October 5, 1789 The Women’s March

Encouraged and egged on by revolutionary agitators, these market women and not a few men, plundered the city’s armories for weapons and marched on the the Hôtel de Ville (the City Hall of Paris) carrying kitchen blades, farm implements and anything else which would serve, as a weapon.  The mob swelled to as many as 10,000, before turning to the royal palace at Versailles, some thirteen miles away. 

We hear a lot this pre-election season, about “Left” and “Right”. “Liberal” and “Conservative”.

The terms have been with us a long time, originating in the early days of the French Revolution. In those days, National Assembly members supportive of the Monarchy sat on the President’s right. Those favoring the Revolution, on the left. The right side of the seating arrangement began to thin out and disappeared altogether during the “Reign of Terror”, but re-formed with the restoration of the Monarchy, in 1814-1815. By that time it wasn’t just the “Party of Order” on the right and the “Party of Movement” on the left. Now the terms began to describe nuances in political philosophy, as well.

Imagine you are there, from the beginning. The year is 1789. Your politics are middle of the road, maybe a little to the left. Now imagine that, in the space of two years, your nation’s politics have shifted so radically that you find yourself on the “reactionary right”, subject to execution by your government.

And your personal convictions have never changed.

800px-Troisordres
Cartoon of the period depicting the “3rd Estate” (Commoners) carrying the 1st (Clergy) and 2nd (Nobility) on his back

In medieval France, major constituent parts of French society broke into “Three Estates” being the Clergy (1st), the Nobility (2nd) and a 3rd Estate encompassing common women and men.

French society of the late 18th century found itself at a crossroads of tectonic events, any one of which carried with it the potential for societal upheaval.

Culturally, the “Age of Enlightenment” brought with it an elevation of “Reason” at the expense of tradition, and a diminution of the Monarchy and the Catholic Church.

Politically, the “Commons” had evolved into a caste of its own, with its own goals and a desire for parity, with the 1st and 2nd Estates.

Economically, the French state carried massive debt at this time, a condition made worse by French support of the American Revolution of a decade earlier.  The Nobility refused to accede to the tax demands of King Louis XVI.

The situation was precarious for the King that May, when Louis XVI summoned the Estates-General.   Having reached an impasse, the Commoners reconstituted themselves into a “National Assembly” that  June, demanding a personal audience with the King, for the purpose of drawing up a Constitution.

The National Assembly converged on the Estates General on June 20, only to find the door locked. What followed was hysterical, duplicitous or both, as the King and the Royal Family were in formal mourning at this time, following the death of the Dauphin; the heir apparent to the french throne.  Traditionally, political matters were held at such times, until the King came out of mourning.

It was yet another custom, about to be thrown out the window.

Finding the chamber locked and under guard, all 577 members of the National Assembly converged on an indoor tennis court. All but one put their names to a solemn oath, the “Tennis Court Oath”, swearing “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established”.

image-placeholder-title.jpgThe oath itself was a revolutionary act.  Unlike the English Parliament, the Estates-General were little more than an advisory body, whose authority was not required for Royal taxation or legislative initiatives.  The oath taken that day asserted that political authority came from the people and their representatives, not from the monarchy. The National Assembly had declared itself supreme in the exercise of state power, making it increasingly difficult for the monarchy to operate based on “Divine Right of Kings”.

Riots followed as Leftist and reformist factions coalesced from anarchy to a coherent movement against the monarchy and the French Right.

Paris was “intoxicated with liberty and enthusiasm,” in July, when French revolutionaries converged on that age-old and hated symbol of the monarchy:  the Bastille. The fortress was guarded at this time by 82 “invalides”, veteran soldiers no longer fit for service in the field, and 32 Swiss grenadiers under the command of Governor Bernard-René de Launay, son of the previous governor.

The attackers – vainqueurs de la Bastille – numbered 954. Negotiations dragged on until the crowd lost patience, crowding into the outer courtyard and cutting the chain that held the drawbridge. Firing broke out as the bridge slammed down, crushing one unlucky vainqueur, while a nearby force of Royal Army troops did nothing to intervene. 98 attackers and one defender died in the fighting. The mob murdered another 7, after their surrender.

French-Revolution-Events-Featured.jpg

On this day in 1789, hundreds of French women ransacked the markets of Paris, angry over the scarcity and the high price, of bread.  Encouraged and egged on by revolutionary agitators, these market women and not a few men, plundered the city’s armories for weapons and marched on the Hôtel de Ville (the City Hall of Paris) carrying kitchen blades, farm implements and anything else which would serve as a weapon.  The mob swelled to as many as 10,000, before turning to the royal palace at Versailles, some thirteen miles distant.

800px-MarchWomenVersailles5-6october1789
The women’s march, hailed and encouraged by onlookers, making its way toward the Palace at Versailles

Arriving soaking wet from a driving rain, the angry mob converged on Versailles demanding political reforms and a constitutional monarchy.  The confrontation was ugly, violent.  Marie Antoinette herself narrowly escaped destruction, fleeing down a secret passage to the King’s chambers.

