Front Page Titles (by Subject) XX: La Vendée - Lectures on the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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XX: La Vendée - John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, Lectures on the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Lectures on the French Revolution, ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence, with a foreword by Steven J. Tonsor (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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The remorseless tyranny which came to an end in Thermidor was not the product of home causes. It was prepared by the defeat and defection of Dumouriez; it was developed by the loss of the frontier fortresses in the following July; and it fell when the tide of battle rolled away after the victory of Fleurus. We have, therefore, to consider the series of warlike transactions that reacted so terribly on the government of France. At first, and especially in the summer of 1793, the real danger was not foreign, but civil war. During four years the Revolution always had force on its side. The only active opposition had come from emigrant nobles who were a minority, acting for a class. Not a battalion had joined Brunswick when he occupied a French province; and the mass of the country people had been raised, under the new order, to a better condition than they had ever known. For the hard kernel of the revolutionary scheme, taken from agrarian Rome, was that those who till the land shall own the land; that they should enjoy the certainty of gathering the fruits of their toil for themselves; that every family should possess as much as it could cultivate. But the shock which now made the Republic tremble was an insurrection of peasants, men of the favoured class; and the democracy which was strong enough to meet the monarchies of Europe, saw its armies put to flight by a rabble of field labourers and woodmen, led by obscure commanders, of whom many had never served in war.
One of Washington’s officers was a Frenchman who came out before Lafayette, and was known as Colonel Armand. His real name was the Marquis de La Rouerie. His stormy life had been rich in adventure and tribulation. He had appeared on the boards of the opera; he had gone about in company with a monkey; he had fought a duel, and believing that he had killed his man had swallowed poison; he had been an inmate of the monastery of La Trappe, after a temporary disappointment in love; and he had been sent to the Bastille with other discontented Bretons. On his voyage out his ship blew up in sight of land, and he swam ashore. But this man who came out of the sea was found to be full of audacity and resource. He rose to be a brigadier in the Continental army; and when he came home, he became the organiser of the royalist insurrection in the west. Authorised by the Princes, whom he visited at Coblenz, he prepared a secret association in Brittany, which was to co-operate with others in the central provinces.
While La Rouerie was adjusting his instruments and bringing the complicated agency to perfection, the invaders came and went, and the signal for action, when they were masters of Châlons, was never given. When volunteers were called out to resist them, men with black cockades went about interrupting the enrolment, and declaring that no man should take arms, except to deliver the king. Their mysterious leader, Cottereau, the first to bear the historic name of Jean Chouan, was La Rouerie’s right hand. When the prospect of combination with the Powers was dissolved by Dumouriez, the character of the conspiracy changed, and men began to think that they could fight the Convention single-handed, while its armies were busy on the Rhine and Meuse. Brittany had 200 miles of coast, and as the Channel Islands were in sight, aid could come from British cruisers.
La Rouerie, who was a prodigy of inventiveness, and drew his lines with so firm a hand that the Chouannerie, which broke out after his death, lasted ten years and only went to pieces against Napoleon, organised a rising, almost from Seine to Loire, for the spring of 1793. Indeed it is not enough to say that they went down before the genius of Napoleon. The “Petite Chouannerie,” as the rising of 1815 was called, contributed heavily to his downfall; for he was compelled to send 20,000 men against it, whose presence might have turned the fortune of the day at Waterloo.
But in January 1793 La Rouerie fell ill, the news of the king’s death made him delirious, and on the 30th he died. That the explosion might yet take place at the appointed hour, they concealed his death, and buried him in a wood, at midnight, filling the grave with quicklime. The secret was betrayed, the remains were discovered, the accomplices fled, and those who were taken died faithful to their trust.
