Monday 29 January 2018

The journey of the 132 Nantais

In September 1794 the acquittal of the "132 Nantais" by the Revolutionary Tribunal in Paris set in train the indictment of the Nantes Revolutionary Committee and the fall of Carrier.  

Mathieu Guillaume Thérèse de Villenave, Relation des cent trente-deux Nantais: envoyés à Paris par le Comité Révolutionnaire de Nantes. Paris: Ballard, 1794.

One of the reasons the case assumed such a high profile was the strategic publication of this little 45-page book, signed by a dozen of the prisoners, 
which gave a highly readable first-hand account of the tribulations of their long forced trek from Nantes to Paris across war-ravaged France. The work is ascribed to the Nantes lawyer, and former member of the  Société Vincent-la-MontagneMathieu-Guillaume-Thérèse de Villenave -  who was to become well-known in later years as a writer and collector of manuscripts. According to Jean-Joël Brégeon, the circumstances surrounding the publication are not entirely known,  though some information can be gathered from the papers in the Nantes archives  relating to Villenave's publisher Ballard. There was a first edition of the book dated 1er Messidor II, but it was the second, dated 30 Thermidor, which created the real impact.  4,000 copies were planned, but in the end Villenave doubled the number and employed colporters to distribute them.  There may also have been pirated versions.

Villenave recounts how 132 prisoners left Nantes but only 94 arrived in Paris to present themselves before the Revolutionary Tribunal.  They endured terrible suffering on the road.  During the first leg of their journey, via Ancenis and Varades to Angers, they were  constantly threatened by patriots who mistook them for "brigands".  In Angers, which was beseiged by the remnants of the Vendéan army, they asked to fight with the defenders, but were refused permission.  Instead they were bound six-by-six with ropes like common felons, and forced to progress under insults and blows.  Several of their number died of cold, sickness and deprivation. In Saumur they shared a prison for six days with ordinary criminals, confined next to putrifying bodies, and with only polluted water and spoiled bread as sustenance. From then on things improved somewhat; they were able to pay to stay in stables and "compassionate republicans" gave them hot meals.  They finally  arrived in Paris on 5th January 1795.  At this point 110 men remained.  After forty days of forced march, imprisonment and ill treatment, they were almost lynched before they reached the Conciergerie.

The prisoners were now dispersed among various prisons of Paris, where they were at last able to make contact with relations and well-wishers.  Fouquier-Tinville was reluctant to proceed against them without written evidence; the Nantes Terrorists Chaux and Goullin came to Paris at this time, perhaps in response, but were unable to produce any documentation. The wider course of events then came into play, with the fall of Robespierre, the indictment of Fouquier-Tinville himself (14 Thermidor) and the reorganisation of the Revolutionary Tribunal. The Thermidorians now saw Villenave and his fellow accused as offering the means to proceed against the Terrorists in Nantes. The trial lasted a week from 22 to 28 fructidor, 8th-14th September 1794.   According to the awkwardly worded verdict, the 132 were found "guilty of conspiring against the unity of the Republic, but not guilty of counter-revolutionary intentions".

Who were the 132 Nantais?

The Nantes historian Alfred Lallié has done the research on this one.  The breakdown he came up with was as follow:
47 traders, shipowners,  owners of factories,
42 lawyers or administrators
19 "gentlemen"
6 ecclesiastics
5 officers in the merchant navy
4 doctors
4 employees
10 unclassified
Clearly these were mainly wealthy traders, industrialists and professionals from the upper  echelons of Nantes society.  The reasons for their arrest given by the Revolutionary Committee suggest that they were singled out mainly because of their  position rather than any political wrongdoings.  Some had been VERY rich indeed:  both M. de Menou and M. Florenceau-Descotiers had possessed vast plantations in Saint-Domingue - the Menou plantation was said to have been worth a million-and-a-half livres.  As is evident from Villenave's account, these were men used to high standards of living and a degree of social deference.
Alfred Lallié, Les cent trente-deux Nantais, 1894; [see Gabory ,Le voyage à Paris des cent trente-deux Nantais. p.183]

Luxurious living in 18th-century Nantes:
Salle 15, "Chez les messieurs du commerce", Château des ducs de Bretagne/Musée d'Histoire de Nantes

Was there an order to kill the prisonners?

According to Brégeon (p.325, nt.10), this question  has never been entirely resolved.  Lenotre thought  such an order existed, and held Carrier responsible, but his only evidence was Carrier's general denunciations of the wealthy bourgeois.   Lallié, on the other hand,  blamed the Revolutionary Committee, Chaux and Goullin in particular.   It is certainly the case that Carrier and the Committee spread rumours a few days before the arrests of a conspiracy against the Revolutionary authorities.  A woman who came to ask for documentation on behalf of one of the prisoners was told by Goullin that her efforts were pointless: "they are men that have been sacrificed;  they are no more" The convoy was also accompanied out of Nantes by civilian commissioners with sweeping powers.  Phelippes produced a written order signed by members of the Committee which enjoined  the commander of the escort Jean-Baptiste Boussard to take the prisoners and to "shoot them without distinction, in whatever manner he judged suitable".  Boussard, who  did not comply, was then removed by order of the Revolutionary Committee of Angers as over-indulgent towards the prisoners.  Probably the hope was that at least some of their number would be lost through escape or execution. There was an informer among them, the watchmaker Hernault, who disappeared at Oudon.   However, not all the thirty-eight who failed to complete the journey in fact died;  some paid cautions and left; others were abandoned on the route.