The King himself agreed to address the crowd,  from his balcony. “My friends,” he began, “I will go to Paris with my wife and my children.”  It was a fatal error.

The insurrection at Paris raced across all of France as the “Great Fear” spread across the countryside. The absolute monarchy which had ruled for centuries was over within three years.  Louis himself lost his head to the guillotine in January, 1793. 16,594 went to the guillotine under “the Reign of Terror”, led by the “Committee of Safety” under the direction of Parisian lawyer Maximilian Robespierre. Among them was Queen Marie Antoinette herself, who never did say “let them eat cake”.  The Queen’s last words on mounting the scaffold were pardon me, sir, I meant not to do it.   She had accidentally stepped on her executioner’s toes.

execution-Louis-XVI-1793.jpg
Execution of Louis XVI

As many as 40,000 were summarily executed or died in prison awaiting trial before the hysteria died down. Robespierre himself lost his head in 1794.

The Napoleonic Wars which followed resulted in a Corsican artillery corporal-turned Emperor, fighting (and winning), more battles than Hannibal, Caesar, Alexander the Great and Frederick the Great, combined.

The saddest part of the whole sad story, may be the son of Louis and Antoinette, Louis-Charles, Duke of Normandy.  The boy was King Louis XVII in name only, thrown into a stone prison cell at the age of 8.  He would die there, miserable, sick and alone, at the age of 10.   

The whole exercise, seems pointless. The Bourbon Dynasty was back in power, within twenty years.

March 27, 1794 Quasi War

On this day in 1794, the United States Government established a permanent navy and authorized the building of six frigates..  One of them, USS Constitution, saw its first combat in the Quasi-War and remains in service to this day, the oldest commissioned warship in the United States Navy.

Imagine you consider yourself to be somewhere in the political center.  Maybe a little to the left. Now imagine that, in the space of two years, national politics have shifted to the point you find yourself on the “reactionary right”, subject to execution as such by your government.

And your personal convictions have never so much as wavered.

America’s strongest Revolution-era ally lost its collective mind in 1792, when France descended into a revolution of its own.    17,000 Frenchmen were officially tried and executed during the 1793-’94 “Reign of Terror” alone, including King Louis XVI and Queen consort, Marie Antoinette.  Untold thousands died in prison or without benefit of trial.

OSS-FrenchRevolutionMythsThe monarchical powers of Europe were quick to intervene.  For the 32nd time since the Norman invasion of 1066, England and France once again found themselves in a state of war.

France was the American patriot’s strongest supporter during America’s revolution, yet the US remained neutral in the later conflict, straining relations between the former allies.  Making matters worse, America repudiated its war debt in 1794, arguing that it owed money to “l’ancien régime”, not to the French First Republic which had overthrown it and executed its King.

Both sides in the European conflict seized neutral ships in the act of trading with their adversary.  The “Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation” with Great Britain, better known as the “Jay Treaty”, all but destroyed relations with the French 1st Republic.  France retaliated by stepping up attacks on American merchant shipping, seizing 316 American civilian ships in one eleven-month period, alone.

In 1796, the French Republic formally broke diplomatic relations with the United States, rejecting the credentials of President Washington’s representative Ambassador Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.

The following year, President John Adams dispatched a delegation of two.  They were the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall, and future Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, he who lends his name to the term “Gerrymander”.  Their instructions were to join with Pinckney in negotiating a treaty with France, with terms similar to those of the Jay treaty with Great Britain.

quasi-war-1798-1801 (1)

The American commission arrived in Paris in October 1797, requesting a meeting with the French Foreign Minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand.  Talleyrand, unkindly disposed toward the Adams administration to begin with, demanded money before meeting with the American delegation.  The practice was not uncommon in European diplomacy of the time, but the Americans blanched.

Documents later released by the Adams administration describe Nicholas Hubbard, an English banker identified only as “W”.  W introduced “X” (Baron Jean-Conrad Hottinguer) as a “man of honor”, who wished an informal meeting with Pinckney.  Pinckney agreed and Hottinguer reiterated Talleyrand’s demands, specifying the payment of a large “loan” to the French government, and a £50,000 bribe to Talleyrand himself.  Met with flat refusal by the American commission, X then introduced Pierre Bellamy (“Y”) to the Americans, followed by Lucien Hauteval (“Z”), sent by Talleyrand to meet with Elbridge Gerry.  X, Y and Z, each in their turn, reiterated the Foreign Minister’s demand for a loan, and a bribe.

Believing that Adams sought war by exaggerating the French position, Jeffersonian members of Congress joined with the more warlike Federalists in demanding the release of the commissioner’s communications.  It was these dispatches, released in redacted form, which gave the name “X-Y-Z Affair” to the diplomatic and military crisis which followed.

American politics were sharply divided over the European war.  President Adams and his Federalists, always the believers in strong, central government, took the side of the Monarchists.  Thomas Jefferson and his “Democratic-Republicans” found more in common with the “liberté, égalité, fraternité” espoused by revolutionaries.

