“The false words attributed to him”

Emmanuel-Augustin-Dieudonné-Joseph, Count de Las Cases, was one of the few men to voluntarily accompany Napoleon into exile on Saint Helena, along with his son. There, he served the deposed Emperor as a secretary, recording numerous conversations with Napoleon and taking extensive notes, which he later turned into the Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène following his expulsion from the island (which he may have purposefully arranged) in 1816. The publication of the book made him rich, but it is generally considered an untrustworthy chronicle; Las Cases had no qualms when it came to fact-twisting, or putting words into Napoleon’s mouth.

And according to Louise Murat, that is precisely what Las Cases did in regard to comments in his book attributed to Napoleon about her father.

So before we get to Louise’s criticisms, here is the main portion of what Las Cases had to say (and what he claims Napoleon said) about Murat. 

(Source: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena by Count de Las Cases, Vol I, Part II; London, 1824; pages 223-6)

***

7th–8th [Feb 1816]. The Theban frigate arrived from the Cape, and brought us some newspapers. I translated them to the Emperor while we walked in the garden. One of these papers brought intelligence of a great catastrophe. I read that Murat, having landed in Calabria, with a few troops, had been seized and shot. At this unexpected news, the Emperor interrupted me by exclaiming, “The Calabrians were more humane, more generous than those who sent me here.” This was all he said; and after a few moments silence, seeing that he said nothing, I continued to read. 

Murat, without real judgment, without solid views, without a character proportioned to the circumstances in which he was placed, had perished in an attempt evidently desperate. It is not impossible that the Emperor’s return from Elba may have turned his brain, and inspired him with the hope of renewing the prodigy in his own person. Such was the miserable end of him who had been one of the most active causes of our reverses! In 1814 his courage and intrepidity might have saved us from the abyss in which his treachery involved us. He neutralized the Viceroy on the Po, and fought against him; whereas, by uniting together, they might have forced the passes of the Tyrol, made a descent into Germany, and arrived on Bâle and the banks of the Rhine, to destroy the rear of the allies and cut off their retreat from France.

The Emperor, while he was at Elba, disdained all communication with the King of Naples; but on departing for France, he wrote to inform him, that being about to resume possession of his throne, he felt pleasure in declaring to him that all their past differences were at an end. He pardoned his late conduct, tendered him his friendship, sent some one to sign the guarantee of his states, and recommended him to maintain a good understanding with the Austrians, and to content himself with merely keeping them in check, in case they should attempt to march upon France. Murat, at this moment, inspired with the sentiments of his early youth, would receive neither guarantee nor signature. He declared that the Emperor’s promise and friendship were sufficient for him, and that he would prove he had been more unfortunate than guilty. His devotedness and ardour, he added, would obtain for him oblivion of the past.

“Murat,” said the Emperor, “was doomed to be our bane. He ruined us by forsaking us, and he ruined us by too warmly espousing our cause. He observed no sort of discretion. He himself attacked the Austrians, without any reasonable plan, and without adequate forces; and he was subdued without striking a blow.”

The Austrians, when rid of Murat, cited his conduct as a reason or as a pretence for attributing ambitious views to Napoleon when he again appeared on the scene. They constantly referred to Murat, whenever the Emperor made protestations of his moderation. 

Before these unlucky hostilities of the King of Naples, the Emperor had already set on foot negotiations with Austria. Other inferior states, which I think it unnecessary to mention by name, had signified to him that he might rely on their neutrality. Doubtless the fall of the King of Naples gave another turn to affairs. 

Endeavours have been made to represent Napoleon as a man of furious and implacable temper; but the truth is, that he was a stranger to revenge, and he never cherished any vindictive feeling, whatever wrong he suffered. His anger was usually vented in violent transports, and was soon at an end. Those who knew him must be convinced of this fact. Murat had scandalously betrayed him; as I have already observed, he had twice ruined his prospects, and yet Murat came to seek an asylum at Toulon. “I should have taken him with me to Waterloo,” said Napoleon; “but such was the patriotic and moral feeling of the French army, that it was doubtful whether the troops could surmount the disgust and horror which they felt for the man who had betrayed and lost France. I did not consider myself sufficiently powerful to protect him. Yet he might have enabled us to gain the victory. How useful would he have been at certain periods of the battle? For what was required, at certain moments of the day, to insure our success?–to break through three or four English squares; and Murat was admirable in such a service as this–he was precisely the man for it. At the head of a body of cavalry, no man was ever more resolute, more courageous, or more brilliant.

“As to drawing a parallel,” said the Emperor, “between the circumstances of Napoleon and Murat–between the landing of the former in France, and the entrance of the latter into the Neapolitan territory; no such parallel exists. Murat could have had no good argument to support his cause, except success; which was purely chimerical, at the time and in the manner in which he commenced his enterprise. Napoleon was the chosen ruler of a people; he was their legitimate sovereign, according to modern doctrines. But Murat was not a Neapolitan; the Neapolitans had not chosen Murat; how, therefore, could it be expected that he would excite any lively interest in his favour? Thus his proclamation was totally false, and void of facts. Ferdinand of Naples could view him in no other light than as an instigator of insurrection; he did so, and he treated him accordingly.”

