The process of turning the Vendee into a 'sad desert' was captured in letters which the perpetrators wrote to their relatives. Writing to his sister in January 1794, a captain in the Liberty battalion said:
wherever we pass by, we bring flames and death. Neither age or sex are respected. Here, one of our detachments burns a village. A volunteer kills three women with his own hands. It's horrific but the health of the Republic is an urgent imperative. What a war! We haven't seen a single individual without shooting them. Everywhere is strewn with corpses; everywhere the flames bring their ravages.After losing a pitched battle at Cholet, the rebel remnant marched towards Granville, in the ill-coordinated hope of linking up with British and emigre forces that were supposed to have landed. Since this port was still in republican hands, the rebels fell back to Le Mans, where three thousand of them were caught by the forces of Kleber, Marceau and Westermann. Another nine thousand perished as they fell back towards Nantes. Mass shootings of thousands of people took place in Angers and Laval. Ironically, this headlong rebel retreat triggered panic among the Jacobins of Nantes, who perpetrated one of the most notorious massacres of the Terror.
Representative Jean-Baptiste Carrier had installed himself in the villa of a former slave-trader where he entertained the local Nantais prostitutes, although his official mistress was the aunt of Victor Hugo's mother. He reserved the guillotine for aristocrats, priests and the wealthy bourgeoisie, but then decided to economise on musket balls and powder when he needed to thin out overcrowded prisons. Batches of bound prisoners were taken out on to the choppy waters of the Loire in barges that were then scuttled with the aid of specially designed hatches. Those prisoners who tried to clamber on to boats brought along to salvage the barge's crews, rather than what Carrier called their 'cargoes', in another premonition of the age of Hitler and Stalin, had their hands hacked away by drunken revolutionary soldiers armed with sabres. Revolutionaries added a few amusements, such as stripping male and female prisoners naked, tying them together, and then throwing them overboard in what they called 'republican marriages'. Priests were prominent among the eighteen hundred victims of these 'noyades', which were allegedly a humane response to epidemics and overcrowding in Nantais prisons. That they were also called 'vertical deportations into the national bathtub' or 'patriotic baptisms' suggests that themain motive was hardly public hygiene. As a result of these atrocities, which involved such scenes as young women stretched upside down on trees and cut almost in half, up to a third of the population perished, a statistic roughly equivalent to the horrors of twentieth-century Cambodia.
There was a parallel revolt—of the Chouans, their name derived from the local word for owl, whose warning hoots were imitated by the region's smugglers. The nickname 'Chouan' was adopted by Jean Cottereau, a salt smuggler turned guerrilla leader, and from him it spread to the rebels as a whole. The Church was central to life in these parts of the west, for it was the only institution that gave isolated small villages a sense of community. The intrusion of Constitutional clergy, who were often outsiders, really rankled in these areas. So did republican military conscription and grain requisitions. In the eyes of many Bretons the term 'citizen' was one of abuse; republicans were almost a separate species of being who allegedly smelled as well as spoke differently. The Chouans were royalists and Christians, nostalgic for a unified rural world, in which royal government had hardly impinged at all under the ancien regime. The Chouannerie was hard to combat since it consisted of ad-hoc guerrilla bands operating across ten western departments. Their attacks took the form of ambushes of grain convoys, and the assassination of Constitutional priests and republican officials. In a single fortnight in Fougeres they killed twenty-three municipal officials and republicans. These bands were crushed only by the deployment of overwhelming government forces in the person of General Lazare Hoche and a new 140,000-man Army of the Coasts and the Ocean. Hoche's flying columns swept through the bocage day and night, preventing the Chouans from moving around with impunity. The latter were also poorly armed—often with hunting guns if they had a gun at all—and they were running low on powder. Eventually the Chouans had little choice but to surrender their weapons to the government's forces.
The suppression of large-scale regional revolts ran parallel with the escalation of revolutionary Terror, that combination of delation, kangaroo courts and paranoia in which many of the most notable figures in the Revolution perished themselves as the ruling Committee of Public Safety struck at radical democratic extremists and moderates, by implicating them in conspiracies whose 'cross-party' permutations became progressively improbable. Something had gone seriously awry in a polity that scythed down Lavoisier, its most distinguished scientist, as well as Romme, who had designed its calendar. The Terror cut down so many of the political class in such an apparently indiscriminate fashion that strange alliances of self-preservation came into being, primed to strike at the individuals they held most responsible for months of escalating bloodshed. Hatred focused on Robespierre, whose moralising self-righteousness and virtuous superiority had cast a sinister shadow over too many compromised consciences, especially since he had employed considerable deceit and deviousness to bring about the deaths of his own political opponents, warm praise from him routinely being prefatory to cold-steeled extinction.
Paradoxically, it was Robespierre's most concerted attempt to draw a line under de-Christianisation through what he intended as the definitive and ultimate revolutionary cult that finally brought about his downfall. As a severe Deist, Robespierre had been appalled by the blasphemous antics of the Cult of Reason. The cult of the Supreme Being was celebrated in the gardens of the Tuileries on 20 Prairial Year II (8 June 1794). Commencing at 8 a.m., columns of men, women and youths from the Parisian sections converged on the Tuileries. The men carried branches of oak leaves, the women bouquets of roses, and girls baskets of flowers.