In the United Kingdom, the ruling class enjoyed the chaos.  One British political cartoon of the time depicted the United States, represented by a woman being groped by five Frenchmen while John Bull, the fictional personification of all England, looks on laughing from a nearby hilltop.

xyz (1)

Adams’ commission left without entering formal negotiations, the failure leading to a political firestorm in the United States.  Congress rescinded all existing treaties with France on July 7, 1798, the date beginning the undeclared “Quasi-War” with France.  Four days later, President John Adams signed “An Act for Establishing and Organizing a Marine Corps,” permanently establishing the United States Marine Corps as an independent service branch, in order to defend the American merchant fleet.

At this point, the United States had no other means of fighting back.  The government had disbanded the Navy along with its Marine contingent at the end of the Revolution, selling the last warship in 1785 and retaining only a handful of “revenue cutters” for purposes of customs enforcement.  On this day in 1794, the United States Government established a permanent navy and authorized the building of six frigates..  One of them, USS Constitution, saw its first combat in the Quasi-War and remains in service to this day, the oldest commissioned warship in the United States Navy.

6921747106_a537d83de4_k-e1508207760237

American military involvement proved decisive.  Before armed intervention, the conflict with France resulted in the loss of over 2,000 merchant ships captured, with 28 Americans killed and another 42 wounded.   Military escalation with the French First Republic cost the Americans 54 killed and 43 wounded, with only a single ship lost.  That one, was later recaptured.

By the turn of the century, the naval power of the English speaking nations brought about a more agreeable negotiating position with the government of First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. The Convention of 1800 ended the Quasi-War, asserting American rights and ending the alliance with France.

The entangling French alliance of 1778, was dead.   The Napoleonic Wars would be fought entirely on European soil.

 

A Trivial Matter
Between 1803 and 1812, the Royal Navy’s manpower needs greatly exceeded voluntary enlistment.  5,000 to 9,000 American sailors were forcibly “impressed” (kidnapped) into service, becoming a major casus belli for the war of 1812.

February 21, 1431 Joan of Arc

History has a way of demonstrating the truth of Taylor Owen’s adage on the subject of leadership: “An army of donkeys led by a lion is better than an army of lions led by a donkey.”

The Hundred Years’ War began as a succession dispute over the French throne, pitting an alliance of Burgundians and English on one side, against a coalition of Royalists led by the Armagnacs, on the other.

Europe was not far removed from the latest outbreak of the Black Death at this time, as the scorched earth tactics employed by the English army laid waste to the countryside and devastated the French economy.

Charles, Dauphin and heir apparent to the French throne was up against a wall, when a teenage peasant girl approached him in 1429.

For the 14-year-old boy-king, even listening to her was an act of desperation, borne of years of humiliating defeats at the hands of the English army. Yet, this illiterate peasant girl had made some uncanny predictions concerning battlefield achievements. Now she claimed to have had visions from God and the Saints, commanding her to help Charles gain the throne. Her name was Jeanne d’Arc.

The siege of Orléans was six months old at this time, when the Dauphin decided it couldn’t hurt to let her take part. She dressed herself in borrowed armor and set out, arriving on the 29th of April, 1429.

joan-of-arc-3

History has a way of demonstrating the truth of Taylor Owen’s adage on the subject of leadership: “An army of donkeys led by a lion is better than an army of lions led by a donkey.” So it was in the days after Jeanne’s arrival at Orléans.

Time after time, Jeanne found herself excluded from war councils.  Yet she managed to insert herself anyway, putting the French back on the offensive and achieving one victory after another.

Nine days after her arrival, Orléans turned into an unexpected victory for the French.  Jeanne herself was shot through the neck and left shoulder by an English longbow, while holding a ladder at the siege of Tourelles.  The Dauphin granted her co-command of the army with Duke John II of Alençon. The French army enjoyed a string of successes, recovering Jargeau on June 12, Meung-sur-Loire on the 15th and Beaugency two days later, leading to a humiliating English defeat at the battle at Patay on the 18th.

ccf011df7a8f59a31efc28e35ec0a655

Several more Armagnac victories followed. On July 17, 1429, Charles was consecrated King Charles VII of France, fifth King of the House of Valois, with Jeanne at his side.

Despite her loyalty, Charles’ support began to falter.  Court favorite Georges de La Trémoille convinced the King that Jeanne was becoming too powerful. An archer pulled her from her horse during the siege of Compiègne in May, 1430, and her allies failed to come to her aid.

The town gates closed, leaving Jeanne on the outside.  She was captured and taken to the castle of Bouvreuil.

download - 2019-02-21T063459.558

Some 70 charges were made against her by the pro-English Bishop of Beauvais, Pierre Cauchon, including witchcraft, heresy, and dressing like a man.

The judge’s representatives were dispatched to Jeanne’s home village of Domremy, to ascertain the prisoner’s virginity, character, habits and associations. Nicolas Bailly, the man responsible for collecting testimony, reported he “had found nothing concerning Joan that he would not have liked to find about his own sister”.

