FEW SOLDIERS better incarnate the high and low drama of Napoleonic times than Général de Brigade Charles-François-Antoine Lallemand. A man of boundless energy who became an intimate of Napoleon Bonaparte, Lallemand—whom the British banished from France after Waterloo—was forced to use his wits and sword to carve out a dubious living in America, where he founded a French exile colony in Texas, cozied up to pirates, became an arms dealer, and even ran a school. Yet the former general somehow persevered to reclaim his good reputation in France and secure a spot on the Arc de Triomphe.
Rumors abounded that Lallemand would spirit Napoleon away from St. Helena by steamboat, balloon, or submarine
The son of a wigmaker in the northeastern fortress town of Metz, Lallemand joined the artillery at 17 when France went to war with Austria and Prussia in 1792. A powerful, bull-like man with a full head of curly dark hair, he switched to the cavalry and rocketed through the ranks; by 1795 he had joined Napoleon Bonaparte’s staff in Paris and become one of his protégés. Over the next 20 years, Lallemand served in most major Napoleonic campaigns, and Bonaparte rewarded his courage and loyalty with the Legion of Honor and a baronetcy.
By 1812, however, Emperor Napoleon’s fortunes were ebbing. As the remnants of the Grande Armée straggled out of Russia, Lallemand was summoned to Germany to help stop the oncoming allies. It was too little too late. Napoleon abdicated in April 1814 and went into exile on the isle of Elba. Lallemand remained loyal, commanding a mounted regiment as a brevet général de division when Napoleon staged his brief resurgence in 1815, and was wounded at Waterloo. He tried to join Napoleon in exile on St. Helena, but the British imprisoned him on Malta. Released in 1816, Lallemand was a man without a country.
Lallemand sailed to America, home of his Creole wife, and thence to Philadelphia, where several Napoleonic veterans had joined with French refugees from the Haitian slave revolt to form an agricultural settlement, the Society for the Cultivation of Vine and Olive, and received Alabama lands from Congress for the purpose. Lallemand somehow became its president, but this lifelong warrior had absolutely no desire to farm. Instead, he illegally sold the military members’ land to raise money for a grandiose scheme: to lead the exiled officers to Texas and found a colony, the Champ d’Asile (Field of Asylum).
In December 1817, Lallemand sailed with about 150 officers for Galveston. The colony of exiled heroes became a media sensation, attracting large donations, including from the young Alexis de Tocqueville, future author of Democracy in America. American officials puzzled over the new colony; European monarchies fretted. There were rumors that he would rescue Napoleon from St. Helena. Spirited from the island by steamboat, balloon, or submarine, Napoleon would go to Texas, become emperor of Mexico, and, using the wealth of its mines, make war on the kings of Europe. Lallemand encouraged such talk, since it inspired the Bonapartist faithful and garnered donations, but his real purpose was to further his own ambitions.
BEFORE LEAVING FOR TEXAS, Lallemand had completed a complicated diplomatic maneuver. Texas at the time was claimed by both America and Spain. He met with U.S. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and then the Spanish ambassador, Don Luis de Onis, offering to take the area for their respective countries. He hoped to spark a bidding war for his services between the two governments. While these diplomats weighed his proposition, Lallemand established himself near Galveston, Texas.
Although in his communiqués Lallemand portrayed the colony as a paradise where men could be free, the reality was quite different. Hurricanes destroyed their huts, rations were short, and many men got sick from eating wild plants. They eventually had to depend on the Lafitte brothers, the New Orleans pirates, for food. Local Indians were hostile, and the starving, harassed colonists resented being forced to build the massive earthworks Lallemand wanted. Armed sentries were posted around the encampment at night to prevent escapes.
MEANWHILE, the American and Spanish governments both decided to call Lallemand’s bluff. Instead of paying him off, they sent troops to kick him out. Sensing disaster, Lallemand abandoned his followers in 1818 for New Orleans, absconding with funds sympathizers had sent to aid his colony.
Texas was not the end of Lallemand’s adventures. In 1823 he popped up in Spain, where he raised a volunteer regiment to fight the invasion by French royalists intent on restoring the Spanish monarchy. He was captured, apparently spent some time in a Portugese prison, then lived for a while in impoverished circumstances in Belgium before returning to New York. There he offered to help Greek insurgents buy two warships for their fight against Ottoman rule. [See Portfolio, page 66.] Only one was delivered, and tens of thousands of dollars entrusted to Lallemand disappeared. He spent the rest of the 1820s running a school in New York—an odd career choice he likely made out of necessity.
Lallemand’s perseverance paid off when in 1830 a new revolution brought liberals to power in France. Restored to the rank of lieutenant general, he served as military governor of Corsica (happily, as it was the birthplace of his great mentor, Napoleon), then as inspector general of cavalry, and finally as inspector general of the Saint-Cyr military academy before dying in 1839 at age 64.
Rafe Blaufarb is the Ben Weider Eminent Scholar and director of the Institute on Napoleon and the French Revolution at Florida State University. Among his many books is Bonapartists in the Borderlands: French Exiles and Refugees on the Gulf Coast, 1815–1835 (Tuscaloosa, 2006).