Louisa Adams never could get used to the dislocations and disappointments of her life. Historian Michael O’Brien says,
“All her life she had lacked confidence and seen the world as a challenge she could not meet.”
By 1815, she was 40 years old and she had had many dislocations and disappointments. She moved with her husband, John Quincy Adams, through his many postings for the new American government. She suffered three miscarriages and lost an infant daughter. She was in ill health and was alone with her seven-year-old son in St. Petersburg, Russia, while her husband was in Paris. In early February 1815, John Quincy asked her to join him in Paris. What happened to Louisa on this journey from Russia to Paris was to change her forever.
Before the Journey to Paris
On the one hand, she desperately wanted to be with her husband, but it meant a bone-jarring journey through Europe in winter in a carriage. Travel in Europe in the early 1800s wasn’t a lot of fun in the best of times. The roads were awful – muddy in spring and fall, snow-covered in winter, and baked in summer.
Between Russia and France, the route of Louisa’s journey was a multitude of small domains, each with its own currency, customs, laws, and roads. A florin (gold coin) could have different values and appearances in different areas. Languages were a problem; Louisa spoke French but not German, and she encountered many Slavic dialects. She had to get multiple passports for the various countries.
To add to the disruption, the Napoleonic wars had been fought only a short time before and the continent was uneasy at the possibility of Napoleon’s return from his exile in Elba. (This was before the battle of Waterloo.) War-torn Europe was full of soldiers and refugees, whole villages had been burned, and various factions were still in conflict.
This was not a great time to be traveling with only a young child and a nursemaid. It was highly unusual for a woman of her class to be traveling without a male companion of equal rank; she was pretty much on her own, for the first time in her life.
Louisa quickly cleared out her apartment, found a manservant, and hired on a young soldier named Baptiste who escorted her in return for her assurance that she would get him to Paris. She packed all she might need, basically a miniature household, including fancy clothing for stops in larger cities, a store of hidden coins, and guns, knives, and medicines.
The story of her journey is recounted in Mrs. Adams in Winter, by historian Michael O’Brien. So what happened? Well, just about everything you could imagine. The trip of about 2,000 miles would take about 40 days. They would stop at post stations where they would pick up a postilion (a man who would guide them to the next stop).
The journey began on February 12, 1815, Louisa’s 40th birthday, as they left St. Petersburg in a carriage on runners and a kibitka (a large sled).
They traveled often by night, to keep moving, and slept in the carriage when the accommodations were awful. In Riga, Latvia, they had to abandon the sled and everyone (servants and luggage too) climbed on the carriage.
Some of the difficulties they encountered were:
- Deep snow in Russia, up to the horses’ bellies
- Single narrow-track roads where a carriage could be pushed off the road
- Treacherous rivers that had to be forded; many had no bridges and they had to wade across.
- A broken carriage wheel caused a day’s delay and forced them to stay in a disgusting hovel.
- They became lost one dark night and had to wander around for hours until Baptiste found someone to guide them to the next post stop.
Louisa was aware of the dangers, saying that she had the conviction that…
” the difficulties of my path must be conquered, and it was as well to face them at once.”
Was she reckless? Proud? Certainly, she was a patrician, and she wasn’t used to mixing with lower classes. At one point, she had to ride on top of a carriage with a footman, which she didn’t like at all.
There were breaks in the travel, and she stopped for several days in Berlin to catch up with friends, relax, and enjoy the opera and fine dining. Although Berlin was where her infant daughter died, she remembered it fondly, as a time when “life was NEW.”
As they entered Germany, the ravages of war became more apparent. Louisa saw homeless people, half-burnt buildings, starvation, and devastation from the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. Soldiers had stipped the countryside of food, raiding and raping. Louisa was sickened at the sight of the “savage barbarity of war.”
Closer to Paris – Where’s Napoleon?
In Eisenach, Germany, on March 14, Louisa heard the first rumors that Napoleon had escaped from Elba and was heading for Paris. The atmosphere was tense; no one knew where he was or what might happen. A friend encouraged her to delay, or at least take a circuitous route to Paris. Her servant and the soldier Baptiste had abandoned her, wanting to stay in Germany to avoid France and possible conscription into the military.
She was determined to continue forward, so the friend found a 14-year-old boy to accompany her. Here she is with only a seven-year-old boy, a nurse, and a young man (plus the carriage driver, of course), to make a harrowing journey to Paris in the middle of heightening tensions and possible war.
The road was full of troops and wagons, as supporters gathered to join Napoleon on his way to Paris. She was concerned about their safety because they were travelling in a Russian carriage.
The worst happened when a party of soldiers stopped the carriage and threatened to kill them. They shouted “Kill the Russians!” and “Vive Napoleon!” A French major saw her French passport and realized who she was. But she could not move on until the soldiers demanded that she shout “Vive Napoleon!” too. She did. (Wouldn’t you?)
They had to stay the night in an inn, hidden from soldiers who were violent and drunk. Finally, the next morning they were able to escape, and they raced through the rain and avoided troops for several more days until they reached Paris and her husband’s hotel the night of March 23, 1815. (Napoleon had entered Paris on March 20, beginning the hundred days of his final campaign, which ended in the Battle of Waterloo.)
After the Journey
Louisa didn’t write about her journey until many years later, in 1836, but it was included in her journals. These personal journals and letters have been turned into a book edited by Margaret Hogan and James Taylor, titled A Traveled First Lady.
Louisa Adams went on to serve her husband and the U.S. in her capacity as wife to a future secretary of state, president, and U.S. congressman. She had more heartache when two of her sons died in their early 20s, with only her son Charles surviving her.
On the day of her funeral, the U.S. Congress adjourned in mourning, the first time they had done that for a woman.
Why is Louisa Adams’ Story Important?
Why did she take the risks of the journey? In her journal, she said she wanted to,
“…show that many undertakings which appear very difficult and arduous to my Sex, are by no means as trying as imagination forever depicts them. And that energy and discretion, follow the necessity of their exertion, to protect the fancied weakness of feminine imbecility.”
To stop, to give up in the face of difficulties and possible violence, she felt was to admit failure. She had overcome the objections of men advising her, of rebellious servants, of physical dangers, and of emotional and physical weakness. She accomplished what she set out to do. When I finished the book about her journey, I was thrilled and proud of her.
Louisa dug down deep and found self-confidence and courage. She received support along with way from acquaintances, but she had to figure out much of it by herself. At a dangerous river crossing, she had to decide between taking a long detour or going across. She listened politely to male advisors, thought a while, and decided to take the crossing. She wasn’t afraid to override the opinions of men. It might have been reckless, but she was insistent on moving forward at every opportunity.
O’Brien says she,
“self-consciously fashioned a metaphor for how a woman could manage the difficult business of life, by fighting off the violent brutalities of men and enlisting the intelligent sympathies of women.”
Read my Goodreads review of Mrs. Adams in Winter.
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