The Story of Jambe d’Argent and M. Jacques

December 19, 2011

Jambe D'Argent

After the destruction of the Catholic army, a fresh force was formed out of the few remaining Vendeans and the inhabitants of Maine. These had no regular chiefs, the boldest, or he who struck out the best plan for the occasion, marching at the head of his comrades; if his plan failed, or a better was suggested by another, he resigned his command, and became a private soldier—to resume it again perhaps later in the day. But as the most able or the most courageous man naturally found himself at the head most frequently, he came to possess a certain authority in the eyes of the others. There was a lame beggar named Louis Treton, who soon acquired a supremacy of this kind. This man was born to govern others. When a lad, he had kept a farmer’s flocks; and even the brute beasts had acknowledged his power. The most restive horse, the fiercest bull, quailed beneath his eye. However, in an unequal combat with a famished wolf, he received a wound which crippled him for life; and he was a beggar from village to village when the civil war burst forth. Louis Treton joined the insurrection not for pay, nor to defend the crown, but for the Church. He was a man worthy in every respect to be ranked with Cathelineau himself. When, after the disasters of Mans and Savenay, all Maine was prostrate with terror, he went from farm to farm, and called the young men by their names to take up arms. He spoke to them only of their ruined churches and their proscribed faith; and when he spoke none could choose but hearken. His voice, strong enough to be heard above the din of battle, was at other times winning and sweet; but alike irresistible when agitated with passion, or calm with the very earnestness of his purpose.

He was soon marked out to be the proper leader of his countrymen, by two victories that were due to him, and one defeat that they suffered from disregarding his advice. Jambe d’Argent [Silver Knee], so he was called in allusion to the tin plate which covered his wound, immediately gave proofs of his great sagacity in the manner with which he treated the few rivals who contested his sovereignty. He then set to work to rekindle the insurrection. He had long studied all the chances of that war of flies against the republican lion; and he knew that the secret of success in an unequal strife lay in the art of enveloping weakness in mystery, and keeping the stronger party in the constant fear of an unseen antagonist. The difficulty was to get this plan accepted. The peasants had long ceased to think of his lame leg; but the nobles of Maine, unlike their brethren in La Vendée, would not have a crippled beggar to lead them….Jambe d’Argent, with a nobility of soul worthy of his cause, sought out for some step-father to his plans, by whom they might be executed; though he should lose thereby the honor of their conception.

Jambe D'Argent

His choice fell on a gentleman strange to Maine, and known by the name of M. Jacques. This officer had appeared on the right bank of the Mayenne soon after the destruction of the royal army; but he was in command of no troops; he was only seen in moments of great peril: then he suddenly showed himself in the first rank, where he gave some order or executed some movement which at once changed the rout into a victory. He, like Jambe d’Argent, had the power of fascinating all hearts: in the chateaux the ladies praised his manners; in the hiding-places which he found for the clergy, the priests extolled his learning; and the peasants averred that no man ever handled a musket or rode a horse with greater skill than he. He could tire out the strongest walkers; he seemed insensible to hunger or thirst, and proof against wind and sun and rain. He spoke little; but every word sank into the memory. He possessed also the rare power of Caesar: at the same instant he would give an order, hear a report, and write a dispatch, without distraction or confusion. No one knew his haunts, or his resources, or his means of communication. He appeared and disappeared like the knights in ancient story, who would suddenly arrive, carry off every prize in the tournament, and then vanish in a cloud of dust. That M. Jacques was an assumed name no one doubted; and the general belief was that he was the Duke d’Enghien, and the precursor of the Count d’Artois, whose coming had been so often promised.

Whether true or false, this report invested M. Jacques with that rank for lack of which Jambe d’Argent was unable to influence the nobles. The latter accordingly resolved to entrust to him the execution of his plan for the new Chouannerie, and for that end demanded an interview. M. Jacques at once embraced the lame beggar’s principle of action, and the details were arranged between them. Each band was to remain in its own parish, under the command of its own leader; but a supreme chief was to give unity to the war, and when need were, assemble the various corps. A regular service for the transport of dispatches was to be established; magazines of victuals were to be set up in the several forests; the herdsmen were to serve as sentinels, the beggars as spies, the women as messengers. Headquarters were appointed, and new names given to them for the embarrassment of the Blues. Jambe d’Argent chose for his own retreat the farm-house of Grand Bordage, which he called the camp of the High Meadows. There he repaired to organize the insurrection. His first care was to contrive in it a retreat for fugitive priests, proscribed women, and the wounded; and so ingenious was his arrangement, that the Blues searched the farm-house twenty times and found nothing. When all these preliminaries were happily accomplished, the agitation commenced everywhere at once.

A Breton by Charles Loyeux

While M. Jacques, who was only a private gentleman from Anjou, who chose to preserve his incognito to protect his mother and sisters from the vengeance of the Blues, acted as ostensible leader, it was Jambe d’Argent who really commanded the peasantry of Maine. With various success, this self-taught general conducted the most difficult enterprises against the republicans; his knowledge and tact increasing with his opportunities of exercising them. The influence which he possessed over his men was, however, hardly realized in the province till he received a wound which threatened to be mortal, and the question of his successor stared his unhappy soldiers in the face; for M. Jacques had absented himself, and was supposed to have been slain, and there was no one left to take the lead.

 

 

George J. Hill, The Story of the War in La Vendée and the Little Chouannerie (New York: D. & J. Sadlier & Co. n.d.), pp. 190-194.

 

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 135

 

 

 

 

 

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