June 1, 1879: The Tragic Death of “Napoleon IV”

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A Brief History

On June 1, 1879, the so-called “Napoleon IV” died in the unlikely service of the British Army fighting Zulu warriors in what is now South Africa. Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was the only child of Napoleon III, Emperor of the French.

Digging Deeper

Born in Paris in 1856, the little Louis-Napoléon had the distinction of having the Pope as his Godfather at his baptism! His Godmother was Josephine, Queen of Sweden, the granddaughter of Napoleon I’s first wife, Josephine. In spite of this auspicious beginning, the young Bonaparte was fated to never succeed his father on the throne of Imperial France.

Napoléon at age 14, 1870

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, Napoleon III brought his teen-aged son with him to the war, and the boy actually experienced being under fire. As the tide turned against France, Napoleon III sent Louis-Napoléon to Belgium, and then on to England in exile with his parents as the French Empire fell apart as a fallout of the disastrous war.

When Napoleon III died in 1873, the Bonapartist faction of France declared Louis-Napoléon as Napoleon IV, Emperor of the French. Of course, in practice the declaration meant nothing as there was no practical way for the young Bonaparte to actually ascend to the throne. France was done with monarchy of any type by this time.

In 1872, Louis-Napoléon was accepted at the Royal Military Academy, and did well in the military and academic arts, ranking first in riding and fencing and graduating 7th overall in a class of 34. He went on to serve in the Royal Artillery. Rumors of a possible marriage to Queen Victoria’s daughter circulated, and the Queen was known to like Louis-Napoléon and favor his return as Emperor of the French.

The prince in South Africa in 1879

In 1879, Lieutenant Bonaparte asked for assignment to Africa where war had broken out with the Zulu natives. As Prince Imperial he demanded his request be honored, against the wishes of other Bonapartist Frenchmen. The Prince was sent to Africa and into combat with the Zulus, though he was closely watched and guarded by British minders who tried to keep him safe. On a scouting mission in 1879 the Prince and his unit were ambushed by Zulus, the Prince fighting bravely, but wounded in the thigh by a Zulu spear (assegai). Louis-Napoléon pulled the spear from his thigh and used it to continue fighting but was skewered by another spear in his shoulder. The Prince went down, overcome by numbers of Zulu warriors. His body was found to have 18 spear wounds, including one through his eye and into his brain.

Any realistic hopes of a Bonapartist revival of Imperial France died in South Africa with Louis-Napoléon.  The British lieutenant (Jahleel Carey) given charge over the safety of the Prince was later court-martialed and treated as a pariah for “allowing” Louis-Napoléon to get killed.

European newspapers were abuzz with the terrible news of the death of the Prince. In fact, it had been the rash desire of Louis-Napoléon to see action that led to his death. The Prince even carried the sword that Napoleon I had carried at Austerlitz, and constantly pushed to be allowed to go on patrol. Napoleon IV certainly lived up to the legacy of Napoleon I, dying while fighting bravely and gallantly, a credit to his family line.

Tomb of Napoléon, Prince Imperial

Question for students (and subscribers): What it have been better if France kept its imperial government?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Bresler, Fenton. Napoleon III: A Life. Carroll & Graf , 1999.

De Ludre-G.  Napoleon IV (Litterature) (French Edition). HACHETTE LIVRE-BNF, 2013.

The featured image in this article, the death of the Prince impérial during the Anglo-Zulu War, detail of a painting by Paul Jamin, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.