The War in LaVendée and the Little Chouannerie
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George J. Hill, M.A. - 360 pages softcover
Few stories grip the heart and stir the soul like those tales of faithful Catholics who have risen up in arms to throw off the tyrrany of anti-Catholic oppressors. The great stories from the bible such as that of young David or Judas Macchabeus and his sons have their numerous counterparts in the history of the Church as well. What Catholic has not thrilled to such stories as that of the First Crusade, or the defense of Malta or the Battle of Lepanto—all victories for the Catholics. But even when the Catholic cause is not immediately sucessful as in such epic wars as the Jacobite rebellions, the nine-years war of Red Hugh O’Donnell and The O’Neill against Queen Elizabeth, or the fight of the Cristeros for a Catholic Mexico, the stark reality of such glorious sacrifices for the Faith inspires us down through the ages.
Such is the story of the War in LaVendée and the courage of youth displayed in the story of the Little Chouannerie by the teenage scholars of Vannes. The satanic explosion of hatred of Christ, of his Church, and of all that was decent in Catholic France that is known to history as the French Revolution was valiantly opposed in the west of France by a peasant army in both Brittany and in LaVendée. This is their story.
The names of Charette, LaRochejaquelein, Abbé Bernier, Cathelineau, Le Tiec, and Jean Chouan should be as well known to Catholics as those of Red Hugh O'Donnell, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Padre Pro, Godfrey deBouillion, Don Juan of Austria and others.
This story will break your heart…and will mend it as well.
Vive la Nation! Vive le Roi! Vive la réligion Catholique!
It is commonly argued by writers on the French Revolution that the state of the Church, as well as of the nation in general, must have been exceedingly corrupt, and that both clergy and people were equally destitute of religious belief and of moral principle, or so total a disruption of all the bonds of society could never have taken place, attended as it was with circumstances of unprecedented confusion and horror; and they point to the fact of priests and religious, and even bishops, openly apostatizing from Christianity, and abandoning themselves to all the infamous license of the times, and the atrocious crimes perpetrated by a people so lately, in profession at least, Catholic.
That society was radically and irretrievably corrupt especially in high places, and that many of the clergy, and in particular those about the court, were deeply infected with the taint of infidelity, is unhappily too true. But such writers seem utterly to overlook a fact equally patent and remarkable, that hundreds of ecclesiastics not merely retained and avowed their religious belief, in spite of persecution and contempt, but shed their blood for the faith; enduring the grossest insults and the most agonizing torments, not only with meekness and resignation, but with a touching piety, and a sweet and tender charity towards their murderers, such as make their constancy and fortitude differ in kind from any thing which mere natural heroism, however exalted, has at any time exhibited; while thousands risked their lives and abandoned all things for conscience sake. If a few traitors and apostates—for few they were in comparison with those who stood firm in the hour of trial, and nobly suffered all that a diabolical malice could inflict, rather than abate one tittle of their obedience to the divine law; if this wretched minority are to be taken as a proof of the inroads that vice and infidelity had made upon the Church of France, how triumphant is the demonstration afforded by her numerous martyrs and confessors that she was yet sound and pure at heart!
And as respects the people at large “To judge of a whole nation,” says Mr. Belaney in his Massacre at the Carmes, “by the conduct or manners of its populace in its capital and larger cities in times of great excitement, would lead to as false and unjust, as well as ungenerous conclusions, in respect to that nation, as it would to judge of an individual only by what he did when under the effects of delirium tremens or intoxication.” “The populace,” as he elsewhere observes, “required to be deceived, as well as bribed into the commission of acts which cause us to shudder when we look back on them, even at a distance of sixty years.” An execrable faction, devoid of every principle of morality and every feeling of humanity, had usurped the power of the state; and while over-awing the better portion of the nation by wholesale proscription and slaughter, drove the masses of the people to enact, in a frenzy of terror and fury, excesses which, left to themselves and in their sober senses, they would never have had the heart to perpetrate. That under the seething surface of vice and impiety which covered the land, there lay hid all the while, even in the worst days of the Revolution, fathomless depths of sanctity and devotion beyond the ken of the godless world, the annals of the times sufficiently testify; and that, even when the nation had passed through its fiery conflict, and a generation to whom religion was an effête superstition, and priests but tyrants and impostors, appeared upon the scene, there still remained, not only among the country populations, but among the inhabitants of the towns, a vast amount of supernatural belief, which waited only for an occasion to manifest itself, one circumstance alone would prove:—the demonstrations, not of sympathy and affection merely, but of religious veneration, with which Pius VII was everywhere received on his entrance into France, a prisoner, in the year 1809; multitudes crowding round the carriage in which he was seated, and begging his benediction on their knees as he passed along.
