Disclaimer: The transcript that follows has been generated using artificial intelligence. We strive to be as accurate as possible, but minor errors and slightly off timestamps may be present.

You can click the timestamp to jump to that time.

Mike Duncan (00:01):

This week’s episode is brought to you by Casper. Casper is an online retailer offering premium mattresses for a fraction of the price. The mattress industry has for a long time forced consumers into paying notoriously high markups with resellers and showrooms all taking their cut along the way. Casper is revolutionizing the system by offering an obsessively engineered mattress at a shockingly fair price. Made in America, the mattresses combine two technologies, latex foam and memory foam, to provide just the right sink and just the right bounce and come together for better nights and brighter days.


And cutting out all the middlemen, you can get a twin for $500 or a king for just $950. And if you’ve ever gone out mattress shopping, you know those are some pretty outstanding prices. On top of all that, it is risk-free. Try sleeping on a Casper for 100 days and if for some crazy reason you don’t like it, you can just return it and pay nothing.


In anticipation of baby number two coming along and needing the crib, we just transferred the boy into a big kid bed. Specifically, we gave him our twin size Casper and he loves it. Seriously, he thinks it’s the greatest thing on earth. So if you want a better mattress and you want to pay a fair price… Go to slash Revolutions and use the promo code Revolutions. That gets you $50 off any mattress you want. Terms and conditions apply. That again, forward slash Revolutions with the promo code Revolutions.


Hello and welcome to Revolutions. Episode 3.51, The Coup of Prairial.


So this week marks the penultimate episode of our cycle on the French Revolution. It will take us through to the autumn of 1799 and set up the looming coup of Brumaire that out of some necessity I am marking as the end of the line. After next week’s episode brings Bonaparte to power, we will wrap up completely with a final episode two weeks from now that looks back on the French Revolution and forward into the Napoleonic era to try to make some sense of the incredibly complicated decade we’ve been immersed in for more than 50 episodes. And since I’m already talking about general show business, I should also mention that I finally decided to reactivate my Twitter account. I actually joined way back in March 2007, decided this weird new social messaging platform was not really going to be a thing, and just never used it. But I’m using it now. As a consequence of signing up so early, though, I am actually just Mike Duncan. That’s it. At Mike Duncan. Apparently, I was the first Mike Duncan to ever sign up for Twitter. So come find me at Mike Duncan. I’m there now. It’s mostly history, baseball, and a smattering of snarky remarks about current events. It’ll also be a nice way to keep in touch when I go dark for two months, which I will be doing in just a few weeks.


Okay, enough of that. On with the show. We left off last time with the Directory declaring war on Austria in March 1799, which officially started the War of the Second Coalition.


Despite the Russians and Ottomans now joining the British and Austrians, the Directory felt pretty good about its chances. They had gotten used to beating up on the old European powers, and didn’t think 1799 would be any different. This, despite General Jourdan’s repeated warnings over the winter that the army set to defend Italy, Switzerland, and the Rhineland, were not in very good shape. They were both undermanned and undersupplied, and the situation had not at all improved by the spring. Remember, 200,000 men were supposed to have reinforced the frontiers, but only 74,000 actually made it to the front.


For the campaigns of 1799, the French had organized a new army 45,000 strong that they called the Army of the Danube, and put it under the incredibly nervous General Jourdan. Down in Italy, there were close to 100,000 French troops, but they were scattered all over the peninsula. But in anticipation of the coming hostilities, about 45,000 were concentrated along the Adige River, that is, the border between the Cisalpine Republic and now Austrian Venice.


A raid against the French in the spring of 1799 were about 75,000 Austrians in southern Germany under Archduke Charles, 60,000 down on the other side of the Adige in Venice, and another 20,000 guarding the Alpine passes in and out of Austrian territory. Now the new key ingredient to the year’s campaign would of course be the looming arrival of the Russians. Tsar Paul had pledged 60,000 men to fight the frenzied French Republic, and he was making good on his pledge. These Russian troops had been massing in Austrian territory all winter, and were preparing to move into Italy and Switzerland.


