War in the Vendée Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Angered by the execution of Louis XVI, the sale of confiscated Church and émigré lands to the middle classes, the deportation of village priests who did not support the revolution, and the institution of a national draft, the peasantry in western France revolted. A counterrevolution developed, threatening to topple the First French Republic during the first year of its existence.

Summary of Event

By March, 1793, there was much about the French Revolution French Revolution (1789-1796);peasant revolts to infuriate a typical peasant Peasantry;France living in the Vendée (then known as Bas-Poitou), an administrative district in western France noted for its extensive marshlands, forests, and small farming communities. For the average resident of this rural area, the French Revolution, which had begun almost four years before, may have benefited the middle class and urban population, but it had instituted few policies to improve his or her daily life. [kw]War in the Vendée (Mar. 4-Dec. 23, 1793) [kw]Vendée, War in the (Mar. 4-Dec. 23, 1793) Vendée, Wars of the (1793) France;peasant revolts Peasant revolts;France [g]France;Mar. 4-Dec. 23, 1793: War in the Vendée[3100] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 4-Dec. 23, 1793: War in the Vendée[3100] [c]Government and politics;Mar. 4-Dec. 23, 1793: War in the Vendée[3100] Charette, François Cathelineau, Jacques Elbée, Maurice Gigost d’ Stofflet, Jean Nicolas Rochejaquelein, Henri de la Turreau de Garambouville, Louis-Marie Carrier, Jean-Baptiste

The count de la Rochejaquelein leading a group of peasants during the war in the Vendée.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

The typical peasant of the Vendée seriously resented the reorganization of the Catholic Church in France, which forced clergy to take a civil oath to the constitution and serve under the direction of the French government. In general, two-thirds of the clergy in France refused to take the oath, thus becoming refractory (nonjuring) clergy. Clergy, nonjuring (France) In August, 1792, those priests who did not take the oath were removed from their positions and replaced by government appointees. By an order of March, 1793, all churches that did not have a priest who took the civil oath (a juring priest) were closed. Instead of attending mass under their unpopular government-assigned priests, many Vendéans attended secret open-air masses conducted by nonjuring priests.

In the Vendée, village priests were home grown and had long-standing family ties to their communities. Moreover, the peasants could well understand that the confiscation of church lands and the creation of a new money system (assignats) was benefiting the same petit bourgeois townsmen who served as renters and financiers, while assignats placed more land under the control of outsiders to the detriment of the members of rural communities. Nor were the Vendéans happy about the imprisonment of the king and the establishment of the First French Republic, which taxed them at an even higher rate than had the former monarchy. In other words, it was abundantly clear to the peasantry of the Vendée that the French Revolution was a revolution of the bourgeoisie against the aristocracy, a revolution that would not benefit the lowest classes of French society and that seemed very likely to harm them.

The execution of King Louis XVI Louis XVI Louis XVI;execution of in January, 1793, was viewed in the traditionalist Vendée with shock. It was, however, the institution of a national draft [p]Drafts;French military the following month that caused cumulative Vendéan rage to explode. The revolutionary government needed to raise an army of 300,000 to protect France’s eastern frontiers against invasion by the First Coalition First Coalition (France) powers, but the announcement of the draft was met with vows of noncooperation, scattered protests, and finally a riot.

The riot broke out at Cholet, a large textile town, on March 4, 1793. Thereafter, draft riots continued throughout the Vendée. Government officials, new priests, and national guard leaders were murdered. It was immediately evident that there were too few Republican troops garrisoned to prevent the riots. Rioting bands joined together on March 11 to seize the large town of Machecoul. Some 40 prorepublicans were immediately stabbed to death in the streets, while an estimated 450 others were marched out of town, forced to dig ditches, and shot. Within two days, the tocsin, or alarm bell, was rung and the whole of the Vendée exploded in a revolt so widespread that it has been termed a counterrevolution.

By mid-March, the Vendéans had taken control of most of the towns in western France. Peasant leaders were selected, including Jacques Cathelineau (a carter) and Jean-Nicolas Stofflet Stofflet, Jean-Nicholas (a gamekeeper). Leadership positions were also taken by Vendéan noblemen, such as the comte de La Rochejaquelein Rochejaquelein, Henri de la and the Duke Maurice Gigost d’Elbée. Elbée, Maurice Gigost d’ Refractory priests aided in recruitment, casting the uprising as a spiritual crusade against the forces of evil. By May, an army of thirty thousand was created, carrying flags into battle embroidered with the motto “God and King” and banners featuring the Virgin Mary. A white cockade was worn as a sign of attachment to the Bourbon monarchy, along with a cross covering the sacred heart as a sign of religious devotion. The army adopted the name the Royal and Catholic Army. Royal and Catholic Army (France) Vendéans terrorized Republican forces with a screech-owl sound, leading to their nickname of the Chouans Chouans (owls). Peasants originally armed with pitchforks, axes, pikes, scythes, and shotguns were now armed with rifles and cannon seized from town arsenals and many undermanned garrisons.

