Monday 15 January 2024

André Désilles - forgotten Revolutionary hero

Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier (1738, Rouen - 1826, Paris)
Le Courage héroïque du jeune Désilles, le 30 août 1790, à l’affaire de Nancy
Huile sur toile
H. 317 ; L. 453 cm
Inv. 512
Dépôt par le Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nancy au Musée de la Révolution française, Vizille

This imposing canvas by Le Barbier, now on display in the Museum of the French Revolution in Vizille,  was once intended to hang in the hall of the National Assembly as a pendant to David's Tennis Court Oath. The scene which it depicts is an all but forgotten episode from the early Revolution, the heroic action of the young lieutenant, André Désilles, who sacrificed his life in an attempt to prevent bloodshed during Nancy mutiny of 1790.

As Jean-Clément Martin notes,  Desilles's heroism, like that of Bara and Viala,  excited great popular acclamation at the time, but his reputation was rapidly overtaken by the evolution of Revolutionary politics: 

The example of the chevalier Désilles gives pause for thought concerning such posthumous glory  In the Spring of 1790 the garrison in Nancy mutinied and rose up against its officers, but quickly capitulated to the marquis de Bouillé, who was charged by the Assembly with re-establishing order. However, a number of the mutineers threatened Bouillé's army with their cannons.  At this point a  young officer, Lieutenant Desilles placed himself in front of the cannons to prevent them from being fired and was mortally wounded.  The incident was followed by brutal repression: 22 men were hanged, one broken alive on the wheel, 41 condemned to the galleys in Brest.  Desilles attracted immediate  nationwide glory.  His action was popularised in engravings, sculptures and theatre productions; his name was given to streets throughout the country and his bust was crowned with oak leaves in the National Assembly.   Two years later,  following the flight to Varennes, Bouillé had become a  reviled counter-revolutionary. The rebels of Nancy were amnestied in September 1791 and rehabilitated in 1792. The Assembly welcomed the former galley slaves, who paraded through Paris in their red bonnets, whilst the memory of Desilles became odious to the Revolutionaries and was soon forgotten.  Adulated for a short time, then scorned - this would seem to be the fate of such heroes, tied in as they were with the vicissitudes of political events.
Jean-Clément Martin, "Bara, de l'imaginaire révolutionnaire à la mémoire nationale".  In : Révolution et Contre-Révolution en France de 1789 à 1989  (1996)


Who was Désilles?

Engraving by Levachez, Tableaux historiques, 1798,
thought to be derived from an original miniature.
André-Joseph-Marc was born at Saint-Malo on 11th March 1767, the only son of  Marc-Pierre Desilles, Seigneur of Camberon and his wife,  Jeanne-Rose-Michelle Picot de Clorivière.  He was just 23 when he met his end and, like most individuals unexpectedly catapulted prominence by the Revolution, little is really known about his early life.  In common with all officers in the army of the Ancien Régime he was of noble origin. Indeed, both his parents came from very prominent  Breton noble families. The Désilles  cherished a long and proud tradition of royal service which could be traced back to the 12th century.

Thanks to a longstanding dispensation, the  nobility of Saint-Malo were able to take advantage of the commercial opportunities afforded by the flourishing seaport.  André's father, having served as an officer in the  Limousin Regiment,  was now a weathy and successful arms manufacturer in Granville and Saint-Malo. His outlook  exemplified a peculiar - but by no means rare  - mix of ancient chivalry with modern patriotism and a Rousseauesque devotion to family.  Catholic piety was a natural adjunct to such an outlook; André's maternal uncle was the Jesuit Pierre-Joseph Picot de Clorivière (1735–1820), later to be prominent in the reconstruction of the Catholic Church after the Revolution.

Désilles's birthplace, one of the finest townhouses in Saint-Malo, still stands today and retains much of its original appearance.  The family also owned one of the famous Malouinières outside the town,  the Château de la Fosse-Hingant at Saint-Coulomb.  Tradition has it the young André, who was a serious and studious boy,  enjoyed walking along the Breton shore. 

 Ancien hôtel André Désilles, Saint-Malo

André attended school in Paris.  He was  a pensionnaire at the  Collège de Navarre, with his two cousins on his mother's side, Michel and Joseph Limoëlan and lodged with his mother's aunt, his godmother, Mme Trublet de Nermont.  From 1776 to 1779 their uncle Father Picot de Clorivière  was on hand to supervised  their education;  in 1779, when he was appointed parish priest of Paramé, the boys returned to Brittany.  According to most  sources, André,  subsequently attended the prestigious École Royal Militaire in Paris, again with his cousins who were also destined for a military career. 

