The Geography of Terror

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

Last time we brought ourselves right up to the beginning of the Reign of Terror, which is about to descend on France. But though the Terror played out as a bloody game of sadistic revolutionary partisanship in Paris, the bulk of its victims were not major political figures, but rather obscure men and women out in the departments, specifically in those departments currently in insurrection. 

Contrary to the popular myth that the Terror was about the poor killing the rich or the peasants killing the aristocrats, it was actually far more about eliminating opponents of decentralizing revolutionary government in Paris and scaring everyone else into submission. Through July 1794, there will be 16,594 official victims of the Terror. That is, those specifically condemned by the Revolutionary Tribunals or representatives on mission and guillotine. Of those, 1,900 will come from the regions surrounding Lyon, 1,300 will come from the region surrounding Marseille and Toulon, and a whopping 8,700 will come from the Vendée. Add those together, and we’re talking about 70% of the total victims right there. Add the 2,600 killed in Paris, and now we’re talking about almost 90% of the victims of the terror coming from four very specific locations. 

Now, we’ll get into all the fun in Paris next week, where the reign of terror will be kicked off by the show trial and execution of Marie Antoinette, and then the show, trial and execution of the Girondins. But I want to spend today circling the frontiers to bring the course of events outside the capital up to speed, because that’s really where the great Terror is going to play out. 

But I need to start today by heading back up to the warfront in Belgium, because if the French don’t start winning some battles, they’ll never get a chance to chop each other’s heads off. So when last week left the cursed army of the north, the French had been getting kicked around and their generals had been getting arrested and guillotined, which is really kind of an interesting way to try to win a war. As you’ll recall, after their run of victories in July 1793, the Allies decided not to invade the heart of France, though, and instead divided up and went off to lay a couple of more sieges on the periphery. 

The Austrians headed down to a fortress city and began a siege on August 28. Meanwhile, the British and Hanoverian forces under the grand old Duke of York headed up to Dunkirk. Now, the move on Dunkirk, as I said, was less about immediate necessities of war and about fulfilling the long term political and economic dreams of the British. But this diversion wasn’t supposed to be that big of a deal. Dunkirk would fall quickly, France would collapse shortly thereafter. But then neither of those things happened and before they knew it, the British were in full retreat back to the Netherlands. 

The British failure to take Dunkirk was mostly a failure of logistical coordination. When the British army showed up outside the city, they were supposed to be met by the British Navy, but there was no navy. There was supposed to be a delivery of heavy siege guns, but there were no guns. The artillery company who was going to fire the guns got dropped off, but there were no guns for them to fire. When ships did appear on the horizon, they turned out to be French gunboats, who immediately started blasting away at the British position. As the Duke of York started digging in, expecting support, you know, any day now, the French army started massing south of Dunkirk for a relief effort. Reinforced by the first waves of recruits from the levée en masse, about 40,000 men were concentrated south of the city by early September. 

And as I mentioned those new recruits, I should also mention one of the big innovations that is going to help the French really start kicking ass out there. A while back, I mentioned that the war committee of the old Legislative Assembly had recommended integrating new recruits with veterans of the line for basically all the reasons you might think that would be a good idea. Well, now is the moment when this finally starts taking effect. 

Known as the amalgame, the pairing of recruits raised from the levée en masse with guys who had already been fighting for months and even years, this integration program dramatically increased the speed with which new troops could be turned into effective soldiers. Now, the amalgame was not without its detractors, and sans-culottes Purists wanted to keep the levée en masse guys as their own separate brigades to maintain political purity, that way, they wouldn’t be poisoned by these cynical and probably Royalist professional soldiers. 

But the representatives on mission in the army made it quite clear that the amalgame was going to be a thing. And so it was. And it turned out to have been absolutely the right call. As the forces south of Dunkirk swell, the senior military officers, the representatives on mission, and then the Committee of Public Safety back in Paris discussed how to proceed. And one thing that has become clear to me in trying to get a handle on all of this is that it’s very difficult to tell where ideas and strategies really came from, like who was to blame for failures and who deserves credit for successes. 

