Fighting in the Vendee broke out in 1793 and, after some initial setbacks, the Vendean army was defeated with relative ease by the forces of the Republic. But this was not the end of the affair, for the second phase of the revolt, the Chouannerie, lasted for three more years and there were further, albeit short-lived risings in 1799,1815 and 1832. The fighting affected large sections of western France, the marais and the bocage, the marshes and the forests on the left bank of the Loire; it also spread to Anjou and Haute Poitou. The rising has entered the annals of history as a classic manifestation of a counterrevolutionary movement, consisting of the most backward, ignorant and fanatical elements among a population that had not yet broken the shackles of their feudal masters, and the clergy, obscurantists unaware of the benefits of the revolution. The army, as the Republicans saw it, consisted of “deserters from all European armies, smugglers, gamekeepers and poachers.” These men, living in darkness, were manipulated by the royalists and the Church, which had joined forces in a giant conspiracy against the forces of reason and progress. This, very briefly, is the traditional interpretation of the Vendean rising and it is, of course, correct in so far as the movement was directed against Paris and the new revolutionary authority. Religious inspiration was strong, stronger, in fact, than royalist influence. But there was no conspiracy; the risings were largely spontaneous, and had more to do with the unwillingness of young people to serve in the army and with the traditional conflict between town and country than with the speeches of Robespierre and the program of the Jacobins. The peasants bitterly resented the attempts of the bourgeoisie to dominate their communes. Aristocrats were prominently represented among the military leaders of the rising but there were even more commanders of very humble origin, more, actually, than among the generals of the Republic; the “nobles,” moreover, were not dukes and viscounts but usually mere country squires. Finally, there was the resentment of local people against foreigners speaking another language, heirs to different traditions. The Vendee uprising was, in short, a bloody civil war, cruelly fought on both sides; it devoured about a hundred and fifty thousand victims, more than French losses in Russia.
From a military point of view, the campaigns are of considerable interest because the Republican army, itself the practitioner of revolutionary new tactics, had to face a new mode of combat which disconcerted it greatly. “Amid fire, skirmish lines, the exploitation of difficult terrain, rapid concentration of force, unhampered by any logistic straitjacket.” According to Joseph Clemenceau, who was captured by the Vendeans, their generals
could never form the Vendeans into a permanent army or keep them under arms; it was never possible to make them remain to guard the cities they took; nor could anyone make them encamp or subject them to military discipline. Accustomed to an active life, they could not stand the idleness of the camp. They went to battle eagerly, but they were never soldiers.
There had been a wave of unrest in western France, inchoate, without clear direction, even before the Revolution; a first small-scale armed rising took place in August 1792, near Chatillon, but the general attack started on 10 March 1793, when the tocsin was sounded in six hundred villages throughout the Vendée. At first the Vendean generals, such as Cathelineau, Bonchamp, Stoffet and d’Elbee, succeeded in making some headway against the Republican forces, of which there were not many in western France. They were beaten, however, at Lucan and Cholet in late autumn. By the beginning of 1794 they had lost their best officers and soldiers as well as most of their war material. Instead of avoiding direct confrontation and the siege of big cities, the Vendeans committed all the obvious mistakes; instead of retreating after their defeats into the interior of Brittany, where the Republicans could have followed them only with the greatest difficulty, they again went to battle against superior forces equipped with artillery which they themselves lacked. If, despite the capable leadership of Hoche, Ber thier, Kellermann, Marceau and other famous generals, the armies of the Republic did not defeat them more quickly, the main reason was that the troops at their disposal were untrained and of inferior quality. Even more to the point, there was no unified command, political commissars sent out from Paris interfered constantly and gave orders which were, at best, unhelpful.
