The Frozen Rivers

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

As we discussed three episodes back, probably the biggest reason the French finally started to pull back from the Reign of Terror was the run of military successes in the first half of 1794. It was hard to convince everyone that all this emergency murder was necessary, because “emergency, emergency” when there wasn’t really any emergency. Well, the French army just kept rolling through the second half of 1794, and that military success was the backdrop against which last week’s political swing to the right unfolded. 

Things were, in fact, going so well that by the time I’m done talking about it all today, the following things will have happened:

  1. The Prussians will be asking for terms of peace.
  2. The Austrians will have pulled their armies back across the Rhine.
  3. The French will be occupying the entirety of the Netherlands, and four, the British will have gathered up all their stuff and sailed away for home.

These victories will not only shut down Flanders as the main center of the war, a distinction soon to be foisted upon Italy, but it will also greatly stabilize the French domestic economy, because from here on out every time France occupies a new territory, the people and resources of that territory will be exploited to serve the needs of France. This was 180 degrees from all the lofty rhetoric about exporting the rights of man that had been laid out back when the war started in 1792. But it also turned out to be very lucrative and made France very, very strong. 

So when we last left the war up in Belgium, General Jourdan had just won the Battle of Fleurus in June 1794, and by won I mean was left in control of the field when the Austrians decided to withdraw from an otherwise inconclusive engagement. After Fleurus, the Austrian and British components of the Allied army split up with the Austrians, headed east towards Cologne, and the British headed north up into the United Provinces. Jourdan followed the Austrians as they pulled back towards the Rhine, while General Pichegru, he was one of those commoner generals promoted by Saint Just and who was now commander of the army of the north. He headed up to take control of the Belgian ports along the English Channel. After Pichegru locked down the Belgian ports, he turned his attention north. 

Now though General Dumouriez had been forced to abandon his invasion of the United Provinces, back in the spring of 1793, the French still dreamed of bringing the Netherlands into the French orbit. And with the British on the run, that dream now seemed eminently attainable. At the end of August, Pichegru got the army of the north moving. 

The British were, at this point, still in pretty decent fighting shape, but they were getting awfully discouraged. As we’ll discuss in a minute, the Allied coalition was fracturing and the British could not convince the Austrians to come help them block the French invasion. Stopping the French from occupying the United Provinces may have been the reason the British had gotten into the war, but what did Austria care about that? They were already abandoning their half of the Low Countries, so what did it matter what the French did with the other half? 

On September 5, Pichegru ordered 10,000 men up to go occupy the town of Boxtel, and a contingent of British were sent down to block them. The ensuing little battle was not a major engagement in itself, but the British commander made a tactical blunder and retreated when he really should have advanced. This defeat at Boxtel was not so much a military setback as it was emotionally demoralizing for the British troops, and it lent an air of inevitability to French victory. Pretty soon the British were retreating still further into Dutch territory, no help was coming from the Austrians and while the orders from home still said “keep up the fight” the officers on the ground were like, Okay, but for how long? You know, this isn’t going very well! 

At that same moment, General Jourdan was approaching the Austrian position along the Rhine and he was about to meet with similar success. The Austrian army was still camped on the west side of the river, and both sides were now fielding huge armies, Jourdan commanding over 100,000 men, while the Austrians had over 80,000. 

On September 18, the two sides met on a plateau near the town of Sprimont. And though the French took heavy losses, they managed to keep pushing until the Austrians withdrew. Then, a week later, on October 2, they waged a second battle across a long fortified line near the town of Aldenhoven, about 30 miles west of the Rhine. Again, the French just kept pushing and drove the Austrians to retreat. Now, Austria had already given up on the interior of their now clearly former province of the Austrian Netherlands, but now they gave up any pretense to holding the west bank of the Rhine. They retreated across the river, abandoning the little string of principalities on the French side of the river, including a major free city of Cologne. 