One of the Austrian conditions for joining forces with the Russians was that the Russians send the legendary General Alexander Suvorov to serve as Commander in Chief. Suvorov was by now pushing 70 years old, but over the course of his life, he had led troops in more than 60 major battles and had never been defeated. Not once. He was, by 1799, an almost mythical legend in his own time. And age apparently had not diminished his skills. He was soon pushing the French out of Italy, and undoing all of Bonaparte’s conquests.


The Directory decided it was best to strike first, before the Russians could get into the fight, and so in early March 1799, they ordered Jordan to take the army of the Danube across the Rhine at a crossing near Basel, just where the river starts to turn east. The plan was for them to attack Austrian positions on the Swiss Plateau, which is basically the land between the Rhine River to the south and the Danube to the north. The objective of the offensive was to win firm control of all the Alpine passes between Germany and Italy.


Germany and Italy were bound to be the two main theaters of the war, and the French wanted to make sure that their enemies fought in isolation from each other. And with the Swiss Helvetic Republic garrisoned by another 20,000 French soldiers, it looked like a pretty good bet on paper that the strategic central position would be held by the French.


But things did not go well for Jordan, as was usually the case when he crossed the Rhine. If this were ancient times, a legend of an old wise woman predicting that Jordan could never win beyond the Rhine would have already been written into his biography. Like the old Roman superstition that only Scipios can win in North Africa, only in reverse. Jordan advanced 35,000 men northeast out of Basel onto the plains of Ostra, on the north edge of the Swiss Plateau, which he thought was a highly advantageous position. But when he got there, the plains turned out to be overly soggy and thick with early spring fog. Not only did the ground make it hard to maneuver, but the fog shrouded the size of Archduke Charles’ army. Jordan did not realize 52,000 Austrians were coming to meet him, with another 25,000 in close reserve.


The two armies met on March the 20th, and the Austrians’ unexpected numerical advantage proved decisive. Jordan and his army retreated up to some high ground and planned a counterattack, but the next day the fog lifted, and Jordan got his first look at how much bigger the Austrian army really was. Having already taken heavy casualties the day before, Jordan withdrew west. A few days later, on March the 25th, the Austrians caught up with the French at Stuka. Jordan tried to tighten up his lines to take advantage of the spread out Austrians, and the French nearly flanked their enemy. But the attempt failed, and Jordan had to pull back again, this time northwest into the Black Forest.


But though he had Jordan on the run, Archduke Charles did not pursue the French any further. Instead he called a halt to wait for the Russians so they could all turn and expel the French from Switzerland. Bonaparte was later critical of Jordan, both for some tactical decisions he had made during the Battle of Stuka, but more importantly for retreating into the Black Forest rather than pulling back up into Switzerland to join with the 20,000 men garrisoning the Helvetic Republic. This decision divided the French forces and all but made the defense of Switzerland impossible.


Jordan himself then returned to Paris to complain about the terribly unprepared army the Directory had sent him off with, requested medical leave because he was sick, which the Directory, sick of his complaints, promptly granted.


Meanwhile down in Italy, things were about to go no better. The Army of Italy was now led by a guy named General Scherer, an old professional soldier who had served in both the Austrian and Dutch armies before the Revolution, but who had been a mainstay of the French army ever since. Now I didn’t mention it at the time, but Scherer was actually the guy Bonaparte replaced as commander of the Army of Italy back in 1796. Scherer had then been appointed Minister of War during the great ministerial reshuffle that also brought Talleyrand to power during the build-up to the coup of Fructidor, and as the war of the Second Coalition approached, Scherer was sent back to take control of the Army of Italy, where he would prove himself to be no Bonaparte, and soon enough General Scherer too would be requesting somebody else take over his army.


