As the nineteenth century began, both the United States and France were in transition. The American Revolution only officially ended in 1783, and now the president-helmed United States was forging an identity that rejected the courtly atmosphere of its European counterparts. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, France was moving away from the republicanism of its own revolution. Approximately twenty years after the executions of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette, France was poised to become an empire under Napoleon Bonaparte. Amidst these changes, a scandal occurred when Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jérôme, surprised the world by marrying Miss Elizabeth Patterson of Baltimore, Maryland.

Christine Caccipuoti explains.

A triple portrait of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte. By Gilbert Stuart, 1804.

A triple portrait of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte. By Gilbert Stuart, 1804.

Marital Bliss?

When eighteen-year old Elizabeth wed nineteen-year old Jérôme on Christmas Eve of 1803, few people other than the bride and groom approved. She was the daughter of a well-off businessman, but despite being lauded as the “Belle of Baltimore” she loathed the newfound United States’ lack of sophistication and glamour. He was only in Maryland because he decided to take a detour before returning to France after an unsuccessful stint in the Caribbean with the French Navy. After their respective social lives brought them into contact, their courtship was a whirlwind, and the starry-eyed pair were engaged within months of meeting.

Elizabeth’s father did not trust Jérôme and French diplomats in the United States warned that Napoleon hated the match, but the couple did not care. They allowed Elizabeth’s father to draw up documents requiring Jérôme to defend his marriage to the best of his ability should Napoleon object and had their nuptials conducted by a Catholic clergyman to underscore its legitimacy through religion. To Elizabeth and Jérôme, marrying was the important part. Acceptance, they believed, would soon follow.

The newlyweds enjoyed an extravagant honeymoon that established them as newspaper celebrities, with Elizabeth immediately turning heads after she adopted French fashions. It wasn’t long before word of the union reached Napoleon, who was about to be crowned Emperor of the French. What little respect Napoleon had for Jérôme evaporated and he made his opinion known by banning French ships from allowing Elizabeth aboard. They were still not deterred. By the time they managed to reach Europe in 1805, Jérôme’s brother was formally Emperor Napoleon I and there was an added complication: Elizabeth was pregnant.

Aware of his responsibilities, Jérôme went to France to win over his brother while Elizabeth traveled to England, a country hostile to Napoleon that welcomed the opportunity to show kindness to a woman he shunned. During this separation, Elizabeth gave birth to their son, boldly named Jérôme Napoleon, who went by the nickname “Bo”.

Elizabeth waited, but Jérôme never sent for her. Because of his unacceptable marriage, he was not among the family members elevated to the title of prince, and this greatly upset him. Although he wrote loving letters to Elizabeth, once Napoleon told him that he would be cut off forever if he remained married, Jérôme abandoned his wife. A shattered Elizabeth had no choice but to take her baby home to Maryland.


Unhappily Ever After

Napoleon sought to annul Jérôme’s marriage but the Pope denied the request. Undaunted, Napoleon had the French ecclesiastical courts declare it void and decided that was good enough. As far as he was concerned Jérôme was free again. Quickly, Napoleon arranged a politically advantageous marriage for him to Princess Catherine of Württemberg and named him King of Westphalia, two moves done to cement his growing influence in Europe. In stark contrast, Elizabeth was still legally married to Jérôme in the eyes of the United States and several years passed before she gained a divorce. Following this, numerous suitors sought her hand, but neither they nor a pension from Napoleon made up for what she lost.

It wasn’t until Napoleon lost power in 1815 that Elizabeth was able to finally experience the pleasures of European life. After all, with the Bonapartes defeated, no one could stop her. She and Bo spent years traveling the continent. They even visited Rome, where part of the Bonaparte family resided after their expulsion from France. This enabled Bo to meet not only his grandmother, but also his father and half-siblings. It is possible that Elizabeth too saw Jérôme but the sole surviving story indicates only that they were once in the same gallery, but did not speak. Elizabeth harbored hopes that Bo would make an illustrious marital match in Europe, perhaps even to one of his Bonaparte cousins, but it would not come to pass. Instead he returned home and married an American woman with whom he later had two children, Jérôme and Charles. Bo’s decision not to pursue what Elizabeth saw as his rightful place in European society broke her heart almost as much as her initial divorce and severely tarnished their mother-son relationship.

