I wrote previously on the Napoleonic officers held as prisoners of war in Chesterfield. Whilst there were many interesting stories that came from that topic, I thought it best to tell of the story that first inspired my research into the prisoners at Chesterfield. That story is the escape of General Joseph Exelmans and Colonel Auguste de la Grange. I first came across their names in a book I recently read on Lucien Bonaparte, the brother of Napoleon, and the imprisonment of his family in Shropshire, mainly in Ludlow. Their names were briefly mentioned to explain the fear of escape by any Napoleonic prisoner, be it Lucien or any other. Sadly, there was no mention as to how they had escaped, and so the investigation began. I must admit I wasn’t exactly expecting what I did manage to find out, but it is worth sharing.
In April 1811, General Exelmans and Colonel Auguste de la Grange escaped from Chesterfield by bribing a surgeon’s assistant by the name of Jonas Lawton. The plan was that they would escape in a covered cart and make their way to the coast and then on to Paris. Lawton was to accompany them all the way, with the promise of a job at one of Paris’s hospitals upon their safe arrival there. As could be expected, their escape was a matter of great concern. How could a general, and not just any general, but one that had a close friendship with Napoleon’s brother-in-law and King of Naples, Joachim Murat, have escaped?! Newspapers distributed descriptions of the men, but this wasn’t enough to stop Exelmans, de la Grange and Lawton.
All of them were gladly welcomed upon their arrival in Paris, but what happened to them after their seemingly death defying escape out of Chesterfield and their arrival in France? Sadly, I haven’t been able to find what happened to Auguste de la Grange, but what happened to Lawton and General Exelmans is another amazing story.
Lawton was indeed rewarded with a job in a hospital, where he worked for many years, before eventually becoming a secretary in the office of the Grand Chancellor of the Legion d’Honneur. Whilst not being French born, it is clear that Lawton had managed to prove himself, which was perhaps an incentive he had for escaping to France in the first place. Upon his death at the age of seventy in 1859, his death was lamented in the Sheffield Daily News, which also made mention to his escapade to France many years before.
It is General Joseph Exelmans who went on to continue having a military career. Upon his arrival back in France, he went over to Naples to join up with his friend Joachim Murat and was offered a position at his royal palace. This was exciting enough for Joseph, who had enjoyed much praise for his military success prior to his capture 1808, including having survived the Battle of Wertingen in 1805, when two horses were shot from underneath him. He went on to serve for many more years, both under Napoleon and under the restored monarchy following Napoleon abdication and first exile in 1814. Despite seemingly changes sides, Exelmans rebellious nature continued when he maintained correspondence with his old friend Murat. When the authorities got to know of this, he was arrested for corresponding with the enemy, but managed to escape to Lille. He was rearrested soon after in Lille and put before a Council of War on charges of spying and offences against the king. Whilst a verdict was being reached, he was imprisoned, but within nine days he was unanimously acquitted.
With Napoleon’s return to power, Exelmans began to rally soldiers who had been placed on half pay in the Parisian suburb of Saint Denis. His attempts to drum up support for Napoleon worked and the men under his controlled seized artillery pieces. It was these artillery pieces that smoothed Napoleon’s entry into Paris. However, this newfound place under Napoleon wouldn’t last long as following on from Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo and the second restoration of the monarchy, Exelmans was dismissed from command and went into exile in Brussels. He was eventually allowed to return to France in 1819 and continued to be given new titles and offices. Including Peer of France, Marshal of France and Senator, most of these under Napoleon III in recognition for his loyalty to the Bonapartist cause.
Joseph Exelmans died at the age of 76 in 1858 after falling from his horse, ironically given his career as a cavalry officer. In honour of his amazing military achievements, he was buried with full military honours at Les Invalides, the French version of the Royal Chelsea Hospital, surrounded by veterans of the Napoleonic Wars he’d fought in. Fittingly, in 1861, the body of Napoleon, the emperor he’d served under, would come to rest in Les Invalides too.
Whilst not much is known about either August de la Grange or Jonas Lawton, I am sure that for all three men, they must have continued to remember their time and escape from Chesterfield for the rest of their lives. It certainly changed the life of Jonas Lawton massively, who lived and prospered in another country for almost 50 years. It also impacted on the life of General Exelmans, for whom it was one of the many exciting and brave adventures that were major features in his life.
‘Breach of Parole of Honour’, April 1811, D389/ZZ/46
‘Died- Lawton’, Sheffield Daily News, 28 March 1859
‘French Leave’, Chesterfield & District Family History Society, December 2009, pp. 10-12
‘Funeral of Marshal Exelmans’, The Illustrated London News, 07 August 1852
‘General Rémy Joseph Isidore Exelmans’, French Empire, https://www.frenchempire.net/biographies/exelmans/
Barney Rolfe-Smith, A Gilded Cage: Lucien Bonaparte, Prisoner of War, 1810-1814 (Ludlow: Stonebrook Publishing, 2012)
Francis Abell, Prisoners of War in Britain, 1756-1815 (Oxford University Press, 1914)