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Black Widow:

The Royal Death That Sparked A Revolution


By Chris Oakley


Part 2


Adapted from material originally posted at Othertimelines.com




Summary: In Part 1 of this series we charted the unlikely string of events that led to Queen Marie Antoinette’s installation as ruler of France and the popular discontent which led to the decision of the Estates-General to rebel against her. In this chapter we’ll review the Grand Legion of the Republic’s first clashes with the Austrian army and the French revolutionaries’ battles with the Bourbon regime for control of the streets of Paris.




Like his sister Marie, Austria’s Emperor Franz Joseph was alarmed when he learned about the Bastille’s fall; though not yet aware that his occupation plans had been compromised, he suspected something had happened to upset the apple cart in France and he didn’t like it in the least. He’d been counting on getting his troops into northern France and establishing a foothold before the French queen’s internal enemies could make a move to oppose him; now, though, a wrench had been thrown in the works and he was confronted with the grim prospect that his armies might have to fight their way across the French border.

Charles Dumouriez, commander of the Legion troops guarding France’s northern border, vowed to make sure that every square inch of ground the Austrians occupied would cost them an ocean of blood. Not that his men needed to be told to fight fiercely against the approaching enemy: if anything, some of them had to be restrained from going over to the attack too soon lest they use up their munitions prematurely. Every rifle, every cannon, every pistol Dumouriez and his men could get hold of were aimed in the direction of the advancing Austrians.

Invoking the famous command of an American officer at the Battle of Bunker Hill, Dumouriez instructed his men, "Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes." It was a difficult order for them to follow when they so badly wanted to charge at the Austrian invaders, but they obeyed it just the same. Their patience was rewarded when an advance column on the Austrian left flank walked right into the line of sight  of Legion snipers; lethally accurate musket fire knocked the Austrian soldiers down like ninepins, throwing the rest of the enemy battle line into turmoil.

Dumouriez quickly gave his artillerymen the green light to begin shelling the invaders, and with relish they lobbed round after round of cannon fire at the Austrians, who soon began pulling back to the safety of Austrian-occupied Belgium to await reinforcements. Dumouriez and his men elected not to pursue them, which was undoubtedly a wise decision-- a dispatch rider soon arrived with news that royalist cavalry and infantry troops were marching towards the Legion forces’ rear flank....


Back in Paris, the rebels were battling royalist soldiers for control of the French capital’s streets. While numbers and weapons quality might have been on the royalists’ side, the rebels had sheer will and popular sentiment in their favor; as the day and the fighting wore on, soldiers from the royalist garrison in Paris began to desert to the revolutionaries’ camp despite dire warnings from their officers that they would be hanged for treason if they did so.

At the French royal palace in Versailles, an agitated Queen Marie Antoinette paced endlessly in her drawing room, awaiting word of what was going on along the French frontier with Belgium. She was seething with anger at the rebels’ insolence, an anger that was mixed with fear over what would become of her and the Dauphin if the surviving French royal family fell into rebel hands. Just before 5:00 PM Paris time that afternoon, a secret messenger in the pay of Emperor Franz Joseph rode onto the palace grounds and was immediately escorted inside to speak with Marie.

It was from this messenger that Marie Antoinette learned of the disastrous initial skirmish between her brother’s troops and the Legion forces under Dumouriez’s command. Fearful that her children might be killed if the rebels took Versailles, she sent them to Vienna and ordered her bodyguards to surround the royal palace. One way or another, she intended to make sure the Bourbon dynasty would survive....


At midday on August 12th, 1787 the Austrians made their second incursion into northern France. With Dumouriez’s troops busy defending themselves against the royalist attack on their rear flank, the second crossing of the Franco-Belgian frontier had somewhat more success than the first, but that wouldn’t last long as volunteer partisan bands struck from out of the woods to hit the Austrian southern flank. The commanding general of the Austrian forces later noted in his campaign diary: "They came at us like demons, shooting and stabbing from every direction. No matter how hard we fought them off, no matter how many of their number we killed, more came to fill their place."1

He sent a dispatch rider off in the direction of his headquarters back in Belgium with a message urgently requesting reinforcements; a few miles down the road, meanwhile, French royalist troops had started to break through Dumouriez’s rear flank and were staging attacks on his left flank to keep the Legion forces off balance. The strange, convoluted four-way clash would drag on through most of the next 72 hours, during which time Dumouriez’s top deputy would be killed and Dumoriez himself seriously wounded.