The boundary between the French-controlled Cisalpine Republic and the Austrian-controlled Venetian Republic was essentially the Adige River, though the Austrians did control a few of the cities on the west bank of the river, the most important of those being Verona. So just as Jourdan had tried to jump the Austrians before the Russians arrived, so too did General Scherer. In mid-March 1799, he advanced east with 46,000 men with the intention of first expelling the Austrians from Verona, then taking full control of the Adige, and then using that as a base to advance still further east. But he never even got past step one, and in fact he was soon in step negative one, retreating back towards the west in a demoralized rush.


Scherer advanced east in three columns. His left and right columns attacked the cities of Pastrengo and Lignano, while his center drove straight at Verona. The cities were all held by a combined Austrian army of about 41,000. On March 26th, the French engaged on all three fronts. They took Pastrengo, were repulsed and driven back at Lignano, and fought to a bloody draw at Verona itself. This inconclusive first round of fighting, though, was just a prelude to the more disastrous second round.


On April 5th, the French massed south of Verona and marched north towards the city, just as the Austrians were marching south out of the city to meet them. The two armies ran into each other in a driving rainstorm at the small town of Lignano on April 5th. In the resulting battle, Scherer deployed his forces along a wide front, and his right wing nearly succeeded in turning the Austrian left. But by then he was too spread out, he had not held back sufficient reserves to plug up holes or reinforce trouble spots, and as a result the Austrians were able to cut off that advancing French right from their comrades.


With his army now fatally divided, Scherer ordered a general retreat. But instead of drawing up his forces at the next defensible river, Scherer pulled back all the way to the Ada River, that is nearly all the way back to Milan, just giving up about a hundred miles worth of territory, and leaving a bunch of French garrisons holding various cities basically to fend for themselves, including that all-important fortress of Mantua, which was being held by 12,000 Frenchmen and which was immediately put to siege.


The run of defeats apparently convinced General Scherer himself that he was in way over his head. Having lost all confidence in his own ability to salvage the situation, he turned the Army of Italy over to Major General Moreau, the far more capable general who we last saw charging headlong across the Rhine and Danube and then back again during the Rhine campaign of 1796. But though Scherer lost mostly because he was not a very good general, back in Paris there were deep suspicions that he had turned traitor and was just letting the Austrians win. After taking over the Army of Italy, Moreau drew up a heavy defensive position along the Ada River to protect Milan, the capital of the Cisalpine Republic and most pro-French of all the Italian cities. He had 28,000 concentrated at Cassano, and that is where the Austrians hit, except now they were more than just the Austrians because the Russians had finally started to arrive.


General Suvorov personally led the advanced Russian units who met up with the Austrians for a push on Milan. Assuming overall command of the now allied army, Suvorov and a combined force of 24,000 Austrians and Russians attacked Moreau at Cassano on April the 27th, and after a hard day’s fighting they pushed the French out. Moreau then broke off 2,400 men to go take the citadel of Milan and try to hold onto it while he himself led the main army in a retreat further west. Suvorov then led the allied army into Milan on April the 29th.


But he did not stay there long. Just two weeks later Suvorov got the allied army moving west again, pushing up the Po River into the Piedmont where he planned to expel the French from Turin and restore the kingdom of Sardinia. Moreau tried to block Suvorov at Marengo, but he was beaten again because Suvorov doesn’t lose. On May the 26th the allies entered Turin and Moreau pulled south towards Genoa to regroup. So in the spring of 1799 the French are just getting whipped on all fronts.


Fortunately for the directorial regime back in Paris, the initial offensives of the war were launched just as the elections for year seven were getting underway. And I mean that seriously. The defeats on the Swiss plateau and in Italy were not yet known to the voters. Unfortunately for the directory this didn’t really matter. The men who showed up to the primary assemblies to vote were decidedly anti-regime anyway. Win or lose it’s safe to say that most people in France were not at all thrilled about the resumption of war. To most French families the return of war meant only tax increases, forced requisitioning, and conscription of their sons.


But inside the electoral assemblies themselves, most of the anger at the Directory was not that they had restarted the war, but rather that they were not sufficiently prepared to win it. Old French supernationalists of the early Jacobin or even Girondin variety were perfectly happy with the Directory’s aggressive posturing, but were incensed that they were not doing a better job mobilizing to win. So once again, the regime was facing certain defeat at the polls. Of 187 candidates running who were endorsed one way or the other by the sitting directorial regime, 121 were defeated, mostly by men of the neo-Jakobin variety.