This Bishop Cauchon must have been some piece of work. The report so angered the man, he called Bailly “a traitor and a bad man” and refused to pay him for his work.

Joan_of_arc_interrogationJean Le Maistre, whose presence as Vice-Inquisitor for Rouen was required by canon law, objected to the proceedings and refused to appear, until the English threatened his life.
Interrogation of the prisoner began on February 21, 1431. The outcome was never in doubt. Transcripts were falsified and witnesses intimidated. Even then, trial records reveal this illiterate peasant girl to be brighter than all her inquisitors, combined.

Here’s an example from Jeanne’s third interrogation: “Do you know whether or not you are in God’s grace?”  The question was a trap. Church doctrine stated that no one could be certain of being in God’s grace, yet a “no” answer would have been held against her. “If I am not”, she said, “may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me. I should be the saddest creature in the world if I knew I were not in His grace.”

After fifteen such interrogations, Jeanne’s inquisitors still had nothing on her, save for the wearing of soldier’s garb, and her visions. Yet, the outcome of her “trial” was already determined. She was found guilty of heresy, and sentenced to be burned at the stake. On May 24, Jeanne was taken to a scaffold. Threatened that she would be immediately burned alive if she didn’t disavow her visions and abjure the wearing of soldier’s clothing, Jeanne agreed to sign such an abjuration, but recanted four days later.

joanstilkestakeThe death sentence was carried out on May 30, 1431, in the old marketplace at Rouen. She was 19.

When the fire died, the coals were raked back to expose her charred body. No one would be able to claim she’d escaped alive. Her body was then burned twice more, so no one could collect the relics. Her ashes were then cast into a river.

Guillaume Manchon, one of the court scribes, later recalled: “And she was then dressed in male clothing, and was complaining that she could not give it up, fearing lest in the night her guards would inflict some act of [sexual] outrage upon her; and she had complained once or twice to the Bishop of Beauvais, the Vice-Inquisitor, and Master Nicholas Loiseleur that one of the aforesaid guards had tried to rape her.”

Her executioner, Geoffroy Therage, later said he “Greatly feared to be damned”.
An inquisitorial court authorized by Pope Calixtus III re-examined the evidence, 25 years later. The court exonerated her of all charges, pronouncing her innocent on July 7, 1456, later declaring her a Christian martyr.

Jean d'Arc execution

A National Heroine to the French, Joan of Arc was canonized a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, in 1920. It was small consolation for this child who had been set up for a fall by her enemies, and abandoned to be incinerated alive, by her friends.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

January 23, 1795 When Cavalry bagged a Fleet

The history of human conflict is hardly a subject for humor, yet there are times when the irony rises from the ridiculous, to the sublime.

The study of warfare has rarely been a source of great mirth.  The history of human conflict is hardly a subject for humor, yet there are times when the irony rises from the ridiculous, to the sublime.

Confederate raider John Singleton Mosby, the “Grey Ghost“, once bagged Union General Edwin Stoughton while dead asleep, lifting the General’s nightshirt and slapping his bare ass, with a sword. Mosby and his 29 raiders made off with the Union General, two Captains, 30 enlisted men and 58 horses, without firing a shot. When the President heard the story, Lincoln lamented: “I can make another Brigadier in 5 minutes, but I can’t replace those horses”.

The Wonderful Story of France: Massacre of the Sicilian VespersIn the middle ages, a French soldier once saw fit to mouth off to an Italian woman on her way home from church, causing France to lose Sicily, to Spain.

At least one WWI battle was called off, on account of an amphibious landing force being attacked, by bees.

The same occurred outside Okalana, Arkansas on April 3, 1864. Union and Confederate troops got into it in a pecan orchard, overturning several hives of honeybees, in the process. If victory goes to he who holds the ground after the battle, this one must go neither to Blue nor Butternut, but to the bugs. Brave soldiers all, no doubt, prepared to take a bullet. But not a bee sting.

120,000 Chinese troops poured into North Korea between November 27 and December 13 1950, overwhelming 20,000 American and United Nations forces at the Chosin Reservoir.  Desperately low on ammunition, one Marine Corps mortar division called in re-supply, by parachute.  The battle of the “Frozen Chosin” might have ended differently, had some supply clerk understood the code-name for mortar shells was “Tootsie Rolls”.  As it was, the guy sent candy into the combat zone.  At least those Marines had something to eat, as they broke their encirclement and headed south.

chosin-few1

Speaking of sweet stuff.  Had the Romans of 48BC brushed up on their Xenophon, the Mithradatic wars may have ended sooner.  Roman troops pigged out on “Mad Honey” left for them by fleeing Persians, and were too stoned to defend themselves when they came back.  A thousand or more Romans were slaughtered, with few losses to the other side.  All of that, for a little taste of honey.

mel brooksIn 585BC, the battle between the Medes and Lydians was stopped in its tracks, on account of a solar eclipse.  In the 3rd Mithradatic War of 76-63BC, a meteor was enough to do the trick.