Their contact with the Bonapartes continued. In the 1850s when Napoleon III (who was Bo’s cousin, as his father Louis was yet another of Napoleon and Jérôme’s brothers) made France an empire again, he welcomed Bo as part of the family. Jérôme, however, did not. When he died in 1860, Bo was not included in his will. Elizabeth faced one last disappointment when her battle to have Bo recognized as one of Jérôme’s heirs failed.

Once again Elizabeth returned to Maryland devastated. Although she made lucrative financial investments, her personal relationship with her son and his family was strained. The wounds of her youth never healed and her bitterness manifested in the composition of pieces like Dialogues of the Dead, which placed her disapproving father and scoundrel ex-husband together in hell. After such a disappointing life, it is only fitting that following her death in April of 1879, at the age of 94, it was decided her tomb should read, “After life’s fitful fever, she sleeps well.”


An American Legacy

Elizabeth may have disliked the United States, but her grandson Charles lived to serve it. In the 1890s, he met future President of the United States Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt when both men were involved in reform work. When Roosevelt took office in 1901, Charles went along with him, serving as Secretary of the Navy then Attorney General and earning a reputation as Roosevelt’s troubleshooter. His most significant achievement was creating a force solely to carry out investigations at the behest of the Department of Justice. This group later adopted a name that remains recognizable today: the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI. Whether or not Elizabeth would have been proud of her grandson’s enduring contribution to the American government is impossible to say because while yes, he rose to an impressive height, he did so in the wrong country.


What do you think of the article? Let us know below.


Christine Caccipuoti is a New York-based historian and received both her BA and MA in history from Fordham University. In her position as Assistant Producer of the podcast Footnoting History (, she serves as the resident Napoleonic historian and is the person behind its twitter account (@historyfootnote). Her personal website and blog can be found at


Carol Berkin, Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Charlene M. Boyer Lewis, Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.

Paul-Napoléon Calland, “Jerome Bonaparte Biography”, Irène Delage (trans), The Fondation Napoléon, 2006. (

Lewis L. Gould, “Bonaparte, Charles Joseph”, American National Biography, February 2000. (

---, “Bonaparte, Elizabeth Patterson”, American National Biography, February 2000. (

Desmond Seward, Napoleon's Family, New York: Viking, 1986.

Attorney General: Charles Bonaparte, via The United States Department of Justice (

Brief History of the FBI, via The Federal Bureau of Investigation (

Napoleon Bonaparte was famously defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 by British and Prussian forces. But what if that never happened? How would European history have changed if Napoleon had won? Here, Nick Tingley explores why history may have ended up repeating itself…

A picture of Napoleon Bonaparte.

A picture of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The battle between France and Prussia in 1870 was all but decided at the Battle of Sedan on September 1. As Napoleon III was led through the French countryside for the nearest port, he knew that this battle would spell the end of the Empire. As he was sailed across to England for exile, a unified Germany was created off the back of French territory - and the landscape of Europe would be forever changed.

Had he been more like his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, the fall of Napoleon III’s government might never have happened. Bonaparte had known when to give up. Even as the British troops of Wellington and Blucher’s Prussians fled from the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Bonaparte had known that he had to pursue peace in order to survive. Bonaparte had even offered clemency to the British troops by aiding their evacuation from France after the battle, essentially bringing about a new era of peace in Europe championed by the two enemy nations. Bonaparte had developed so much since 1813 when he had refused a favorable settlement in defeat that he was able to bring about the longest lasting peace that Europe had seen in centuries…

But Napoleon III had not learnt from his uncle’s mistakes and the horrendous defeat at the Battle of Sedan would haunt him until his death in 1873…


When ‘What If’ Collides with History

Ironically, for a ‘What If?’ scenario, this version of history is not remarkably unlike our own. Whilst Napoleon Bonaparte did not win the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, his nephew did eventually become Emperor of France as a result of the 1848 revolutions that sprung up around Europe. His last act as Emperor was to lead French forces against Prussia in the War of 1870. He was captured at the Battle of Sedan and forced into exile in Britain, where he was forever haunted by the destruction of his Empire. His actions that year effectively allowed the creation of Germany that was, in no small part, responsible for much of the tension between the two countries over the next seventy-five years.

