The Second Funeral of Napoleon, by William Makepeace Thackeray

I. — On the Disinterment of Napoleon at St. Helena.

MY DEAR—— — It is no easy task in this world to distinguish between what is great in it, and what is mean; and many and many is the puzzle that I have had in reading History (or the works of fiction which go by that name), to know whether I should laud up to the skies, and endeavor, to the best of my small capabilities, to imitate the remarkable character about whom I was reading, or whether I should fling aside the book and the hero of it, as things altogether base, unworthy, laughable, and get a novel, or a game of billiards, or a pipe of tobacco, or the report of the last debate in the House, or any other employment which would leave the mind in a state of easy vacuity, rather than pester it with a vain set of dates relating to actions which are in themselves not worth a fig, or with a parcel of names of people whom it can do one no earthly good to remember.

It is more than probable, my love, that you are acquainted with what is called Grecian and Roman history, chiefly from perusing, in very early youth, the little sheepskin-bound volumes of the ingenious Dr. Goldsmith, and have been indebted for your knowledge of the English annals to a subsequent study of the more voluminous works of Hume and Smollett. The first and the last-named authors, dear Miss Smith, have written each an admirable history — that of the Reverend Dr. Primrose, Vicar of Wakefield, and that of Mr. Robert Bramble, of Bramble Hall — in both of which works you will find true and instructive pictures of human life, and which you may always think over with advantage. But let me caution you against putting any considerable trust in the other works of these authors, which were placed in your hands at school and afterwards, and in which you were taught to believe. Modern historians, for the most part, know very little, and, secondly, only tell a little of what they know.

As for those Greeks and Romans whom you have read of in “sheepskin,” were you to know really what those monsters were, you would blush all over as red as a hollyhock, and put down the history-book in a fury. Many of our English worthies are no better. You are not in a situation to know the real characters of any one of them. They appear before you in their public capacities, but the individuals you know not. Suppose, for instance, your mamma had purchased her tea in the Borough from a grocer living there by the name of Greenacre: suppose you had been asked out to dinner, and the gentleman of the house had said: “Ho! Francois! a glass of champagne for Miss Smith;"— Courvoisier would have served you just as any other footman would; you would never have known that there was anything extraordinary in these individuals, but would have thought of them only in their respective public characters of Grocer and Footman. This, Madam, is History, in which a man always appears dealing with the world in his apron, or his laced livery, but which has not the power or the leisure, or, perhaps, is too high and mighty to condescend to follow and study him in his privacy. Ah, my dear, when big and little men come to be measured rightly, and great and small actions to be weighed properly, and people to be stripped of their royal robes, beggars’ rags, generals’ uniforms, seedy out-at-elbowed coats, and the like — or the contrary say, when souls come to be stripped of their wicked deceiving bodies, and turned out stark naked as they were before they were born — what a strange startling sight shall we see, and what a pretty figure shall some of us cut! Fancy how we shall see Pride, with his Stultz clothes and padding pulled off, and dwindled down to a forked radish! Fancy some Angelic Virtue, whose white raiment is suddenly whisked over his head, showing us cloven feet and a tail! Fancy Humility, eased of its sad load of cares and want and scorn, walking up to the very highest place of all, and blushing as he takes it! Fancy — but we must not fancy such a scene at all, which would be an outrage on public decency. Should we be any better than our neighbors? No, certainly. And as we can’t be virtuous, let us be decent. Figleaves are a very decent, becoming wear, and have been now in fashion for four thousand years. And so, my dear, history is written on fig-leaves. Would you have anything further? O fie!

Yes, four thousand years ago that famous tree was planted. At their very first lie, our first parents made for it, and there it is still the great Humbug Plant, stretching its wide arms, and sheltering beneath its leaves, as broad and green as ever, all the generations of men. Thus, my dear, coquettes of your fascinating sex cover their persons with figgery, fantastically arranged, and call their masquerading, modesty. Cowards fig themselves out fiercely as “salvage men,” and make us believe that they are warriors. Fools look very solemnly out from the dusk of the leaves, and we fancy in the gloom that they are sages. And many a man sets a great wreath about his pate and struts abroad a hero, whose claims we would all of us laugh at, could we but remove the ornament and see his numskull bare.