Who can forget that WW2 bomb disposal tech, Melvin Kaminsky.  Hearing German soldiers singing a beer hall song, Kaminsky grabbed a bullhorn and serenaded them back, crooning out an old tune that Al Jolson used to sing, in black face:  “Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye”.  After he was done, polite applause could be heard, drifting across the river.  In all military history, there may be one soldier who’d even think about entertaining his adversary.  Melvin Kaminsky did it.   We remember him today, as Mel Brooks.

zuiderzeeSo, yes, there is irony when men make war, if not always humor.  Yet, in all the annals of warfare, there may be no episode more amusing, than the time a naval force was defeated by men on horseback.

In early 1793, Austria, Prussia, Spain, Great Britain and the Dutch Republic formed the first of seven coalitions to oppose the French Republic.

France declared war on its neighbor to the north.  By the end of the following year, many of Holland’s provinces as well as those of the Austrian Netherlands, were overrun.

The winter of 1794-95 was brutally cold.  A number of Dutch ships sought shelter near the North Sea village of den Helder, becoming icebound near the mouth of a shallow bay called the Zuiderzee.

General Johan Willem de Winter, a former Dutch naval officer, had been in service to the Grande Armée since 1787.  On the night of January 23, de Winter arrived at the head of a regiment of “hussars”, the French light cavalry.  The following morning, a number of horsemen rode out over the ice to the Dutch ship-of-the-line “Admiraal Piet Heyn”, demanding its surrender.   The surgeon aboard another ship, the “Snelheid”, blithely wrote “On Saturday morning, my servant informed me that a French hussar stood near our ship. I looked out my porthole, and indeed, there stood an hussar.”

capture of the dutch fleet at den helder

This was a significant part of the Dutch fleet, 15 ships, 11 of which were manned and seaworthy.  The whole thing was now in the hands of French cavalry.

At least one source will tell you the event never occurred, or at least it’s embellished , as retold by the hussars themselves.   I guess you can take your pick.  A number of 19th century authors have portrayed the episode as unvarnished history, as have any number of paintings and sketches.

capture-of-the-dutch-fleet-frozen-in-at-den-helder-by-the-french-hussars

In February 1846, French Lieutenant-General Baron Lahure published a letter in the newspaper “Echo de la Frontière”, describing the event:

“I departed immediately with a company of tirailleurs in wagons and a squadron of light cavalry; before dawn I had taken position in the dunes. When the ships saw us, they prepared their defences. I sent some tirailleurs ahead, and followed with the rest of my forces. The fleet was taken. The sailors received us ‘de bonne grace’ on board… This is the true story of the capture of the Dutch fleet, devised and executed by a 23 year old Chef de Bataillion”.

Archibald Gordon Macdonell included the episode in his 1934 “Napoleon and his Marshals”.  It’s one of those stories that I Want to be true, even if it isn’t.  “(When) the ragged men” Macdonell  wrote, “thundered on their horses across the ice to capture with naked swords the battlefleet of Holland”.  The only time in recorded history, a naval fleet was captured by a cavalry charge.

frozen fleet

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

January 21, 1793 Grande Princesse

Marie Antoinette is supposed to have said “Let them eat cake” (“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”) in response to the bread riots, but there’s no evidence she ever said such a thing.

Alliances came and went throughout 18th century Europe, and treaties were often sealed by arranged marriages. One such alliance took place in 1770 when Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor and his wife Maria Theresa, the formidable Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, married their daughter Maria Antonia to Louis-Auguste, the son of Louis XV, King of France.

10053278The happy couple had yet to meet when the marriage was performed by proxy, the bride remaining in Vienna while the groom stayed in Paris. At 12 she was now the Dauphine, Marie Antoinette, wife of the 14-year-old Dauphin, future King of France.

There was a second, ceremonial wedding held in May, after which came the ritual bedding. This isn’t the couple quietly retiring to their own private space. This was the bizarre spectacle of a room full of courtiers, peering down at the proceedings to make sure the marriage was consummated.

It was not, and that failure did damage to both their reputations.

The people liked their new Dauphine at first, but the Royal Court was another story. Insiders had promoted several Saxon Princesses for the match, and called Marie Antoinette “The Austrian Woman”. She would come to be called far worse.

marie_antoinette_by_joseph_ducreuxThe stories you read about 18th century Court intrigue make you wonder how anyone lived like that. Antoinette was naive of the shark tank into which she’d been thrown. Relations were especially difficult with the King’s mistress, the Comtesse du Barry.  Antoinette was somehow expected to work them out.

The King’s daughters, on the other hand, didn’t care for du Barry’s unsavory relations with their father. Antoinette couldn’t win. The sisters complained of feeling “betrayed” one time, when Antoinette commented to the King’s mistress “There are a lot of people at Versailles today”.

