Chapter 54: The Vendee — Lyons — The Risings in Southern France

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 28, 2012

Royalist conspiracies in South — Risings against Convention — Toulon surrenders to English and Spanish fleet — Causes of rising in La Vendée — Disaffection of peasants — Ill-feeling of villages against towns — Girondins help insurrection — Plan of Vendeans — They take Saumur and Angers, but are forced to retire at Nantes — Vendeans exterminated — Risings in Provence and at Lyons — Chalier — Marseilles and other southern towns join movement — Royalists defeated — Siege and capture of Lyons — Action of republicans in Lyons — Bordeaux surrenders to Convention

If the royalist rising failed in Normandy and Brittany, the rectionaries met with more success in the province of Poitou, in the departments of Deua-Sèvres, Vienne, and Vendée, at Bordeaux, Limoges, and partly in Eastern France, where risings against the Convention began at Besançon, Dijon and Mâcon. In these parts of France the middle classes, as we have seen, had acted with ferocity against the revolted peasants in 1789.

In the South, where royalist conspiracies had been going on for a long time, revolts broke out in several places. Marseilles fell into the hands of the counter-revolutionists — Girondins and royalists — who elected a provisory government, and intended to march against Paris. Toulouse, Nimes and Grenoble rose also against the Convention.

Toulon surrendered to an English and Spanish fleet, which took possession of this fortress in the name of Louis XVII. Bordeaux, a trading town of great importance, seemed also to be ready to rise at the call of the Girondins; and Lyons, where the industrial and merchant bourgeoisie was supreme since May 29, revolted openly against the Convention, and withstood a long siege; whilst the Piedmontese, profiting by the disorder in the army, which had Lyons as its base of operations, crossed the frontier of France.

Up to the present day, the true causes of the rising in La Vendée have not been made quite clear. Of course the devotion of the peasants to their clergy, cleverly made use of by Rome, did much to foster their hatred against the Revolution. Certainly there was also in the villages of La Vendée a vague attachment to the King, and it was easy for the royalists to rouse the pity of the peasants for “the poor King who had desired only the good of the people, and had been executed by the people of Paris”; many tears also were then shed by the women over the fate of the poor child, the Dauphin, shut up in a prison. The emissaries who came from Rome, Coblentz and England, bringing with them papal bulls, royal decrees and gold, had a clear field under such conditions, above all when they were protected by the middle classes, the ex-slave-traders of Nantes, and the merchants on whom England showered promises of aid against the sans-culottes.

And finally, there was this reason, in itself sufficient to bring whole provinces to arms — the levy of three hundred thousand men ordered by the Convention. This levy was regarded in La Vendée as a violation of the most sacred right of every human being — that of remaining in his native land.

It is nevertheless permissible to believe that there were yet other causes to rouse the peasants of La Vendée against the Revolution. Continually, whilst studying various documents of the period, one comes across such causes as must certainly have produced a feeling of resentment among the peasants against the Constituent and the Legislative Assemblies. The fact alone that the former had abolished with a stroke of the pen the folk-motes of the villages, which had existed for centuries until December 1789, as also the fact that the peasants were divided into two classes — active and passive — and that, the administration of communal affairs was given to those elected by the rich only — these facts alone were sufficient to awake discontent in the villages against the Revolution, and against the towns in general and their middle classes.

It is true that on August 4 the Revolution had proclaimed in principle the abolition of feudal rights and mortmain, but the latter, it appears, no longer existed in the West, and feudal rights were only abolished on paper; and as the risings of the villages were not widespread in the western provinces, the peasants of these provinces saw that they would have to continue paying feudal dues as before.

On the other hand — and this was of great importance to the villages — the sale of the State lands, of which the greater part, all the Church lands, should have reverted to the poor, were now being bought by wealthy people in the towns, and this tended to strengthen the general ill-feeling of the villages against the towns. To this must also be added the pilfering of the communal lands for the benefit of the middle class, which was increased by the decrees of the Legislative Assembly.[265]

It thus happened that the Revolution, while imposing new burdens on the peasants — fresh taxes, recruiting, and requisitions — had given nothing to the villages up to August 1793, except when the peasants themselves had taken the lands of the nobles or the estates of the clergy. In consequence, a deeply seated hatred was growing in the villages against the towns, and we see indeed that the rising in La Vendee was a war declared by the villages against the towns, especially against the middle classes of the towns.[266]

With the help of Rome, the insurrection broke out, wild and bloody, under the guidance of the clergy. And the Convention could only send out against it some insignificant troops, commanded by generals either incapable or else interested in making the war drag on; while the Girondist deputies did their best to help the insurrection by the letters they addressed to Nantes and the other towns. All these forces, acting in the same direction, made it possible for the rising to spread and finally to become so menacing that the “Mountain,” in order to crush it, had recourse to the most abominable measures.

The plan of the Vendeans was to take all the towns, to exterminate the republican “patriots,” to carry the insurrection into the neighbouring provinces, and then to march against Paris.

