Captain Peruset's War

We are perhaps used to considering Napoleon’s regimental officers as being young heroes, who fought their way to glory on the battlefields of central Europe. Men who, in their twenties, led their men forward, shako on the tips of their swords, on such historic and glorious occasions as Austerlitz, Jena, Borodino or Waterloo. But, in many cases, the truth was more prosaic, the glory elusive.

Napoleon’s officers were a mixed lot. Some, indeed, were comparatively young, but others had begun their careers in the decade of conflict which followed the French revolution. They had been unsuccessful in their attempts to rise up beyond the rank of company officers, but laboured away in the service of the republic, consulate or empire, remaining at the sharper, more brutal, end of their profession.

Nor did all of them witness the glory of French victory in the set-piece battles which elevated France to hegemony over Europe, and confirmed Napoleon as the greatest soldier of the age. Indeed, many were to live out their lives in the forgotten wars of the republic and the empire, securing territory, suppressing dissent, and rarely experiencing battle against their Austrian, Russian or British counterparts. They were absent from the pages of the victorious bulletins, but kept dangerously close to the insurgent’s knife.

One such individual was Jean-Baptiste-Désiré-Joseph Peruset. This Belgian was already a captain in 1794 and would retire, with the same rank, in 1809. He was certainly brave and dedicated, but promotion evaded him. Perhaps it was because he fought predominantly in campaigns against massed bands of peasants in central Italy, and then in Portugal and Spain, far from the sight of the influential, and of Napoleon himself. But perhaps it was also because of a spectacular misdemeanour by the good captain. It took place in 1799, whilst Peruset was at war in central Italy, hounded by Neapolitan irregulars and enraged peasants, and it seemingly blighted his career. Indeed, only his bravery saved him from degradation and the ultimate shame of being cashiered.

Peruset was born in Termonde (Dendermonde) in the Austrian Netherlands on 25 April 1759 to Therese Wattier and Sebastien Pousset. His early life is something of a mystery but he was quick to volunteer to serve the French Revolution, going to Brussels to enlist in the 2nd Bataillon Belge in early 1793. He was a captain by 1794, initially appointed to the 3rd Battalion of Tirailleurs before it was absorbed by the 15th Light, the unit in which Peruset would spend the rest of his career. He fought under General Bernadotte in Germany in 1796, before marching into Italy with his unit in 1797 and pushing into Austria. After spending the winter of 1797 in Udine, the 15th Light was then called down to Rey’s troops around Ancona in early 1798.

Rome had been turned into a republic and occupied by the French that February but, in the surrounding countryside, a reaction to republican rule deteriorated into a violent insurgency, stirred by Bourbon Naples. At Viterbo, for example, a crowd, chanting “Kill the French! Exterminate the godless race! Praise God! Praise the Madonna! Death to the enemies of God!” attacked a French detachment. Representatives of the republican government, and any of their families and supporters brave enough to remain outside the walls of Rome, were being attacked and intimidated by bands of rebels, often supported by local landowners or the clergy. Ambushes and raids were punctuated by the burning of villages by one side or the other, the sacking and pillaging of rivals’ property and factional murders and vendettas. Central Italy was overshadowed by an intense and universal settling of scores. Colonel Girardon, based to the south of Rome that summer, felt overwhelmed: “I have no information as to the number of rebels; it is the entire country. The woods are full of them. It is just like the Vendée!” And he went on to lament the injustice and anguish of this civil war:

“The Italian, born vindictive, finds it rather useful that we will shoot his personal enemy if he denounces him to us. If we had done that, then Circeo would be entirely depopulated.”

It was a civil war marred by ever-increasing levels of cruelty:

“Inspector Franchi was burned alive with the tree of liberty and just about all of his family were massacred with the exception of the very young children and these Bisleti had pardoned but only after they were to be operated on in such a way as to extinguish the family forever. The Prefect Consul of Bauco had his eyes gauged out and was exhibited throughout the county in that condition. Inspector Vinciguerra of Alatri was burned alive in his house and his wife raped. In all 250 public servants and patriots, amongst which were the son of Consul [Giacomo] Mattheis of Frosinone, were massacred with all the refinements of cruelty that these people are capable of.”