And such —(excuse my sermonizing)— such is the constitution of mankind, that men have, as it were, entered into a compact among themselves to pursue the fig-leaf system a l’outrance, and to cry down all who oppose it. Humbug they will have. Humbugs themselves, they will respect humbugs. Their daily victuals of life must be seasoned with humbug. Certain things are there in the world that they will not allow to be called by their right names, and will insist upon our admiring, whether we will or no. Woe be to the man who would enter too far into the recesses of that magnificent temple where our Goddess is enshrined, peep through the vast embroidered curtains indiscreetly, penetrate the secret of secrets, and expose the Gammon of Gammons! And as you must not peer too curiously within, so neither must you remain scornfully without. Humbug-worshippers, let us come into our great temple regularly and decently: take our seats, and settle our clothes decently; open our books, and go through the service with decent gravity; listen, and be decently affected by the expositions of the decent priest of the place; and if by chance some straggling vagabond, loitering in the sunshine out of doors, dares to laugh or to sing, and disturb the sanctified dulness of the faithful; — quick! a couple of big beadles rush out and belabor the wretch, and his yells make our devotions more comfortable.

Some magnificent religious ceremonies of this nature are at present taking place in France; and thinking that you might perhaps while away some long winter evening with an account of them, I have compiled the following pages for your use. Newspapers have been filled, for some days past, with details regarding the St. Helena expedition, many pamphlets have been published, men go about crying little books and broadsheets filled with real or sham particulars; and from these scarce and valuable documents the following pages are chiefly compiled.

We must begin at the beginning; premising, in the first place, that Monsieur Guizot, when French Ambassador at London, waited upon Lord Palmerston with a request that the body of the Emperor Napoleon should be given up to the French nation, in order that it might find a final resting-place in French earth. To this demand the English Government gave a ready assent; nor was there any particular explosion of sentiment upon either side, only some pretty cordial expressions of mutual good-will. Orders were sent out to St. Helena that the corpse should be disinterred in due time, when the French expedition had arrived in search of it, and that every respect and attention should be paid to those who came to carry back to their country the body of the famous dead warrior and sovereign.

This matter being arranged in very few words (as in England, upon most points, is the laudable fashion), the French Chambers began to debate about the place in which they should bury the body when they got it; and numberless pamphlets and newspapers out of doors joined in the talk. Some people there were who had fought and conquered and been beaten with the great Napoleon, and loved him and his memory. Many more were there who, because of his great genius and valor, felt excessively proud in their own particular persons, and clamored for the return of their hero. And if there were some few individuals in this great hot-headed, gallant, boasting, sublime, absurd French nation, who had taken a cool view of the dead Emperor’s character; if, perhaps, such men as Louis Philippe, and Monsieur A. Thiers, Minister and Deputy, and Monsieur Francois Guizot, Deputy and Excellency, had, from interest or conviction, opinions at all differing from those of the majority; why, they knew what was what, and kept their opinions to themselves, coming with a tolerably good grace and flinging a few handfuls of incense upon the altar of the popular idol.

In the succeeding debates, then, various opinions were given with regard to the place to be selected for the Emperor’s sepulture. “Some demanded,” says an eloquent anonymous Captain in the Navy who has written an “Itinerary from Toulon to St. Helena,” “that the coffin should be deposited under the bronze taken from the enemy by the French army — under the Column of the Place Vendome. The idea was a fine one. This is the most glorious monument that was ever raised in a conqueror’s honor. This column has been melted out of foreign cannon. These same cannons have furrowed the bosoms of our braves with noble cicatrices; and this metal — conquered by the soldier first, by the artist afterwards — has allowed to be imprinted on its front its own defeat and our glory. Napoleon might sleep in peace under this audacious trophy. But, would his ashes find a shelter sufficiently vast beneath this pedestal? And his puissant statue dominating Paris, beams with sufficient grandeur on this place: whereas the wheels of carriages and the feet of passengers would profane the funereal sanctity of the spot in trampling on the soil so near his head.”

You must not take this description, dearest Amelia, “at the foot of the letter,” as the French phrase it, but you will here have a masterly exposition of the arguments for and against the burial of the Emperor under the Column of the Place Vendome. The idea was a fine one, granted; but, like all other ideas, it was open to objections. You must not fancy that the cannon, or rather the cannon-balls, were in the habit of furrowing the bosoms of French braves, or any other braves, with cicatrices: on the contrary, it is a known fact that cannon-balls make wounds, and not cicatrices (which, my dear, are wounds partially healed); nay, that a man generally dies after receiving one such projectile on his chest, much more after having his bosom furrowed by a score of them. No, my love; no bosom, however heroic, can stand such applications, and the author only means that the French soldiers faced the cannon and took them. Nor, my love, must you suppose that the column was melted: it was the cannon was melted, not the column; but such phrases are often used by orators when they wish to give a particular force and emphasis to their opinions.