As everyone jockeyed with everyone else in an effort to avoid the guillotine, the rush to take credit for the good and blame someone else for the bad became a regular habit. And I’m not talking just about the officers. Even someone like Lazare Carnot, who is regarded these days as indispensable to the war effort, well his position in the Fall of 1793 was no more secure than anyone else’s, one wrong move and he might get swept off to the guillotine himself. 

So as we walk through this, I think it’s fair to say that we know what happened, but it’s definitely cobbled together from a bunch of unreliable witnesses who were far more interested in living another day than in writing an objective and honest account of the action. So by now, you’re probably wondering, okay, well, who is nominally in charge of the army of the north? Who has been given the mother of all cursed promotions? Well, I’ll tell you. This week’s poor sod is Jean Nicolas Houshard. 

Initially, the promotion of Houshard was greeted with some enthusiasm. He was a commoner, and so, for the first time in French history, an army would be led by someone without a speck of noble blood. So this was a pretty big deal politically. But unfortunately, if you are looking to prove that a commoner can do the job just as well as some noble, Jean Nicola Houshard is not the man you’re looking for. 

At the dawn of the Revolution, he had been in the army for 24 years and had risen to the rank of cavalry captain and never commanded more than a single company. But he was promoted along with everyone else once the old senior officers started ditching out through 1791 and 1792. But each promotion took Houshard further away from what he was good at, and that was bravely leading small units in battle and toward something he was bad at, which is coordinating large armies and successfully planning a complicated operation on multiple fronts. And it’s not like Houshard didn’t know he wasn’t up for the job he had just been handed. He did know it. Which just makes his fate all the more tragic. 

As if the new General Houshard needed reminding of what failure meant, a messenger from Paris came up and informed him that his old commander, the esteemed General Custine, had just been convicted of negligence by the Revolutionary Tribunal and guillotined on August 28. So there’s nothing quite like sitting around getting ready to start a job you don’t think you can do, knowing full well that when you don’t do it, you’ll be killed. As you can imagine, Houshard hesitated to start this job. But when the representatives on mission sensed his hesitation, they basically ordered him to get his butt in gear. 

So on the morning of September 6, 1793, Houshard put his troops into motion, directing them against the 20,000 or so Allies spread out south of Dunkirk, protecting the Duke of York’s flank. The two sides battled each other across a miles long line in some pretty crappy weather. And though the Allied forces were heavily outnumbered, they were only pushed back with supreme difficulty. The standard historical analysis is that Houshard spread his men across way too wide a front and thus failed to take advantage of his superior numbers. By six in the evening, Houshard wanted to shut things down for the day, but he was ordered to keep going by the representative on mission, looking over his shoulder, who said, quote, free men were never too tired to fight the slaves of tyrants

So on the French army went, eventually pushing the Allies back into the small town of Hondschoote, whereupon darkness finally put a stop to the day’s battle. The next day, the French were too scattered to do anything even with the representative breathing down Houchard’s neck. So it wasn’t until September 8 they were finally ready to attack the 15,000 Allies holed up in Hondschoote. But rather than massing his guys for one big push, Houshard again spread his army out. He broke off 12,000 to head straight for Dunkirk, and then he had another 10,000 or so stationed like 20 miles to the southeast, not really doing much of anything, so he only advanced on Hondschoote with maybe 22,000 guys. 

But despite completely negating his overwhelming numerical superiority, the Allies inside Hondschoote were pretty well battered. And so when the French launched their attack on the morning of September the 8th, the Allies first took heavy casualties and then were forced to retreat. 

The Battle of Hondschooteforced the Duke of York to finally abandon his feudal siege of Dunkirk. He had never received the reinforcements he requested to help him truly encircle the city. The siege guns had never arrived. The navy had never arrived. So with his flank totally exposed, he said, forget it, we’re pulling out. Adding insult to injury, the combination of bad weather and the French defenders inside Dunkirk intentionally dumping all their waste water into the Allied trenches, the British could not extract their heavy baggage, nor the few heavy guns they did have. So literally bogged down, his retreat from Dunkirk was a slow slog. With all the Allies now in a stumbling retreat, the representative on mission told Houchard “go get them”. But Houchard refused. His army was an exhausted mess, spread out all over the place, and the general just didn’t think they could handle further action. In a fleeting and ultimately fatal bit of self confidence, he told the representative who was demanding more action, quote, you are not a military man. And the representative backed down. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, three days after the Duke of York ended the siege, the British Navy finally showed up. 

