States are never more vulnerable than when they attempt to reform themselves

Sunday, March 31st, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew Roberts Alexis de Tocqueville would write that states are never more vulnerable than when they attempt to reform themselves, Andrew Roberts notes (in Napoleon: A Life), and that was certainly true of France in the autumn of 1795:

It was in the ‘Sections’, forty-eight districts of Paris established in 1790 which controlled local assemblies and the local National Guard units, that the insurrection was focused. Although only seven Sections actually rose in revolt, National Guardsmen from others joined in.


The Sections included middle-class National Guardsmen, royalists, some moderates and liberals, and ordinary Parisians who opposed the government for its corruption and domestic and international failures. The very disparate nature of the rebellion’s political make-up made any central co-ordination impossible beyond establishing a date for action, which couldn’t be kept secret from the government.


On the evening of Sunday, October 4, Napoleon was at the Feydeau Theatre watching Saurin’s play Beverley when he heard that the Sections intended to rise the following day. Very early the next morning — 13 Vendémiaire by the revolutionary calendar — Barras appointed him second-in-command of the Army of the Interior, and ordered him to use all means necessary to crush the revolt. Napoleon had impressed the most important decision-makers in his life — among them Kéralio, the du Teil brothers, Saliceti, Doppet, Dugommier, Augustin Robespierre and now Barras, who had heard of him from Saliceti after the victory at Toulon.


(He later recalled with amusement that the politician who had had least qualms about the spilling of blood at Vendémiaire had been the priest and political theorist Abbé Emmanuel Sieyès.)


From Napoleon’s reactions to the two Tuileries attacks he had witnessed in 1792, there was no doubt what he would do.

This was Napoleon’s first introduction to frontline, high-level national politics, and he found it intoxicating. He ordered Captain Joachim Murat of the 21st Chasseurs à Cheval to gallop to the Sablons military camp two miles away with one hundred cavalrymen, secure the cannon there and bring them into central Paris, and to sabre anyone who tried to prevent him. The Sections had missed a great opportunity as the Sablons cannon were at that point guarded by only fifty men.


He then spent three hours visiting each of his guns in turn. ‘Good and upstanding people must be persuaded by gentle means,’ Napoleon would later write. ‘The rabble must be moved by terror.’

Napoleon prepared to use grapeshot, the colloquial term for canister or case shot, which consists of hundreds of musket balls packed into a metal case that rips open as soon as it leaves the cannon’s muzzle, sending the lead balls flying in a relatively wide arc at an even greater velocity than the 1,760 feet per second of a musket shot. Its maximum range was roughly 600 yards, optimum 250.


‘If you treat the mob with kindness,’ he told Joseph later, ‘these creatures fancy themselves invulnerable; if you hang a few, they get tired of the game, and become as submissive and humble as they ought to be.’

Napoleon’s force consisted of 4,500 troops and about 1,500 ‘patriots’, gendarmes and veterans from Les Invalides. Opposing them was a disparate force of up to 30,000 men from the Sections, nominally under the control of General Dancian, who wasted much of the day trying to conduct negotiations. Only at 4 p.m. did the rebel columns start issuing from side streets to the north of the Tuileries. Napoleon did not open fire immediately, but as soon as the first musket shots were heard from the Sections sometime between 4.15 p.m. and 4.45 p.m. he unleashed a devastating artillery response. He also fired grapeshot at the men of the Sections attempting to cross the bridges over the Seine, who took heavy casualties and quickly fled. In most parts of Paris the attack was all over by 6 p.m., but at the church of Saint-Roch in the rue Saint-Honoré, which became the de facto headquarters of the insurrection and where the wounded were brought, snipers carried on firing from rooftops and from behind barricades. The fighting continued for many hours, until Napoleon brought his cannon to within 60 yards of the church and surrender was the only option. Around three hundred insurrectionists were killed that day, against only half a dozen of Napoleon’s men. Magnanimously by the standards of the day, the Convention executed only two Section leaders afterwards. ‘The whiff of grapeshot’ — as it became known — meant that the Paris mob played no further part in French politics for the next three decades.


Before the end of Vendémiaire, Napoleon had been promoted to général de division by Barras and soon afterwards to commander of the Army of the Interior in recognition of his service in saving the Republic and possibly preventing civil war. It was ironic that he had refused the Vendée post partly because he hadn’t wanted to kill Frenchmen, and then gained his most vertiginous promotion by doing just that. But to his mind there was a difference between a legitimate fighting force and a rabble.

For a while afterwards Napoleon was sometimes called ‘General Vendémiaire’, though not to his face. Far from being uneasy about his involvement in the deaths of so many of his compatriots, he ordered the anniversary to be celebrated once he became First Consul, and when a lady asked him how he could have fired so mercilessly on the mob he replied: ‘A soldier is only a machine to obey orders.’ He did not point out that it was he who had given the orders.

The ‘whiff of grapeshot’ advanced the Bonaparte family hugely, and overnight. Napoleon would now be paid 48,000 francs per annum, Joseph was given a job in the diplomatic service, Louis advanced through the Châlons artillery school and later became one of Napoleon’s burgeoning team of aides-de-camp, while the youngest of the Bonaparte boys, the eleven-year-old Jérôme, was sent to a better school.

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