Court intrigues were accompanied by reports to Antoinette’s mother in Vienna, the Empress responding with her own stream of criticism. The Dauphin was more interested in lock making and hunting, she wrote, because Antoinette had failed to “inspire passion” in her husband. The Empress even went so far as to tell her daughter that she was no longer pretty. She had lost her grace. Antoinette came to fear her own mother more than she loved her.

Louis-Auguste was crowned Louis XVI, King of France, on June 11, 1775. Antoinette remained by his side, though she was never crowned Queen, instead remaining Louis’ “Queen Consort”.

With her marriage as yet unconsummated, Antoinette’s position became precarious when her sister in law gave birth to a son and possible heir to the throne. Antoinette spent her time gambling and shopping, while wild rumors and printed pamphlets described her supposedly bizarre sexual romps.

marie-antoinette over the yearsFrance had serious debt problems in the 1770s, the result of endless foreign wars, but Antoinette received more than her share of the blame.

As first lady to the French court, Antoinette was expected to be a fashion trendsetter. Her shopping was in keeping with the role, but rumors wildly inflated her spending habits. Her lady-in-waiting protested that her habits were modest, visiting village workshops in a simple dress and straw hat. Nevertheless, Antoinette was rumored to have plastered the walls of Versailles with gold and diamonds.

The difficult winter of 1788-89 produced bread shortages and rising prices as the King withdrew from public life. The marriage had produced children by this time, but the legend of the licentious spendthrift and empty headed foreign queen took root in French mythology, as government debt overwhelmed the economy.

French politics boiled over in June 1789, leading to the storming of the Bastille on July 14. Much of the French nobility fled as the newly formed National Constituent Assembly conscripted men to serve in the Garde Nationale, while the French Constitution of 1791 weakened the King’s authority.

Food shortages magnified the unrest. In October, the King and Queen were placed under house arrest in the Tuileries Palace. In June they attempted to flee the escalating violence, but were caught and returned within days. Radical Jacobins exploited the escape attempt as a betrayal, and pushed to have the monarchy abolished altogether.

Unrest turned to barbarity in September 1792, with rumors of foreign and royalist armies, coming to oppose the revolution.  Between 1,370 to 1,460 prisoners were summarily “tried” and executed by the mob, in the first twenty hours.   Antoinette’s close friend and Lady in Waiting, the Princesse de Lamballe, was taken by the Paris Commune for interrogation. She was murdered at La Force prison, her head fixed on a pike and marched through the city.

death-of-the-princess-de-lamballe-by-leon-maxime-faivre
Léon-Maxime Faivre (1908) Death of the Princess de Lamballe

There would be 65 to 75 such incidents.

Louis XVI was charged with treason against the First Republic in December, found guilty and executed by guillotine on January 21, 1793.  He was 38.

Marie-Antoinette became prisoner #280, her health deteriorating in the following months. She suffered from tuberculosis by this time and was frequently bleeding, possibly from uterine cancer.

massacre_à_la_salpêtrière
Thirty five women were dragged from the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, and murdered

Antoinette was taken from her cell on October 14 and subjected to a sham trial, the outcome of which was never in doubt. She was accused of molesting her own son, a charge so outrageous that even the market women who had stormed the palace demanding her entrails in 1789, spoke in her support. “If I have not replied”, she said, “it is because nature itself refuses to respond to such a charge laid against a mother.”

guillotineMarie-Antoinette’s hair was cut off on October 16, 1793. She was driven through Paris in an ox cart, taken to the Place de la Révolution, and executed by decapitation. She accidentally stepped on the executioner’s foot on mounting the scaffold. Her last words were “Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it”.

Marie Antoinette is supposed to have said “Let them eat cake” (“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”) in response to the bread riots, but there’s no evidence she ever said such a thing.  It’s completely out of character and, despite her lavish lifestyle, she had always displayed sensitivity toward the poor people of France.

The phrase appears in the autobiography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Les Confessions”, attributed to a “Grande Princesse” whom the book declines to name, but is probably Maria Theresa, of Spain. Considering the lifetime of cheap and mean-spirited gossip to which Marie Antoinette was subjected, it’s easy to believe that this was more of the same.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

December 29, 1778 The Siege of Savannah

For the Americans and their allies, the frontal assault of October 9 was one of the bloodiest engagements, of the Revolution.  It could have been worse.  As battered American and French soldiers fell back, 500 free men of color known as the Chasseurs Volontaires de Saint-Domingue stepped up, to cover their retreat.

Many of these Haitian soldiers went on to win their own war of independence, and credited their military experience, to Savannah.

As 1778 drew to a close, British military planners could look back on five years of trying to suppress rebellion in the American colonies, with little to show for it.   In March of that year, the British defeat at Saratoga had brought France into the war, on the side of the Rebels.

Two years of open warfare had centered mostly on the north.   Now, a “southern strategy” was devised to conquer rebellious colonies in the south, while isolating those to the north. Key to the Southern Strategy was Georgia and the colonial capital at Savannah, the southernmost commercial port of the thirteen Colonies.

General sir Henry Clinton dispatched a force of some 3,100 from New York under Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell, along with an unknown quantity of artillery. Campbell arrived outside Tybee Island on December 23.

