The tragedy of Colonel Pierre Viriot
Pierre Viriot was a promising French soldier who wound up on the bad side of both the Napoleonic and the Bourbon regimes. His sad tale shows the power of Napoleon’s police to ruin a man’s life.
A young hussar
Pierre François Viriot was born on September 20, 1773 in Nancy, in northeastern France. His father, also called Pierre, had distinguished himself as a soldier in the Seven Years’ War. His mother, Jeanne Françoise Lemaure (or Lemort), gave birth to at least 11 children and was particularly long-lived, dying at the age of 95 (or 101) in 1827.
At age 15 Viriot entered a military training school at Pont-à-Mousson. At age 17, in January 1791, he enlisted in a regiment of hussars at Chamboran. After two campaigns in the Moselle, Viriot was sent to the Vendée, in the west of France. He fought against the royalists known as Chouans. In 1793, he married Marie-Françoise-Constance Calonne. They had four sons.
The Clément de Ris affair
By the fall of 1800, Pierre Viriot, then age 27, was a captain of hussars and bore the scars of 14 wounds – five from swords and nine from firearms. One of them had taken out his right eye. He might have gone on to a distinguished career in the Grande Armée. Instead, a temporary appointment forever scarred his life. Viriot was named to a court charged with judging the presumed kidnappers of French Senator Dominique Clément de Ris.
On September 23, 1800, Clément de Ris had been robbed and abducted from his home, the Château de Beauvais, near Azay-sur-Cher, in full view of his wife and servants. The brigands imprisoned him in a cave for 17 days, then set him free in a clearing, from which he returned home. First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, who had appointed Clément de Ris to the Senate, instructed the Minister of Police, Joseph Fouché, to find the guilty parties.
Unbeknownst to Napoleon, Fouché had arranged the kidnapping himself. Hoping that Napoleon would be defeated in the war against the Austrians, Fouché had been conspiring with French Foreign Minister Talleyrand and others to remove the First Consul from power. Clément de Ris had been promised a place in the new government, and Fouché had engaged in a long correspondence with him on the subject. This left Clément de Ris in possession of documents that could seriously compromise Fouché once Napoleon returned victorious from the Battle of Marengo (June 14, 1800). Fouché staged the kidnapping as a cover to retrieve the papers.
Having paid off his thugs, Fouché needed to find scapegoats to appease Napoleon. Ten people were arrested and charged. A special court at Tours recommended the death penalty for former royal army officers Davin Mauduisson, Nicolas Canchy and Étienne Gaudin. All of the accused had strong alibis. They begged to confront Clément de Ris directly, but the senator had made a profitable reconciliation with Fouché and deemed it beneath his dignity to appear at the trial.
Their cases were sent to a special criminal tribunal at Angers, on which Viriot had been called to serve. The president of the court confided to his fellow judges that, in light of the evidence, “a condemnation was impossible.” However, he insinuated that it would be dangerous to displease the government by setting free “men who were its professed enemies.” If not actually guilty, they had,
as old Chouans, deserved death a hundred times in other circumstances. (1)
Viriot disagreed. He wrote a series of notes pointing out the solidity of the men’s alibis and inconsistencies in the witnesses’ testimony. He rode to Paris to plead the cause of the accused before the government. He had interviews with Josephine Bonaparte, the Minister of Justice, and Generals Mortier and Junot, all to no avail. By the time he returned to Angers, the three men were dead. The verdict had been given November 2, 1801 and the execution took place the following day.
In February 1802 Pierre Viriot received notice that, by order of the Consuls, he had been dismissed from the army. He obtained an audience with Napoleon, who asked him why he hadn’t agreed with his fellow judges’ opinion.
Viriot said, ‘I followed the instinct of my conscience.’
‘That may be,” said Napoleon, ‘but the law required you to sign the verdict.’
Viriot replied, ‘The law did not oblige me to dishonour myself.’ (2)
Viriot petitioned to be returned to his position. In 1805 he succeeded in getting Marshal Lefèvre and Joseph Bonaparte to take up his case. Though he was not formally reinstated, Viriot was given several missions in Germany, and served on General Rapp’s staff during the Battle of Austerlitz. Thereafter the Prince of Isembourg engaged him as a military instructor for a regiment he was raising for Napoleon and conferred on him the title of Lieutenant-Colonel. On returning to France, Viriot tried without success to get this title confirmed by the Ministry of War. Finding himself again without employment, he haunted the barracks at Metz, where he and his wife lived. He sometimes went to Paris, begging continually to be restored to his rank, offering at his own expense to “equip ten men, and provide two horses for the artillery-train.” (3)
Viriot’s chance came in January 1814. France was on the point of being invaded by the Sixth Coalition, and the threatened departments were authorized to raise volunteer corps of guerrilla sharpshooters. Viriot was named a colonel of the force organized in the Meurthe. He distinguished himself harassing allied convoys as they moved towards Paris.
Under the Bourbons
After Napoleon abdicated and Louis XVIII ascended the throne, Pierre Viriot was put in command of a depot at Metz that coordinated the return of soldiers arriving from enemy prisons. However an ordinance of January 1815 put on half-pay all the officers who did not have a letter of employment from the Ministry of War (see my post about demi-soldes). This included Viriot.
When Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to France in March of 1815, Pierre Viriot offered his service to the Emperor. He was authorized to raise a corps of 1,000 infantry and 300 cavalry in the departments of Meuse, Moselle, Meurthe and Vosges. After Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and the restoration of the Bourbons to power, Viriot’s corps was disbanded. He was given another position, but held it only until September 1815, when he was arrested and imprisoned on suspicion of being “author, leader, and accomplice of a plot to unite armed bands to fall openly on the rear-guard of the enemy’s troops, when evacuating French territory, and pillage their baggage and treasure.” (4) One of Fouché’s agents may have set him up. In August 1816, Viriot was condemned to 10 years of banishment followed by 10 years of police supervision. On appeal, in January 1817, the banishment was reduced to six months’ imprisonment.
Once free, Viriot wrote to the Ministry of War to relate his grievances and ask to be reinstated in the army. He spoke of his past service, of his honour, and of his sons who had been killed fighting for France at Smolensk and Leipzig. He received a negative reply. Viriot renewed his appeals, accompanied with recommendations from Marshals Davout and Oudinot and Generals Rapp and Belliard, but the bureaucracy refused to revisit its decision. Fouché, though long gone, had ensured that at the beginning of Viriot’s dossier was placed a copy of a report dated 1802, in which Viriot was presented as an
intriguer, who has long been away from the army, and who has been clever enough to pass off the shooting accident which deprived him of his right eye as a wound received in war; one of those people who hang on to all parties and use all events for their own advantage.
According to the report, Viriot had committed “embezzlements and extractions” and had taken money from the accused in the Clément de Ris trial in exchange for a promise to secure their acquittal. (5)
In 1820 Viriot was arrested on suspicion of being involved in the August 19th “French Bazaar” conspiracy, an alleged military plot to overthrow the government. He was acquitted by the Court of Peers. By then he may have accepted the sordid role of informant to the royalist police. Perhaps the regime enticed him with the prospect of future reintegration. Or cooperation may have been the price of having his 1816 sentence reduced. (6) Viriot would have been of some value as a spy, as he still retained friendships with his Bonapartist colleagues, and was also in contact with the Marquis de Lafayette. It is during this period that we find him among the demi-soldes plotting with General Piat in Napoleon in America.
After the Bourbons
During the July Revolution of 1830, Viriot sprang into action at Nanterre, near Paris. He raised the tricolour, formed a national guard and prevented bloodshed between them and a detachment of cuirassiers. A letter from the inhabitants of Nanterre congratulated him for his “wisdom, prudence and energy.” (7)
On October 15, 1830 Viriot addressed a letter to France’s new ruler, Louis Philippe:
It is to the king of the French, to the citizen king, that I address myself to obtain reparation for long and numerous injustices suffered for the cause of liberty and my country.
I can still devote many years of service to my country; I ask to be returned to activity.
I dare say that my name is not without some glory. If my services were an item of disfavour to the old government, if I was surrounded by informers, persecuted, imprisoned, ruined, arbitrarily deprived of the grade acquired through 25 years of service and at the price of 14 wounds, I hope that, under a prince who is an honest man, justice will be rendered to me. (8)
He then offered a defence of his actions in the Clément de Ris trial.
The evidence proved no charge against the accused, nevertheless, they were sentenced to death. I cannot say what means of seduction were used with my colleagues, what offers and what threats were made; … examples of corruption are unfortunately too frequent. Strong in my conviction, I refused to sign the iniquitous verdict; I loudly proclaimed the innocence of the accused, … I made known the true culprits, and exposed the entire plot, but my voice was stifled, and the unfortunate men paid with their lives for a mistake made by the agents of a powerful man…. If I couldn’t save them, I at least have the consolation of having employed all my efforts. (9)
His request for reinstatement was denied. In 1831, Viriot offered to raise a French corps to go the aid of Belgium, whose revolution was under threat by Holland. He was told this was not needed. In 1848, he begged to be put on half pay. Since he had been deprived of his rank, he had received neither pay nor pension. In 1851 he petitioned French President Louis-Napoléon (Napoleon’s nephew, who became Napoleon III), but received no reply. Viriot moved from Nanterre to Livry, where he lived in a cottage in the woods with his wife, who had stuck with him through all his trials.
There are still some persons at Livry who remember having seen these two old people, of whose history they were ignorant. They called Viriot ‘Colonel,’ though they were surprised that there was no red ribbon in his button-hole. He passed his time in gardening, or in arranging his papers, which he never tired of re-perusing. (10)
Pierre Viriot died at Livry on June 10, 1860 at the age of 86.
You might also enjoy:
- Frederic Lees, Romances of the French Revolution, Vol. 1 (London, 1908), p. 349.
- Germain Sarrut and B. Saint-Edme, Biographie des hommes du jour, Vol. 6 (Paris, 1841), p. 90.
- Romances of the French Revolution, p. 352.
- Ibid., p. 354.
- Ibid., pp. 354-56.
- Jean-Marie Thiébaud and Gérard Tissot-Robbe, Les Corps Francs de 1814 et 1815 (Paris, 2011), p. 445.
- Biographie des hommes du jour, Vol. 6, p. 99.
- Ibid., pp. 99-100.
- Ibid., p. 100.
- Romances of the French Revolution, p. 361.
I cannot say what means of seduction were used with my colleagues, what offers and what threats were made; … examples of corruption are unfortunately too frequent. Strong in my conviction, I refused to sign the iniquitous verdict.