Well, again, although Napoleon might have slept in peace under “this audacious trophy,” how could he do so and carriages go rattling by all night, and people with great iron heels to their boots pass clattering over the stones? Nor indeed could it be expected that a man whose reputation stretches from the Pyramids to the Kremlin, should find a column of which the base is only five-and-twenty feet square, a shelter vast enough for his bones. In a word, then, although the proposal to bury Napoleon under the column was ingenious, it was found not to suit; whereupon somebody else proposed the Madelaine.

“It was proposed,” says the before-quoted author with his usual felicity, “to consecrate the Madelaine to his exiled manes”— that is, to his bones when they were not in exile any longer. “He ought to have, it was said, a temple entire. His glory fills the world. His bones could not contain themselves in the coffin of a man — in the tomb of a king!” In this case what was Mary Magdalen to do? “This proposition, I am happy to say, was rejected, and a new one — that of the President of the Council adopted. Napoleon and his braves ought not to quit each other. Under the immense gilded dome of the Invalides he would find a sanctuary worthy of himself. A dome imitates the vault of heaven, and that vault alone” (meaning of course the other vault) “should dominate above his head. His old mutilated Guard shall watch around him: the last veteran, as he has shed his blood in his combats, shall breathe his last sigh near his tomb, and all these tombs shall sleep under the tattered standards that have been won from all the nations of Europe.”

The original words are “sous les lambeaux cribles des drapeaux cueillis chez toutes les nations;” in English, “under the riddled rags of the flags that have been culled or plucked” (like roses or buttercups) “in all the nations.” Sweet, innocent flowers of victory! there they are, my dear, sure enough, and a pretty considerable hortus siccus may any man examine who chooses to walk to the Invalides. The burial-place being thus agreed on, the expedition was prepared, and on the 7th July the “Belle Poule” frigate, in company with “La Favorite” corvette, quitted Toulon harbor. A couple of steamers, the “Trident” and the “Ocean,” escorted the ships as far as Gibraltar, and there left them to pursue their voyage.

The two ships quitted the harbor in the sight of a vast concourse of people, and in the midst of a great roaring of cannons. Previous to the departure of the “Belle Poule,” the Bishop of Frejus went on board, and gave to the cenotaph, in which the Emperor’s remains were to be deposited, his episcopal benediction. Napoleon’s old friends and followers, the two Bertrands, Gourgaud, Emanuel Las Cases, “companions in exile, or sons of the companions in exile of the prisoner of the infame Hudson,” says a French writer, were passengers on board the frigate. Marchand, Denis, Pierret, Novaret, his old and faithful servants, were likewise in the vessel. It was commanded by his Royal Highness Francis Ferdinand Philip Louis Marie d’Orleans, Prince de Joinville, a young prince two-and-twenty years of age, who was already distinguished in the service of his country and king.

On the 8th of October, after a voyage of six-and-sixty days, the “Belle Poule” arrived in James Town harbor; and on its arrival, as on its departure from France, a great firing of guns took place. First, the “Oreste” French brig-of-war began roaring out a salutation to the frigate; then the “Dolphin” English schooner gave her one-and-twenty guns; then the frigate returned the compliment of the “Dolphin” schooner; then she blazed out with one-and-twenty guns more, as a mark of particular politeness to the shore — which kindness the forts acknowledged by similar detonations.

These little compliments concluded on both sides, Lieutenant Middlemore, son and aide-decamp of the Governor of St. Helena, came on board the French frigate, and brought his father’s best respects to his Royal Highness. The Governor was at home ill, and forced to keep his room; but he had made his house at James Town ready for Captain Joinville and his suite, and begged that they would make use of it during their stay.

On the 9th, H. R. H. the Prince of Joinville put on his full uniform and landed, in company with Generals Bertrand and Gourgaud, Baron Las Cases, M. Marchand, M. Coquereau, the chaplain of the expedition, and M. de Rohan Chabot, who acted as chief mourner. All the garrison were under arms to receive the illustrious Prince and the other members of the expedition — who forthwith repaired to Plantation House, and had a conference with the Governor regarding their mission.

On the 10th, 11th, 12th, these conferences continued: the crews of the French ships were permitted to come on shore and see the tomb of Napoleon. Bertrand, Gourgaud, Las Cases wandered about the island and revisited the spots to which they had been partial in the lifetime of the Emperor.

The 15th October was fixed on for the day of the exhumation: that day five-and twenty years, the Emperor Napoleon first set his foot upon the island.

On the day previous all things had been made ready: the grand coffins and ornaments brought from France, and the articles necessary for the operation were carried to the valley of the Tomb.

