Aboatload of Napoleonic exiles sailed from Philadelphia on Dec. 18, 1817 on a mysterious mission to establish a secret sanctuary for their imprisoned hero in Spanish Texas.
Since he always preferred to keep power in the family, Napoleon Bonaparte put no fewer than four siblings on as many European thrones. His oldest brother, Joseph, ruled Spain for five years before fleeing with 50 million francs to, of all places, New Jersey.
In the aftermath of the disaster at Waterloo in 1815, the Little Corporal himself tried to reach sanctuary in the United States, but the victors got wind of his vacation plans and deposited him for safekeeping on the island of Saint Helena 1,200 miles off the coast of Africa.
Hundreds of Napoleon’s never-say-die soldiers succeeded where their fallen hero had failed and managed to escape to America. Blind obedience to the Bonapartes was a hard habit to break, and they looked to the nearest family member for their marching orders.
Overlooking this loyal legion, Joseph inexplicably picked a young Spaniard to champion his cause. In 1816, he handed 26-year-old Francisco Mina a $100,000 letter of credit to finance a long-shot scheme to steal the centerpiece of his native land’s New World Empire.
The two-step strategy seemed simple enough. After Mina swiped Mexico out from under the very noses of his drowsy countrymen, Joseph would graciously consent to serve as emperor.
To his everlasting regret, Mina found the Spaniards waiting with open arms and sharp swords. The amateur invaders were squashed like so many bugs, and the shackled commander was the guest of honor at a public execution in Mexico City.
Even before he learned of Mina’s fate, Joseph wrote off the half-baked adventure as a bad investment. With more money than good sense, he decided to bankroll an even more improbable plot.
A clique of high-ranking French officers under the direction of Brigadier General Charles Lallemand took charge of the conspiracy. They politely paid lip service to Joseph’s egocentric fantasy, while privately pursuing their own agenda.
After carving out a secure home base in the East Texas wilderness, an elite team of carefully chosen commandos would liberate their leader from Saint Helena. In the final act of the preposterous plan, the Mexican crown would adorn the brow of Napoleon rather than his undeserving brother.
Security was so tight at Philadelphia in December 1817 that only a handful of the 150 Frenchmen who slipped aboard the schooner knew the final destination. Most of the seasick soldiers, who staggered down the gangplank in Galveston, had no idea where the month-long voyage had taken them.
As Jean Lafitte played a two-faced game as host, his cutthroats preyed upon the gullible guests. A number died in drunken brawls and rigged duels before Gen. Lallemand showed up with the rest of the 400 volunteers.
Half French but all opportunist, Lafitte wasted no time in betraying the expedition. Lallemand and company had hardly vanished from sight on their way up the Trinity River, when the pirate snitched to the Spaniards.
A few miles south of present-day Liberty, the French constructed a fortified village called Champ d’Asile. To preserve the pretense of peaceful intentions, Lallemand issued an impressive manifesto in May 1818 which described the exiles’ quest for an agrarian paradise.
But it was too late to fool the Spaniards or their own growling stomachs. As the food supply ran dangerously low, Lallemand left, promising to return with fresh provisions. Weeks went by without a word from their missing leader, and his starving subordinates finally faced the fact that he had abandoned them.
Dodging a Spanish column sent from San Antonio to round them up, the Champ d’Asile contingent wearily retraced their steps to Galveston. The footsore French arrived just in time to catch the brunt of a howling hurricane.
Although he lost six ships in the storm, Lafitte gladly gave the surviving refugees one of his few seaworthy vessels. Anything to get rid of the wanted men before a Spanish patrol happened by!
Three years after the collapse of the harebrained campaign, Napoleon succumbed to cancer (or was poisoned by his captors) leaving his floundering followers alone and adrift in America. Joseph accepted his comfortable lot as the wealthiest hermit in New Jersey, and Gen. Lallemand succeeded in worming his way into the good graces of the French army.