At the beginning of June 1793, the Vendean leaders, Cathelineau, Lescure, Stoflet, and La Roche-Jacquelein, at the head of 40,000 men, took the town of Saumur, which gave them command over the Loire. Then, crossing the Loire, they took Angers (June 17), and dexterously disguising their movements, they immediately marched on Nantes, the seaport of the Loire, the possession of which would have put them into direct communication with the English fleet. On June 29 and 30, their armies, rapidly massed, attacked Nantes. But in this enterprise they were routed by the republicans. They lost Cathelineau, the real and democratic leader of the rising, and they were forced to abandon Saumur and retire to the left bank of the Loire.

A supreme effort was made now by the Republic to attack the Vendeans in their own country. The war became a war of extermination, and finally twenty to thirty thousand Vendeans, followed by their families, decided to emigrate to England after crossing Brittany. They consequently crossed the Loire from south to north, and went northwards. But England had no desire to receive such immigrants, and the Bretons, for their part, received them coldly, the more so as the Breton Patriots were gaining the upper hand in the towns and villages; therefore all these starving and ragged people, with their women and children, were driven back towards the Loire.

We have mentioned already the savage ardour with which the Vendeans, encouraged by their clergy, were animated at the outset of their revolt. Now, the war was becoming one of mutual extermination. In October 1793 — it is Madame de la Roche-Jacquelein who writes thus — their watchword, was “No quarter.” On September 20, 1793, the Vendeans filled the wells at Montaigne with the bodies of republican soldiers, many of them still alive and only stunned or disabled by blows. Charette, on taking Noirmoutiers, on October 15, had all those who surrendered shot. Living men were buried up to the neck, and their captors amused themselves by inflicting all kinds of tortures on the unburied heads.[267]

On the other hand, when all this mass of men, women and children, driven back to the Loire, poured into Nantes, the prisons of this town began to be dangerously overcrowded. In these dens, swarming with human beings, typhoid fever and various other infectious diseases raged, and soon spread into the town which was already exhausted by the siege. Besides, just as in Paris, after August 10, the imprisoned royalists threatened to set fire to the city and to murder all the Jacobins, so the Vendeans imprisoned at Nantes likewise threatened to exterminate all the republicans as soon as the “Royal Army” of Vendeans should approach Nantes. It must be noted that the patriots numbered but a few hundreds in this town, which had gained its wealth in the slave trade and slave labour in Saint Domingo, and was losing it now that slavery had been abolished. Consequently, the patriots had to display an extraordinary vigilance and energy to prevent Nantes from being taken by a sudden attack of the “Royal Army,” and the republicans from being massacred. Their efforts had been so great that the men of the republican patrols were quite worn out.

I Then the cry of “Drown them all,” which had already been heard in 1792, became more and more menacing. A panic, which Michelet compares to the panic which takes hold of men in a plague-stricken town, seized on the poorest among the population of Nantes, and the commissioner of the Convention, Carrier, whose temperament made him only too susceptible to such a panic, let them have their own way.

The people began by drowning the arrested priests, and ended by exterminating over 2000 men, women and children, incarcerated in the prisons of Nantes.

As to La Vendée, the Committee of Public Welfare (comité de Salut public), without going deeper into the scrutiny of the causes which might have brought a whole province to revolt, and contenting themselves wth a hackneyed explanation of the “fanaticism of these peasant brutes,” without endeavouring to understand the peasants or to rouse their interest in the Republic, conceived the abominable idea of exterminating the Vendeans and depopulating the department.

Sixteen entrenched camps were made, and twelve “infernal columns” were sent into the country to ravage it, to burn the peasants' huts, and to exterminate the inhabitants. It is easy to conceive what a harvest such a system gave! La Vendée became a bleeding wound of the Republic, and one which bled for two years. An immense region was lost entirely to the Republic, and La Vendée was the cause of the most painful divisions between the Montagnards themselves.

The risings in Provence and at Lyons had an equally fatal influence on the progress of the Revolution. Lyons was at that time a city of industries for the wealthy. Great numbers of artist-workmen worked in their homes at weaving fine silks and also at making gold and silver embroideries.

Now, the whole of this industry came to a standstill during the Revolution, and the population of Lyons became divided into two hostile camps. The master-workers, the small employers, and the leisured classes, higher and middle, were against the Revolution; whereas the ordinary workmen, those who worked for the small employers, or who found work in the industries connected with weaving, were whole-heartedly for the Revolution, and were already kindling the beacons of socialism, which were to flare up during the nineteenth century. They willingly followed Chalier, a mystical communist and a friend of Marat, a man of much influence in the municipal council, the democratic aspirations of which resembled those of the Paris Commune. An active communist propaganda was also being carried on by L'Ange — a precursor of Fourier and his friends.