So the question then becomes, why were the Austrians so willing to pull back? None of these battles were really decisive, and had they wanted to, they could have dug in and fought it out. But while we’re asking that question, we might as well also ask where’s Prussia in all of this? Why have they just been completely idle along their front for, like, a year now? And the answer to both questions turns out to be the same. And as it is so often in the history of the French Revolution, the answer is Poland. Because apparently if you really want to understand the French Revolution, what you really need to do is study the history of Poland. 

So what the hell is going on in Poland that’s so important? Well, I’ll tell you. Polish patriots have gone into revolt against Russian hegemony. Now, the last time we checked in on Poland was back in Episode 3.27: Advance and Retreat. That was when Catherine the Great had invaded Poland after winding up her war with the Turks. When the Russians came in, Prussia started massing troops along the Polish border. But instead of fighting, the two great powers agreed to the Second Polish Partition in January 1793 that left Poland a territorial rump of its former self and politically dominated by Russia. 

Polish patriots, who could not stand the humiliating terms under which their government now labored, spent the next year talking amongst themselves about how to reverse their fortunes. Many of these guys were senior military officers and central among them was Tadeusz Kościuszko.

Now, unfortunately, I do not have time right now to go in depth on Kościuszko, but I probably should have by now. After all, he had first risen to prominence after volunteering for service in the Continental Army during the American War of Independence. He quickly became the master engineer of the Continental forces. He was the one who fortified Bemis Heights during the all important battles at Saratoga. He was one who built West Point. Then he transferred down to the southern theater, where he was one of Nathaniel Green’s key lieutenants in the campaigns against Cornwallis and Tarleton. After the American war, he returned to Poland, where he had been fighting a losing battle to keep the great powers from gobbling up his homeland. If I have time, I’ll do a supplemental on him, because Kościuszko is in fact awesome. 

But getting back to it, one of the things Russia had been up to since the second partition was systematically dismantling the Polish army. And over the winter of 1793 – 1794, they made their final move, demanding that that army be reduced from 35,000 – 50,000 to just 15,000. Now, this was intolerable to the Polish patriot officers because they were planning on eventually using that army to expel the Russians. With the demobilization order, they had to act now. 

So in March 1794, Kościuszko announced a general insurrection from his base in Krakow. The Poles whipped a Russian force sent against them on April 4, and then they moved on to the capital of Warsaw. The Polish patriot advance was helped by a spontaneous uprising in the capital that saw the residents of Warsaw slaughter at least half the 5,000 men Russian garrison. Clearly looking to emulate the French Revolution, the Polish patriots started singing La Marseillaise in Polish, they set up Jacobin-style political clubs to support the insurrection, and then in May 1794,  Kościuszko unilaterally declared freedom for all Polish serfs, and he was attempting to duplicate the mass national mobilization that was just getting underway over in France. 

The unrest caused by Kościuszko’s uprising, which is what this is all called, and the opportunities it presented were the main reason the Prussians and Austrians became so distracted from the war with France in the Summer of 1794. With Catherine’s blessing, the Prussians moved into Poland. And then also with Catherine’s blessing, but unbeknownst to the Prussians, the Austrians sent in a force of their own. With the military and political gravity of the eastern powers now revolving around Poland, Prussia went from calculated inaction against the French to actively sending out peace feelers to Paris in October 1794. Peace feelers that would eventually result in Prussia withdrawing from the anti French coalition in the Spring of 1795. 

Now, unfortunately for our Polish friends, the combined weight of their three territory hungry neighbors was too much for them. In October, the army Kościuszko lead was defeated by the Russians and Kościuszko himself was captured. Famously, just before he was captured, Kościuszko allegedly said, “this is the end of Poland”. And apocryphal or not, he was right. This is the end of Poland. 

