Charles François Dumouriez, 1739-1823

Pre-revolutionary career
Revolutionary Career
Holland, Failure and Exile


Charles François Dumouriez was an important French military commander and politician in the early phases of the French Revolution and the War of the First Coalition. Like many commanders in the early revolutionary armies, he had reached high rank in the Royal army, but he would also become heavily involved in the politics of the revolution, serving as minister of war and minister of foreign affairs at key moments. As the victor of Valmy he helped save the infant republic, while at Jemappes he began its career of conquest, but like many generals of this early period he eventually fell foul of revolutionary politics, and was forced into exile.

Pre-revolutionary career

Dumouriez was born at Cambrai on 25 January 1739, the son of a military officer and minor nobleman, Anthoine-François Dumouriez. His early education was at home, but he spent three years studying classics at the college of Louis-le-Grand, before entering the army in 1757, aged eighteen. In the early part of the Seven Years War he served alongside his father in the campaigns against Frederick the Great of Prussia. In 1758 he was serving as a volunteer when Cherbourg was captured by the British, and the fortifications destroyed. He was wounded during the relief of Munster (1759), and again on the day before the battle of Kloster Kampen (15 October 1760). In 1761 he was given command of a troop of cavalry, and at the end of the war in 1763 he was awarded with the Cross of St. Louis.

At the end of the war Dumouriez's regiment was disbanded, marking the start of a turbulent twenty years. In the mid 1760s he went to Corsica, with credentials provided by the duc de Choiseul, then the minister of foreign affairs, and offered his services to Paoli, the leader of the brief independent Corsican Republic. Dumouriez's services were rejected, and he returned to Paris, where he attempted to win Corsica its independence. The failure of this scheme was followed by a short period in disgrace, during which time he wrote a memoir on Corsica. Dumouriez was then sent to Spain, where he associated with the Marquis d'Ossuno (the French ambassador), visited Portugal, and wrote two memoirs on the attack and defence of that country.

As a result of his work on Corsica, Dumouriez was appointed as quartermaster-general of the French army that invaded the island in 1768-69. At the same time he served as Minister of Information on the island, and at the end of the campaign he was rewarded with a promotion to lieutenant-colonel.

In 1770 the duc de Choiseul appointed Dumouriez as French minister to the Polish Confederates, and over the next two years he took part in their campaigns against Russia, which ended in failure and the First Partition of Poland. At the end of 1772 the marquis de Monteynard employed Dumouriez on a secret mission to Sweden, with the knowledge of Louis XV but not that of the new foreign minister, the Duc d'Arguillon. In 1773 the duke had Dumouriez arrested at Hamburg. Louis apparently failed to inform d'Arguillon that Dumouriez was operating with his approval, and he spent the next six months a prisoner in the Bastille, followed by three months in Caen Castle. As was often the case, Dumouriez had a fairly comfortable time in the Bastille, writing two military treatises and translating Italian poetry, While at Caen he married his cousin, Mademoiselle Marguerite de Broissy, although the marriage was not a success.

In 1774 Louis XVI came to the throne. Dumouriez demanded an open trial, but instead was released without charge and was soon back in favour. In 1778 Louis appointed him as commandant of Cherbourg, where the king was constructing a massive new naval arsenal and fortified seaport, for use against the British fleet. Dumouriez remained at Cherbourg for the next ten years, a period in which the population of the town doubled or trebled. The new port was an expensive failure, built around a series of floating wooden cones that were filled with rocks to form a breakwater, and which soon disappeared.

During this period Dumouriez came to adopt the liberal principles that were common in the period, and became a supporter of the duke of Orleans. In the first years of the revolution Dumouriez would retain this combination of liberal sympathies and support for the Royal family,

Revolutionary Career

After the fall of the Bastille, Dumouriez accepted an appointment as commandant of the National Guard at Cherbourg, but when his pay was stopped he moved to Paris, and became involved in the political turmoil in the French capital. 

In 1791 Dumouriez was promoted to major-general, and given command of the Twelfth Military District at Nantes. Two days after he reached Nantes, Louis XVI fled from Paris. In the crisis that followed Dumouriez reinforced his republican credentials by forcing all of his officers to take an oath of loyalty to the nation and the law, and promising to bring his men to Paris to defend the revolution. Louis was soon captured and returned to Paris, and Dumouriez remained in Nantes, where he soon got into debt. In 1792 he was promoted to lieutenant-general, but he was only able to return to Paris after receiving financial aid from his friend de Lessert, then the foreign minister.

At the start of 1792 tensions were rising with Prussia and Austria, especially over the presence of so many French exiles in cities just across the German border. The French government set a deadline of 1 March for this issue to be resolved, but de Lessert's statement on that date was so poor that the government fell. De Lessart was impeached, imprisoned and then murdered at Versailles, while on 17 March Dumouriez was appointed Foreign Minister in his place.