The Journey of the 132 Nantais

The following is translated (loosely) from  Émile Gabory's  Le voyage à Paris des cent trente-deux Nantais. Paris, 1933.   As well as Villenave, Gabory draws on the narrative of a second prisoner, Bernardin Marie Pantin, comte de la Guère, which was published only in 1894.  La Guère wrote in April 1794 whilst still being held in the prison at Bercy, the events  fresh in his memory;  his memoir, which is purely personal and has no particular polemic intent, differs only in detail from  that of Villenave.

Departure from Nantes

On Wednesday 27th November 1793, at five in the morning, the prisoners, who were being held in the prison known as  l’Eperonnière in Nantes,  were ordered to assembly in the courtyard. A roll call was taken and they were counted;  they numbered 132 in all.  They were told to be ready to depart.  Most were resigned to their fate: "For almost five months, they had taken me from prison to prison" (ms. note by Pellerin).

They left with such speed that they were unable to take their bedcovers and spare linen, which had to be thrown through the windows to them.  Several had no suitable footwear: some managed to procure shoes from the prison supplies; Mabille des Granges was obliged to make the whole journey in wooden clogs.

The prisoners were placed in two lines and their knives and razors confiscated.  Eleven carriages arrived to transport the sick and infirm.  They were warned that all attempts to escape would be punished by death.  They were to be escorted by a detachment of the 11th Paris Batallion of Volunteers under the command of Jean-Baptiste Boussard. 

For many hours the men waited for the order to depart.  The weather was grey, with  a continuous fine rain which depressed their spirits.  Wives and parents arrived in the h
ope of saying their goodbyes, but were refused: "the tyrants unintentionally showed humanity for the first time because, by this barbarity, they spared us the distress of farewells." (Villenave).

At midday the signal was finally given.  Three members of the Revolutionary Committee, Naux, Joly and the ferocious Bologniel, placed themselves at the head of the column.....One group of Volunteers took up position at the front, and another at the rear.  The road was in such bad condition that progress was difficult.  La Guère and his friend Fleuriot d'Ombrepied walked side-by-side and often slept on the same bed or litter.

Towards evening, one of the prisoners, a sieur Hernaud, escaped into the darkness, attempting to make his way  back to Nantes.  It was said that his escape had been plotted in advance by the Committee to provide a pretext for the prisoners to be shot; this is possible but not proven;  the next day, he was recaptured and brought back. He was a curious person, who walked along still wearing a bonnet rouge.  Another prisoner, Tiger, was also afforded the opportunity to escape, when he lost his way and was offered asylum by a friendly farmer.  Whether through fear, or because he was too confident of his innocence, he refused, and voluntarily rejoined his camarades in the little town of Oudon.

Arriving at nine in the evening, having eaten nothing since dawn, they hoped for a decent meal but were shocked to be  distributed "only bad food" (Pellerin): black bread and  rancid lard, so bad that "the Volunteers used it to shine their shoes".(Villenave). They slept in the local church, where, according to Villenave, La Guère's companion  Fleuriot, a native of Oudon, was compelled to spend the night lying on his father's tomb. 
Fortunately they were not relieved of their money. La Guère even managed to meet up with his wife; he and Fleuriot were allowed to dine "chez la citoyenne Rezé" and to obtain a change of linen.

The next day at five in the morning, the sound of a drum roused the company, the columns were quickly formed up and the caravan set out once more. In Ancenis, Volunteers, who  mistook the prisoners for "brigands" from the Vendée, showered them with invectives and threatened to kill them. 

Exhaustion soon began to make itself felt among men already weakened by long detention and insufficient food, or by old age. Since all the carts were full and the number of sick had grown, some had to be carried on the officers' horses. 
On the evening of the second day they arrived at Varades, where same outrage greeted them as at Ancenis...All the little towns along the way had declared themselves republican and the terror exercised by the Vendeans and Chouans naturally inspired the inhabitants with thoughts of vengeance.  The fact that one of the prisoners was called Charette added to the confusion; no doubt the Revolutionary Committee encouraged the mistake by declaring that many of the prisoners were accomplices of the rebels. At Varades, they stayed once again in a disused church. The next day, at seven o'clock, when the order was given to leave, one man was fast asleep in the confessional and did not hear the call.  Bologniel threw himself on him in fury and dragged him from his sanctuary, threatening to crush with his sabre the head of the next man that he found .

Arrival at Angers

The next stop was scheduled to be at Saint-Georges; but they now learned  that the Vendéan army, in retreat from Granville, was about to march on Angers.  It was feared that they would be cut off.  A few leftover rations were hastily distributed and the column pressed on, the stronger among the prisoners helping the others along.  An east wind swept the Loire valley.  Rain was succeeded by freezing cold.  They were forced to stop briefly to light a fire of brushwood in the open road.  Then they set out again, the carts more laden down than ever with the weak and sick.  At ten o'clock they finally reached Angers, where a hostile crowd awaited them, maddened by news of the enemy's imminent arrival.  Hotheads threw themselves on the column, and only the firm intervention of Boussard, saved them from lynching. 

Straw bedding had been prepared for them in the Seminary.  As they made ready to sleep, they saw Boussard arrive.   He expressed his satisfaction that, in spite of the opportunities for flight, only one man had escaped; they had shown themselves truly worthy of the trust of Republicans.

However, nothing had been prepared for them to eat (It had been the same throughout the journey)  They were forced to buy provisions at exorbitant cost from the concierge, who was intent on enriching himself at their expense. Nonetheless such details were soon forgotten since the atmosphere was pleasant in the spacious building;  the men could move freely, with only a sentry at the doors.  In such comfortable surroundings, it was easy to entertain  false hopes.  They imagined that they were to be exchanged for other prisoners, and returned to their families.