So it’s time for another coup, right? Well yes, but not the kind of coup you might be expecting given the pattern of coups that we’ve seen over the last few episodes. The Directory attempted to employ the same bag of tricks for the elections of year seven that they had used to control the elections of year six—that is, agents stirring up fake controversies, electing totally contrived alternative candidate slates, and inventing schisms in the primary assemblies. And as always, railing against the imaginary anarchist royalist conspiracy that these left-wing candidates wore the white cockade of royalism under the red cap of liberty.


But this time, the legislative councils were less interested in backing the directors up. Rather than invalidating anti-regime candidates, the councils confirmed their election and let them take their seats in the councils. This spelled big trouble for the triumvirate of Rubel, La Revelliere, and Barras, who had controlled the so-called Second Directory ever since the coup of Fructidor. But though this was troubling, in the end it would be okay. Because as we discussed during the episode on Fructidor, the Directory had one major ally they could always count on—the army.


As long as the army was with them, they were safe. But of course, this is the moment the army is getting beat by the Austrians and Russians on all fronts, and the generals are only too happy to scapegoat the directors for leaving the French armies ill-prepared for the war. The scope of the French defeats were becoming known just as the new session of the legislative councils convened at the end of May 1799. The neo-Jacobean opposition was soon in very productive talks with the generals about overthrowing the triumvirate.


The news only got worse on the frontier during the opening weeks of the legislative session. With the Russians now officially in the war, the Austrian High Command ordered Archduke Charles to move on French positions in Switzerland. The Directory had already more or less disbanded the Army of the Danube to face this new strategic situation, and the Army of Switzerland had now been bulked up to about 52,000 men—a combined force of French soldiers and Swiss conscripts.


This army was also led by the truly excellent General Andre Massena, who I wish I had been able to spend more time on, because he is truly a cut above the rest. He was a key general of division during Bonaparte’s Italian campaigns, and then will become one of Napoleon’s original marshals of France, and clearly one of the two or three best of the lot. Massena drew up a defensive line in front of Zurich, but he was about to be overwhelmed by two Austrian armies. He sent out a strong force to try to prevent the two from linking up, but the attempt failed, and on June the 4th, the Austrians launched an attack on Massena’s defensive line on multiple fronts. But all through the first day’s fighting, the French repelled the initial attack, and the next day both sides regrouped. Massena pulled in even closer to Zurich, but he did not like where this was headed. Austrian envoys came to parlay on June the 6th, and Massena said he would withdraw from Zurich if the Allies would just let him go. Archduke Charles agreed, and the French abandoned Zurich.


Just after Massena pulled out of Zurich, Suvorov then delivered a crushing defeat of the French in Italy. With the situation in northern Italy going so horribly, the French forces in southern Italy were ordered to mobilize and all but evacuate the south to come help salvage the situation in the north.


But instead, the so-called Army of Naples that was soon on the way would practically guarantee the French expulsion from Italy. Suvorov was well aware that he could not allow the Army of Naples to link up with the Army of Italy, so he made a bold decision to concentrate all his efforts on the Army of Naples. The French forces from the south tried to swing around the Allies through the Apennine Mountains rather than coming up the much safer west coast road, and Suvorov took full advantage of the mistake.


On June the 18th, Suvorov met the Army of Naples at the Trebia River, a southern tributary of the Po that you all may recall as the site of one of Hannibal’s greatest victories. Remember when the Romans rushed off and got beat because they skipped breakfast? Same place. On the first day of fighting, Suvorov’s army of about 35,000, now an equal mix of Russians and Austrians, attacked the French line but were repulsed. The second day unfolded in reverse. The Army of Naples attacked but were themselves repulsed. But now the French were taking heavy, heavy losses, and the defeat on day two was crushing. They fell into a demoralized retreat on the third day.