Georgia was defended by two separate forces at this time, units of the Continental Army under the command of General Robert Howe, and state militia under the command of Governor John Houstoun.  The two men had a history of squabbling for control and most of their troops, had yet to be tried.

ArchibaldCampbell-by-George-Romney-239x300
Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell, British commander at the capture of Savannah in December 1778

The 850 under General Howe never really had a chance, against the battle hardened Regulars, Hessian auxiliaries and Loyalist militia, coming ashore on December 29.  Defeat turned to rout when Howe’s forces threw down their weapons and ran.  Campbell reported that “It was scarcely possible to come up with them, their retreat was rapid beyond conception.

Patriot forces suffered 83 killed, 11 wounded and 453 captured. Campbell suffered 7 killed and 17 wounded.

Howe was court-marshaled for the disaster, while Campbell bragged about being “the first British officer to [rend] a star and stripe from the flag of Congress

Brigadier General Augustine Prevost arrived from St. Augustine Florida two weeks later, with a mixed force of Regulars and Creek and Cherokee allies.   Campbell and a force of 1,000 would take the provisional capital at Augusta that February but soon retreated to Savannah, citing insufficient support among Loyalist and Native American populations.

American hopes soon fell back on their new-found alliance with France. During the following summer, French Admiral Count Charles-Hector Theodat d’Estaing captured St. Vincent and Grenada in the British West Indies, clearing the way to the Georgia coast. The powerful 47-ship French fleet arrived with 4,000 troops on September 1, surprising and capturing several British ships outside the mouth of the Savannah River.

french-shipsD’Estaing sent an ultimatum to British Commander Augustine Prevost on September 16, 1779. He was to surrender the city “To the arms of his Majesty the King of France”, or he would be personally answerable for what was about to happen. It could not have pleased General Benjamin Lincoln or his Patriot allies when d’Estaing added “I have not been able to refuse the army of the United States uniting itself with that of the King. The junction will probably be effected this day. If I have not an answer therefore immediately, you must confer with General Lincoln and me”.

“Bullet Head Prevost”, so called because of a circular scar on his temple, stalled for 24 hours, using the time in furiously building up his defenses and calling up 800 reinforcements from South Carolina.

Lincoln joined d’Estaing on September 23 with an army of 3,000 militia and Continental soldiers, laying siege to Savannah and the 2,500 British and Loyalist troops in occupation.

On October 1, a British relief column under one Captain French was coming to the city’s aid, camped on the banks of the Ogeechee River. Georgia Continental Colonel John White had two officers, a sergeant and three privates with him, when he tricked French into surrendering. These guys ran through the woods lighting so many fires that the British thought the entire continental Army was bivouacked around them. Captain French was unavailable for comment but, it must be a special feeling, knowing that you just surrendered 111 guys to six, without firing a shot.

Scene-of-Savannah
View of the siege works against the town at the Siege of Savannah September and October 1779 in the American Revolutionary War: contemporary picture by a French officer

Lack of horses and artillery carriages delayed the allies’ moving their cannon ashore, so French warships bombarded the city from the sea. At one point shortly after Midnight on October 3, with rum rations flowing far too freely, fire from French gunners became more dangerous to themselves than to the city itself.

For the Americans and their allies, the frontal assault of October 9 was one of the bloodiest engagements, of the Revolution.  It could have been worse.  As battered American and French soldiers fell back, 500 free men of color known as the Chasseurs Volontaires de Saint-Domingue stepped up, to cover their retreat.

Many of these Haitian soldiers went on to win their own war of independence, and credited their military experience, to Savannah.

Franklin-Sq-Monument
Franklin Square Monument remembers the contributions of the Haitian militia, in the Siege of Savannah

 The siege of Savannah inflicted untold misery among the population, but Patriot forces and their French allies, never did break the city’s defenses. The siege broke a short time later, amidst recriminations on both sides.   D’Estaing returned to France, where he lost his head to the guillotine in 1794.

Savannah would remain in British hands until the end of the war, finally evacuated on July 11, 1782. A coquina marker in a small Savannah park; that soft, seashell limestone common throughout the Caribbean basin to Florida and beyond, bears a small brass plaque, darkened with the patina of age.

COMMEMORATIVE OF THE BRITISH EVACUATION OF SAVANNAH 1782
PRESENTED TO THE CITY OF SAVANNAH
BY THE
LACHLAN McINTOSH CHAPTER
DAUGHTERS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
1904

british-attack-on-american-forces-in-savannah-georgia-in-the-revolutionary-adw8m3-1
Attack of 2nd South Carolina Continentals on the Spring Hill Redoubt at the Siege of Savannah on 9th October 1779 in the American Revolutionary War: picture by A.I. Keller

November 30, 1953 Dien Bien Phu

The French staff formulated their battle plan, based on the assumption that it was impossible for the Viet Minh to place enough artillery on the surrounding high ground, due to the rugged terrain. Communist forces didn’t possess enough artillery to do serious damage anyway.  Or so they thought.