The Breton rising had failed for the time, and royalists north of the Loire had not recovered from the blow when La Vendée rose. The corpse in the thicket was found February 26; the papers were seized March 3; and it was March 12, at the moment when Brittany was paralysed, that the conscription gave the signal of civil war. The two things are quite separate. In one place there was a plot which came to nothing at the time; in the other, there was an outbreak which had not been prepared. La Vendée was not set in motion by the wires laid north of the Loire. It broke out spontaneously, under sudden provocation. But the Breton plot had ramified in that direction also, and there was much expectant watching for the hour of combined action. Smugglers, and poachers, and beggar men had carried the whispered parole, armed with a passport in these terms: “Trust the bearer, and give him aid, for the sake of Armand”; and certain remote and unknown country gentlemen were affiliated, whose names soon after filled the world with their renown. D’Elbée, the future commander-in-chief, was one of them; and he always regarded the tumultuous outbreak of March, the result of no ripened design, as a fatal error. That is the reason why the gentry hung back at first, and were driven forward by the peasants. It seemed madness to fight the Convention without previous organisation for purposes of war, and without the support of the far larger population of Brittany, which had the command of the coast, and was in touch with the great maritime Power. Politics and religion had roused much discontent; but the first real act of rebellion was prompted by the new principle of compulsory service, proclaimed on February 23.
The region which was to be the scene of so much glory and so much sorrow lies chiefly between the left bank of the Loire and the sea, about 100 miles across, from Saumur to the Atlantic, and 50 or 60 from Nantes towards Poitiers. Into the country farther south, the Vendeans, who were weak in cavalry and had no trained gunners, never penetrated. The main struggle raged in a broken, wooded, and almost inaccessible district called the Bocage, where there were few towns and no good roads. That was the stronghold of the grand army, which included all that was best in Vendean virtue. Along the coast there was a region of fens, peopled by a coarser class of men, who had little intercourse with their inland comrades, and seldom acted with them. Their leader, Charette, the most active and daring of partisans, fought more for the rapture of fighting than for the sake of a cause. He kept open communication by sea, negotiated with England, and assured the Bourbons that, if one of them appeared, he would place him at the head of 200,000 men. He regarded the other commanders as subservient to the clergy, and saw as little of them as he could.
The inhabitants of La Vendée, about 800,000, were well-to-do, and had suffered less from degenerate feudalism than the east of France. They lived on better terms with the landlords, and had less cause to welcome the Revolution. Therefore, too, they clung to the nonjuring clergy. At heart, they were royalist, aristocratic and clerical, uniting anti-revolutionary motives that acted separately elsewhere. That is the cause of their rising; but the secret of their power is in the military talent, a thing more rare than courage, that was found among them. The disturbances that broke out in several places on the day of enrolment, were conducted by men of the people. Cathelineau, one of the earliest, was a carrier, sacristan in his village, who had never seen a shot fired when he went out with a few hundred neighbours and took Cholet. By his side there was a gamekeeper, who had been a soldier, and came from the eastern frontier. As his name was Christopher, the Germans corrupted it into Stoffel, and he made it famous in the form of Stofflet. While the conflict was carried on by small bands there was no better man to lead them. He and Charette held out longest, and had not been conquered when the clergy, for whom they fought, betrayed them.
The popular and democratic interval was short. After the first few days the nobles were at the head of affairs. They deemed the cause desperate. Not one of them had promoted the rising, scarcely one refused to join in it. The one we know best is Lescure, because his wife’s memoirs have been universally read. Lescure formed the bond between gentry and clergy, for the cause was religious as much as political. He would have been the third generalissimo, but he was disabled by a wound, and put forward his cousin, Henri de la Rochejaquelein, in preference to Stofflet. We shall presently see that a grave suspicion darkens his fame. Like Lescure, d’Elbée was a man of policy and management; but he was no enthusiast. He desired a reasonable restoration, not a reaction; and he said just before his death that when the pacification came it would be well to keep fanatics in order.
Far above all these men in capacity for war, and on a level with the best in character, was the Marquis de Bonchamps. He understood the art of manoeuvring large masses of men; and as his followers would have to meet large masses, when the strife became deadly, he sought to train them for it. He made them into that which they did not want to be, and for which they were ill-fitted. It is due to his immediate command that the war could be carried on upon a large scale; and that men who had begun with a rush and a night attack, dispersing when the foe stood his ground, afterwards defeated the veterans of the Rhine under the best generals of republican France. Bonchamps always urged the need of sending a force to rouse Brittany; but the day when the army crossed the Loire was the day of his death.
