François Athanase de Charette de la Contrie (2 May 1763 – 26 March 1796) was a French Royalist soldier and politician. He served in the French Royal Navy during the American Revolutionary War and was one of the leaders of the Revolt in the Vendée against the revolutionary regime. His relative Athanase-Charles-Marie Charette de la Contrie was a noted military leader.
A nobleman born in Couffé, arrondissement of Ancenis, Charette served in the French Navy under Toussaint-Guillaume Picquet de la Motte, notably during the American War of Independence, and became lieutenant de vaisseau. Following the outbreak of the French Revolution, he quit the Navy in 1789 and emigrated to Koblenz (Trier) in 1792 (a common move for royalist aristocrats). He soon returned to France to live at his property in La Garnache, and became one of the royalist volunteers who assisted in defending King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette from physical harm during the mob attack on Tuileries Palace (the Journée du 10 août); arrested in Angers, he was released through the intervention of Charles François Dumouriez.
In 1793, the Revolt in the Vendée against the French First Republic broke out, and the peasant fighters asked Charette to be their leader. He joined Jacques Cathelineau following the taking of Saumur in June 1793 and fought in most of the battles of the Catholic and Royal Army. On 19 September 1793, he participated in the victorious Battle of Tiffauges. Afterwards he and Louis Marie de Lescure had marched on Saint-Fulgent to pursue Jean-Baptiste Kléber, who had escaped. Charette won another victory over the Republicans at the First Battle of Noirmoutier. Some of the captured soldiers took part in the Machecoul Massacres and a quarter of them were executed for retribution by Charette's troops, against his orders. After the parting of the Vendean leaders in September 1793, he and his men retreated. He became the leader of the Lower Vendée, and successfully used guerrilla warfare against the Republican troops, capturing a Republican camp in Saint-Christophe-du-Ligneron, near Challans, but ran out of supplies and was decisively attacked by the troops of Nicolas Haxo. Charette retaliated by circling Haxo, who committed suicide to avoid capture.
On 17 February 1795, near Vertou, Charette signed a peace treaty with the emissaries of the National Convention, which included freedom of religion guarantees and excluded the conscription of local peasants from the levée en masse. The republicans repudiated the terms of the treaty, and their parole, going back on the guarantees of religious freedom and began conscripting the peasants once again. They also murdered thousands of royalist prisoners including the Bishop of Dol. Charette and his men returned to the fight again in July and moved to help the planned invasion at Quiberon by emigrated French royalists with assistance from the British Royal Navy.
The Count of Artois, the Bourbon successor to the throne of France, made him Lieutenant General and gave orders to prepare for a royal return which, however, did not eventuate. Charette remained loyal to the old dynasty and the Catholic religion, as did his men and most of the Vendean and Breton peasantry. He, and all the loyal royalists, later refused to join the liberal Orléanists. After the failure of the Quiberon expedition, Charette and his men were pursued by General Lazare Hoche. Charette was wounded but escaped. However, due to lack of munitions he was eventually captured outside La Chabotterie and taken to Nantes for a trial. He was sentenced to death by a republican court and then taken to the town square in procession for a public execution. He was shot by firing squad. A plaque has been erected and still stands upon the place where he was shot. Today, memorial ceremonies continue to take place there.
According to a contemporary writing in Walker's Hibernian Magazine, it was Charette who said, by way of extenuating the number of deaths for which he was responsible, "Omelets are not made without breaking eggs."
Charette was described by Napoleon as a great character and military leader who "betrays genius".
Depictions in films
Charette is a character in the episode "The Frogs and the Lobsters" of the Hornblower film/television series. Charette is a royalist general in exile who, with the support of the British Royal Navy, attempts and fails to rally the surviving royalists and raise an army in France to restore the king to power.