AUGUST   2020


Wednesday, June 19, 2013


I have an impossible mission for you. Should you decide to accept it, if successful you will be rich beyond your wildest dreams. But fail and, if you are lucky enough to live, you will spend the rest of your life in the deepest darkest prison on earth. The object of this mission is a 48 year old male, being held prisoner on a remote volcanic island (above). It has no port and only one beach. The nearest land is another island, 800 miles to the northwest. The nearest port is 1,200 miles to the east. Your mission must be accomplished without using aircraft or balloons, motorboats, radio, or electricity of any kind, or high explosives. You see, it is 1817, and the mission is to rescue Napoleon Bonaparte.
It is hard to imagine today the terror Napoleon inspired in the British ruling class. He had not a drop of royal blood in his veins, and no privileged education. Yet as a lowly general the "Corsican Ogre" humiliated an Austrian Army in northern Italy. Then like a new Pharaoh, he conquered Egypt. He was elected Emperor of France in 1804, and six months later crowned King of Italy. For almost two years his Grand Army threatened an invasion of England, and then suddenly "Le petit Corporal"  spun about and almost without firing a shot, captured Vienna and an Austrian army of 30,000 men. A month later he was cornered in Czechoslovakia by a combined Russian and Austrian army of 85,000 men. He crushed them in a few hours. After surrendering, Czar Alexander was forced to admit, “We are babies in the hands of a giant.”
The famous quatrains of Nostradamus were quoted as predicting Napoleon's rise: “An Emperor will be born near Italy”. Everywhere he went Kings were overthrown, kingdom's collapsed, and fortunes evaporated. Napoleon closed Europe to all English trade, and cost English bankers vast treasure, not even counting the wealth they had to spend on ships and men of their own. He was the “bogeyman of Europe.” In 1814, after fifteen years and five million dead, Napoleon was finally cornered, forced to abdicate, and exiled to the tiny island of Elba, 12 miles off the coast of Italy. A year later he escaped, and in the famous 100 days reconquered France, recruited a new army of 72,000 men, invaded Belgium, beat a Prussian army of 84,000 men, and finally, at the “very close” battle of Waterloo, was stopped by sacrificing another 45,000 lives. This time the British were determined to lock “Boney” away where he could never escape.
The prison they picked in 1816 was St Helena, a wind swept tropical volcanic island rising 2,000 feet out of the south Atlantic, a third of the way between Africa and South America. Its arid coastal cliffs were cleaved by a half dozen V shaped canyons where rivers fell from the humid forested interior. The British Prime Minister assured his cabinet, “At such a distance and in such a place, all intrigue would be impossible.” But they were still taking no chances.
Ensconced in a single story mansion called Longwood (above) near the center of the island, Napoleon and his small retinue were watched round the clock by a battalion of 2,800 soldiers and 500 cannon. A British officer was required to set eyes upon Napoleon twice a day. He was not allowed out side after sunset, nor if there was an unidentified sail on the horizon. Eleven warships patrolled the seas around the island, and at sunset every boat was secured under guard and every bridge and gate was locked. Residents of the island's only village, Jamestown, were allowed out after 9 pm only with a signed pass. Escape seemed impossible.
But, of course, from the moment of his imprisonment there were those who wanted to set “The Thief of Europe” free again. A group of retired French officers, who had emigrated to Texas in America, were raising funds and plotting Napoleon's escape. His brother Joseph, one time King of Spain, had escaped to America with 20 million francs. And there were others, more surprising, such as the legendary British Admiral Thomas Cochrane, AKA “the Sea Wolf”.  Two years after this brilliant officer commanded the naval squadron that burned Washington D.C.  in 1814,  Cochrane was convicted of stock fraud, and forced to resign from the British Navy. Bitter, he sold his skills to Chile, where he founded their navy and helped win their  independence from Spain. And word was that Cochrane was planning to free Napoleon to lead the revolutionaries in South America.
