|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 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.
|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”.