On 14th April 1782, aged 15, Désilles entered the army as second sub-lieutenant in the King's Infantry Regiment, garrisoned first in Caen, then, from June 1783, in Nancy.  This  was a highly prestigious commission, in a regiment reserved for the sons of the most illustrious families of France;  officers were appointed by the King personally,  on proposal of the colonel-in-chief, the duc de Châtelet.  It seems that Désilles was marked out for promotion;  in April 1788, he became sub-lieutenant, and October 1789 full lieutenant.  The commendation for his Croix de Saint-Louis confirms the dates:  in 1790 he was aged 22 and already had eight years of service.

He was remembered as a promising young officer with a serious and pleasant disposition. In Nancy, he developed a longstanding attachment to  Victoire the daughter of the  Baron Ferdinand Fisson du Montet (1748-1801), former Councillor of the Sovereign Court of Lorraine and now a  prominent member of the new departmental administration.  In August 1790, Désilles returned after an extended period of leave in Brittany to prepare for the couple's formal engagement.   The contract of betrothal was to have been signed shortly, on the bride's eighteenth birthday.

According to the baronne de Montet, Victoire's sister-in-law, young Desilles was not a conventionally handsome young man.  He was short and broad-shouldered "in the Breton manner"(Souvenirs, p.52)

We now no longer have a verified portrait from life:  A miniature which once belonged to his fiancée  cannot be traced. Neither can the death mask created by the artist Mulnier, with whom he lodged, nor the busts derived from it. However,  the painting by Le Barbier, and various engraved portraits said to be based on the miniature or bust, clearly show the same individual, with his pale complexion,  high forehead and prominent nose. [See Pupil (1976),  D1-D9]

A previously uncatalogued posthumous portrait came to light in October 2021 when Drouot auctioned the contents of the château de Limoëlan, the ancestral property of the Désilles cousins.  Lot 524 was a brown enamel box (7cm x 2.5 cm)  engraved: "A.J.M. DESILLES, Ch'er de St Louis Officier au Rgt du Roy mort de ses blessures à Nancy le 31 aoust 1790".  The miniature on the lid shows Désilles crowned with laurels by the hand of the King.  A note inside informs us that the box was a given to family by Louis XVI in memory of his heroic death. 

(The sale contained a second portrait of Désilles (Lot 440) but this is perhaps misidentified since it shows a Chevalier in the uniform of the Mestre-de-Camp dragoons.)

The events of 31st August 1790

In 1790, then,  the 23-year-old André Désilles was a lieutenant in the King's Infantry Regiment which, together with the Mestre-de-Camp Cavalry and the Swiss Châteauvieux Regiment, comprised the regular garrison of Nancy.  In August of that year men from all three regiments mutinied against their officers in what came to be known as the "affaire Nancy".

On 31 August 1790, after a protracted series of negotiations the army of General Bouillé arrived from Metz  to regain control of the city.  By three o'clock in the afternoon, the troops, under the command of General de Frimont, Bouillé's  maréchal-de-camp, had drawn up outside the Porte Stainville (now Porte Désilles). The force consisted of  over 3,000 infantry (including 800 National Guardsmen from Metz and Pont-à-Mousson) and 1,480 cavalrymen.  In the vanguard was a company of 150 Swiss mercenaries from the loyal Viguier and Castella Regiments.  They brought with them three cannons.  The most rebellious of the troops within the town had been given an ultimatum to lay down their arms and rejoin their comrades.   A hundred or so Châteauvieux Suisses, and a company of the King's Regiment held out. They were seconded by a company of National Guard and various civilian agitators.  Two platoons of Mestre-de-Camp Cavalry were also ranged on the place de Grève  (now place Carnot).   The defence of the Porte had been organised, with snipers were in position in the adjoining windows and four cannons, one a 24-pounder, drawn up against the entrances, loaded with balls and grapeshot.

Original gouache, perhaps by an eye-witness (Musée Lorrain)  [Pupil (1976)  A23 [fig.4]]