They were soon to be disabused.  No sooner had they sat down to dinner at about two o'clock in the afternoon,  than they were told to pack their bags, not to go home, but to move to another prison.  They hastily finished their meal and went down into the courtyard.  There they were greeted by gendarmes who hadropes intendedto bind them.  There were protestations. The Volunteers drew their weapons.  Order was restored and the prisoners were tied up like bandits.

Meanwhile a hostile and noisy crowd had gathered.  The gendarmes had trouble dispersing them.  Bound together in this way, the prisoners were reviewed by the members of the Revolutionary Committee who had come from Nantes with them. Naux was particularly foul-mouthed; he insulted shamelessly the men that he had helped  put in chains.  He swore at Boussard for failing to shoot the Nantais when he had the opportunity. Was the flight of Hernaud not a sufficient reason?  Boussard protested energetically:  he was a soldier, not an executioner.  He defended the conduct of the prisoners, which was enough to provoke his arrest...

The three miserable rogues consoled themselves that the Representatives at Angers,  Hentz and Francastel, were as implacable as Carrier, and that the local Committee was every bit as rigorous as the one to which they belonged.  Their  part was finished and they must return to Nantes...

The Nantais watched them depart with joy...They would not forget their crimes;  they would not forget, for example, that at Angers, Bologniel had forced the jeweller Castellan to spend the night on the same bed as his dead son.

The prison in Angers

Still  bound together, they were now transferred to the chapel belonging to the prison of the old sénéchaussée,  a crampt and foul-smelling place, already full of common law prisoners.  In the Seminary they had enjoyed a degree of liberty but now they had no room to move at all.  They had lost in Boussard their only defender...They knew that at Angers, as at Nantes, the Loire had claimed hundreds of victims; counter-revolutionaries no doubt; but had they  themselves not been mistaken for brigands?

Their first night in this crowded gaol left a terrible impression on their spirits.  So appalling was the overcrowding that they pitied their companions in captivity even though they were the dregs of society. Piled into a space only twelve-and-a-half feet by twenty-four feet, they were forced to lie on top of one another, and could only move if they all did so together.  Bundles of straw were thrown to them as though they were dogs.  Villenave describes the grim conditions, without sustenance and without any light.  Fortunately someone had a flint lighter and someone else candles.  They managed to illuminate the prison walls, only to catch sight of the ragged  possessions abandoned by former occupants who now, no doubt, populated the charnel houses of the Revolution.

Despite the cold outside, the air in the prison was hot and stiffling. To serve their basic needs, they had only "a single ordinary sized bucket" which had to be passed from hand to hand above their heads; since no-one could move freely, it got upset, soaking five or six people and filling the whole chapel with its miasma.  Nor was the bucket the only source of stench and pestilential air, for surrounding the chapel ran an open sewer.  Tainted water from a half-dry well was the only source of drink for these men, who, so little time ago, had lived in luxury and abundance.

Finally dawn came.  The prisoners went out into the yard and, like those who preceded them in that miserable prison,  made use of the sewer which served as a latrine.  In the light of day, they saw clearly for the first time the repulsive faces of their fellow-prisoners. They could not hold back tears of shame and disgust, especially since these persons had passed on to them the fleas and lice which now devoured them.

That evening, in order to relieve the congestion, the gaoler allowed some of the prisoners to sleep in a  neighbouring room.  It was a dark hole, filled with "a fetid vapour" even more nauseating than in the chapel itself. But such was the discomfort caused by being piled together, and the horror they felt at contact with the ordinary prisoners, that sixteen Nantais hurried to avail themselves of the change of locale.

The gaoler was certainly not acting out of humanity; on the contrary he was adept at inflicting suffering;  he knew how to torture the spirit as well as the body.  One evening he said mysteriously to one of their number, "Tonight I must come and get forty of you."  These worrying words were repeated, and everyone wondered who the forty condemned would be;  they were in no doubt that anyone lead away under shadow of darkness would be taken to their deaths.  The night passed; with the dawn their anxiety lessened slightly, then the next night the miserable charade would be repeated again.

Everything contrived to remind the prisoners of the danger of their situation;  if they escaped being shot or guillotined, they seemed likely to die of malnutrition and disease.  At one corner of the yard was a sort of porch where the dead were collected.  Every day four or five bodies could been seen laid out there.  It was impossible to go out without crossing this barrier of corpses, which was continually being added to.

They suffered in all sorts of other ways;  if they opened a window, they froze; if they closed it, they suffocated.  Wetness from outside seeped through the walls.   Many of them took from the prison in Angers the beginnings of illness which within a few weeks was destined to kill them. 
Those who declared themselves to be sick were taken to the infirmary, a euphemism for a black pestilential hole where the staw was replaced by unspeakable litters still warm from the deaththrows of previous occupants. Among the Nantais were several doctors and surgeons who did their best to help their fellows.  The worst cases were taken to the Hôtel-Dieu, "a room of the dead and dying".

Every evening at four o'clock the prisoners were again locked up in their gaol;  sometimes even at three o'clock when it got dark early.  Woe betide anyone who was tardy in obeying the gaoler's orders; they were threatened with being placed in irons, "in still more horrible a dungeon, closed by a triple door".

