"God was bored with Napoleon," mused the French writer Victor Hugo, and so the indomitable French commander, strategist and emperor went on to lose the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. The bicentennial marking the decisive clash between Napoleon's forces and a combined army of British and Prussians is later this week and has already been the subject of numerous commemorations, including a series of historical reenactments and a controversial coin.
Napoleon’s defeat on a field in what's now Belgium signaled the end of his imperial ambitions in Europe and paved the way for nearly a century of British dominance in global politics.
But in the aftermath of Waterloo, the coalition forces ranged against him grappled with a far more immediate question: What to do with the diminutive Corsican?
Earlier in the same year, Napoleon had escaped imprisonment on the Mediterranean isle in Elba, and returned triumphantly to Paris. His enemies – from the victorious British to opponents within France – were determined to prevent any chance of him pulling off the same stunt again.
The vanquished general, too, seemed to be resigned to his fate. But he looked west to new lands for sanctuary. Napoleon's desire to avoid life in British captivity by emigrating to the United States is the subject of an ongoing exhibition near Paris, held at a chateau that once belonged to him, as reported by Agence France Presse.
"Where am I to go? To England? My abode there would be ridiculous or disquieting," Napoleon is said to have told a confidante in the days after Waterloo and his own abdication as Emperor of the French. "America would be more suitable; I could live there with dignity."
He waited aboard a vessel near the western port of Rochefort, hoping to win British clearance for a life in dignified exile on the other side of the Atlantic. His baggage included enough furniture and crockery for imagined residences in both the city and country, as well as books and maps detailing the United States.
But the authorization never came. Napoleon, knowing too that the political wind was against him in France, surrendered himself to the British on July 15, 1815. He was then sent to the remote, gray Atlantic isle of St. Helena, where he died just six years later of what's suspected to be stomach cancer. (His brother, Joseph, did manage to escape 10 days later to the United States by using a false passport.)
The allure of the Americas was strong for Napoleon and many of his supporters. Before selling off the Louisiana territory to the U.S. in 1803, Napoleon had once harbored dreams of building a grand continental empire, with New Orleans as its metropolitan center.
By 1815, that conquering zeal had apparently burned out, and he seemed keen to abandon politics for new pursuits.
"When Napoleon imagined his life in the United States, it was as a private individual and devotee of science," writes Ines Murat, author of "Napoleon and the American Dream." According to one account, related by NPR, Napoleon was already reading a book about the botany and geography of the Americas as Prussian troops approached his residence near Paris. Among the attendants enlisted to join the defeated emperor was a French astronomer and physicist.
Given his past, it's hard to believe Napoleon, the inheritor of the French Revolution, would have been so quiet. Other accounts suggest he may have hoped to help lead republican uprisings in Spain's marquis American colonies, such as Venezuela and Mexico. Napoleonic France was one of the few European friends of Latin America's revolutionaries, and its daring commander had, for a time, inspired opponents of Europe's old monarchies on both sides of the Atlantic.
Even though Napoleon never reached the Americas, hundreds of Bonapartists did; many signed up to fight in the bloody wars that birthed South America's independent states. Others journeyed to New Orleans and, among other activities, plotted to rescue their captured leader, turned to privateering and smuggling, and attempted to establish their own colonies in the American South.
These include two failed Bonapartist outposts in Alabama and Texas.
"I have become a man of the woods, wandering in the forests of Georgia," wrote Louis Lauret, a former captain in Napoleon's Guard of Honor, in a letter in 1830. Long gone were his own illusions of a hopeful American future.
"[I] avoid the sight of the world, which fills me with horror," he wrote.