The capture and death of the indomitable Charette

January 24, 2011

On the 21st February his troop, now reduced to less than two hundred men, was attacked by General Travot, one of the ablest officers of Hoche. The Vendeans behaved with the greatest courage, but they were overwhelmed with numbers. The eldest brother of the general, Charette la Colinière, and several officers fell; and he himself escaped with difficulty, followed by only fourteen men. The next day all the surviving chiefs of the insurgent army gave in their submission, and nothing remained but to capture Charette himself. The republican generals, well informed by their spies, were in hot pursuit; and yet he contrived to carry on the campaign for a whole month longer.

Painting by Alexandre Bloch

On the 23rd March, he was surrounded by four columns. “This, then,” cried the hero of Poitou, “this is the spot where I must fight and die.” The adjutant-general Valentine, was the first to charge. Charette, conspicuous by his white plume, was the mark for every bullet; yet, as if he had borne a charmed life, he long escaped unhurt. At length one of [his soldiers] seized his cap, and putting it on his own head, said “Save yourself, my general; they will take me for you.” This generous devotion cost the man his life, without saving his leader. He was soon slain; but Travot prevented the escape of Charette. The Vendean chief, wounded in the hand and in the head, attempted to leap a ditch; but, held by a branch which had become entangled in his dress, he was thrown upon his face. Two of his soldiers were killed in the attempt to set him free, and Charette at length fell into the hands of his enemies….

Dragged from town to town, Charette was sent to Angers, in order to be conducted to Paris. But Hoche thought it more politic to judge and execute him at Nantes….

The capture of Général Charette by Louis Joseph Watteau

On arriving at his prison, the general of the Catholic and royal armies found an officer with fifty chasseurs and four grenadiers, charged with the duty of mounting guard over him. General Duthill, who commanded the garrison, indulged his hatred to the royalists by heaping upon his prisoner the grossest insults….He paraded him through the streets of Nantes to the sound of martial music, and accompanied by a procession of republican generals in their most splendid uniform. Charette, pale, exhausted, and suffering agonies from his wounds, fainted in the midst of that barbarous triumph. A charitable person brought him a glass of water from a neighboring shop. Unhappily his name has not been recorded, but it was a courageous act; for to appear humane was in those days a crime. When he had recovered from his swoon, the illustrious prisoner continued his march, which lasted for two hours longer….

 

a steel engraving, engraved by Alès. 1849

In prison his demeanor was calm and dignified, and worthy of his great name. He asked to be allowed to see his sister, who had already applied in vain several times for the sad pleasure of embracing her brother. At last she was admitted, along with two of her relations. He rose to meet her, and flung his arms round her neck. The heart of the poor lady was ready to break with grief. He who had been her pride, who had been the hope of the royalists and the terror of their foes, was about to pass from prison to death. As she wept, and her companions with her, he said, with a trembling voice, “Do not weep thus. Do not shake my courage. I have fought for God and for the king, and it is for them that I am going to die. I have need of all my firmness. I implore you, restrain your tears. Sister, have you not often said, that in heaven we shall meet again?”

The trial took place on the 28th of March. After five hours of examination, during which the Vendean belied not for a single instant the firmness of his character and the nobility of his cause, his judges pronounced upon him sentence of death. He heard it without emotion, and requested only, that as he had fought, so he might die, a Christian, and that he might enjoy the consolations of religion. They sent him the Abbé Guibert, a priest who had taken the oath to the constitution. Before entering his cell, the ecclesiastic begged that the prisoner might be searched. Charette was indignant at the man’s alarm. “Does he think,” cried he, “that the general of the Catholic and royal armies is an assassin? Let him come without fear.”

The Abbé then entered, and said, in a trembling voice, “I am come, monsieur, to offer you the consolations of religion in your unhappy strait.”

“It is for that purpose I sent for you,” replied the Christian hero. “I abhor your principles, I do not regard you as a legitimate minister; but I know that in the hour of death you have power to absolve me. Come, listen to my confession. I do not want your exhortations, I desire absolution.” So saying, he fell on his knees, and, notwithstanding his wounds, remained in that posture for two hours. Then he arose, pardoned, and ready to appear before his God.

At last the fatal moment arrived; the gate of the prison opened, and Charette was led forth to the place of execution….By his calm attitude and noble and resigned bearing, he attracted more attention than all the magnificence and pomp with which his enemies sought to adorn their triumph. As he passed by a certain house in a street indicated by his sister, he humbly bowed his head. An old man clad in black, and holding a white handkerchief, was at a window; it was a Catholic priest, whom the piety of Mademoiselle de Charette had stationed there to give to the warrior, who was going to die for God and the king, the benediction of heaven. None but a few Vendeans who were hidden in the crowd knew why Charette thus inclined his head; but they blessed God for the grace He had accorded to His faithful soldier.

 

Execution of Général Charette in Nantes, March 1796 by Julien Le Blant

After a long slow march through the town, the victim at length arrived at the Place de Viarmes, the spot selected for the execution. A vast crowd thronged the place and the adjoining streets, and more than five thousand men were drawn up in a large square with the officers on horseback in the center, their brilliant uniforms and tricolored plumes conspicuous above the triple row of bayonets. In the hour of death Charette first knew how great he had been in life. Himself on foot, calm, impassible, he disdained to address a single word in self-defense.…The priest, before retiring, was about to comfort him; but he said, “I have gone to death a hundred times without fear, and today I go for the last time.” He refused the handkerchief with which they were about to bandage his eyes: and advancing towards the picket who were to shoot him, he let fall his wounded hand, and putting the other upon his heart, he said to the soldiers,

“Soldiers, aim true! It is here that you must strike a brave man. Vive le Roi!” And as his lips were formed to utter the cry of his whole life, he fell pierced with seven balls. So perished Charette. The royalists bewailed him, and even the Blues did homage to his courage. No cry of joy or triumph [came out of] the crowd as he fell beneath the fire of the soldiers; a mournful silence reigned on the place of execution, and a sort of stupor spread itself over Nantes. Lest the relics of the dead hero should animate the vengeance of the Vendeans, and in death Charette should be more terrible than in life, his body was taken to a quarry on the Rennes road, and thrown among a heap of other corpses.

Of Charette it may be said with truth, that his death was the utter ruin of the cause.

Original steel engraving drawn by Raffet, engraved by W.J.J. des Hauvents. 1834

George J. Hill, The Story of the War in La Vendée and the Little Chouannerie (New York: D. & J. Sadlier & Co. n.d.), pp. 222-227.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 43

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