Virginie Ghesquière: A Female Napoleonic Soldier
Virginie Ghesquière was a French woman who disguised herself as a man and fought as a soldier in Napoleon’s army. Her story formed the basis of many popular tales, but how much of it was true?
The initial story
Virginie Ghesquière – also spelled Chesquière, Chesquières, or Gesquière – first came to public attention in an article in the October 31, 1812 edition of the French newspaper Journal de l’Empire. Under the dateline “Anvers [Antwerp], October 27,” readers were told:
There is much talk of the courage and devotion of a young lady who replaced her brother, a conscript of 1806, and returned from the army covered with honorable wounds. This is true, and the details deserve to be known. (1)
According to the article, Virginie Ghesquière was born in Deulémont, a town in north-eastern France near Lille. Seeing that her twin brother, who had been called to serve in the army, could not bear the strain of war and wanted to continue his studies, Virginie obtained permission from her parents to go in his place. Disguised as her brother, she entered the 27th Infantry Regiment of the Line, in which she served for six years. She was promoted to the rank of sergeant at the Battle of Wagram for having saved the life of her captain, who had fallen into the Danube river.
At another engagement on May 2 (the year was unspecified) near Lisbon, where the Duke of Abrantès was in command, her colonel was surrounded by the enemy. Virginie asked for six men of good will to join her in going to his aid. Despite a shot she had received in the left arm, she saved the colonel and took two enemy officers as prisoners. She sustained, on that occasion, a wound from a bayonet thrust on her left side. Virginie was transferred to the hospital of Almeida, and from there to that of Burgos, where she was treated without her sex being discovered. However, another illness betrayed her. At the time the article was written, she had just passed through the city of Courtrai on the way to her regimental depot. There she would receive the reward due to her valor and be decorated, by the colonel whom she had saved, “with the honorable mark due to the brave.” (2)
The pretty sergeant
News of Virginie soon spread. Someone named Cadot wrote a popular ballad called “Virginie Chesquière, ou la nouvelle héroïne française,” in which her exploits were lauded. The lyrics were set to the tune of “Partant pour la Syrie,” which had been composed by Napoleon’s stepdaughter and ex-Queen of Holland, Hortense de Beauharnais. “Partant pour la Syrie” was well-known at the time. It is (fictionally) performed at a New Orleans concert for Napoleon in Napoleon in America.
The chorus of Virginie’s ballad can be roughly translated as follows:
With martial ardor
She flies in battle
And is reported everywhere
As a brave soldier. (3)
Over the subsequent decades, the tale was padded with details. Some were important clarifications, including that Virginie was actually part of the 27th Light Infantry Regiment, not the 27th of the Line. (4) Others were probably more fanciful embellishments, including elements of what happened in Portugal.
According to these stories, Virginie’s regiment was suffering in an engagement against a larger British force. The regiment’s colonel (Baron Jean-Étienne Clément-Lacoste), having been struck by a bullet, was lying on the battlefield at the foot of tree. In some versions, he was pinned under his fallen and bloodied horse. The soldiers thought he was dead. As recounted in 1836:
Chesquière, a young sergeant of voltigeurs without a moustache, said to two of his comrades: ‘The body of a colonel is a flag that belongs to the regiment, and the 27th will take it back.’ The three of them set off, but only Chesquière reached the foot of the tree: his two friends had met English bullets along the way.
The poor sergeant without a moustache was small and thin. He made some vain efforts to carry the colonel, but couldn’t lift him onto his shoulders. So the good little sergeant began to cry over the corpse. Chesquière looked here and there, his eyes moist with tears – and the little sergeant had large and beautiful blue eyes with long eyelashes. However, he noticed two English officers approaching the tree, all torn with bullets. Chesquière raised his gun and bayonet, and marched bravely toward the Englishmen. The pretty sergeant of the 27th didn’t cry anymore; he was proud and brilliant. One of the Englishmen received a bullet in the shoulder and fell; the sergeant, who didn’t have time to reload his rifle, ran to the second…. They fought, grabbed each other by the body, and fell, rolling in the dirt and the blood. The good little sergeant was weaker than the huge Englishman and was about to perish, when, by a rapid movement, he disengaged himself and wounded the foreign soldier, who cried for mercy. The second officer stood up, but, since he was weak and suffering, he too was taken prisoner. The sergeant of voltigeurs led them to the tree that sheltered the colonel….
Together they put the colonel on an abandoned horse that was wandering the battlefield. The two Englishmen were attached to the tail of the horse, and Chesquière, pleased with his triumph, led the march of the convoy.
They arrived at the ambulance. What happiness! The colonel was still breathing! But the little sergeant was very pale, very much suffering, and his chest was covered with blood. The Englishman had wounded him.
While the colonel squeezed the hand of his liberator with emotion…the surgeon-major, a tough old man, said to the pretty sergeant: ‘Let’s go, come here, trooper, let me sew up your hide.’