Instead of pouncing on the retreating British, Houchard instead gathered up his men and pointed them at Le Quesnoy. Now, had Houchard managed to relieve Le Quesnoy., it’s possible, just possible, he might have kept his head, but he just didn’t have enough time. On September 13, his army successfully drove off about 15,000 Dutch which cleared the road to Le Quesnoy. But that same day, the city surrendered to the Austrians. And then two days later, the French advance was reversed by a reinforced Allied army and that was it for poor old General Houchard. He was arrested in Lille on September 24 and hauled back to Paris to face the Revolutionary Tribunal, where he was accused of treason. 

But though the treason charge was utterly bogus, it wasn’t until one of the prosecutors called him a coward that Houchard was finally roused to defend himself. I mean, we’re talking about a guy whose face had been disfigured in the past by not only a gunshot wound to the mouth, but also a saber slash to the cheek. This was a guy whose chest was basically one big intertwined mess of scar tissue. He had led the middle column of the attack on Hondschoote personally. Houchard may have been out of his depth, guilty of incompetence and maybe even insubordination, but cowardice? Never. But they found him guilty anyway, and he was guillotined on November 17.

Okay, so who on earth is next going to get stuck with this death sentence of a command? Who is the next unlucky soul who will wind up running the army for two months before getting denounced, hauled back to Paris, and executed? Well, as it turns out, we’re actually about to land on a guy who’s going to stick around for a while, a really long while, as it’ll turn out. He’s going to have his near misses with the Revolutionary Tribunal along the way. But in 31 year old Jean Baptiste Jourdan, we finally got ourselves a survivor; someone who can both run an army and avoid a revolutionary death sentence. And not to give anything away, but Jourdan is going to serve France in various capacities through everything: the Jacobin Dictatorship, the Directory, the Napoleonic Empire, the Restored Monarchy, the July Monarchy. Jourdan is going to die a well respected son of France in the ripe old age of 71. And good for him. 

Jean-Baptiste Jourdan was born in 1762, the son of a surgeon. He ran away from home at the age of 16 and joined the army just as France was getting into the American War of Independence. And in October 1779, he was there, at the bloody fiasco that was the joint French American attack on Savannah, which we talked about back in Episode 2.10: Turning South. He spent the remainder of his war service in the West Indies before being discharged in 1784. After that, he set himself up as a dry goods merchant, got married in 1788 and appeared all set to live a life of peaceful obscurity. 

But then along comes the French Revolution. He joined his local National Guard unit. And then, when Paris started begging for volunteers to help fill the ranks of the rapidly deteriorating French army, Jourdan enlisted. He was put in charge of a battalion, fought at Jemappes and Neerwinden and quickly made a name for himself as an excellent young officer. After the defection of Dumouriez and the subsequent cycle of generals who came and went in rapid fire, Jourdan was promoted to Brigadier General in May, Divisional General in July, and then when Houchard was arrested in September, 31 year old Jean Baptiste Jourdan was given command of the army of the north. And I’m sure he was just thrilled about it. 

And as if being made commander of the army of the north wasn’t bad enough, what with the representatives on mission ready to arrest you for treason if you cracked your knuckles too loud, Jourdan was about to have to labor under the biggest representative on mission of them all, Lazare Carnot himself. 

After successfully capturing Le Quesnoy, the Austrians then moved on to besiege the city of Maubeuge. With the British off licking their wounds, this was a perfect opportunity to strike at the Austrians while they were unsupported by their allies. So Carnot headed out from Paris to make sure that Jourdan did not hesitate. 

Now, at first, there was nothing but agreement between the two men. Jourdan favored an aggressive campaign and he commended the representatives on mission for the job they were doing. So Jourdan is saying all the right things. Then, after regrouping following the actions at Dunkirk, the French were able to mass about 45,000 south of Maubeuge to strike at the 20,000 or so allied forces arrayed to cover the siege. Though this is all about to go really well for the French, Jourdan and Carnot will emerge with different versions of why it went really well. And so, despite their successful collaboration, both will emerge not particularly well disposed towards the other. 