But the man all the would-be rescuers sought out was a common smuggler named Tom Johnson (above). He'd been born to Irish parents living in southern England, and had become a successful smuggler by the age of 12. The revenue agents caught him twice, but after his second escape he somehow managed to reach France.Using his knowledge of the English coast Tom Johnson quickly again became such a successful smuggler that while Napoleon was planning his invasion of England, he met with Tom and offered him a command in the French navy. Tom said no, so Napoleon threw the smuggler into prison. After nine months Tom escaped yet again, and was later caught by a British warship almost within sight of America. But this time the Admiralty was desperate enough to grant Tom a pardon and put him on the payroll. And one of the first jobs they gave him was to review a new invention being offered to save England from Napoleon's invasion fleet - a submarine.
In 1800 American Robert Fulton (above) built a working prototype for the French revolutionaries. The four man crew of the Nautilus were supplied with air up to 25 feet under the surface via a snorkel. Underwater she was faster than a row boat on the surface, and while on the surface the Nautilus was powered by a sail which ingeniously popped up from a deck hanger. But Napoleon took one look at the leaky thing and decided Fulton was a fraud. He ordered the prototype destroyed. That was when the British offered Fulton the modern equivalent of $10 million if he could build one for England.
Maybe the Admiralty never thought it would work, and they hired Fulton just to keep him occupied. But the inventor still brought his experience and plans for an even bigger submarine. The Nautilus II would be 35 feet long, with a crew of six, two snorkels, a bigger sail and could remain at sea for 20 days. Tom Johnson went over the plans with Fulton at Dover, and they discussed them in detail. But after the British Navy destroyed the French and Spanish fleets at the battle of Trafalgar, they had no need of Fulton's submarine. Discouraged, Fulton took the offer to build a commercial steam boat in New York. But somebody knew the smuggler Tom Johnson was still interested in the idea. That, plus Johnson's reputation for audacity,  convinced some body that the old smuggler should be offered the equivalent of $3 million to rescue Napoleon.
The plan conceived by Johnson involved two submarines. The larger one would approach St. Helena at night from the leeward side, and then submerge at dawn. The next evening, she would surface and launch the smaller sub, which would land Johnson and another man at the foot of the cliffs on the north side of the island (above). Johnson would ascend the cliff, where he would install a bosun's chair. Then he would make his way to Longwood, where he would slip through the British cordon. The next evening, Johnson and Napoleon would sneak out and make for the cliff. Napoleon would be lowered in the chair, and be spirited away before dawn.
In 1818 the Times of London reported on rumors of a plot to rescue Napoleon, and ex-Admiral Cochrane's wife assured several people that such a plan existed. Cochrane was still working with the Chilean Navy. It might all be a fantasy, except we know from British Admiralty records that early in 1820 a commission of senior naval officers reviewed expense accounts for a submarine, built by Johnson. And leading that commission was Sir George Cockburn, the soldier who burned down the White House in 1814, while under orders from Admiral Thomas Cochrane. The records show Johnson was asking for 100,000 pounds, and the sailors gave him just 4,735 pounds. But clearly there was at least one submarine in existence in 1820, and Johnson had control of it.
What does not seem clear is that Johnson’s submarine could have accomplished the rescue mission.   More than likely, Johnson's plot was a scam to obtain money from Napoleon's supporters. But if Johnson had not intended upon trying, why, late one night in November of 1820, did Tom Johnson try to steal his submarine?He got as far as London Bridge, when the navy caught up with him. And according to a Thames boatman who witnessed the scene, “Captain Johnson...(was) threatening to shoot them. But they paid no attention to his threats, seized her (the submarine) and taking her to Blackwall, burned her.” Thus ended the impossible mission.
Was any of it possible? Were there really far flung plots to rescue Napoleon? Well, remember the island 800 miles to the northwest of St. Helena? Its name is Ascension Island, and in 1815 British marines were sent ashore to occupy it, in the unlikely event that some one would try to use it as a base to rescue Napoleon. And as they splashed ashore they reported some one had left a written a message in the beach sand; “Le mai l'Empereur Napoleon vit pour toujours”  It translated as, “May the Emperor Napoleon live forever!”
