Military Suppression of Prairial

The Prairial insurrection of Year III (May 1795) would prove to be among the last major episodes of popular activism during the Revolution, due in part to the Convention’s forceful use of National Guard units, leading to the arrest of many activists and the execution of several popular leaders. While radicals viewed this outcome as evidence that the government had definitively turned its back on "the people," others—such as General Kilmane who commanded the troops on that day—viewed this event as the restoration of order by a government that had finally rejected Jacobin radicalism and firmly established its authority over an unruly Parisian population.


. . . We started marching, and I appeared at the first barricade, accompanied by the Commissaires of Section Quinze-Vingts. We were received with howling and the most atrocious insults by a great many armed men and a greater number of women, or rather, furies, who wanted to butcher us alive, or so they assured us. I let these howls quiet down, and I summoned them in the name of law and the national representation to deliver up the assassin [a man suspected of murdering National Representative Ferand on 1 Prairial] along with those who saved him from execution and to open the barricade at once. I threatened, in case of refusal, to use cannon to blow it up, throwing back onto the rebels the full horror of the consequences of their stubbornness.

I will point out here that at that moment it would have been very easy for me to turn back and leave through the barrier du Trone without the slightest risk, but beside the fact that it is in my character to doggedly pursue an action I believe good, such a withdrawal, which would have looked like a retreat dictated by fear, would have increased the audacity of the rebels a hundredfold and would have notably discouraged the good citizens of Paris. I firmly resolved to force these same men who wanted to encircle us to tear down their barricades themselves, but this required a great deal of prudence and much tenacity. Considering that I had only twelve hundred men (whose courage and devotion, to tell the truth, could be relied upon absolutely), and considering that we were surrounded by twenty thousand armed men and forty thousand furies—for they cannot be referred to as women—this action will be judged as appropriate.

Finally, having used first threats, then reason, we succeeded in opening up a passage. We started marching and arrived at the second barricade, where we were received with the same howls. At my end I used the same methods I had [used] the first time, and strongly supported all the while by the two Commissaires from Section Quinze-Vingts, whose zeal and devotion cannot be praised sufficiently, we succeeded, at the end of a quarter of an hour, in breaking through, but when we began marching, rumor spread that the rear guard had gotten hold of a cannon in Section Montreuil. Immediately the rebels took it upon themselves to rebuild the barricade. The cries and howls started up again. Several climbed up to the windows to assail us from there with gunfire, which made the position of the cavalry, above all, very alarming, as it could not defend itself in barricaded streets against men who were firing on them from the first floor. On the spot, I sent out General Brune, whose firmness I had tested. I asked him to go to the back of the column and order that no cannon be taken. . . .

[General Kilmaine relates his consternation at not receiving reinforcements that had been promised him in the morning. He continues:]

Two of the people's representatives, Vernier and Courtois . . . joined the ranks of the advance guard of the battalion. I feared that the rebels would recognize them and that the assassins would concentrate all their efforts on them. We were firmly resolved to defend them or get ourselves killed, but there were only twelve hundred of us, and we were surrounded by a countless multitude of armed men and a horde of women a thousand times more atrocious than the men. Besides, we could compromise the success of the great expedition [planned for the evening] by precipitating hostilities with such inferior forces. The rear guard abandoned the plan to carry the cannon off, but it was done with good grace and not in the least forced by the rebels. Then the second barricade was reopened, and we again started marching through. Having arrived at the last barricade, we found a more stubborn resistance than at the first two, increased by a great number of citizens who had strayed from Section Indivisibility and from the Grand Rue Saint-Antoine. The same cries, the same threats from the rebels' side. The same firmness, even sangfroid, on our side. At last, wearied by our minimal success in using reason, I ordered the cannon pointed against the barricade, quite resolved to fire in three minutes' time if our demand was not heeded.

Source: From Women in Revolutionary Paris, 1789–1795, edited and translated by Darline Gay Levy, Harriet Branson Applewhite, and Mary Durham Johnson. Copyright 1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with the permission of the University of Illinois Press, 296–297.