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When Louis XIV. was King of France, that country was generally Catholic, but in the rugged mountain region called the Cevennes more than half the people were Protestants. At first the king consented that these Protestant people, who were well behaved both in peace and in war, should live in quiet, and worship as they pleased; but in those days men were not tolerant in matters of religion, as they are now, and so after a while King Louis made up his mind that he would compel all his people to believe alike. The Protestants of the Cevennes were required to give up their religion and to become Catholics. When they refused, soldiers were sent to compel them, and great cruelties were practiced upon them. Many of them were killed, many put in prison, and many sent to work in the galleys.
When this persecution had lasted for nearly thirty years, a body of young men who were gathered together in the High Cevennes resolved to defend themselves by force. They secured arms, and although their numbers were very small, they met and fought the troops.
Among these young men was one, a mere boy, named Jean Cavalier. His home was in the Lower Cevennes, but he had fled to the highlands for safety. This boy, without knowing it, had military genius of a very high order, and when it became evident that he and his comrades could not long hold out against the large bodies of regular troops sent against them, he suggested a plan which in the end proved to be so good that for years the poor peasants were able to maintain war against all the armies that King Louis could send against them, although he sent many of his finest generals and as many as sixty thousand men to subdue them.
Cavalier's plan was to collect more men, divide, and make uprisings in several places at once, so that the king's officers could not tell in which way to turn. As he and his comrades knew the country well, and had friends to tell them of the enemy's movements, they could nearly always know when it was safe to attack, and when they must hide in the woods.
Cavalier took thirty men and went into one part of the country, while Captain La Porte, with a like number, went to another, and Captain St. John to still another. They kept each other informed of all movements, and whenever one was pressed by the enemy, the others would begin burning churches or attacking small garrisons. The enemy would thus be compelled to abandon the pursuit of one party in order to go after the others, and it soon became evident that under Cavalier's lead the peasants were too wily and too strong for the soldiers. Sometimes Cavalier would fairly beat detachments of his foes, and give them chase, killing all whom he caught; for in that war both sides did this, even killing their prisoners without mercy. At other times Cavalier was worsted in fight, and when that was the case he fled to the woods, collected more men, and waited for another chance.
Without trying to write an orderly history of the war, for which there is not space enough here, I shall now tell some stories of Cavalier's adventures, drawing the information chiefly from a book which he himself wrote years afterwards, when he was a celebrated man and a general in the British army.
One Sunday Cavalier, who was a preacher as well as a soldier, held services in his camp in the woods, and all the Protestant peasants in the neighborhood attended. The Governor of Alais, whose name was De la Hay, thought this a good opportunity not only to defeat Cavalier's small force, but also to catch the Protestant women and children in the act of attending a Protestant service, the punishment for which was death. He collected a force of about six hundred men, cavalry and infantry, and marched towards the wood, where he knew he should outnumber the peasants three or four to one. He had a mule loaded with ropes, declaring that he was going to hang all the rebels at once.
When news of De la Hay's coming was brought to the peasants, they sent away all the country people, women, and children, and began to discuss the situation. They had no commander, for although Cavalier had led them generally, he had no authority to do so. Everything was voluntary, and everything a subject of debate. On this occasion many thought it best to retreat at once, as there were less than two hundred of them; but Cavalier declared that if they would follow him, he would lead them to a place where victory might be won. They consented, and he advanced to a point on the road where he could shelter his men. Quickly disposing them in line of battle behind some defences, he awaited the coming of the enemy.
