Vendee Rebellion (1793)
The Peasants’ War is nothing compared to the War in the Vendee, where so many inhabitants lost their lives, the event has been considered by many as a genocide. Tens of thousands were killed, including civilians and Republican prisoners. Those watching from the sidelines fell victim to the fevered wrath, and armies from both sides massacred without discretion. The revolt spanned over a large area between the Loire and Layon rivers, home to the Vendee, a French coastal region. The rural environment did not fall prey to economic and social polarization like in other parts of France where nobility and peasantry never mixed. For this reason, the necessity and motives behind the French Revolution were not apparent to those living in Vendee.
In addition, many Vendeans practiced the Catholic faith. Along with a lack of distaste for the monarchy, a general lack of education allowed the region to fall out of lockstep with popular philosophical ideas. They were isolated and their education was limited through the church, which revolutionary-minded citizens living in Paris wanted to do away with. The scale of imbalances was further offset by a constellation of specific events that particularly unnerved those in the Vendee. To start, the expectation that clergy take an oath to the state, a hefty tax levy, and conscription were not taken lightly.
For the clergy who dared to stand in opposition to the state by refusing the oath, persecutions were enacted.This took the form of being cast into exile, or if a woman on her way to church, she risked a public beating. Laws were passed making crosses illegal to place on graves. The church by this point in time was impotent. With all power gone, religious orders were impossible to uphold. Church property was confiscated and bought up by the bourgeois. By 1793 churches were ordered to lock their doors permanently.
The hostile attack on religion enraged the Vendeans. Although there were pockets of those living in the region who supported the revolution, a majority did not. When the conscription law was enacted, the Vendee region was ordered to offer up 300,000 of its young men who would fight for a government it did not believe in. The Vendeans answered in retaliation by forming a rebellion militia aptly called “The Catholic Army.” Their strategies were not as clear as their goals. The overwhelming motive to fight was to regain their places of worship.
A couple of factors made the rebellion possible. Fortunately, at the outbreak of the revolt, revolutionary France was steeped in myriad rebellions, and the army was spread thin. Troops were too few in the four departments that makes up the south of Vendee to control the rebellion. Things manifested quickly from a protest into a full-scale insurrection and led to the army’s formation. Provisions were not plentiful, and artillery existed only after intercepting pieces during the fighting. The core of the army’s force consisted of rebels who utilized guerrilla tactics. At the center of the Vendee quadrant was a wild forest. Outside that landscape were marshlands and the ocean. At the heart of the quadrant were Vendee’s young, virile men who, despite not having military training, soon proved they were a forced to be reckoned with.
Young men descended on the commune of Cholet. They killed the commander of the National Guard whose pre-revolutionary position was well known. He was also the owner of a textile factory and stood to gain economically by the revolution. The rebellion pushed onward, reaching the marshlands where the peasants captured the town of Machecoul and killed a number of its citizens with revolutionary ties. One day later, the revolt seized Saint-Florent-le-Vieil. The Republic swiftly reacted, sending 45,000 troops to the area. Although there were few of them, the rebels were able to obtain reinforcements and thus defeated them and did the same a few days later during a battle in the North on March 22, 1793.
The peasant army was unstoppable; over the next months, they defeated the Republic’s forces time after time ,not slowing down until October 17 at the Battle of Cholet. The Republic instituted policies that later caused debate as to whether or not they fell into the category of genocide. Uncertainty rests on Infernal Columns, a brutal policy that the Republic used that called for the extermination of the Vendee population south of the Loire River.
Infernal Columns consisted of 12 army columns sent through the area with the purpose of purging the Vendee. Between 20,000 and 50,000 Vendeans were slaughtered between January and May of 1794 through the use of this method. This was in addition to the issuing of a “scorched earth” policy that required the burning of any fragment that could be of use to the Vendee, including farms, crops, forests, villages, and livestock. Men, women, and children discovered inside the Vendee region were massacred on the spot. Despite this, residents who survived continued in rebellion against the Republic for years to come.