As Bouille's troops began their advance, Captain Delort of the Kings Regiment and Désilles, his lieutenant, found themselves inside the gate, attempting desperately to prevent their mutinous men from firing.  They placed themselves in front of the mouths of the guns or sat on the firing pans.  At about four o'clock they were joined by three civilian "notables" , MM. Desbourdes, chevalier de Saint-Louis, Goeury, avocat of the Parlement and Nicolas, Royal Professor of Chemistry.  They immediately understood the gravity of the situation and counted upon their authority to intercede, but to no avail; they were rebuffed and manhandled roughly from the scene.  In a gesture depicted by Le Barbier, Nicolas was said to have opened his coat to bare his heart to the guns, declaring to Désilles "Generous citizen, you will not die alone, we will not abandon you!"  Delort  implored Frimont to halt the advance but was conceded only a ten minute delay.  Finally, however, he was able to lead the majority of his men out through the gate to rejoin their Regiments which had assembled in the Valley of the Meurthe. The unfortunate Désilles was now completely alone in the midst of the most militant of the rebels.  It is not know whether he had received orders to hold his position, or whether he acted entirely on his own initiative, but the reality of his heroism is not in doubt.  Snatching the taper from the hands of the insurgents,  he remained in position in front of the cannons. There are various versions of his heroic words. Bouillé later reported that, when dragged away, he returned to his perilous post, exclaiming "You will have to kill me rather than fire".  According to the cavalry officer Léonard, he challenged the men to discharge their cannon, "so that I do not have to witness your shame" (Relation exacte et impartiale, October 1790, p.131 - on Google Books)

 Engraving of late 1790 by Laurent Joseph Julien ("Julien le neveu") [Pupil (1976) A12]

In Léonard's assessment, Désilles managed to delay hostilities by only half-an-hour.  At the signal of Lieutenant Shuphauwer, in command of the Viguier Regiment, battle was joined.  The mutineers' cannon loaded with grapeshot immediately raked the leading troops, accompanied by a discharge of muskets.  In the carnage which ensued Shuphauwer was killed outright and Louis de Gouvion, volunteer, and commander of the National Guard of Toul, mortally wounded.  Désilles himself was hit in the back by two shots. An 18-year-old volunteer,  Jean-Baptiste Haener, who was among the first through the gate, rushed to his rescue under a hail of bullets.  He was hit by a third ball, but this was deflected by the keys in his pocket. 

The death of a hero

The wounded man was carried first to the improvised hospital that had been set up in the nearby house of the abbé Gabriel Mollevaut, curé of Saint-Fiacre.  He was weak from loss of blood but not judged to be in immediate danger.  He asked that others be treated before him, and praised Haener's brave actions.   The following day he was taken to his lodgings on the "pavements" of the place Royale, in the house belonging to M. Mulnier  (today 22, rue Héré, below).

News reached Saint-Malo on 7th or 8th September.  Désilles's father rushed immediately to Nancy;  his mother was said to have been driven insane with grief.  He was immediately acknowledged as a hero and received a continuous stream of visitors:  the Bishop of Nancy, Mgr de la Fare;  Bouillé on his return from Metz; Duveyrier et Cahier de Gerville, the commissioners sent by the Assembly who arrived in Nancy on 5th October.  Madame de La Tour du Pin, who passed through Nancy on her way back from Switzerland, noted that a sentry had been stationed in front of the Mulnier house to prevent people talking under the window of the wounded man. (Her own husband, the son of the Minister of War,  had himself narrowly escaped death at the Porte Stainville where his horse had been shot from underneath him.)

The young hero continued to play his part with becoming modesty.  He explained to a friend that he  had simply wanted to save the brave men in Bouillé's army and that a soldier in such a case owed the sacrifice of his life to his country and to honour.  Similarly, a letter of 16th September reports him as saying, "I only did my duty; everyone of my comrades would have done the same; the only advantage I had was the opportunity" (quoted Le Bastard de Villeneuve (1977), p.82)

There was some contemporary confusion as to the nature of Désilles's wounds. However, his condition is clarified by the manuscript notes of Louis Valentin, Surgeon-Major of the King's Regiment, one of the two doctors who attended him:

He had received three bullet wounds...of which two seemed to me mortal; the third was negligible since the shot had been stopped by a bunch of keys in his waistcoat pocket, where we found the ball.  One of the wounds, which went across the whole area of his back and shoulder- blades was so extensive that it looked as if it had been made by a cannonball.  When the swelling went down, the lesion was nine inches long and three inches wide.  We judged that it had been made by a blunderbuss loaded with multiple balls.  The wounded man recalled that he had seen such weapons in the hands of the rebels, who had taken them from the arsenal.  The other bullet had passed obliquely right through the inside of his knee. 
Translated from Charles Berlet, La révolte de la garnison de Nancy en 1790 (1944), p.147.

Faced with wounds of such gravity, Valentin consulted with his colleagues in Bouillé's army, Professor Jadelot of the Royal College of Medicine in Nancy, and the famous Robillard, first Surgeon-Major of the military hospital in Metz. 

