-two-year-old Duke was a leader of the conspiracy to depose him. The revelations of Querelle, and the arrests recently made in Paris, had thrown the once intrepid general into a state of excitement—perhaps of fear and wrath—that hurried him into decisions that he would always defend but (despite his protestations88) perhaps secretly regretted. He sent instructions to General Ordener to lead an armed force to Ettenheim, arrest the Duke, and bring him to Paris. The Duke was taken on the night of March 14–15, 1804, and on March 18 he was imprisoned in the Fortress of Vincennes, five miles east of Paris.
On March 20 Napoleon ordered a military court of five colonels and one major to go to Vincennes and try the Duke on charges of having, while in the pay of England, taken up arms against his own country. About the same time he sent General Savary, head of his special police, to watch over the prisoner and the trial. Enghien admitted that he had received money from English authorities, and that he had hoped to lead a force into Alsace.89 The court pronounced him guilty of treason, and condemned him to death. He asked permission to see Napoleon; the court refused this, but proposed to send a message to Napoleon, recommending mercy. Savary overruled this proposal, and ordered the sentence of death to be carried out.90
Meanwhile Napoleon and his immediate circle, at Josephine’s Malmaison, debated the fate of the Duke. They assumed that he would be found guilty—but should he be pardoned as an olive branch to the royalists? Talleyrand, who in 1814 was to chaperone the restoration of the Bourbons, advised execution as a quick way of ending the hopes and plots of the royalists; remembering his record in the Revolution, he feared for his property, perhaps his life, should the Bourbons return to power; he “wished,” wrote Barras, “to put a river of blood between Napoleon and the Bourbons.”91 Cambacérès, coolest and most legal of the consular trio, favored delay. Josephine fell at Napoleon’s feet and pleaded for Enghien’s life, and her entreaties were seconded by her daughter Hortense and Napoleon’s sister Caroline.
At some time that night, from Malmaison, Napoleon sent Hugues Maret to Paris with a message to Councilor of State Pierre Réal, bidding him to go to Vincennes, personally examine the Duke, and report the results to Malmaison. Réal received the message, but, exhausted by the day’s labor, fell asleep in his room, and did not reach Vincennes till 5 A.M., March 21. Enghien had died before a firing squad at 3 A.M. in the prison yard. Savary, apparently thinking that he had served his master well, rode to Malmaison to give Napoleon the news. Napoleon retired to his private apartment, locked himself in, and refused all appeals from his wife to let her enter.
Bitter denunciation came from royalists and royalty. They were appalled at the idea of a commoner killing a Bourbon. The cabinets of Russia and Sweden sent protests to the Diet of the Holy Roman Empire at Ratisbon, and proposed that the invasion of Baden by the armed forces of France be made the subject of an international inquiry. The Diet made no answer, and the Elector of Baden refused to offend France. Czar Alexander I instructed his ambassador in Paris to demand an explanation of the execution; Talleyrand replied with an argumentum ad hominem: “If, when England was planning the assassination of Paul I, the authors of the plot had been known to be lurking at a stone’s throw from the frontier, would they not have been seized with all possible speed?”92 William Pitt was much comforted by the news of the execution; “Bonaparte,” he said, “has now done himself more mischief than we have done him since the last declaration of war.”93
The reaction in France itself was milder than many had expected. Chateaubriand resigned a minor appointment in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; but when the head of that ministry, the imperturbable Talleyrand, gave a ball on March 24—three days after the death of Enghien—twenty members of the old French nobility, and representatives of all the European courts, attended.94 Three months after the affair it had apparently disappeared from the public mind. Fouché, however, usually a keen observer, remarked of the execution, “C’est plus qu’un crime, c’est une faute” (It is more than a crime, it is a blunder).95
Napoleon may have felt some remorse, but he never admitted it. “These people,” he said, “wanted to throw France into confusion, and to destroy the Revolution by destroying me; it was my duty both to defend and to avenge the Revolution. … The Duc d’Enghien was a conspirator like any other, and he had to be treated as such. … I had to choose between continuous persecution and one decisive blow, and my decision was not doubtful. I have forever silenced both royalists and Jacobins.”96 He would let them know that he was “not to be trifled with,”97 that neither was his “blood ditch-water.”98 He thought, with some reason, that he had put the fear of death into the hearts of royalist plotters, who could now see that Bourbon blood would not save them. Actually, there were no further royalist plots to take Napoleon’s life.
In the case of the conspirators who had been arrested in Paris he conducted himself with more caution and publicity. The trials were to be open, and the press was allowed to report them in detail. Though Bourrienne had opposed the execution of Enghien, Napoleon asked him to attend the trials and to give him an account of the proceedings. Pichegru did not wait to be tried; on April 4 he was found dead in his cell, strangled by his own cravat. In other cases the guilt was admitted or evident; but of Moreau no more was proved than that he had been openly hostile to Napoleon, and had concealed from the authorities his knowledge that Pichegru and others were proposing to unseat him by force. On June 10, 1804, the court pronounced sentence: nineteen conspirators were condemned to death, Moreau to two years’ imprisonment. Cadoudal died impenitent on June 28. Of the remaining eighteen Napoleon pardoned twelve, including the two Polignacs. Moreau asked if his sentence might be changed to exile; Napoleon agreed, though he predicted that Moreau would continue to plot against him.99 Moreau took ship to America, stayed there till 1812, returned to take service with the Russian Army, fought against Napoleon at Dresden (August 29, 1813), died of his wounds (September 2), and was buried in Russia.