His father was an avocat in good practice, and instead of allowing him to enter the army, as he attempted to do, insisted on his studying law at the university of Rennes. Young Moreau showed no inclination for law, but revelled in the freedom of a student's life. Instead of taking his degree he continued to live with the students as their hero and leader, formed lhem into a sort of army, which he commanded as their provost, and when 1789 came he commanded the students in the daily affrays which took place at Rennes between the young noblesse and the populace. In 1791 he was elected a lieut.colonel of the volunteers of Ille-et-Vilaine. With them he served under Dumouriez, and in 1793 the good order of his battalion, and his own martial character and republican principles secured his promotion as general of brigade. Carnot, who had an eye for the true qualities of a general, promoted him to be general of division early in 1794, and gave him command of the right wing of the army under Pichegru, in Flanders.
The battle of Tourcoing established his military fame, and in 1795 he was given the command of the Army of the Rhine-and-Moselle, with which he crossed the Rhine and advanced into Germany. He was at first completely successful, won several victories and penetrated to the Tsar, but at last had to retreat before the archduke Charles. However, the skill he displayed in conducting his retreat--which was considered a model for such operations--greatly enhanced his own reputation, the more so as he managed to bring back with him more than 5000 prisoners.
In 1797 he again, after prolonged difficulties caused by want of funds and material, crossed the Rhine, but his operations were checked by the conclusion of the preliminaries of Leoben between Bonaparte and the Austrians. It was at this time he found out the traitorous correspondence between his old comrade and commander Pichegru and the émigré prince de Condé. He had already appeared as Pichegru's defender against imputations of disloyalty, and now he foolishly concealed his discovery, with the result that he has ever since been suspected of at least partial complicity. Too late to clear himself, he sent the correspondence to Paris and issued a proclamation to the army denouncing Pichegru as a traitor.
He was dismissed, and it was only when in 1799 the absence of Bonaparte and the victorious advance of Suvárov made it necessary to have some tried and experienced general in Italy that he was re-employed. He commanded the Army of Italy, with little success, for a short time before being appointed to the Army of the Rhine, and remained with Joubert, his successor in Italy, till Novi had been fought and lost. Joubert fell in the battle, and Moreau then conducted the retreat of the army to Genoa, where he handed over the command to Championnet. When Bonaparte returned from Egypt he found Moreau at Paris, greatly dissatisfied with the Directory both as a general and as a renublican, and obtained his assistance in the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire, when Moreau commanded the force which confined two of the directors in the Luxembourg.
In reward, the First Consul again gave him command of the Army of the Rhine, with which he forced back the Austrians from the Rhine to the Isar. On his return to Paris he married Mlle Hullot, a Creole of Josephine's circle, an ambitious woman who gained a complete ascendancy over him, and after spending a few glorious weeks with the army in Germany and winning the celebrated victory of Hohenlinden (December 3, 1800) he settled down to enjoy the fortune he had acquired during his campaigns. His wife collected around her all who were discontented with the aggrandisement of Napoleon. This "club Moreau" annoyed Napoleon, and encouraged the Royalists, but Moreau, though not unwilling to become a military dictator to restore the republic, would be no party to an intrigue for the restoration of Louis XVIII. All this was well known to Napoleon, who seized the conspirators.
Moreau's condemnation was procured only by great pressure being brought to bear by Bonaparte on the judges; and after it was pronounced the First Consul treated him with a pretence of leniency, commuting a sentence of imprisonment to one of banishment. Moreau passed through Spain and embarked for America, where be lived in quiet and obscurity for some years at Morrisville, New Jersey, till news came of the destruction of the grande armée in Russia. Then, probably at the instigation of his wife, he committed the last and least excusable of the series of well-meant political errors that marked his career. Negotiations were set on foot with an old friend in the circle of republican intriguers, Bernadotte, who, being now crown prince of Sweden and at the head of an army opposing Napoleon, introduced Moreau to the tsar Alexander. In the hope of returning to France to re-establish the régime of popular government, Moreau gave advice to the allied sovereigns as to the conduct of the war, but fortunately for his fame as a patriot he did not live to invade France. He was mortally wounded while talking to the tsar at the battle of Dresden on August 27 1813, and died on the 2nd of September. He was buried at St Petersburg. His wife received a pension from the tsar, and was given the rank of maréchale by Louis XVIII, but his countrymen spoke of his "defection" and compared him to Dumouriez and Pichegru.
Moreau's fame as a general stands very high, though he was far from possessing Napoleon's transcendent gifts. His combinations were skilful and elaborate, and his temper always unruffled when most, closely pressed. Moreau was a sincere republican, though his own father was guillotined in the Terror. He was fortunate in the moment of his death, though he would have been more so had he died in America. He seems by his final words, "Soyez tranquilles, messieurs; c'est mon sort," not to have regretted being removed from his equivocal position as a general in arms against his country.
The literature on Moreau is copious, the best book being C Jochmus, General Moreau--Abriss elner Geschichte seines Lebens und seiner Feldzuge (Berlin, 1814). A more ordinary work is A de Beauchamp, Vie politique, miliitaire, et privée du Général Moreau, translated by Philippart (London, 1814); and there is a curious tract on his death in Russian, translated into English under the title, Some Details Concerning General Moreau and his Last Moments, by Paul Svinin (London, 1814).