The French had too few troops, and many of those starving, badly clothed and unpaid, to suppress the rebels. But there were other problems. The 15th Light were sent south of Rome that summer because the situation with the kingdom of Naples became much more tense. They were to take up positions along a Neapolitan frontier now menaced by Neapolitan incursions and securing the border became vital as insurgents were calling for, and receiving, Neapolitan assistance. This assistance was enthusiastically forthcoming, and an Italian agent, Giuseppe Maria Jacobelli, reported on 30 July 1798 that:

“Yesterday morning the Neapolitan courier came into Ferentino bringing the king’s reply to the people there for they were desired to rise up and they all agreed to do so and were shown the heads of two Frenchmen and it was promised that tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, there would be troops sent to Frosinone.”

Munitions and arms were being sent over the border by Naples and so too were military advisers. Following one defeat at the hands of the French troops commanded by Colonel Girardon he discovered that

“Amongst the rebels killed at Frosinone, a man wearing the epaulettes of a colonel was found and his hat was fringed with gold and had the Neapolitan cockade. The cockade was shown to me.”

Chasing insurgents and intercepting Neapolitan help was wearing the French troops out. It almost destroyed the Polish auxiliaries who formed an important part of the French army in Italy. On 5 August Girardon complained about his battle-weary Polish contingent, noting:

“The Poles have bare feet and plead for shoes. I forgot to mention something about them. After Frosinone was taken I marched on Alatry with 400 men. Half way there the Poles lay down and refused to budge. I asked the officers, who were shocked, what was happening and they told me that the soldiers were complaining that they should not have to take part in two attacks per day. I failed to convince them that we were not operating in friendly territory.”

He then wrote to General Macdonald in Rome:

“Send me Frenchmen and have the Poles return to Rome if you can, for they have committed atrocities which my pen refuses to describe. They do not listen to anyone and the sight of the body of one of their comrades made them furious.”

This was daily life for the French army of occupation in central Italy. But developments took a twist that autumn. A new general, Championnet, arrived to take over and prepare for what everyone felt was an inevitable Neapolitan attempt to retake Rome. As the storm clouds gathered, the 15th Light, commanded by Peruset’s fellow Belgian Louis-Joseph Lahure, was sent to Tivoli, by the Neapolitan frontier, in order to protect Rome should the Neapolitans carry out their risky enterprise.

They did, pushing forwards under the Austrian Mack, that November. The French fell back, abandoning Rome, so they could concentrate their forces to the north, the 15th Light, under General Kellerman, forming part of the rearguard. They were attacked by insurgents at Nepi and, in retaliation, burnt down the town. When the French finally turned against the regular soldiers of Naples at Civita-Castellana, Mack’s army disintegrated and fled back through Rome and into Naples, abandoning guns and treasure, and shedding deserters.

But as the French pursued, crossing into Neapolitan territory on 20 December during a brief period of good weather, they found themselves amidst yet another insurgency. The Bourbon royal family had called the Neapolitan nation to arms, and bands of peasants, or opportunistic brigands, swollen by deserters and disbanded militias, harried the French, attacking any French column or detachment they could find. Perturbed by such a reaction, the French nevertheless pushed on towards Naples, General Rey making for Gaeta, whilst Championnet, with the 15th Light, moved on San Germano. General Duhesme, known as General Bayonet, picked the short straw and was ordered to advance from the Abruzzo, through the Molise, and join Championnet before Capua. Captain Villemard of the 78th Line wrote to his father that

“Before marching on Naples we had to deal with a number of places where the inhabitants had taken up arms against us. The little town of Teramo had, in particular, been killing off a number of soldiers who were straggling. We sent our 3rd Battalion to disarm them. It found 5000 armed peasants who had gathered from the surrounding villages. The little town, no bigger than Beaune, did not wish to surrender … After a great deal of killing, of men and women, the leaders were shot. Amongst these were a great number of priests.”

Duhesme, and Villemard, would have to march through territory where the insurgency was strongest, and animosity towards the republicans the most bitter. The French, conditioned to consider themselves as liberators, were shocked by an uprising that was as savage as it was desperate, even the most battle-hardened amongst them were appalled. Jean Chatton, of the 17th Line, discovered the body of a chasseur from the 7th Light skewered “all black and burnt” having been roasted over a fire at Popoli. The French advance was held up as each village and every town resisted. Chatton remembered that

“In the hills here there are pretty towns and lots of beautiful villages. We pillaged them, we burnt the villages, we seized the wine from the cellars. The brigands hid in their houses and fired at us. In order to get them out we set fire to their villages, cooking them like herrings on the grill.”

There was little mercy in such an unforgiving struggle. One of Championnet’s aides de camp, Captain Claye, tried to make it through to Duhesme. He was betrayed, killed, and his body cut up with an axe and fed to the dogs.

Despite this desperate resistance, and an attempt by the populace of Naples to defend the capital, Championnet’s army was victorious and, on 23 January, established the short-lived Neapolitan Republic. The insurgency continued, however, and, in order not to be besieged in their urban fortress, the French and their republican allies, soon began to push detachments out to deter the royalists, assert some republican authority and ensure supplies for a needy capital.

So, that January the 15th Light was scattered around the former royal palace at Caserta, attempting to pacify the territory, keeping communications to Rome open, and living off the land. It watched as republican administrations sprang up in the neighbouring towns, and republican rule was imposed. Further afield, however, the situation was more problematic. With the royal family fled to Sicily, and the former kingdom mired in anarchy, a number of towns and villages across the land declared themselves republican. The gentlemen, lawyers and doctors, and a few enlightened clergy, began raising tress of liberty and forming civic militias to keep order. Most then called for help from the newly established republican authorities in Naples. In many cases, before such help could be received, armed bands counter-attacked, gleefully burning trees of liberty, and pillaging the houses of those they labelled Jacobins.

Championnet, keen to support France’s sister republic, and bolster the fledgling centres of republicanism in the provinces, prepared to organise expeditions to be sent into Puglia, on the Adriatic seaboard, and to Calabria in the south. He raised some Neapolitan legions and sent Duhesme eastwards. To support Duhesme’s division, and improve communication with the garrisons at Pescara and Ancona, he also determined to secure the province of the Molise. Mountainous, remote Molise had a reputation as the Neapolitan bad-lands, a school for bandits and smugglers operating on both sides of the Papal-Neapolitan border, and it was already in ferment. Worse, the insurgents were gaining ground and Giuseppe Pronio, the leader of some armed bands hovering around Pescara, was soon organising a small royalist army on its eastern fringes.

The region’s capital, Campobasso, was a small town of 5500 people, but it was key to control of the entire region around the Molise. General Rusca’s troops had avoided the town in January, passing through nearby Isernia on the way to Capua and Naples. They had brushed aside 500 armed locals who tried to interrupt their march, and pillaged some of Isernia’s churches and houses, and briefly left a small garrison there to maintain order.

The French presence, and the threat of having their property burned by insurgents, encouraged the progressives of Campobasso to plant a tree of liberty in the San Leonardo square, to declare the town republican, and to elect a municipal authority. They were encouraged to do this by an emissary from the new republic, Pompeo De Capua. However, this early attempt at liberty and fraternity, if not equality, was menaced by the local royalist bands, led by two captains, Cuccillo and Furia, and a gang of Albanians who had declared themselves loyal to the king. This nearby royalist presence encouraged a crowd, on 10 February, to rise up and cut the tree of liberty to pieces. Some were killed, but a number of republicans managed to flee to Naples, appealing for help. The French, who had just sent Duhesme’s division towards Puglia, decided they could kill two birds with one stone by simultaneously securing Duhesme’s left flank and also assisting Campobasso. So, at the end of February, they determined to form a mobile column and send it to the town.

The column was to consist of a company of the 15th Light, a detachment of Poles from the Polish Legion and some troopers of the 11th Cavalry, all under the command of Captain Peruset. They were to take a piece of artillery and be accompanied by Andrea Valiante, a Neapolitan capo di brigata, who was to serve as the district’s commissioner, assisted by a detachment of mounted volunteers.

Peruset’s little column reached Campobasso on 5 March. The French marched in to see that the inhabitants had resurrected a tree of liberty to placate them, but, to ensure future docility, arrested 80 royalists. Andrea Valiante, energetically commencing his career as commissioner, set about creating a republican centre out of the town. A court was formed to try rebels and Campobasso re-raised a civic guard, commanded by Pasquale Salottolo, and organised some gendarmes. To underline the town’s new status as capital of republican Molise, a civil ceremony was held on 24 March in which the civic guard paraded and a royal banner was trampled under horses’ hooves before then being cut into shreds.

However, the civic guard could not be deployed outside the confines of the town, and Andrea Valiante relied on his volunteers to harry the brigands and to extend his control. A series of running battles was the result with the republicans and the French sometimes acting as the cat, sometimes as the mouse. The royalists were undeterred and, indeed, their number seemed to be growing with a band of 600 men, under Evangelisa Santilli, making life difficult for republicans in a wide circle around Campobasso. Peruset and Valiante fought back, sending patrols out in an attempt to keep in contact with Benevento (and, from there, Naples, where General Macdonald was now in command), troops from Duhesme’s division at Sansevero, and the republicans at Larino, but communications were never really secured. Patrols were also sent in an attempt to maintain security in the town’s environs, chiefly by imposing loyalty on neighbouring communes and having them, too, raise forces for the republic. On 9 March Commissioner Valiante authorised Ripolimosani to raise a civic guard “well armed, but which should be composed of patriots and of sufficient number to put an end to the insurgency, defend the tree of liberty, and, should there be an attack, to be able to punish the rebels, in military fashion”. Those failing to obey were menaced with unfortunate consequences. On 13 March, for example, the French marched into Montenero Val Cocchiara, a resident noting

“The French troops have come here from Campobasso, bringing with them some of their followers, all armed, along with artillery and with mules, and, because we had not followed their instructions, and had not planted the infamous tree of liberty or established a municipal authority, threatened to sack and burn the place.”

The town escaped with a fine of 60 ducats. This imposition of such contributions reflected the republic’s need for money, but it also served as punishment of transgressions, such as feeding the royalists or harbouring spies. Around Campobasso it became common practice, by both sides. Sometimes, the French demands were strange. Peruset once ordered Larino to send two docile mules, to pull the French artillery. But they mostly demanded money or food, or money and food. That spring Oratino was visited by Valiante and the French cavalry and was fined 75 ducats and ordered to show obedience to the republic. Baranello paid 102 ducats, whilst a resident of Bojano noted “in order to avoid the sacking of the town, as the French troops threatened, and that nobody was hurt, 44 ducats”. Peruset himself collected 100 ducats from Casacalenda on 13 April.

Sometimes demands came in the form of contributions for money and for supplies. On 14 May Peruset rode into Cantalupo with 140 mounted troops and demanded that the mayor, Andrea Monaco, pay 90 ducats and provide forage, ham, poultry, eggs and bacon to a value of 75 ducats. Peruset signed the receipt, “the commander of the French column, Peruset”.

Sometimes the immediate need was for food alone, Campobasso needed to be fed and the French and republicans, who sometimes managed to mobilise 600 men, required a constant supply of rations and forage. As the roads were dangerous for trade, and their authority outside the town tenuous, they relied on going out and levying requisitions on neighbouring communities so they could maintain themselves. Sometimes requests were modest, Campodipietra sent a cow and 30 lambs to Campobasso on 14 March and Sant’Elia a Pianisi was ordered to send a “nice, fat cow” for the French. The cow was evidently not enough, for Valiante wrote to Sant’Elia a Pianisi on 9 April that

“In order to restore peace to the commune of S. Elia I have determined to come to you on the morning of the 23rd [12 April] and therefore I request that you prepare quarters, food and forage for 50 horses and 50 troopers, taking care that 12 of those horses and 14 soldiers should be kept close at hand and provided with forage and hay. There are 15 officers.

For your security and peace of mind, you should send a delegation of worthy citizens to come out to meet us. On the approach of our troops everyone shall deposit blades and firearms beneath the tree of liberty, upon pain of death. A monetary contribution, in order to assist in uniforming and providing for the troops, should also be furnished. You are invited to act without delay if you value your tranquillity.”

On 27 April Peruset demanded that the village of Morrone arrange that two barrels of wine, 20 rations of meat, 50 loaves of bread, 20 sacks of barley and hay be prepared at the Tavern of the Withered Oak. It was one such demand for food, this time for cattle, that got Peruset in trouble and risked his hitherto distinguished career. His letter was to the commune of Sant’Elia a Pianisi on 29 March:

“Contribution requested by General Peruset from the commune of S Elia: the great expenses which are incurred every day in order to maintain the French column which is based here, and which accompanied Commissioner General Citizen Andrea Valiante in order to bring peace and tranquillity to this region, so greatly afflicted by the insurgency and rebellion against the glorious government of the republic, cannot and should not be borne uniquely by the community where the troops are stationed.

And as the said troops lack beef, the commune of S. Elia is requested to bring to Campobasso, by next Sunday, the 11th of this month [31 March], 15 well-fatted cows. If not, then on Monday morning, the 12th of this month, I shall come with a sufficient body of troops and oblige this community to instantly hand over two pieces of silver for each soldier and for each day.

Greetings and fraternity.

PS I hope that the commune will move quickly, if not I shall write to General Macdonald.”

The French republic’s general, Macdonald, was not so egalitarian that he could allow such an act of insubordination. General Peruset would be punished for assuming a rank above his station.

However, for now Peruset was being kept busy. He was still leading expeditions through the region, meting out justice, imposing tranquillity. Then, in early May, he embarked on a more ambitious operation, taking his troops, along with 400 patriots and a detachment of Antonio Belpusi’s Legion Sannitica, up to Trivento in an attempt to reopen communications with the republican garrison at Pescara. The mobile column broke into the town, but could not penetrate much beyond and so turned back, leaving a garrison. The French didn’t return directly to Campobasso but took a circuitous route a little to the west, forcing Frosolone to hand over a cow, worth 29 ducats, and to pay 600 ducats as a contribution, before returning to their little capital.

That capital was now seriously isolated, as indeed was Naples. The royalists were on the offensive against the republic, and seemed everywhere victorious. Cardinal Ruffo’s army of the Holy Faith had advanced out of Calabria and was marching on Naples. A small expeditionary force, commanded by Chevalier Micheroux, had landed in Puglia and, along with 500 Russians and irregulars commanded by some Anglo-Corsican adventurers, was quickly dismantling the republic along the Adriatic coast. To add to republican discomfort, a small fleet, under Captain Troubridge, blockaded Naples itself. Worse was to follow. The Austrians had finally declared war on the French and were invading northern Italy. Early French defeats forced their commanders in Lombardy to call for reinforcements, requiring the army under Macdonald to quit Naples, and march off to face the Russians and Austrians. Macdonald left General of brigade Girardon in charge of a small garrison at Capua and a smaller garrison at St Elmo fort in Naples.

The bulk of the 15th Light had been sent north with Macdonald, the unit being part of Salme’s brigade in the vanguard. Unfortunately, they left Peruset and his detachment behind. This hadn’t been the plan. On 11 May Girardon had written to the captain informing him of the series of unfortunate events and ordering him to march on Capua:

“By sending you the enclosed order, Citizen, I have to warn you that the Army of Naples is marching to assist that of Italy and that the commander in chief has ordered me to remain here and take command. We occupy St Elmo, Capua and Gaeta. This makes it clear that you must immediately carry out the order. You will also understand that it is imperative to take all the precautions necessary, above all avoiding any pillaging which always angers the populace”.

The order and Girardon’s letter were sent down to Naples so they could be sent on to Campobasso, the Neapolitan authorities were to employ “someone trusted” as a courier, as Girardon lacked messengers. Nothing happened. On 25 May he had to ask the government what had become of this correspondence as he had heard nothing since. This time the order made it to Peruset, which was just as well because his men were now in grave danger.

The noose was tightening around the French detachment. Foggia had fallen to Micheroux on 21 May and Larino to the north fell on 27 May. Hitherto loyal communities now began to desert the republic, and by the end of May Peruset was desperately trying to use force and threats to keep villages from declaring themselves royalist. On 29 May he wrote from Campobasso to the administrators of Bonefro, menacing them with reprisals for having allowed their tree of liberty to be cut down:

“Campobasso, 29 May

Commandant Peruset to the citizens of Bonefro

Citizens, whilst your conduct does not merit any kind of pardon, your deputation has convinced me that you are truly penitent and wish to mend your ways and so you shall experience republican generosity which will be conferred upon you under the following conditions:

Wishing to restore tranquillity to your region, all weapons should be handed over to the municipality and these shall then be presented to me so that I might distribute them to the civic guard.

The tree of liberty must be restored, and republican authority respected.

You must live a quiet life, treating others as your brothers, concentrating only on your own work and business.

You should send 20 men to me who shall be armed by me and these, acting as a token of your patriotism and repentance, shall join my forces and wage war against those obstinate brigands who do not wish to surrender.

If you meet these conditions, you shall, on my word of honour, be accorded pardon but if, after tomorrow or the latest, by noon of the day after tomorrow, you have not fulfilled these conditions, the pardon shall be withdrawn and you shall experience the full wrath of the French army and the patriots. In addition, I remind you that this pardon shall confer upon you the many benefits of living in the republic, which it offered before but which you treated with rank ingratitude. However, this is the last time a pardon will be offered and the protection of the French conferred, and should you, in future, abuse it, I promise there will be horrible consequences.”

The writing was on the wall, however, and the region was slipping inexorably out of the republic’s hands. A poorly organised republican offensive sent out from Nola and Benevento in an attempt to break through to isolated patriots in the provinces failed, spelling the end for the republicans of the Molise. So, under the protection of a rearguard of Poles, under Lieutenant Vastalegna, and a band of republicans, Campobasso was evacuated on the evening of 4 June. Peruset and Nicola Neri took as many supporters as they could, including Valiante’s family, for Valiante himself was in Naples asking for assistance, and emptied the prison of royalist prisoners. The column marched out, escorting these prisoners and a little convoy of wagons. It was just as well for, on 6 June, Campobasso fell to 2,000 royalist troops under the Anglo-Corsican adventurer, Giambattista De Cesaris. He demanded a contribution of 10,000 ducats, payable within six hours. The royalists soon moved on, satisfied with 6,000 ducats, and marched on Benevento. Meanwhile, the towns around Campobasso were pillaged by Santilli’s men and 200 Albanians under Nazario Campofreda.

Peruset and the French column were moving quickly, passing through Campochiaro, pursued by royalists, but they were forced to abandon their piece of artillery, which they spiked. Even so they were in imminent danger of being overrun by De Cesaris’ cavalry and they only saved themselves by taking the backroads through the hills to Piedimonte. There they were joined by a band of patriots, who added to the number of royalist prisoners they were escorting, and the strengthened column set out for Capua.

Girardon recorded in his diary that Peruset’s detachment marched in on 6 June:

“A detachment of 40 chasseurs of the 15th Light, 40 Poles and six troopers of the 11th Cavalry, who had remained in Campobasso and had not joined the main army as it retreated, arrived at Capua having been forced from there by the insurgents from the Abruzzo, and having lost a mountain gun. 200 patriots from Piedimonte joined them, bringing along 120 royalist prisoners.”

Later that same day he had decided what to do with this mobile column: “Nearly 200 patriots from Campobasso have arrived and have brought 120 brigands who are prisoners. I’m sending them all to Naples.”

And then notified the Neapolitan government, telling the Executive Commission that “I’m sending you the patriots of Campobasso, who bring with them the brigands they arrested”. The patriots set off, with Nicola Neri leading them into Naples on the 7th and bringing with him not just the brigands but also Andrea Valiante’s wife and two sons. The patriots would, the following week, be forced to surrender to Cardinal Ruffo and Admiral Nelson. Contrary to the capitulation they signed, they would be put on trial. Many would be executed, others would be sent into exile or imprisoned.

