The Army
of the Second Empire

The Camp at Chalons
under the Second Empire

The Civilian Environment
around the Camp at Chalons



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The civian enviroment around the camp at chalons


Georges Clause

In 1792 a camp was born almost spontaneously at Chalons made up of volunteers who responded to the cry "the country is in danger" by precipitating themselves on the routes from the capital (1). It did not leave any good memories. But in the heart of Champagne is the northeast corner of France that has a liking for the military state. Yet, there was never a stable garrison in Chalons except for during the Restoration.

The city, where industry had foundered, did not take long to appreciate its economic interest; it would pay with little reservation for the construction of cavalry barracks in place of a crumbling abbey, just at the moment -1840- when the bellicose Thiers pushed for a concentrated army near Chalons. As soon as a railroad between Paris and Strasbourg was suggested, the bourgeois of Chalons imagined that their city could become a "entrenched camp" protecting Paris (2)! Also, the idea of a vast terrain for military drills and that could eventually be the army's point of concentration, was a not-so-distant thought.

The land in Champagne was without doubt worth very little. The term "desert" was often used in reference to it. The Convention had even heard that the Prussians would never have dared venture there in 1792 if they hadn't had traitors for guides! The expression "Champagne pouilleuse" (literally louse-ridden or flea-bitten region of Champagne" dates from the beginning of the 18th century(3); in 1880 O. Reclus explained it thus: "Flea ridden did not only mean covered in fleas and vermin, it also meant poor, miserable, bare, which is exactly the Champagne plateau".(4) When Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte in his Extinction du Paupérisme imagined lands of no worth on which collective farms could be cultivated, Champagne must have come to mind as the region to colonize. Only an expropriated landowner in 1857 at the moment the Chalons camp was built would claim that the soil was anything other than sterile(5).

In 1855, Colonel Susane, while bringing troops from Paris to Metz, remarked that only the land situated within two kilometers of the villages had been cultivated(6). But in the arable zones, the costs for cultivation were almost none, a single horse labored in the morning and harrowed in the afternoon. A few observers thought that the soapstone could be a reservoir of water. The country folk would claim for themselves the fertilizer, that is to say, the manure that the camp would eventually produce. They would pull out all of the stops to be able to house the cavalrymen(7): the coming of the French cavalry was the stuff of dreams for dung experts for whom the stuff worth its weight in gold.

Joys and deceptions of the Chalons populations

The city of Chalons had scarcely 15,000 inhabitants. The mayor was a wine merchant, Joseph Perrier. Anything that would activate commerce interested him. The city, capital of the department, is the residence of a prefect. There were four during the Second Empire; the most remarkable, in office from 1853 to 1864, was Alexandre Chasseigne-Goyon. The former lawyer from Auvergne had worked in Riom with Eugène Rouher, who had since become the strong man in the authoritarian Empire. Competent, affable, well-looked upon by the farmers, he resolved the administrative problems of that cropped up with the installation of the camp. He was also said to be very clever with the clergy(8).

The diocese of Chalons was unusual in that it was headed by a liberal, if not republican, prelate (9). Guillaume Meignan of Sarthe, was linked to Cardinal Maret, former disciple of Lamennais, who had been refused a diocese by Pius IX. His exposure to German theology and exegesis made abbot Meignan was an enthusiast of the 1848 movement. Pius IX would ratify his nomination to the bishopric of Chalons with no enthusiasm. The priests in the diocese did not necessarily share his views; and Cardinal Meignan would become forcibly the camp's bishop, celebrate the imperial mass often before 20,000 men kneeling down on command, have a privileged relationship with the Emperor and Empress...

The camp would effect the municipal life of Chalons(10). Napoleon, taking advantage of the dissension within the municipal body in 1861, named as mayor of the city a retired colonel M. Philippe, former aide-de-camp of General Randon, Minister of War from 1853 to 1867.

Because,even if the municipal councilors were elected, the mayor was considered a functionary who remained in place at the discretion of the executive power. M. Philippe, defeated soon after the deputation, would step down leaving his place to Eugène Perrier...