The slowness of the government in Paris to react to the uprising permitted expanding Vendéan forces easily to take over the towns of Bressuire, Parthenay, Thouars, Saumur, and then Angers on June 18. Their efforts were aided by town royalists and nonjuring clergy. However, integral to Vendéan strategy was taking control of the major city of Nantes, which was to be the base of a new government that would be allied to England. Nantes would be a center where émigré forces could return and operate to restore the Bourbon monarchy.

Unfortunately for Vendéan hopes, the conquest of Nantes did not happen. The general population, aligning its interests with those of the revolution, rallied behind the Republic. A formidable force of forty-five thousand under the command of General Jean-Baptiste Kléber Kléber, Jean-Baptiste was dispatched from the German frontier to aid local forces in successfully blocking a Vendéan takeover on June 28. On August 1, Kléber was replaced by General Jean-Baptiste Carrier, Carrier, Jean-Baptiste who was ordered to pacify the Vendée by any means necessary. Carrier was given command of a large army swelled by a major national draft. By October 18, he was able to defeat a Vendéan force numbering sixty-five thousand and take control of Cholet, the place where the first significant Vendée riots occurred. In a desperate move, approximately 100,000 soldiers and their families fled across the Loire River on a 120-mile northern march, in hopes of seizing the channel port city of Granville, where they could receive long-promised British and émigré support. Ony a few thousand men under François Charette remained behind to continue resistance in the Vendée.

The siege failed in November, leaving the Vendéans with little choice but to head south and once again cross the swift-running Loire River. The passage was blocked by a large and well-armed Republican army. At the Battle of Le Mans Le Mans, Battle of (1793)[LeMans, Battle of] (December 12), at least fifteen thousand died on the field. Many more died in the subsequent Battle of Savenay Savenay, Battle of (1793) (December 23) or of drowning, starvation, or sickness. The counterrevolution of the Vendée had been smashed. However, for the population of the Vendée itself, death and destruction were still in their infancy.

By 1794, the Jacobins Jacobins were firmly in power in France and were determined to institute a Reign of Terror Reign of Terror (France) to liquidate all elements hostile to the revolution. The so-called Fiery Columns Fiery Columns under the command of General Louis-Marie Turreau de Garambouville were sent to the Vendée to lay waste to the countryside and wreak havoc on the population. The Jacobin revolutionary tribunal ordered mass executions of Vendéans, who were guillotined in large numbers and, when this proved too slow, placed in barges at Nantes that were then sunk in the river. At Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne more than five hundred Vendéans were locked in a church and killed. Such reprisals convinced the remaining Vendée leader Charette to continue fighting a guerrilla war.

The destruction of the Vendée stopped in 1795, after the coming to power of the Directory. Directory (France) A general amnesty and even some reparations were given. Minor royalist uprisings dotted the future history of the Vendée (1796, 1799, 1815, 1832) but lacked the backing of the exhausted and depleted general population.

Significance

The civil war in the Vendée reflected conflicts in French society that preceded and long proceeded the French Revolution. The pressures of urbanization upon traditional rural farming, the emerging bourgeoisie’s conflicts with the peasantry and landed aristocratic interests, tensions between Enlightenment rationalism and traditional religious values, the struggle between the drive to centralize political power and the desire to maintain regional control, the choice between nationalism and strictly local interests—all these conflicts came to a head during the French Revolution, and their outcomes were determined by a preponderance of power and the use of violence.

These issues would resurface in France in the Revolution of 1830, which brought the bourgeois King Louis-Philippe Louis-Philippe (Louis XIX) to power; the Revolution of 1848 and the counterrevolution in June by Parisians; the Paris Commune of 1870-1871; the battles taking place throughout the Third French Republic (1871-1940), leading to a final showdown in the Dreyfus affair (1898); and the establishment and operation of Vichy France during World War II (1939-1945). In each of these conflicts, the deep divisions which marked French political life are visible.

In the Vendée today, the uprising of 1793 and the vengeance of 1794 remain deeply etched in the minds of its inhabitants. Numerous historic sites, museums, and memorials dot the region to remind a nation of an event that many would find convenient to forget.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doyle, William. Oxford History of the French Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. An excellent background to the French Revolution; Chapter 10, “Revolt of the Provinces,” has a clear and concise discussion of the Vendée
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Secher, Reynald. A French Genocide: The Vendée. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003. A scholarly study of the causes and events of the Vendée conflict using unpublished archival sources and statistical data stressing the policy choices of the First French Republic in enraging Vendéans to revolt. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tilly, Charles. The Vendée. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964. A sociohistoric and statistical analysis stressing rural peasant animosity toward bourgeois dominance in an increasingly urbanized France as a root cause of the Vendée. Index, bibliography, and appendices.

Louis XVI Calls the Estates-General

Oath of the Tennis Court

Fall of the Bastille

Early Wars of the French Revolution

Battle of Valmy

Execution of Louis XVI

Fall of Robespierre

Napoleon’s Italian Campaigns

Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign

Napoleon Rises to Power in France

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