But if the clergy of France contributed its noble army of martyrs at Paris, Lyons, Nantes, her peasantry of Brittany and La Vendée sent forth an heroic band of veritable soldiers of the cross, as admirable and as worthy of being held in everlasting honor as their enemies are deserving of the universal reprobation of mankind. Brave, generous, honorable, merciful, and pure, in the heat of the fight resolute and undaunted as veteran soldiers, and in the hour of victory as tender-hearted as children—what a contrast do these “brigands,” as their opponents called them, present to the self-styled “patriots” of the Republican forces! Sensual, treacherous, bloodthirsty, breathing only hatred and revenge, exhibiting a cruelty and a ferocity truly satanic, their delight seemed to be only in massacre and rapine, and in the commission of the most hideous crimes. Catholic France may well be proud of her heroes of La Vendée. What but simple, supernatural faith could have produced such an army of patriot crusaders, and inspired a system of warfare so truly Christian?
For it is not possible to separate the religion and devotion of the Vendean peasants from their natural virtues and martial qualities. As they fought primarily for their Church, and only secondarily and, as it may be said, accidentally, for their king, so first and before all things they were Catholics: —to their heart’s core they were what the pseudo-philosophers of the day would call “superstitious and bigoted;” as much so as the priests who walked calmly forward to meet their assassins with their breviaries in their hands, and the names of Jesus and Mary on their lips. These men, so intrepid, so cool and yet so daring, so generous and so noble-minded, recited their rosaries on their way to the battlefield, and threw themselves on their knees before the image of the Crucified as they charged down upon the bayonets of the foe. Abstract from the Vendean his faith, and he is no longer the same man: that faith not only inspired his actions, it made him what he was.
As to the conduct and results of the war, it is unnecessary to anticipate here remarks that are made in the course of the narrative. In spite of some signal and palpable blunders, no candid mind, which considers the disadvantages under which they labored, will withhold from both generals and subordinates a very high need of praise, not only for their courage, which was undoubted, but for their strategic skill and address. Unhappily, as the contest proceeded, and their first chosen leaders perished in battle, serious evils began to show themselves; fatal jealousies were engendered, dissensions broke out amongst the new commanders, cruelties were perpetrated which rivaled in barbarity the enormities by which they were provoked, unjustifiable severities were adopted even against members of their own body, and the whole morale of the army notably degenerated. Such were but the inevitable consequences of long-continued warfare, and that of so embittered a character, the subversion of all established order, and the absence of any legitimate head. And yet to the end sufficient of the old spirit remained to excite the fears and even to elicit the admiration of their foes. Despite the terrible reverses encountered in the field, and the general disorganization that ensued, their bravery and tenacity had made themselves so effectually felt, that the Vendean insurgents succeeded finally in obtaining an honorable peace. But their greatest glory consisted in the fact, that the Catholic religion never ceased to be openly professed in La Vendée; nor did they consent to lay down their arms until liberty of worship was guaranteed to them, and their priests were recognized and protected by the laws.
Hence the moral effects of this war it is hardly possible to overrate. Not only did it prove that France never could be one and indivisible, never could be at peace with herself until religion was re-established; not only did the valor and enthusiasm which were evoked insure respect to the religion which was able to produce such sensible effects—but the multitudes whom terror had silenced and isolated, the weak, the timid, the despondent, and even they in whom the light of faith was well-nigh quenched, felt the influence of a struggle in which they took no part; it awoke and sustained a secret sympathy in their breasts, and kept them in a state of continual readiness to welcome back, even with acclamations, the religion for which they had neither the courage nor the will to suffer or to contend.