But the organization of the camp put a damper on things. "Grand-Mourmelon", which was as close to Reims as Chalons, was the site of the permanent installations. It looked as though in 1848, there were fewer "Cavaignacs" in Mourmelon than in other places! A railway was quickly laid between Chalons and Mourmelon. But placing the garrison in Chalons had already been put into question. The Saint Peter's barracks seemed destined to be a military hospital servicing the camp.

The city was in consternation.(11) They anticipated joblessness, the landlords would lose their income, the farmers would be deprived of their manure. A petition was over-run with signatures. The mayor Joseph Perrier went to see Marshall Canrobert who commanded the Eastern troops, then General Randon. General Randon promised his support if they could reserve sufficient beds in the civilian hospital for the military. All that was remained to do was meet with Napoleon III on his next visit to the camp. Suddenly, the situation was reversed. The most important dignitaries visiting the camp would stay in the hotels of Chalons, become the pivot of the French army. Between May 25 and June 16, 1859, ten regiments came to the village and had to be billeted as far as ten kilometers away. In 1864, General Cousin-Montauban, Count de Palikao was received with great pomp; the Emperor visited frequently, but with more discretion.

Mourmelon: the imperial fête or the French Old West?

The inhabitants of Mourmelon-le-Grand numbered 500 in 1850, 1750 in 1870... and many more thanks to the special Sunday trains in the summertime. This agglomeration formed a singular city, risen out of the dust like towns in the Old West, with temporary arhcitecture dominated by floor and roof.

The hotels, cafés, and inns were big business(12). Their names were sometimes commonplace --Hotel de France, Brasserie ardennaise-- or suggestive --À la prise de Pékin, À Malakoff, Café Napoléon -, or picturesque - Le café au lait et au Noir (where the server was Senegalese), Au zouave galant, À l'Amour-melon... The Brasserie Dreher brought beer in coolers from Vienna. And for entertainment, the Grand café chantant (or Concert Pazat), the Tivoli impérial, which it was said could hold up to 2,000 people, the arena of the Senegalese boxer Gika... and the "society houses" - such as À la grande patte de chat - were segregated according to rank.

This segregation was found at the "public balls" as well where one could meet dancers from Paris, and Chalons. The police commissioner of Mourmelon in place in 1864 had his work cut out for him. The women of Mourmelon who entertained the relaxation time of camp warriors were sometimes a worry for the health officials. The girls who had been declared healthy by camp doctors apparently left behind a few burning memories at the Chalons camp. This is the origin of the dispute between civilian and military practitioners, the first of whom claim that the second knew nothing of female pathology (13) !

Farms, "Extinction of Pauperism"

The food needs of the camp stimulated local production. Truck markets had long been a Chalonnaise activity. Melons were the once-upon-a time secret weapon offered to chefs cooking for the brutish soldiers who devastated the countryside; it was as a way of averting danger from the town. The demand for meat was so huge that animals from the east had to be brought in. The slaughterhouse created in Mourmelon-le-petit in 1861 was a public nuisance. Markets were authorized in several communes surrounding the city. But in Mourmelon where shops from Chalons (14), and even from Paris, opened their offshoots, the artisans and shopkeepers dreamed of calling themselves "suppliers to the Emperor" and to the army.

Above all, there were the "imperial farms" which were an echo of the idea of the extinction of pauperism. However, in 1840, there were no unemployed in the Empire and it was merely a question of stimulating local agriculture. From 1857, 1,200 hectares were secured on the peripheries of the camp and the buildings for eight farms were put under construction. The farms Vadenay, Cuperly, Bouy, Jonchéry, Suippes, Piedmont and the imperial quarter were more or less completed in 1859 (15). Considerable sums were invested in the construction, the purchase of materials, animals selected or imported, grains, salaries of the personnel. The results were honorable --even if they are very far from the expected return today-- : (16) tons of wool, 75 tons of meat, 121,000 liters of milk in 1862...

Sheep, goats, and chickens were sold. A carriage-maker from Chalons became a vendor of milk products from the farms. Students from Grignon came to work in internships. The manure from the camp, which included the human variety, improved the production of the local neighboring communes. Agricultural machinery, pumps, were tried out. And the horticultural spaces put a note of color in what had been an extremely unblessed parcel of "Champagne pouilleuse."

