Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Napoleon Bonaparte's whiff of grapeshot, 1795

On 5th October 1795 an ambitious young man named Napoleon Bonaparte ordered a massacre that would start his rise to fame as one of the dominant figures of European history.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s early service to France

Napoleon Bonaparte, who was born in 1769 on the French island of Corsica, had distinguished himself from a young age as a military commander by defending the French Revolutionary government against internal and external threats. In particular, in 1793 Colonel Bonaparte successfully lifted the siege of the port of Toulon by the British Navy. For this service he was promoted to Brigadier General.

The National Convention

From 20th September 1792 the government of France was in the hands of the National Convention, which was an assembly elected by universal male suffrage. This body underwent a number of changes during its three-year existence and a major change was proposed in 1795 that would create a second chamber and a system of checks and balances.

A rule was proposed which meant that two-thirds of the current deputies must be returned to the new assembly. This was presumably to ensure a degree of continuity in that the new Convention would contain a good number of experienced people who knew how to get things done. However, the move did not prove popular in Paris, where an unlikely assemblage of hard-line monarchists and equally hard-line left-wing revolutionaries formed a mob of around 30,000 people who threatened to march on the Tuileries, the former royal palace that was now the home of the Convention.

Bonaparte to the rescue

The commander of the Army of the Interior and the police was Paul Barras, who was responsible for the security of the Convention. He called upon Napoleon Bonaparte, who was otherwise unemployed, to organise a military defence. Bonaparte’s strength was in artillery, so he ordered Major Joachim Murat to gather 40 cannon and spread them around the outside of the building.

The rabble approached the Tuileries on the afternoon of 5th October (or 13th Vendemaire, Year 4, according to the new Revolutionary calendar). When the crowd was within close range Bonaparte announced “We’ll give them a whiff of grapeshot” and ordered the cannons to fire. More than 200 protestors were killed and twice as many were injured.

The aftermath

There were no more such threats to the Convention, although it did not last much longer. After a period known as the “Directory” during which real power was held by five men, a coup d’etat in 1799 resulted in ultimate power belonging to just one man, a certain Napoleon Bonaparte.

The whiff of grapeshot produced some other interesting consequences. Paul Barras, who brought Bonaparte to the fore and invited him to his home, had a mistress named Josephine de Beauharnais who was to become Bonaparte’s wife within a year, and Barras, as the leading Director, would eventually be sent into exile by Bonaparte.

However, better fortune befell Major Murat who would become one of Bonaparte’s greatest generals and eventually acquire the title of King of Naples.

© John Welford