The unusual burial of the Second Empire

The unusual burial of the Second Empire

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Title: Sedan disaster.

Author : ANONYMOUS (-)

Date shown: 02 September 1870

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Subtitle : The ex-Emperor Napoleon III was taken in Sedan and delivered to the Prussians a French army of 80,000 men.

Storage place: Carnavalet museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - Bulloz

Picture reference: 01-022332

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - Bulloz

Publication date: August 2008

Historical context

From the acclaimed emperor to the helpless old man

Charles Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, known as Napoléon III (1808-1873) is a nephew of Napoleon Ier. The unfortunate adventure of the Mexican expedition (1861-1867) in this regard heralded the "debacle", to use Emile Zola's expression, of 1870.

Image Analysis

A heavy procession

The print presented is a typical cultural production of the time, combining highly descriptive text and illustration related to an event, and disseminated in particular through peddling.

The backdrop is set with a few trees from the Ardennes forest which serve as the backdrop for an unusual scene, that of an emperor passing by in a horse-drawn carriage among his troops, escorted by enemy horsemen. The latter are Prussians, as the characteristic eagle on the helmet shows. In his coach marked with the imperial "N", the ex-Napoleon III will join the King of Prussia William Ier, to whom he had to capitulate during the Battle of Sedan (September 2). His arm casually raised to hold his cigar was hardly a haughty salute to his troops, not very warm towards him. Indeed, as indicated by the comment accompanying the engraving and not visible on the image, “on its passage […] no more cries Vive l'Empereur, [but] on the contrary, contempt and a concentrated rage [… ] the officers turned their backs and the soldiers with difficulty contained their anger in front of the author […] of such great disasters ”. The looks and the attitudes accuse the vanquished sovereign as shown by the soldiers who turn their backs on him, the hostility of those who look at him and the cavalry soldier, medalist, without horse, who points the finger in his direction.

In the foreground, the corpse of a horse on which lies a dead soldier strongly supports the grim impression left by the ensemble. The battlefield in the background is still smoking, and the cannonball half-sunk into the ground near a hitch wheel evokes the harshness of the fighting. The tragedy is indeed complete, because if the emperor is a prisoner, the war is not over yet. On the way to an exile as a wealthy lord, the ex-Napoleon III, the same who proclaimed in Sedan his desire to die in the midst of his men, abandons them to their sad fate of captives en masse, as well as the indicates the document subtitle.


France in 1870: disenchantment and refoundation

The surrender formalized, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte knows rather advantageous conditions of detention. He was directed to the castle of Wilhelmshöhe, in Westphalia, which he reached via Belgium "perhaps so as not to encounter the columns of his captive soldiers" (Louis GIRARD, Napoleon III, p. 485). Ruminating on his defeat, he considers himself the victim of a conspiracy and vaguely dreams of a return authorized, at least for some time he believes, by his continued popularity in France. But the Republicans now hold the bar, and it is with them that Bismarck negotiates a leonine peace, that of the Treaty of Frankfurt. His capture ultimately strips him of all the finery of his power, revealing its fragility - which we think, conversely, of Francis I returning to his throne after his imprisonment following the Battle of Pavia ( 1525-1526). All that remains for the last of the Bonapartes is to settle in a cottage near London, where he dies a few months later, left on the sidelines of history. The latter continues without him, reflecting the relative weight of "great men" on the course of events. It should therefore be noted that the date of 1870 constitutes a turning point in the political history of France, which then reconnects with the Republic. But the impact of the event is perhaps even stronger across the Rhine, where the pursuits of war diplomacy find the crowning of several years of "blood and iron", according to the Bismarckian adage. The German Empire, the IIe Reich was indeed proclaimed at Versailles on January 18, 1871, a singular turnaround since the Holy Roman Empire had been abolished by Napoleon I in 1806. In a few months, the entire European balance was thus permanently altered. .

  • Sedan (battle of)
  • battles
  • War of 1870
  • Napoleon III
  • Second Empire
  • Rebellion


Louis GIRARD, Napoléon III, Paris, Fayard, 1986. General comte de MONTS, The Captivity of Napoleon III in Germany, Paris, Lafitte, 1910. François ROTH, La Guerre de 1870, Paris, Fayard, 1990.

To cite this article

François BOULOC, "The unusual burial of the Second Empire"

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