He did not. Napoleon Bonaparte died on St. Helena in May of 1821, possibly of stomach cancer, or possibly from arsenic poisoning: by whom is any one's guess. Tom Johnson was sent to debtors prison, and while there seems to have contributed to a fanciful retelling of his plan to rescue Napoleon. Upon his release Johnson was granted a comfortable pension, and retired to Southern England. In 1832 Admiral Thomas Cochrane was restored to his full rank in the British Navy, and was later even promoted to Real Admiral. He died in 1860.
Considering the entire tale from beginning to end, I have to say, it it had not involved Napoleon, I would have called it impossible. But with Napoleon, nothing was impossible.
- 30 -

Sunday, June 16, 2013


I have always been impressed at how Thomas Jefferson stage managed his own demise. First, he wrote his own epitaph, then gathered the family around for a dramatic final words ceremony. And even after that, he was determined to wait for the perfect moment to exit the stage. The 83 year old control freak woke the last time at about 8:00 P.M., and asked if it was the fourth of July yet. When Doctor Robley Dunglison told him “It soon will be”, Jefferson went back to sleep and then kept breathing just long enough to be certain he was in the spot light. He died at 12:50 A.M, on July 4, 1826 - the fiftieth anniversary of the official signing of his “Decleration of Indpendence”. His fellow founding father, John Adams, died later the same day, unaware the Virginian had upstaged him again. And then immediately, just as modern day conservatives grapple over the legacy of Ronald Reagan, the living politicians of 1826 started arguing over Jefferson's endorsement. And the opening shot was delivered by the amazing Edward Coles
He was a Virginia aristocrat, like his neighbor Thomas Jefferson, and a private secretary to President James Madison - another neighbor. And he had a secrete dream. In 1819 the 33 year old sold his plantation to his older brother Walter, packed his personal belonging, his wardrobe and papers, his plows and spinning wheels and his 17 slaves onto two flatboats, and set off into the unknown.
“The morning after we left Pittsburgh,” Coles recalled 25 years later, “a mild, calm and lovely April day, the sun shining bright, and the heavens without a cloud, our boats floating gently down the beautiful Ohio...I called on the deck of the boats, which were lashed together, all the Negroes, and made them a short address.... I proclaimed in the shortest and fullest manner possible, that they were no longer slaves, but free —free as I was, and were at liberty to proceed with me, or to go ashore at their pleasure. The effect on them was electrical. They stared at me and at each other, as if doubting the accuracy or reality of what they heard...As they began to see the truth...there came on a kind of hysterical, giggling laugh”
Coles had been planning this for a long time, and both Jefferson and Madison, who had advised Coles against it, were watching his experiment from afar. The slave Coles was most fond of, 47 year old Ralph Crawford, protested. “He thought I ought not to do it till they had repaid me the expense I had ...removing them from Virginia”. But Coles was determined.. “I told them, no” He then added that “as a reward for their past services, as well as a stimulant to their future exertions, and with a hope it would add to their self esteem and their standing in the estimation of others, I should give to each head of a hundred and sixty acres of land.”
It was like a fairy tale, and it did not prove simple to accomplish. But Coles saw it accomplished. After landing on the Indiana shore opposite Louisville, the party sold their boats and made their way overland to the Mississippi River, arriving in May at Edwardsville, Illinois, opposite St. Louis. Madison had secured Coles the post of Register of Lands for the territory, and that income allowed him to help his freemen and their families as they struggled to make a new life in Illinois. In 1822, when an attempt was made to rewrite the new state's Constitution to permit slavery, Coles was elected, the second Governor of Illinois, on a firm anti-slavery platform. It took 18 hard months, but the forces of slavery were beaten back once again. .
Cole had corresponded with Thomas Jefferson for years, and at the ex-President’s requests had provided him with advice and details on the manumission of slaves. The Sage of Monticello had left Cole with the impression that Jefferson intended to free his own slaves in his will. When Jefferson died without having done that, Cole was bitterly disappointed. And that must have played a part in explaining why, shortly after Jefferson's death in 1826, Cole made public a letter he had received from Jefferson in August of 1825. In that letter Jefferson had called Jackson “a mere military chieftain,” and added that his popularity, “has caused me to doubt (the stability of the democracy) more than anything that has occurred since our Revolution.”
