The First Lady Mistaken for Napoleon’s Sister
Deception is your friend when the world’s most notorious prisoner interrupts your travel plans
Future First Lady Louisa Adams spent six years in St. Petersburg while her husband, John Quincy, was the U.S. minister (read about their Russian adventures in my previous story). John left Russia in 1814 to help negotiate a truce with the British. Finally, in February of 1815, he asked Louisa to join him in Paris as he awaited his next post.
Louisa, fed up with Russia, was more than happy to oblige.
There was just one problem.
She now had to get herself, her 8-year-old son, and her son’s nurse across a continent ravaged by the Napoleonic wars. To make matters worse, it was the dead of winter — the same Russian winter that had helped decimate Napoleon’s army.
She had two men with her: a servant posted to their embassy and a former French soldier who’d been taken prisoner in Russia and just wanted to go home.
Two nights before leaving, she visited a friend to say goodbye. An uninvited guest, Countess Apraxin, did a card reading to tell Louisa’s future. The countess said that halfway through the journey, a great man would do something extraordinary to disrupt everything.
Louisa didn’t believe a word of it.
“Witnessing to Tales of Blood”
She left St. Petersburg on February 12, her 40th birthday. She travelled along the post road system, an early version of an interstate with rest stops every 6–12 miles.
Everything went smoothly at first, with nothing more exciting than discovering the Russian winter had frozen her wine. On the way to Mittau (in present-day Latvia), her carriage got stuck in snowdrifts so deep the locals had to come and dig it out. This happened so often that there was a bell for travelers to ring when they needed help.
But in Mittau, she received bad news from a friend:
“…last night a dreadful Murder had been commited [sic] on the very road which I was about to take.”
Louisa wasn’t scared. After all, murderers were less of a challenge than the terrain. In the next few days, her guide got lost, a soldier helped them back onto the post road, and they crossed a frozen river using poles and hooks to pull the carriage across.
When they reached Prussia, Louisa was struck by the visible aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. She described “…the fearful remnants of men's fierry [sic] and vindictive passions; passively witnessing to tales of blood.”
As they passed, Louisa saw burnt-out houses and a starving populace. People still talked about the devastating effects of the Russian army:
“The Cossacks! the dire Cossacks! were the perpetual theme, and the cheecks [sic] of the Women blanched at the very name.”
Finally, in Berlin, Louisa stopped to catch up with old friends, including Princess Anton Radziwill, whose husband and sons were off at the Congress of Vienna. The visit did her good:
“…all the sweet sympathies of humanity had been re-awakened; and the sterile heartlessness of a Russian residence of icy coldness, was thawed into life and animation.”
Louisa was becoming her old self again, shaking off the depression that had plagued her in Russia.
“An Immense Quantity of Bones”
All across Germany, Louisa saw the effects of Napoleon’s retreat from Russia. She passed graves dug in ditches on the side of the road, each marked with a cross.
On a plain, she saw “scattered remnants of Clothes; old Boots in pieces; and an immense quantity of bones, laying in this ploughed field…I felt deadly sick.”
That was the battlefield of Hanau, where the Austro-Bavarians — outnumbered two to one — had tried to stop Napoleon’s retreating army in 1813.
Sixteen thousand men had died there.
Then, the closer she got to the French border, the more she began to hear a strange rumor: Napoleon was in France. To Louisa, this seemed impossible; everyone knew he was exiled on the island of Elba. Still, she couldn’t help but remember Countess Apraxin’s prediction that a great man would do something to disrupt her trip.
Turns out, the countess was right.
On February 26, 1815, Napoleon escaped Elba. As he made his way to Paris, his old troops — and plenty of new recruits — flocked to his banner.
That news changed everything.
Both of the men accompanying Louisa refused to go any further. In France, they said, they were sure to be conscripted. Nothing she said could convince them to take that risk.
Their fear convinced Louisa she had to move fast if she wanted to reach Paris before the fighting began. But this time, the only able-bodied man she could find willing to escort her was a 14-year-old German boy.
When her bedraggled party reached the French border, the rumors were confirmed: Napoleon was on the way to Paris. A kind-hearted officer warned her not to keep going, but at this point, Louisa was over it:
“…the excessive desire I had to terminate this long journey, absolutely made me sick — I had been a year absent from my husband, and five years and a half from my two Sons; and the hope of soon again embracing them, gave me strength to sustain the fatigue and excitement to which I was necessarily exposed.”
