Story of the French Revolution - Alice Birkhead

For God and the King!

The Catholic faith had found its loyal upholders from the earliest days of the Revolutionary outbreak. In the western country the priests were cared for by their people after the decrees forbidding them to exercise their religion according to the old manner. Women took it upon themselves to drive from the churches the priests who had taken the oath imposed by the new Constitution. They would have services as they had been in their mother's and grandmother's days. The obstinate abbe regretted his persistence when he encountered the peasant-women of Brittany and other western provinces.

The champion of the priesthood was a man, at first a smuggler and an outlaw—Jean Chouan, the son of a poor woodcutter. The family of Cottereau had changed their name in the time of Jean's own grandfather, a taciturn, quiet man, nicknamed facetiously the chat-huan  or screech-owl because he seldom raised his voice in family gatherings.

Chat-huans became Chouans and the name of Cottereau passed out of usage. They who owned it were so poor that it was a matter of slight moment where it vanished. Jean Chouan was born in a wood for his father and mother moved about constantly to carry on their trade, and were in the habit of building themselves a temporary hut with boughs of trees in any clearing.

The woodcutter died, and Mother Chouan took up her abode on the little farm of the Pear Trees where it was difficult to support all her children. Jean and Francois were sturdy boys, unlikely to be a burden to their mother. They began to earn their bread in a trade that was highly dangerous to follow. The Government was ready at any time to pounce upon the sellers of salt from Brittany. The infamous gabelle  or salt tax did not hold good in that province, and it was the custom for peasants across the border to favour men who brought salt to their doors at a low price.

Jean laughed at the risks he ran in carrying on an unlawful trading. "There is no danger," was a phrase so constantly on his lips that his familiars were led to term him gars mentoux, or "the lying boy," for all knew that the agents of Government never gave quarter.

"If the King only knew of it," the good widow used to cry when she heard any story of injustice. There were plenty of these stories in the province where the peasants laboured for a bare existence, but she deemed herself most fortunate till Jean was put in prison as a result of his defiance of the law.

It was useless to try to keep Jean Chouan behind bolts and bars. He was soon off into the woods again and answering his comrades eager questions with his favourite, "There is no danger." His frequent escapes seemed almost miraculous.

At length, the forests were forsaken, and the army received a gallant soldier who could fight to the death, if there were need of it. Jean had killed a gendarme in some scuffle, and was afraid of imprisonment from which he could not free himself. He left the army as suddenly as he joined it, haunted by the consequences of his action. He thought himself on the brink of discovery and deserted, creeping back by night to the farm of the Pear Trees, where his mother was lamenting his long absence. He was arrested, but the end of Jean Chouan was not to come till he had done better for his country. The simple peasant mother went to the Court of Versailles to ask for pardon. "The King shall know of it," was her cry now, and she would not be discouraged by the journey of full seventy leagues that lay before her.

Louis XVI was not the king to refuse an audience to a toil-worn woman of the people. He received her very kindly, and promised that this mischievous son should be pardoned. The friends of Jean, like the friends of Mirabeau, thought a kind of voluntary imprisonment would tame him. The outlaw was sent to Rennes, and there a change was made in the reckless smuggler through the influence of religion.

Very different was the Jean Chouan who left this place of confinement from the one who had entered it two years before. He would never shed another man's blood again if he could help it. Henceforward, he devoted himself to the service of the priesthood.

Madame Olivier, the mother of an abbe, decided to entrust her household gods to Jean Chouan, for the times were unsettled and the pillaging of country places not uncommon. It was the quietest task of Jean's life, and he was released from it by the outbreak of the Revolution.

Near Laval a meeting was held to ask for volunteer's who would enrol themselves in defence of Liberty against the King. Now the family of Chouan was loyal to the heart's core, and it was Jean's part to enrol another army and wrest away the flag from enemies of the Church and King.

"Long live the King! It is the will of God," were the cries of the Chouan party which gathered round the woodland leader. The Sacred Heart of Jesus was the sign they bore on their breasts, and the luckless priests fleeing from persecution found staunch escorts among this new Chouannerie.