It might have been that Jefferson, being a politician, was again merely feeding Coles what he thought Coles wanted to hear. But then there was the conversation which Daniel Webster and Thomas Gilmer both had with Jefferson just before John Quincy Adam's victory in the House of Representatives in February of 1825. After Jefferson's death they both quoted Jefferson as saying, “One might as well make a sailor of a cock, or a soldier of a goose, as a President of Andrew Jackson.” Webster went even farther, quoting Jefferson in an even earlier conversation as describing Jackson as “a dangerous man.”
It was a sharp blow to Jackson's image. And since candidates did not campaign themselves in this era, image was everything. The truth was, Jefferson had backed Crawford from Georgia in the 1824 election, but after the “corrupt bargain” he had invited Jackson to Monticello, noting his “great respect” for the military chieftain. But Jackson had not taken Jefferson up on the invitation. Virginian Andrew Stevenson, who was a new Jackson supporter, thought he had the perfect man to punch holes in Cole's evidence.
His name was Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr.. The Randolphs were F-F-V: one of the First Families of Virginia. Randolph Junior had served in the Virginia Senate in the 1790's, the U.S. Congress in the first decade of the new century, the Virginia House in the late teens, and finally as Virginia Governor from 1823 to 1825. And he was Thomas Jefferson's son-in-law. That made his credentials pretty impressive. However Randolph Jr. was also an alcoholic, and so abusive that Martha Jefferson had moved back in with her father to escape his drunken outbursts. Randolph Junior was clearly not welcomed at Monticello. Still he had a good pedigree and title, and few outside the immediate families knew the details of Randolph's estrangement from his father-in-law.
Thomas Randolph Jr.; now assured voters that Jefferson had indeed trusted Jackson, describing him as an “honest, sincere, clear-headed and strong-minded man of the soundest principles”. Randolph also insisted that Jefferson had described Jackson as “the only hope left” to stop Adam's Big Government campaign. Now, maybe Jefferson had really said those things, but it seems unlikely in the final months of his life he would have confided in a drunken lout like Randolph. Still, if you wanted to believe in Jackson, Thomas' story was now on the table, for public use.
And there was another Jefferson letter, this one written by the sage of Monticello to the new Virginia Governor, the idiosyncratic William Branch Giles. He was a political loose cannon, and just about everybody was angry with Giles at one time or another. Like a child left alone in a candy shop, it was almost impossible to predict where he was going to stick his finger next. But at this time, in 1827, he decided, for whatever reason, to release his version of the Sage of Monticello. .Giles' version of Jefferson was not concerned about Andrew “Jackass” Jackson the military lunatic, but the ominous looming power mad Federal government under John Quincy Adams. And it wasn't so much what President Adams had already done.
Wrote this Jefferson, the real danger was the “...vast accession of strength from their younger recruits, who, having nothing in them of the feelings or principles of '76, now look to a single and splendid government of an aristocracy, founded on banking institutions, and moneyed in-corporations under the guise and cloak of their favored branches of manufactures, commerce and navigation, riding and ruling over the plundered plough man and beggared yeomanry.” 
The response from the Adams' supporters to Gile's version of Jefferson was muted. Coles, from far off Illinois, insisted that HIS Jefferson had not changed his mind about Jackson. And others groused that at the end of his life, Jefferson must have gone senile. It seems that Jefferson was right to try to micromanage his legacy, because the minute he was gone, every politician in America had their own version of “Jefferson lite”, a Jefferson of every flavor, for every taste. It was easy, because Jefferson the real man had been a skilled politician, who made his living being as many things to as many people as possible. That is professional politics 101, version one, lesson one:.a politician who does not get elected is not a politician, but just another loud mouth with an opinion.
And whatever else he was, Thomas Jefferson was never that.
- 30 -

Blog Archive