On November 4th, the Russians beat the last major Polish forces outside of Warsaw. And when the Russians entered the capital they did so with an eye on avenging the massacre of their garrison. The Russian troops were let off the leash to loot, pillage and kill as they saw fit. It is estimated that upwards of 20,000 Poles were killed in the indiscriminate massacre that followed. In case you’re looking for further perspective on the Reign of Terror, as many Poles died in a single day as were executed by the guillotine over the course of an entire year of the Terror

With the Poles beaten militarily, it was left for the occupying powers to decide what to do next. It took a while to work out, but the decision was let’s just divvy up the rest of Poland. The Prussians, Austrians and Russians met for a diplomatic summit in October 1795 to haggle over their respective territorial claims. And then in January 1797, the haggling took a while, they finally signed the Third Polish Partition which obliterated Poland from the maps of Europe for 123 years. 

While the Eastern powers turned their attention to Poland, the British were left to carry on a frustrated defense of the United Provinces all by their lonesome as the Winter of 1794 set in. Now, under normal circumstances, winter would have brought an end to the campaign for the year. But the winter of 1794 -1795 turned out to be one of the worst winters on record, even colder and more miserable than that epoch-making winter of 1788 – 1789. What that meant was that practically every river in northern Europe froze solid. Recognizing the opportunity, General Pichegru told his guys “hey, look, winter is so bad, let’s just keep on fighting”, which I’m sure that they were all thrilled to hear. But they were now able to march across frozen rivers wherever they felt like it. And so the French were able to push almost unopposed north towards Amsterdam. 

As they moved, the French enjoyed the rather unique privilege of being genuinely greeted as liberators. By the end of the 18th century the Dutch Republic was in reality a dynastic oligarchy run by the House of Orange, and in practical terms, little more than a satellite of the British government. So a lot of native Dutch were genuinely excited that this French Revolutionary army was going to liberate them. In Amsterdam, a citizen uprising expelled the Oranges government just as the French army appeared on the horizon and the new patriot city leaders welcomed in the French with open arms. 

Pichegru entered Amsterdam on January 19, 1795. A few days after capturing the capital, Pichegru learned that up at the port of Den Helder, a Dutch fleet of 14 ships had been immobilized when the harbor they were anchored in froze. Pichegru ordered a detachment of his army to go take a look and on January 23, the French cavalry launched a surprise attack across the ice and captured not only the 14 Dutch ships, but the 850 heavy guns they held between them. They say that this is the only time in military history that a fleet has been captured by a cavalry charge, and if anyone out there can dispute that claim, I would love to hear it. 

With the French totally ascendant in the Netherlands, the British just kept retreating until they were out of the United Provinces completely and camped in Hanoverian territory. Then they sat around waiting for the British government to recognize what the British Army probably already did and that was that continuing to try to wage a land war against the French was folly. So, come the Spring of 1795, Prime Minister William Pitt ordered the British Army to evacuate the continent. The British were not abandoning the war with revolutionary France, but having already failed to achieve their one strategic objective on land, keep the United Provinces out of French hands, they decided to focus their attention on the sea, where the British Navy was likely to have far more success than the British Army had had. 

As it turned out, the British really had lost their one strategic objective on the continent, and the Netherlands would remain in the French orbit until the fall of Napoleon. The day the French entered Amsterdam, patriot Dutch leaders proclaimed themselves to be the Batavian Republic, the Batavian bit coming from a Dutch nationalist tradition that traced its ethnic roots back to the famous Bataviae who had inhabited the region back in Roman times and who had provided the emperors with some of their best and most reliable troops. 

But though the Dutch were pretty excited about being liberated, they quickly discovered that freedom and independence were not what the French had in mind for them. Far, far, far now from the lofty idealism of 1792, Paris was not even remotely interested in exporting the Revolution in the name of freedom and liberty and national self determination. It was interested in creating client states that would exist to serve the military and economic needs of France. And this run of victories in 1794 that culminated with the permanent occupation of the entire Netherlands and all those wealthy Rhine principalities, well that had a lot to do with stabilizing the domestic economy of France at the expense of all those occupied territories. 

So with that in mind, let’s pivot away from the war to talk about that domestic economy, which had been doing okay for most of 1794, but which was trending in a bad direction by the end of the year, when it was then clobbered by one of the worst winters of the century. Now, one of the leading indicators of the health and stability of the economy was the value of the assignat. After all hell had broken loose in the Spring of 1793, the value of the assignat had plunged down to 22% face value as the Convention had tried to print its way into the resources it needed to prosecute the wars on all fronts. 