La Vendée was far from the route of invading armies, and the district threatened by the Germans. There were no fears for hearth and home, no terrors in a European war for those who kept out of it. If they must fight, they chose to fight in a cause which they loved. They hated the Revolution, not enough to take arms against it, but enough to refuse to defend it. They were compelled to choose. Either they must resist oppression, or they must serve it, and must die for a Government which was at war with their friends, with the European Conservatives, who gave aid to the fugitive nobles, and protection to the persecuted priests. Their resistance was not a matter of policy. There was no principle in it that could be long maintained. The conscription only forced a decision. There were underlying causes for aversion and vengeance, although the actual outbreak was unpremeditated. The angry peasants stood alone for a moment; then was seen the stronger argument, the greater force behind. Clergy and gentry put forward the claim of conscience, and then the men who had been in the royalist plot with La Rouerie, began to weave a new web. That plot had been authorised by the princes, on the émigré lines, and aimed at the restoration of the old order. That was not, originally, the spirit of La Vendée. It was never identified with absolute monarchy. At first, the army was known as the Christian army. Then, it became the Catholic and royal army. The altar was nearer to their hearts than the throne. As a sign of it, the clergy occupied the higher place in the councils. Some of the leaders had been Liberals of ’89. Others surrendered royalism and accepted the Republic as soon as religious liberty was assured. Therefore, throughout the conflict, and in spite of some intolerant elements, and of some outbursts of reckless fury, La Vendée had the better cause. One Vendean, surrounded and summoned to give up his arms, cried: “First give me back my God.”
Bernier, the most conspicuous of the ecclesiastical leaders, was an intriguer; but he was no fanatical adherent of obsolete institutions. The restoration of religion was, to him, the just and sufficient object of the insurrection. A time came when he was very careful to dissociate La Vendée from Brittany, as the champions, respectively, of a religious and a dynastic cause. He saw his opportunity under the Consulate, came out of his hiding-place, and promoted a settlement. He became the agent and auxiliary of Bonaparte, in establishing the Concordat, which is as far removed from intolerance as from legitimacy. As bishop of Orleans he again appeared in the Loire country, not far from the scene of his exploits; but he was odious to many of the old associates, who felt that he had employed their royalism for other ends, without being a royalist.
The country gentlemen of La Vendée had either not emigrated, or had returned to their homes, after seeing what the emigration came to. As far as their own interests were concerned, they accepted the situation. With all the combative spirit which made their brief career so brilliant, few of them displayed violent or extreme opinions. La Vendée was made illustrious mainly by men who dreaded neither the essentials of the Revolution nor its abiding consequences, but who strove to rescue their country from the hands of persecutors and assassins. The rank and file were neither so far-sighted nor so moderate. At times they exhibited much the same ferocity as the fighting men of Paris, and in spite of their devotion, they had the cruel and vindictive disposition which in France has been often associated with religion. It was seen from the outset among the wild followers of Charette; and even the enthusiasts of Anjou and of Upper Poitou degenerated and became bloodthirsty. They all hated the towns, where there were municipal authorities who arrested priests, and levied requisitions and men.
The insurrection began by a series of isolated attacks on all the small towns, which were seats of government; and in two months of the spring of 1793 the republicans had been swept away, and the whole country of La Vendée belonged to the Vendeans. They were without order or discipline or training of any sort, and were averse to the sight of officers overtopping them on horseback. Without artillery of their own, they captured 500 cannon. By the end of April they were estimated at near 100,000, a proportion of fighting men to population that has only been equalled in the War of Secession. When the signal was given, the tocsin rang in 600 parishes. In spite of momentary reverses, they carried everything before them, until, on the 9th of June, they took Saumur, a fortress which gave them the command of the Loire. There they stood on the farthest limit of their native province, with 40,000 soldiers, and a large park of artillery. To advance beyond that point, they would require an organisation stronger than the bonds of neighbourhood and the accidental influence of local men. They established a governing body, largely composed of clergy; and they elected a commander-in-chief. The choice fell on Cathelineau, because he was a simple peasant, and was trusted by the priests who were still dominant. As they were all equal there arose a demand for a bishop who should hold sway over them. Nonjuring bishops were scarce in France; but Lescure contrived to supply the need of the moment. Here, in the midst of so much that was tragic, and of so much that was of good report, we come to the bewildering and grotesque adventure of the bishop of Agra.
