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Wars of Vendée

Wars of Vendée

A counter-revolutionary insurrection which took place during the French Revolution, not only in Vendee proper but also in Lower Poitou, Anjou, Lower Maine and Brittany. The district was mainly inhabited by peasants; it contained few important towns, and the bourgeois were but a feeble minority. The ideas of the Revolution were slow in penetrating to this ignorant peasant population, which had always been less civilized than the majority of Frenchmen, and in 1789 the events which roused enthusiasm throughout the rest of France left the Vendeans indifferent. Presently, too, signs of discontent appeared. The priests who had refused to submit to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy perambulated these retired districts, and stigmatized the revolutionists as heretics. In 1791 two " representatives on mission " informed the Convention of the disquieting condition of Vendee, and this news was quickly followed by the exposure of a royalist plot organized by marquis de la Rouerie.

The signal for a widespread rising was the introduction of conscription acts for the recruiting of the depleted armies on the eastern frontiers. In February 1793 the Convention decreed a levy on the whole of France, and on the eve of the ballot the Vendee, rather than comply with this requisition, broke out in insurrection. The Vendean peasant refused to join the republican army, not for want of fighting qualities or ardour, but because the army of the old regime was recruited from bad characters and broken men, and the peasant, ignorant of the great change that had followed the Revolution, thought that the barrack-room was no place for a good Christian. In March 1793 the officer commanding at Cholet was killed, and republicans were massacred at Machecoul and St Florent. Giving rein to their ancient antipathy, the revolted peasantry-attacked the towns, which were liberal in ideas and republican in sympathies. The leaders of these first risings were men of humble birth, such as J. Cathelineau, a pedlar, J. N. Stofflet, a gamekeeper, and the barber Gaston. Cholet, Bressuire, Fontenay-le-Comte and Samur were surprised. The influence of the priests kept up the fanaticism of the peasants, and a great manifestation of religious feeling took place on Easter eve, but the republican soldiers taken prisoners were often maltreated and even tortured.

These first successes of the Vendans coincided with grave republican reverses on the frontier-war with England, Holland and Spain, the defeat of Neerwinden and the defection of Dumouriez. The migrs then began to throw in their lot with the Vendans. Royalist nobles like the marquis de Bonchamp, F. A. Charette de la Contrie, Gigot d’Elbe, Henri de la Rochejaquelein and the marquis de Lescure placed themselves at the head of the peasants. Although several of these leaders were Voltairians, they held up Louis XVI., who had been executed in January 1793, as a martyr to Catholicism, and the Vendaiis, who had hitherto styled themselves the Christian Army, now adopted. the name of the Catholic and Royal Army.

The Convention took measures against the merges and the refractory priests. By a decree of the I9th of march 1793 every person accused of taking part in the counter-revolutionary revolts, or of wearing the white cockade (the royalist emblem), was declared an outlaw. The prisoners were to be tried by military commissions, and the sole penalty was death with confiscation of property. The Convention also sent representatives on mission into Vehde to effect the purging of the municipalities, the reorganization of the national guards in the republican towns, and the active prosecution of the revolutionary propaganda. These measures proving insufficient, a decree was promulgated on the 30th of April 1793 for the dispatch of regular troops; but, in spite of their failure to capture Nantes, the successes of the Vendans continued. On the 3rst of July, therefore, at Barres suggestion, it was decreed that the woods of the Vende should be burnt, the harvest carried off to safe places in rear of the army, the cattle seized, the women and children concentrated in camps in the interior, and that every male from the age of sixteen in the neighboring regions should be called upon to take arms. Further, on the 1st of August, the troops that had formed the garrison of Mainz, which were unavailable against foreign enemies by the terms of their capitulation to the Austrians, were ordered to Vende.

At the end of August 1793, the republicans had three armies in the Vendethe army of Rochelle, the army of Brest and the Miyencais; but their generals were either ciphers, like C. P. H. Ronsin, or divided among themselves, like J. A. Rossignol and J. B. C. Canclaux: They weie uncertaiti whether to cut off the Vendans from the sea or to drive them westwards; and moreover, their men were undisciplined. Although the peasants had to leave their chiefs and work on the land, the Vendans still remained form idsible opponents. They were equipped partly with arms supplied by England, and partly with fowling-pieces, which at that period were superior to the small-arms used by the regular troops, and their intimate knowledge of the country gave them an immense advantage. They gathered and burst like a storm on their enemies, and, if repulsed, dispersed at the famous order, Egaillez-vous les gars, to unite again some days later.

The dissensions of the republican leaders and the demoralizing tactics of the Vendans resulted in republican defeats at Chantonnay, Torfou, Coron, St Lambert, Motaigu and St Fulgent. The Convention resolved to bring the war to an end before October, and placed the troops under the undivided command, first of Jean Lchelle and then of Louis Turreau, who had as subordinates such men as Marceau, Kleber and Westermann. On the 7th of October the various divisions concentrated at Rressuire, took Chtillon after two bloody engagements, and defeated the Vendans at Cholet, Beauprau and La Trem. After this repulse, the royalists, under Stofflet and La Rochejaquelein, attempted to rouse the Cotentin and crossed the Loire. Beaten back at Granville, they tried to re-enter the Vende, but were repulsed at Angers. They re-formed at Le Mans, where they were defeated by Westermann, and the same officer definitively annihilated the main body of the insurgents at Savenay.

Regular warfare was now at an end, although Turreau and his infernal columns still continued to scour the disaffected districts. After the 9th Thermidor attempts were made to pacify the country. The Convention issued conciliatory proclamations allowing the Vendans liberty of worship and guaranteeing their property. General Hoche applied these measures with great success. He restored their cattle to the peasants who submitted, let the priests have a few crowns, and on the 20th of July 1795 annihilated an émigrés expedition which had been equipped in England and had seized Fort Penthivre and Quiberon. Treaties were concluded at La Jaunaie (February 15, 1795) and at La Mabillaie, and were fairly well observed by the Vendans; and nothing remained but to cope with the feeble and scattered remnant of the Vendeans still under arms, and with the Chouans. On the 30th of July 1796 the state of siege was raised in the western departments.

Comoren Islands, 1989, Jean Cottereau and Vendeens

Jersey, 1989, Landing Arms for Chouan Rebels. 1796

Jersey, 1989, The Last Chouan Revolt. 1799


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