According to the baronne de Montet, the doctors were at first mistakenly optimistic in their prognosis. Valentin hestitated to amputate Désilles's leg which might, in retrospect, have saved his life.  Despite all their efforts, after six weeks of suffering, the  young man finally died of septicemia in the night of 17th to 18th October:

They still hoped he would recover; the doctors and surgeons, including MM. Valentin and Le Moyne, who were caring for him, shared this error. They had even declared he was out of danger, when the symptoms appeared that heralded death.  The infection had passed into his bloodstream, so that the danger of death was imminent and without remedy. He received the last rites.  Madame du Montet cared for him like a mother and was present when he breathed his last.  His death plunged everyone into mourning.  The young hero retained his courage to the last, joining the courage of a Christian to that of the soldier.  But he regretted keenly the loss of his angelic young fiancée, the most beautiful of beauties and the summit of perfection.  M. Desilles, who was inconsolable for the loss of his son, gained some comfort only when he set eyes on and blessed his dear Victoire.  He often went off alone and we would find him bathed in tears, prostrated on the flagstone which covered the tomb of his son.
Described in the Souvenirs of the baronne de Montet: [p.51-2].  [On Internet Archive]

The abbé Mulot of the Paris Commune, who gave the funeral oration, reported further information given to him by Désilles's bereaved father.   According to this testimony, the amputation of Desilles's wounded leg was actually carried out as a final desperate measure.  

M. l'abbé Mulot, president of the commune of Paris, has been charged with the funeral eulogy for the Chevalier Désilles, which he will deliver shortly in the Church of the Cordeliers.  It would have been difficult for him to make the speech, but the father of the young hero, who was in Paris with his family, told him the relevant details. Here are some of them:

Although he was only twenty-two years old, young Désilles was so esteemed in his regiment, that both soldiers and officers would consult him about their affairs, and invite him to arbitrate their disputes.  To them he was an angel of peace; he prevented an infinite number of duels.  There was not just one but three different cannons that he prevented from firing during the all too famous events of 31st August.  They were positioned very close to one another in a narrow road, where there was only a simple wall without houses;  the troops of M. Bouillé, who were engaged there, would have been blown to pieces if these cannons went off.  Our new Assas saw the danger; he suddenly threw himself in front of the middle cannon and stretched his hands out over the pans of the other two. It was in this position that he was shot by his own soldiers!  He recognised his assassins but refused to name them, even to his father, who had promised absolute secrecy....

It was only a few days before he died that the surgeon noticed that there were still fragments of cloth in his wound. It is heartrending to think that he might have escaped death, had this foreign material been removed earlier. After forty days of suffering, they had to amputate his leg.  When the brave Desilles saw the surgeon enter his chamber followed by several assistants, he cried out: Why so many people?  Do you think that someone who is prepared to expose himself to the danger of death, does not have the courage to see his leg cut off? He underwent the operation without anyone holding him down, but it was useless. The priest who attended him, told him that he was afflicted, as was the whole nation, by the loss of so great a man, a hero in the flower of his youth.''' "Why do you speak of great men and heroes?", the dying man replied;"you are the Minister of a God before whom all men are equal!"

"If I regret one thing," his father said, "it is that I could not be next to my son on 31st August, not in order to dissuade him from his heroic act, but in order to share with him the glory and the danger".  Such honour is hereditary in this family since 1100, when King Robert awarded to the ancestor of the brave Désilles, the seigneurie of Bricqueville in Normandy, in recompense for his services to the State.  One of his uncles, who died twenty years ago, lost his arm in battle and made himself an artificial one with which he battled on for another fifty-two years. 
As reported in Annales nationales et politiques, 16th December 1790.

A letter from Father Picot de la Clorivière emphasises his nephew's religious commitment :
We have lost our dear Désilles.  His death has been wept over by the whole of France.   I am not exaggerating.  Mourning has been universal;  to judge by what I have seen here, the honours paid to him seem to me excessive: you can learn something of them in the public newspapers.  But you can readily believe me when I say that I see nothing in all this but vanity.  Personally, it did not move me. What gives me the greatest consolation, is that he made a truly Christian end, and that, in dying, he leaves to us the greatest hope for his salvation.  He had thought seriously about this from the beginning of his illness and gave striking proofs of his religious devotion. For this reason, he found it difficult to bear the praises of his courage, and he suffered, without complaint, the most painful procedures. ...Everyone agrees that he died like an angel; this is the expression that I have seen in more than one letter....I believe that his death was a truly blessed one.  It was perhaps the greatest recompense he could expect for his devotion to his country.
Letter to Joseph Limoëlan, quoted in Terrien, Histoire du R. P. de Clorivière (1892) p.265-5