Dumouriez retained this post for three months, just long enough to be responsible for the declaration of war against Austria on 20 April. Like Lafayette, Dumouriez saw military success as the best way to secure the revolution, although unlike most of his fellow ministers he also hoped that it would strengthen the position of the monarchy. Dumouriez was directly responsible for the first French offensive of the war, into the Austrian Netherlands. This ended in embarrassing failures before Mons and at Baisieux, 29 April 1792, and in the resignation of a number of senior officers.

In June the government fell again. On 17 June Dumouriez became minister of war in the new government, but he only held this post for one month, before leaving Paris to join Marshal Luckner's Army of the North. After an uncomfortable period with this army, during which time Luckner was removed and Lafayette fled into exile, on 19 August Dumouriez was appointed commander-in-chief of all armies defending the French border with Germany. 

War of the First Coalition - Rhine Front 1792
War of the First Coalition -
Rhine Front 1792

This appointment came on the day after the Austrians and Prussians had finally begun their invasion of France. Dumouriez wanted to force them to abandon their invasion by attacking the Austrian Netherlands, but the government in Paris ordered him to abandon this plan and instead concentrate against the invading army, led by the Duke of Brunswick. While the Allies took Longwy and Verdun, Dumouriez took up a position in the Argonne, where he hoped to stop the invasion in what he described as France's Thermopylae, while at the same time he summoned the army of General Kellermann to his aid.

The Allied army managed to find a way through the Argonne, but the French were able to take up a strong defensive position at Valmy, blocking the road back to Germany. On 20 September 1792 the Allies made a half-hearted attack on the French position at Valmy, which stopped when the French army held its ground. After a ten day long standoff, the Allies began a retreat back to the German border. The revolution had been saved, at least for the moment, and on the day after the battle the French Republic was officially proclaimed.

Dumouriez was now free to carry out his planned invasion of the Austrian Netherlands (modern Belgium and Luxembourg). In October the French crossed the border, heading for Mons and the road to Brussels. On 6 November 1792 at Jemappes Dumouriez won his second great victory, defeating the Austrian army of Duke Albert of Saxe-Teschen. A few days later the French armies entered Brussels, and for a short time the Austrian Netherlands came under French control.

The beginning of Dumouriez's fall can be dated to the aftermath of Jemappes. While the victory was greeted with elation across France, the radical Jacobins became to view him with suspicion. Dumouriez wanted to establish an independent Belgian state, free of Austrian control, which would act as a buffer on France's eastern borders, but that would not worry the British. To achieve this he began negotiations with the local authorities in Belgium, but on 15 December the Convention passed a decree ordering the military commanders in the occupied territories to implement all revolutionary laws.

Holland, Failure and Exile

On 1 February 1793 the Convention declared war on Britain and the Netherlands. Dumouriez's letters suggest that while he was in favour of the war, he did not approve of the early declaration of war, which took place before he was ready to carry out his planned invasion of the Netherlands, which was beginning to take shape during January. Eventually Dumouriez decided to carry out a two-pronged invasion of Holland, which began in mid February. Dumouriez led one army along the coast, attacking Breda and advancing towards Dordrecht. At the same time a second army under General Miranda attacked Maastricht, at the southern tip of the Netherlands.

This campaign came to a disastrous end. On 1 March a new Allied army, under the command of the Prince of Saxe-Coburg, crossed the Roer (battle of Aldenhoven), and forced the French to abandon Aix-la-Chapelle (2 March). Miranda was forced to abandon the siege of Maastricht, and after a few days Dumouriez had to leave his army in Holland and move south in an attempt to retrieve the situation. He was able to restore the morale of the army, but on 18 March suffered a defeat at Neerwinden, when attempting to attack a strong Austrian position.

On 22 March Dumouriez opened negotiations with the Austrian General Mack. The two sides agreed to allow the French army to retreat behind Brussels without pursuit. Dumouriez was now becoming openly hostile to the Jacobins, and at a second meeting with Mack agreed to march on Paris and restore the dauphin as Louis XVII.

By 31 March the Convention believed that Dumouriez was about to betray them, and a body of commissioners, headed by Pierre de Riel Beurnonville, the minister of war, was sent to arrest him. On 4 April Dumouriez attempted to convince his army to support him in the march on Paris, but soon realised that he had no support. On the following day he defected to the Austrians. Riel and the commissioners were also handed over the Austrians.

Dumouriez did not have a happy time in exile. He was not trusted by the French exiles in Cologne or Stuttgart, or on his travels in Switzerland or Italy. Eventually he settled in England, where between 1812 and 1814 he was an active adviser to the Castlereagh ministry. After the end of the war he wanted to return to the France, but the restored Bourbon dynasty blocked him, and he died in England in 1823.

Dumouriez was the first victorious commander of the armies of Revolutionary France. He was not a great general, and he misjudged the political mood in France, but without his victory at Valmy the Republic may have been destroyed almost before it had been declared. His attempt to restore some order in France came far too soon, but only a few years later the young Napoleon Bonaparte would come to power on a similar platform of military success and political stability.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (12 January 2009), Charles François Dumouriez, 1739-1823 ,

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