Netherwood the Swede

Netehrwood2This short article looks at the life and adventures of a Swede, Adam Frederik Netherwood, during the French Revolution and his subsequent role in Napoleon’s attempt to reconquer the West Indies for France. Netherwood would sail out to Saint Domingue in 1802 and would die in the brutal fighting on the island:

Adam Frederik Netherwood was born on 1 May 1772 to Captain Magnus Wilhelm Netherwood and Anna Elisabeth Stalhammer. After serving in the Swedish Army he transferred to French service as a volunteer in the 7th [bis] Hussars and served in Italy. During the Egyptian expedition he was a captain attached to the staff. He took part in the advance into Syria and was present at the storming of Jaffa and the siege of Acre. He was later attached to Kleber’s staff and then Menou’s.

Following his return to France, and now Chef de brigade, Netherwood was inactive but still keen to serve. He wrote to Napoleon on 8 February 1801:

“From Netherwood, Chef de Brigade, to First Consul Bonaparte:

At a time when many officers find themselves unemployed, I have little right to ask you, Citizen Consul, that I might continue to serve in the French armies; your generosity towards those who served in Egypt, however, gives me some reason to hope. Offers being made to me by the King of Sweden can not persuade me to leave your armed forces – I will always be happy wherever the French go whether it be in Europe, Africa or at the very ends of the world. I only request that I be permitted to go to Sweden for two months’ leave.

Yours, with profound respect, Netherwood.”

Netherwood spent those two months in Sweden but was soon back in Paris, at the Hotel de Chatelion, and seeking employment from the Ministry of War. On 18 October he volunteered to participate in the expeditionary force being prepared for Saint-Domingue (Haiti) where the French were hoping to reimpose rule over an independently-minded Toussaint Louverture and his army of former slaves. Napoleon’s brother-in-law, General Leclerc, was in command of the expedition and on 24 October Netherwood was assigned a position on the staff, embarking at Brest on L’Océan along with Captain Musquinet-Beaupré, Captain Leclerc and Lieutenant Perrin as well as Leclerc’s senior staff officers Abbé and Alexandre Dalton.

Netherwood arrived in the Caribbean in February 1802 and his staff duties kept him busy as the campaign, initially successful, gradually wore down the expeditionary army. Yellow fever decimated the French, and Leclerc was one of the many thousands to die in the epidemic.

Netherwood was offered the opportunity to return to France as part of the escort accompanying Leclerc’s widow (Napoleon’s sister, Pauline) and Leclerc’s remains. He refused to quit the island, however, explaining why in a letter to the Minister of War (Berthier) on 9 November 1802:

“Permit me, Citizen Minister, to present my respects to you via Citizen Dalton, who I have asked to remind you of me. I was designated, by my most unfortunate general before his death, to accompany his wife to France but as the colony is being attacked from all sides, I believe that it is my duty to do without the honour of accompanying her, but, instead, to share in the perils being faced by my comrades.

If, Citizen Minister, you agree to this, I hope that I will be recalled after eight months as family matters in Sweden demand my attention and, by that time, reinforcements will have arrived, the rebels will have submitted and the colony secured for France.

Please accept, Citizen Minister, my most respectful salutations, Netherwood.”

Leclerc’s body was shipped to France on 10 November, Pauline and her son, Dermide, also travelling on board Captain Hubert’s ship the Swiftsure. Abbé with three Guard officers and six soldiers and Leclerc’s other ADCs (Dalton and Burcke) accompanied the widow.

Back in the unfortunate colony, Leclerc had been replaced by General Rochambeau, wayward son of the hero of the American Revolution, and he launched an offensive in late 1802 which attempted to secure the coastal towns for France. On 19 November, shortly after the departure of General Abbé, Netherwood had replaced Chef de brigade Abbé as commander of the colonial governor’s Guard.

Netherwood was kept busy at Le Cap, distinguishing himself under General Clausel in February 1803, leading the Guard cavalry in a brilliant charge and putting 300 rebels to the sword.

Netherwood, like many of the expeditionary forces young officers, sought to improve his station in life by marrying into one of the rich colonial plantation families. He married Marie-Thérèse Lemit, born at Port-au-Prince on 22 July 1774 and daughter of Pierre Lemit (who had returned to the colony with his family in December 1801), an architect, and Catherine-Thérèse Masson. The marriage bans were published on 27 March 1803 and the marriage took place two days later. A marriage contract was drawn up on 1 April 1803 by Judge Ludot and was signed by, among others, Netherwood’s friend Colonial Prefect Daure, General Thouvenot, Admiral Latouche-Tréville, Chief of Staff Boyer and General d’Henin. Netherwood was gifted a coffee plantation and plantation house as part of the contract, along with a dowry of 6000 Francs.

