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An Audience of One: Sir Neil Campbell on Napoleon

As an exile, writes D.S. Gray, the Emperor had many conversations with a Scottish officer, which ‘left no doubt of his expecting that circumstances might yet call him to the throne of France’.

At noon on May 20th, 1813, before the smoke of the opening artillery salvos of the Battle of Bautzen could becloud the spring air, a Scottish officer serving as military attaché to the Russian corps was able to make a memorable observation.

He could perceive two men standing slightly in front of the poised French army less than half a mile away. Raising a telescope to his eye, the officer could easily recognize that one of the figures, the man with a black bicorn and hands clasped behind his back, was Napoleon.

The Scottish officer, Colonel Neil Campbell of Duntroon, was a thirty-seven-year-old veteran of combats in the West Indies, the Peninsula, and Germany. Little did he foresee that within the year he would view Napoleon again, but from a unique and different vantage point.

Eleven months after the Battle of Bautzen, the First Empire had crumbled, Napoleon had abdicated and was at Fontainebleau awaiting terms from his conquerors. At the same time, Campbell was in Paris recovering from two wounds he had received in action on May 25th, 1814.

On April 11th, Napoleon accepted the Treaty of Fontainebleau proffered by the Allies and began preparing for his exile on Elba. Three days later, Neil Campbell was surprised when a letter from Lord Castlereagh informed him that he could, if he felt able, act as British commissioner and accompany the fallen Emperor of the French from Fontainebleau to his place of exile.

Campbell eagerly accepted the offer and was thus placed in a position that for almost a year would allow him to observe and record in a remarkable diary, published in 1869, the history of Napoleon’s first exile.

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