The woods re-echoed to the screech of the owl when a warning was necessary that a "Blue" was coming. The Republican uniform was easy to distinguish from the dress of the peasant soldiers. The latter had long flowing hair, broad hats sometimes adorned with plumes, and skins for coats.

From the port of Granville priests were smuggled in large numbers by the agency of Jean, the faithful. He knew that they would have liked to stay and carry on their holy office, but that brought evil on all giving them shelter. The punishment for persons who harbored a non-juring priest was death.

The Mayor of Granville was thought to be a Royalist by sympathy, though he proclaimed stout Republican principles most glibly. He winked at the traffic between Granville and Jersey till he was suspected and lost power to aid Jean Chouan. There was no passage for that lawless captain when he thought it prudent to leave his beloved country.

In the year 1793 the woods of Misdon saw picturesque figures darting in and out of hiding-places like rabbits into burrows. Sometimes there was a great muster in the clearing known as the Place Royale, where the leader came to give orders and receive reports from his active band of peasants. If there were little danger, a fire might be lit and a group of gay figures would surround it. Men, tired of the inactivity of their hidden life, chose to make for themselves all kinds of occupations. They wove baskets, and made rude garments from the skins of animals they trapped. The gayest played games, and exulted in the freedom of their movements. Below ground a more solemn spirit prevailed, which was satisfied only by holding religious services. The Chapelet was the prayer of the Chouans, unlettered but true believers. They repeated it so often that they came to reckon time by it, learning exactly how long it took to say the words.

Jean Chouan seldom entered the underground place that had been made for him, saying that he would never feel the earth above him of his own free will. He had a kind of hut made from boughs, and used it as his real household. He was terribly grieved to find it pillaged once by soldiers, and did not rest till he had wrested back his saucepan and other dear possessions.

Jean's earnest wish was to put his troops under the command of the Prince of Talmont, the Royalist leader, and to unite with the bold Bretons of Puysaye and the country of La Vendee, waging war against the Republic with a fierce and deadly vigour. He knew his men could fight, for they had proved their worth in many a hazardous battle. The love of the supernatural in their followers lent them aid when arms failed, for there was mystery surrounding the chiefs who led them. Jean himself was often reported dead and then seen in some affray. He had a zealous young man to inspire his simple peasants and discipline them most severely. "In the name of St Paul, forward!" was his cry, for he believed that the Saint had given him powers greater than those possessed by men.

This youth with the long light curls and slender form suffered no disobedience, no oaths against the God for whom all fought in the army of the Chouans. He shot a soldier down because he infringed this rule, and exercised a marvellous control over his untrained following. The hat with the long white plumes floated above the earnest face of the hero in hours of extremity. There was the same reverence for this leader as for M. Jacques, the admired of fine ladies, whom he visited in their chateaux.

M. Jacques did not chose that La Heroziere, his noble name of Angevin lineage, should be known to all, for he feared that he might bring trouble on his family. Jean Chouan knew his history, and the rest were to be satisfied by the assurance that he had ever served the King. La Heroziere knew that he would achieve more for the cause by a certain reticence he practised than by babbling of his family. He was praised by the priests he visited in secret because they knew him to be learned. He was loved by the soldiers because he could lead them to victory by the martial songs he sang. His air was gallant, and he had the manners of the Court. It was easy to enrol many natives of Anjou when he went back to his province.

M. Jacques wished to harden the Angevins to fighting, and led them to attack a church in which the Blues had taken refuge. He fell, sorely grieved to see the wounding of Joli-Coeur, his comrade, who bore him from the scene of danger. It was too late, and the warrior of Anjou died in the flower of youth and courage. He was greatly mourned, for they needed such men to fight the battle of King and Church in France.

Modest Jean Chouan paid tribute to other generals who seemed to have the same power to attract loyal hearts. He had never intended to play the first part, looking simply for a prince to lead the men he gathered. It was in the forest that he prayed for the success of the united armies. His men of Maine must ask God for success before they entered on an enterprise so doubtful. Down on their knees they went, and the words of the Chapelet were said to the twittering accompaniment of the birds around them.

