Napoleon's Older Brother

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:22

    that night from an open boat. Among them was a dignified man whose passports called him the Comte Surviglieri. Misservey, quite reasonably under the circumstances, had not closely examined the papers.

    Under the circumstances, perhaps ignorance was best.

    Napoleon Bonaparte, the second son of a Corsican notary with noble pretensions, who had risen within 20 years from receiving a lieutenant's commission to crowning himself Emperor of the French, had made his last play. On March 1, 1815, Napoleon had escaped from Elba; 19 days later he entered Paris in triumph. Within weeks, he had raised an army against the European powers (they had proclaimed him an outlaw?one literally beyond the protection of the law, whose murderer would go unpunished), and took the field by June 12.

    He had not quite the Grand Army that had triumphed from Lisbon to the walls of Moscow (an aide replied to an imperial observation, "This does not 'look' like the bottom of the barrel, Majesty. It is the bottom of the barrel"), but it had him. He was in Belgium within three days. On June 16, the forces under his personal command smashed the Prussians at Ligny. If he struck swiftly, smashing his enemies one by one before they could unite... After all, he had done it before.

    The luck ran out. On June 18, sick and worn out, he fought at a Belgian hamlet, little more than some buildings by the road, called Waterloo. At the last he sent the Imperial Guard up the hill, drums rolling, and they broke, and night and the Prussians came, and it was over.

    Many had compromised themselves during Napoleon's two decades in power. Some went to the wall. Others, like the man who called himself the Comte Surviglieri, went into exile. He took rooms in Mrs. Powell's boarding house on Park Pl., west of Broadway, just off City Hall Park, under the name of Monsieur Bouchard. The New York Evening Post reported rumors of the arrival of a mysterious Frenchman.

    One afternoon, the man who now called himself Monsieur Bouchard was strolling down Broadway as another Frenchman, an ex-grenadier who had served with the imperial armies in Spain, walked up. The veteran glanced at Bouchard. Then he stopped. Bouchard gazed back with polite reserve. Then the old soldier fell to his knees, bawled out "Majesty," and kissed the hands of Bouchard, before whom he had so often passed in review, whom he had recognized as His Most Catholic Majesty Jose I, King of Spain and of the Indies.

    That had been merely one of the lives of Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's older brother.

    Joseph had been born in 1768 at Ajaccio, the capital of the Mediterranean island of Corsica. Joseph, after realizing he did not have a calling to the priesthood (neither celibacy nor chastity ran in that family), earned a law degree at the University of Pisa and returned to Corsica to practice law.

    For all the sound and fury, the French Revolution, which began as Joseph completed his studies, involved merely the violent substitution of one elite for another, accompanied by a massive transfer of wealth to the new class. The Bonapartes were extreme leftists. Tactically, the pose paid off: Napoleon was a general by the age of 25; Joseph was elected mayor of Ajaccio in 1790 and then a deputy to the National Assembly. But Joseph understood who was boss. A wealthy, powerful uncle, on his deathbed, said to him: "You, Joseph, are the eldest, but Napoleon is the real head of the family. Never forget it."

    Neither man did. After 1795, no one did. The relationships of Napoleon and his family are comparable to the stereotype of those within a large, quarrelsome Italian family?which in fact the Bonapartes were. Napoleon even began finding Joseph jobs, the first one with the army, paying 6000 francs a year. At this time, Joseph met the girl of his dreams. Julie Clary was short and horse-faced; she was also kindhearted, intelligent and heiress to her father's fortune. In its own way, the marriage was a success: they had two daughters; she would become a queen; and she would be with him at the end.

    In 1797 he served as French ambassador to the Papal States, insisting on a salary of 60,000 gold francs. (The paper franc had become wildly inflated; the gold franc was worth 75 paper francs in 1794, 2000 in 1795 and 80,000 in 1798.) All the while, Joseph was making a fortune, largely through insider knowledge from his brother. In 1799, Napoleon overthrew the Republic, instituting a military dictatorship.

    On May 18, 1804, the Senate proclaimed Napoleon emperor. As Napoleon then had no son, Joseph was nominated as his heir, proclaimed a prince of the empire, appointed Grand Elector (the emperor's representative in the Senate) and given the Luxembourg Palace as his residence. Joseph being Joseph, he held out for an annual allowance and expense account totaling more than 1.3 million gold francs. Around this time, Napoleon complained of him and of his other brothers, " brothers are nothing without me; they are great only because I have made them great."

    On Dec. 2, 1804, Napoleon's coronation was held at Notre Dame. Before setting out for the cathedral, Napoleon would take Joseph by the arm and whisper, "If our father could see us!" In David's painting of the ceremony, Joseph appears at the extreme left, dressed in a white silk tunic and a flame-colored, ermine-lined mantle, wearing a velvet hat with turned-up brim and ostrich plumes.

    In 1806, Napoleon had Joseph proclaimed King of Naples, where he proved quite popular. Two years later, in May 1808, Napoleon invited the Spanish royal family to visit him in France, at Bayonne, just beyond the northeasternmost border of Spain. Proof that brains had been bred out of them is that they accepted. They found a large French army massed along the Spanish border and a genial emperor who firmly suggested the abdication of King Charles IV and his son, King Ferdinand VII, in favor of another man. Proof that courage, too, had been bred out of the Spanish royals is that both men signed the papers. Overnight, French agents in Spain created an artificial agitation that Joseph become the new king.

    Joseph seems to have believed the Spanish people wanted him. He found they loathed him as a foreigner. Within days, Madrid was torn by riots, put down by French troops. Goya's brush would make the second of May immortal.