Finally, on 2nd December, wearied by suffering and sensing themselves at their limits, the Nantais took their courage in hand and addressed a plea to their bourreaux to demand better accommodation  "in the name of humanity and justice".  The very next day, as they awaited a reply, they heard the thunder of enemy cannons.
...whereupon they signed a new petition.  They no longer wanted to change prison, but to take up arms and fight.  "When rebels threaten our homeland, our only care is to defend it," declared Villenave and the other signatories.  However, their offer was not taken up....Soon they saw the defeated peasant rebels who had been taken prisoner, arrive in the courtyard, then depart to be shot.  The Nantais, several of whom had fought for the Republic, feared they would suffer the same fate.

In order to demonstrate their patriotism, they made a collection for the wounded, and for the widows and orphans of those who had fallen. Though they were proscribed men with only hard bread to eat, they managed to pledge the sum of 2,400 livres.  The cloth merchant Billard alone offered 1,000 livres. The collection was presented to the Municipality....

It did not serve, however, to losen their bonds, to soften the conditions of their detention or improve their rations.  They received only two pounds of bread every three days, a rough black bread that challenged even the most robust stomachs.  To augment this ration, they sometimes had food brought from the Hôtel de la Boule d'Or, the only hostelry which would serve them.  The wine was as bad as the bread: "Hard, green and amazingly thick".  Drinking it, said La Guerre, one could say "I am drinking and eating at the same time".  The concierge sold it for fifteen francs a bottle and soon amassed a small fortune.

[In the second week a strange event occurred, when two messagers from the Revolutionary Committee in Nantes came to secure the release of four of the prisoners.  It would seem that these men had bribed the Committee; one of their number had handed over 80,000 livres before his departure.]

The rest of the prisoners soon realised that they were not to be freed; on the contrary, they were joined by five new prisoners, Ballan, former director of the royal glassworks at Couëron, and four merchants, one a humble employee. To Villenave this suggested that the Committee wanted to send 132 prisoners to the Revolutionary Tribunal and was not too concerned as to their identity.

In all the Nantais, who had arrived in Angers on 29th November, remained there for twenty days.  In that time four men died:  Charette de Boisfoucaud, whose gout was aggravated by cold and fatigue; the architect Gauter;  Joseph de Monti; and the young Castellan.  Already ill at the time of departure the youth fell dead before his father's eyes, on top of a camarade who was eating.  Six more died in the hospital before the departure of the column.

From Angers to Saumur

Their stay at Angers could not last forever now that the threat from the rebel army had receded. 
 Neither the Committee in Angers nor the Representatives Hentz and Francastel were inclined to execute them, preferring to sent them on to Paris. On 17th December an health inspector  came to accertain how many could make the journey on foot; sixty or so pleaded age, ill-health or sickness.  On the night of the 18th, the gaoler, appeared with a lantern in his hand, and declared laconically, "You leave at five o'clock".

At the appointed hour the prisoners were assembled.  They now numbered 111. Many seemed too debilitated to walk, but the inspector must have thought they were malingerers, for there were only three carts provided to transport the sick. Once more they were bound six-by-six, though it was unclear what threat they represented. It seems fear of the Vendéan army still weighed heavily.  On 19th December all the gates of the town were barred closed except the one used by the Nantais to leave.  They were obliged to cross a district of the town which had been burned down as part of the defence.  According to Villenave,only the presence of a mounted guard protected them from serious harm at the hands of the inhabitants. La Guerre said merely, that the people of Angers regarded them "with great interest".

By good luck the lieutenant assigned to them, whose name was Beaubiller, shared his predecessor Boussard's moderation and good sense. He was a rough soldier who threatened to shoot anyone who tried to escape -  he had his orders and intended to carry them out - but at bottom, he was a good man.  A league from the town, he ordered the prisoners to be untied and requisitioned two carts.  They were now approaching Les Ponts-de-Cé, not without apprehension, for they knew of its fearsome reputation; there Hentz and Francastel had drowned as many victims as had Carrier in Nantes. When they bypassed the route to Les Ponts-de-Cé, they were much relieved.

At four-thirty in the evening, they reached the village of Saint-Mathurin.  Here they were  shut up in the church and  served a meal of three gigots, two mutton stews, bread and wine - meagre fare, comments Villenave, for 111 men. 
They had counted on sleeping at Saint Mathurin, but the commander of the escort  decided to move on since he had learned that 1,500 troops were about to arrive.  And what troops!  A terrible hoard, with the ferocious Ronsin at its head!  Villenave declared that this meeting was not fortuitous; it had been arranged to ensure their destruction. So sure were they that the prisonners were about to meet their end, that no-one at Angers had even bothered to count them!

And so, with its equipment and its carts, the caravan set out on the road once more.  At eight in the evening they reached Les Rosiers.  The next day, the 20th December, they continued on towards Saumur.

In Saumur

Here too the people were hostile, thinking that these were the comrades of those who, several months previously, had laid seige to their town.  When the prisoners reached the first houses on the outskirts; "soldiers and citizens seemed to dispute the privilege of terrifying us the most" (Villenave).  Sabres were drawn.  One of the Nantais was threatened by a military man with a moustache who claimed to recognise him as a brigand; "Once, I made prisoner of you;  I cut your hair;  today I will cut your throat". As Villenave takes pains to emphasise, the officers of the escort once again saved those in their charge.

La Guère (p.37) relates that the sight of the entrance to the national prison froze them with terror.  Five or six dead bodies barred the way, in an advanced state of decomposition and emitting an appalling stench.  The door of their gaol was right next to this charnel house, which seemed an ominous portent.  Were they themselves destined to die?  Were they not already like walking corpses?