The middle classes, for their part, listened willingly to the nobles, and above all to the priests. The local clergy had always had a strong influence at Lyons, and they were reinforced now by a number of priests who had returned from their emigration to Savoy.

Taking advantage of all this, the middle-class Girondins behind whom were the royalists, had invaded the greater, part of the sections of Lyons, and were preparing a rising against the Jacobins.

The conflict broke out on May 29, 1793. There was fighting in the streets, and the middle classes got the upper hand. Chalier was arrested, and after being tamely defended at Paris by Robespierre and Marat, he was executed on July 16, after which the repression on the part of the middle classes and the royalists became terrible. The wealthy people of Lyons who had been Girondins up till then, encouraged by the revolts in the West, now openly made common cause with the royalist émigrés. They armed 20,000 men and fortified the town against the Convention.

At Marseilles the Girondins had intended to support Lyons. Here they had risen after May 31. Inspired by the Girondin Rebecqui, who had come here from Paris, the sections of Marseilles, the greater part of which were also in the hands of the Girondins, had raised an army of 10,000 men, which was going to march towards Lyons, and thence to Paris, to combat the Montagnards there. Other southern towns, Toulon, Nimes, Montauban, joined the movement, which soon acquired, as might have been expected, an openly royalist character. However, the Marseilles army was soon routed by the troops of the Republic, commanded by Carteaux, who entered Marseilles on August 25.

Rebecqui drowned himself; but a party of the defeated royalists took refuge at Toulon, and this big military port was given up to the English. The English admiral took possession of the town, proclaimed Louis XVII. King of France, and had an army of 8000 Spaniards brought over by sea, to hold Toulon and its forts.

Meanwhile an army of 20,000 Piedmontese had entered France to rescue the royalists at Lyons, and they were now coming down towards Lyons, by way of the valleys of the Sallenche, the Tarentaise, and the Maurienne.

The attempts of Dubois-Crancé, a member of the Convention, to treat with Lyons, failed, because the movement had fallen by now into the hands of the royalists, and they would not listen to any offers. The commandant Précy, who had fought among the Swiss on August 10, was one of the faithful adherents of Louis XVI. Many of the émigrés had also come to Lyons to fight against the Republic, and the leaders of the royalist party were contriving with an agent of the royal house, Imbert-Colomiès, as to the means of connecting the Lyons insurrection with the operations of the Piedmontese army. Finally, the Council of Public Welfare for Lyons had for secretary General Reubiès, one of the “Pères de l'Oratoire,” while the commandant Précy was in touch with the agents of the royal house, and was asking them for reinforcements of Piedmontese and Austrian soldiers.

In these circumstances nothing remained to do but to besiege Lyons in due form; and the siege was begun on August 8 by seasoned troops, detached for this purpose from the army of the Alps, and with cannon brought from Besancon and Grenoble. The workmen of Lyons had no desire for this counter-revolutionary war, but they did not feel themselves strong enough to revolt. They escaped from the besieged town, and came to join the army of the sans-culottes, who, although they lacked bread themselves, still shared it with 20,000 of these fugitives.

In the meantime, Kellerman had succeeded, in September, in driving back the Pledmontese, and Couthon and Maignet, two commissioners of the Convention, who had raised an army of peasants in the Auvergne, armed with scythes, pickaxes and pitchforks, arrived on October 2 to reinforce Kellerman. Seven days later the armies of the Convention at last took possession of Lyons.

It is sad to record that the repression by the Republicans was terrible. Couthon apparently favoured a policy of pacification, but the terrorists got the upper hand in the Convention. It was proposed to apply to Lyons the method which the Girondin Isnard had proposed to apply to Paris — that is to say, to destroy Lyons, so that nothing but ruins should remain, which would bear the following inscription” “Lyons made war against liberty — Lyons exists no more.” But this absurd plan was not accepted, and the Convention decided that the houses of the wealthy were to be destroyed, and that those of the poor should be left intact. The execution of this plan was placed in the hands of Collot d'Herbois, and if he did not carry it out, this was because its realisation was practically impossible; a City is not so easily destroyed as that. But by the tremendous number of executions and the prisoners being shot “in a heap,” Collot managed to surpass even the Marseilles counter-revolutionists, and did, of course, immense harm to the Revolution.

The Girondins had counted greatly on the rising in Bordeaux, and this merchant town rose indeed, but the insurrection did not last. The people were not to be carried away; they did not believe in the accusations of “royalism and Orléanism” hurled against the “Mountain,” and when the Girondist members who had escaped from Paris arrived at Bordeaux, they were forced to go into hiding in this city, which in their dreams was to have been the centre of their rising. Bordeaux soon gave itself up to the commissioners of the Convention.

As to Toulon, which had been long since worked upon by English agents, and where the naval officers were all royalists, it surrendered completely to an English squadron. The few republicans of this city were imprisoned, and as the English, without losing time, had armed the forts and built new ones, a regular siege was necessary to retake the town. This was only done in the December following.