At Dol, near St. Malo, there was a young priest who took the oath to the Constitution, but afterwards dropped the cassock, appeared at Poitiers as a man of pleasure, and was engaged to be married. He volunteered in the republican cavalry, and took the field against the royalists, mounted and equipped by admiring friends. On May 5, he was taken prisoner, and as his card of admission to the Jacobins was found upon him, he thought himself in danger. He informed his captors that he was on their side; that he was a priest in orders, whom it would be sacrilege to injure; at last, that he was not only a priest, but a bishop, whom, in the general dispersion, the Pope had chosen as his vicar apostolic to the suffering Church of France. His name was Guyot, and he called himself Folleville. Such a captive was worth more than a regiment of horse. Lescure carried the republican trooper to his country house for a few days; and on May 16 Guyot reappeared in the robes proper to a bishop, with the mitre, ring, and crozier that belonged to his exalted dignity.
It was a great day in camp under the white flag; and the enemy, watching through his telescope, beheld with amazement the kneeling ranks of Vendean infantry, and a gigantic prelate who strode through them and distributed blessings. He addressed them when they went into action, promising victory to those who fought, and heaven to those who fell, in so good a cause; and he went under fire with a crucifix in his hand, and ministered to the wounded. They put him at the head of the council, and required every priest to obey him, under pain of arrest. Bernier, who had been at school with Guyot, was not deceived. He denounced him at Rome, through Maury, who was living there in the enjoyment of well-earned honours. The fraud was at once exposed. Pius VI. declared that the bishop of Agra did not exist; and that he knew nothing of the man so called, except that he was an impostor and a rogue.
From the moment when Bernier wrote, Guyot was in his power; but it was October before he translated the papal Latin to the generals. They resolved to take no notice, but the detected pretender ceased to say Mass. La Rochejaquelein intended to put him on board ship and get rid of him at the first seaport. They never reached the sea. To the last, at Granville, Guyot was seen in the midst of danger, and his girdle was among the spoils of the field. Though the officers watched him, the men never found him out. He served them faithfully during his six months of precarious importance, and he perished with them. He might have obtained hope of life by betraying the mendacity of his accomplices, and the imbecility of his dupes. He preferred to die without exposing them.
In June, when the victorious Vendeans occupied Saumur, it was time that they should have a policy and a plan. They had four alternatives. They might besiege Nantes and open communications with English cruisers. They might join with the royalists of the centre. They might raise an insurrection in Brittany, or they might strike for Paris. The great road to the capital opened before them; there were the prisoners in the Temple to rescue, and the monarch to restore. Dim reports of their exploits reached the queen, and roused hopes of deliverance. In a smuggled note, the Princess Elizabeth inquired whether the men of the west had reached Orleans; in another, she asked, not unreasonably, what had become of the British fleet. It is said that Stofflet gave that heroic counsel. Napoleon believed that if they had followed it, nothing could have prevented the white flag from waving on the towers of Notre Dame. But there was no military organisation; the troops received no pay, and went home when they pleased. The generals were hopelessly divided, and Charette would not leave his own territory. Bonchamps, who always led his men, and was hit in every action, was away, disabled by a wound. His advice was known. He thought that their only hope was to send a small corps to rouse the Bretons. With the united forces of Brittany and Vendée they would then march for Paris. They adopted a compromise, and decided to besiege Nantes, an open town, the headquarters of commerce with the West Indies, and of the African slave trade. If Nantes fell it would be likely to rouse Brittany; and it was an expedition in which Charette would take a part. This was the disastrous advice of Cathelineau. They went down from Saumur to Nantes, by the right bank of the Loire, and on the night of June 28, their fire-signals summoned Charette for the morrow. Charette did not fail. But he was beyond the river, unable to make his way across, and he resented the arrangement which was to give the pillage of the wealthy city to the pious soldiers of Anjou and Poitou, whilst he looked on from a distance.