Netherwood was quickly back in action. Petit Goave had fallen to a rebel attack and this fort was now the target of an expedition to retake the position, despite an apparent scarcity of available troops. Captain Jurien de la Graviere was assigned to be the naval officer responsible as Rochambeau resolved to send what he could against the rebels:

“The command of the troops was assigned to Colonel Netherwood, the general’s senior aide-de-camp, and he had 900 men placed onboard a 74-gun ship and the frigate La Mignonne. In addition to these troops, which were drawn from the general’s own guard, and which had formed the core of Port-au-Prince’s garrison, there was a crowd of colonial volunteers wishing to take part in the venture. We also loaded onboard some corvettes, I’m ashamed to admit, two packs of hunting dogs purchased, at great cost, at Havana. These dogs were bred by the Spanish, it was said, to clear the island of its indigenous population (26 June 1803, a Spanish brig, coming from Havana, anchored in the Le Cap roads loaded with horses and 200 dogs for service with the army – Latouche-Treville’s journal). Each pack was composed of 75 dogs and they fed on the flesh of the blacks. To make them more vicious, they were starved before use. It was with such horrible auxiliaries that we left Port-au-Prince. Two days later, at dawn, we entered the harbour of Petit Goave. We had just dropped anchor when the insurgents set fire to the town. They had already evacuated the citadel, after having transported their artillery and ammunition to Fort Liberté. We convened a council of war. As I had spent a great deal of time at Petit Goave, I thought this would add weight to my opinion. I therefore counselled caution. I believed that the enemy were established in a formidable position and to attack them would be a pointless sacrifice as the town was already close to being a pile of ashes. It would be better to leave at once for Port-au-Prince, I thought, as this place had been unwisely stripped of its best troops. My objections were discounted – they did not wish to retreat without having fought. The colonists in particular laughed at my fears and pretended that they knew the location much better than I, and pointed out the rocks which could be scaled to get to the fort. None of my objections met with any success and I was merely asked to fix a point for the disembarkation of the troops. I did so, selecting one within pistol shot from the frigate and which would be sheltered from the enemy’s artillery. The operation was carried out without a single soldier being wounded. The troops were then divided into different columns which would be guided forwards by the colonial volunteers. The warship and frigate opened up a rolling fire to clear the way and only ceased fire when the troops began to advance. A morbid presentiment of what was to come had seized hold of me. I had taken the opportunity to have my ships’ boats prepared and to have landing parties prepared. Until this time the enemy’s artillery had been firing at us, and roundshot targeted us without causing the least bit of damage. The troops advanced with their usual fearlessness and began scaling the cliffs without facing any resistance, apart from a few shots fired by some skirmishers hidden here and there. Soon, however, our men were obliged to push their way through some rocks barely wide enough for one man to pass through at a time. Firing down from the parapets, the rebels inflicted heavy casualties. As soon as one of our men reached the gap, he fell, hit by a musketball. Nevertheless, through, force and perseverance, our men reached the ditch below the walls. The rebels had filled the ditch with dried sugar canes and now set them alight. The ditch was engulfed in flames and an inferno separated our men from the walls. Canister and musketry drove everyone into cover. A decision was made to retreat. We had a large number of men wounded and the dogs, which were supposed to attack blacks only, went for anyone they could find. All of the officers, without exception, were casualties. Colonel Netherwood had been hit by a shell fragment in the groin. The rebels now sortied out from their defences and pursued our troops. It was turning into a rout and everyone who could run made for our ships’ boats. The two officers who had been ordered to remain with these boats had thrown themselves into the fighting and both had been mortally wounded. The sailors who had followed them did not wish to leave them in the hands of the blacks and brought them back to the boats. The frigate was so positioned that the evacuation of the wounded took place with comparative ease. The first boats brought back the two naval officers, as well as two junior midshipmen, all wounded by enemy fire. I could not reproach them for their disobedience – their punishment was already too severe. The two officers died in agony, one that very night and the other three days later. We lost 21 men, the warship around the same number. I placed the wounded as well as I could about the ship, reserving my cabin for the brave and unfortunate Colonel Netherwood. The victims of this disastrous attack were scattered through the battery. As the colonel was brought on board, he stretched out his hand and shook mine warmly, without saying a word. Not one complaint escaped his lips and he never ceased to be calm and resigned. He knew that his wound was a mortal one and that he would be separated for ever from a young lady that he worshiped and with whom he was to spend his life with.”

He died on 26 April 1803. The entire situation in the colony was going from bad to worse and many families began to evacuate. Among them was Netherwood’s widow, who quit the island and arrived at Bordeaux in August 1803. She took up residence in Paris, firstly in the Rue des Filles St Thomas, then in the Rue du Mail. Having lost most of her fortune in the chaos of Saint-Domingue she had to apply to Berthier for her widow’s pension. On 16 December she wrote the following letter:

“Citizen Minister!

Encouraged by the interest you have shown in my case, I dare to write to you to ask you to put into effect your promises as my misfortune lends me the right to claim your indulgence, as does the opinion you held of my husband. His widow, reduced to misery, implores you to present to the First Consul the report which is necessary to obtain the pension, and a few indemnities, which are now her only resource. I am sorry to trouble you with something which, for you, is of little import, but , for me, alas, it is all I have to hope for. I have the honour to present my respects to you, Widow Netherwood.”

This letter seems not to have had an immediate effect as she had to write again on 14 January 1804, this time providing more details concerning her husband and the couple’s marriage. Another letter to Berthier followed on 26 February. This last piece of correspondence was perhaps unnecessary for she soon received news that on 23 February 1804 she had been granted her widow’s pension of 600 Francs. She moved to the Rue Neuve des Mathurins and then Rue Joubert. In 1828, when the French government began to pay an indemnity to all the property owners who had lost property when the colony fell, the widow Netherwood claimed a sum in lieu for her coffee plantation. She seems to have died shortly afterwards.

Update: I am indebted to Jakob Pontén for the portrait of Netherwood that sits at the top of the article. This pictures our Swede as an aide-de-camp in the uniform of the 7th Hussars and was painted in around 1802, following Netherwood’s return from Egypt but before being sent to Saint Domingue, by Per Krafft the younger. The original is in the Gamla Bankgården museum in Vrigstad, Sweden. Jakob has given permission to reproduce the image above and this larger version below: