VAN STOCKUM: Hero of France: Part 2, Helping to save France

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The impact of Gen. Baron Athanase de Charette spanned from the royalty and battlefields of France to the fields of Shelby County. In the final part of a series, his heroics find the pope’s favor.

By Ron Van Stockum

As a result of the defeat of the forces of Pope Pius IX in the battle of Castelfidardo on Sept. 18, 1860, and its aftermath, the Papal States were reduced significantly in size and in influence. Lost to the Piedmontese were Papal territories to the East of Rome, including the Adriatic seaport of Ancona. It was a bloody battle in which the Pope’s forces, totaling 9,000, faced 60,000 Piedmontese.


On Jan. 1, 1861, the name of the Franco-Belgian battalion, which had fought so valiantly at Castelfidardo, was changed to Zouaves Pontificaux (Pontifical Zouaves), with Baron Athanase de Charette, as second in command. Although he was the popular favorite to be its commander, his failure to recognize the rule of Napoleon III rendered this impossible, for the Pope was still dependent for protection upon Napoleon’s garrison in Rome.

My wife, Susanne de Charette Van Stockum (1915-2000), through her father Marquis Antoine de Charette (1880-1947), the chef de la famille, inherited family documents dating back to the French Revolution (1789-99). They are now safeguarded in the archives of the Filson Historical Society in Louisville.

Much of this account is based on those documents.

Charette returned briefly to Paris on July 17, 1962 to marry Antoinette de Fitz-James There were two children of this marriage, neither of whom had heirs. Antoinette died in Rome in 1864, following the birth of her second child.

Charette continued to fight for Pius IX, participating significantly in the defeat on Nov. 3, 1867, of Giuseppe Garibaldi, who, at Mentana, threatened Rome in his campaign for a united Italy. In this battle Charette led a furious bayonet charge, which swept Garibaldi’s forces before it. In the attack Charette saw his horse killed beneath him, and he was wounded. Castel Mentana was taken, and Garibaldi was forced to withdraw across the frontier, having incurred heavy losses.


Franco-Prussian War (1870-71)

Tranquility following Mentana was short-lived. In an ill-advised decision, Napoleon III declared war against Prussia and its allies on July 19, 1870. Within 45 days, a series of Prussian and German victories culminated in the capture of Napoleon III and his army in the Battle of Sedan on Sept. 2.

Within two days, crowds congregated on the streets of Paris, where on Sept. 4, in a bloodless revolution, the Third Republic was formed, taking as its first task the continuation of the war.

The defeat and subsequent abdication of Napoleon III ended French protection of the papacy. Italian forces of King Victor Emmanuel, after symbolic resistance by the papal army entered Rome on Sept. 21, 1870, completing the geographic unification of Italy. Pius IX withdrew within the walls of the Vatican.

At this juncture Charette received a request to return to France with his Zouaves, now a regiment under his command, to defend his country in its time of peril. Not being able to serve the Pope further and with the unanimous support of his officers, he agreed and arrived by ship at the port of Toulon on Sept. 27, 1870.

France was in a desperate situation.

Following its victory at Sedan, described as one of the history's decisive battles, the Prussians and their allies moved deep into France to invest the capital. Paris had been surrounded since Sept. 19, cut off from contact with the outside world, except by coal-gas balloons, returning carrier pigeons, and by means of such diplomatic missions as the investing forces would allow. French forces bottled up in Paris were trying to keep the country from falling apart.

Leon Gambetta, minister of the interior of the new government, was dispatched from Paris on Oct. 7 on a famous balloon voyage. He joined an external government, which had been established at Tours and thenceforth directed the war effort in the provinces.

Shortly after arriving back in France, Charette was summoned to Tours before the Government of National Defense, where he announced the availability of his troops to serve France. Gambetta, however, because of political difficulties, could not agree to let them serve under the name, "Zouaves Pontificaux." It was then proposed that they be named "Legion of Volunteers of the West." This solution was accepted by Charette and he directed by the assembly of the Zouaves at Tours.

The nuns of Paray-le-Monial had embroidered a banner of the Sacred Heart (SacréCoeur), which they had hoped could be planted on the walls of Paris. It was white, embroidered in red, carrying the wording "Coeur de Jesus, Sauvez la France." [Heart of Jesus Save France.] Not being able to send it to besieged Paris, the nuns offered it to Charette.

On Oct. 8, Charette met arriving Zouaves in Tours and addressed through the press an appeal "to men of heart” throughout France. News of his prowess in the Italian Wars had preceded him and his appeal brought to the colors a large number of volunteers.

Thus, out of the veterans of the "Zouaves Pontificaux" who had accompanied Charette from Italy, fleshed out with volunteers who had answered the call, was constituted the "Legion of Volunteers of the West."

A regiment had been formed, carrying a different name, with its members still wearing the picturesque uniform of the Zouaves Pontificaux. Their commander: Col. Athanase de Charette. Their flag: The Banner of the Sacred Heart.

