Jean-Charles Pichegru, 1761-1804

Jean-Charles Pichegru (1761-1804) was a French general of humble origins who rose to high rank in the armies of the French Republic but who then turned against the Revolution, became a Royalist counter-revolutionary and died after attempting to overthrow Napoleon.

Pichegru's parents were farmers from Arbois in the Jura. He was educated by friars of the Minim Brother at Arbois. In his early education he showed a great ability at mathematics, and at eighteen the brothers sent him to the military college at Brienne where he served as a teaching assistant. One of the students at Brienne at this period was the young Napoleon Bonaparte.

Pichegru's teacher at Arbois, Fr Patrault, had hoped that he would enter the Order of Minims, but in 1783 Pichegru left the church and entered the 1st Regiment of Foot Artillery (too late to actually serve in the War of American Independence). He rose rapidly through the ranks, reaching adjutant before the revolution began. In many ways Pichegru was typical of the early supports of the revolution – he was a self made man who had been promoted because of his abilities before the revolution began.

Pichegru was an enthusiastic support of the Revolution, becoming the chairman of the democratic club of Besancon. He was then elected to command a battalion of volunteers in the National Guard and led his unit to the Army of the Rhine. During 1792 Pichegru served on the staff of the Army of the Rhine, and was promoted to brigadier general. On 4 October 1793 he was promoted again, to major general.

This promotion came at a time of crisis on the Rhine front. In 1792 General Custine had advanced north from Alsace and captured Mainz, but on 14 April 1793 the Allies began their own siege of Mainz. The city held out until 23 July, but the French armies of the Moselle and of the Rhine made very little effort to break the siege. After the siege the Allies moved south towards the French border, before they were halted in front of the Lines of Wissembourg, a fortified position that protected the northern border of Alsace. The French held this position until 13 October, when General Würmser, with help from a Prussian flanking force, stormed the lines. For a short period it looked as if the Allies were about to occupy all of Alsace.

The French government responded by changing the commanders of both French armies in the area. General Lazare Hoche was given command of the Army of the Moselle and Pichegru was promoted to command the Army of the Rhine. The Committee of Public Safety also sent a team of representatives on mission to the armies; amongst them Robespierre's ally St. Just.

The immediate crisis soon passed, partly because of Allied inactivity and partly because of Hoche's ability and persistence. Although his first attacks on the Prussians failed (battle of Kaiserslautern, 28-30 November), Hoche retained his command and turned on the Austrians in Alsace. With limited support from Pichegru he defeated them at Froeschwiller (18-22 December) and Wissembourg (26 December). After this second victory the Austrians retreated to the east bank of the Rhine and the Prussians to Mainz.

Although Hoche was responsible for these victories, he got little credit for his achievements, and early in 1794 was arrested. St. Just had formed a close working relationship with Pichegru, and his political influence meant that Pichegru gained much of the credit for restoring the position on the Rhine.

On 7 February 1794 Pichegru was appointed commander of the Army of the North, and was given the task of carrying out the Committee's plan of action for 1794. At the start of 1794 the front line in the north ran roughly along the current Franco-Belgian border. The Allies had captured a number of fortresses on the French side of the border, but they lacked a clear plan for 1794, and began the year by settling down to besiege Landrecies (17-30 April 1794).

The Directory planned a two-pronged attack on the Allies. The main attack was to come in the west, in maritime Flanders, while a second thrust would be made towards Charleroi and the Sambre, on the Allied left (eastern) flank.

The western offensive began on 24 April 1794. Three armies advanced from Dunkirk, Cassel and Lille and drove General Clerfayt out of western Flanders. An attempted Austrian counterattack was defeated before it began at Mouscrons (29 April 1794), but on 26 April the Allies had captured a copy of the French plans, and the Allied commander-in-chief (the Prince of Saxe-Coburg) began to send reinforcements west. The French attacked the Allied lines at Willems (10 May 1794) and were defeated, but attacked again on the following day (battle of Courtrai, 11 May 1794), and Clerfayt was forced to retreat again.

The Allies responded to this setback by moving west in strength. General Mack developed a plan which he believed would destroy the French army, and the Allies prepared to attack. At this point Pichegru was not with the army, and so he can take no credit for the victory at Tourcoing (17-18 May 1794). The victory was won by a combination of skilful French leadership (Moreau, Bonnaud and Souham) and the limits of Mack's over elaborate plan. After the failure of their attack the Allies pulled back to a line level with Tournai.

Pichegru returned soon after this victory and decided to launch an attack on the new Allied line (battle of Tournai, 22 May 1794). This was a costly failure, and temporarily halted the French advance in Flanders, but the battles at Tourcoing and Tournai had discouraged the Austrians. The Emperor Francis II, who had been present with the army, departed for Vienna on 29 May, and his allies began to worry about Austrian commitment to the war.

