In 1811 Charles-Henri Heidsieck rode into Moscow on a white stallion, just ahead of Napoleon’s advancing army. He arrived with cases of his Champagne and his order book, ready to celebrate with whichever side won the upcoming battle.
His more famous son Charles Camille Heidsieck (1822-93) was equally opportunistic. In 1852 he visited the United States, immediately grasped the potential of the American market and retained an agent. The mass import of Heidsieck Champagne that followed was a roaring success. When Heidsieck returned five years later, he was greeted in New York City with massive newspaper coverage and banquets in his honour. He became known as ‘Champagne Charlie’, a persona he nurtured carefully every time he visited, becoming a fixture of the New York high society scene.
In 1861 the United States Civil War began. With more than half of his company’s assets tied up in unpaid accounts in the US, Heidsieck quickly left Reims and set sail for the US. Upon arrival, he was informed by his sales agent that a new law passed by Congress aimed at absolving Northerners from having to give payment for cotton purchased from the South, also absolved the agent from having to pay his debt to Heidsieck!
Heidsieck immediately left for New Orleans to seek repayment directly from the merchants that had received his champagne. But because of the war, Heidsieck had to travel in secrecy. Upon arrival in April 1862, he found a bankrupt city. One merchant had a warehouse full of cotton that was in high demand in Europe due to the shortages caused by the Union blockade, so Heidsieck accepted the cotton as payment and tried to smuggle it out of the port of Mobile, Alabama. Despite ordering the ships to take different routes in the hope that at least one would make it past the blockade, both were intercepted and sunk.
By this time, all routes to the North were completely sealed so Heidsieck returned to New Orleans and attempted to charter a boat to Mexico or Cuba in hopes of making it back to Europe. To facilitate his passage, the French consul in Mobile gave him a diplomatic pouch with a request to deliver some documents to the consulate in New Orleans. Arriving in New Orleans on 5 May 1862, he found that the city had fallen to Union forces and was captured by General Benjamin F. Butler.
What Heidsieck didn’t know was that within his diplomatic pouch were documents from French textile manufacturers detailing the supply of the Confederate armies with uniforms! Despite Heidsieck’s pleas of ignorance about the documents, he was charged with spying against the Union and imprisoned in Fort Jackson, Louisiana.
The consequent diplomatic incident between the French and US government became known as the Heidsieck Incident. French diplomats and even Napoleon III contacted President Abraham Lincoln to campaign for Heidsieck’s release, which was finally granted on 16 November 1862. By this time, he was in frail health, with a bankrupt business and his wife selling off family property to pay debts. Heidsieck returned to France, demoralized and broke.
Then his luck changed. In early 1863 Heidsieck was approached by an American missionary with a letter from the brother of his former agent in New York. The man was so ashamed of how his brother cheated Heidsieck that he offered him deeds to land in Colorado as a means of repayment. The deeds accounted for a third of a small village known as: Denver.
Denver was in the process of becoming one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the American West. In a few years, Heidsieck was able to sell the land, repay all his debts, and invest his new personal fortune in re-establishing his champagne as one of Champagne’s premier houses.
The notoriety of “Champagne Charlie” was increased by a music hall song from 1866 with music by Alfred Lee and lyrics by George Leybourne. It was one of Leybourne’s most famous songs and he himself would later be nicknamed Champagne Charlie.
Here is Tommy Trinder leading the chorus from the eponymous film of 1944:
Finally, two bizarre footnotes: ‘Champagne Charlie’ was sung by the crowd at the public execution of Michael Barrett in 1868, the last public execution in Great Britain; and the melody of the original song was adapted by The Salvation Army for their hymn, “Bless His Name, He Sets Me Free”.