The little grain-market town of Machecoul lay twelve miles from the Atlantic. Just after dawn, on the eleventh of March 1793, seven-year-old Germain Bethuis was woken by a dull, booming noise rather like the sound of an angry sea. But to his young ears it seemed to come not from the west but from the north, in the direction of the village of Saint-Philibert. The sound grew louder and he became frightened. At the soirées of women and children that helped pass the long winter evenings, some of the older countrywomen had made alarming prophecies of battles and bloodletting to be heralded by clouds bunched into sinister shapes and tinted with unnatural hues. As he peered into the thinning Vendéan morning mist, Germain thought he could make out just such an apparition, darker than the fog and moving slowly over the fields towards the town. His father, who was a thirty-two-year-old notary and member of the district administration, was still in bed when his son ran in to rouse him. “There’s a black, noisy cloud, Papa, and it’s coming to town,” he told him. By now the sun had burnt off the mist to reveal a compact swarm of thousands of peasants, armed with pitchforks, skinning knives, billhooks, sickles, and more than a few hunting guns. As Germain remembered it, “Their wild cries alone were enough to spread terror.”
His father hurried to join the handful of National Guards who had hastily assembled in the main street, and stood facing the crowd of perhaps three thousand peasants. The Guards were mostly older men and young boys, since Machecoul had produced its share of the military levy required under the Convention’s plan, decreed on February 24, to raise an army of three hundred thousand. It had, in fact, been the descent of the recruiting officers on the villages of southern Anjou which had triggered spontaneous risings erupting throughout the region. At Machecoul it was left to the elderly president of the district administration and director of the local college, Dr. Gaschinard, to face down the alarming crowd. Summoning his best schoolmasterly manner, he made what Bethuis recalled as “a moving speech” (“un discours pathétique”) against violence. He would, he said, hand over, as the peasants demanded, the keys to the clock tower of the church if on their side they promised not to harm the inhabitants of the town.
Once the tocsin was ringing, however, this became a promise that was impossible to keep. The alarm brought to Machecoul peasants from all the surrounding villages, turning the swollen crowd into a rioting mob.
Maupassant, the officer who had arrived in Machecoul to supervise the drawing of lots for the army, told the Guards to stand their ground, but most broke ranks and fled. Attempting to reason with the leaders of the mob, he was killed by a single pike thrust to the heart. At this point, the disorder became uncontrollable. The houses of anyone identified with the local administration were ransacked. Any men found inside were dragged to the street and badly beaten to the huntsmen’s call of hallali, sounded when the quarry is at bay. The constitutional priest Le Tort was pulled from his church and stabbed in the face with a bayonet for ten minutes before he was finished off. More than forty men were killed on the street and another four hundred rounded up and marched to the Calvairienne convent as prisoners.
For a while, Bethuis père managed to evade the rampaging crowd by hiding in the house of a friend on the outskirts of town. Advised to flee, he refused to leave his family, and falling ill, not only returned to his own house, but took to his bed. Soon he had joined others in the improvised prison from which men were being regularly taken to summary judgment and execution. Chains of prisoners were formed by passing ropes under their arms in the infamous “rosaries” by which they were dragged to fields outside the town, made to dig ditches and then shot so that they fell neatly into their graves. The physician Musset was placed on the line twice and both times reprieved, before being executed on a final telling of the rosary. Growing desperate about his own fate, Bethuis threw himself from a second-story window, breaking his leg. His wife pleaded with the Vendéan commander Charette for her husband to see a doctor – perhaps Musset. But though Charette had come to Machecoul partly to impose some sort of order on the indiscriminate brutalities that were taking place, he told her that “a man destined to die in a few hours has no need of a doctor.”