The operations commenced at midnight. The well-known friends of Napoleon before named and some other attendants of his, the chaplain and his acolytes, the doctor of the “Belle Poule,” the captains of the French ships, and Captain Alexander of the Engineers, the English Commissioner, attended the disinterment. His Royal highness Prince de Joinville could not be present because the workmen were under English command.

The men worked for nine hours incessantly, when at length the earth was entirely removed from the vault, all the horizontal strata of masonry demolished, and the large slab which covered the place where the stone sarcophagus lay, removed by a crane. This outer coffin of stone was perfect, and could scarcely be said to be damp.

“As soon as the Abbe Coquereau had recited the prayers, the coffin was removed with the greatest care, and carried by the engineer-soldiers, bareheaded, into a tent that had been prepared for the purpose. After the religious ceremonies, the inner coffins were opened. The outermost coffin was slightly injured: then came, one of lead, which was in good condition, and enclosed two others — one of tin and one of wood. The last coffin was lined inside with white satin, which, having become detached by the effect of time, had fallen upon the body and enveloped it like a winding-sheet, and had become slightly attached to it.

“It is difficult to describe with what anxiety and emotion those who were present waited for the moment which was to expose to them all that death had left of Napoleon. Notwithstanding the singular state of preservation of the tomb and coffins, we could scarcely hope to find anything but some misshapen remains of the least perishable part of the costume to evidence the identity of the body. But when Doctor Guillard raised the sheet of satin, an indescribable feeling of surprise and affection was expressed by the spectators, many of whom burst into tears. The Emperor was himself before their eyes! The features of the face, though changed, were perfectly recognized; the hands extremely beautiful; his well-known costume had suffered but little, and the colors were easily distinguished. The attitude itself was full of ease, and but for the fragments of the satin lining which covered, as with a fine gauze, several parts of the uniform, we might have believed we still saw Napoleon before us lying on his bed of state. General Bertrand and M. Marchand, who were both present at the interment, quickly pointed out the different articles which each had deposited in the coffin, and remained in the precise position in which they had previously described them to be.

“The two inner coffins were carefully closed again; the old leaden coffin was strongly blocked up with wedges of wood, and both were once more soldered up with the most minute precautions, under the direction of Dr. Guillard. These different operations being terminated, the ebony sarcophagus was closed as well as its oak case. On delivering the key of the ebony sarcophagus to Count de Chabot, the King’s Commissioner, Captain Alexander declared to him, in the name of the Governor, that this coffin, containing the mortal remains of the Emperor Napoleon, was considered as at the disposal of the French Government from that day, and from the moment at which it should arrive at the place of embarkation, towards which it was about to be sent under the orders of General Middlemore. The King’s Commissioner replied that he was charged by his Government, and in its name, to accept the coffin from the hands of the British authorities, and that he and the other persons composing the French mission were ready to follow it to James Town, where the Prince de Joinville, superior commandant of the expedition, would be ready to receive it and conduct it on board his frigate. A car drawn by four horses, decked with funereal emblems, had been prepared before the arrival of the expedition, to receive the coffin, as well as a pall, and all the other suitable trappings of mourning. When the sarcophagus was placed on the car, the whole was covered with a magnificent imperial mantle brought from Paris, the four corners of which were borne by Generals Bertrand and Gourgaud, Baron Las Cases and M. Marchand. At half-past three o’clock the funeral car began to move, preceded by a chorister bearing the cross, and by the Abbe Coquereau. M. de Chabot acted as chief mourner. All the authorities of the island, all the principal inhabitants, and the whole of the garrison, followed in procession from the tomb to the quay. But with the exception of the artillerymen necessary to lead the horses, and occasionally support the car when descending some steep parts of the way, the places nearest the coffin were reserved for the French mission. General Middlemore, although in a weak state of health, persisted in following the whole way on foot, together with General Churchill, chief of the staff in India, who had arrived only two days before from Bombay. The immense weight of the coffins, and the unevenness of the road, rendered the utmost carefulness necessary throughout the whole distance. Colonel Trelawney commanded in person the small detachment of artillerymen who conducted the car, and, thanks to his great care, not the slightest accident took place. From the moment of departure to the arrival at the quay, the cannons of the forts and the ‘Belle Poule’ fired minute-guns. After an hour’s march the rain ceased for the first time since the commencement of the operations, and on arriving in sight of the town we found a brilliant sky and beautiful weather. From the morning the three French vessels of war had assumed the usual signs of deep mourning: their yards crossed and their flags lowered. Two French merchantmen, ‘Bonne Amie’ and ‘Indien,’ which had been in the roads for two days, had put themselves under the Prince’s orders, and followed during the ceremony all the manoeuvers of the ‘Belle Poule.’ The forts of the town, and the houses of the consuls, had also their flags half-mast high.

