A little known civil war (at least in the English speaking world) was fought during the French Revolution (1793-95) primarily in the Vendée region of western France south of Nantes, south of the Loire valley and north of Bordeaux (four Departments: Vendée, Loire Inferieur, Maine-et- Loire and Deux-Sevres). It can be noted peasant communities spontaneously rose up against the Revolution. The end result was widespread destruction and mass killing of residents of the region. And the wanton death, destruction and violation can best be characterized as genocide or something too close to it. Deaths amounted to countless tens of thousands (one estimate is 250,000).
Genocide is a hot button word. People argue when to employ it. For example surprisingly not entirely everyone agrees that the Armenian genocide of 1915-1918 should be termed as such, even though the over one million Armenians in the Anatolia peninsula were no more to be found and didn’t seem to have migrated anywhere in massive numbers. Ok, it’s just Turkey and Pakistan who don’t agree with the characterization of genocide. For some critics violent resistance to the mass killing seems to exclude the atrocity from the category. Armenians did resist in some part, largely after most of the peoples had died. One can say the same here. The Vendeans resisted from the beginning. But as in other genocides the goal by the French Revolutionary government's stated goal was extermination and destruction of the peoples of the region.
It can be noted the spontaneous opposition these Vendean communities organized; in contrast, tragically, to the urbanized, atomized, modern European Jew, who didn’t resist whatsoever other than attempt to emigrate, to little effect since no country accepted them, including New Deal USA. It is also seen, in Revolutionary France much the same organization and concerted effort to decimate an entire peoples seen in Turkey, Rwanda, Cambodia and of course the Holocaust in war time Europe. The scale was much smaller at most an estimated 250,000 although some critics have estimated a far lower figure.
The forces that propelled French Revolution can only be said to have needlessly aggravated conflict externally and internally. By April 1792 France had declared war on Austria, thinking it would prosecute a war the French people could rally around and punish the emigres (French Nobility) that had emigrated, who worked to overthrow the Revolution. The war that was to last in different configurations until 1815 with only a brief respite was a disaster initially. A much needed victory at Valmy 150 miles from Paris in September 1792 preserved the Revolution for the time being.
The Revolution saw fit to try, convict and execute a disloyal King (deposition never seems to occurred to them in favor of a son under regency or Duc d’Orleans, a liberal cousin, who would have accepted a constitutional monarchy, who himself went under the guillotine later). This enraged the rest of Europe. Soon England, the Dutch Republic, Spain, Portugal along with Prussia, who had joined Austria earlier in 1792, were fighting them. France was at war with much of Europe. An unchecked legislative assembly ran the Revolution without restraint of courts, bicameral houses or an executive, who, as we know, had been beheaded. We all know what violence took place in the ensuing Terror. France would become a militarized state to defend itself from foreign and internal enemies for the next two decades, until Napoleon was removed.
At the same time the Revolution was waging a war of sorts against the Catholic Church. The Church had great wealth. Church property was nationalized October 10, 1789. This was not an entirely unpopular move. The members of the church hierarchy, including most abbots of monasteries, were simply members of the aristocracy and didn’t involve themselves with church affairs, but lived off the extravagant income from Church properties. The peasants were to have paid a tithe of 10% to maintain the Church. The priests were paid little. The Revolution abolished the tithe on August 4, 1789 in a flurry of legislation that ended most seigneurial obligations.
July 12, 1790 priests were obligated to swear a higher allegiance to the French state than the Pope. In large regions of the country this was extremely unpopular. In January 8, 1792 it was decreed that all ecclesiastics who have not sworn the civil oath were deprived of all benefices and pensions and are to be held under surveillance as suspects. Nonjuring priests were driven from the temple. This did much to raise the hackles of many religious in France especially in the devout Vendee region, which strenuously opposed the removal of their priests.
