Saturday, August 8, 2015

Charette in Nantes

In my late teens, I reproduced this scene from an illustration that I had found while devouring a French historical encyclopedia.

Back then, I was studying engineering, not history, and had only a faint notion of the Vendée wars. I ignored who he was - the man on the horse.

I only remember that I wanted to be him. Whoever he was...

Many years passed and I lost these old French volumes.

This year, while sleuthing around, I finally noted the words I had once written underneath the drawing to capture its context: "Entree de Charette a Nantes".

And everything clicked.

General Charette was a thirty year old royalist, an elected Vendée chief, who, following the French Revolution, deserted his life of ease to lead counter-revolutionaries in their guerilla-like fight against French troops.

For the republicans, this indomitable Breton represented the spirit of the counter-revolutionaries, then called, Brigands.

Here are some notes from an 1820 text to best describe this scene.  But before you read it, watch the people in the drawing. It all seems joyful, doesn't it?  Yet it is bittersweet, at least for the leaders of the counter-revolutionaries.

As it turns out, the amnesty was short lived.

The Setting

"The overthrow of the Jacobin system of terror, and the execution of Robespierre, led, in Vendée, to an amnesty.  Instead of proscription and carnage - a pardon, unity and protection was extended.

The Vendée chiefs, deserted by their followers, saw no alternative but to accept the proposed amnesty.

General Charette and the principal chiefs, in the name of the Vendéeans; and another chief, of the name Cormartin, representing that party which was distinguished by the appellation of Chouans, or Night-owls, agreed to live, in the future, subject to the laws of the republic and to deliver their arms.

On the 3rd of March 1795, the treaty was solemnly concluded, signed and ratified in Nantes.

The Scene

February 1795 - the entry of Charette and his companions into Nantes was announced by a discharge of twenty-one guns. Charette, who rode a beautiful charger, was dressed in blue, and begirt by a tricolored riband, his hat decorated with a feather. That general was at the head of the procession, followed by four of his lieutenants; then came a group of representatives; then another formed of the staff of Charette; [..] and followed by the remnants of the Nantes cavalry;

The representatives seemed to be elevated with joy: they ceased not to exclaim - Vive la paix; and the people repeated the cry. Charette seemed mournful, much affected. He received and returned, on both sides, the salutations. He said sometimes, Vive la religion, vive la paix; and some repeated Vive l'union."

Ahead of Charette, in my drawing, you can see a man brandishing a banner with the words, "Vive L'Union".  Here, we are speaking of the Vendée-Chouans union.

It was unlike Charette to sign this treaty which called upon the Vendee's total submission to France in exchange for their right to religion. Some believe that Charette had seen to a secret clause and it was this which led him to sign. The secret agreement was that the young king, Louis XVII, then languishing in the Temple, would be released on 14 June and delivered to him.

This was not to be.

It is said that the amnesty was feigned, only allowing the republicans to re-arm so that soon after this treaty, they resumed the fighting, leading to the eventual capture and execution of Charette in 1796, in the very city where he had ridden the year before.

I am glad that I have kept this drawing. I remember how it spoke to me while I drew it, I could almost hear the cheers.

Despite the events that would follow, the joy and eagerness for peace depicted in this Nantes scene are palpable. They spell relief. Understandable given the genocide that the Vendée had just lived.

But that, is another story.

More reading:

Christopher Kelly, History of the French Revolution and of the Wars Produced by that Memorable Event, T. Kelly (1820), p. 166

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