A shouted order formed them up on deck, line behind line, gaunt, whiskered men who had marched into every capital in Europe save London alone. Saturday Evening Post image, from the Hornblower-L archives.
Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies, the ninth of C. S. Forrester’s Hornblower novels, opens with the title character arriving at New Orleans aboard H.M. Schooner Crab. It is 1821, and Hornblower has finally hoisted his flag, as commander-in-chief of the West Indies Station. But that post was but a shadow of its wartime self, and so Hornblower is forced to call at New Orleans in the diminutive Crab, with her pair of pop-gun six-pounders and a crew of sixteen.
At New Orleans, Hornblower encounters the famous (and historical) Viscount Pierre Jacques Étienne Cambronne, former General of the French Empire and commander of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard at Waterloo. Hornblower discovers that Cambronne has chartered a large, fast ship, ostensibly to take survivors of a failed colony of former guardsmen on the Texas coast, and return them to France.
Through careful inquiry, however, Hornblower comes to realize that Cambronne is not returning the soldiers to France directly; he plans to rescue the emperor from his South Atlantic imprisonment on St. Helena, and return him in triumph to France, a nation increasingly disgruntled under the corrupt rule of the restored Bourbon monarchy.
Hornblower has few options. There is not time to send for reinforcements or instructions; the little Crab can neither catch Cambronne’s ship, Daring, nor defeat it in action. Hornblower, always calculating, always turning over the possibilities, determines that the only way to stop Cambronne’s plot is to intercept Daring in the Tobago Channel, between Trinidad and Tobago, and dissuade Cambronne from his intended course of action. Hornblower knows there is only one way to do this: he tells Cambronne that the emperor has died at St. Helena.
“I do not believe you,” said Cambronne, nevertheless. It was just the sort of tale that might be told to halt Daring in her passage.
Sir!” said Hornblower haughtily. He drew himself up even stiffer, acting as well as he could the part of a man of honour whose word was being impugned. The pose was almost successful.
“You must understand the importance of what you are saying, milord,” said Cambronne, with the faintest hint of an apology in his voice. But then he said the fatal, dreaded words that Hornblower had been expecting. “Milord, do you give me your word of honour as a gentleman that what you say is true?”
“My word of honour as a gentleman,” said Hornblower.
He had anticipated this moment-in misery for days and days. He was ready for it. He compelled himself to make his answer in the manner of a man of honor. He made himself say it steadily and sincerely, as if it did not break his heart to say it. He had been sure that Cambronne would ask him for his word of honour.
It was the last sacrifice he could make. In twenty years of war he had freely risked his life for his country. He had endured danger, anxiety, hardship. He had never, until now, been asked to give his honour. This was the further price he had to pay. It was through his own fault that the peace of the world was in peril. It was fitting that he should pay the price. And the honour of one man was a small price to pay for the peace of the world, to save his country from the renewal of the deadly perils she had so narrowly survived for twenty years. In those happy years of the past, returning to his country after an arduous campaign, he had looked about him and he had breathed English air and he had told himself, with fatuous patriotism, that England was worth fighting for, was worth dying for. England was worth a man’s honour, too. Oh, it was true. But it was heart-rending, it was far, far worse than death that it should be his honour that had to be sacrificed.
Hornblower succeeds, of course, and ultimately discovers that Napoleon indeed had died, just weeks before. He had, unknowingly, told Cambronne the truth.
Cambronne’s mission to rescue Napoleon and return him to the throne of Imperial France did not actually occur, but it is a plausible fiction. So long as Napoleon lived, there were rumors of plots to rescue him just as Cambronne’s fictional alter-ego attempted in Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies. Moreover, the failed settlement of French soldiers on the Texas coast was based on a real colony, Champ d’Asile (Field of Asylum).
In the novel, the British consul-general at New Orleans, Cloudesley Sharpe, explains that the settlement is at Corpus Christi, “a village on a lagoon.” Champ d’Asile was actually located much further to the north, on the wooded bottomlands of East Texas, on the Trinity River near the present-day town of Liberty.