“On arriving at the entrance of the town, the troops of the garrison and the militia formed in two lines as far as the extremity of the quay. According to the order for mourning prescribed for the English army, the men had their arms reversed and the officers had crape on their arms, with their swords reversed. All the inhabitants had been kept away from the line of march, but they lined the terraces, commanding the town, and the streets were occupied only by the troops, the 91st Regiment being on the right and the militia on the left. The cortege advanced slowly between two ranks of soldiers to the sound of a funeral march, while the cannons of the forts were fired, as well as those of the ‘Belle Poule’ and the ‘Dolphin;’ the echoes being repeated a thousand times by the rocks above James Town. After two hours’ march the cortege stopped at the end of the quay, where the Prince de Joinville had stationed himself at the head of the officers of the three French ships of war. The greatest official honors had been rendered by the English authorities to the memory of the Emperor — the most striking testimonials of respect had marked the adieu given by St. Helena to his coffin; and from this moment the mortal remains of the Emperor were about to belong to France. When the funeral-car stopped, the Prince de Joinville advanced alone, and in presence of all around, who stood with their heads uncovered, received, in a solemn manner, the imperial coffin from the hands of General Middlemore. His Royal Highness then thanked the Governor, in the name of France, for all the testimonials of sympathy and respect with which the authorities and inhabitants of St. Helena had surrounded the memorable ceremonial. A cutter had been expressly prepared to receive the coffin. During the embarkation, which the Prince directed himself, the bands played funeral airs, and all the boats were stationed round with their oars shipped. The moment the sarcophagus touched the cutter, a magnificent royal flag, which the ladies of James Town had embroidered for the occasion, was unfurled, and the ‘Belle Poule’ immediately squared her masts and unfurled her colors. All the manoeuvers of the frigate were immediately followed by the other vessels. Our mourning had ceased with the exile of Napoleon, and the French naval division dressed itself out in all its festal ornaments to receive the imperial coffin under the French flag. The sarcophagus was covered in the cutter with the imperial mantle. The Prince de Joinville placed himself at the rudder, Commandant Guyet at the head of the boat; Generals Bertrand and Gourgaud, Baron Las Cases, M. Marchand, and the Abbe Coquereau occupied the same places as during the march. Count Chabot and Commandant Hernoux were astern, a little in advance of the Prince. As soon as the cutter had pushed off from the quay, the batteries ashore fired a salute of twenty-one guns, and our ships returned the salute with all their artillery. Two other salutes were fired during the passage from the quay to the frigate; the cutter advancing very slowly, and surrounded by the other boats. At half-past six o’clock it reached the ‘Belle Poule,’ all the men being on the yards with their hats in their hands. The Prince had had arranged on the deck a chapel, decked with flags and trophies of arms, the altar being placed at the foot of the mizzen-mast. The coffin, carried by our sailors, passed between two ranks of officers with drawn swords, and was placed on the quarter-deck. The absolution was pronounced by the Abbe Coquereau the same evening. Next day, at ten o’clock, a solemn mass was celebrated on the deck, in presence of the officers and part of the crews of the ships. His Royal Highness stood at the foot of the coffin. The cannon of the ‘Favorite’ and ‘Oreste’ fired minute-guns during this ceremony, which terminated by a solemn absolution; and the Prince de Joinville, the gentlemen of the mission, the officers, and the premiers maitres of the ship, sprinkled holy water on the coffin. At eleven, all the ceremonies of the church were accomplished, all the honors done to a sovereign had been paid to the mortal remains of Napoleon. The coffin was carefully lowered between decks, and placed in the chapelle ardente which had been prepared at Toulon for its reception. At this moment, the vessels fired a last salute with all their artillery, and the frigate took in her flags, keeping up only her flag at the stern and the royal standard at the maintopgallant-mast. On Sunday, the 18th, at eight in the morning, the ‘Belle Poule’ quitted St. Helena with her precious deposit on board.

“During the whole time that the mission remained at James Town, the best understanding never ceased to exist between the population of the island and the French. The Prince de Joinville and his companions met in all quarters and at all times with the greatest good-will and the warmest testimonials of sympathy. The authorities and the inhabitants must have felt, no doubt, great regret at seeing taken away from their island the coffin that had rendered it so celebrated; but they repressed their feelings with a courtesy that does honor to the frankness of their character.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00