Bethuis perished along with more than five hundred citizens of Machecoul in the bloodiest massacres perpetrated by the Vendéan rebels. The name of the town became a byword in republican rhetoric for the savagery and inhumanity of the rebels. And to this day, the history of the Vendée is capable of polarizing French historians and readers more implacably than almost any other event of the Revolution. What immediately strikes a non-French historian is how similar the gruesome events at Machecoul were to comparable acts of violent retribution committed by the republican side. Like the September massacres, the sanguinary acts began with an uncontrollable spontaneous need to visit public and brutal punishment on men who symbolized intolerable evils and immediate threats: foreigners inside the culture of hearth and home. Like the September massacres, the eruption of popular anger was quickly directed, controlled and even given some sort of spurious legal form. In Machecoul, the equivalent to Maillard was theprocureur Souchu, who presided over the proceedings that condemned the prisoners to their death. Charette was in a similar position to Danton’s – the warlord-judge ostensibly armed with authority to stop the murders but disinclined and ultimately impotent to do so.
The brutality of the Vendée rising, and of its repression, was a product of the Manichaean language of the revolutionary war. The “pathetic speech” of Dr. Gaschinard was an attempt to return both sides to a recognition of their common fraternity as Frenchmen. But they had each become so accustomed to damning stereotypes of monsters and incarnations of evil that reason collapsed back fatally to these mutual demonologies. A month before the uprising, the tapestry weaver Laparra, president of the local revolutionary club, the Société des Amis de la Liberté et Egalité at Fontenay-le-Comte, described the refractory priests and aristocrats as a monster with several heads which ravages France. The terrible blow that you have struck [the execution of the King] has removed its principal head but it is not yet dead, this monster that devours the entire universe.
Urging on the Convention to more exemplary executions, Laparra warmed to his subject: “Strike, strike great blows against these infamous heads which without any pity tear at the breast of their own mother [France]… let the avenging axe fall on them so that the death of these anthropophagi will give a terrible example to their imbecile accomplices… throw them, throw them from the heights of the Tarpeian rock.” A good start might be made, he thought, by executing two of these eaters of men in the capital town of each department of the Republic.
In the same manner, rebels at the village of Doulon anathematized the republicans: “They have killed our king; chased away our priests; sold the goods of our church; eaten everything we have and now they want to take our bodies… no, they shall not have them.”
In both the rhetorical dehumanization of the enemy and the extreme ferocity with which the war was waged, the Vendée anticipated a cycle of peasant uprisings. Wherever the armies and civilian commissioners of the Revolution confronted a pious peasantry led by locally familiar priests and powerful prelates, they met the same stubborn resistance. What began in western France in 1793 was repeated in the northern Italian “Viva Maria” riots, the Calabrian “Sanfedisti” and Belgian peasant revolts, all in 1799, as well as in Spain in 1808. In each case the authority of republican government was embodied in townsmen, often professionals, and in a minority of ardent politicians whose rhetoric was the more shrill for being isolated in regions largely unsympathetic to their doctrine.
In his classic work on the pays des Mauges, the subregion divided by the river Layon, Charles Tilly saw the river as a social as well as topographical frontier. To the north and east was the Val-Saumurois, a relatively densely settled and prosperous area where farmers and townsmen had a common interest in profiting from revolutionary legislation on the sale of church property. Literacy rates were higher, pious practices more moderate. Country and town were less abrasively juxtaposed. In sharp contrast, to the west and south, the Mauges presented a more silent, sparsely populated countryside with muddy runnels and cart tracks cutting a way between high hedgerows and dense woods. In the few towns of this region, like Cholet and Chemillé, textile entrepreneurs exploited the need of subsistence peasants for additional work by employing them as weavers at low wages and under harsh conditions. That population remained, in effect, urban peasants rather than townsmen. In contrast to the Val-Saumurois, then, the rural population of the Mauges perceived the town as exploiter and enemy.
Conversely, while in the more commercialized region farmers and bourgeois made common cause against nobles and the immensely rich Church, in the Mauges as well as in other subregions of the Vendée proper, like the wooded bocage and the Gâtiné, lines were drawn, as it were, vertically, rather than horizontally. They set off against each other an internally cohesive rural culture and an external urban world, invested by the Revolution with the powers of the state. In that rural world, the local nobility seems to have been more residential and less bitterly resented than in other parts of France. Violent riots had been few and far between in 1789. Because of the relative isolation of villages from each other, the Church and its curates exercised a disproportionately more influential role. They baptized, married and buried; gave education to the children; helped the infirm and destitute; and on Sundays provided the only place where inhabitants could recognize in each other their shared sense of community.