At Brulatte the tricolour floated, a sight to make Jean bold indeed. He pulled it down in favour of the white streamer of the Royalists. "Here is the bouquet to be plucked for our festival to-day," he called gladly. He had business to transact in Brulatte for there was a man there who had denounced him as an outlaw.

Victorious Jean Chouan caused panic to Graffin, his former enemy, who expected that this bold brigand would have no mercy. The trembling citizen pressed clothes on his visitor in sheer gratitude as soon as he learnt the nature of the visit. Jean had merely come to see that there was nothing done in his disfavour. He would not change his tattered clothes for the Republican finery, saying proudly that he must show the men of Vendee that he could not take other people's goods although a brigand.

Jean accepted a horse to ride into Laval, where he would meet his allies. Those who had many times declared that the band of Chouans were wiped out long ago by the Republic stared at his imposing entrance! The crowd pressed round, hardly able to believe the figure human that rode brandishing a sabre, waving the Royal flag and shouting, "No! No! Jean Chouan is not dead!" The welcome news encouraged them to cry "Long live the King! Long live Jean Chouan!"

The Prince reviewing his troops could not fail to notice the torn garb of their chief. He threw over him the Royal mantle he had worn himself, saying it had been right to refuse to cover a soldier of the King with a uniform stripped from a soldier of the treacherous Republic. The only wealth Jean Chouan gained he accepted very humbly. The band of peasants were clamouring now to have no other leader. It was necessary for the Prince to form them into a separate body, fighting under the same banner as men of Brittany and La Vendee.

In the glorious victories of that army and the terrible disasters following, the Chouans bore themselves as became soldiers of the Church. Francois Chouan was among them, fighting with one arm because he had been gravely wounded in the other, and his gallant mother followed him to battle that she might tend her son when he was released from warfare. The Prince began to count on the men of Maine whenever he had need of special valour. He had them with him at Dol, that most disastrous battle.

The siege of Mans could not be attempted without the band of faithful Chouans but even they could not win against overwhelming numbers, and the Prince sent them away to the forests, promising that he would seek shelter with them later. The devoted mother of the Cottereau lost her life within the town, where confusion reigned more appalling than a field of battle. Jean thought she had escaped, and Francois fought desperately to recover her when he found that she was missing. Comrades tore him away from Mans, and led him swiftly to the forest. He died there and was long mourned as a fine organizer and man of rarest wisdom.

Jean, meantime, returned to Mans, intending to save the general of whose extremity he heard from fugitives. He learned that he could not offer useful service, and went back to the forest again where he found his brother dying.

With a gallant effort, the Chouan raised a new Royalist army stronger than a doubter would have believed possible. Men flocked to him of their own free will and obeyed without having orders. None of the officers needed to urge advance. Their call was ever, "To me, my brave men. Do not leave me. Follow!" Few of these gallants survived their reckless charges at the head of the troops so oddly disciplined. In their grey vests and big hats with the white cockade, they were willing to fall in battle. The symbol of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was on their breast, and the Chapelet on lips that commanded loyalty by silence. Priests were with them, unwilling to leave to others the defence of the faith they held sacred. It was no mean fate to lose life in such a company. All honor was given to comrades lost, though their names were never known, perhaps, outside the western country.

"Names of war" were adopted freely by the different Chouan officers. Some were men of rank and would not cause suffering to their relatives. Others were of the humblest class, and had always known some nickname. The one who could always raise the faltering warrior by words of warm enthusiasm was Silver-Leg (Jambe d'Argent), a labourer's son, and once a beggar through misfortune.

[Illustration] from Story of the French Revolution by Alice Birkhead


The Prince of Talmont fell into the hands of his enemies and Jean Chouan could not rescue him. A brave attempt was set on foot, but an important letter went astray and the mistake was fatal. The sight of the Prince's head, placed on a pike at Laval, caused his friend's heart to break. It was all over with the King's cause now. This death meant the death of Royalism.