It was a bright and beautiful summer day. Robespierre had a light breakfast while he watched these scenes, remarking, 'Behold, the most interesting part of humanity.' At noon he and the rest of the Convention appeared on a balcony, with Robespierre's dark marine coat distinguishing him from deputies dressed in cornflower blue. His sermon in two parts outlined the purpose of the festival: 'O people, let us deliver ourselves today, under his auspices, to the just transports of a pure festivity. Tomorrow we shall return to the combat with vice and tyrants. We shall give the world the example of republican virtue.' France's providential mission was to 'purify the earth they have soiled.'
Artists from the Opera sang a hymn by Desorgues to a setting by Gossec:
Pere de l'Univers, supreme intelligence,Robespierre took a flaming torch from the artist David, and set fire to a cardboard statue of Atheism, in a deliberate riposte to those who—in the name of materialism—had burned ecclesiastical images and vestments. A smoke-damaged image of Wisdom emerged from the collapsing remnant of Atheism and its confederates Ambition, Egoism, Discord and False Modesty, figures collectively dubbed 'Sole Foreign Hope'. Robespierre resumed his sermon:
Bienfaiteur ignore des aveugles mortels,
Tu revelas ton etre a la reconnaissance
Qui seul eleva tes autels.
Ton temple, est sur les monts, dans les airs, sur les ondes
Tu n'as point de passe, tu n'as point d'avenir:
Et sans les occuper, tu remplis tous les mondes
Qui ne peuvent te contenir.
(Father of the Universe, supreme intelligence,
Benefactor unknown to blinded mortals,
You revealed your being to thankfulness
Only to who built your altars.
Your temple is on the mountain tops, in the air, in the waves
You have no past, you have no future
And without occupying them, you fill all the worlds
Which cannot contain you.)
Let us be grave and discreet in our deliberations, as men who determine the interests of the world. Let us be ardent and stubborn in our wrath against the confederated tyrants; imperturbable in danger, terrible in adversity, modest and vigilant in success. Let us be generous toward the good, compassionate toward the unfortunate, inexorable toward men of evil, just towards all.After the speeches a procession set off for the Champs de Reunion, with cavalry troopers, drummer boys and cannoneers in the van. The Parisian sections were represented too. The Lepeletier Section, named after the assassinated educationalist martyr, included a chariot of blind children, bearing aloft a crowned portrait of the locksmith hero Geffroy who had saved the life of Collot d'Herbois. The entire Convention followed, the whole group bound by a tricolour ribbon, and with president Robespierre in the lead. His enemies deviously accentuated the impression that it was his show by falling significantly behind him. Arrived at the Champs de Reunion, Robespierre led the deputies up a steep mock mountain, to the accompaniment of artillery salvoes, hymns and cries of 'Long live the Republic'. There were 2,400 choristers alone. The male choristers sang the revolutionary song Marseillaise (which only became the national anthem in 1879), with the male spectators chiming in. Women and girls took over for the second verse, with everyone joining in for the finale. Mothers held babies aloft, girls tossed bouquets in the air, and boys drew sabres while their fathers blessed their heads.
A week later, Marc Vadier, one of Robespierre's opponents on the lesser Committee of General Security, entertained the Convention with police intelligence on a harmless elderly mystic called Catherine Theot, who claimed that she was about to give birth to a divine being. Snide remarks about religion in an audience including many dedicated anti-clericals clearly had a political purpose. Implacably opposed to Robespierre's purely tactical toleration of Catholicism, his enemies sought to forge evidence showing that Robespierre had tried to induce Catherine Theot to declare him the son of God. In the following days, Robespierre made the fundamental mistake of remaining aloof from the bureaucratic structures on which his power depended, isolating himself in solipsistic agony while he brooded on Socrates, hemlock cups and the like.
Over-estimating the significance of his supporters in the Commune and at the Jacobin club, on 8 Thermidor Robespierre spoke in the Convention. His speech was a long, rambling exercise in self-justification, in which he introduced the thought that revolutionary government would have to be permanent, a view his auditors took as the harbinger of personal dictatorship. The next day, he and four others were arrested in the Convention and conveyed to various Parisian jails. Troops of the Convention pre-empted an inept attempt to free them by some of the radical sections. Robespierre botched an attempt to shoot himself. He and his colleagues were guillotined the following day, with his paralysed ally Couthon screaming as he was straightened up for the plank, while Robespierre howled with pain as paper bandages were ripped from his gunshot-shattered jaw. The bureaucratic apparatus of terrorism was dismantled by the newly ascendant Dantonists, Girondins and former terrorists who reasserted the rule of the Convention over the committees. The Jacobin clubs were forbidden to correspond with one another, preparatory to being closed altogether. Poor persons were excluded from the National Guard and the power of the sections was diminished. Theatres, cafes and ballrooms did well and something like plurality of opinion returned to the newspapers. Women began to wear clothes of their own choosing. The Jacobin cultural revolution was virtually over before it had started, although its stirring mythology would reverberate almost to our own time.