During the long deliberations at Saumur, and the slow march down the river, Nantes had thrown up earthworks, and had fortified the hearts of its inhabitants. The attack failed. Cathelineau penetrated to the market place, and they still show the window from which a cobbler shot down the hero of Anjou. The Vendeans retreated to their stronghold, and their cause was without a future. D’Elbée was chosen to succeed, on the death of Cathelineau. He admitted the superior claims of Bonchamps, but he disliked his policy of carrying the war to the north. The others preferred d’Elbée because they had less to fear from his ascendancy and strength of will. They were not only divided by jealousy, but by enmity. Charette kept away from the decisive field, and rejoiced when the grand army passed the Loire, and left their whole country to him. Charette and Stofflet caused Marigny, the commander of the artillery, to be executed. Lescure once exclaimed that, if he had not been helpless from a wound, he would have cut down the Prince de Talmond. Stofflet sent a challenge to Bonchamps; and both Stofflet and Charette were ultimately betrayed by their comrades. Success depended on the fidelity of d’Elbée, Bonchamps, and Lescure to each other, through all divergences of character and policy. For two months they continued to hold the Republic at bay. They never reached Poitiers, and they were heavily defeated at Luçon; but they made themselves a frontier line of towns, to the south-west, by taking Thouars, Parthenay, Fontenay, and Niort. There was a road from north to south by Beaupréau, Châtillon, and Bressuire; and another from east to west, through Doué, Vihiers, Coron, Mortagne. All these are names of famous battles. At Cholet, which is in the middle of La Vendée, where the two roads cross, the first success and the final rout took place.
The advantage which the Vendeans possessed was that there was no good army to oppose them, and there were no good officers. It was the early policy of Robespierre to repress military talent, which may be dangerous in a republic, and to employ noisy patriots. He was not duped by them; but he trusted them as safe men; and if they did their work coarsely and cruelly, imitating the practice that succeeded so well at Paris, it was no harm. That was a surer way of destroying royalists en masse than the manoeuvres of a tactician, who was very likely to be humane, and almost sure to be ambitious and suspicious of civilians. Therefore a succession of incompetent men were sent out, and the star of d’Elbée ascended higher and higher. There had been time for communication with Pitt, who was believed to be intriguing everywhere, and the dread of an English landing in the west became strong in the Committees of government at Paris.
At the end of July, a serious disaster befell the French armies. Mentz surrendered to the Prussians, and Valenciennes immediately after to the Austrians. Their garrisons, unable to serve against the enemy abroad, were available against the enemy at home. The soldiers from Mayence were sent to Nantes. They were 8000, and they brought Kléber with them. It was the doom of La Vendée. By the middle of September the best soldiers and the best generals the French government possessed met the veterans of Bonchamps and d’Elbée. In a week, from the 18th to the 23rd, they fought five battles, of which the most celebrated is named after the village of Torfou. And with this astonishing result, that the royalists were victorious in every one of them, and captured more than 100 cannon. On one of these fields, Kléber and Marceau saw each other for the first time. But it seemed that Bonchamps was able to defeat even Kléber and Marceau, as he had defeated Westermann and Rossignol. Then a strange thing happened. Some men, in disguise, were brought into the Vendean lines. They proved to be from the Mayence garrison; and they said that they would prefer serving under the royalist generals who had beaten them, rather than under their own unsuccessful chiefs. They undertook, for a large sum of money, to return with their comrades. Bonchamps and Charette took the proposals seriously, and wished to accept them. But the money could only be procured by melting down the Church plate, and the clergy made objection. Some have thought that this was a fatal miscalculation. The other causes of their ruin are obvious and are decisive. They ought to have been supported by the Bretons, and the Bretons were not ready. They ought to have been united, and they were bitterly divided and insubordinate. They ought to have created an impregnable fastness on the high ground above the Loire; but they had no defensive tactics, and when they occupied a town, would not wait for the attack, but retired, to have the unqualified delight of expelling the enemy. Above all, they ought to have been backed by England. D’Elbée’s first letter was intercepted, and four months passed before the English government stirred. The émigrés and their princes had no love for these peasants and stay-at-home gentry and clergy, who took so long to declare themselves, and whose primary or ultimate motive was not royalism. Puisaye showed Napier a letter in which Lewis XVIII. directed that he should be put secretly to death.
England ought to have been active on the coast very early, during the light winds of summer. But the English wanted a safe landing-place, and there was none to give them. With more enterprise, while Charette held the island of Noirmoutier, Pitt might have become the arbiter of France. When he gave definite promises and advice, it was October, and the day of hope had passed.