The total numbers are disputed, but of the 35,000 or so who left Naples, something like 12,000 to 15,000 wound up battle casualties, either killed, captured, or wounded. Suvorov was set to pursue, but when he grasped the scope of the French losses he had inflicted, he determined that the Army of Naples was just not a threat anymore.


The rump of the defeated French army marched towards the west coast of Italy, where Moreau was trying to regroup north of Genoa. In just about three months disastrous campaigning, the situation in northern Italy was practically back to where it had been before Bonaparte showed up, the French contained down along the crest of the Ligurian Alps, and the Allies holding everything else. The only difference was that the French, for the time being, still had garrisons holding a patchwork of citadels in what had now become deep enemy territory, all of which were now under siege.


With the defeats mounting, and Moreau on the way, the political situation in Paris grew dire for the Triumvirate running the Directory, though it could hardly be called the Triumvirate anymore. The opportunistic wildcard Paul Barra already had one foot out the door. He looked around, and became convinced that the only way to survive whatever was coming next was to switch sides.


Then either fate, or some very sneaky behind-the-scenes maneuvering, stepped in to make the death of the Triumvirate official. Jean-François Rubel had his name drawn from the magical retirement hat. Probably the most consistently driven and intelligent of the directors, Rubel’s forced retirement left a vacuum bigger than just one vacant seat. It changed the entire political balance inside the Directory. And doubly so, because the man the Council selected to take Rubel’s seat was Emmanuel Joseph C.S., the man who had refused to join the original class of directors in 1795 because he hated the Directory so, so much. And you can see where this is all going.


C.S. has had an interesting career since he wrote What is the Third Estate? way back in episode 3.9. If you’ll recall from way back when, he was one of the main drivers between the push to create a unified National Assembly after the Estates General had convened. He then sat on the Constitutional Committee, because constitutions were his passion. But his influence was undermined when he came out against some of the major church reforms. C.S. did not want to abolish tithes, and he opposed the civil constitution of the clergy.


But he bounced back in 1792 and got elected into the National Convention. And despite his sincere belief in a constitutional monarchy, he sat on the Convention’s first version of the Constitutional Committee that was supposed to be drawing up the first republican constitution for France. But that original committee was the Girondin version of the committee. And after the Mountain took control of the National Convention, C.S. was forever suspect. Hoping to avoid the fate of so many of his friends and colleagues from the good old days of 1789, he renounced his faith during the great de-Christianization run over the winter 1793-1794 that we talked about in episode 3.35. It was not until Termidor that C.S. could finally relax. When he was asked later what he did during the terror, C.S. famously replied, I lived. After Termidor, he returned to public life and had been a lead negotiator in the Treaty of the Hague that set up the Batavian Republic. And having regained his reputation and his prestige, he had tried to play a major role in the crafting of the Constitution of Year 3 that created the Directory, but almost all his suggestions were ignored. Bitter over the slight, he refused to serve as one of the five original directors, despite being elected. But when the legislative councils tapped him to be a director in 1799, he agreed to serve. His opinion of the Constitution had not changed, mind you. He just figured now was a pretty good time to get in and bring the whole thing crashing down. C.S. had lately been serving as ambassador to Prussian, so it was not until June 9th that he returned to Paris from Berlin. After that, events moved very quickly. So quickly, in fact, that it is nigh impossible to believe that a lot of what comes next hadn’t been worked out in advance. Paul Barra, for example, had played a major role in getting C.S. elected into the Directory, and the two of them are about to team up to purge all the other directors and form a whole new government.


So just to remind you who the five directors actually are at this point, we have, first of all, La Raveliere, the remaining staunch triumvir who’s been in the Directory since day one. Then we have Paul Barra, also a director from day one, who is right now in the process of abandoning La Raveliere to his fate. The two other members who you’ve probably forgotten all about were Philippe-Antoine Merlot de Douy, who was appointed in the wake of the Fructidor coup, and Jean-Baptiste Traher, who was the guy who had served as the belligerent French ambassador at the opening of the Congress of Ristat, and who had been elected director in the wake of the coup of Florian.


