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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"


by C. F. Eckhardt
"Texas under six flags." That's been around pretty much since who flung the chunk, and it's wrong. "Texas under sixty flags" might be closer to the truth, and even some of the six we claim never flew over Texas. The quarterings of lions and castles-the Spanish flag we fly-was the Spanish royal banner, the flag of the house of Castile and Leon, and it flew only where Spanish royalty was present. Likewise the French blue and white banners with the fleurs de lys. The blue one was the French military flag, and LaSalle's colony on the Texas coast wasn't a military inroad. The white one, like the castles and lions, was the royal flag, and flew only where royalty was present.

One French flag we don't claim actually did fly over
Texas-or at least a small part of it along the Trinity River-for a few months in 1818. It was the Tricolor-the red, white, and blue flag of the French Republic and Bonapartist Empire.

The real end of Napoleon Bonaparte-Napoleon I-came not at Waterloo but at Moscow, when the terrible Russian winter destroyed the Grande Armee. Bonaparte was exiled to Elba, an island in the Mediterranean. This gave us that marvelous palindrome "Able was I ere I saw Elba." From there he was rescued by some of his former officers. The abortive Hundred Days followed, culminating in Bonaparte's utter defeat at Waterloo. He was again exiled, this time to Ste. Helena, an island off the African coast. On Ste. Helena he eventually died.

There are probably a thousand tales dealing with the time after the Hundred Days. There are those who will allege that the man who died on Ste. Helena was an imposter-a double. Bonaparte, they say, escaped, only to be shot and killed in a Corsican garden in 1817. There are those who insist that the execution of Ney, Bonaparte's red-haired marechal, was a sham. Ney, they say, had a long life in the American South. And then there are the 'rescue the Emperor' tales.

In New Orleans' Vieux Carre there is a house local historians insist was fitted out to be at least a temporary abode for the emperor after his rescue from Ste. Helena. The rescue was supposed to be led by Dominic Youx, Laffite's gunnery-master, who seems to have been an artillery sergeant in the Grande Armee. In Maryland they'll show you a ship-obviously of French design-which was being fitted out for the rescue when word came of Bonaparte's death. There are a few dozen others.

One of the least-known, most enigmatic of these tales is the story of Champs d'Asile, a colony of French emigrés established deep in East Texas near where Liberty now stands, on the banks of the Trinity. Allegedly it was established to be a place of refuge-asile means asylum- for former Napoleonic soldiers and officers who were tired of the constant war and bickering in Europe. They came, they said, to 'cultivate vine and olive' and live as free men, unhampered by the constant conflicts of old Europe.

If they did, they picked a peculiar place to do it and some very peculiar ways of going about it. There probably is no single part of Texas less suited to 'cultivation of vine and olive' than the red dirt and piney woods of Deep East. It would eventually become cotton country, and today it's mostly truck farming with some cattle raising-trace-mineral fed cattle to make up for the minerals the soil lacks-but the soil and climactic conditions were and are entirely unsuited to 'vine and olive.'

The leader of the settlement at Champs d'Asile was none other than Napoleon's old chief of artillery, General Charles Lallemand. Probably at Moss Bluff, about six miles down the Trinity from the historical marker commemorating it, Lallemand and his associates-about 400 of them, both former officers and former enlisted men-built a log fort overlooking the river. It was cornered with artillery emplacements covering both land and water approaches. In the center of the stockade they erected a wooden statue of Napoleon, Emperor of France. They seem to have spent very little time 'cultivating vine and olive' and a great deal of time in military drill and maneuvers.

Not far away was another French enclave. At least it was led by a man who claimed to be French-born, though evidence indicates he was actually born in the French West Indies colony of St. Domingue, today Haiti. His name was Jean Laffite, and he fought side by side with the Americans at New Orleans, furnishing artillery support and gunflints for Andy Jackson's cotton- bale fortified mixed bag of regulars and frontier militia.

Laffite, at least ostensibly, hated Spain and all things Spanish. His ships regularly raided Spanish commerce in the Gulf, using a letter of marque and reprisal issued by the short-lived Republic of Cartagena to justify his actions as privateering rather than piracy. Strangely, Spain did little or nothing to retaliate, though Galveston Island was Spanish territory and his presence there was well known.

Jean Laffite and his New Orleans-based merchant brother Pierre were Spanish royal espionage agents numbers 13 and 12. They were Spain's civilian eyes and ears along the lower Mississippi and the upper Gulf coast. No move, plan, or discussion that might even remotely be interpreted as threatening Spain's hegemony in the western Gulf went unreported by the highly- efficient, well-placed Agents 12 and 13. Jean's raids and his denunciation of Spain and things Spanish encouraged many with designs on New Spain to confide in him. These confidences were reported, word for word, through the well-organized Spanish espionage network headed by Agent #1-James Wilkinson, who was also Commanding General, United States Army.

It's known that General Lallemand and some of the officers visited Laffite at his home, La Maison Rouge, on Galveston Island. Precisely what was discussed is not known. It is possible, however, to draw inferences.

In 1818 Mexico was in revolt against Spanish rule-it would win independence in 1821- and Spanish royal arms were barely holding their own, even against the virtually unarmed, untrained campesino troops. On Ste. Helena, in exile, languished one of the world's most effective field generals. All across the American South and the West Indies highly trained, battle-hardened veterans of his army were settling-and many, indeed most, were fanatically loyal to their Emperor.

Retaking France was out of the question. Europe stood united as never before to prevent the restoration of Napoleon to the French throne. Britain, Spain, Prussia, Austria-Hungary, Russia, the Low Countries, the bickering non-Prussian German states, even the sundered and antagonistic Italian states, stood ready to take up arms and join forces at the slightest hint of a return of Bonaparte to Europe.

What about Mexico? Could there have been a plan to rescue Napoleon, bring him to New Orleans, assemble and arm a force of his veterans in the Neutral Strip, then move to conquer Mexico and establish a foothold for a New World Napoleonic empire? There's no documentation of this, but a lot of activity-not the least of which was a French enclave 'to cultivate vine and olive' only a few miles from the Neutral Strip, which did little cultivation but built a strong fort and did a lot of military drill-seems to point that way.

Whatever was intended, it never materialized. The necessary logistic support, supplies of war materiel, and ships to transport troops never arrived. Most important, the rescue of Bonaparte from Ste. Helena never occurred.

Laffite, the smiling and affable French patriot on Galveston Island, reported to General Lallemand and his officers that a Spanish force of several thousand had been sent to destroy Champs d'Asile. The French, only about 400 strong, abandoned the fort and retreated to Galveston Island. From there they scattered to the winds-some to the French West Indies, some to the American South, and some-eventually-back to la belle France.

There was no Spanish force 'several thousand strong' and Laffite knew it. Lallemand, like many others, was duped by Spain's Agent 13, the master pirate of the Gulf. Some weeks after the French veterans abandoned their fort a ragtag bunch of Spanish colonial militia, only about 240 strong, made their way to the Trinity and burned the fort. Lallemand's veterans could have defeated them between breakfast and lunch-and not worked up a real appetite in the process.

Whatever Champs d'Asile was intended to be, it never became. As for 'cultivating vine and olive,' the only vines the Spanish found were native-mustang and scuppernong grapes-and there were no olive trees.
© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
September 13, 2006 column
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