In the middle of October Kléber, largely reinforced, advanced with 25,000 men, and Bonchamps made up his mind that the time had come to retreat into Brittany. He posted a detachment to secure the passage of the Loire at St. Laurent, and fell back with his whole force to Cholet, whilst he sent warning to Charette of the decisive hour. There, on October 16, he fought his last fight. D’Elbée was shot through the body. He was carried in safety to Noirmoutier, and still lingered when the Republicans recovered the island in January. His last conversation with his conqueror, before he suffered death, is of the highest value for this history. Lescure had already received a bullet through the head, and at Cholet, Bonchamps was wounded mortally. But there had been a moment in the day during which fortune wavered, and the lost cause owed its ruin to the absence of Charette. Stofflet and La Rochejaquelein led the retreat from Cholet to the Loire. It was a day’s march, and there was no pursuit. Bonchamps was still living when they came to the river, and still able to give one last order. Four thousand five hundred prisoners had been brought from Cholet; they were shut up in the church at St. Laurent, and the officers agreed that they must be put to death. At first, the Convention had not allowed the men whom the royalists released to serve again. But these amenities of civilised war had long been abolished; and the prisoners were sure to be employed against the captors who spared them. Bonchamps gave these men their lives, and on the same day he died. When, at the same moment, d’Elbée, Lescure and Bonchamps had disappeared, La Rochejaquelein assumed the command. Kléber, whom he repulsed at Laval, described him as a very able officer; but he led the army into the country beyond the Loire without a definite purpose. The Prince de Talmond, who was a La Tremoille, promised that when they came near the domains of his family, the expected Bretons would come in. More important was the appearance of two peasants carrying a stick. For the peasants were émigrés disguised, and their stick contained letters from Whitehall, in which Pitt undertook to help them if they succeeded in occupying a seaport; and he recommended Granville, which stands on a promontory not far from French Saint Michael’s Mount. The messengers declined to confirm the encouragement they brought; but La Rochejaquelein, heavily hampered with thousands of women and children who had lost their homes, made his way across to the sea, and attacked the fortifications of the place. He assaulted in vain; and although Jersey listened to the cannonade, no ships came. The last hope had now gone; and the remnant of the great army, cursing the English, turned back towards their own country. Some thousands of Bretons had joined, and Stofflet still drove the republicans before him. With La Rochejaquelein and Sapinaud he crossed the Loire in a small boat. The army found the river impassable, and wandered helplessly without officers until, at Savenay, December 26, it was overtaken by the enemy, and ceased to exist. Lescure had followed the column in his carriage, until he heard of the execution of the queen. With his last breath, he said: “I fought to save her: I would live to avenge her. There must be no quarter now.”
In this implacable spirit Carrier was acting at Nantes. But I care not to tell the vengeance of the victorious republicans upon the brave men who had made them tremble. The same atrocities were being committed in the south. Lyons had overthrown the Jacobins, had put the worst of them to death, and had stood a siege under the republican flag. Girondins and royalists, who were enemies at Nantes, fought here side by side; and the place was so well armed that it held out to October 9. On the 29th of August, the royalists of Toulon called in a joint British and Spanish garrison, and gave up the fleet and the arsenal to Lord Hood. The republicans laid siege to the town in October. The harbour of Toulon is deep and spacious; but there was, and still is, a fort which commands the entrance. Whoever held l’Aiguillette was master of every ship in the docks and of every gun in the arsenal. On December 18, at midnight, during a violent storm, the French attacked and carried the fort. Toulon was no longer tenable. Hastily, but imperfectly, the English destroyed the French ships they could not at once take away, leaving the materials for the Egyptian expedition, and as fast as possible evacuated the harbour, under the fire of the captured fort. The fortunes of Bonaparte began with that exploit, and the first event of his career was the spectacle of a British fleet flying before him by the glare of an immense conflagration. The year 1793 thus ended triumphantly, and the Convention was master of all France, except the marshes down by the ocean, where Charette defied every foe, and succeeded in imposing his own terms on the Republic. But the danger had come that disturbed the slumber of Robespierre, and the man was found who was to make the Revolution a stepping-stone to the power of the sword.