Priests that didn’t swear became nonjurors and practically enemies of the State. In the September 2, 1792 massacre led by the Parisian mob, three bishops and 200 priests were brutally murdered. A period of de-Christianization began. It saw the destruction of the Sacred objects from places of worship and the enactment of a law on 21 October 1793 making all nonjuring priests and all persons who harbored them liable to death on sight. Even a Cult of Reason was celebrated as a state religion in lieu of Catholicism.
By August 1792 opposition to the Revolution in the Vendee was at a fever pitch. It wasn’t safe for a Revolutionary partisan to walk alone. As a prelude to the civil war to come, a spontaneous full pitched attack by the Vendee residents against the Revolutionary authorities on August 4, 1792 took place, precipitated by an eviction of nuns from a convent. They marched on Bressuire in the Department of Deux-Severes. They were badly led and an hundred peasants died and five hundred were captured. The willingness that led to such loss of life demonstrates astonishing devotion to their religious cause and a defense of community. It’s hard to imagine a modern automatized individual, being so passionate. History saw the Jew obligingly rounded up by the NAZIs by the millions in WWII.
The King would be executed in January, 1793. Again in the Vendee, loyal to the monarchy, the residents were largely aghast at the work of Paris in so brutally dispatching their monarch. France had seen Kings reign for well over a thousand years, who was ballast against the aristocracy.
Another burden on the peasantry the Revolutionary period was inflation. The Revolution could only finance its wars by printing money, fiat currency, the assignats, purportedly backed by Nationalized Church property. The Revolution issued them far in excess of the value of the Nationalized Church property, by the billions of assignats. This led to severe inflation that in effect led to paying the peasant for his produce in depreciated money, a cheat. It’s not difficult to understand they were hesitant to hand over their hard earned produce for this fiat currency.
Repression of the religious continued. Women on their way to Mass were beaten in the streets. On 3 March 1793, virtually all the churches were ordered closed. Soldiers confiscated sacramental vessels and the people were forbidden to place crosses on graves.
Then to propagate the wars against Europe the Revolution announced their intention of a conscription of 300,000 troops beginning March 1793. This was the match that ignited revolt in the Vendee. The region rose up in revolt in opposition to the Revolutionary troop’s appearance to gather recruits.
At the inception of the revolt a spontaneous uprising illustrates the action that traditional rural communities were capable. At Cholet in the Maine-et-Loire Department, south of the Loire River, some five hundred young men gathered to protest the announced conscription. “Why serve a government which denies us our religion?” was the question. The National Guard commandant and a small contingent of five soldiers arrived, thinking the task of recruitment would be easy. They were rushed by the crowd and run off with the commandant severely wounded in the leg. Revolutionary reinforcements returned, acted aggressively, killing seven of the protestors. A general revolt across the region broke out. Peasants insisted that Royalist nobility take a leading role in the revolt, names like Bonchamp, d’Elbee, Sapinaud, La Rochejacquelein and Charette stepped forward, most with reluctance knowing the long odds of defeating the Revolutionary forces.
The Vendeans had great enthusiasm and little weaponry, initially. Most weaponry they obtained was from overrunning the Revolutionary Forces which were badly led and often ran away under fire. The Vendeans, skilled as hunters, aimed to kill; the mass troops of the Revolution practiced mass volleys of fire, typical of a disciplined army used as battle tactic until rapid firing weapons of the Mid-19th Century. Thousands of Vendeans spontaneously volunteered and defeated their Revolutionary opponents in set battles. This was not predominately guerilla warfare. There big disadvantage was they were not under strict military discipline. After a victory the Vendeans would wander away to tend their farms and the Vendean army would largely evaporate. After being largely victorious against the Revolution, on June 9, 1793 they capture Saumur on the Loire. The Vendeans had overcome everything the Revolution had sent them and Napoleon later said they could have marked to Paris. But the Vendeans fought fanatically for their region to be left alone and not as much to overturn the Revolution. They had been spectacularly successful up until now. Retribution from the Republic was to come.