The newest member was, of course, C.S., who has just taken Rubel’s seat. You got all that? Good. Everyone not named C.S. or Barra is about to get the boot. Just before C.S. arrived in Paris, the Council of Five Hundred demanded the Directory produce a full report on the military situation. Who was supplying the army? Where was all the money going? How had conscription been proceeding? Why were the armies getting beat so badly?


The assumption here was that there was so much graft and war profiteering and corruption going on that any report on army logistics was sure to fatally compromise the directors. The Council of Five Hundred was still waiting for this report on June 16, 1799, aka 28 Prairial year 7, and so they declared themselves in permanent session until the Directory accounted for itself. The Council of Ancients followed their lead, and the coup of Prairial was on.


Late that same night, after all the Directory’s friends had gone to bed, anti-regime delegates opened up a full broadside. Their first target was Jean-Baptiste Treyar. The Council of Five Hundred declared that there were irregularities with Treyar’s election and demanded he be expelled from the Directory at once. The Council of Ancients concurred. When the demand landed on the Directory’s desk, La Ravelière said, we are obviously not going to comply with this, right guys? Which is when Barra and Sies said, oh no, I think we should. Which is when La Ravelière realized that Barra had abandoned the political alliance that had defined the Directory for the last two years.


Feeling isolated, not a little bit afraid for his personal safety if things got ugly, Treyar agreed to resign. He was replaced by Louis-Germain Goyer, an old Jackman who had been Minister of Justice from March 1793 until March 1794, that is, during the height of the Reign of Terror. The very next day, 30 prairie all on the Republican calendar and June 18, 1799 to you and me, the Council of Five Hundred then turned on La Ravelière and Merlot de Douy, accusing them of corruption and misappropriation of state funds and treasonous mismanagement of the war, the Councils demanded their immediate resignation.


Now both of the directors initially resisted this call, but a parade of delegates convinced them that it was best to resign, I mean, no one wants bloodshed, right? Merlot cracked first and tendered his resignation, La Ravelière followed shortly thereafter. Barra and Sies then suggested worthy replacements, and wouldn’t you know it, the Councils agreed with their choices. The new directors were Pierre Roger Ducault, an old regicide from the National Convention, and an obscure Jacobinish general named Jean-François Moulin.


With the replacement of the three directors, the coup of prairie all was not only complete, but it looked like a total victory for the left. Was a new revolutionary government on the way?


For a while, it sure looked like it. Right away, for example, the reshuffled directory reshuffled the entire ministerial cabinet, purging the allegedly corrupt triumvirate men, including Talleyrand, who loses his job as foreign minister, and putting men sympathetic to Jacobinism in their place, including General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, an accomplished and quite enlightened general who would go on to have a famously stormy relationship with Napoleon. Like Massana, Bernadotte would become one of the original marshals of France, and then wind up King of Sweden in 1810, eventually allying Sweden against Napoleon. The royal family of Sweden today is descended from Bernadotte. He’s a fascinating guy, but his story is beyond the scope of our show.


The newly left-leaning legislative councils then proceeded to reinstate freedom of the press, which had been scotched after the coup of Fructidor. They also lifted the ban on political clubs, which soon led to the formation of yet another neo-Jacobin club, called the Menege Club, because it took up residence in the Menege of the Tuileries Palace, which had served as the home of the National Assembly, the Legislative Assembly, and the National Convention, but which had been vacated since right around the time the Committee of Public Safety started chopping everyone’s head off in early 1794.


Looking back through the transcripts, I can see that I never mentioned that the convention moved out of the drafty Menege in early 1794, and I apologize for skipping that part. Those were complicated times.


So then at the end of June, once news of the loss of Zurich and the crushing defeat of the Army of Naples had come in, General Jourdan, now in slightly better health and once again taking his seat in the Council of 500, proposed that a new levée en masse be declared. All eligible conscripts for the Army would be called up simultaneously. The economy of France would once again be wholly dedicated to the war effort. Aggressive domestic requisitioning would commence at once, as would a new round of forced loans on the rich. The high point of the neo-Jacobin ascendancy came in July 1799, when the councils passed the Law of Hostages.