In Capua, Captain Peruset also faced punishment. General Girardon addressed the difficult subject of what to do with the officer with pretences above his station. He had completed his mission, and undergone a very punishing campaign. But, even so, his act of insubordination, calling himself a general, was not to be forgotten and his superiors were suspicious of where all the money he had levied had gone. Girardon, evidently following Macdonald’s instructions, therefore had him punished:

“the detachment of chasseurs, Poles and cavalry who were at Campobasso have come in, having been obliged to spike their gun at Piedimonte. Captain Perisel [sic] who commanded them, has been stripped of his rank and placed in prison.”

Girardon then wrote to Macdonald, who was then busy conducting an offensive against the combined Austro-Russian armies in northern Italy, informing him that Peruset had been punished in conformity with his own orders:

“The detachment of the 15th and the Poles who were at Campobasso have just returned without loss but they were obliged to spike their artillery piece. I shall execute your order against Captain Periset, whom you’d have stripped of his rank and confined for two months. Everyone, particularly the government, interests themselves in his fate, and requests that he be reinstated. I promised I would write to you and ask, on their behalf, for mercy on account of the dangers he faced and the bravery he showed. He perhaps deserves it, and you might view his mistake as just being a breach of discipline.”

Girardon’s situation was itself quite dire, with Neapolitan raiding parties interrupting his supplies and some irregulars and insurgents taking potshots at his garrison. By mid-June more regular formations were being organised and encouraged by Cardinal Ruffo, who had arrived before Naples and who had, apart from some isolated bastions of resistance, overthrown the republic. Perhaps because he needed every soldier he could muster, perhaps because he was sympathetic to Peruset’s plight, and didn’t wish to keep him in Capua’s prison with the 120 Turks being held there, Girardon let Peruset out of confinement. The good general allowed him to serve as a private soldier.

Peruset was soon active in the numerous sorties the energetic Girardon sent out of Capua to disrupt the Neapolitan besiegers. Many of them were armed peasants, but there were so many of them, and they were supported by a backbone of regular troops, that it was a perilous enterprise. Girardon launched a significant attack on 10 June which saw the French destroy the Neapolitan Re Regiment, the unit’s colonel only saving himself by riding off in his shirt tails. Girardon noted how “The flag was captured and our troops returned to camp, each soldier who had managed to seize an item of the colonel’s clothing carrying it back on their bayonets”.

Then, on 26 June, Girardon sent three strong columns out against the dispirited besiegers. This bold move was quite a success, the assault lasting lasted seven hours and penetrating as far south as Santa Maria Capua Vetere near Caserta. The royalists had scattered, losing 120 dead and 300 wounded and Ruffo had had to send his Turks and Albanians northwards to bolster a panicky defence.

Unfortunately, Peruset was wounded, twice, in this assault, but his conduct drew the respect of the officers of the garrison. Girardon first noted his wound

“I had five men killed, and 17 wounded, including Citizen Perissel [sic], captain of the 15th Light, the squadron of the 11th Cavalry also lost 10 horses”.

He later amended the casualty figures and supplied a comment on the captain’s conduct:

“We had two men killed, amongst them Citizen Poincarre, my cousin, attached to my staff, and 15 wounded, including Citizen Perissel [sic], captain of the 15th Light, who, since he was stripped of his rank, has been serving as an ordinary soldier, and who I provisionally restored to his rank following the request of the officers of the garrison”.

Girardon, despite not being able to spell the officer’s name, was further impressed when Peruset took part in another sortie on 29 June where the captain assisted in the taking of two guns, but was again wounded, this time in the right hand:

“the centre column was composed of the third company of grenadiers of the 64th, commanded by Citizen Bonhomme, captain of the grenadiers of the depot battalion; the chasseurs of the 15th Light, commanded by Captain Perissel who, despite him being wounded on the 8th [26th], wanted to lead his company and the company of Cisalpines. The column was commanded by chef de bataillon Robillard.”

