Victims, Authority, and Terror: The Parallel Deaths of d'orlaeans, Custine, Bailly, and Malesherbes

By George Armstrong Kelly | Go to book overview

6. Royal War and Political Rebirth

Adam-Philippe, by descendance Comte de Custine, chevalier and Baron de Sarreck, was born on 4 February 1740 in Metz to a well-placed family of the military nobility. This region and condition of birth powerfully affected traits of his public character and career. His vocation was prefigured: commissioned when only a small boy, he was at the siege of Maastricht in 1747 with Marshal de Saxe,1 an example of what Carré calls "an unhealthy fantasy of aristocratic vanity" -- child colonels and the like.2 He would always be supremely vain about his "military seniority." Custine was also a provincial, an important territorial magnate coming from the Germanized East, one of the quatre grands chevaux of Lorraine. "His personal fortune was considerable," a biographer tells us;3 accounts pertaining to his estates verify this.4 Not only was Lorraine a highly militarized province; its frontier atmosphere subjected Custine to a psychological pull in the direction of the Rhine. In due course this aspect of his personality somewhat chilled the winds of liberty blowing from the West.

Schooling gave him a certain polish and a pompous eloquence. His official military record furnishes the major benchmarks of his advancement. Beginning his mature soldierly career as second lieutenant with the Ducroy regiment on 6 June 1758, he was promoted to full lieutenant on 22 May 1759.5 By 7 March 1761 he was captain and company commander with the Schomberg regiment, experiencing combat in Germany until 1762. Then, on 5 June 1763, he became headquarters commandant of some dragoons; according to Chuquet, his career was under the protection of the War Minister Choiseul.6 Afterward, there seems to have been little activity. Finally, on 1 March 1780, Custine received promotion to brigadier, commanding the regiment of Saintonge. He had married in 1767, but in 1774 a fatal disease claimed his young wife, described in angelic terms by Madame de Genlis.7 This was a cruel blow to the fond husband, who remained from then on a widower.

In 1780 war with England was at hand. For over four years the fledgling confederation of North America had been in arms, and France's pride still smarted from defeat in the Seven Years' War, when she had not only lost an overseas empire (Voltaire's "quelques arpents de neige") but had even been unable to defeat tiny Prussia. Together with the most

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