The officer hooked her up with a male bodyguard named Dupin, and they set off in a race against Napoleon and his soldiers…who would reach Paris first?
“Take Them Out and Kill Them”
Dupin was optimistic they’d win the race — an army needed time to gather supplies, but they only had to stop for food and sleep. At first, it looked like he was right. When they stopped to eat at Epernay, a waiter told Louisa she was a day ahead of the troops.
So far, so good.
But a mile and half later, they ran smack into a patrol of soldiers on their way to meet Napoleon. Neither the soldiers nor the women following them were happy to see Louisa’s Russian carriage.
From inside the carriage, Louisa heard them cry:
“…tear them out of the Carriage; they are Russians take them out and kill them.”
Louisa, clear-headed despite her fear, whipped out her passport — the fastest way to prove she wasn’t Russian. When soldiers realized she was American, they started to cheer. She waved her handkerchief and cried “Vive Napoleon!” for good measure.
The general complimented her perfect French.
All along the road, every half hour, they ran into more soldiers — some drunk and some threatening them with bayonets. Louisa kept up a steady stream of “Vive Napoleon” chants to appease them.
When they stopped for the night at the next post-house, they hid the Russian carriage to try and avoid trouble. Soldiers were “crowding into the house all night, drinking, and making the most uproarious noises.” The lady of the house told Louisa to stay in her room no matter what. The drunk soldiers were ready for a fight, any fight, but she promised to distract them with jokes and more wine.
Sick with fear, Louisa obeyed. Her son’s French nurse cried all night, sure they were about to be the first victims of a second French revolution.
“The Reputation of a Heroine”
After leaving the rowdy post house the next morning, Louisa was more determined than ever to reach Paris.
At every stop, people told her it was too dangerous to proceed. She refused to listen to them — or to the rumors of 40,000 soldiers already surrounding Paris.
Her logic? John Quincy knew she was on the post road to Paris. He would have sent a messenger to warn her if she was in real danger. Secure in the knowledge that he’d always have her back, she pressed on.
But there was one rumor that actually helped Louisa.
Since she was the only woman on the road to Paris — and one who spoke perfect French — a rumor spread that she was one of Napoleon’s sisters on the way to meet him. Suspicious about the timing of the rumor, Louisa asked Dupin if he knew anything about it.
But Dupin “was very mysterious and only shrugged and smiled.”
Louisa didn’t press him for details. Maybe, she thought, it was better not to know.
Speeding down the post road, they made it to Sens and then Meaux.
Finally, there was just one more obstacle: a forest known for bandits. Everyone was on high alert, watching for trouble. Then, trouble found them.
A man on horseback started following them “making prodigious efforts to overtake us.” Louisa felt her courage “fast oosing [sic] out” as the man caught up with them.
Turns out, he’d noticed that one of their carriage wheels was about to fall off and just wanted to warn them. Louisa thanked him, Dupin made the repair as best he could, and they pressed on.
Finally, late at night, Louisa’s party arrived at the gates of Paris. She went straight to John’s hotel, the Hotel due Nord Rue de Richelieu, only to find he’d gone to the theater.
When they were finally reunited, John was “astonished at my adventures; as every thing in Paris was quiet, and it had never occurred to him, that it could have been otherwise in any other part of the Country.”
So much for John having Louisa’s back.
She wrote home to reassure her mother-in-law that she’d arrived safely, editing out the scary parts of her trip. “I have really acquired the reputation of a heroine at a very cheap rate,” she wrote.
Louisa was being modest. It was thanks to her bravery, calm, and quick thinking that they’d made it through at all. Later in life, she wrote an unpublished manuscript about her adventures to share them with her family. You can read that manuscript in the book listed below.
All quotes come from the book of Louisa’s own writings. The statistic about the number of deaths at Hanau came from Lockhart.
Adams, Louisa Catherine. A Traveled First Lady: Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams. Edited by Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor. Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2014.
Allgor, Catherine. “’A Republican in a Monarchy’: Louisa Catherine Adams in Russia.” Diplomatic History 21, no. 1 (1997): 15–43. Accessed October 15, 2020.
Lockhart, J.G. Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France. New York: C.M. Saxton, 1860.