They had scarcely been shut up in this sinister place when they had a visitor;  it was the executioner, who had come to boast of the steadiness of his hand and the excellence of his machine: "Did you know" he told them, "that I could despatch you all in less than an hour?  Do you want a demonstration?  They have bought me 36 brigands whom I can make pay before your very eyes".  Fortunately the local commander, a Citizen Gomer, reassured them that he would do all in his power to alleviate their misery; notably he had the offending corpses removed.

Their situation was still intolerable.  They slipped around on straw which had been unspeakably soiled;  the food was insufficient, they drank water from a well polluted by the presence of putrifying corpses. At their request they were allowed to order wine and vituals from the town;  the soldiers of the guard served as intermediaries and exacted an exorbitant ransom.

In Saumur they stayed for five days in all, awaiting the arrival of several of their comrades who had been left behind in the infirmary at Angers.  They were then forced to continue on the road towards Paris.  "We did not seek to know the true goal of our journey;  we were  like automatons;  They told us to walk, and we walked.  They told us to stop and we stopped. The worst could happen and we would not have been surprised" (Villenave).  This time the commander of the escort procured more carts.  At Langeais, they were grateful to the Muncipality who procured them food and accommodation in private houses.  Finally on 28th December they reached Tours.

Here they managed to find shelter from the freezing cold in an the outbuildings of an inn, but  their  pleas to be allowed to rest a few days, or to leave behind the sick, were refused.  A new escort was provided, with soldiers from the Armée de Mayence, who had endured some of the bitterest fighting in the Vendée.  However, according to Villenave,even they were mollified by the republican sentiment of their captives and defended them against the hostility they encountered en route. At Beaugency they slept for the first time in sheets and ate seated at a table. "None of us had undressed in thirty-four days" recounts Villenave. "We had been lead from prison cell to prison cell, from church to church, from stable to stable, sleeping on straw, which was often rotten".  The change was sweet, comments La Guère, "but it cost us dearly".

He refers to an incident when tragedy was narrowly averted. Some soldiers of the escort took pity on the prisoners and allowed two of them to share their beds.  The commander found out and ordered one of the prisoners to be shot; the gun was primed and only when the soldier hesitated, did the commander back down. 

So it was they continued their painful journey towards Orléans, helping one another as best they could, marching seven to eight leagues a day on sodden roads in the rain and snow, with little sleep or sustenance.  Conditions here were poor, but they faired better at Étampes and finally found themselves on the last leg to Paris. 

In Versailles,the prisoners were held in the Queen's stables where Grace Elliott encountered them.

"They were in a most miserable plight, having been marched on foot from Nantes, many of them very ill;  some dying on the road it is supposed of the gaol distemper.  This, however, I doubt, as I slept on the same straw with them all night in the stables, and though they were full of vermin I got nothing dirty from them...
Grace Dalrymple Elliott, Journal of my life during the French Revolution, 1823.p.184-5:

On the morning of the 16th January they were loaded into closed carriages and their escort reinforced as they approached the barrière d'Enfer.  A hostile crowd gathered, jubilant because Hanriot had put about the rumour that the Nantais were members of the Catholic and Royal Army, coming to meet the firing squad in the Bois de Boulogne. So immense was the baying mob lining the Champs-Elysées that the prisoners feared the cordon of troops would be broken and they would be lynched;  the lawyer Cocaud de la Villauduc, who was at the end of his strength, died on this final stage of the journey.

Finally the cortege arrived at the Hôtel de Ville and the prisoners were dispersed to various prisons around Paris.


E. Gabory, Le voyage à Paris des cent trente-deux Nantais. Paris, 1933.

Mathieu Guillaume Thérèse de Villenave, Relation des cent trente-deux Nantais: envoyés à Paris par le Comité Révolutionnaire de Nantes. Paris: Ballard, 1794.

Le procès des 132 Nantais 1894, avec une relation inedite de leur voyage à Paris par le comte de la Guère by René Kerviler

Sunday 28 January 2018

Carrier's trial and execution.

Carrier "during his trial" by Vivant Denon.  Sold at auction in 2013.

The trial of the Revolutionary Committee of Nantes

On 28 pluvôise Year II (16th February 1794) Carrier left Nantes, having been recalled at his own request.  He had been ill or inactive for most of February. He took up residence in Paris in the rue d'Argenteuil and resumed his place in the Convention. In July came the fall of Robespierre and, with it, the beginning of the Thermidorean  deconstruction of the Terror. 

The movement against Carrier began with the trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal between 22 and 29 fructidor Year II (13th-15th September 1794) of 94 (originally 132) citizens of Nantes accused of federalism and Counter-Revolutionary activity.  These men had been arrested on the order of the Revolutionary Committee in Nantes, with Carrier's countersignature, in November 1793 and had  taken forty days to complete a harrowing journey from Nantes to Paris.  They were now triumphantly acquitted and the Tribunal  authorised by the Convention to proceed against Nantes Revolutionary Committee instead.   

