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Relics of Napoleon

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Commission signed by Napoleon, 1803

Commission signed by Napoleon, 1803

Today marks the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. To commemorate the occasion, here are some Napoleon-related items from the LSU Libraries’ Special Collections.

A document that Napoleon himself touched is a commission dated “11 Fructidor 30” (September 17, 1803, on the French Revolutionary calendar). This was less than one year before he crowned himself emperor. The document also bears his embossed paper seal, decorated with an allegorical figure and his official title, First Consul of the French Republic.

Many rare books about Napoleon’s military campaigns are available in Special Collections. They range from contemporary accounts of French Revolutionary-era politics and military affairs to early biographies, memoirs, and histories. Among these materials are a few items that show how much Napoleon’s public image was influenced by the printed page. La description de l’Égypte (1809-28), one of the largest and most extravagant books ever published, is a multi-volume illustrated record of studies conducted by the “corps des savants,” a team of scientists, historians, and artists that traveled with the French army in Egypt from 1798 to 1801. Napoleon ordered the book’s production, partly to divert attention from his military failures in the Middle East. (For more info, see our blog post “Egyptomania!”)

Caricature of Napoleon

Caricature of Napoleon by James Gillray

Much less flattering views of “the Little Corsican” are found in two British caricatures drawn around 1800 by Isaac Cruikshank and James Gillray. They are now bound into an extra-illustrated copy of Walter Hamilton’s Memoir of George Cruikshank, Artist and Humourist (1878). One of the prints, titled “Easier to say than to do!”, shows Napoleon plotting to overrun Britain. The other depicts “Tiddy-Doll the great French Gingerbread-Baker drawing out a new Batch of Kings,” a reference to Napoleon’s strategy of creating puppet states.

Did you know Napoleon was a voracious reader? The library in his official residence near Paris had 6,000 books. He took wagonloads of books with him on campaigns, and during his exile on Elba, he built up a library of about 2,300 volumes. The ruthless general wasn’t always kind to books. It is said that if he didn’t like one, he’d throw it out of his carriage into the mud. He also stole books. A 1739 edition of the works of Roman historian Cornelius Nepos, now in the Rare Book Collection at LSU, may be one of these volumes. According to an inscription written in 1818, the book was part of a library taken by Napoleon when he conquered Italy. (To find out more about Napoleon’s relationship with books, see the article “Napoleon’s Passion: Plundering Libraries.”)

(left) Book plundered by Napoleon; (right) Books from library of Empress Marie Louise

(left) Book plundered by Napoleon; (right) Books from the library of Empress Marie Louise

Special Collections also holds books from the library of Napoleon’s second wife, the Empress Marie Louise, later known as the Duchess of Parma. The three large volumes bear her distinctive red bindings and gilt monogram. After her death in 1847, they were passed down through her Austrian family until 1933 when her library was sold. One of the books, Anton Ziegler’s Historische Memorabilien des In- und Auslandes (1840), is of special interest. Several of its engravings depict Napoleon in battle.

Everybody knows that Napoleon sold the vast French colony of Louisiana to the United States, but there are other connections between him and the Bayou State. After he was driven into exile, many of his supporters had to leave France as well. A few came to Louisiana. The papers of two exiles, Pierre Gabriel Wartelle and Joseph Lakanal, are now available to researchers in Special Collections. Materials in other manuscript collections contain references to the French Revolution and its impact on the United States. Interested in finding out more? The Louisiana Digital Library collection Lettres de Louisiane is a good place to start.

Louisiana readers have always had an interest in Napoleon. Shown below are two books from early Louisiana libraries. Stories of Waterloo and Other Tales, published in New York in 1830, is a book of fictionalized history that was owned by Thomas Butler, a planter and judge from St. Francisville. Around 1870, when LSU was still a military academy, an illustrated biography of Napoleon, Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène (ca. 1842), was on the shelves for cadets to check out. At that time, the book was was volume number 552 in the library’s collection, according to a bookplate inside the front cover.

(left) Stories of Waterloo; (right) Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène

(left) Stories of Waterloo; (right) Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène



Michael Taylor is Curator of Books, LSU Libraries’ Special Collections

Posted in Special Collections Tagged with: ,

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