Bonaparte Saves the Day

In the waning days of the Convention in the fall of 1795, royalist–influenced sections in Paris revolted to prevent a new constitution that protected the position of the radicals. Bonaparte was delegated to put down the uprising of 5 October 1795 (13 Vendémiaire Year IV). Bonaparte’s decisiveness and willingness to fire cannons on the demonstrators—in his words, to "give them a whiff of grapeshot"—both consolidated the government’s control and revealed how much the revolutionary state after Thermidor was dependent on the military.


Barras conferred with his aide-de-camp over the weight of numbers:

"They are 40,000 against 4,000, granted [I said]. We shall make up the deficiency in numbers by our courage; a single discharge of grape fired in the air will suffice to strike terror in the ranks of our opponents, who will all of them fly if a few of them get their faces scratched. They are merely Pompey's dandies, afraid of having their faces spoiled." Such was my plan in all its simplicity. And when I said to Bonaparte: "We must centralize," he fully grasped my intentions. . . .

What course were they going to adopt? Their commanders probably did not know themselves. Suddenly a few shots were fired from the most advanced battalion of the grenadiers of the [rebel] National Guard. Those of the line, whom Bonaparte had by my orders concealed in the building contiguous to the rue du Bac, spurred on by the sound of shooting, sprang up and opened fire. Although unable to judge whether this preliminary skirmish was planned or fortuitous, I saw in it the beginning of a general engagement in which we would certainly be overpowered by numbers.

I had a twelve-pounder gun under the walls of the Hôtel de Nesle, near the rue de Beaune. The gunners stood ready with lighted fuses. I gave the order to fire, and the first volley of grape mowed down some of the nearest National Guardsmen. The whole column wavered, and its recoil proved to me that it could not stand its ground. I therefore gave orders to keep up the firing, but to fire entirely in the air as it seemed to me that the noise would be sufficient to disperse the hostile phalanxes. It was enough, as I had anticipated, to lay low a few of the vanguard; all the rest scattered. . . .

Civil war is undoubtedly the worst of all political evils. But the picture presented by the chaotic defeat of these well-fleshed battalions—who left their arms, and even their coats, on the field of battle as they followed the example of their doughty chiefs—roused the brave defenders of the Convention to mirth.

Barras also decried Napoleon for his actions on 13 Vendémiaire:

As he has, since his subsequent appearances on the stage, arrogated to himself the leading role and the sole influence in everything, it is necessary that I should once more point out in precise terms what relates to him personally.

Bonaparte was neither more nor less than my aide-de-camp on 13 Vendémiaire. I was mounted, he was on foot, and consequently could not follow me wherever I went. The only mission he received from me was to go to the Pont Royal, and return and report to me what was going on there. He did not give, and did not have the authority to give, any order on his own account. He was never at any point of attack except at the Carrousel, whence he did not stir; Brune was in command there.

I have not left out, however, the fact that he gave indication of a quick military perception when, pulling me by the coat and drawing me a few paces away from a position which would have exposed me to the first discharge, he said to me in an outburst of animation which was the product of the circumstances: "All would be lost if you were killed. The drama hinges on you alone; there is no one who could take your place. What action are you going to take?" It was then that I ordered Brune to fire his cannon, and Bonaparte, pressing my hand, exclaimed: "The republic is saved."

Source: Paul-François-Jean-Nicolas Barras, Memoirs of Barras: Member of the Directorate, trans. and ed. George Duruy, 4 vols. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1895): 1:299–305, 332.