The trial of the Revolutionary Committee of Nantes, which  opened on 25 vendémiaire Year III (16th October 1794)  and concluded only two months later,  was the most protracted in history of the Revolutionary Tribunal.  As Corinne Gomez-Le Chevanton observes, the Act of Indictment already focused heavily on the noyades as the embodiment of Terrorist atrocities.   Thirteen members of the Committee were initially accused, followed by a further nineteen, and finally Carrier himself .  There were fifty-four hearings in all.  The proceedings took  place in great confusion, with no preliminary investigations;  there were huge inconsistencies in testimony as regards dates, those responsible for the atrocities and the number of victims. The accused immediately tried to place the entire blame on Carrier, "the man who electified our heads, guided our movements, despotised our opinions, directed our movements, and who contemplated calmly our tears and despair" (Declaration of Goullin)   

The indictment of Carrier

On 8 brumaire Year III (29th October) the Convention put in place a commission of twenty-one members, drawn by lot, to examine the case against Carrier himself.  Its conclusions were presented and debated over the course of three days, 1-3 frumaire (21st-23rd November 1794).  On the last morning the exhausted Carrier pleaded sickness, but was summoned to appear.   That afternoon, visibly affected and with altered voice,  he presented his final defence to the Assembly.  His speech, which was subsequently published, reiterated that he had only executed his mission and was not responsible for individual abuses.  He was subsequently taken back to his lodgings whilst the Convention voted. 498 deputies supported  his indictment, with only two absentees.  Those who voted against him included all the most notable surviving Jacobins:  Bourdon, Collot d'Herbois, Maignet, Billaud-Varenne, Albitte, Duhem,  Barère and Fouché. (When Carrier, heard the verdict, he exclaimed at this betrayal: "Quoi! Duhem, quoi! Billaud, quoi!  Barère m'ont abandonné; je suis perdu".)

When the sectionnaires came to escort him to the Conciergerie in the small hours of the morning he attempted suicide but was successfully disarmed. Three days later, on the morning of 7 frumaire he appeared before the Revolutionary Tribunal, surrounded by Gendarmes, to have the indictment read to him.    He refused to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the Tribunal and, when no advocate could be found to defend him, he angrily announced that he would defend himself.  The trial took place before a crowded courtroom, with still more spectators congregated outside.

The judicial process was stacked against Carrier.  The report of the Commission of Twenty-One, was composed either of denunciations by former Nantes administrators, or depositions collected specially for the trial by the Committe of Surveillance in Nantes.  This evidence tended to focus on Carrier personally, neglecting the other actors in the repression in Nantes.  Dossiers on  Fouquet and Lamberty, who had been condemned and guillotined after Carrier's departure, were requested but never presented. Carrier drew up a list of persons that he wished to appear in his defence, including high-ranking military personal and members of the Convention, but only eight were summoned. The others were not even invited to produce written testimony.  

Among the witnesses who testified against him, the most damaging were former members of the Revolutionary administration of Nantes and the directors of the popular society Vincent-la-Montagne, who wished to escape accusation themselves.  These included the mayor Renard, the president of the department Minée;  and François Bignon, who had overseen the shooting of almost 2,000 prisoners.  

Particularly damning testimony came from the hospital director Laënnec,  who consistently overestimated the number of Carrier's victims and insisted on the reality of the "republican marriages". His most redoubtable accuser, however, was  Phelippes Tronjolly, former president of the Nantes Revolutionary Tribunal in Nantes, who had engineered the fall from grace of the Revolutionary Committee. Relieved of his post prior to Carrier's departure,  Phelippes had defended the 132 Nantais.  He had previously denounced the noyades in a published memoir but without accusing Carrier personally - there are letters from him addressed to Carrier in which he praises the Representative's honesty and courage.  Now he penned a second memoir in which he accused Carrier of "crimes et attentats".  Added to these notables were a host of ordinary witnesses - doctors, concierges, prison guards, National Fuardsmen, workers in the ports and boatyards and  simple "colporteurs de la rumeur". 
Jean-Joël Brégeon comments:
 In truth, at two century's distance, the true interest of the trial lies less in the [detailed depositions]...than in the behaviour of the accused towards one another.  They had almost all understood that the essential aim was to convince the Tribunal that "someone else" was responsible. The behaviour of Goullin, Chaux and Bachelier [members of the Revolutionary Committee] was "pure ignominy", that of Carrier himself "a mixture of roguery, falsity and naivity

Carrier himself eschewed  personal accusations;   as Brégeon notes, his was a "political defence".  At first he tried to deny the accusations altogether, but soon realised that no-one believed his innocence.  He then made difficulties, demanding to see the originals of his orders, or insisting on the appearance of witnesses  such as Kléber and Marceau - who could verify his conduct.  Finally, knowning himself lost, he no longer troubled to conceal the truth but launched into suicidal protestations of collective responsibility.  Fusillades and noyades had taken place elsewhere. The Convention had sanctioned his actions:

Yes, the Convention was aware that brigands were shot by the hundreds.  What were the deputies doing then who set themselves against me?  They applauded.  Why was my mission continued?  I was the saviour of the Fatherland, but now I am a man of blood.

Condemnation and execution

The final judgment  was delivered on 26 frimaire year III (16th December 1794).. Carrier had spoken from midnight to four-thirty in the morning.  He expressed himself with astonishing calm before a quietened audience, displaying a dignity which did not leave him to his death.  The jury returned its verdict at six in the morning. Carrier was condemned to death, as were the two most compromised of the Nantes Terrorists,  Moreau-Grandmaison and Jean Pinard.  The remaining thirty-three members of the Revolutionary Committee were all acquitted on the grounds that they had been misled by their patriotic zeal.

At two o'clock that same afternoon the three men were escorted from the Conciergerie to the Place de Grève where they were guillotined.  Carrier was thirty-six years old.

Guillotine blade, 1794

This unpleasant little curiosity comes from the  collection of Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, in the Euston Road.  It belonged, so the label informs us, to the very machine which decapitated the "cruel and sadistic" Carrier!  No clues as to how Henry Wellcome came upon such a gruesome object.....


