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

By George Armstrong Kelly | Go to book overview

8. Revolutionary Vengeance in the North

After Dumouriez's desertion his tattered army was assigned to General Dampierre, a mediocre commander, suspect to the patriots besides.1 However, Dampierre earned himself patriotic credentials by getting killed in a losing battle. As Gay de Vernon comments mordantly: "this glorious passing certainly saved him from the scaffold, where two of his successors [ Custine and Houchard ] would appear in their turn."2 Bouchotte and several members of the Committee of Public Safety proposed that Dampierre should be replaced by General Kilmaine, a divisional commander who was an Irish mercenary without political ties. The appointment seemed confirmed on the evening of 9 May, but opinions were sufficiently divided for the Executive to canvass the local representatives on mission, Cochon, Debellegarde, Dubois-Dubais, and Briez. They did not feel that Kilmaine, whose advancement had been extremely rapid, had the talent to command an army. "Moreover," they wrote, "the Army of the North asks for Custine, and the wish of a republican army should be seriously weighed."3

Thus on 13 May the National Convention, advised by the Committee of Public Safety, directed the Executive Council to name Custine commander-in-chief of the Army of the North and the Ardennes.4 From the commissioners of the Ardennes came a tone of suspicion. On the one hand, "Custine will restore discipline and make his military talent useful to no one but the Republic." On the other, "we shall avoid the danger of leaving a man at the head of the same army all too long, as [we have] done up to now with Lafayette, Dumouriez, and all our generals."5 When the news of the nomination reached headquarters at Wissembourg on 15 May, the representatives of the people of the Army of the Rhine voiced support: "Judging by your letter that Custine is indispensable to you with the Army of the North...we have insisted that he take the command.... We are most sorry to see this general leave; we have great confidence in his military talent; we consider him the best general that France presently possesses."6 It may be argued that the political dissensions of the Convention were reflected in the reports of its representatives on mission. Yet it appears, despite Marat's campaign of April, that Custine enjoyed the confidence of his army.

He received the order with mixed feelings. His position seemed secure

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