What, therefore, may not the France of this day owe to La Vendée! How much of the religious revival which now fills Catholic Christendom with admiration and joy may be due to that contest, so obstinately and so fruitlessly maintained, as some may think, in that little corner of the west? And this in two ways; first, as has been intimated, by keeping the lamps burning in her sanctuaries when elsewhere they had been extinguished and the very altars themselves overthrown, and leaving them as beacons to announce to all failing and faltering hearts that an incarnate God still had worshippers, and Peter loyal subjects, among a rebellious and apostate people; and secondly, and principally, by willingly offering that sacrifice which God never fails to accept and to requite—the sacrifice of the heart’s-blood of the best and purest of her children. That blood, like the blood of the martyr-priests, has never ceased to cry out, not for vengeance, but for mercy and for blessings—the richest and the choicest, because spiritual and heavenly—on the land that poured it out as though it had been the blood of brute cattle that die unpitied in the shambles, or rather of the wild beasts of the forest whom it was a necessity to exterminate. Certain it is that nowhere has religion, so trodden down and all but exterminated as it was, had so speedy and so astonishing a resurrection as in once infidel France, and to what can this be more probably attributed, than to that spirit of immolation which animated alike the priests of the Carmes and the peasants of La Vendée? If the butcheries of Tyburn are one day to yield, as we may piously hope, a fruitful harvest of souls to the Church in our land, what might England long ere this have become, had more of her sons bled and died with the gallant Nortons around the banner of the Five Precious Wounds, and the gibbets stood tenfold thicker between Newcastle and Wetherby?
The strength and reality of the principles for which La Vendée contended, and the ardor with which the flame there enkindled burned on, despite the indifference and secularity which weighed upon the land, may be estimated by the enthusiasm excited in the breasts of the young students of Vannes, and the bravery and fortitude displayed in their defense. Singular phenomenon that some hundreds of boys should turn soldiers in sober earnest, all because the great emperor bullied the Pope, changed their catechism, and gave them Charlemagne for their patron instead of St. Catharine and St. Nicholas; but no ambiguous omen of bright and glorious days to France, that, in what with many would have passed for a mere piece of state-policy, with which they had no concern, these schoolboys and seminarians should feel to the quick that a great principle was at stake, for which they were bound, as with all their hearts they were willing, to fight and to die.
The scholars of Vannes—as many as survive—have now passed the prime of their life; but during the forty years that have gone by, what services have they not rendered, by their labors, their writings, their courageous examples, to the Church, to literature, to society! And whence had they derived their first inspirations, but from those annals of the old Chouannerie which as boys it was their delight to collect, and from those bearded men, with their bronzed countenances and thoughtful brows, who had returned to renew the studies of their youth, only that they might complete, as ministers of peace at the altar, the warfare they had begun on the battlefield? True patriots, whose patria is not of this world; though accidentally and from circumstances associated with monarchy, their Catholicism was subservient to no form of government, albeit respectful and friendly to all; upholding obedience to constituted authority as the ordinance of God, it looked, above all things, to maintaining intact the liberties of the Church and the independence of the spiritual power. To such men and such principles France owes everything; and on France at this moment hang the destinies of the world.
The story of La Vendée and of the Little Chouannerie is gathered from the various extant sources; but in the case of the latter, which is drawn principally from M. Rio’s own narrative, an endeavor has been made to assign to that gentleman the position which rightfully belonged to him, but which his modesty and humility prevented him from assuming.
The reader will find a most striking description of the old “Chouans” and the “Little Vendée” among M. Sonvestre’s Tales and Sketches of Brittany and La Vendée, published in Constable’s Miscellany of Foreign Literature. The incidents, which were taken by the author from the mouth of one of Jean’s brothers-in-arms, are related in a style as graphic and touching, as it is simple and unadorned.
The conflict in La Vendée had its counterpart in Flanders. M. Hendrik Conscience, in his spirited historical tale of the era, has described with much dramatic power the sufferings of the people, and their determined, but disastrous, and, as it turned out, fatally ineffectual resistance to the revolutionary forces, and (in the worst sense) revolutionary principles of France. The work in question has just been translated into English. Although fictitious in form, it adheres faithfully to the facts of history: the notes to the original Flemish show, by extracts from the accounts, proclamations, etc., which appeared in the Antwerp newspapers of the time, that the gatherings, skirmishes, and principal events therein depicted, down to the great battle with which the story closes, actually occurred as represented. A few resolute and courageous men, while the masses of their countrymen “looked on in dumb terror” at the destruction of all they held dear and venerable, kept up a continual harassing warfare against the invader, until they were either individually taken and shot, or mowed down in hundreds by the musketry, or hewed and hacked to pieces by the merciless sabers of the French soldiery. But though crushed, and to all outward seeming annihilated, that insurrection against the most intolerable of all despotisms, the tyranny of an impious liberalism, and in defense of altar and hearth, faith and liberty, had as in La Vendée, a most powerful moral effect at the time, and exerted doubtless, both in the natural and in the supernatural order, influences the operation of which we have still before our eyes. For we may well consider the present prosperous condition of Belgium, the freedom, both political and religious, which she enjoys, and the simple piety of her people, to be at once the result and the reward of the spirit displayed, and the sufferings endured, in that truly patriotic struggle.
E. H. T.
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