However, as the top Austrian general himself had previously noted, the rebels wouldn’t quit, and by 10:00 AM on August 15th the royalists found themselves on the defensive as Dumouriez’s surviving soldiers abruptly turned back upon their foes like mad dogs, savaging them as their own ranks had been savaged by the royalists when the battle had begun.

Early that afternoon, the Austrians once more went into retreat, leaving the royalist forces to cope as best they could with the Legion armies and their civilian partisan cohorts. By dusk the royalists were also in retreat, their ranks decimated by the combined blows of the partisans’ hit-and-run attacks and the relentless hammering of General Dumouriez’s troops. Franz Joseph was so shaken by the news of these twin defeats that he retired to his bedchamber in a fit of melancholy and didn’t come out again for the next 24 hours.


When he finally did emerge, it would be to the news that the rebellion against his sister Marie was spreading as far as Limoges and that Lafayette’s insurgents now held most of Paris. The Estates- General, under the leadership of Aix-en-Provence representative Honoré Gabriel de Riqueti-- a.k.a. Comte de Mirabeau --had begun drafting the first French constitution and were discussing a series of far-reaching political reforms for France. Robespierre, like the dedicated attorney that he was, had started traveling the countryside to make the rebels’ case to people still sitting on the political fence; Danton used his impressive rhetorical gifts to keep up the morale of his comrades in the revolution.

It wasn’t only Danton’s fellow Frenchmen who marveled at his oratory; across the English Channel, a group of British admirers of the lawyer-turned-revolutionary leader were organizing the first Danton Society in London. The Society, composed of mainly liberal scholars and philosophers, was dedicated to publishing translations of Danton’s speeches and promoting his democratic ideals in Britain; King George III disliked them but was loath to act too forcefully against them lest his subjects start rising against him just as the American colonists had done back in 1775.

Before long, Danton Societies were being established in other British cities as well; by the time the battle for Paris was over, the movement had started crossing over to Ireland as well, and on the other side of the Atlantic Benjamin Franklin was writing pamphlets lauding Danton as "a Socrates for our own time". As August faded into September, and the struggle between the royalists and the Legion for the possession of Paris dragged on, more of Danton’s work found its way to American shores, and soon charters were being drawn up for Danton Societies in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.


By early September, the royal palace at Versailles felt more like a prison for Queen Marie Antoinette...and one where she’d been placed in solitary confinement to boot. Despite her soldiers’ best efforts, the Grand Legion of the Republic still controlled most of Paris and were gaining ground in the rest; worse, support for the rebellion was growing within the countryside and some of the more radical elements of the rebel movement were calling for the queen to be exiled or even executed. Her children were living in exile in Vienna. And many would- be suitors who’d hoped to fill her late husband’s shoes ended up being discouraged from courting her because of the political instability racking France.

One suitor conspicuously not discouraged was Swedish count Axel Fersson, who’d been enamored with Marie since meeting her at a fancy dress ball two months into her reign as French monarch. When the rebellion against her began, Fersson had wasted little time hatching a plan to smuggle her to safety; he’d only been waiting for the right time to implement it. When Fersson arrived at Versailles on September 9th, 1787 his self-appointed mission of rescuing Marie Antoinette had taken on added urgency-- the Tulieries, one of the last major royalist strongholds in Paris, was under siege by Legion troops and Jean-Paul Marat, the journalist-turned-unofficial propaganda chief for the revolutionary movement, had started calling for the queen to be placed before a special tribunal to answer for "crimes against the people" she was accused of committing since becoming ruler of France. There were even rumors that Irish volunteers were fighting under Lafayette’s command in exchange for future assistance from a new French government in winning independence for their own country, then under occupation by the British.

So when Fersson showed up at Marie’s door disguised as a common servant, she was more than willing to listen to whatever schemes he had in mind for getting her out of the rebels’ clutches...


To Be Continued



1 The general’s campaign journal is preserved today at the Austrian National Library in Vienna.


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