All this was putting off the inevitable. Once the Neapolitan besiegers were supported by regulars sent by Cardinal Ruffo, British sailors and marines under Captain Troubridge, and Russian marines under Captain Baillie, Girardon knew he would have to come to terms. A capitulation was agreed on 27 July, on 28 July some British marines took control of the fort’s gates and, the next day, the little French garrison marched out. It made its way to Naples and, from there, took ship for France.

Peruset was amongst the prisoners taken at Capua and sent to Marseilles. There he met Andrea Valiante, who had been captured in Naples and sent into exile, as the Neapolitan noted in a letter written from Toulon:

“Yesterday, 15 Neapolitan ships brought in the garrison of Capua and I rushed over to see them and saw, with pleasure, that the little mobile column we knew was amongst them; the officer told me that, in Naples, they are exterminating the poor patriots, burning them alive and drinking their blood.”

After the Neapolitan campaign, Peruset managed to avoid being sent to Saint Domingue or Guadeloupe with the bulk of his regiment and did not volunteer for service in distant Ile de France, but remained garrisoned along France’s Atlantic coast. After a quiet few years in this backwater, the captain was awarded the Legion of Honour, on 17 December 1804, and was also invited to Paris to receive the regiment’s new flag.

This was the prelude to more war. In 1805 Peruset’s battalion was incorporated into Oudinot’s elite division, and marched through Vienna, before spending much of 1806 around Paris, training conscripts. His unit was designated in 1807 to serve in the French invasion of Portugal, crossing Spain, and arriving in Lisbon in November 1807. Peruset, now a captain in the 4th battalion, was present at Vimeiro in August 1808 when the French were beaten by the newly arrived British, and was sent back to France under the Convention of Cintra. The respite was short for the 4th battalion was again sent back into Spain, pursuing the British to Corunna as part of Heudelet’s division, and then again into Portugal, wintering at Oporto. Now placed under Loison, he took part in the campaign in northern Portugal in early 1809, taking part in a fight against the Portuguese on 9 May 1809 at Mesão Frio, in Portugal, as Loison’s men pushed for Peso de Regoa. He was wounded in the abdomen by a musket shot during the fight, and a number of other officers were also wounded. The French burned much of the village when they retreated through the place a few days later. After refitting at Burgos, the regiment again invaded Portugal in 1810, and was severely punished at Busaco that September before spending a hungry winter in central Portugal. The French then fell back to Salamanca, leaving a garrison at Almeida. That place was besieged and an attempt to relieve the siege was beaten off at Funtes d’Onoro. However, the garrison successfully escaped from Almeida, blowing up the citadel, and reached French lines. Peruset commanded a column during the evacuation on 11 May. A few days later, at Salamanca, what remained of the 4th battalion was dissolved, personnel transferring into the 2nd Light. However, Peruset, worn out by three years of war in the peninsula, chose this moment to retire from active service. On 16 May 1811 he resigned his commission.

He retired to Houplines near Lilles and lived with his second wife, Victoire Fontaine (nothing is known of his first wife, Seraphine-Julie-Josephe Delefosse), until his death at Vaureal on 6 May 1838.

Peruset spent his career in the service of the French republic, the consulate and the empire. He hardly ever saw Napoleon, and barely served under him. Yet, for 19 years, he marched across France, Germany, Italy and the Iberian peninsula, always at the head of his company, always ready to do his duty. This Napoleonic officer, ignored by fortune, spurned by promotion, worn down by wounds and exhausted by fatigue, was hardly unusual. But he was far from ordinary.

Sources

Battaglini, Mario. Leggi, atti, proclami ed altri documenti della Repubblica napoletana 1798-1799. Naples, 2000.

Critelli, Maria Pia and Segarini, Georges. Une source inédite de l’histoire de la Révolution romaine : les registres du commandant Girardon. L’insorgenza du Latium méridional et la Campagne du Circeo. In: Mélanges de l’Ecole française de Rome. Italie et Méditerranée T. 104, N°1. 1992.

Perrella, Alfonso. L’anno 1799 nella provincia di Campobasso. Caserta, 1900.

Rao, Anna. Le patriotisme et le courage: la Repubblica napoletana del 1799 nei manoscritti del generale di brigata Antoine Girardon. Naples, 2000.