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Guarding “Old Nap”


            What do the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and Battle Creek have in common? One man -- William Palmer.

            After the tumultuous Hundred Days in 1815, when Napoleon returned from his first exile in Elba, resumed imperial power, was defeated at Waterloo and finally abdicated power, the victorious British determined to end the threat once and for all.  The former Emperor was sent to the barren island of St. Helena in the Atlantic Ocean, and placed under heavy guard.

William Palmer was an English citizen who served with His Majesty’s 66th Infantry, one of the 4,000 British troops guarding the fallen Emperor in his final days on St. Helena Island.   He was assigned to this lonely duty from 1819 until the Napoleon’s death in 1821.

            After his military service was over, Palmer moved to Canada and then migrated to New York and finally to Michigan.  He lived in Battle Creek, with his wife and five children, from 1848 until his death in 1884.  Palmer and his family members are buried at Oak Hill cemetery.

            He was interviewed several times about his service guarding Napoleon, or “Old Nap,” as the soldiers on St. Helena knew him.  This version is taken from an interview Palmer gave to the Chicago “Herald” shortly before his death.  He paints a picture of Napoleon as lonely figure, closely guarded and kept from contact with anyone except the few voluntary companions who accompanied him into exile – a French Marshall, his wife, a doctor and a priest.

            “Napoleon’s house was a frame one, a story and a half high …  It was surrounded by a small garden and a road … on which Napoleon could walk or ride during the day.  He was always accompanied by an English officer.

“When he left his house a flag was hoisted to give the [guards on] the picket line stationed along this road warning that he was out.  The orders were that if he left the road and tried to go into the adjacent country, the pickets should give warning and a detachment of troops [would] be sent out to bring him back.

“At sunset a gun was fired and after that he could not go outside of his garden.  A row of pickets was placed around it and a watch kept to see that no one came or went away.  At nine o’clock he must go into his house and guards were placed at each door and window. No one could come in or out until sunrise when a gun was fired at the fort again and the guards dispersed.”

Palmer had little direct contact with the little general, as it was strictly against orders for any soldier to speak to him.  However, he did describe one tour of duty in Napoleon’s garden, when the rules were bent a little. 

“When walking in the garden, Napoleon would stop before one of the [soldiers] and address a few remarks in French.  Some of the old regulars … knew a little of the language and would reply.  A sharp look out for officers had to be kept meanwhile.  Then Napoleon would saunter up to the house and, returning after a little, would conceal a bottle of wine under some bush for the soldier.”

            According to Palmer, Napoleon’s death in 1821 came as a surprise to most of his guards.  “He was sick [with stomach cancer] about six weeks.  For some time we did not know how ill he was or whether he was likely to die. … The morning of his death I was on picket duty at the foot of the hill just outside of the town on the road leading up to the house where he was.  … I saw an orderly coming rapidly down the road toward me.  I hailed him and enquired the cause of his hurry.  “I have good news for you,” he said.  “Old Nap is dead.” 

            “It was the largest funeral I ever saw.  Almost everyone on the island was in attendance.  He was buried with the highest military honors.  His grave was worth mentioning.  It was dug down six feet into the ground until the solid rock was reached.  They then cut a hole in the rock just large enough for the coffin and after placing it in, cemented three iron bars across it, covering it all with a stone slab.”

            In his later years, William Palmer became famous around Battle Creek as “Uncle Palmer – the man who had seen Napoleon.”