The collapse of the assignat was actually one of the reasons the Convention had been so willing to invest power in a strong executive committee. And one of the signature accomplishments of the Committee of Public Safety had been to strengthen and stabilize the value of the paper currency. Once the Committee really took over in August 1793, the value of the assignat started to inch back up and this process was given a forced nudge when the general maximum was declared in September. The price controls and the takeover of the economic supply chain started to restrengthen the value of the assignat. Then, over the winter of 1793 – 1794, the Committee stumbled into an inflation control measure quite by accident when they demanded a forced loan from the rich. 

Enacted on a sliding scale determined by your total wealth, the loan was supposed to help generate revenue but the government accepted and really had to accept assignat as a valid form of payment and accepted at face value. So naturally everyone paid their forced loans with virtually worthless piles of assignat. But though the forced loan didn’t necessarily generate the real revenue that it was supposed to, the simple fact of all those assignat being taken out of circulation raised the market value of the assignat still floating around out there. Soon enough, the notes were once again trading at nearly 50% face value, which was pretty good. But the longer the general maximum was in effect, the harder it became to enforce and the more heavy handed that enforcement had to become. And by heavy handed, I mean the Terror. 

Outside the war zones of the Federalist cities in the Vendée, violation of the maximum was the source of most denunciations and the source of most of the, dare I say, nonpolitical executions. Now, the Committee of Public Safety was not insensible to complaints that one standard list of prices for the whole country made no sense. And in February 1794, they issued a revised price list, one that took into account regional differences and factored in transportation costs. But still, for the first half of 1794, the choice for farmers and traders, merchants and wholesalers, whatever, was to sell your goods and services at ruinous rates or get your head chopped off. 

But when the Terror was abandoned after Thermidor, the whip hand keeping everyone in economic line was removed. And predictably, the real market for goods was disengaged from the official market for goods. Now, we would normally call this like the black market, but what do you call it when everything is now available only on the black market? That’s just the market!

As the maximum broke down, the value of the assignat plunged back down to 20% face value by the end of 1794. Now, ironically enough, just as the people of Paris were starting to suspect that the general maximum was broken and unenforceable, the National Convention was voting to extend it for another year. Now, they did this simply to shore up their political left flank. This was about the same time they put Marat in the Pantheon. 

But then their agents and spies inside the capital reported that the people of Paris were beginning to believe that the maximum was doing more harm than good. Nothing was available at the list price, and there was no real mechanism to enforce compliance. To many Convention delegates, this admission was music to their ears. For them, the general maximum had always been a terrible economic idea. It was decreed only as a political expedient to stop Paris from rising up in revolt. But if the word was now that the people of Paris were themselves sick of the maximum, well, by God, let’s get ourselves back on the free market. 

They ordered an investigation of the continued efficacy of the maximum, and that report came back a resounding “It’s not working. Let’s get rid of it”. So, on December 24, 1794, the National Convention repealed the general maximum. Let the free market have its day. 

But as was the luck of all French free market enthusiasts during the revolutionary period, they abolished the maximum just as Europe was headed into one of its worst winters on record. Now the harvest of 1794 had been fine, I mean, not good by any stretch of the imagination, and the French had been forced to import grain from North America. That shipment of grain had, in fact, been at the center of a pretty major naval battle between the British and French in June, as the British tried to stop the convoy from reaching France. That battle was technically won by the British, but the fighting had tied them up long enough that the convoy made it through, so really, the French won that one. 

Now, even with this shipment added to a not terrible harvest, two things conspired to make the winter of 1794 – 1795 just terrible for the average French consumer. 

First, the army requisitioners had first dibs on all commodities they required. Three quarters of a million men under arms is a lot of mouths to feed, so you can just take all that right off the top. Then the winter froze all the rivers. This not only ground the internal transportation system to a halt, but it also shut down all the mills. You need running water to work the mills, and no running water means that even if you have a stockpile of grain, you can’t turn it into anything edible. So just as the maximum was being lifted, the supply of everything plummeted and the price of everything skyrocketed. 