And yet, this event in history may well have occurred regardless of whether Bonaparte had won the Battle of Waterloo. If we suppose, for a moment, that Napoleon had managed to defeat the British and Prussian forces at the battle and maintain control of France thereafter, it is not beyond reason to suppose that, as Bonaparte’s nephew and heir, Napoleon III would have inherited the Empire anyway. Had that happened, the Battle of Sedan would almost certainly have occurred in the same way, leading to his downfall and the beginning of the tensions that would contribute to the outbreak of the First World War.

But what scenario would allow such a divergence from historical fact and yet still arrive at the same point fifty-five years later? Rather than looking to Napoleon III, our attention must be drawn to Bonaparte, the man whose decisions would ultimately determine the future of France and the rest of Europe.


Bonaparte the Warrior

At first we must address Bonaparte’s character. The Bonaparte of 1796, the year that he began his conquest of Europe, was a war leader to the greatest degree. Had he managed to defeat Wellington and Blucher at Waterloo, he would almost certainly have urged his officers to press after Wellington and Blucher’s scattered armies until every last one of them had been captured or killed. He would have then have turned his attention to the armies of Russia and Austria who, whilst not involved in Waterloo, were slowly advancing across Europe to address this resurgence of power.

This would have presented Bonaparte with a serious problem. In the first instance, Austria and Russia had armies of approximately 200,000 men working their way across Europe. In the second, Alexander I, the Tsar of Russia, was particularly keen to eliminate Bonaparte, as he believed that Europe would never remain at peace with him alive. Finally, French conscription, from which Bonaparte had been gathering troops during his previous campaigns, was not currently a policy in France. This meant that he didn’t have access to the same amount of reserves that he had previously.

In this scenario, Bonaparte would probably not have enjoyed any significant success for more than a week or two. With the arrival of the Austrians and Russians, Bonaparte’s armies would have stood little chance at all, and history would have certainly continued down the path that we are most familiar with.


Bonaparte the Stubborn

The Bonaparte of 1813 may have lasted even less time. In 1813, Bonaparte had refused any kind of settlement at all, even though he had been completely defeated at the Battle of Leipzig that year. In that battle, Bonaparte’s armies were effectively expelled from the rest of Europe and forced to retreat back in to France. Had Bonaparte sued for a peace at that time, he might well have retained his title and control over France. The result of his failure to do so was the invasion of France by the Coalition of Russia, Austria and Prussia and his own removal from the throne.

Had he treated his victory at Waterloo with the same refusal to negotiate, Bonaparte would have probably attempted to retake parts of Central Europe immediately following the Battle of Waterloo. Once again, Bonaparte’s failing would have been signaled by the arrival of Russian and Austrian troops which would have led to yet another disastrous retreat back in to France, if not the destruction of his entire army.


Bonaparte the Diplomat

There is, however, one scenario by which Bonaparte may have been able to win at Waterloo and still maintain control of France. If Bonaparte had granted clemency to the retreating British forces of Wellington, history could have taken a completely different turn. The British forces had granted something similar seven years previously at Sintra, where French forces had been allowed to evacuate from Portugal after several disastrous battles. Such an act of honor, whilst completely removed from Bonaparte’s character, may well have been enough to convince the British that there might be a peaceful solution to the French problem.

In the event that Bonaparte had sued for some sort of peace, before the arrival of the Russian and Austrian armies, they may well have found a new ally in the form of Britain. With the two former enemies working together to bring about a new era of peace, it is not beyond reason to suggest that the rest of Europe might have been tempted to follow suit. The Congress system that was prevalent in Europe for the years following Bonaparte’s downfall may well have still existed but with a stronger leader speaking on behalf of France.

However, all of this would rely heavily on Bonaparte being able to disregard all the previous behaviors that had come to define his reign. In order for this scenario to work, Bonaparte would have had to cease behaving like some sort of power-hungry megalomaniac and become a reasonable diplomatic presence in Europe. One can even imagine that, had Bonaparte become the diplomat that Europe needed him to be, the rise of Germany might have been significantly delayed.

The revolutions of 1848 might have been a significantly smaller affair as there would have been no antagonism towards a French monarchy, which would have disbanded with Bonaparte’s renewed rise to power, and therefore no revolution in France. The French revolution, which was one of the larger and more explosive of the 1848 revolutions, would not have existed to encourage the others across Europe. Without the discontent across Europe, we can easily see a scenario in which a united Germany never comes in to being, effectively removing the threat of World War One in 1914 and, therefore, the subsequent World War twenty-five years later.