The Republicans over-ran the west country, determined to crush the remnants of Chouannerie. Rene and Pierre Cottereau were put in prison, although they had never taken up arms. Rene was released to find his farm desolate and there and then swore to avenge himself on the Blues, who had not spared him. Pierre was too gentle and pious to fight. He prayed continually that his brother's cause would win.

The order came that the wood of Misdon must be cleared of these lurking foes of the Republic. There were many gathered beneath the trees, but they had not a chance of success without the ammunition that might be sent from Laval. Jean determined to obtain it at all costs, and set off when the rest were sleeping. He took only one companion, Goupil, for his errand was most dangerous.

They found Laval silent and stole softly through the darkened streets without their shoes, for they feared that men would waken. The powder was obtained by a bold assault on the guard house, and made up in two packages. With these on their backs, the two Royalists trudged back to the woods triumphant. Their reward came at daybreak when their comrades woke to exclaim as at a miracle. Powder to be used for cartridges had been the subject of their dreams, and they found it in the morning! Jean would tell nothing of his night's adventures, being always a discreet man and disliking tales of prowess. Goupil told the events at Laval and set them all marvelling, while the chief gave terse directions for the disposal of the forces.

Very masterly was the plan of the Chouans, which ended in the complete rout and bewilderment of 6000 Republican soldiers. Superstition helped the cause of the Royalists and the reputation of their leader. Pierre Cottereau called to his friends to thank God for victory few had thought to win.

Misdon was deserted in favour of Concise where the woodcutter, Cottereau, had reared such a hardy son. Beyond the forest the glad news spread, giving hope to prisoners who heard it through a child's lips. Many Royalists broke their bonds and fled to the new army. In the prisons, plans were made to help the upholders of the white flag, ladies embroidering white ribbons and the Sacred Heart as an emblem for the victors.

The summer-time made it easier to hide in cornfields or beneath the foliage of trees in forests. Men from La Vendee joined the ranks, exciting much compassion by the recital of their injuries. The West had plucked up heart again, hearing how indomitable was Silver-Leg. He was beginning to be known all through the country, and in some sort took the place of Jean, who had never intended to be leader.

The family of Cottereau were doomed to atone for the trouble they had given the new-born Republic. Even the two young sisters were not permitted to live quietly on their farm of Pear Trees. Jean tried to attack the soldiers who were taking them to Laval, but was baffled in his plan by cunning strategy. He had the anguish of knowing that they both perished on the scaffold, loyal-hearted Perrine, the elder, supporting her sister to the last and crying aloud "Long live the King! Long live Jean Chouan!"

Rene became violent after the vengeance wrecked upon such helpless girlhood. He caused trouble to Jean, who would never kill wantonly nor watch another tortured. Pierre was taken at his prayers and made a martyr by the Blues, who bound his hands and marched him up and down the streets in mockery. "General-in-Chief of Brigands," they wrote as an inscription for their prisoner. He had never borne arms, and had never been an outlaw. Quite tranquilly he answered insults with prayers and ascended the scaffold at Laval.

Jean gradually left Silver-Leg to marshal forces while he worked in other ways for the cause he loved, although it rent from him all his kinsfolk. He tried to obtain food and clothes for the fugitives of the woodlands. On one of these attempts he was surprised by the Blues, and wounded while assisting the widow of Francois to escape. The poor woman was saved, but at the cost of the life of her deliverer.

Jean dragged himself to the wood of Misdon and died there, surrounded by the comrades who had found him. Born in the open air, he drew his last breath beneath the trees that thirty-seven years ago had waved above his cradle. For God and the King he had given his whole existence, and to God and the King he begged that his comrades would be faithful.

The Royalists raised the white flag again long after the King, for whom Jean Chouan had fought, had met his woeful destiny. They rallied round the Count of Provence and made him Louis the Eighteenth. They supported the claims of Artois, known for a brief period as Charles the Tenth of France.

But the white flag was the symbol of a losing cause, and Napoleon dragged it down to raise his own Imperial standard.