On October 15, the French attacked the entrenched allies. But rather than using their almost two to one advantage to press on one spot and overwhelm the enemy, the French tried to execute a double flanking envelopment with a strong push up the middle, a maneuver that appears to have been devised by Carnot. By spreading their forces thin, they were held off on all fronts and the attack failed. So the next day, Carnot and Jourdan rethought their approach and decided to concentrate their efforts on the plains on the right side of the line, centered on the town of Wattignies. 

Jourdan’s version is that this was all his idea and he basically had to disobey Carnot’s orders to concentrate his attack on that spot and win the battle. Meanwhile, Carnot reported that as an engineer and an artilleryman, it was he who recognized the vulnerability of Wattignies and ordered all the French to attack the position. Whoever ordered the attack, though, it was successful. The allies were pushed off the plateau, the covering force was driven into retreat, and the Austrians were forced to lift the siege of Maubeuge. 

The victory at the Battle of Wattignies basically ended the campaign siege 1793 in the north. After spending the year getting beat and beat again and watching their generals defect, get killed in battle or be executed for treason, the French army, amazingly, is now heading into winter quarters with the momentum once again on their side. Momentum that is going to help give the Committee of Public Safety back in Paris the legitimacy it needs to complete its consolidation of power, a process we’re going to talk more about next week

A similar momentum shift that would also help bolster the committee’s legitimacy was also underway in the west, where the Vendée uprising is about to peak and then begin its process of slow and bloody disintegration.

Now, the first thing I’ll mention about the war in the Vendée is that it was as dangerous to be a revolutionary general in the west as it was to be a revolutionary general up in the north. I would hate for you to think that it was just the commanders of the army of the north who were getting killed for their failures. For example, after the city of Saumur fell to the rebels, which we talked about two episodes back, the victorious leaders of the Catholic and Royal Army offered asylum to the defeated and captured Republican commander. But the commander was afraid that if he accepted the asylum that the angry Jacobins back in Paris would go after his family. So he rejoined his beaten troops and, as expected, was ordered back to Paris to explain his defeat. And when he did not do so to their satisfaction, he was condemned to death by the Revolutionary Tribunal and would be executed in March 1794. 

After that guy was called back, a guy named Francois Joseph Westermann was dispatched down to replace him. Now, Westermann’s revolutionary career is pretty interesting and it was a running case of she loves me, she loves me not. He had served in the army of the Ancien Régime as a young man in the 1770s, but it didn’t stick and he quickly left the service. After the Revolution started up, he was bumming around Paris and he fell in with Danton and the Cordeliers Club. And as those guys got together to plan the insurrection of August the 10th, Westermann was the only one with any kind of professional military experience. So he was actually like the key architect of the attack on the Tuileries Palace, which I think is what buys him a little bit of credibility with the various Revolutionary Tribunals. But after that, he joined General Dumouriez’s staff. 

And then when Dumouriez defected, Westermann was suspected of being an accomplice. Denounced by Jean Paul Marat himself, Westermann was recalled to Paris to make an account of himself, which he convincingly did, probably with a little help from Danton. So instead of getting his head cut off, they made him a brigadier general and said, please go stamp out the Vendée uprising. Now, the situation in the Vendée after Westermann arrived is going to become very confusing with a lot of moving parts. So at the risk of oversimplifying things, I’m going to oversimplify things. 

When Westermann showed up in late June, the Catholic and Royal Army was bogged down in the ultimately failed siege of Nantes. So Westermann was able to take 6,000 men and push his way to Châtillon, which was acting as a sort of rebel capital. He wasn’t able to hold it, though, because once the siege of Nantes got called off, 25,000 men from the Catholic and Royal Army arrived unannounced at the gates of Châtillon, taking the Republican forces completely by surprise. Westermann himself managed to escape with about 500 cavalry, but the rest of his men were captured, at least those who weren’t killed in the fighting. 