Prices were now well beyond what the poorer Parisians, for example, could afford. In January 1795, people were literally dropping dead of starvation in the streets. To compensate for this, the Convention ramped up printing of assignat so that people could go buy food. But this led to predictable inflation, compounded by the fact that there was not even a hint of a bluff that the currency was backed by anything. Remember, the assignat all had started out as a claim on a part of the wealth and property expropriated from the Church after all its lands were nationalized. Over the years, the various French national governments had tried to keep up with the number of assignat out in circulation, usually by targeting and seizing emigrate property. 

But at this moment, in the early months of 1795, there was nothing new to stake the assignat to, and everyone knew it. As the paper flew off the presses, hyperinflation took hold. By the Spring of 1795, assignat will be trading at just 8% face value. It would never recover from this crippling lack of faith in its value. The assignat was effectively dead. 

Now, this economic crisis in Paris was, of course, met with unrest in the streets. But this time, there was a genuine clash of interest out there, and the staunchly Thermidorian Convention was willing to back anyone who would help them beat down the radical left. Thus, the Muscadin youth continued to roam the streets of Paris with impunity. They pushed their way into theaters and closed down plays they didn’t like. If the Fighting Dandies spotted someone wearing a red liberty cap, they beat him up with their constitutions. They even went so far as to target and attack anyone caught singing La Marseilles, which the Muscadins denounced as a mere Jacobin anthem. They also went round to all the dechristianized churches and started de-dechristristianizing them. 

Many of the more active dechristianizers were also acolytes of Jean Paul Marat. And so when they went into the churches and removed the Christian icons, crucifixes and that sort of thing, they put busts of Marat up in their place. The Muscadins made a regular sport of smashing busts of Marat. This all culminated in February 1795, when, under pressure from the Muscadins, the Convention voted to remove Marat from the Pantheon, where his remains had been interred for just five months. That was all the time that Marat ever spent in the Pantheon. 

The beleaguered leftists, populists, sans-culottes, and ex-Jacobins attempted to rally. And the kernel of another popular movement got going in January, when an obscure lawyer named François Noël Babeuf started anonymously publishing a paper called the Tribune of the People. The Tribune of the People helped launch the slogan we’ll deal with more deeply next week, Bread and the Constitution of 1793 but the tide had really turned against the left. Government sensors swarmed on the Tribune of the People and shut it down before it could really get going and Babeuf was arrested. But for him, this was only the beginning of his radical career, and he will soon return under his more famous name, Gracchus Babeuf, The Tribune of the People. 

The increasingly conservative bent of the Revolution was seen most especially in the realm of religion, as all that de-dechristianization attested. Now, the Thermidorian leaders had no intention of trying to rebuild the Ancien Régime Catholic Church. They had neither the time, the inclination or the resources. But they also wanted to reverse the turn against Christianity, which had done so much to gin up domestic unrest. Now, Robespierre may have mocked the Cult of Reason harder than anyone, but he had suggested replacing it with the megalomaniacal Cult of the Supreme Being. The Thermidorians wanted no part of any of that stuff. So they hit on a brilliant idea that was both utterly revolutionary in itself and let the French go back to being Catholics if they wanted to. 

On September 18, 1794, the Convention officially suspended all payments earmarked for religious institutions. This included the entire apparatus of the Civic Church. With one line crossed out in the budget, the Thermidorian Convention cast aside the National Church that had been so polarizing since the very first civic oath had been decreed way back in 1789. But as they were zeroing out the religious budget, they also declared freedom of worship. So you can believe whatever you want, we’re just not going to pay for it anymore. 