The sergeant blushed; he lowered his eyes. Yes…the sergeant of voltigeurs resisted the old surgeon, who suddenly made Chesquière’s clothes fly here and there, pushed aside his shirt, and saw a beautiful, very white breast, well-rounded and very fresh. The good little sergeant was a young and pretty girl. (5)
The additional details might have come from Virginie, or from those who knew her.
She is still in her village, where she makes an old farmer happy and sometimes tells him about her campaigns.
I have heard from a quartermaster of the 27th, who knew Sergeant Chesquière, that an old corporal, the ex-bedmate of Chesquière, was never able to console himself for not having guessed the little sergeant’s secret. [Chesquière] had beautiful skin, white hands, a fresh mouth. The old corporal often said, ‘Oh! Women, they always deceive.’ He died single, poor man. (6)
The story of Virginie Ghesquière appeared in a number of children’s books. These expanded upon her family life and the circumstances that led her to take the place of her brother. For example, in a story by Eugénie Foa called “La Soeur du Conscrit” (The Conscript’s Sister), Virginie was presented as a poor, uneducated, country girl. Her father was blind; her family had suffered numerous misfortunes; and her parents had no means of support except her brother, who was the only one strong enough to move the plough. He was also engaged to be married. Virginie decided to leave them, and it broke her heart to do so, but she knew that her brother’s departure would ruin the family, whereas hers would harm no one. After years of brave and virtuous service in the army, she returned to her family. Her parents were still alive; her brother and his wife had a little daughter whom they had named Virginie, in honor of her. Several young men wanted to marry her, but since she did not want to leave her family again, she refused them all. Soldiers praised her bravery. Mothers praised her modesty and wisdom. (7)
In some stories, Virginie’s brother died of a fever shortly before she returned.
Fact versus fiction
One might wonder how a woman could go undetected in the French army for six years, given that soldiers lived in close quarters, shared beds, and used communal latrines. Although women could serve as canteen keepers (cantinières), laundresses (blanchisseuses) and petty merchants (vivandières), they were not allowed to join the ranks as soldiers. Nonetheless, Virginie managed to do so in disguise, and she was not the only one. Her predecessors included Angélique Brûlon, Marie Schellinck, Rose-Alexandrine Barreau, and Félicité and Théophile Fernig, as well as Marie-Thérèse Figueur (although the latter did not hide that she was female). During Virginie’s time in the army, Jeanne-Louise Antonini had long been disguised as a man and was serving as a sergeant. A woman named Léger was said to have joined the 27th light infantry – the same regiment as Virginie – under the name of Antoine Perrier. (8) So that aspect of Virginie’s story is not necessarily unbelievable.
There is, however, at least one questionable aspect. According to the majority of stories about Virginie Ghesquière, as well as the song about her, she was decorated with the cross of the Legion of Honor. Indeed, the engraved print of the song depicts a marshal of France giving Virginie this award. However, women were not allowed to receive the Legion of Honor before 1852, and Virginie (under any variant of her surname) is not listed in Léonore, the index of the holders of the Order of the Legion of Honor. This discrepancy could possibly be explained by observing that the original article does not specify that the award Virginie received was the Legion of Honor. Virginie might have received some other decoration, and later writers might have made a false assumption about what that was. Alternatively, Virginie’s award could have been listed in the archives that were destroyed when the headquarters of the Legion of Honor burned to the ground during the Paris Commune uprising in 1871.
Doubts about Virginie’s military career came to full light in an article by French historian Léonce Grasilier published in 1917. Grasilier investigated Virginie’s record of service and found that she was listed as Jean-Baptiste Ghesquière, born at Deulémont on June 11, 1786. She joined the army as a conscript in 1806, deserted, received an amnesty, and then, on May 19, 1810, joined the 27th regiment of light infantry. Less than two months later, on July 11, she deserted again. She returned on November 26, 1810, and was tried and readmitted to the regiment on March 2, 1811. After deserting for a third time, on August 15, 1811 (coincidentally Napoleon’s birthday), she was arrested on August 28 in the department of la Vienne and held at the depot in Poitiers. She had no identity papers. When interrogated, Virginie replied that she was Jean-Baptiste Ghesquière, a sergeant-major in the 27th light infantry. She had lost her papers and was going to Paris to obtain a retirement pension because of injury. On November 18, she left Poitiers in a convoy of deserters destined for the Strasbourg depot. When the convoy went through Bourges on November 26, she was so ill that she had to be taken to the hospital. There her sex was recognized. “This girl,” said a report “was compelled to explain herself.” Virginie related her history. An investigation was launched, resulting in her dismissal from the army in 1812.