As Jean-Clément Martin has emphasized in the most recent and most balanced account of the revolt, there were other parts of France where the rejection of the Civil Constitution was just as vehement and widespread as in southern Anjou and the Vendée. But in none of those regions did the several components that made for a sudden and violent rising come together in quite the same way. In Flanders, Picardy and parts of Normandy, for example, nonjuring rates were very high. (In the eight districts of the Department of the Nord, for instance, there were only 190 jurors as against 1,057 nonjuring priests.) Paradoxically, rates of refusal were often higher in the towns than in the countryside, where the stipendiary curés congrues did better under the Revolution than during the old regime. The same was true for the Midi, where the rates of accepting the Civil Constitution ran around 80 percent in the villages of Provence, while entire towns like Arles remained royalist-Catholic and were only mastered by military force. In Alsace and Lorraine as well as Flanders and Picardy, hostility to the juring clergy also ran high, but these were war zones, studded with big garrison towns that could concentrate sufficient force quickly enough to prevent riots from turning into wholesale insurrections. Even in Brittany, where conditions were most similar to those in the Vendée, the royalist plot of the Marquis de La Rouërie could be nipped in the bud by picking off the principals and using enough punitive power to deter any popular demonstrations.
In the Vendée, by contrast, isolated urban representatives of the Republic, and of Jacobin patriotism, were cast adrift in a great ocean of fervent peasant piety. Moreover, as Dumouriez tried to tell the government throughout 1792, the region was dangerously undefended and would be vulnerable should a serious movement of protest occur. This complacency was all the more remarkable since the region had already given some earnest of its disaffection by serious disturbances at Challans and Cholet in 1791, and especially at Châtillon and Bressuire in August 1792. But there are signs that the authorities placed these events in the category of isolated incidents, no different from the many other rural riots that flared up in areas of France where the Revolution had disappointed the expectations of 1789. In the summer of 1792 there had been another wave of peasant jacqueries in upper Brittany; Quercy in the southwest of the Massif Central, and in the hinterland of Provence. In each of these regions discontent had been provoked by the inability of poorer peasants to profit from the sales of ecclesiastical property. In some areas fences enclosing the common land on which animals had been grazed were torn down, but in others demands were actually made for the partition of the common land among the most disadvantaged families of the village.
These grievances, however, were endemic to rural life in the pays des petites cultures. The drafting of the cahiers in 1789 had led the poorer cultivators, gathered in churches listening to their curés, to believe that their lives were about to be transformed by a magical act of social justice. What had in fact happened was that the Revolution had not only not reversed, but actually intensified, the differences between the relatively well-off and the impoverished populations of the countryside. The official response to mounting anger and violence in 1792 was a typical combination of symbolic legal concessions and selective repression. After the overthrow of the monarchy, in the last weeks of its existence the Legislative Assembly had swept aside the elaborate program of redemption payments for seigneurial dues set up in 1789 and had abolished them outright. But since the peasants had, in any case, stopped paying them, this had no effect on the higher rents with which property owners continued to compensate themselves. Companies of National Guards, together with small units of regular troops, were used to suppress further disorders wherever they flared up.