Charette’s forces became part of Gen. Gaston de Sonis' XVII Corps of the newly formed Army of the Loire. Their mission: advance from the vicinity of Orléans toward Paris, eighty miles to the north, in order to link up with French troops attempting to break out of the city, thus raising the siege of Paris.

On Dec. 2, 1870, at Loigny, later to be called “Loigny la Bataille,” a few miles north of Orléans, Charette led his Zouaves, carrying their “Banner of the Sacred Heart,” across snow-covered fields, in a heroic charge against opposing Prussian forces.

G. A. Henty (1832-1902), perhaps the most popular author of historical fiction for young men of his day, described the attack of Charette's Zouaves in The Young Franc-Tireurs and Their Adventures in the Franco-Prussian War, published a year or two after the battle.In his preface, addressed to "My Dear Lads," Henty stated that,

“Many of the occurrences in this tale are related almost in the words in which they were described to me by those who took part in them, and nearly every fact and circumstance actually occurred according to my own knowledge.”

It is entirely possible that Henty had spoken with Charette after the battle. He described the Zouaves:

“This fine body of men, the Papal Zouaves, acquired, and justly acquired, more glory than any other French corps throughout the war. They behaved upon every occasion magnificently. . . . The Zouaves of Charette fought with the courage of lions. A great many of them were men of good family; all were inspired by the ardor and spirit of their chief. “

Writing only a few months after the termination of the Franco-Prussian War, Henty provided one of the best accounts in English of this charge:

“The Zouaves advanced at a double, but with as much coolness as if on parade. They did not fire a shot, but made straight at the Prussian infantry.. .

"For God and France!" Charette shouted as he led the charge; and the whole regiment responded as one man, "For God and France!" So fierce was this onslaught that the Prussian infantry refused to face it, and fell back upon their supports. Still the Zouaves rushed on, and again the Prussians fell back, but the assault was growing more and more hopeless: the Zouaves were unsupported save by a few hundred men, the other regiments were far in the rear, the shot and shell were mowing lanes through them, an army was in front.. . .

“It was heroic, but it was an heroic madness. Again the Zouaves advanced. Again a storm of shell poured upon them, and then a regiment of German cavalry swept down. There was a crash: Charette and his officers disappeared beneath the hoofs of the cavalry. General Sonis and his staff went down like straw before them, but the Zouaves stood firm, fired a volley into them, and then, having lost eight hundred men in that desperate attempt to retrieve the fortunes of the day, the remainder retreated sullenly with their faces to the foe.”

Wounded in the hip by a rifle ball, Charette was captured, but escaped. On Jan. 17, 1871 he was named General de Brigade. The Franco-Prussian War was brought to an end by the Treaty of Frankfurt on May 10, 1971.


A new hero

Charette became a hero of France. The charge he led evoked memories of gallant feats of arms in French history. To Americans it might be compared with Pickett's charge at Gettysburg, another heroic effort in a losing cause. In its quick and overwhelming defeat in the Franco-Prussian War the French had little to celebrate.

One bright moment would be permanently engraved in French memory: The charge of the Zouaves at Loigny.

Charette and his banner became enshrined in the traditions of France and the Catholic Church. He served on the committee for the planning and construction of the famed Basilique du Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre in Paris.

Here today one can stand at the altar and look up to the grand mosaic above to observe the figure of Charette, sword outstretched in one hand, the other carrying the Banner of the Sacred Heart.

The general, a young man of 38 at Loigny, lived a long life, savoring the plaudits of his countrymen. On Dec. 12, 1877, he married Antoinette Van Leer Polk of Columbia Tenn., niece of Right Reverend and Lt. Gen.  Leonidas Polk, the famed fighting bishop of the Confederacy, and a heroine in her own right.

On July 3, 1880, issue of the union of the Polk and Charette families and heir to a glorious tradition, Antoine (Tony) de Charette, was born in Paris.


Pope’s favor

As a recognition of his father’s military exploits in defense of the Vatican, Tony, a few weeks before his 10th birthday, received his first holy communion personally from Pius IX's successor, Pope XIII, who as Cardinal Pecci earlier in Rome had been a close friend of Antoinette and her family.

In his beautifully written "Notes" of May 15, 1890, headed "Quelle inoubliable journée!" (What an unforgettable day!) Gen. de Charette described a private audience lasting an hour during which the Pope took Tony in his arms and later placed him on his seat beside him.

For a young man steeped in the royalist and Catholic traditions of France, whose associates and teachers had spoken of his father and family with reverence, this personal attention from the Pope reinforced the already existing pressures on Tony de Charette to emulate his father. Much was expected of him, altogether too much.


Ron Van Stockum can be reached at ronvanstockum@mac.com. His latest book, Coming to Kentucky: Heaven is a Kentucky of a Place, just off the press, as well as his others, Kentucky and the Bourbons: the Story of Allen Dale Farm, Squire Boone and Nicholas Meriwether: Kentucky Pioneers,and Remembrances of World Wars,  may be purchased at Terhune’s Style Shop in Village Plaza Shopping Center in Shelbyville or from Amazon.com.