Now, as I’ve mentioned, the war on the Vendée was extremely bitter and the victors of the Vendée army had no qualms about lining up and massacring captured Republicans. Of the 6,000 Westermann had led into the city, 2,000 were either killed in the fighting or in the subsequent massacres. This is not a pretty war and it’s not going to get any prettier. 

After this defeat, Westermann was naturally ordered to come back and face the tribunal. But amazingly enough, he was acquitted a second time. The next few months saw scattered skirmishing just about everywhere. And then one good victory for the blues, when 10,000 Republicans faced 35,000 rebels at Luçon and somehow managed to win the battle. 

Then, in September, the Republicans got a major injection of fresh energy when the men from Mainz showed up. The men from Mainz, numbering about 15,000, were the guys who had been stranded behind enemy lines back when General Custine had been forced to retreat from the Rhine back in the spring. Cut off and without hope of relief, the Mainz garrison had finally surrendered in July. They were allowed to walk away free, though on the condition that they did not rejoin the war, which was pretty much standard practice in the days before huge POW camps were a thing. So as they walked west away from the frontier, the Committee of Public Safety said don’t stop walking until you get to the Vendée. As a coherent and experienced fighting force, the Mainz garrison guys immediately became the best unit the Republicans had. 

This injection of support, though, wasn’t enough on its own to save the day, and into September, the momentum remained with the Catholic and Royal Army, a very nebulous army of men coming and going, often with their families in tow and commanders working together to achieve some objective before going off their own separate ways. On September 19, they amassed 40,000 outside Tiffauges, which was being held by an equal number of Republicans. After the rebels launched an attack to retake the city though, the rebel infantry panicked in the middle of the fighting and tried to run away. But they ran smack dab into a solid wall of their women folk who said, what the hell are you doing here? Get back in there and win the battle. 

Suitably chastened, they turned back around and won the battle, pushing the Republicans out of the city. But after winning the victory at Tiffauges, the rebel commanders disagreed about what to do next, although enough of them stuck together. They followed that up with another victory at Montague a few days later, which naturally led the beaten Republican commander getting called back to Paris, where, unlike Westermann, he would be convicted of being beaten by the enemy and fed to Madame La Guillotine in April 1794. 

But that was the high point for the rebels, and the momentum of the Catholic and Royal Army was finally broken just a few weeks later. With the Mainz garrison men as their backbone, the Republicans advanced about 25,000 men on nearly 40,000 rebels occupying the city of Cholet. But despite the numbers, the rebel generals knew that they were super short on ammunition and had no artillery on hand at all, so they withdrew to the north. Once out of town, the generals met in a contentious council. Some wanted to take the whole army north, cross the Loire River and link up with the British. Others refused to abandon their homes and said, no, we should stay and fight. Others wanted some to go and some to stay. In the end, though, they finally agreed to stay and fight it out. And on the afternoon of October 17, they marched down in three columns to try to take back the city of Cholet. 

But when the Republicans executed a successful flank on their right, Vendée soldiers thought it was a whole new army showing up, and they fled in panic. Meanwhile, up the middle, the Republicans used the old hidden heavy gun trick to blast the incoming rebels at point blank range inflicting heavy casualties. And pretty soon, the call was going out among the rebels to retreat north to the Loire River, which marked the northern boundary of the Vendée. The victorious Republican leaders in Cholet were now confident that they were about to win the war. All that was left to do was go trap the remaining rebels against the Loire and smash them to bits. But that made them slow to get moving. And by the time they got up to the Loire, two days later, they discovered the rebel army had successfully ferried itself across the great river. 

So though the Battle of Cholet was a major turning point in the war, it did not end the war. It simply opened up a dangerous new phase, because now the rebel army was loose in Normandy and almost certainly on its way north to link up with the British. But that next phase will have to wait until next week, because we need to finish up today with the Siege of Lyon, a siege that will set the stage for one of the major centers of the Reign of Terror and give us a chance right now to introduce another one of our infamous members of the Committee of Public Safety, the wheelchair bound Georges Couthon. 

Georges Couthon was born in central France in 1755. He was the son of a local notary and followed in his father’s footsteps, studying law before becoming a notary himself. As the Revolution approached, Couthon started having problems with his legs, and it soon developed into full blown paralysis, which doctors later diagnosed as a result of meningitis. Before too long, he was confined to a wheelchair. 