None threatened to develop into the kind of concerted insurrection that consumed the Vendée in the spring of 1793. That region, too, had its rural underclass, but historians like Marcel Faucheux have had to work very hard to make social grievances the determinant of the revolt’s allegiance. (And Martin has pointed out that many of the exploited weavers of Cholet actually enlisted under republican rather than Vendéan colors.) One of the most striking features of the rebellion was the social inclusiveness and the ties which bound together people from widely separated economic groups. The Grand Royal and Catholic Army was made up not just of subsistence peasants but quite well-off livestock farmers and a strong concentration of just those village types – innkeepers, millers, carters, blacksmiths and the like – who were supposed to be the Revolution’s representatives in the countryside. If there were representatives of those tied to local communities, like fishermen from the maritime villages near Paimboeuf, there were also boatmen and bargemen whose work took them traveling along the little rivers and canals of the Vendéan marais. Carters like the Vendéan General Cathelineau, itinerant merchants, commanded knowledge of different communities that gave them familiarity along predictable routes. The Mauges was famous not for its backwoods isolation but for its herds of fat cattle that were the prize stock of the Paris meat market at Sceaux and whose drovers were experts on the highways and byways of roads leading northeast to the Loire. There were, moreover, nobles on both sides of the war. While the noble commanders of the Vendéan army like d’Elbée and de La Rochejaquelein are better known, the commandant of the National Guard at Mortagne was the ci-devant Sieur Drouhet, who was a chevalier of Saint-Louis and had fought in America with Lafayette. At les Sables-d’Olonne the local military commander of the republican troops was Beaufranchet d’Ayat, a bastard son of Louis XV and Boucher’s favorite nude, Mlle O’Murphy.
Instead of searching for a coherent pattern of social issues that would “explain” a religious revolt in terms of something else, it makes more sense to take at face value General Turreau’s remark that “it is a true crusade.” The clergy of Anjou and lower Brittany, who were at the eye of the storm, were, as recent research by Timothy Tackett and others has shown, one of the least impoverished of the French priesthoods. Both its salaried curés congrues and the tithed clergy were better off than their brethren in many other areas of France. A significant number had smallholdings of sufficient size to produce food for themselves and a modest income in addition. The secular clergy of the small towns often shared indirectly in the prosperous endowments which made the dioceses of the west at Luçon, Angers and Nantes some of the richest in France. And just because the region around La Rochelle had been one of the last strongholds of independent Protestantism in the seventeenth century, it had been the target of intensive Catholic preaching missions. The Missionnaires du Saint-Esprit, for example, organized by Louis Grignion de Montfort at the beginning of the eighteenth century, had apparently succeeded in implanting a genuinely popular and energetic ministry in the west. Not surprisingly, then, there was an unusual degree of solidarity extending through the church hierarchy and far fewer of the alienated country curates who, in the Midi and in the Norman countryside, provided natural candidates for the constitutional clergy.
It was also of the utmost significance that a very high proportion of the clergy in western France originated in the countryside. Given the Church’s high status and well-endowed livings, a career in the Church was a natural ambition for a bright boy of peasant origins. Many of those who had become ordained after seminary education in the cathedral towns then returned to their native villages or at least to the locality in which they had been born. There they not only ministered to the spiritual needs of their flock but provided indispensable personnel for local schools and colleges and succor for the sick and poor. Thus, more than in many other areas, the priests of the Vendée could claim to be true sons of the pays. This made the constitutional clergy who replaced them seem all the more alien. They were universally described throughout the region as intrus or more colloquially as truts or trutons – intruders. In their passion for the defense of hearth and home (as in so much else), the Vendéan rebels were mirror images of the sans-culottes who came to fight them. Only, the two sides had exactly opposing views of who the real foreigners were, whose extirpation was the precondition for peace and freedom.
The enforcement of the revolutionary legislation on the Church, then, was seen in southern Anjou, almost from the beginning, as an invasion. Large numbers of priests who, in obedience to the papal principles published by Boisgelin, refused to take the constitutional oath, wanted to abandon their curacies. Many did indeed follow their bishops by emigrating to Spain or sometimes farther afield to Ireland and England. Such was the rapid depletion of manpower in the region that some departmental authorities, in Maine-et-Loire for example, in July 1791, actually asked refractory priests to stay in their parishes if they could not be replaced. Pragmatic compromises of this kind, however, only infuriated local Jacobin militants all the more, and they sent petitions to the legislature in Paris denouncing clerical plots and demanding draconian measures against them. The 1792 decrees deporting stubborn refractories further aggravated the conflict. Priest hunts were authorized, with National Guards empowered to smash locks, break in doors and leave no stick of furniture unturned (or intact) in their searches. Houses where a capture was made would be forced to pay the wages and expenses of those performing the search. Needless to say, this had a dramatically alienating effect on an already incensed population. But despite these threats, many priests were hidden in barns, haylofts or sometimes in primitive huts and even caves in the thick of the wood, where they were brought food by loyal parishioners.