The Likely Scenario

Unfortunately, Bonaparte’s actions were, by and large, a result of his psychological compulsions and the environment in which he came to power. He was very much a child of the French Revolution; his rise to power had been as a result of one of the bloodiest events in French history. The idea that a man, who owed so much of his power to man’s compulsion towards war, would be content at sitting around a conference table with the other leaders of Europe is improbable at best.

Had he been given the opportunity to make this decision, it is unlikely that he would have taken it, opting instead for the allure of battle. In the event that he had sued for peace, it would almost have certainly been a blind to allow himself time to build up his armies before making another attempt at conquering the continent. In all likelihood, rather than delaying the onset of a World War in Europe, he would almost have certainly caused one in his own right.

However, Bonaparte would not have had long to enact his plans. Barely six years after his victory at Waterloo, he would have succumbed to the pain of stomach cancer and his throne would have been left to his then thirteen-year old heir and nephew, Napoleon III. What chaos would have gripped France as a result of his death is almost unfathomable and not within the remit of this discussion. However, two scenarios present themselves. Either, under the influence of the rest of Europe, France would have returned to a monarchy-led government and once again would have continued down the course that we already know from history, or else the young Napoleon III would have taken to the throne, probably starting a civil war in the process. If Napoleon III were to survive such a period of unrest in France, he could have reigned for nearly fifty years, never having the opportunity to learn from his uncle that the best direction for Europe was towards peace…


Did you enjoy this article? If so, tell the world! Tweet about it, like it or share it by clicking on one of the buttons below!

You can also read Nick’s previous articles on what if D-Day did not happen in 1944 here, what if Hitler had been assassinated in July 1944 here, and what if the Nazis had not invaded Crete in World War Two here.


  • Blucher: Scourge of Napoleon - Michael V. Leggiere (2014)
  • If Napoleon had won the Batter of Waterloo - G. Macaulay Trevelyan (1907)
  • Napoleon: The Last Phase - Lord Rosebery (1900)
  • Napoleon Wins at Waterloo - Caleb Carr (1999)
  • The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme - John Keegan (2004)
  • Trafalgar and Waterloo: The Two Most Important Battles of the Napoleonic Wars - Charles River Editors (2014)

The tough Russian peasant who attacked Napoleon’s forces in 1812 is our image of the week.


We’ve had a number of articles related to Russia on the site this week, so thought we’d make the image of the week Russia-related too.

20140208 Russian_peasant_in_1812_British_Caricature.jpg

The 1812 Russian Campaign, or the French invasion of Russia, relates to Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia during the Napoleonic Wars. The campaign was led by a huge French-led force of well over 500,000 troops. All did not go quite to Napoleon’s liking though, and the Russians were able to overcome the French to devastating effect. The defeat was a catastrophe for Napoleon and his dreams of control over Europe.

Our image is related to the Russian Campaign and says: “A Russian peasant loading a dung cart.” In the image, a hardy Russia peasant is about to attack a dainty French soldier with his pitchfork. The French soldier is terrified, even though he has a sword. In the background we can see why he is horrified – there is a dung cart full of the bodies of French troops among hay. A boy is also in the background, happily looking at the man’s attack on the French soldier.

This print is from March 1813.


What else Russia-related have you missed this week? Our article on famed Russian Grigori Rasputin is here and a podcast about Gulags is here.

George Levrier-Jones

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

This week’s image of the week features one of the greatest British heroes of them all, Prussian von Bluche, and Napoleon Bonaparte.

20131211 Blucher_Wellington_i_Napoleon_(1815).jpg

The cartoon has leaders of two European armies literally putting the lid on another failed European attempt to dominate that continent. After controlling much of Europe just a few short years before, by 1815 Napoleon’s France had been defeated. This cartoon goes some way to commemorating that.

We see Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher, who led Prussian forces at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, alongside his British counter-part, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. In the center we see them putting the lid on top of France’s Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon is trying to escape but can’t. His face looks distressed in a comical way. Indeed, Napoleon was exiled to the remote Atlantic island of Saint Helena by the British after the Battle of Waterloo.


There is an article about a very significant battle involving the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon’s France in the new issue of History is Now Magazine. Click here to find out more!

George Levrier-Jones