Even though Napoleon Bonaparte never came to Louisiana, his reign as Emperor of the French was one of the most interesting periods in the history of the city of New Orleans. When you mix pirates with war between the French and British, intrigue is bound to follow. One of the main players of the time was Nicholas Girod, fifth mayor of New Orleans, Frenchman, merchant, friend of pirates and privateers, and staunch supporter of Bonaparte.
Girod was born in 1747, either in France or in Saint-Domingue. His family moved to New Orleans during the Spanish Colonial period, and were quite successful merchants. The movement of goods and money between New Orleans, Saint-Domingue, and Europe was lucrative; Nicholas and his three brothers were invaluable to the planters and businessmen who desired to move raw materials from the colonies back to France. The success of the family business enabled Nicholas to buy a large portion of the blocks at the corner of Rue Chartres and Rue St. Louis in the French Quarter. Additionally, Girod was able to invest his profits into land outside the city, in the area along what is now Girod Street in the Central Business District.
Nicholas was very much a Frenchman, but he knew how to do business under the Spanish system. It’s a good indication of how French-leaning New Orleans was at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, that the early elected mayors of the city were of French descent. Not only was Girod a partisan Frenchman, but he was also devoted to Napoleon. Girod was elected mayor on September 21, 1812. He was re-elected in 1814, and resigned on September 4, 1815. Napoleon’s fortunes took a turn for the worse in the fall and winter of 1812, with his disastrous invasion of Russia. When the war came to Girod’s city in the Winter of 1814, Girod welcomed assistance from the U. S. Army, under the command of General Andrew Jackson. It wasn’t as much Girod’s loyalty to America that he turned over defense of the city to Jackson as it was his hatred of the British. Girod’s knowledge of the shipping business was helpful in connecting Jackson with the ship captains and privateers who sailed the Gulf of Mexico and made port in New Orleans.
Girod’s assistance played a role in Jackson’s victory in Chalmette on January 8, 1815, but that victory did not change the fate of Bonaparte, who had already abdicated as emperor on April 11, 1814. He was exiled to the island of Elba, but escaped and returned to France on February 26, 1815. After the “Hundred Days” campaign, and Bonaparte’s final defeat at Waterloo on June 18, 1815, Bonaparte was exiled much further away from Europe on St. Helena, an island off the coast of West Africa owned by the British. Still popular in France and in some circles in Great Britain, Bonaparte held out hope of rescue.
In New Orleans, Girod resigned the office of mayor on September 4, 1815. Girod continued his involvement in Napoleonic intrigue, however. He offered assistance, through Dominique Youx and others associated with Jean Lafitte, to a group of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard who sought to move to the New World. These men left France for Philadelphia, then set sail from there for the Gulf of Mexico, choosing a site near Galveston, Texas, for their colony. Girod and other New Orleanians maintained contact with the Frenchmen. In 1821, Girod announced he was re-building the structure on the corner of Chartres and St. Louis, erecting a spacious and lovely home. Girod declared this house would be Napoleon’s after an expedition to be led by Dominique Youx rescued the Emperor. The plan was well underway by 1821, but Bonaparte’s death on May 5 of that year shut everything down.
Girod died in 1837, but his death contributed to his second legendary connection. Nicholas’ will stated that the sum of $100,000 be donated to establish an orphan asylum that would take in French orphans in New Orleans. A fight over the will by Girod’s family and heirs reduced the donation from the estate to the city to $30,000, but that money was invested, and Girod’s intent not forgotten. In 1870, the funds from Girod’s donation came to over $75,000. The city built several buildings behind St. Patrick Cemetery #3, just off City Park Avenue, as an orphan’s home. That property changed roles several times at the end of the 19th Century, but by the turn of the 20th, it was the site of the city’s “Colored Waifs’ Home.” That home’s most famous resident, Louis Armstrong, was confined there in early 1913, after the then 11-year old fired a gun in the air in Storyville on New Year’s Eve 1912. Armstrong lived at the home from early 1913 until June 6, 1914. While there, he learned to play the cornet and joined the home’s band. Upon his release, Armstrong sought out various band leaders and began his legendary career.
While Nicholas Girod did not realize his dream of rescuing his hero, Napoleon, his fortune and philanthropy led to a role in the early life of one of New Orleans’ greatest musicians.
Thanks to the New Orleans Public Library, for their research into early mayors of New Orleans, and to Michelle Kimball of the Preservation Resource Center for her research into the location of the Colored Waifs’ Home.
Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, and Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. He is also author of Legendary Locals of New Orleans. Branley’s latest book, New Orleans Jazz, is now available in bookstores and online. Edward is also the NOLA History Guy, online and on Twitter @NOLAHistoryGuy)