Champ d’Asile was one of several attempts by Bonapartists to establish colonies or settlements in the Americas. Champ d’Asile was the pet project of the brothers Henri and Charles Lallemand. Both were senior officers of the Empire, and had attempted to lead a rebellion against the Bourbon government. The Lallemands were thrown into prison, but liberated upon Napoleon’s Hundred Days. Henri was rewarded with command of an artillery regiment of the Old Guard at Waterloo, while Charles commanded a regiment of the Imperial Guard’s light cavalry.
There can be no doubt that Charles, in particular, was completely dedicated to Bonaparte; when the emperor turned himself over to the British, Lallemand accompanied him as far as Plymouth, but was refused permission to continue on to St. Helena. He remained loyal, however, and in years following maintained a correspondence with Napoleon and his retinue. Charles Lallemand was widely rumored to be planning a rescue mission of the sort that the fictional Count Cambronne attempted, and Napoleon left Lallemand one hundred thousand francs in his will.
Henri Lallemand was living in New Orleans in early 1817 when he struck upon the idea of establishing a colony of former French soldiers in the East Texas wilderness. Ever since the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, there had been an ongoing dispute about the boundary between the United States and Spain. The result of this had been the gradual development of a “neutral ground,” spanning present-day western Louisiana and eastern Texas, where neither nation had effective control. This situation seemed just perfect for Henri’s notion of establishing a soldier’s colony.
When Charles arrived in Philadelphia later in the year, and learned of Henri’s proposal, he immediately took it and made it his own. Philadelphia had a large population of French expatriates, and Charles was able to parlay his fame and connection to the emperor into a large following. Plans moved quickly forward. Charles Lallemand organized a company which successfully lobbied Congress for a large grant of land in Alabama, ostensibly for his soldier to grow olives and grapes. Lallemand’s company then sold the land in Alabama, giving him the cash he needed to mount his expedition to Texas.
Charles Lallemand and his colonists arrived at Galveston in February 1818. At the time, Galveston was the base of the privateers Pierre and Jean Laffite, who were themselves using the ambiguous boundary between Spain and the United States to create their own smuggling empire. The Laffites reprovisioned Lallemand’s expedition, and helped transport them up Galveston Bay and the Trinity River to their new colony. It is also likely that the Laffites made sure that the Spanish authorities were aware of this new, armed expedition on their eastern frontier, because the viceroy soon began organizing a military column to march on the colony.
A highly-romanticised view of Champ d’Asile. In fact, the officers of Champ d’Asile did little in the way of farming or construction, apart from building two rudimentary forts; most of their time was spent drilling or hunting. The tropical environment is wrong as well; the Trinity River Bottom of East Texas is relative flat and heavily wooded with oak and other deciduous trees. Texas A&M photo.
The viceroy needn’t have bothered; Champ d’Asile never really found its footing, and collapsed within a few months. The colony remained small, with not much more than a hundred settlers at any one time. Most of the colonists were former officers, neither trained nor inclined to farming. They spent much of their time drilling or hunting. There was little serious attempt at agriculture, and food quickly ran short. There was also probably friction between the French colonists – about three quarters of the total – and the remainder, drawn from all the allied nations of the Empire. By the latter part of July, they’d had enough, and Laffite’s boats were once again put to use, ferrying the disgruntled colonists back down the bay to Galveston. By November, most of the would-be colonists were back in New Orleans, looking for new opportunities.
What was Charles Lallemand’s real intention in establishing Champ d’Asile? No one knows. Did he envision building a military force on the frontier that could be used to rescue Napoleon in the way that the fictional Count Cambronne attempted? Possibly. There’s no question of Lallemand’s loyalty to the emperor, and under his leadership, the men of Champ d’Asile devoted themselves mostly to purely military pursuits. But it was also the age of “filibusters,” adventurers who took advantage of collapsing European empires to establish their own revolutionary movements. Lallemand had reportedly talked of an alliance he had with owners of silver mines in northern Mexico; a coordinated and successful overthrow of the Spanish government there might have given Lallemand’s colony the resources it needed to mount an expedition to rescue the emperor. But no one knows what Lallemand’s ultimate intentions were, and he was never able to marshal the necessary resources.
But what if he had? What if the Lallemands, as aggressive and dedicated to the emperor as they were, had managed to collect the men, munitions and money to attempt a rescue of Napoleon? How might they have been stopped? Could they have been stopped?
Now that would make a great story. . . .