The law said that if the government declared a department disturbed by domestic unrest, that family members of the men deemed responsible could be arrested and held as hostages. Those families would also be held liable for any damages caused by civil unrest. The Law of Hostages was directed almost entirely against the families of emigres and other nobles. So this is all starting to look like we are in fact going back to the left-wing Jacobin nationalism of 1793.


Then the leftists in the Council of 500 decided that merely purging the old directors would not be enough. On July 14, 1799, the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, and the day Bonaparte whipped the Turks outside of Alexandria, the councils indicted for corruption and treason, Rubel, L’Orévalier, Merlot de Douy, Tréart, and the suspect General Shearer.


But this was all now swinging in a direction that CS and Barras did not like. So while the indictments were debated through the summer, they organized a reaction. The zenith of the neo-Jacobins at home coincided with the nadir of the army’s fortunes abroad.


With the French field armies in Italy broken and bottled up in Liguria, every French-held citadel and fortress on the peninsula just started capitulating one after the other. The Milan garrison surrendered on May 24, the Turin garrison gave up on June 20, and when the army of Naples departed for the north, the small garrison left in Naples, fell under immediate attack, and surrendered on June 15.


And those were just the main cities. All the men holding all those little Italian forts everywhere saw no sense in holding out. And then came the ultimate kicker. After a four-month siege, Mantua fell at the end of July. Bonaparte’s work was completely undone.


The army of Italy attempted to reverse the situation in mid-August. With Merlot having failed to salvage the situation, he too was replaced by a guy named Barthelemy Catherine Joubert, a 30-year-old general of immense talent who had been elevated rapidly by Bonaparte during the campaigns of 1796-1797. Joubert had about 35,000 men at his disposal, and he arrayed them around the city of Novi up in some high ground that looked down on the Piedmont and guarded the entrances into the Ligurian Alps. This was all near where Bonaparte had begun his spectacular campaigns. Joubert planned to strike out from this position and win back what had been lost. And he did not really expect Suvorov to come down and attack him. But then suddenly on August 15, that’s exactly what Suvorov did with more than 50,000 men. The French managed to hold out all day against successive waves of Russians and Austrians in an incredibly bloody fight. But as night fell, the French lines finally began to crack up. Joubert’s army was split in two, and they fell into a fighting bloody retreat south through the mountains towards the coast of the Ligurian Republic, their very last toehold in Italy. Joubert himself, one of the best and most promising of the young French generals, was killed in the battle.


Suvorov set to work planning the final eviction of the French from Italy, when he received frustrating new orders. The Austrian high command had decided not to pursue the French army of Italy any further until Switzerland was firmly in Allied hands. They ordered Suvorov to turn his back on Liguria and march north into Switzerland. This would prove to be a fatal blunder, as it would set up the complete reversal of Allied fortunes in the fall of 1799, reversals that would end with the Russians and Austrians as ready to kill each other as they were ready to kill the French.


Next week, we will begin with a quick swing across the frontiers, as the seemingly inexorable Allied advance was suddenly turned back. But we don’t want to spend too much time covering those battles, because the fall of 1799 also marks the end of the line for our narrative of the French Revolution. Back in Paris, CS and Barras will organize a response to the ascendant neo-Jacabans that will culminate with the coup of 18 Brumaire that will topple the Directory and pave the way for the Consulate and then the Empire.


But as we will see, though Bonaparte was the principal benefactor of the coup of 18 Brumaire, he’s also the one who nearly blew the whole project before it even got off the ground.

Episode Info

When the War of the Second Coalition got off to a terrible start for the French, the Triumvirate that had been running the Directory since 1797 was overthrown.

Hey look I'm on Twitter:

If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:


Podscript is a personal project to make podcast transcripts available to everyone for free. Please support this project by following us on Twitter.