Scene: Last Days of the Revolt in the Vendée
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Of the twenty-five thousand fighting men who still remained of the Catholic army, twelve or fifteen lay prostrate with fatigue and drukenness; many others were enjoying themselves in the houses, and refused to go out: “What did it signify,” they said, “whether they were massacred a few hours sooner or later?” Larochejacquelein, frantic with rage and despair, rushed in every direction to rouse them from their lethargy; and at length he and the other chiefs succeeded in assembling several thousand men. But still there was no plan determined upon, no orders were given, or at least none were obeyed: every one went whither he chose; and it may be imagined what success such a defence was likely to have against the systematic attack of disciplined soldiers. And yet a very bloody combat ensued: the Vendeans were forced to retire, but the Blues [French Republican army] hesitated to advance until the appearance of Kleber [Republican general] made resistance no longer possible; then the republicans spread themselves over the town, and the handful of gallant men who had held them in check retired with the mass of fugitives by the Laval road…
…They kept up the fire of battery long after the cannoniers had been slain, and so covered the crowded road. But they were at length compelled to retire, and then Westermann [Republican general] followed the flying masses, and slaughtered them by hundreds.
Meanwhile, the aged and infirm, the wounded, the sick, and the women, great numbers of whom had been left in the town, fell into the hands of the Blues, and were massacred amid jeers and laughter. They spared neither age nor sex… the unhappy people, flocking together for mutual safety, only facilitated their own destruction: it was easier to slaughter them en masse, and the artillery were deliberately pointed at the terrified crowd, who were at length destroyed by round after round of grape-shot, and repeated volleys of musketry. No fewer than twenty thousand men, women, and children fell in the battle and the subsequent massacre…
At Savenay Fleuriot [Vendean leader] took such measures of defence as were possible; but nothing could avert the impending annihilation of the Catholic army.
Pitiable indeed was their condition; dying of hunger and fatigue – in want of arms, ammunition, and clothing – they had traversed a marsh, often up to the middle in water, during a heavy fall of snow in the depth of winter, harassed by an enemy who allowed them not a moment’s repose, and of whose brutality they had received terrible proofs; and now, hemmed in between the Loire and the Velaine, and not far from the sea, they were at the mercy of their foes. We may imagine their despair when, on the night of the 23rd December, they found themselves invested on all sides. The soldiers were fainting for want of rest; but just as they were about to lie down in the mud, shots were heard; in dogged despair, they only said, “then we must die without resting,” and at the call of their chiefs marched forth to battle…
During the darkness, some of the officers warned the women to make their escape with their children, “All is lost,” said Marigny [Vendean leader] to Madame de Lescure, who had followed the army through all its troubles. “It is impossible to stand to-morrow’s attack. In twelve hours the army will be exterminated. For my part, I hope to die in the defence of my flag. But you – fly away while you can!” She obeyed… A great number of women saved themselves in the midst of the darkness, although a few preferred to remain and share the fate of their husbands or brothers. Many priests might have saved themselves; but they stayed to exhort the soldiers, to confess them before battle, and bless them in death….
After the battle, the Blues dispersed on all sides in pursuit of runaways, and cut down without mercy all whom they found. It is impossible to narrate all the horrible facts which have been recorded; but some are too characteristic to be omitted. In a moment of weakness or despair, twelve hundred Vendeans laid down their arms, crying Vive la Nation! They were all shot….
Near a cross which still stands by the roadside, at some distance from Montoire, some poor wounded fugitives dropped down in sheer exhaustion. “Let us stop here,” they cried; “we cannot escape. Let us die, then, at the foot of the cross.” Among them was an old priest, who had watered the whole road with his blood; for he had been shot in his ministry to the dying… For some hours he continued praying and watching; but no enemy appeared. At last some runaways passed by, crying, “The Blues are close behind – fly!” He instantly awoke the sleepers; and at his voice mothers arose with their children, and the wounded and sick sought to make their escape. But suddenly a party of republicans appeared in their front, and stopped the way. The old priest then, in imitation of the Good Shepherd, who laid down His own life for His sheep, advanced towards the Blues, and in a loud voice cried out, “These wounded and unarmed men, these feeble women, these little children, are not worthy of your weapons; I it is who deserve your vengeance – on my head fall the weight of your anger. For the sheep have but followed their shepherd. It was I who bade them take up arms in defence of their God and their king. Spare them, therefore, in the name of all that is honourable; and kill me alone.”
“You shall die first,” said the officer coolly, “and your flock shall quickly follow you;” and in a couple of volleys the priest and his faithful people were all slain beneath the shadow of the cross…
-Excerpts from The Story of the War in La Vendée & The Little Chouannerie George J. Hill, M.A., D. & J. Sadlier & Co. New York, 1850
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From Wikipedia: François Joseph Westermann:
Westermann wrote to the Committee of Public Safety:
“There is no more Vendée. It died with its wives and its children by our free sabres. I have just buried it in the woods and the swamps of Savenay. According to the orders that you gave me, I crushed the children under the feet of the horses, massacred the women who, at least for these, will not give birth to any more brigands. I do not have a prisoner to reproach me. I have all exterminated.”
He was then summoned to Paris, where, as a friend and partisan of Georges Danton, he was proscribed with the Dantonist party and guillotined.
From Vendée Catholics during the French Revolution, James Bogle, AD2000, Vol 9 No 6 (July 1996):
In this great epic of heroism, endurance and sacrifice it has been said that the Vendean struggle was a costly failure. It was certainly costly; but not a failure. The peasants fought to restore the King, the Catholic religion, and to avoid service in the revolutionary militia. In the last two they were successful and visibly so. True, they did not immediately restore the King, but the monarchy returned in due course. That it did not remain long was no fault of the Vendeans.
The great success of Catholic missionaries in the following century grew in part out of the memory of the witness given by the brave Vendean peasants. It remains a story to confound today’s atheists and to nourish the spirits of Christians everywhere.