Saturday, 21 September 2013

The Tragic Revolutionary Romance of François Marceau-Desgravier

François Séverin Marceau-Desgraviers (Chartres, Kingdom of France, 1st March 1769 – Altenkirchen, Holy Roman Empire, 21st September 1796) 

François Séverin Marceau-Desgraviers by François Bouchot, 1840
François Marceau-Desgravier by François Bouchot, 1840

It seems that a week never passes without a trip to France of late and today we find ourselves traversing the Channel again in search of a revolutionary general. His story has it all; excitement, heartbreak and even a spot on the Arc de Triomphe. Make sure you have a nice lacy handkerchief on hand, as you might find yourself dabbing away a tear by the end of today's tale of the boy general.

Born the son of a prosecutor, Marceau's future looked set when he entered training to follow his father into law. A capable and intelligent student, the young man found himself increasingly drawn away from academia in search of something more thrilling and when he was just 16, he enlisted in the army to serve at Angoulême. He was present at the storming of Bastille and that event had a profound impact on him. Spurred on by revolutionary fervour, he resigned his post in the army and joined the National Guard, swiftly attaining the rank of Captain.

François Séverin Marceau-Desgraviers by François Séraphin Delpech, 1830
François Marceau-Desgravier by François Séraphin Delpech, 1830

Marceau rose quickly through the ranks of his unit in the Eure-et-Loir and by 1792 was a Lieutenant Colonel. He played an important role in the defence of Verdun, though his men became demoralised quickly with the appalling conditions and Marceau was to find himself under suspicion of fraternising with the enemy after he participated in talks with his Prussian counterparts. The revolutionary government called his conduct into question and in early 1793 he was arrested and imprisoned for a short time. When it became clear that there were no charges to answer, Marceau returned to service and by June 1793 was defending Saumur against Vendéean Royalists. This conflict turned his fortunes around as he was instrumental in the daring rescue of National Convention representative, Pierre Bourbotte, who was being held by loyalists. He became a hero of the revolution, rising swiftly to the rank of Brigadier General and winning the friendship of  Jean Baptiste Kléber, a fellow General.

Despite his apparently glittering career, Marceau was known of something of a particular character. Plagued by ill health, the young man resigned his commission in 1793 and spent some time convalescing before returning to service, clad always in a hussar's uniform of his own design. Together Marceau and Kléber served in a number of important battles, one of which was to prove personally significant for the young general. After an engagement at Le Mans in December 1793 Marceau championed the cause of a Royalist sympathiser, Angélique des Mesliers, whom he saved from imprisonment. He concealed the young woman from her pursuers but she was discovered whilst he was in Paris on military business.

The gossips of Paris whispered that there was more than friendship between this star-crossed couple and once again the political leaders of the Revolution were horrified. Despite the efforts of Marceau and his influential military contacts, Angélique was arrested and executed and Marceau would have followed her to the guillotine if not for the intervention of Bourbotte. The young man was crushed at the loss of Angélique and once again, his always questionable health began to decline.

Tomb of François Séverin Marceau-Desgraviers  in Koblenz
The tomb in Koblenz

Marceau was devastated and though he would eventually become engaged to Agathe Leprêtre de Châteaugiron, the marriage was destined never to take place thanks to a combination of career and familial opposition. For three more years after the loss of Angélique he fought on the battlefields of Europe until, on 19th September 1796, the young man suffered a serious wound whilst fighting at Altenkirchen. Unable to remove their fallen commander, the French troops left him to the mercy of the opposition and he was taken into the care of the finest Austrian surgeons. Despite their efforts he continued to decline and succumbed to his injuries just two days later. Marceau was cremated, his ashes interred in a pyramid designed by Kléber before their eventual transfer to the Panthéon almost a century later.

Marceau has since been immortalised in both art and architecture; he is commemorated in Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and his name if carved into the Arc de Triomphe. Today his likeness can be seen in statues and portraits, the boy general remembered for his remarkable, tragic story.

Many thanks to Kagama, who stopped by the salon to let me know that, in true tragic romantic fashion, Desgraviers wore Agathe's miniature around his neck in battle. As recently as 1935 the miniature was in the Chartres museum "fading away slowly”.


  1. The French Revolution is a never ending source of intertwined stories and inspiration. More films should be made about it! ;) Imagine this chap fighting on in despair for three years after the death of the object of his desires!

  2. This is pretty fascinating stuff! I know very little of French history...thanks for educating me!

  3. Thank you for sharing another fascinating story.

  4. His name is one of those the present day Vendeans would like removed from the Arc de Triomph because of his collusion in the Vendean genocide which killed some 200,000+ men, women and children. I doubt they'll get their way, but it's curious that in the last ten years or so the French have been bringing into the open those episodes of the Revolution that were fell woefully short of the propaganda of liberty, fraternity, equality, etc.

    1. That shall be an interesting point to follow up though I agree that it seems unlikely they will get their way. Thank you for your insightful comment!

  5. Fascinating! If this were put into a novel, it would probably be declared unbelievable. And, wasn't he a good looking man? Love your posts.

    1. Thank you! He was quite a looker and such a tragic story; you're right though, this would be far too fanciful for a novel, though at least it *might* have a happy ending then!

    2. Lets just imagine it something like the ending of the Movie Titanic where the lovers are reunited in death.

  6. Amazing story! This is actually my ancestor. I was told about Francois through my great grandmother who told me the story. I went to see him in the pantheon in 2011. So proud to say this apart of my heritage