While efforts were made to shelter and conceal the refractory priests from the revolutionary authorities, at least as much effort was devoted to making the life of the intrus as miserable as possible. In some parishes the new curate would arrive at the church porch to find his refractory rival departing, fully dressed in the sacerdotal vestments, along with all of the church plate and the entire congregation following in procession. Not infrequently a local mayor of the commune led the resistance, when he was supposed to uphold the law. Many pretended to have lost the church keys when the new curé arrived. Altar cloths mysteriously disappeared, and the curé was unable to obtain clean ones unless he laundered them himself. If the clock broke (and sometimes the peasants ensured that it did) no one could be found to repair it. For his installation, the juring priest would often need a platoon of National Guards, who had to shove a way through crowds yelling “Ne jurez pas, ne vous damnez pas” (Don’t take the oath, don’t damn yourself).
After the Guards had gone, the intru was left alone to endure as best he could the constant harassment, not to mention embarrassingly empty churches. At Melay, the juring priest was one Thubert, who was the son of the republican mayor. He was hooted at, jeered and kicked whenever he made an appearance. To add insult to injury, his own sexton, as he complained, not only ostentatiously absented himself from Mass but on occasion had climbed to the belfry to pelt him with cobblestones. All of the resources of traditional village carnival rites, including hanging in effigy, were brought to bear on the hapless truton. In one such representation at Saint-Aubin, the curate was depicted with horns as the Devil’s helper and also as the cuckold of the Church. Thubert’s door was hammered on all night, and in other parishes the clattering cans and shrieking whistles of rough music ensured the priest’s insomnia. Churches occupied by the intruders were often ritually defiled by bringing garbage inside or sometimes leaving excrement or even unattended corpses at the door. Alternatively, women might take the lead in ostentatious acts of cleansing the pollution. When, for example, the Parisian Peyre was installed as curate of May-sur-Evre, he was surprised to see women following him into the church wiping off traces of his footprints on the stone floor. In other villages, the fonts were aggressively emptied and refilled lest they become contaminated by the hands of the infidel.
Finally there was the strategy of refusal. The Revolution had made marriage a civil act but, as with baptism and burial, there were also religious forms which could supplement the registration. The refractory clergy had made it clear that none of these “civic” ceremonies had any standing in the true faith. Thus couples who submitted to a civic marriage and a ceremony blessed by a juring priest were deemed by the Church to be living in a state of sin. Similarly, the last rites performed by such men were declared invalid as a form of absolution. In these circumstances the refusal of parishioners to participate in these acts was not just a matter of ostracism but the salvation of their souls. The refractory priests often left them with elaborate instructions on how to cope in their absence.Burials were to be carried out in fields beyond the village, according to the proper forms. If the juring priests discovered the ceremony, they were physically barred from participation. Some priests even left instructions on how to continue their traditional Masses as if they were still present. For example, in his last sermon before leaving Saint-Hilaire-de Mortagne, Mathieu Paunaud promised his flock that “wherever Providence shall lead me I will pray for you.” In the event the congregation should be deprived of a “good priest,” they should nonetheless assemble at ten o’clock as usual and say their responses in the knowledge that, at the same hour, he would be joining his worship with theirs. Finally, improvised chapels were created in which to say traditional Mass, either in the hiding places of the refractory priests or in remote farm cottages, their windows covered with cloth, to which the priests would be carefully escorted.
Obviously, with this history of tenacious resistance, it would not take much to tip the Vendée into more concerted violence. In January 1793, Biret, the procureur-syndic of les Sables-d’Olonne in the maritime district, wrote to the departmental administrators that “as for morals, I believe that by far the greater part of the people… is entirely corrupted by fanaticism and the efforts of domestic enemies… as for politics the same individuals are equally incapable of reasoning. The Revolution for them is just one long sequence of injustices of which they complain without really knowing why.” The execution of the King evidently made things worse. At one gathering at les Sables, Biret reported, “Certain persons dared to call the legislators who had condemned Louis to death ‘brigands’ and ‘scoundrels.’” Through February reports steadily accumulated of more brazen gestures: shouted slogans of “Long live the priests, religion, and the King [now, of course, the boy Louis XVII]; death to the Patriots.”
