The Marquis of Bonchamps’ dying order: “Show clemency to the captured”

January 10, 2011

Bataille by Jules Benoit Levy

Before pursuing the flying army, the republicans returned to Chollet, and committed terrible outrages at that place; after which, Westermann, followed by a small division, came upon the rear-guard of the Vendeans during the night, and massacred the whole. The remains of the defeated army hurried away to St. Florent, where they joined their four thousand comrades, under Talmont, and prepared immediately to cross the Loire.

The dying Marquis de Lescure and the remnants of the the Vendéan army crossing the Loire to Saint-Florent

Thither flocked also a vast crowd of terror-stricken women and children; more than eighty thousand persons swelled the trains of the discomfited insurgents. It is impossible to describe that scene of misery; nothing was to be heard on all sides but weeping, and lamentation, and cries of distress. One thought for the future alone seemed to possess the crowd—how to escape from their burning country…. Presently Bonchamps and Lescure were borne in, dying, upon their litters, to increase the general despair and confusion. Loud and deep were the cries of vengeance heard on all sides, and the peasants looked round for some object on which to wreak their fury. It chanced that in the church of St. Florent there were shut up five thousand republican prisoners, and the chiefs were deliberating in Lescure’s chamber what to do with these men, as they could not take them any further.  It was proposed to shoot them all. Lescure cried, “Horrible!” but his voice was not heard. The thirst for vengeance was so great, that the majority of the council entertained the idea; but no one would give the order. The peasants, however, were too eager to need the word of command; and crying, “Let us slay the Blues!” they pointed the cannon against the church. Bonchamps, lying wounded on his bed of death, was apprised of what was going forward; calling his officers, he conjured them to save the republicans. “My friend,” he said to Autichamps, “it is the last order I shall ever give you; tell me it shall be obeyed.” Forthwith the beating of a drum announced a proclamation, and there was silence in the camp. Autichamps repeated the words of Bonchamps, and immediately was heard, on all sides, “Quarter! Quarter! It is Bonchamps’ order;” and the republicans were saved. What general ever received so noble a tribute of love and respect?…

Stained glass window of the Saint-Christophe church in La Chapelle-Saint-Florent representing the dying general, the Marquis de Bonchamps, crossing the Loire River.

Bonchamps was right,—it was the last order he ever gave: he died that very day, fortified by all the rites of Holy Church. He expired full of hope and joy, to the edification of the whole army, who had never more admired his heroic courage during his saintly life than in his now happy death. The Blues were as rejoiced at this event as his countrymen were afflicted: “The death of Bonchamps,” they said, “is a victory in itself.” But they took care not to publish the act of mercy with which it was crowned. “Free men accept their life from slaves! That is against the spirit of the revolution. We must consign to oblivion this unfortunate occurrence. Mention it not in the Convention. Brigands have no time to write journals. Let it be forgotten, like so many other things.”… The ashes of Bonchamps repose on the scene which witnessed his last act of mercy; and St. Florent glories in the possession of his tomb. It is surmounted by a statue of the dying general. His own words form the best epitome of his character, the distinguishing virtue of which was charity, and are engraved on the monument:   “Grace aux prisonniers. Bonchamps l’ordonne.” [Mercy for the prisoners. Bonchamps commands it.]

George J. Hill, The Story of the War in La Vendée and the Little Chouannerie (New York: D. & J. Sadlier & Co. n.d.), pp. 78-80.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 39

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