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VAN STOCKUM: Hero of France: Part 1, Battles here and there

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The controversial marriage of Susanne Henning (left) and Antoine de Charette spanned from the royalty and battlefields of France to the fields of Shelby County, but it was General Baron Athanase de Charette who was a patriarch and hero . In the first of a 2-part series, we are introduced to the heroics of General de Charette.

By Ron Van Stockum

Included in the Daily New Era in Hopkinsville on March 7, 1908, was this headline:

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“LUCKY FRENCHMAN HAS WON THE LOVE OF GLADYS DEACON”

“After the Affair of a Smitten Prince and a Duke ‘Turned Down,’ Comes the Triumph of Young Baron de Charette, and Another International Romance Is Launched”

It was followed by an article carrying the dateline “New York,” announcing the engagement of Gladys Deacon, who “for five years has been one of the most-talked-of young women of society on both sides of the Atlantic. The gossips have had her engaged to a dozen eligible’s, from princes down to plain “misters.”

This engagement of an American heiress of great charm and exceptional beauty, like her others, had been of short duration.

Antoine (Tony) de Charette, in his late 20s, handsome, stocky and of medium height, was a man of the world, fluent in French, German and English, at home in Paris, Berlin or New York. There can be no doubt that he came to America in the hope of marrying an heiress, a realistic objective in view of his title and family background. Many titled Frenchmen, particularly those of limited means, were seeking alliances with wealthy American families.

Later in the spring of 1908, undeterred by Miss. Deakin’s rejection, Tony met Susanne Henning at the home of her parents in Tuxedo Park, N.Y., an exclusive, gated community accessible by rail to Wall Street. Susanne was the beautiful daughter of wealthy financier, James W. Henning Sr. of Louisville and Sue T. Henning of Shelbyville.

Tony de Charette, now having assumed the earlier family title of marquis, was the only surviving child of General Baron Athanase de Charette and Antoinette Polk of Columbia, Tenn.

Tony de Charette and Susanne Henning soon determined that “they were meant for each other.” During August 1908, while visiting Susanne’s mother, Sue Henning, at her Shelby County farm, Allen Dale, Charette inscribed his thoughts in the guest book, “Mon Dieu! Mon Roi! Ma Dame!”

Susanne’s inscription was a little more prosaic, “Adrift . . . Solitude, sweet solitude, but in my solitude give me a man!”

Not what it seemed

Courtship proceeded inexorably, despite the adamant opposition of Susanne’s mother, who wrote a friend: “If there is one thing in the world that I have always thought I could be without in the family and economize was a French Marquis.”

Sue Henning refused to attend the celebrated engagement party held at La Basse Motte, Baron de Charette’s beautiful manor in Brittany, France. She even refused to attend the marriage, which was solemnized at the Lady Chapel of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on Nov. 11, 1909. It was a noteworthy social event, receiving prominent national newspaper coverage, much of it focusing upon the absence of the bride’s mother.

The Henning-Charette marriage was not a typical union of an affluent American family with a titled French family. Henning had failed on Wall Street in 1906, and his membership in the New York Stock Exchange had been suspended. The Hennings, despite appearances, were no longer wealthy, and the mother of the bride was opposed strenuously to the wedding.

This union was also unique, for Susanne Henning not only was marrying a titled Frenchman. She was marrying a man who was shortly to be the chef de famille, head of a distinguished house, heir to a long line of Charettes who had distinguished themselves in battle on behalf of the Catholic Royal Family of France.

General Baron Athanase de Charette

The Duchesse de Berry, in a letter dated Sept. 2, 1832, announced: “Madame Louise nous a donne ce matin un petit Athanase” (Madame Louise [the Baronne de Charette] has presented us this morning with a little Athanase).

Thus was reported the birth in Nantes, France of Athanase-Charles-Marie de Charette de la Contrie. His father, Baron de Charette (1796-1848), was under sentence of death for his leadership of an aborted attempt by the Duchesse de Berry to overthrow the reigning King of France, Louis-Philippe. Registration of his birth had to be delayed to avoid localizing the manhunt, which was being conducted for his father.

On the night of Sept. 17, after lookouts had made sure that the streets were clear, the infant Athanase was lowered in a basket from an upper-story window to a woman waiting below. The child was carried to the nearby village of Sainte-Reine, where the mayor courageously registered the birth.

“Little Athanase” would establish his place in history as General Baron de Charette. He received military training at l’Académie Militaire de Turin in northern Italy, which in those days equaled France’s famed Saint-Cyr in prestige.

In 1848, Charette, upon the death of his father, succeeded to the title of Baron. That same year King Louis-Philippe abdicated and fled into exile, and the Second Republic was proclaimed, with Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew of the famed emperor, being elected as president. In 1852, he fomented a coup d’état and assumed the throne as Emperor Napoleon III.

Baron de Charette, when hopes faded for a restoration of the elder Bourbon line, was not willing to serve in France under a usurper. The Comte de Chambord obtained for him a commission as sous-lieutenant (second lieutenant) in an Austrian regiment. Chambord, son of the Duc de Berry and half brother of Charette’s mother, was accepted by the French royalists as Henri V, the Bourbon king of France, but he was never to occupy the throne.

Pope Pius IX’s Legion

Meanwhile, French General Christophe Louis de Lamoriciere, having spent 17 years in North Africa overcoming opposition to French rule, was back in Paris during the 1848 revolution, in which Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte became president. However, after opposing the coup of 1852, in which Napoleon became emperor, he was exiled.

