By David Langbart
June 18, 2015. The bicentennial of the battle of Waterloo, one of the most important events in early nineteenth century European history. At that battle, an Anglo-Allied army commanded by the Duke of Wellington combined with a Prussian army under the command of Gebhard Blucher and defeated the French army commanded by Napoleon. The battle put an end to the so-called “Hundred Days” marking the period between Napoleon’s return from exile on Elba to the restoration of King Louis XVIII on the throne of France. It also marked the end of twenty years of European conflict in which the United States was both directly and indirectly involved.
Earlier this year I worked with Dr. Stephen Randolph, The Historian of the Department of State, to locate American diplomatic reporting about that event. One of the documents we located in the series, Despatches from Diplomatic Officers, 1789-1906 (NAID 603720) is the July 25, 1815, despatch by U.S. Minister to Great Britain John Quincy Adams (this document can be found on roll 15 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M30). Adams had only recently presented his credentials as the new U.S. diplomatic representative in Great Britain when the United States and Great Britain renewed diplomatic relations after the War of 1812.
Among other things, the report, in Adams’s distinctive handwriting, includes brief mentions of the defeat and the battle, notice of Napoleon’s surrender, a comment on the powers performed by Louis XVIII, and reaction of the French people to the restoration:
- ”The external combination against Napoleon has again overpowered him, probably as before with the assistance of internal treachery.”
- “After having been defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, he abdicated again the Imperial dignity, and finding it impossible to escape, surrendered himself by going on board the British Ship of War Bellerophon, Captain Maitland.”
- ”Louis 18th has again been restored, or rather permitted by the Allies to issue Proclamations and Ordinances as king of France – In other respects the allies treat France as a conquered country – levying contributions; taking possession of public property; and appointing Governors in the Provinces overrun by their arms.”
- ”No act of any sort, expressive of the consent of the French People to be ruled by the Bourbon family has appeared. On the contrary manifestations of the strongest repugnancy against them are daily occurring under the half a million of foreign bayonets by which they have been restored.”
Despatch No. 6 from American Legation Great Britain to Department of State, July 25, 1815
The newspaper clippings mentioned are not among the Department of State records preserved in the National Archives.
Unlike present-day reporting, which is almost immediate, Adams’s despatch did not arrive in the Department of State until September 10, 1815, making for a period of 47 days in transit.