The Vendée is a département in western France, located south of the Loire River and with a coastline on the Atlantic Ocean. The Vendée was also the epicentre of the largest counter-revolutionary uprising of the French Revolution. In March 1793 its residents, never much engaged with the Paris-based revolution or its ideas, took up arms against the National Convention. There were many reasons for this uprising but chief among them were rising land taxes, the national government’s attacks on the church, the execution of Louis XVI, the expansion of the revolutionary war and the introduction of conscription. The people of the Vendée would pay a heavy price for their resistance. The government’s response was swift and triggered an internecine war in the region. The fight for control of the Vendée lasted three years and produced violence and mass killing that left the Parisian Terror in its wake. Sorokin suggests a conservative death toll of 58,000 but the real loss of life in the Vendée in 1793-96 may well be closer to 200,000.
Viewed retrospectively, the Vendée region had all the ingredients for counter-revolutionary sentiment. Located almost 300 miles from Paris, several days’ travel in the 1700, it was distant and disconnected from events in the capital. The Vendée was almost entirely rural, with just a few towns and no major cities. The vast majority of Vendeans were relatively successful peasant farmers; their living conditions were better than those of their counterparts in northern France. The Vendée peasants were not as bitterly affected by the harvest failures and bitter winter of 1788-89. They enjoyed a comparatively better relationship with the First Estate; unlike those elsewhere in France the noblemen of the Vendée remained on their estates and did not act as absentee landlords. The citizens of the Vendée were also devoutly religious and were dependent on their local parish and clergy.
The attitude of Vendeans to the French Revolution can be seen in their participation, or rather the lack of it, during the Great Fear. The peasants of the Vendée expressed lukewarm support for feudal reform in the cahiers but did not mobilise during the panic of July-August 1789. There were few reports of unrest in the Vendée and no chateaux were burned. The events of 1790 further alienated the Vendeans from the revolution. Food policies determined in Paris had a detrimental impact in rural areas, where market prices slumped. Yet taxes were not lowered and in some rural areas they actually increased. But the more pressing issue in the Vendée was the National Constituent Assembly’s attacks on the church. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy was widely resisted in the western provinces, where most of the priests refused to take the oath and were backed by their parishioners. The arrival of government officials and constitutional priests in the Vendée in 1791 and 1792 was often met with violent resistance, albeit on a small scale.
The Vendée uprising began with small steps but escalated quickly. The trigger points were the execution of Louis XVI (January 1793), then the following months’ National Convention’s Levee des 300,000 hommes, an order demanding 300,000 additional military recruits from the provinces. This combination of regicide and conscription tipped Vendée peasants from localised resistance into full scale counter-revolution. As the winter snows thawed, small bands of Vendean peasants participated in minor but provocative attacks on symbols of the republican government. Département officials, juring priests and republican sympathisers were insulted, beaten, driven out of the region or murdered. In mid-March a local hawker named Jacques Cathelineau organised a group of peasants and seized weapons in Jallais. Cathelineau’s men spent the next three months clearing the region of Republican soldiers and officials. In Beaupréau a local peasant militia elected a former cavalry officer, Louis d’Elbée, to lead them. Under his command they captured Chemillé in April; after this victory d’Elbée prevented the slaughter of several hundred Republican prisoners by reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Another significant leader was Jean-Nicolas Stofflet, a gamekeeper and former private in the Swiss Guard, who became a general in the Vendean army.
Annie Moulin, historian
In April the counter-revolutionary forces in the Vendée united to form the Catholic and Royal Army. At its peak this army would number 80,000, mostly farmers and labourers; some were boys as young as 12 or women disguised as men.They adopted Dieu et Roi (‘God and King’) as its motto; its officers wore the white cockade of the Bourbon monarchy, its soldiers the Sacre Couer (‘Sacred Heart’). They had little or no training and were poorly equipped, armed with scythes and pikes rather than muskets. The Vendeans lacked the training and discipline to stand against a professional standing army, however the republican armies were themselves weakened and disorganised by four years of disruption and desertions. For three months the royalists of the Vendée swept all before them, capturing significant towns including Beaupréau, Vihiers, Saumur, Angers and Chemillé. They also won control of the Vendée’s most important commercial town, Cholet, and its département capital, Fontenay-le-Comte. The National Convention had a small number of troops garrisoned in the Vendée so could do little initially.
The tide turned in late June 1793 when the Catholic and Royal Army marched north and laid siege to Nantes, one of France’s largest cities. Their attack was poorly planned and coordinated, so failed after just two days. Jacques Cathelineau, one of the Vendeans’ more competent commanders, was killed on Bastille Day, 1793. In October a 40,000-strong Vendean force marched on a smaller republican army near Cholet but were outmaneuvered and defeated. Changing tactics, they embarked on a ‘Virée de Galerne’ (‘northern spree’), an attempt to link up with counter-revolutionaries in Brittany and Normandy. In November the Vendeans marched on the port city of Granville, where they hoped to align with a regiment of English marines. They laid siege to Granville but found no English, only republicans, so were forced to scatter. Their numbers now down to fewer than 8,000 men, the Catholic and Royal Army retreated south and captured the city of Savenay. A battle-hardened republican force of 18,000 arrived the following day and the Vedeans were soon surrounded and defeated.
What followed in the Vendée was a campaign of recriminations that bordered on genocide. Under the direction of représentants en mission from Paris, republican forces began slaughtering Vendean royalists, irrespective of their age, gender or activities. The National Convention, having already sanctioned the Reign of Terror, authorised the formation of 12 army divisions called the Colonnes Infernales (‘Infernal Columns’). Under the command of General Louis Marie Turreau, these columns swept through the Vendée in the first half of 1794. They criss-crossed the province, tearing down buildings, burning crops and leaving death and destruction in their wake. The instruments of the Terror were then focussed on the Vendee, where more than 6,000 people – including 400 children – were either guillotined or forcibly drowned. Farms, crops and forests were burned across the Vendee, affecting the innocent as well as the rebels. Action against the potentially rebellious Vendee would continue as late as 1796.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn and S. Thompson, “The Vendee uprising”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/frenchrevolution/vendee-uprising/.