The initial public reaction to events in Nancy was one of shock.   The mutiny and its violent suppression represented a  first challenge to the union that had been celebrated with such ceremony at the  Fête de la Fédération only a few weeks ago.  The victory of Bouillé's army over the insurgents was total -  but the cost had been high.  Eleven army officer and sixty men had been killed, and many more wounded;  Bouillé initially placed the death toll as high as 300.   Losses were particularly heavy among the  hussards de Lauzun who were engaged in vicious hand-to-hand fighting on the place de Grève. In addition 17 insurgents and 12 civilians had been killed (See Berlet (1944) p.165-6).   In conformity with the agreements between the King of France and the Swiss Republics the rebel Suisses were judged according to the laws of their country.  A Conseil de guerre formed by the loyal  regiments of Castella and Viguier, resulted in 22 mutineers hanged, one broken alive on the wheel and 41 condemned to the galleys in Brest.  It is worth emphasising, however,  that 400 other military and civilian prisoners remained, their fate undecided.

 At first no-one openly defended the mutineers, such was the disgust felt that they had fired on their camarades. The  Assembly rallied to Bouillé's support,  though in a confused debate on 3rd September, it confined its vote of thanks to the loyal National Guardsmen of the Meurthe and of the municipalities of Nancy and Lunéville.  The Suisses publicly expressed their disapproval, and the Journal de Paris listed donations from all over France for the families of the victims.  A series of memorial services were held, starting on 3rd September in the Cathedral in Nancy.  In Paris, commemorations reached a climax on 20th September with a huge ceremony on Champs de Mars in honour of the fallen National Guards.  Gossec composed his famous Marche lugubre was for the occasion and it featured heavily in contemporary engravings - many adapted from images of the recent Fête de la Fédération  [Pupil (1976) Series C].   The event was orchestrated by Lafayette, who was Bouillé's  cousin and close ally -  again the regular army was explicitly excluded, including a contingent of loyal troops from the King's Infantry Regiment who had journeyed to Paris specially for the occasion. 

Another elaborate open-air commemoration took place in Saint-Malo on 26th September.

The action of Desilles was prominent in the accounts from onset.  An official report, forwarded by the minister of war La Tour du Pin, was read to Assembly on 3rd, together with a letter from Bouillé (published next day in the Journal de Paris).  Both commended Désilles's heroism.  At this time it was still thought he would live. Thus Bouillé:  "A young officer (M. de Silli, ou M. de Sille), a second Assas, threw himself on the mouth of the cannon, crying: you can kill me rather than fire.  At that moment he was hit by four gunshots;  by a miracle, none of the wounds he received was mortal." On the proposal of Mirabeau, the Assembly's vote of thanks included a particular expression of gratitude to  "M. des Illes for his heroic devotion".  The  president of the Assembly, M. Jesse,  addressed him a letter which  praised his sublime courage and "civisme"; and assured him that he would find his reward in his heart and in "the eternal memory of the people of France". The fulsome sentiments were echoed in press -  the Révolutions de Paris commended Desilles's act of devotion in the midst of the "revolting atrocities presented  by the Nancy affair".   His father later replied to the Assembly on his son's behalf: "He is far from believing that he deserves all the praise that has been showered upon him; he belongs to a nation and to to a corps where such an action should not attract particular merit.  He has only imitated examples which are common in the French army and in the regiment in which he has the honour to serve" (read 3rd October, see  Le Bastart de Villeneuve (1977), p.77-78)

Louis XVI made Désilles a Chevalier of the Order of Saint-Louis, anticipating a petition from the Paris Commune to this effect. 

Popular images

The iconographic catalogue compiled by François Pupil, in 1976 contains over 80 engravings and other works of art relating to the "affaire de Nancy".  By October 1790 Le Barbier was already in Nancy to research his projected composition, which was formally sponsored by the National Assembly in January 1791. The young hero was also the subject of two plays:   Le Nouveau d'Assas, by Jean-Elie Dejaure was performed for the first time at the Théâtre Italien on 15th October 1790, with the famous singer Louis Michu in the lead role.  Le Tombeau de Désilles, by Desfontaine staged in December 1790.