Jean-Joël Brégeon, Carrier et la Terreur nantaise 2016 (original edition 1987)
Corinne Gomez-Le Chevanton,  "Le procès Carrier", Annales historiques de la Révolution française No. 343. 2006


Take care citizens, the stormy chances of revolutions, passions, the opinion of the moment, lead to unfortunate excess; the return of calm allows one to deplore the consequences, but such regrets are tardy and superfluous.

Reason and philosophy have rehabilitated the memory of Calas; but we have only sterile tears to lay on his tomb.

What would you have done in my place?  What were my intentions?  To be sure, I had none other than to save the Republic.
Carrier, Discours prononcé .. à la Convention nationale : dans la séance du soir du 3 frimaire de l'an III

Official account of the execution of the order for Carrier's arrest
Citizen two o'clock in the morning....entered Carrier's lodgings. They found Carrier lying in bed.  After he had been read the order [for his arrest], Carrier was invited to get up.  He asked if he could draw the curtains of his bed;  Lafford refused ...Carrier insisted forcefully, and when he was refused, seized with his right hand a pistol à deux coups, which he brought up quickly to his mouth; Laffond, alarmed by the gesture, fell on him, and after a short and determined struggle, managed to disarm him.

It is to be observed that Laffond had not seen the pistol, and did not even suspect its existence, since all Carrier's weapons had been taken; he believed from Carrier's movement that he intended to take poison that he had procured. Once disarmed Carrier was forced to get up; but he turned to Laffond and said, "Patriots will not forgive you for having prevented me from blowing out my brains."  "On the contrary, replied Laffond,  I have carried out a sacred trust in obeying the order of the Convention".

On route to the prison, Carrier, now less angry, asked Laffond to ensure that he was treated as a Representative of the people;  on arrival he asked the concierge for a well-ventilated room: since he was accustomed to breathing the air of the mountains,  fresh air was more important to him than to other people.
Histoire parlementaire, vol. 34 (1837) p.135.

The execution of Carrier - from the Memoirs of Sanson 

The news of the condemnation of Carrier spread through Paris with incredible speed;  my grandfather heard of it before the order for the execution arrived...Learning that the author of so many atrocities...was finally going to pay for his crimes the entire city took on an atmosphere of festivity, like the day of military victory. No doubt it was a triumph over the odious principles of Terror...yet  public joy in such circumstances, had something offensive about it; as  Carrier himself had said, after the horrible crises we had gone through humanity itself seemed dead, or no longer had the voice to make itself heard.

My grandfather journeyed at two o'clock to the Conciergerie.  The condemned men were led into the avant-greffe to be prepared.  Grandmaison was the first.  That slaughterer of the feeble trembled before death; he was disfigured by pallor, walked with difficulty and scarcely breathed.  In contrast Pinard, who was second, had succombed to an anger which bordered on delirium;  he was a short man, heavy and thickset, with a sinister face.  When he saw Carrier, he escaped from the assistances who were tying his hands, leapt onto his former chief, seized him by the throat and tried to strangle him.  Without the intervention of  the assistants and the gendarmes, Carrier would undoubtedly have perished there and then at the hands of his former accomplice.  They managed to grab the fanatic; Carrier freed himself swiftly but without anger, and, when Pinard continued to pursue him with  invectives..., he shrugged his shoulders and said to the gendarmes  in an authoritative voice, "Get rid of this madman"...

Whilst they cut his hair, he talked much, repeating what he had already said before the Tribunal; that he had come away from his position of power a poor man;  that he had appropriated none of the goods of the Republic; that his worth was the same as before the Revolution, a smallholding of 10,000 livres; that he left a wife who would not have enough money to live on.  At this thought, he appeared moved, but his emotion was not like that of other men;  it expressed itself by nervous spasms which shook his whole body, and by a wandering of his eyes. He came to himself almost immediately and said that "he would die  happy if his death contributed to the consolidation of the Republic; that, he was fully confident that posterity would vindicate him.  This claim seemed so strange from the lips of Carrier,that, despite the solemnity of the situation, those there could not suppress a smile.  He repeated again that he died victim to the duplicity of the Committee, that he had always acted according to his orders, that he would not have been tried if the originals of those orders had been in his possession.

The three condemned men were put together in the same cart; the frustration of Pinard continued to grow:  on several occasions he tried to bite Carrier who was next to him: it was necessary to place an assistant between them so that he was not torn apart.  During the journey, the people shouted furious curses. There was so much hate in their voices, so much detestation in their eyes, that you would have thought each one of them  had a loved one to see avenged.  The rage of the multitude made no impression on Carrier;  he withstood the stares and listened to the terrible taunts without lowering his gaze. ...This endurance maddened the crowd, whose indignation grew as the cart progressed;  they seemed to believe that Carrier outraged nature and law still further by not dying a coward.  When the cortege arrived at the place de Grève, at the foot of the scaffold, the crowd began to cheer before the blade had fallen; they wanted the condemned men to take to their graves the memory of the satisfaction of those who had watched die;  a thunder of applause greeted their descent from the cart.

Grandmaison was executed first.  He made his end like the miserable creature he was;  terror froze his blood and paralysed his nerves.  At the moment he was climbing the ladder Pinard threw himself backwards on the assistants and fought them with his feet, his tied hands and his teeth; he was a strong man and it took four executioners to fell him and carry him onto the bascule.  He too was afraid when face to face with the instrument of death.