Archeological and Religious Asides before the decline

Napoleon III showed a lot of interest in archeological research and hoped ot gain enlightenment on the origins of the French nation. He encouraged diggers, the manager of the Piedmont farm 16, a teacher from La Cheppe...(17) Soldiers from Engineering were put at their disposition; most of the finds, probably "fixed"(18) for official presentation were offered to the Emperor and ended up in the museum at St. Germain. The Marne, exceptionally rich in Celtic tombs, lost a number of its treasures. And the digs, done neither survey nor method, turned up a few "curios" rather than "documents," in the words of eminent archeologist abbot Favret. The "camp of Attila" intrigued the Emperor, who visited several times. The researchers at the time never had doubts about the battle of the Catalaunic plain nor about the camp where the king of the Huns took refuge; today we would want to see the Celtic citadel, first sighting of the Catalauni civitas.

The Emperor, often in the Marne, was generous to the churches upon the Empress's recommendation. She visited places of religion while her spouse was busy with military things (19). The official diocesan art was neo-gothic, for which the architect Grandrut reigned as expert. The church of Mourmelon-le-Grand was reconstructed, a church at Vadenay built, and the church Notre-Dame-en-Vaux in Chalons was restored by Lassus, which Napoleon III followed closely. The Empress was struck by the poverty of the rural churches and offered the bishop a series of framed pictures of the stations of the cross. The camp at Chalons did not only encourage debauchery!

Were the militia of the Seine, idle and disorderly, assembled at the camp in August 1870 true military men? The Republic took ten years to reestablish a terrain for maneuvers or perhaps to parade before potential allies, to the great satisfaction of the Mourmelon population and their neighbors. Some day its clearings would offer those "fous-volants" in "funny flying machines" an opportunity to conquer the skies. But that would be another story of another century.

1. G. Clause, "Châlons dans la crise de l'été 1792," Mém. Soc. Agr. Comm. Sc. et Arts de la Marne, 1989.

2. Arch. Com. Châlons-en-Champagne, reg. conseil municipal, 1843.

3. The expression appeared on a map by Guillaume de l'Isle in 1713.

4. O. Reclus, France, Algérie et colonies, Paris, 1880, p.131.

5. Bablot-Maître, Etude sur la Champagne agricole et l'améloriation du sol champenois, Châlons, 1866.

6. Colonel Susane, La Champagne pouilleuse, Metz, 1857.

7. Ibid.

8. A.D. Marne, 1 M 14 and 1 M 16; Dictionnaire de Biographie française, t.VIIII (1959), art. "Chasseigne-Goyon" by J. Domergue.

9. H. Boissonnat, Le cardinal Meignan, Paris, 1899.

10. M. Guillaume, "Jacques Goërg (1815-1890), deputy of the opposition under the Second Empire," Etudes Champenoises, Univ. de Reims, 1978-83.

11. G. Clause, "La ville qui voulait des soldats" Châlons, 2000 ans d'Histoire, Châlons-sur-Marne, 1975.

12. J. Berland, Le camp de Châlons sous l'Empire, Paris S.H.A.T., s.d. [1955] (exhaustive work, with the faults of a posthumous publication).

14. October 1, 1867, a saleswoman who worked in a shop in Chalons was delivering an dress that had been altered when she was accidentally killed by an artillery vehicle of the Guard. A collection produced 1,455 francs which Colonel de Rochebouët took to the family. (Arch. com. Châlons-en-Champagne, 2 H 1).

15. J. Berland, op.cit., pp.195-215.

16. Bénoni Le Laurain, given the title "Directeur des Antiquités du camp d'Attila" (Director of Antiquities at the camp of Attila)!

17. P.H. Létaudin, Etude historique sur la Cheppe, le camp d'Attila et les environs, Châlons-sur-Marne, 1869.

18. This is Captain de Reffye's word.

19. See G. Clause, Histoire du diocèse de Châlons, Paris, 1989, and "La religion-spectacle sous le Second Empire", Histoire et Traditions de Champagne, Châlons-sur-Marne, 1979.

[A Visit to the Chalons camp under the Second Empire]

[The Imperial Quarter] [The Zouaves] [Billeting] [Maneuvers] [Mass] [Sculpture at the Chalons Camp] [Nighttime Scenes]