Introduction to Volume 15 of Correspondance générale de Napoléon Bonaparte: Les chutes, 1814- 1821

Author(s) : MASSÉNA Victor-A.
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Right from the outset we knew that our publication of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Correspondance Générale was going to end with a less glorious – but in many respects moving – chapter of his extraordinary career. This final volume covers the “dark” years of 1814 to 1821, moving from the French Campaign to St Helena, with, symbolically, the final published letter being the one that the Emperor himself dictated to announce his own death. That being said, beyond the dictates of time and place, this volume presents some interesting specificities, not the least of which is the insertion of a “supplement”, an addendum of letters that came to light too late to be included in the relevant volume, the first of which came out in 2004. And this return to the years of glory acts as a happy counterpoint to the volume in general.

The letters the Emperor wrote in these seven years bear witness to the first fall of the Empire, at the end of a dazzling but ultimately useless French campaign. Then came the stay on the island of Elba where, in a sub-prefecture elevated to a kingdom, the Emperor (for his title was upheld by the Treaty of Fontainebleau) regained his strength and taste for action, entering as was his wont into the minute and sometimes derisory details of the kingdom, but also worrying about the byzantine negotiations of the Congress of Vienna concerning his future. He then set out to conquer once again his throne, in an “Eagle’s Flight” that took the world by surprise but also allowed for the creation of a general coalition of the European powers. Upon his return to Paris on 20 March 1815, Napoleon reigned once more as Emperor before abdicating just three months later, a few days after Waterloo, on 22 June. After his surrender to the British, the epilogue was played out on an island lost in the South Atlantic, and Napoleon’s correspondence dwindled away to almost nothing. Napoleon himself hardly wrote at all, leaving his companions-in-misfortune to sign his complaints to the representative of the British government on his behalf. On 5 May 1821, the “earthly” journey of this unique historical character came to an end. Then began another chapter, one of an ‘afterlife’, a ‘legend’ and posthumous glory.

In its format, this volume is somewhat different from those preceding it, in that we have entrusted each major chronological stage (the French Campaign, Elba, the Hundred Days, St Helena) to four different editors, each a specialist on the period in question.

Then, as announced above, we have also published here as a supplement 379 letters that were communicated to us or that came to light since the publication of the previous volumes, which will bring the total number of letters signed by Napoleon that we have made available to 40,787. No doubt historians will in the course of time discover others because, despite the research efforts made by the contributors to our publishing venture, it is certain that we have missed some and that letters will still resurface. When the time comes, these letters will be integrated into an electronic version of our work, which will be posted on a dedicated website.

In addition to the usual appendices (studies, maps, indexes), we also wanted to include a general review of our undertaking in this, its final volume. Our publication of Napoleon’s Correspondance Générale has been the occasion for long-standing collaborations, unique (often voluntary) commitments, occasionally innovative working methods, and an academic rigour which has been maintained for nearly two decades. For these reasons, I feel it was worth including this review of our work, albeit briefly.

Before allowing you to discover this volume, I wish to express my infinite gratitude to those involved in this long-term operation, and first of all to some of those who were unable to see this project through to its end: Baron Gourgaud who took the initial decision to devote some of the human and material resources of the Fondation Napoleon to this project and who passed the baton on to me when he felt the time was right; Claude Durand who, with Denis Maraval and later Sophie de Closets and Sophie Hogg-Grandjean, gave this Correspondance Générale its distinguished editorial form; Count Florian Walewski, who set out the business plan for  the project; Marie-Paule Arnauld, Director of the French National Archives, who generously laid open for us the archives in her care and played an important role in our early endeavours; and many others who gave us their time and energy and whose names appear in each individual volume alongside those who had the chance to complete the undertaking.

I also have the pleasure of thanking H.I.H the Princess Napoleon, Honorary President of the Publishing Committee, which I have had the honour of leading for a little over ten years and of which Martine de Boisdeffre (whose action was decisive in launching our project), Professor Jean-Claude Casanova and Professor Jean Tulard (both of whom had previous publication experience that circumstances had not allowed them to complete) accepted the vice-presidency; the members of the steering committee, composed of the successive directors of the Fondation Napoléon; the members of our historical committee, who were always generous in giving us their advice, time and academic opinions; the successive directors and representatives of the major French and foreign archives without whom, of course, we would not have had such easy access to the archives they safeguard; the Fondation team, with special mention to its director, Thierry Lentz, and to the two collaborators assigned to this operation, Émilie Barthet (2002-2005) and François Houdecek (since 2005); the correspondence volunteers- i.e. nearly 260 people – without whom nothing would have been possible within such a time frame; the editors of each volume, the authors of the complementary studies, our cartographer, and everybody who assisted those above; and finally, our patrons, the Fondation La Poste, the Archives de France and a few people who did not wish to be mentioned by name but to whom we owe the financial security in which we have for the most part worked. On my own behalf and on behalf of Fayard Editions, I would also like to thank the Centre National du Livre, which has been by our side for all these years.

The publication of Napoleon’s Correspondance Générale was a collective undertaking. It is therefore with great pleasure, on behalf of the entire team, that I present to you here this fifteenth and final volume. This venture has ultimately been completed in just sixteen years, which, given the vast scale of the task, is a very reasonable timeframe. I think it would not be unbecoming of me to make the following boast: this success fills us with pride.

Victor-André Masséna, Prince d’Essling
President of the Fondation Napoléon
President of the Committee for the Publication of the Correspondence of Napoleon

(English translation J.S. and P.H.)

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