For details of these productions, see the entries on the website Le Théâtre français de la Révolution à l'Empire:  Le Nouveau d'Assas;  Le Tombeau de Désilles   
The Danish traveller Gerhard Anton von Halem, gave an account of a performance of Le Nouveau d'Assas in his journal:  Paris en 1790 (1896), p.329

Funeral and commemorations

Désilles's death at the end of October created a renewed flurry of reports, engravings, eulogies and poems. The news was announced to the Assembly on 22nd October, and official condolences sent to his father.  The funeral took place in Nancy amid great pomp.  On the evening of 18th October, Désilles's body was laid in state in front of the town hall, with a guard of honour provided by the grenadiers of the Alsace Regiment.  On the following day, it was solemnly interred in the Cathedral, in the vault normally reserved for the Primates of Lorraine.  At ten in the morning the entire clergy of Nancy, both regular and, processed out of the Cathedral to the town hall and the cortege began its solemn journey.  The coffin was carried by lieutenants and grenadiers from the King's Regiments, with three colonels and a major bearing the corners of the pall. 

The immense cavalcade took an hour to reach the Cathedral.  Behind the  members of the departmental administration and municipality, marched the officers of the garrison and the National Guard, then a large number of ordinary citizens in mourning dress. "The draped drums, the tears and universal sorrow, all contributed to make the ceremony heartbreaking". In front of the cathedral thirty men from the Alsace Regiment and a hundred National Guardsmen discharged their muskets. 

 The Cathedral itself had been elaborately decorated;  the facade bore the inscription Memento mei, Deus meus, in bonum, secundum omnia quae feci populo huic ["Remember me, my God, for the good, in return for all that I have done for this people"Nehemiah 5:19. ] Within, the interior was draped in black to a height of thirty feet. Black velvet covered the altar and episcopal throne.  Above the mortuary chapel were the words of Saint Paul: Bonum certamen certavi, fidem servavi, in reliquo reposita est mihi corona justitiae ["I have fought the good fight, I have kept the faith.  Now there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness" 2 Timothy 4: 7-8]. 

A military escort flanked the passage from the West door to the choir where a mass was celebrated and Bishop Mgr de la Fare pronounced the eulogy.  The coffin was then laid to rest in the crypt of the Primates. (See Badel, Les caveaux de la cathédrale de Nancy (1911) p.16-18).

Pupil, Fig.21: Project for a memorial,probably by Mique,
Musée lorrain. [Pupil (1976)  E1, fig.21]
An imposing funerary monument was initially planned. The architect Louis-Joseph Mique was charged with its design and the execution was entrusted to the sculptor Labroise, who was given an advance of 1,200 livres. However, the project was to be "overtaken by political events". (Badel, p.4 note;  p.71; Pupil E1, fig.21). There are also representations of various memorials by Palloy, both tombstones and municipal monuments, again never erected (Pupil, E2-E4).  

Under the Restoration, the baronne de Montet, complained that the young hero lay forgotten under the cold, damp flagstones of the Cathedral.  The site was to remain entirely unmarked until 1852 when the Archaeological Society of Lorraine erected a black marble plaque in the chapel. 

 In 1911 the antiquary Émile Badel opened the crypt but found only debris - no sign of the lead coffins of  either the great Cardinal of Lorraine or of Désilles. (On 10 November 1793 the tombs of the Cathedral had been ransacked - in all likelihood the coffins had been destroyed then.)

On 3rd November a solemn service for the repose of Désilles's soul took place in the Cathedral of his native Saint-Malo before an immense crowd.  The cannon on the remparts was sounded, the ships in the port remained at half-mast,  houses and shops were closed. (Herpin, 1909, p.16-17)

It was then the turn of Paris itself. A service was held at Notre-Dame on 11th November, with the  funeral eulogy pronounced by the abbé Mulot as president of the Commune. On 17th November a further commemoration took place at the Église des Augustins  in the place de la Victoire, with Désilles father on hand to distribute alms to a contingent of military orphans. 

On his way back to Saint-Malo M. Désilles remained for some time in Paris and was invited to a personal audience with the King at the Tuileries: his account, in a letter of 8th November to his wife, gives a telling glimpse of the Royal couple at this time.  Louis roused himself from his torpor to welcome his visitor:

 On Monday I was presented to the King, who, contrary to his usual custom, talked to me freely in the most flattering terms.  He told me that he had been asked to award the Cross of Saint-Louis to the young Swiss officers wounded in the action; he had replied that, if he gave  the Cross to "ces messieurs", he would give Mr Désilles the cordon rouge.  The Queen invited me to an audience in her cabinet, where I stayed for a good quarter-of-an hour alone with her and the baron de Viomenil. She spoke to me in the most affectionate terms, telling me how much she felt for my situation. She talked to me in detail about my children, which showed that she had informed herself about my family.  She asked if I had anyone to carry on my name. When I said I had not, she seemed upset and reassured me that  the greatest privilege of all is to bear the name of someone one loves.  She hoped that the name would be passed on to the children of my daughters.  She talked much about my son, that the King's intention had been to promote him in stages to high rank and attach him to his person.  She also told me that the King wished me to have a pension;  I thanked her but told her that there was no need... For the whole time that she spoke to me, she had tears in her eyes, as had the baron de Viomenil...