Grasilier, who was writing primarily to debunk the claim that Virginie had received – or merited – the Legion of Honor, judged her harshly. He called her “a cheeky lying adventuress” who was “very good at publicity and sounding the trumpets of fame in her favor.” She “knew how to deceive people, and shamelessly deceived herself.” (9)
A more charitable possible interpretation is laid out by “Cornemeuse d’Ecosse” on the Forum des Amis du Patrimoine Napoléonien. Cornemeuse notes that Virginie reached the rank of sergeant, or sergeant-major, which implies that she was, for the most part, a responsible soldier. He speculates that her first desertion happened after the Battle of Wagram (July 5-6, 1809) – in which Virginie could have participated, given that some elite companies of the 27th light infantry were attached to General Oudinot’s Grenadier Division, and seven officers from her regiment were wounded in that battle – and was simply a visit home. Deulémont was not far from the depot of the 27th light infantry at Aix-de-Chapelle. Or perhaps Virginie did not desert at all and was just rejoining the main regiment after spending time with Oudinot’s grenadiers (i.e., Grasilier might have misinterpreted the record).
Cornemeuse has no explanation for Virginie’s second disappearance, between July 11 and November 26, 1810. On March 5, 1811, three days after Virginie was readmitted to the regiment, the 27th light infantry fought in the Battle of Barossa in Spain. Two months later, the regiment participated in an attempt to relieve the besieged French garrison at the fortress of Almeida in Portugal. This was the engagement of May 2 to which the original article about Virginie referred, although the commander-in-chief was Marshal Masséna, not the Duke of Abrantès. The light infantry of General Drouet’s corps (including the 27th regiment) pushed English skirmishers toward Fuentes de Oñoro, where the French fought a losing battle from May 3 to 5, 1811.
Virginie may have saved her colonel, but she was reportedly wounded. Cornemeuse wonders if her sex was discovered on that occasion, as indicated in the stories involving the doctor. In that case, her third desertion (in August 1811) might have been an attempt to continue to hide her identity. Her regiment was south of Bayonne, but Virginie was arrested in la Vienne. This implies she covered some 420 km in 13 days. She might have been trying to put a lot of distance behind her, before the bureaucracy could catch up.
Cornemeuse also suggests that if Virginie was ill or wounded, it would have been risky for her to be treated by an army doctor, as her sex could easily be discovered. Thus, one or more of her desertions might have involved seeking treatment and recovering elsewhere, so that she could remain a soldier. (10)
In any case, Virginie had to leave the Grande Armée in 1812.
The death of Virginie Ghesquière
In mid-December 1867, Parisian newspapers reported that Virginie Ghesquière had recently died of old age at the Hospice des Petits-Ménages in Issy. She was 80 years old. It was noted that she had some years earlier fallen into a state of “infancy” and remembered absolutely nothing. (11) She was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. A street in Lille is named after her.
Some accounts say that Virginie died in 1874, but those are based on copies of the 1867 death notices that reappeared in 1874 newspapers. Some newspapers reported that Virginie was almost 100 years old when she died. Based on the birth date found on her military records, that is false.
Another female Napoleonic soldier, Marie-Thérèse Figueur, also retired to the Hospice des Petits-Ménages and died there in January 1861. One hopes that she and Virginie had a chance to reminisce together there, before their memories disappeared.
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- Journal de l’Empire, October 31, 1812, p. 1.
- Ibid., p. 2.
- Joseph Vingtrinier, Chants et Chansons des Soldats de France (Paris, 1902), p. 58.
- Pierre-François Tissot, Trophées des Armées Françaises, depuis 1792 jusqu’en 1815, Vol. IV, (Paris, 1820), p. 391.
- Joachim Ambert, Esquisses Historiques, Psychologiques et Critiques de l’Armée Française, Second Edition, Vol. I (Saumur, 1837), pp. 366-367.
- Ibid., p. 367.
- Eugénie Foa, Bibliothèque Historique de la Jeunesse (Paris, 1850), pp. 227-250.
- Léon Hennet, “Femmes Soldats dans les Armées de la Révolution,” La Nouvelle Revue, Vol. 40 (Paris, March-April, 1919), p. 349.
- Léonce Grasilier, “Les Femmes et la Légion d’Honneur,” La Nouvelle Revue, Vol. 31 (Paris, September-October, 1917), p. 247.
- “Cornemeuse d’Ecosse” on the message board of Forum des Amis du Patrimoine Napoléonien, https://lesapn.forumactif.fr/t10195-au-sujet-de-virginie-ghesquieres. Accessed March 22, 2023.
- Le Petit Journal, Paris, December 14, 1867, p. 3.
4 commments on “Virginie Ghesquière: A Female Napoleonic Soldier”
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There is much talk of the courage and devotion of a young lady who replaced her brother, a conscript of 1806, and returned from the army covered with honorable wounds.
Journal de l'Empire
The mortal combat experience gave her the will to live until the ripe old age of 80. Especially in those days. Hopefully, she received a well earned pension for her sterling service.
Thanks for your comment, John. I hope so too!
What an excellent piece of writing. The French Revolution had dozens of French female fighters – and in the end their ventures for respect as equals met with horrible retributions by blockheaded Revolutionary leaders.
Thanks. It is terrible how many of them wound up being arrested and executed.