Arriving in Rome on April 1, 1860, he accepted from Pope Pius IX command of the papal army for the defense of the Papal States, including Rome, then being threatened by the forces of Italian unification.

Charles A. Coulombe, historian and commentator in both Catholic and secular arenas, in The Pope’s Legion: The Multinational Fighting Force that Defended the Vatican, states that reaction was swift to a call for volunteers for “Swords Around the Cross.” A number of legitimist French officers, including Baron de Charette, joined General Lamoriciere. Nor was it solely the aristocracy that volunteered. “Young men from various countries–France, Belgian, Holland, Austria, many parts of Italy–offered their services to defend the Holy See against revolutionary violence.”. . .

“Of the 15,000 men who first answered the call, perhaps the most renowned of the French was Baron Athanase–Charles-Marie Charette de la Contrie. . . .His great uncle was the famous General Charette, one of the leaders of the Vendee’s Royal Catholic Army, who was shot by the revolutionaries after his capture in 1796. His mother was the illegitimate–but-ennobled daughter of the Duke de Barry, eldest son of Charles X. Lamoricière appointed him captain of first company of Franco-Belgian Volunteers.”

Lamoriciere, with 9,000 men, crossed the Italian Peninsula with the object of reaching the Papal stronghold of Ancone on the East Coast. Just short of their objective, the way was blocked by 60,000 Piedmontese entrenched on the promontory of Castelfidardo. Lamoriciere’s forces were described at this time as heterogenous, ill-equipped and ill-disciplined except for a corps of:

“Franco-Belgians, uniformed as Zouaves,... formed into a ‘Corps D’Elite’ of the Legitimist nobility, each private ranking with a lieutenant of the line.” These Franco-Belgians were further described as “bare-throated, vain of their loose picturesque garb of silver-grey braided with scarlet waistcloth, and the isthmus of gamboge buskin between zouave trousers and gaitors...as conspicuous by their eager martial bearing as by their cool resolution...The Franco-Belgians were the only troops who did not show symptoms of resorting to leg bail.”

On Sept. 18, 1860, Charette, as he led his company of Zouaves in assault of these fortifications, encountered the opposing leader exhorting his troops by word and gesture. Threatened by this officer, Charette placed himself “en garde” and called to his troops to stand fast. The latter and their adversaries lowered their weapons, halted their movements and gazed in awe as their two leaders engaged in a Homeric saber duel, reminiscent of the days of chivalry.

Charette had recognized his opponent as Major Tromboni, one of his old comrades from l’Academie Militaire de Turin. There was a clash of steel and suddenly Tromboni, bleeding profusely, collapsed.

Charette cried, “This man is my prisoner. Take him to an ambulance and care for him.”

Then turning to his company, he ordered the advance in a loud voice, “En avant, les enfants.” The battle resumed. Charette’s reputation as a charismatic leader grew.

The ensuing battle lasted all day and was deadly in the extreme. Of four Zouave Company Commanders, three were wounded, including Captain de Charette. The papal troops were driven back that evening, and the next day it was recognized that their situation was impossible. The only option was surrender, which was accepted under conditions allowing the defeated army to go free and be repatriated.

Jean-Michel Dunoyer de Segonac, family friend and authority on the life of Baron de Charette, has written: “When the names of the Franco-Belgian prisoners...were being ticked off from the roll call...General Cuglia [leader of the Piedmontese] remarked with surprise that it was just like reading a list of invitations to a Court ball under Louis Quatorce. [XIV]”

In the meantime, General Lamoriciere with his main body had reached Ancona, a major seaport on the Adriatic Sea, without being pursued. Here he was subjected to bombardment from a Piedmontese flotilla and subsequently invested by a Piedmontese Army Corps. After holding Ancona under siege for three weeks, hoping, perhaps, for French or Austrian intervention, Lamoriciere, too, was compelled to raise the white flag.

Postscripts

  • My 2-column “An International Romance” can be reached at: http://www.sentinelnews.com/content/international-romance-part-i-careful... and http://www.sentinelnews.com/content/international-romance-part-ii-and-th...
  • The Henning House in Tuxedo Park, which the Hennings had called “the cottage,” is currently listed for sale by Sotheby’s at $4. 25 million: 4 acres, three stories, 10,000 square feet, 9 bedrooms, 7 baths, 4-gabled carriage house with 5-car garage.
  • Gladys Deacon 1881-1977), beautiful, but erratic, married the Duke of Marlborough, first cousin of Winston Churchill in 1921.
  • Title of Marquis. In our discussions with historians in France, my wife, Susanne, and I learned that her father had been criticized for taking the title “Marquis” from an extinct line of the family, while his father, a revered French hero, was entirely satisfied to carry the lesser title of Baron.

Next: Charette in the Franco Prussian War

Ron Van Stockum can be reached at ronvanstockum@mac.com. His latest book, Coming to Kentucky: Heaven is a Kentucky of a Place, just off the press, as well as his others, Kentucky and the Bourbons: the Story of Allen Dale Farm, Squire Boone and Nicholas Meriwether: Kentucky Pioneers, and Remembrances of World Wars,  may be purchased at Terhune’s Style Shop in Village Plaza Shopping Center in Shelbyville or from Amazon.com.