***

Now, here is Louise Murat, responding with some indignation to Las Cases.

Source: Louise Murat, Souvenirs d’enfance d’une fille de Joachim Murat, pages 213-219.

***

But before speaking of the welcome which awaited him there, I must go backward a bit, because it remains to me to respond to the last of the accusations hurled against my father: that of having, by a reckless haste, compromised the success of the enterprise. This grievance seems the most serious, in that this haste, in fact, by giving Austria time to fight her two enemies separately, one after the other, had given her an immense advantage, while the result would probably have been very different if my father, while maintaining his threatening attitude, had been able to wait to perform his raising of shields until the Emperor, for his part, was already prepared and in arms on the battlefield. But here, it is easy for me to justify the King, and completely! And I must all the more so since an author, who undoubtedly enjoys the general confidence, has put this accusation in the mouth of Napoleon. We therefore understand what importance is has assumed in minds already ill-disposed towards the name of Murat, and what importance in my turn I attach to refuting it. 

No, the Emperor cannot have pronounced on Saint Helena the false words attributed to him by the Count de Las Cases, and I prove it by transcribing here three letters which, entirely unreleased, are of the greatest interest. 

I would like to be able to refute all the errors and calumnies with which the Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène swarms, but I do not feel I have the courage to undertake such a heavy task and I would experience, in addition, too much disgust to to have to transcribe here, in order to refute them one by one, all the insults with which the Count de Las Cases tried to charge to my father’s memory. I will limit myself to insisting on the falsity of several of his assertions, hoping thereby to prove with what mistrust one must welcome anecdotes and judgements that, in order to probably satisfy his own grudges and enmities, he does not hesitate to place them in the Emperor’s own mouth. This is how he makes him say that on the island of Elba, he disdained all communication with the King of Naples, which, I believe, is obviously contradicted by the letters which I am making known to you. 

He says also that Madame Mère had never forgiven her daughter Caroline and her husband for the events of 1814, and had constantly rejected all their advances… whereas it is common knowledge, and I will recount it later, that Madame Mère was in Naples in 1815, receiving with complacency the honors which the Court did not cease to bestow upon her. We therefore cannot believe in any way what the Count de Las Cases says on this subject, just as I would never believe in the attitude of indifference and almost of quasi-approval attributed to the Emperor by him when learning on Saint Helena of the tragic end of his former brother-in-arms. I have so much proof of the author’s lack of veracity that it is permitted me to doubt him, and to say that he has slandered his hero.

1st Letter to King Joachim
(carried by the squire Colonna, chamberlain of Madame Mère)
Portoferraio, 17 February 1815

Monsieur my brother and very dear brother-in-law, I am sending the squire Colonna to Your Majesty in order to make give you important and pressing communications. I ask you to put faith in all that he will tell you. He is authorized to sign any convention that Your Majesty might desire relative to our affairs, this letter serving him full powers, which will be exchanged in due course. Your Majesty should especially put all trust in what he will say of my attachment and of the high consideration with which I am…

(Signed) NAPOLEON

[Louise’s note: Copy made from the original which is part of the papers given by sister to my brother Lucien in 18__, and of which I am a depositary.]

***

2nd copy of a letter from the Emperor to the King
17 February 1815

My dear Murat, I thank you for what you have done for the Countess Walewska; I commend her to you, and especially her son who is so dear to me. Colonna will tell you many serious and important things; I am counting on you, and especially on the greatest celerity, time presses. My compliments to the Queen and to your children. 

All yours,

(Signed) NAPOLEON

[Louise’s note: I possess a copy of this second letter, entirely written by the hand of the Count Walewski. It can therefore be considered perfectly authentic. It will be found in my papers.]

***

3rd copy of a letter from King Joseph to the King

(King Joseph’s cipher)
Prangins, on Lake Geneva
16 March 1815

The Emperor has entered Auxonne with all the troops he encountered on the road. Marshal Ney with those whom he was intended to command against us and who were assembled on Lons-le-Saulnier, followed the Emperor; the people, the army and the capital have abjured the colors of the Bourbons and recognized the Emperor; General Maison, who departed from France with all the troops that he had been able to gather on the road, was abandoned and fled with twenty-four men: the Count of Artois with four gendarmes. There is only one momentum in France, as in ’89. The Emperor sleeps tonight in Châlons; he will arrive in Paris with more than a hundred thousand men. I am sustained by the hope of better serving our common country, by detaching Austria; the Emperor asks it of me. You, my dear brother, will support the movements of the great nation that you helped make illustrious; you can do so effectively by arms and by politics; this is the moment of decision; speak to Austria by your example and by your words; the Emperor having only to occupy himself with the internal happiness of France to which he owes himself today more than ever, Austria will look only to you and will want you in Italy, your throne will be consolidated by your alliance with France and with Austria. I hope that the Prince of Sweden will support this movement against the Bourbons of France and Italy. May Austria send the Emperor his wife and son; speak, act according to your heart, march to the Alps and do not cross them; I guarantee you that you will be happy because your politics will be in accord with your duties as a Frenchman, as a good kinsman, as a man of the Revolution who owes everything to the people and nothing to divine rights, or to the ideas of the 8th century. No Bourbons! Honor to the men of the great revolution. I respond to you today from the Emperor. I ask you to give this news to the members of the family who are in Italy.

