Breakfast with Napoleon

*This post was written by Archives volunteer Marie Jarry.

In my ongoing expedition through the miscellaneous boxes here at CHS, I continue to come across many an anonymous letter. Many are addressed “Dear Friend” or “Loving Mother” or not addressed at all. If they are signed, it’s usually with just a first name or something like “Your devoted son.”

Most of these letters aren’t terribly interesting, they may mention a relative’s health or travel plans or express how much they long to see the recipient. With little more than a first name to go on, it’s impossible to identify who the writer was in order to try and put it into some sort of context.

I generally make a few notes about each then add them to a growing “miscellaneous letters” folder. I figured the same would happen with a 13-page letter I found addressed “My dear and esteemed friend.” It was signed “James Garland, 1816” which is more than I can say for half of the correspondence I find.

I began to read the letter and see if I could find any more to go on. Garland mentions leaving Connecticut and arriving back in England. Interesting… He also mentions his Admiral and crew. That must mean he was in the British Navy. My interest was now piqued. I felt it safe to assume he was probably in America fighting during the War of 1812. But he managed to make a friend in Connecticut he wanted to write to? I continued reading.

Garland goes on to write the world “… now was busier than ever preparing for a war on a scale larger than has ever been heard of before to crush the gigantic powers of the man whom no social or solemn contract could bind.” Hmm, 1816, preparing for war against one man, could he mean Napoleon? It would certainly fit. My eyes were now flying down the pages.

Garland goes on for a few pages about the death of his father and I figured no more mention of  “the man” would be made. He then writes of leaving Weymouth to board his ship docked at Plymouth in order to “blockade the French coast from Brest to Bordeaux” and my heart began to beat a bit faster. Garland identifies himself as a First Lieutenant and how Sir Henry Hotham tried to have him appointed Captain to no avail. It appears Garland was no lowly sailor. He says he sailed home from America on the HMS Superb. A quick search reveals that ship was commanded by Hotham and was present when Napoleon surrendered in July of 1815. This letter was getting better and better.

Keeping me in suspense, Lt. Garland digresses to talk about how much he misses the friends he made in Hartford and how much he loves the map of Connecticut he was given. Interesting, if only he would mention their names! The action picks up again on page 9 when Garland mentions Napoleon by name and how he “surrendered himself to the Superb and Squadron, then at anchor at Rochefort.” The next sentence nearly made me fall off my chair. “The following day, this wonderful man with his adherents breakfasted on board of us with our good Admiral.” Wow, I had found a letter written by someone who had watched Napoleon eat breakfast. And all this time, it was just sitting in a box.

Garland goes on to describe his impression of Napoleon and what happened aboard the ship. Fascinating is the only word I can use to describe what he wrote. Here’s a small sample.

To us he was most affable, most inquisitive and the most communicative-he spoke of all his battles and his plans with the greatest ease and familiarity. He is perfectly conversant in all subjects-political, moral [unintelligible] as well as military. He wished to know why we would not grant him a pass to America. He surmised ‘Did we suppose the Americans would put him at their Head for him to take Canada from us?’ We need not fear (he continued that, for he had finished his military [unintelligible] for ever.) ‘Books and friends were to be his future occupation.’

You can’t get more of a first-person primary source than what was in my hands. This is like discovering oil to a historian. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, Garland describes showing Napoleon around the ship.

The map of Connecticut caught his eyeat the instant he remarked it was unusually well executed and he did not think such a thing could have been done with you.

I can picture it all in my head. But so many mysteries remain unsolved. Who made the map? Who was the friend in Hartford? Why was Garland there? Garland asks the recipient to give his regards to the Hudsons and Goodwins and says he was grateful for Reverend Morgan’s blessing after his hearing. He also asks his friend about a monument to Superb midshipman T. B. Power who is interned in the Stonington churchyard. A search for James Garland on-line doesn’t reveal much, other than he was eventually promoted to Captain and was born in Weymouth in 1781.

I’m left with more questions than answers but that is part of the reason I love this work. The letter is now cataloged and available for viewing so someone else can come and read it and perhaps solve another clue.

This post does not do the full letter justice and if you would like to read it, come on down to CHS and ask to see MS 101310. It’s a trip back in time you’ll be happy you took.

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About Barbara

Barbara Austen is the Archivist at CHS and is responsible for all of the incoming manuscripts, which means she gets to read people's diaries or mail. She has a master's Degree in Library and Information Science and has been working in the museum and historical society world for 30 years.

2 thoughts on “Breakfast with Napoleon

  1. Greetings:

    That is a fascinating find. Napoleon did visit on board HMS Superb in July 1815 before he was exiled to St. Helena.

    As Admiral Hotham’s flagship, HMS Superb (commanded by Captain Charles Paget) served off New London from July 1814 to March 1815. Midshipman Thomas B. Powers was killed at the end of July 1814 while interdicting a vessel that turned out to be a privateer, and he was buried in Stonington’s Evergreen Cemetery. The Superb’s officers purchased a handsome monument for his grave, and his father later came to visit it. Garland was one of the British officers who attended the peace ball in the New London courthouse in February 1815. Perhaps he was writing to someone he met there, or during the couple of weeks before the Superb headed back to England in early March 1815.

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