The announcement of the recruiting levies turned all this pent-up anger and resentment into outright revolt. Interestingly, Reynald Sécher has discovered that the Vendée did in fact furnish at least its share of recruits from the small towns. It may well have been that those who were, by office or inclination, already committed to the Republic wished to make sure they were armed to defend themselves or, sensibly, to get themselves well out of the region. In any event, the symbolic force of the recruitment – which was not yet conscription but an appeal for volunteers to make up a levy, supplemented by a lottery in cases of shortfall – was enough in itself to provoke violence. And it was not helped by an order the previous day, on March 6, 1793, closing all churches where there was no juring priest in place.
The tenth to the twelfth of March saw the first stage in the uprising, when spontaneously assembled crowds in villages and bourgs attacked the offices and houses of mayors, juges de paix, procureurs and dangerously isolated units of the National Guard. The riot at Machecoul was repeated, with less murderous consequences, in Saint-Florent-le-Vieil, Sainte-Pazanne, Saint-Hilaire-de-Chaléons and Clisson. The leaders who emerged from this first wave of violence were often, like the gamekeeper and ex-soldier Stofflet, men who had long been identified in their locality with resistance to the revolutionary authorities. Once they had evicted their enemies and taken their weapons, the crowds coalesced with each other, forming processions towards larger towns and snowballing in size as they traveled along the roads.
At this stage, the riots in the Vendée seemed no different from similar antirecruitment riots taking place in many other parts of France from the Calvados in Normandy to the Côte d’Or in Burgundy and the Puyde-Dôme in the southern Massif Central. Some of the worst upheavals occurred north of the Loire in Brittany. But there the government had been so obsessed by the possibility of counter-revolutionary plots, it had in place sufficient force to take rapid and decisive action against the centers of resistance. The Vendée, in contrast, was dangerously depleted of troops. At Challans, for example, there were just two hundred Patriot Guards who had to face more than a thousand insurgents on the twelfth of March. By the time that reinforcements could be provided, the several riots had already fused into a general insurrection. Moreover, even of the fifty thousand republican soldiers who were eventually concentrated in the Vendée by the third week of March, only a tiny proportion – perhaps fewer than two thousand – were veterans of the “line” – the old royal army. The remainder were unseasoned volunteers, badly fed and equipped and, more critically for the situation they faced, extremely apprehensive about the rebels. None of the armies of France in the spring and summer of 1793 showed such propensity to take to panic and break ranks as the bleus of the Vendée. Perhaps they feared the fate of the republicans of Machecoul. As it was, many of them were dispersed in small units of fifty or some hundreds, numerous enough to provide a target for the infuriated rebels but not substantial enough to overawe them.
By the time that the Republic understood the gravity of the situation, the rebels had already taken many of the larger centers, in particular Cholet, Chemillé and Fontenay-le-Comte. On the fourteenth of March, Stofflet joined his forces with those attached to another gamekeeper, Tonnelet, and men following the wagoner-vendor Cathelineau. After failing to persuade the republican troops, commanded by the citizen-marquis de Beauveau, to lay down their arms, the rebels overwhelmed the bleus in a great barrage of fire, mortally wounding de Beauveau.