Your affectionate brother, 

(Signed) JOSEPH

[Louise’s note: This third letter, like the first, is copied from the the papers of which my brother Lucien is the depositary.)

***

[Louise continues]

We see, by the first two of these letters, that the relations between the two brothers-in-law had been reestablished on the most amicable footing, and that it was the same with their political relations. The Emperor had in Naples a chargé d’affairs, authorized to sign any convention that Your Majesty might desire relative to our affairs!… They were thus perfectly in accord and reciprocally instructed in everything that happened… The Emperor said: I am counting on you and on the greatest celerity!… Joseph adds, in the third of the letters I have just copied: March to the Alps! And my father, immediately, put his army in motion.

We see, by several passages in this letter, that the Bonapartes still hoped, or at least pretended to hope, that the Emperor Francis would not wish to take part in the ruin of his daughter’s husband, and, in this supposition, recommended to the King to seek to detach Austria from its allies. But, whereas Joseph spoke of the possible formation of a triple alliance between imperial France, Murat and Austria, the famous declaration of the Congress of Vienna, dated 13 March, placed Napoleon outside of the law, annihilating those hopes and destroying the last peaceful illusion which might still have stopped my father. March to the Alps became thenceforth for him a peremptory order that he must follow, and, on 27 March, he wrote to Emperor Francis the letter of which I am attaching a copy here.

***

[My note: I’ll be translating and posting the aforementioned letter from Murat to Emperor Francis in a future post.]

Regarding Louise’s thoughts on Las Cases: I do agree with her remarks made in regard to how Las Cases describes Napoleon’s reaction to learning of Murat’s death. It’s never struck me as authentic or believable; I find Gourgaud’s account of Napoleon learning of Murat’s death–from his private diary–much more believable:

Wednesday, 7 (February, 1816) – Mme Bertrand has received a letter from Paris. The doctor brings some gazettes and informs us that Murat has been shot. I announce the fatal news to His Majesty, who maintains the same countenance and tells me that Murat must have been mad to attempt such an adventure. I assert that it pains me greatly to see perish by the hand of such people a man as brave as Murat, who had so often defied death. The Emperor exclaims that it is dreadful. I object that Ferdinand should not have put him to death like this. “That’s how you are, young men, but one doesn’t fool with a throne. Could he be considered as a French general? He no longer was one; as King? But he had never been recognized as such. He had him shot, just as he has had so many people hanged.” Dinner is sad, no one speaks. We read the English gazettes. His Majesty, sad, preoccupied, plays mechanically with some coins during the reading. He suffers, we see it clearly.

(Source: General Gaspard Gourgaud, Sainte-Hélène – Journal Inedit de 1815 à 1818 en 2 volumes)

I’m not sure all of Louise’s criticisms are justified or credible though.

I’m not convinced that Madame Mère ever forgave Murat, though she might have forgiven Caroline; their relationship was often fraught with tension in the years between Murat’s death and Madame Mère’s own, but they did have a relationship. However, Madame Mère opposed the idea of Achille Murat marrying one of Joseph Bonaparte’s daughters, apparently out of a dislike for Murat; Elizabeth Patterson, former wife of Jérôme Bonaparte, remarks in a letter written on 12 July 1823 that “Should the count [Joseph Bonaparte] marry his daughter to young Murat, I am convinced it will displease Madame, who hates the M.’s cordially.” (Source: Eugene L. Didier, The Life and Letters of Madame Bonaparte, 1879, page 156) For what it’s worth, this sentiment was echoed by Napoleon himself on Saint Helena, recorded in Bertrand’s cahiers.

As to how many words Las Cases may or may not have put into Napoleon’s mouth on the subject of Murat here, it’s difficult to say. Many of the sentiments expressed above–the idea that Murat caused Napoleon’s downfall twice, regret over not having him at Waterloo, the foolhardiness of Murat’s landing on Calabria, the claim that it was Murat’s hasty attack on the Austrians that cause Austria to break off talks with Napoleon–can be found repeated in other memoirs/journals of Saint Helena in very similar wording. While I can understand that Louise must have found such statements coming from her uncle about her father to be extremely upsetting, I don’t have trouble believing that Napoleon actually made most of these comments. While I don’t believe the cold remark about the “mercy” of the Calabrians was said by Napoleon on the spot, immediately upon hearing the news of Murat’s execution, it is very likely he made such a comment later on. 

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4 thoughts on ““The false words attributed to him”

  1. Karen Ronan

    Napoleon, in his own memoir of Elba and the Hundred Days, said he refused to accept communications from the King of Naples while on Elba because he was angry with him and wanted to punish him.

    Like

    1. I’m still not entirely sure what to believe on the subject. It seems very possible that they were communicating via Pauline, who went back and forth between Elba and Naples.

      Like

  2. Pingback: “We would be driven to a state of barbarism” – Project Murat

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