Paris had assumed at first that the Vendeans would be defeated in a matter of days, whereas the generals on the spot soon realized that they faced a mass insurrection and that pacification would be at best a long drawn-out undertaking. Kleber bemoaned that the Vendeans were always much better informed about the movements of his forces than he was about theirs, that they were constantly sending out patrols and attacking small Republican detachments. From the very beginning, Hoche stressed that pacification was a political rather than a military problem: “For the twentieth time I repeat,” he wrote to the Directoire in Paris, “if one does not grant religious tolerance, one has to give up the idea of peace. This country needs civil administration — military administration does not suit it.” And, on another occasion: “If you are not tolerant, we shall go on killing Frenchmen who have become our enemies, but the war will not end.” The Paris authorities were loath to show clemency to the enemies of the Republic, nor were they as yet fully aware of the extent of the revolt. Instructions were that all rebel leaders and soldiers were to be executed as well as anyone trying to evade conscription or who was found bearing arms. Since there were no game laws in the Vendee, everyone had a rifle, and thus could be shot without trial. Subsequently more lenient orders were issued. Only the leaders of the revolt were to be executed, a ruling more honored in the breach than the observance. When the Vendeans, for instance, killed their prisoners at Cholet, Westerman countered by killing prisoners and civilians and, from 1793, there was a vicious circle of terror and counterterror. In punitive raids women were raped and tortured, children killed, houses and crypts systematically burnt. Relatives of Chouans were seized as hostages and executed. All over the west of France “traitors” and “enemy agents,” however innocent, were sought out and arrested. Far from breaking the popular movement, such measures made it only more popular. The manifestos issued in Paris, claiming that the insurgents were creatures of the British, never gained credence.
The generals and the political commissars had reported to Paris as early as October 1793 that the “Vendée no longer exists.” Such confident reports were correct to the extent that the rebels were no longer able to raise an army of fifty thousand, as they had done in the beginning. But for all that, they remained in effective control of the country and their guerrilla tactics made it far more difficult to attack them; Hoche needed more than a hundred thousand men, including the whole army of Mayence, to suppress the rebellion. Three years later, in July 1796, he could report with greater justification that the Vendee had been pacified. But even this was not final victory, for though all the major leaders had been taken prisoner and executed, and their troops decimated, unrest on a small scale still continued. Two thousand peasants attacked Nantes in 1799. The Vendean army was royalist in its sympathies, but the last thing the Comte d’Artois (the future Charles X) wanted was to accept the generalship that was offered to him. The leaders of the insurgents were a mixed lot; Chouan was apparently the nickname given to the four Cottereau brothers (Jean being the best known), who were smugglers at the little city of Laval, but they played no leading role in the war. The first generalissimo was Cathelineau, a wagoner and church sexton and son of a mason. He was a native of Anjou; intelligent and fearless, but no great master of strategy. He was killed in the very first months of the uprising and was succeeded by d’Elbée, a former captain of the cavalry, and La Rochejacquelein, a very young lieutenant, who is mainly remembered for having admonished his followers: “Let us find the enemy. If I retreat, kill me; when I advance, follow me. If I am killed, avenge me.”
Bonchamp, also a former army captain, was killed early on in the campaign. One of the two principal leaders of the revolt was Stoffet, who had been a corporal in the army and subsequently a gamekeeper, an Alsatian by birth and son of a miller. A good leader of men and a capable officer, he had nothing but disdain for the nobles and always stressed that he fought for religion and the Church, “which makes all men equal.” He had the reputation of being a cruel man and many atrocities were ascribed to him. Mercier du Roche, who fought against him, wrote that he would have been a good general of the Republic. The other important military commander was Charette, a former naval lieutenant, who, like Stoffet, was hunted down in early 1796, captured and executed. Napoleon is said to have thought highly of him. To repeat, the notion that the Vendean revolt was a movement inspired and commanded by feudal chiefs is not borne out by the known facts. Caillaud was a locksmith, Forestier, the son of a shoemaker. There were not a few adventurers in their ranks, the outcasts of all classes. By and large, it was a popular movement with anticapitalist undertones; the operations of the Chouans struck terror among the bourgeois of the cities.
The popular character of the rebellion has to be stressed because it provides the key to an understanding of the roots of the Chouannerie. It was a movement of national liberation of sorts, even though its ideology was diametrically opposed to the ideals of the French Revolution. The enthusiasm of the Chouans surprised and mystified Republican observers. One of them commented: “One goes to battle like to a fête — women, old people, children aged twelve to thirteen, I have seen them killed in the front line.” Hedonville, who commanded the Republican forces in the later stages of the rising, reported to Bonaparte that the local population invariably gave the army wrong information about the whereabouts of the Chouans. There was no such solidarity among the Republicans. “We never lacked ammunition because your soldiers sold it to us,” Coquereau wrote mockingly to the leaders of the Convention in Paris. Contemporary observers noted the prominent role played by women, both in the preparation of the rising and the actual fighting; they urged their sons and husbands to go to war, and many accounts have it that they were the most fanatic proponents of a guerre à l’outrance.