Carrier mounted the steps, calm, cold, impassive; but just as  Desmoret put a hand on his shoulder to push him onto the bascule, in the solemn silence as twenty thousand people held their breath, the shrill note was heard of a clarinette playing the Ça ira.  Carrier turned brusquely in the direction of this supreme outrage;  his eyes remained menacing, but his  face lost its composure, and forgetting that he too in his orgies had insulted the dying, he murmured:
- Vile people, I regret having served you!
That was the only amende honorable that Carrier made.  A moment afterwards his head rolled.

Sept générations d'exécuteurs, 1688-1847 : Mémoires des Sanson. T. 5 (1862)

From the Memoirs of Antoine Tortat
A short time after my arrival in Paris, the Convention had indicted Carrier, Pinard and Grandmaison for the drowings and assassinations that they had carried out in Nantes.  I assiduously followed the sessions where Carrier, under strong attack, tried to defend himself.  He was a lanky man, with a pallid complexion, boney, still wearing his hair in the straight style of the Jacobins.  His explanations provoked great storms.  The special tribunal condemned them promptly to death.  I wanted to attend their execution on the Place de Grève in front of the Hôtel de Ville; a crowd had gathered.   Pinard and Grandmaison were executed first.  Carrier, led in his turn before the guillotine,  was deadly pale.  I was struck at that moment, not by pity but by something more undefinable, a moment of weakness which would have thrown me to the ground if I had not been held up by the people around me;  I could not bear to see this third head fall; I was forced to avert my eyes and lean on a neighbour until I had regained my senses....
Correspondance historiques et archaeologiques, 1908, p.343-4

The Baron de Barante, writing in 1835, gave an unusually shrewd and sympathetic account of Carrier's trial.
The 9th Thermidor arrived; those who triumphed over Robespierre, saw themselves carried by the tide to overthrow the scaffolds, and take a new direction.  As soon as the effusion of blood was once stopped, a universal outcry, which became louder and louder was raised against men that had shed so much.  To capitivate public opinion it ws necessary for public men to lend themselves when called upon upon to a just vengeance which animated all France.  Everyone of the Revolutionists hastened to exonerate himself, by laying the blame of all the massacres on his associates and colleagues;  and in their divisions they excited the people against such members of the National Convention as had gone a little father than others.

The troubles of the Vendée, which still lasted, the trial of some people of Nantes, whom Carrier had sent to Paris, and who, when they were brought into court (after 9th Thermidor), found themselves in a position to be accusers instead of victims, brought down execrations on his head;  and the public voice soon demanded the execution of Carrier.  The Convention was quite ready to commit him for trial.  In vain Carrier, with sang-froid, represented, that he had only obeyed the orders of the Convention;  that measures pretty much the same as his, had been adopted in other provinces; that, at the very time he was doing his work at Nantes, an authentic decree of the Convention had commanded the Republican generals to put all the Vendéans to the edge of the sword, and reduce all the villages to ashes: - that infernal columns (the troops merited the name) had executed those orders.  

"Why then," cried he, "should  you blame me today, for what your own votes and decrees ordered?  Does the Convention wish to condemn itself?  I predict it to you; you will all be enveloped in an inevitable that you will all be enveloped by an unavoidable proscription.  If I am punished as guilty, everyone and everything here is guilty, even down to the president's handbell."

Carrier's defence wss not listened to.  Perhaps there was some imprudence in attacking him; but the Convention would have been still more imprudent had it attempted to defend him.  He appeared before the tribunal, where the people could scarcely keep their hands off such a prisoner.  He repeated the same justification he had made before the National Convention.  All the proceedings on that trial - the depositions of witnesses - the recriminations of some of the subaltern agents of Carrier, who tried to throw the load of his crimes on them...form a long and horrid document, which cannot be perused by a feeling mind without great difficulty.  Carrier was condemned for having "ordered arbitrary executions with counter-revolutionary intentions"; so much were those who sent him to the scaffold obliged to manoeuvre, and be evasive, in order to cover themselves....

He met his death with firmness, repeating he was innocent; and, as M. de Barante remarks, in comparing himself with his accusers he might really consider himself as not very guilty!
Mélanges historiques et littéraires, translated into English by Leigh Hunt.

When they came to arrest him, after the denunciation of the Nantais, he tried to blow his brains out, but he was prevented.  For the forty days and sixty sessions of his trial, the cunning of the procureur reasserted itself beneath the ferocity of the proconsul.  He defended himself with the sang-froid of a man of affairs, step by step, hour by hour, inspite of the baying of the crowd.  He was no more thrown by revelations of the horrors he had perpetrated than he was by the cries of his victims. A true aberration of nature, he was indifferent to them in the same way as others are blind.  On the night of 26 frimaire year III, a few hours from going to the scaffold, and knowing himself irrevocably lost, he began to speak at midnight and continued his plea, as though speaking for another man, until four in the morning!

Standing upright in the cart, this tall man, stooped, bilious, boney, his great jaw hanging down as usual, endured impassively the public demonstrations of joy and the imprecations of his fellow victim the Nantais Pinard, who tried with each jolt to approach him and tear him with his teeth crying"Monster - it is you who have brought me to this state"

When he mounted the platform, where Pinard had struggled like an animal about to be butchered, he advanced by himself towards the plank of the guillotine. At that moment, from the foot of the scaffold, the shrill sound of a clarinette playing the Ça ira could be heard.  At this bloody irony, "he suddenly raised himself and darted a helpless and terrible look in the direction of the sound;  then he lowered his gaze and his head rolled on the scaffold".

Marcellin Boudet, "Carrier, Jean-Baptiste" in Les tribunaux criminels et la justice révolutionnaire en Auvergne, 1873, p.18-9.
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