I was also presented personally to Monsieur and to Madame Élisabeth at their residences; they too said a thousand flattering things.  Monsieur came up when he saw me and said: Take care of yourself Monsieur Désilles; your existence is precious to all Frenchmen, that is to say all good Frenchmen."  All this, my dear friend, far from soothing my grief, has only increased it.  I learn with pleasure that you have your children close by you; I look forward greatly to seeing them, though I dread the interview with them which must take place.
quoted Le Bastart de Villeneuve, André Désilles (1977), p.90-91.

Désilles later reports many illustrious callers, notably the duc du Châtelet and the minister of war La Tour du Pin, also numerous deputies and the National Guard which presented itself in a body.  He received a letter in the King's own hand, offering his heartfelt condolences and  asking him to name any "marks of benevolence" that were within his power to grasp - the bereaved father requested only a portrait of the royal couple. André's godmother, Mme de Nermont, expressed the growing disquiet of loyal Royalist that Louis had been reduced to a "king of cards".


The ostensible solidarity of the Assembly over the "affaire de Nancy" did not take long to break down.  The report of the commissioners Duveyrier et Cahier de Gerville was presented  on 14th October, to be followed by a second extensive report from the marquis de Sillery, read in the Jacobins on 10th November and before the Assembly on 6th December.  Both accounts offered  a more complex picture of events, with a good deal of sympathy towards the mutineers: the commissioners spoke of the errors of the "unfortunate misguided rebels".

From the point of view of Désilles's reputation, an ominous exchange took place in the session of 7th December. A demand from the abbé Grégoire  for the rehabilitation of the mutineers was countered by the right-wing deputy Cazalès who condemned the "assassins" of Désilles.  Cazalès observed that Désilles's immortal action  "honoured both the century and the order into which he was born" .  The  reference to "orders" provoked immediate uproar and  adenunciation from Barnave. It was all too clear that the Revolution was now on a collision course with the ideology of noble service.  Désilles père published a letter addressed to Barnave in which he accused him of "unintelligible sophisms" which had broken his heart. (quoted Le Bastart de Villeneuve p.100-1) On 12th December the remaining military and civilian prisoners still awaiting trial were liberated. The King's Regiment and the Mestre-de-Camp Cavalry were dissolved.  In the radical press  Desmoulins likened Désilles to the slave Eros who had killed himself to encourage Mark Antony to commit suicide: he had placed himself in front of the gun to facilitate Bouillé's entry into Nancy and, with it, the "decimation of the patriot soldiers" (Révolutions de France et de Brabant, 14th February 1791, quoted Le Bastart de Villeneuve, p.112)

Despite these developments, official recognition for the heroism of Désilles at first continued.  The highpoint came on 29th January when the Gouy d'Arcy, the deputy from Saint-Domingue, sponsored the formal presentation of Mulnier's bust to the National Assembly, at a session presided over, ironically enough, by the abbé Grégoire.  It was on this occasion that Le Barbier was formally commissioned to paint his full scale canvas as a pendant to David.  On 11th July 1791 Désilles's effigy was included among those which accompanied Voltaire's ceremonial  transfer to the Pantheon.  

Reporting on the ceremony of 29th January, the Révolutions de Paris had this to say:

How can the National Assembly waste time listening to concerts and funeral eulogies in honour of M. Desilles? There seems to be a deliberate wish to insult the patriots of Nancy with all these crowns that the aristocrats have dedicated to his ashes.  The commotion of funeral ceremonies which followed his death were no doubt intended to stifle the cries of the unhappy soldiers of the King Regiment and the Châteauvieux, sacrificed to the fury of the country's enemies.  Futile efforts!  The incorruptible hand of history will avenge them in posterity for the injustice of their contemporaries;  these words, engraved on their tombs, will be a lesson for future legislators: THEY WERE PATRIOTS, AND THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY OF 1789 LET THEM BE ASSASSINATED.

Senseless enthusiasts!  We shower praise on the memory of a man who has been elevated by the courage of a moment;  churches, theatres, popular assemblies have rung with his praises; he has been immortalised on canvas and in marble. Could anything more have been done if he had saved his country singlehanded, if he had gained or recovered the liberty of the fatherland?  In contrast to this obsession with Desilles, we can set the indifference of the people toward those  generous hands which brought down the ramparts of the Bastille.  With our indifference towards true virtue, it is surprising that a glimmer of patriotism still exists in France.
Révolutions de Paris, No 80, 15th-22nd January 1791, p.176-8.