This de facto separation of church and state was followed up on February 21, 1795 with the decree to formally separate the church from the state, something that had never even been contemplated by anyone before. Religion was just not something the Thermidorian Convention wanted to argue with you about. Now, the Catholic Church was not allowed, as of yet, to just reinhabit their old churches. Those were all public property. But what you did in your own home was now your own business. And mass was celebrated in Paris on March 8, 1795, for the first time since October 1793

Nowhere was the impact of the decrees on religious freedom more deeply felt than in the Vendée. Hard hit by the Reign of Terror and the Infernal Columns, the population of the Vendée was staggering. But much to the chagrin of the authorities in Paris, guerrilla resistance continued to plague the Republican forces trying to stamp out the last embers of resistance. Now all the major cities and all the major roads were controlled by the Republicans, but loosely affiliated peasant guerillas just refused to give it up. 

Then the Convention was hit by very disturbing news from Brittany. Brittany was every bit as ticked off at Paris as the Vendée was, and the Brettons had been further stirred up when the Catholic and Royal Army had made their play at Granville. Soon a general popular uprising got going and its active members were called the Chouan. But the Chouan were never as well armed, nor as well led as their neighbors to the south. But still, something like 22,000 people had joined the movement by the Summer of 1794, which was enough to make the Thermidorian Convention want to drastically change their approach in the region. Clearly, vicious, bloody heavy handed tactics had failed to bring peace to the west. Maybe we should try something else? 

So, just as religious freedom was being decreed in September, General Lazare Hoche was dispatched to the Vendée to try to negotiate his way to victory, not with the stick, but with the carrot. Upon his arrival with the region, he set about granting amnesty to rebels and releasing prisoners and saying that the Thermidorian Convention was ready to talk. On December 1, the Convention formally offered amnesty to all rebels who laid down their arms by January 1. 

Now naturally, the Vendée was skeptical about anything Paris said, but the decree about religious freedom was a huge signal that this might all be real. Religion had been the key issue that had gotten the uprising going in the first place and the Convention was now saying, we don’t care about who you worship with or how you worship. That’s just not a thing for us anymore

Then, later in December, the Convention sent another clear signal that they were serious when Jean Baptiste Carrier was finally brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal. The investigation into his conduct at Nantes had come back with a resounding let’s put the bastard on trial. And so at the end of November, they did. Now, at his trial, Carrier was defiant. He denied having taken any part in these contemptible deeds and then said he was only following orders and that if he was guilty, then the whole Convention was guilty “right down to the president’s bell”. The Revolutionary Tribunal did not agree. They convicted Carrier and sentenced him to death. On December 16, he became one of those last few victims of the guillotine. 

When word got back to Vendée that the Butcher of Nantes had just gotten his head chopped off, well, maybe the Convention really was serious about coming to terms. And indeed they were. In January, full on negotiations were underway between General Hoche and the remaining leaders of the insurrection. Hoche’s pitch turned out to be extremely generous and basically conceded every point that had driven the Vendée into rebellion in the first place. Freedom of worship was already confirmed, but he also offered exemption from the draft, which had been the flashpoint that had gotten everything going. He also offered compensation for any destroyed or seized property. His basic position was, look, if you lay down your arms, we’ll give you everything you want. The only demand that he could not grant was returning the king to the throne. But other than that, let’s just end this thing, okay? 

And this was very nearly the beginning of the end of the war in the Vendée, but unfortunately for everyone involved we’re not there quite yet. As we will see next week, the more intransigent rebel leaders were delighted to be drawing out negotiations because it lulled the Republicans into a false sense of security. As the Republicans were so lulled, the rebels negotiated with British contacts and French emigrate leaders based in London to land a Royalist army in the west to bring the entire region back into full revolt with the aim of getting that final unmeetable demand placing the young and still incarcerated Louis XVII on the throne

But as we will see next week, all those hopes will be dashed by the disastrous Quiberon Bay expedition in June. But before we get into that comedy of errors, though, we will need to head back to Paris to follow the inevitable confrontation between the Left and the Right in Paris, a confrontation that will turn into a decisive defeat of the Left but also convince the Convention that if the political situation was ever going to be stabilized, that France needed a new, new constitution.

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