    Joseph found the streets empty and the windows barred against him. The only persons who welcomed him were soldiers of the French occupying armies and collaborators on the French payroll. The Spanish nationalist propaganda painted Joseph as a monster, a lecher and a drunk?Pepe Botellas (Joe Bottles), the Intrusive King. The Spanish resistance would cost millions of francs and hundreds of thousands of lives. It would bleed the Empire to death.

    If intentions were realities, Joseph would have been a good king. He was kindly and affable, and enough of an old Revolutionary to decree constant social improvements: universal suffrage, representative bodies in local, provincial and national governments and universal free education for boys and girls (the latter truly revolutionary in Spain). Today, the Prado, Spain's greatest museum, admits it was founded by decree of King Jose I in 1809.

    Despite his uniforms and medals, Joseph had never commanded troops in battle. Only in 1812, when Napoleon shifted his first-rate military talent to the Russian campaign, did Joseph become supreme commander of imperial forces in Spain. The result was a succession of disasters, the loss of Madrid and the final, grotesque defeat on June 21, 1813, at Vitoria.

    Joseph commanded some 57,000 men and more than 150 guns. His Anglo-Spanish opponents would have to ford the River Zadorra to advance against him. He did not burn the river bridges or even create a plan of battle, being distracted by a mistress.

    The British broke through. Around 1 p.m., the King ordered a general retreat. There was no plan for an orderly withdrawal, such as any competent commander might have made. The soldiers simply turned and ran for their lives.

    A British cavalryman, Capt. Windham of the 14th Light Dragoons, galloped alongside Joseph's coach and fired his pistols into its near window. The Intrusive King extruded himself out the other side and, as one of his guards stopped a bullet meant for him, leapt onto a gray, clapped spurs to its sides and rode for his life.

    In her biography of Wellington, Elizabeth Longford describes how the British were distracted by loot. "It was as nothing the world had seen since the days of Alexander the Great: 151 cannon, just on two million cartridges, immense quantities of ammunition." The French army's payroll, some five million dollars, had arrived at Vitoria just before the battle. Nearly all of it vanished.

    Joseph lost his state papers, his private correspondence (including some interesting love letters that provided general amusement when published) and the crown and regalia of a king of Spain. His large silver chamber pot was taken by the 14th Light Dragoons, who christened it "the Emperor." It is still used at their mess functions for drinking toasts in champagne, after which the pot is placed ceremoniously on the rinker's head.

    Joseph got 55,000 men across the Pyrenees to France, plus 12,000 Spanish families who followed him into exile. His brother ordered him to return to his estate at Mortefontaine, where he passed his time in sulking, shooting, boating, playing music and fornicating. At last, Joseph was appointed lieutenant general of France, the traditional title of a protector of the realm, with responsibility for the defense of Paris. Joseph surrendered Paris to the Allies nearly without a shot. Upon Napoleon's first abdication, he exiled himself to Switzerland.

    When Napoleon returned from Elba, Joseph returned to Paris (after burying five million francs' worth of uncut diamonds on his estate). Amazingly, he was appointed prime minister. It is unclear whether he did anything during his brief tenure. After Waterloo, the imperial regime collapsing about him, he rejoined Napoleon at Rochefort. Joseph's agents had chartered the Commerce to transport him to America.

    A few days before his arrival at Rochefort, Joseph had been mistaken for Napoleon, arrested and then released. Joseph now offered to remain and impersonate his brother while Napoleon sailed for America. Whether Napoleon thought this beneath an emperor's dignity or resisted owing Joseph a favor is unclear. He refused and surrendered to the British, believing they would grant him asylum in England. He was wrong. Two months later, they landed him at St. Helena, off the South African coast, where he remained a prisoner until his death in 1821. In 1818, Joseph financed a substantial attempt to rescue Napoleon from St. Helena. As one might expect, it was a total failure.

    Once Joseph's presence in New York was exposed, the press lionized him as an heroic figure of the Napoleonic adventure. He happily went along with this. Joseph purchased an estate at Point Breeze, near Bordentown, NJ, in the summer of 1816. He rebuilt the house into a luxurious mansion. He also purchased a hunting lodge in Jefferson County, NY, where he kept a mistress, Annette Savage, a Quaker girl whom he had met in Philadelphia. They had a daughter, Caroline, who grew up to be a strikingly beautiful woman. Joseph gave her a dowry and paid for her wedding (one of the most elaborate ever seen in Watertown, NY). Alas, her improvident husband lost everything and she ended up teaching French in Richfield Springs, NY.

    Joseph frequently entertained his neighbors, who found him polite, unpretentious and kind. Queen Julie had remained in Europe and, despite Joseph's frequent requests, never came to America with their daughters. He did not lack for female companionship. In addition to Annette Savage, he maintained a principal mistress, Madame Sari, and fathered a child by a Creole lady, Madame Lacoste, whom he was rumored to have bought from her husband.

    Joseph spent 17 happy years in America. He imported the first company of ballet dancers seen in the United States. He was also denounced by the high-minded ladies of the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance for serving champagne at breakfast.

    Under the Law of Succession of 1804, Joseph would succeed to the throne if Napoleon's descent failed. In 1832, Napoleon's sole legitimate son died at Vienna. Now Joseph was the Bonapartist pretender. In 1832, after calling on President Jackson to thank him for the hospitality of the American people, Joseph returned to Europe. He was even reunited with Queen Julie.

    He died in Florence in 1844 with Julie at his side, and by his express command was buried wearing the Order of the Golden Fleece, Spain's oldest, most distinguished and most noble order of chivalry. He had awarded it to himself.