Despite this early success, it seemed important to recruit authority figures from the local nobility, whose adhesion would itself help recruit more troops to the cause. This was not just a matter of status, since those approached all had considerable military experience in the field that could be put to use as the theater of operations expanded. Deputations were sent to châteaux and manors, where they often had to overcome mixed feelings on the part of the local gentry on the prospects of the revolt. Indeed, what was striking about many of the gentry (the twenty-one-year-old Henri de La Rochejaquelein excepted) was not their royalist passion but their moderation. Those who had had experience of the emigration at Coblenz had returned disgusted by what they had seen. Others like d’Elbée, for example, had originally been partisans of the Revolution, had been deputed electors for the Third Estate at Beaupréau, had voted for the constitutional bishop Pelletier and had only become alienated by the brutal legislation on deportation. Bonchamp, the other major noble commander, actually lectured the rebels on the seriousness of their conduct: “Cannot you feel the horror of our position? What are we doing? Making civil war. Against whom are we fighting? Against the nation of which we are a part.” Without any question, what motivated the Vendéan gentry was a sense of local patriotism: the compression of the sentiments of the pays and the patrie. Both the émigrés and the bleus were stigmatized in their eyes as invaders. If France was ever to be redeemed, it had to be by local heroes, committed to protecting their own territory against despoilers. This gave a remarkably personal and parochial quality to their subsequent command. Often idolized by the troops, leaders like Charette, Sapinaud de La Verrie and d’Elbée were really romanticized patriarchalists, the eighteenth-century version of baronial warlords. Each drew his men from a specific region: Bonchamp from around Saint-Florent; Charette from around Machecoul and the pays nantais to the north; d’Elbée from the country around Mortagne; La Rochejaquelein from Bressuire and Châtillon. They cultivated a clannish sentiment that made for great loyalty but worked against the cohesion needed if the Vendéan army was ever to be more than an ephemeral confederation of resistance bands.
Throughout the conflict, priests were not as much in evidence on the field of battle as historical tradition has supposed. There were exceptions to this surprising reticence. The force that took Cholet was controlled as much by the Abbé Barbotin as by Stofflet. Others – like the Abbé Bernier, Rousseau of Trémentines, Chamuau of La Jubaudiére and Gruget of Saint-Florent – did become important figures in rallying the peasants to the Vendéan cause. And certainly the crusading nature of the struggle was publicly emphasized at every opportunity. After the capture of Chemillé, Barbotin became “Almoner of the Catholic Army” and gave mass absolution prior to battles. The Vendéans often sang hymns and canticles on the march, bore standards with the Virgin Mary at the head of their regiments and wore as their device the devotional emblem of the Sacred Heart surmounted by the cross. Before the end of March a counter-“Marseillaise” had been composed for the troops, which began
Allons armées catholiques, le jour de gloire est arrivé
Contre nous de la République,
L’étendard sanglant est levé…
Aux armes poitevins, formez vos bataillons
Marchez, marchez, le sang aux bleus,
Rougira nos sillons
It would be a mistake, though, to imagine the Vendéan army as a kind of primitive religious horde. Some of the early seizures of key centers like Cholet were indeed conducted without sophisticated tactics, large numbers of infantry moving in loose formation between columns of sharpshooters at each side, with a rudimentary cavalry and a cannon or two at the back. But by the end of the first week of hostilities, something like a serious army had come into being, with munitions taken from stores left behind by the fleeing republicans. Some of the larger cannon were given names, the most famous being the Marie-Jeanne (named for the two daughters of the cannoneer who trundled it along), an awesome piece whose effect on the enemy was exclusively a matter of the noise and smoke that issued from its occasional detonations. A cavalry of perhaps fifteen hundred to two thousand horsemen, often wearing clogs rather than boots, rode animals of all shapes and sizes.
The greatest asset of the Vendéans, however, was their mastery of home territory. Their tactics were impressively adapted to the particular terrain in which they fought. In the lower Loire, for example, they used armed boat patrols to intercept both munitions and food supplies going to republican garrisons. Windmills on the low hills of the bocage were used to relay messages to outlying units by operating the sails according to a code of communications. And throughout the region, noncombatants, often women and children, participated by keeping farms working and supplying food and clothing to their troops.
It was the kind of war with which we are now all too familiar but for which the army of the Republic, especially those troops who had been drawn from the battlefields of Belgium or the siege of Mainz, was completely unprepared. Uniformed troops in disciplined formation were tied down in isolated garrisons, able to control large towns on the perimeter of the war zone but helpless to patrol the interior, where every wood might conceal a murderous ambush, or to distinguish in villages between civilians and combatants. When the French generals who had fought in the Vendée discovered, to their dismay, similar conditions in the Peninsular War in Spain fifteen years later, they referred to it as “la petite guerre,” which in Spanish became rendered as guerrilla.