The final political turning-point came in April 1792.  At the end of December 1791 the imprisoned Swiss of the Châteauvieux Regiment were amnestied. The forty galériens became the heros of 1792: pikes were forged from their chains and medals minted in their honours.  Couthon and Collot d'Herbois sponsored their welcome in Paris. On 9th April 1792, the majority of deputies voted to honour them in a session of the Legislative Assembly.  There were loud protests:  Dehaussy de Robecourt, deputy for the Somme,  proposed that the bust of Désilles should be placed on the bureau before the eyes of his assassins. The deputy Jean-Baptiste Gouvion, the brother of the loyal volunteer killed, was advised to leave  the hall and, on 17th April, resigned in disgust from the Assembly. He resumed his active military career, only to be killed a few months later at Mauberge.

Print attributed to Villeneuve, satirising the resignation of the deputy Gouvion. The "traitor Bouillé" proclaims, "I will leave no stone standing".  The other figures, besides Lafayette are Malseigne and Denous, who were senior army officers during the Nancy affair  [Pupil (1976)  C7 ]

On 15th April, the first "Festival of Liberty" was sponsored by the clubs of Paris. The Swiss of Nancy processed in triumph through the streets of the capital followed by the improvised chariot which had earlier carried Voltaire's coffin to the Pantheon. A disgusted André Chenier was moved to publish his Hymn to the Swiss of Châteauvieux, in which he condemned warriors "made illustrious by the blood of Désilles and the funerals of so many massacred Frenchmen". (Œuvres poétiques de Chénier (Moland, 1889)/Hymne sur les Suisses - Wikisource)

One should, nonetheless, perhaps still guard against too clear-cut a picture. Paradoxically,  as late as 17th April 1792, that is two days after the triumph of the Swiss, several engravers whose work enjoyed official status, appeared at the bar of the Assembly and a copy of Laurent's engraving after Le Barbier was  accepted for display in the Assembly hall (see Pupil, p.83). The engravings were placed on sale and, to judge by the number of variations and copies, remained popular for some time.  However, after this, the uncomfortable example of Désilles was officially quietly forgotten and it was not until late in 1794, after the fall of Robespierre, that Le Barbier felt empowered to make his completed picture public. 

Later history of the Désilles family 

Perhaps the saddest commentary on  Désilles's act of sacrifice, is provided by the ultimate fate of his family.  True to their ideals of royal service, the Désilles were to be heavily implicated in the the "Conjuration Bretonne" of the Marquis de la Rouërie. By late summer of 1791  André's cousin Joseph-Pierre  Picot de Limoelan had become one of La Rouerie's three aides-de-camp (He was later architect of an assassination attempt on Napoleon).  André's father and maternal uncle acted as treasurers to the conspiracy.  In March 1793,  the uncle and André's three sisters, all married to émigrés, were arrested at  the family seat of La Fosse-Hingant.  The younger sister Angélique-Françoise sacrificed her own life to shield her sister-in-law and died on the guillotine on 18th June 1793.  Marc Desilles, who had been forewarned, escaped to Jersey.  The house was restored to the two surviving sisters in 1799 but they never returned to the property.  
See Olivier Blanc, Last letters; prisons and prisoners of the French Revolution (1987), p.110 [On Internet Archive

The manor house of La Fosse-Hingant.  A plaque at the entrance to the property, erected by the organisation Souvenir Breton,  reads:

"In memory of the Désilles family and the conspirators of the Breton Association, who, were denounced and subject to a perquisition here which led to their tragic arrest on 3rd March 1793."


André Désilles []

E Herpin, "André Desilles (Le Héros de Nancy)", Revue de Bretagne de Vendée & d'Anjou, 1909,  vol.41, p.5-20.

Pierre Le Bastart de Villeneuve, André Désilles: un officier dans la tourmente révolutionnaire (1977)

Émile Badel, Les caveaux de la cathédrale de Nancy . Les tombeaux de Désilles et du cardinal de Lorraine (1911)

Charles Berlet, La révolte de la garnison de Nancy en 1790 (1944)

François Pupil, "Le dévouement du chevalier Desilles et l'affaire de Nancy en 1790: essai de catalogue iconographique", Le Pays lorrain, 1976, p.73-110.

Marie-Claire Mangin, "La Peignée de la Saint Gauzlin (Nancy, le mardi 31 août 1790) Mémoires de l'Académie de Stanislas,Nancy. No 15 (2000-01) p.317-44. 

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