Once the Revolution got going, Couthon was a perfect example of that class of guys who were not prominent enough to get elected into the Estates General in 1789, but who then stayed home and made local names for themselves in the new revolutionary political environment. Couthon was popular in the local salons, and despite his physical condition, he earned a reputation as one of the most forceful speakers of the whole Revolution. He was eloquent, he was passionate, and he had a voice that carried for miles. 

So when the elections for the Legislative Assembly came around in 1791, Couthon was elected. He sat on the left of the Legislative Assembly, became friendly with Robespierre, but he was never a full blown radical. Indeed, he very nearly wound up getting lumped in with the Girondins after he was subsequently elected into the National Convention. On a visit up near the Belgian border to find some relief for his legs, he met General Dumouriez and came away very impressed, firmly believing that Dumouriez was essential to the revolutionary cause. At that moment, the Girondins and Dumouriez were closely linked by their aggressive posture towards Austria. 

But any flirtation with the Girondins ended the minute they refused Couthan a seat on the constitutional committee that they were busy packing full of their allies. Ticked off, Couthon went fully over to the Mountain, and all through the trial of King Louis, Couthon was a tireless speaker against reprieves, against appeals, and against compromises of any kind. Needless to say, he voted death, no strings attached. These revolutionary credentials ultimately got him elected onto the Committee of Public Safety on May 30, just in time for the Enragés insurrection of May 31 – June 2. Couthon was the one who formally moved on June 2 that the Girondins be expelled from the Convention

When the committee started getting reshuffled in July, Couthon clearly aligned himself with Robespierre and Saint Just, and the three of them all tended to agree on who the good guys were and who the bad guys were. When the Federalists inside Lyon refused to surrender, the committee decided it needed one of its members to personally ensure they did not get away with defying Paris. And Couthon was dispatched on mission. 

He spent most of September in his home department, which is about 70 miles west of Lyon, raising men, money and supplies to successfully prosecute the siege. And then, in early October, he finally made his way over to the intransigent second city of France. Lyon had been getting bombarded with cannons for two months now, and its fortifications were crumbling. On top of that, they were running out of supplies and did not have enough provisions to see them through the winter. So at noon on October 8, Lyon finally opened its gates. 

With Marseilles already retaken and Bordeaux scrambling to try to get back on the right side of Paris, the surrender of Lyon meant that the only remaining Federalist holdout was now Toulon. 

And Toulon will hold out until December, and as it holds out, it will help introduce to the stage a young artillery captain from Corsica who will play a major role in finally taking the city down and then play a major role in, you know, all of world history. But getting back to the fate of Lyon, a few days after the city capitulated, Couthon received instructions from Paris on how to handle the defeated city, instructions that seemed almost unbelievable. 

The decision had been made to make an example of Lyon, and the decree Couthon was to implement ordered that quote, every habitation of the rich shall be demolished. There shall remain only the homes of the poor. It also said that the name Lyon itself should be plotted from the map and that quote, the collection of houses left standing shall henceforth bear the name of ‘The Liberated City’. And finally, on the remains of the demolished parts of the city, a great column would be erected that would say, Lyon made war on liberty. Lyon is no more

Beyond these explicit orders to literally destroy the city of Lyon, it was understood that Couthon would also immediately convene a tribunal, convict the Federalist traitors, and execute every last one of them. But Couthon did not really have the bloodlust in him. And as he worked his way ever so slowly through the demolition project, he worked even slower on the executions. And after only a few days of work, he concluded that he was just not the right man for this job. He wrote back to his colleagues on the committee requesting that he’d be reassigned and that they sent somebody to replace him. And so they did. And that replacement turned out to be Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois, one of the two guys put on the committee after the September 5 insurrection. And d’Herbois, as it turned out, absolutely had the blood lost in him. 

But we’re going to get into all of that next week. And what we’ll also get into next week is, of course, what’s happening back in Paris, because October 1793 turns out to be a month of climaxes everywhere. With terror now the order of the day and the prisons and the capital full of enemies of the Revolution, it was finally time to start clearing them all out. And who better to start with than Queen Marie Antoinette?

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