CAVAIGNAC, LOUIS EUGÈNE (1802–1857), French general, son of J. B. Cavaignac, was born at Paris on the 15th of October 1802. After going through the usual course of study for the military profession, he entered the army as an engineer officer in 1824, and served in the Morea in 1828, becoming captain in the following year. When the revolution of 1830 broke out he was stationed at Arras, and was the first officer of his regiment to declare for the new order of things. In 1831 he was removed from active duty in consequence of his declared republicanism, but in 1832 he was recalled to the service and sent to Algeria. This continued to be the main sphere of his activity for sixteen years, and he won especial distinction in his fifteen months’ command of the exposed garrison of Tlemçen, a command for which he was selected by Marshal Clausel (1836–1837), and in the defence of Cherchel (1840). Almost every step of his promotion was gained on the field of battle, and in 1844 the duc d’Aumale himself asked for Cavaignac’s promotion to the rank of maréchal de camp. This was made in the same year, and he held various district commands in Algeria up to 1848, when the provisional government appointed him governor-general of the province with the rank of general of division. The post of minister of war was also offered to Cavaignac, but he refused it owing to the unwillingness of the government to quarter troops in Paris, a measure which the general held to be necessary for the stability of the new régime. On his election to the National Assembly, however, Cavaignac returned to Paris. When he arrived on the 17th of May he found the capital in an extremely critical state. Several émeutes had already taken place, and by the 22nd of June 1848 a formidable insurrection had been organized. The only course now open to the National Assembly was to assert its authority by force. Cavaignac, first as minister of war and then as dictator, was called to the task of suppressing the revolt. It was no light task, as the national guard was untrustworthy, regular troops were not at hand in sufficient numbers, and the insurgents had abundant time to prepare themselves. Variously estimated at from 30,000 to 60,000 men, well armed and organized, they had entrenched themselves at every step behind formidable barricades, and were ready to avail themselves of every advantage that ferocity and despair could suggest to them. Cavaignac failed perhaps to appreciate the political exigencies of the moment; as a soldier he would not strike his blow until his plans were matured and his forces sufficiently prepared. When the troops at last advanced in three strong columns, every inch of ground was disputed, and the government troops were frequently repulsed, till, fresh regiments arriving, he forced his way to the Place de la Bastille and crushed the insurrection in its headquarters. The contest, which raged from the 23rd to the morning of the 26th of June, was without doubt the bloodiest and most resolute the streets of Paris have ever seen, and the general did not hesitate to inflict the severest punishment on the rebels.
Cavaignac was censured by some for having, by his delay, allowed the insurrection to gather head; but in the chamber he was declared by a unanimous vote to have deserved well of his country. After laying down his dictatorial powers, he continued to preside over the Executive Committee till the election of a regular president of the republic. It was expected that the suffrages of France would raise Cavaignac to that position. But the mass of the people, and especially the rural population, sick of revolution, and weary even of the moderate republicanism of Cavaignac, were anxious for a stable government. Against the five and a half million votes recorded for Louis Napoleon, Cavaignac received only a million and a half. Not without chagrin at his defeat, he withdrew into the ranks of the opposition. He continued to serve as a representative during the short remainder of the republic. At the coup d’état of the 2nd December 1851 he was arrested along with the other members of the opposition; but after a short imprisonment at Ham he was released, and, with his newly-married wife, lived in retirement till his death, which took place at Ourne (Sarthe) on the 28th of October 1857.
His son, Jacques Marie Eugène Godefroi Cavaignac (1853–1905), French politician, was born in Paris on the 21st of May 1853. He made public profession of his republican principles as a schoolboy at the Lycée Charlemagne by refusing in 1867 to receive a prize at the Sorbonne from the hand of the prince imperial. He received the military medal for service in the Franco-Prussian War, and in 1872 entered the École Polytechnique. He served as a civil engineer in Angoulême until 1881, when he became master of requests in the council of state. In the next year he was elected deputy for the arrondissement of Saint-Calais (Sarthe) in the republican interest. In 1885–1886 he was under-secretary for war in the Henri Brisson ministry, and he served in the cabinet of Émile Loubet (1892) as minister of marine and of the colonies. He had exchanged his moderate republicanism for radical views before he became war minister in the cabinet of Léon Bourgeois (1895–1896). He was again minister of war in the Brisson sabinet in July 1898, when he read in the chamber a document which definitely incriminated Captain Alfred Dreyfus. On the 30th of August, however, he stated that this had been discovered to be a forgery by Colonel Henry, but he refused to concur with his colleagues in a revision of the Dreyfus prosecution, which was the logical outcome of his own exposure of the forgery. Resigning his portfolio, he continued to declare his conviction of Dreyfus’s guilt, and joined the Nationalist group in the chamber, of which he became one of the leaders. He also was an energetic supporter of the Ligue de la Patrie Française. In 1899 Cavaignac was an unsuccessful candidate for the presidency of the republic. He had announced his intention of retiring from political life when he died at his country-seat near Flée (Sarthe) on the 25th of September 1905. He wrote an important book on the Formation de la Prusse contemporaine (2 vols., 1891–1898), dealing with the events of 1806–1813.