The French Revolution Was Actually Very Messed Up

The French Revolution was really messed up

french revolution

The French Revolution is one of those historical events that everyone can agree was both super important, and super messed up, but very few regular folk actually know all that much about. The layperson’s mental map of the political convulsions that gripped France at the end of the 18th century goes something like: “Fall of the Bastille, execution of the king, guillotine … umm, Napoleon?” Of all those things, the one that has really stuck in the cultural memory is the freaky part where everyone went crazy and started chopping off each other’s heads: The Reign of Terror.

But gory as it was, the Terror was really only one messed up aspect of the gigantic pile of Eton mess known as the French Revolution. While about 17,000 people got guillotined in the ten months of the Terror, all this bloodshed was just a drop in the ocean compared to the other crazy stuff that was going on at the same time. Forget baskets full of heads and executions on the streets of Paris. The seriously messed up stuff was happening elsewhere.

The storming of the Bastille was super gory

Storming Bastille

Henry Singleton/Wikimedia Commons

Even 230 years on, Bastille Day is still celebrated in France each July 14. The traditional beginning of the French Revolution, it commemorates when the oppressed masses of Paris spontaneously rose up in 1789 and tore down that hated symbol of royal tyranny the Bastille, freeing those imprisoned inside. Well, that’s the Spark Notes version. In reality, the Bastille was nearly empty, and the mob who overwhelmed its defenses lynched the guy running it.

The whole thing was a major embarrassment. The mob were less interested in freeing prisoners than in getting their hands on the Bastille’s weapons cache, which may explain why the guards shot 80 of the attackers dead. When the guy running the Bastille, Bernard-Rene Jourdan de Launay, surrendered, the mob didn’t play nice.

De Launay was dragged through Paris by an armed gang and dumped before a mob outside the Hotel de Ville, who loudly debated the nastiest way to kill him. As the Encyclopedia Britannica describes it, de Launay responded by screaming “Enough! Let me die!” and kicking a man right in the babymakers. The crowd immediately fell on him, stabbed him to death, and sawed his head off. A butcher’s apprentice then chopped up the rest of his body, handing out bits of de Launay to the crowd to wave in grisly triumph. They then lynched two more Bastille guards, because of course they did.

The infernal columns earn their nickname

When the French Revolution hit, the Vendee region in Western France was seriously unimpressed. As a poor, pious region it was a total nonstarter for the revolution’s anti-clerical, middle-class bent. When the revolutionary government in Paris introduced forced conscription in February 1793, it was the last straw. The region exploded into rebellion (via Britannica). With the regular Revolutionary Army incapable of quashing the uprising, Paris turned to General Louis Marie Turreau, a man with a big idea, at least in terms of body count. Turreau wanted to conduct genocide.

As Mike Duncan explains in his Revolutions podcast, Turreau created something known as the Infernal Columns. Bands of armed men, they were given explicit orders to march into the Vendee and move from village to village, killing everyone in their path. Men, women, and children were mass executed, their livestock slaughtered, and their homes burned to the ground. The idea was that massacring civilians would shock the rebels into abandoning their fight, but it only made them fight even harder. So Turreau’s columns of fiery death kept right on marching and killing until there was almost no one left to kill.

The Infernal Columns alone killed an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 civilians during the War in the Vendee, while the broader conflict killed up to 170,000 (via The Telegraph). The Reign of Terror, by contrast, killed 17,000. As recently as 2008, the Vendee was still asking Paris to recognize the Infernal Columns as genocide.

The Nantes baptisms

Drownings at Nantes french revolution

Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a toughie. You’re a French Revolutionary general placed in charge of pacifying a rebellious city where most of the population could be classed as counterrevolutionary. How do you make peace without simply killing everyone in sight? If you’re Revolutionary Tribunal member Jean-Baptiste Carrier, there’s no problem at all: you mass drown everyone and declare mission complete!

As the guy in charge of dispensing revolutionary justice in Nantes from November 1793 to February 1794, Carrier was nothing if not efficient. While his colleagues let the guillotine do all the work, Carrier was inventing new ways to kill more people with more speed. On November 16, he had a barge built that could be sunk in the Loire river at his command. That evening, Carrier used his new toy to simultaneously drown 90 priests. The results delighted him so much he named the process “Nantes baptisms.”

In no time at all, Carrier’s baptisms had moved on from priests to the entire population of Nantes. As Revolutions podcast describes, he took an almost sadistic pleasure in his work. Hundreds of men, women, and children would be drowned while Carrier ate fine foods on the bank. Men and women would be stripped naked, tied together, and hurled into the Loire in “Republican marriages.” All told, Carrier managed to drown anywhere between 2,000 and 9,000 civilians in just three months.

This was too gory even for the revolutionaries. In December 1794, Carrier was convicted of mass murder and guillotined (via Britannica).

Robespierre’s extremely bloody downfall

maximilien robespierre

Wikimedia Commons

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