It was not, however, this kind of irregular combat which signaled to the Convention in Paris that it had a full-scale domestic war on its hands. The battles before Cholet and Fontenay-le-Comte had in fact been head-on confrontations in open country or fields in which the Vendéans had superiority of numbers and often of firepower. Through the night of the nineteenth and twentieth, a force of more than two thousand troops commanded by General Marcé fought a six-hour pitched battle on the banks of the Grand Lay north of Chantonnay. Hearing the strains of the “Marseillaise,” Marcé thought he was being reinforced, when in fact it was a rebel column singing “Allons armées catholiques…” The struggle finally became unequal and disintegrated into a rout, with panic-stricken bleusfleeing south to Sainte-Hermine and Saint-Hermand. The whole country of the southern plain and the Vendéan marais fell into the hands of the rebels, including the towns of Luçon, Fontenay and Niort. On the twenty-second, the disaster was repeated at the northern end of the region when at Chalonnes three hundred bleus faced almost twenty thousand Vendéans and fled, leaving most of their equipment and eighteen cannon to the rebels.
By early April, virtually the whole of the Vendée, with the exception of the northern maritime area, but including the island of Noirmoutier, was in rebel hands. At the urging of the officer of the royal bodyguard, Sapinaud de La Verrie, a unified command had been established, and elected parish committees set up to organize the collection of arms and victuals for the troops. Assignats were being printed with the image of the boy King Louis XVII, in whose name edicts and decrees were published by the Vendéan Grand Council. The rebels even boasted a primitive field-hospital service, complete with pharmacies and nursing sisters.
As with all irregular and spontaneously recruited armies, its most serious problem was maintaining cohesion, especially after the initial goal of ridding the Vendée of republican authority had been accomplished. The commanders recognized that this would be only a short-term victory unless their base was secured by the capture of major urban centers and, ultimately, by the overthrow of the Republic itself. However much their campaigns may have begun as a liberation of the home pays, once they were committed to civil war, there was no avoiding that much broader strategic goal. By the same token, though, the farther they moved from their base, the more likely they were to lose the special advantages it had given them. Initially, in mid-April, they suffered serious setbacks. But the forced capitulation of the garrison at Thouars in early May delivered an enormous quantity of provisions and munitions into their hands. Fontenay-le-Comte fell at the end of May and, most spectacularly, Saumur, on the ninth of June. But instead of striking further east, Charette concentrated on a fruitless siege of Nantes on the other side of the Loire.
In late May, though, the position of the rebels still looked formidable. They had decisively defeated the republican armies sent against them and had put into action the rudiments of a state within a state. Rather as though they were potentates addressing the minions of a foreign power, the Grand Council published an “Address to the French,” written by the Abbé Bernier. It was, at the same time, a manifesto and an account of the Revolution that was remarkable both for its eloquence and the telling way in which it turned the revolutionary rhetoric of liberty against the Republic. More than any other document it succeeds in expressing the depth and simplicity of the convictions which fired the rebellion.
Heaven has declared for the holiest and most just of causes. [Ours is] the sacred sign of the cross of Jesus Christ. We know the true wish of France, it is our own, namely to recover and preserve for ever our holy apostolic and Roman Catholic religion. It is to have a King who will serve as father within and protector without…
Patriots, our enemies, you accuse us of overturning our patrie by rebellion but it is you, who, subverting all the principles of the religious and political order, were the first to proclaim that insurrection is the most sacred of duties. You have introduced atheism in the place of religion, anarchy in the place of laws, men who are tyrants in place of the King who was our father. You reproach us with religious fanaticism, you whose pretensions to liberty have led to the most extreme penalties.
In the National Convention, amidst mounting rage and dismay, Bertrand Barère shrugged his shoulders at the conduct of what he called “l’inexplicable Vendée.”