When we think of the French Republic, most of us envision a five-sided nation between Spain and Germany, located between the English Channel and the Mediterranean Sea. That would be right, but “la Métropole” or “Metropolitan France” today accounts for only about 82% of the landmass of la République Française. The overseas departments and territories which make up “la France d’outre-mer”, “Overseas France”, account for the rest.

That overseas percentage would have been higher in the mid-20th century, with many former colonial territories added in, among them Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Japanese occupation of southeast Asia caused the Europeans to leave French Indochina during WWII. Within a year of re-occupation, the French faced virulent opposition from the Nationalist-Communist Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. Theirs was a low level, rural insurgency at first, later becoming a full-scale modern war when Chinese Communists entered the fray, in 1949.

9c1634a5854f89961f7694c088f61f84What historians call the First Indochina War, many contemporaries called “la sale guerre”, or “dirty war”. The government forbade the use of metropolitan recruits, fearing that that would make the war more unpopular than it already was. Instead, French professional soldiers and units of the French Foreign Legion were augmented with colonial troops, including Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Laotian, Cambodian, and Vietnamese ethnic minorities.

The war went poorly for the French government.  By 1952 it was looking for a way out. Premier René Mayer appointed Henri Navarre to take command of French Union Forces in May of that year, with a single order. Navarre was to create military conditions which would lead to an “honorable political solution”.

In November and December of the previous year, the French army had air lifted soldiers into a fortified position at Na San, adjacent to a key Viet Minh supply line to Laos. Superior French fire power, armor and air resources had driven Vo Nguyen Giap’s forces back with heavy losses, in what French planners called the “hérisson” or “hedgehog” strategy.

dien-bien-phu-map.jpg

In June, Major General René Cogny proposed a “mooring point” at Dien Bien Phu, creating a lightly defended base from which to launch raids. Navarre wanted to replicate the Na San strategy, and ordered that Dien Bien Phu be taken and converted into a heavily fortified installation.

“Operation Castor” began on the 20th of November, when three parachute infantry battalions dropped into Dien Bien Phu. The operation was completed with minimal French casualties on November 30, as they continued to land supplies, troops, and engineering equipment into the isolated base.

Under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries, French forces built seven fortified positions to defend the base, each allegedly named after one of his mistresses. 10,800 French troops were committed, with another 16,000 in reserve.

Dien_Bien_Phu_Map

Vo believed he had made a serious mistake at Na San, rushing his troops in piecemeal against French defenses. This time, he carefully prepared his positions, moving 50,000 men into position around the valley, meticulously stockpiling ammunition and placing anti-aircraft and heavy artillery, with which he was well supplied.

dien-bien-phu-may-7-1954The French staff formulated their battle plan, based on the assumption that it was impossible for the Viet Minh to place enough artillery on the surrounding high ground, due to the rugged terrain. Communist forces didn’t possess enough artillery to do serious damage anyway.  Or so they thought.

French officers quickly learned how mistaken they had been. The first sporadic artillery fire began on January 31, around the time when patrols discovered the enemy’s presence in every direction. Heavy artillery virtually ringed the valley in which they found themselves, and air support was quickly nullified by the enemy’s well placed anti-aircraft fire.

The Viet Minh assault began in earnest on March 13, when several outposts came under furious artillery barrage. Air support became next to impossible, and counter-battery fire was next to useless against Giap’s fortifications. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Piroth commanded the French artillery at Dien Bien Phu. He was a professional soldier and no lightweight, having had his arm amputated in 1946 with no anesthesia. When it became clear how wrong his assumptions had been, he circled the camp making apologies to his officers, returned to his tent, and killed himself with a hand grenade.

Slag-van-Dien-Bien-Phu“Beatrice” was the first fire base to fall, then “Gabrielle” and “Anne-Marie”. Viet Minh controlled 90% of the airfield by the 22nd of April, making even parachute drops next to impossible. On May 7, Vo ordered an all-out assault of 25,000 troops against the 3,000 remaining in garrison. By nightfall it was over.  The last words from the last radio man were “The enemy has overrun us. We are blowing up everything. Vive la France!”

Military historian Martin Windrow wrote that Dien Bien Phu was “the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement had evolved through all the stages from guerrilla bands to a conventionally organized and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in pitched battle”.

dien-bien-phu-histoire-historyweb-6

The Geneva conference opened the following day, resulting in a Vietnam partitioned into two parts. In the north was the “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” administered by the communists, and the State of Vietnam in the south, under Emperor Bao Dai and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. The North was supported by both the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, and continued to terrorize patriots in the north and the south.

dien-bien-phu-battle-pictures-images-photos-009American support for the south increased as the French withdrew theirs.  By the late 1950s, the United States were sending technical and financial aid in expectation of social and land reform. By 1960, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF, or “Viet Cong”) had taken to murdering Diem supported village leaders.  President John Fitzgerald Kennedy responded by sending 1,364 American advisers into South Vietnam, in 1961.

The next war in Indochina, had begun.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.