The other half of the French offensive, on the Sambre, had been less successful. During May the French crossed the Sambre three times and were repelled each time. The Committee responded by moving General Jourdan and the Army of the Moselle to the Sambre. Jourdan's first attack also failed, but his second attempt to capture Charleroi ended in success on 25 June. On the following day the main Allied army attempted to reach the city but was defeated at Fleurus (26 June 1794).

This was the turning point of the campaign. The Austrians retreated back towards Brussels. Pichegru and Jourdan captured Brussels and then continued to force the Allies to retreat. By the end of July the Austrians were retreating east and the British and Dutch north and the Austrian Netherlands had fallen into French hands. The same month saw the fall of Robespierre and St. Just, and the end of the terror.

Pichegru turned north and over the winter of 1794-95 conquered the Netherlands, entering Amsterdam on 19 January 1795. The most famous incident during this campaign was the capture of the Dutch fleet which was trapped in ice near Texel. Pichegru sent cavalry across the ice, and the immobilised ships were forced to surrender.

The British were forced to evacuate their army, and at the end of the campaign the French front line ran through Holland to the Rhine and then down the Rhine to Switzerland.

In April 1795 the Convention was threatened by the Paris mob (the Germinal Uprising). Pichegru was present in Paris when the crisis broke, and was given command of the troops that crushed the uprising.

In 1795 Pichegru was given command of the Army of the Rhine and Moselle. He was to operate alongside General Jourdan's Army of the Sambre and Meuse. During the summer of 1795 the only significant activity on the Rhine front was the siege of Mainz (14 December 1794-29 October 1795), which came under Pichegru's command.

In the autumn the Directory decided to mount an invasion of Germany in an attempt to defeat General Clerfayt's Austrian army. Pichegru's role was to cross the Rhine somewhere between Mannheim and Strasbourg to form the right wing of a gigantic pincer movement. Jourdan and the left crossed the Rhine around Dusseldorf, and advanced south towards Mainz. Pichegru found himself facing a second Austrian army under General Würmser. Pichegru delayed his crossing of the Rhine, but on 20 September Mannheim fell to a single French division. Pichegru had a chance to capture Heidelberg (Clerfayt's main supply base) and separate the two Austrian armies.  

Pichegru missed his chance. He sent a small force towards Heidelberg but this was turned back on 25 September. He then refused to support Jourdan's plan to unite the two French armies around Mannheim. This gave Clerfayt a chance to turn against Jourdan, who was forced to retreat back across the Rhine.

On 29 October Clerfayt broke the siege of Mainz by attacked the French siege works from within the city. His army then took up a strong position on the west bank of the Rhine, between the two French armies. Pichegru still held Mannheim, although it was now under attack from the east. Pichegru took up a defensive line along the Pfrimm River, but on 10 November Clerfayt forced him to retreat south to Frankenthal (combat of the Pfrimm). The Austrians attacked again on 13-14 November (combat of Frankenthal) and Pichegru had to retreat south again, this time to Landau. On 22 November Mannheim surrendered to the Austrians.

The campaign ended in late December. Clerfayt asked Jourdan for an armistice, and when this was granted went into winter quarters east of the Rhine. Pichegru accepted the armistice at the start of January 1796.

Pichegru's conduct during this campaign has come under a great deal of scrutiny, for since 1794 he had been in communication with agents of the prince de Condé. Pichegru was apparently motivated by ambition, but he was also increasingly convinced that France needed a popular monarchy in place of the often chaotic republic. The Directory began to suspect his loyalty, but he was too popular to arrest, and early in 1796 he was allowed to retire to Bellevaux.

In 1797 Pichegru was elected to the Council of the Five Hundred by the department of the Upper Saône. He became the head of the Royalist faction in the council, which achieved impressive results in that year's elections. Barras reacted to this threat by organising a coup. Napoleon sent General Augereau from Italy, and on 4 September Pichegru and a large of deputies were arrested. 

Pichegru was sent into exile in French Guiana, but soon escaped to London. Over the next few years he spent his time planning for the return of the Bourbons. Finally, at the end of 1803 he returned to France, with George Cadoudal to take part in a planned Royalist uprising against Napoleon. The conspirators reached Paris in January 1804, but they were soon betrayed to Napoleon's secret police, and on 28 February Pichegru was arrested.

Two months later, on 15 April, Pichegru was found strangled in his cell. Suspicion immediately fell on Napoleon, but he always denied any involvement in Pichegru's death. Pichegru may equally well have committed suicide.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (11 February 2009), Jean-Charles Pichegru, 1761-1804 ,

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