De la Hay, being over-confident because of his superior numbers, blundered at the outset. Instead of attacking first with his infantry, he placed his horsemen in front, and ordered an assault. Cavalier was quick to take advantage of this blunder. He ordered only a few of his men to fire, and this drew a volley from the advancing horsemen, which did little damage to the sheltered troops, but emptied the horsemen's weapons. Instantly Cavalier ordered a charge and a volley, and the horsemen, with empty pistols, gave way, Cavalier pursuing them. De la Hay's infantry, being just behind the horsemen, were ridden down by their own friends, and became confused and panic-stricken. Cavalier pursued hotly, his men throwing off their coats to lighten themselves, and giving the enemy no time to rally. A reinforcement two hundred strong, coming up, tried to check Cavalier's charge; but so impetuous was the onset that those fresh troops gave way in their turn, and the chase ended only when the king's men had shut themselves up in the fortified towns. Cavalier had lost only five or six men, the enemy losing a hundred killed and many more wounded. Cavalier captured a large quantity of arms and ammunition, of which he was in sore need.
When the battle was over it was decided unanimously to make Cavalier the commander. He refused, however, to accept the responsibility unless it could be accompanied with power to enforce obedience, and his troops at once voted to make his authority absolute, even to the decision of questions of life and death. According to the best authorities, Cavalier was only seventeen years old when this absolute command was conferred upon him. How skilfully he used the scant means at his disposal we shall see hereafter.
On one occasion Cavalier attacked a party of forty men who were marching through the country to reinforce a distant post, and killed most of them. While searching the dead bodies, he found in the pocket of the commanding officer an order signed by Count Broglio, the king's lieutenant, directing all military officers and town authorities to lodge and feed the party on their march. No sooner had the boy soldier read this paper than he resolved to turn it to his own advantage in a daring and dangerous way.
The castle of Servas, near Alais, had long been a source of trouble to him. It was a strong place, built upon a steep hill, and was so difficult of approach that it would have been madness to try to take it by force. This castle stood right in the line of Cavalier's communications with his friends, near a road which he was frequently obliged to pass, and its presence there was a source of annoyance and danger to him. Moreover, its garrison of about forty men were constantly plundering and murdering Cavalier's friends in the country round about, and giving timely notice to his enemies of his own military movements.
When he found the order referred to, he resolved to pretend that he was Count Broglio's nephew, the dead commander of the detachment which he had just destroyed. Dressing himself in that officer's clothes, he ordered his men to put on the clothing of the other dead royalists. Then he took six of his best men, with their own Camisard uniforms on, and bound them with ropes, to represent prisoners. One of them had been wounded in the arm, and his bloody sleeve helped the stratagem. Putting these six men at the head of his troop, with a guard of their disguised comrades over them, he marched towards the Castle of Servas. There he declared himself to be Count Broglio's nephew, and said that he had met a company of the Barbets, or Camisards, and had defeated them, taking six prisoners; that he was afraid to keep these prisoners in the village overnight lest their friends should rescue them; and that he wished to lodge them in the castle for safety. When the governor of the castle heard this story, and saw the order of Count Broglio, he was completely imposed upon. He ordered the prisoners to be brought into the castle, and invited Cavalier to be his guest there for the night. Taking two of his officers with him, Cavalier went into the castle to sup with the governor. During supper several of his soldiers, who were encamped just outside, went into the castle upon pretence of getting wine or bread, and when five or six of them were in, at a signal from Cavalier, they overpowered the sentinels and threw the gates open. The rest of the troop rushed in at once, and before the garrison could seize their arms the boy commander was master of the fortress. He put the garrison to the sword, and, hastily collecting all the arms, ammunition, and provisions he could find, set fire to the castle and marched away. When the fire reached the powder magazine the whole fortress was blown to fragments, and a post which had long annoyed and endangered the Camisards was no more.
On another occasion, finding himself short of ammunition, Cavalier resolved to take some by force and stratagem from the strongly fortified town of Savnes. His first care was to send a detachment of forty men to a point at some distance, with orders to burn a church which had lately been fortified, "thereby," he says, "to make the inhabitants of Savnes believe we were busy in another place." Then he detached an officer and fifty men, and ordered them to disguise themselves as country militia in the king's service, and to go into Savnes in that character. With some difficulty this officer accomplished his purpose, and then Roland and Cavalier marched upon the place. His officer inside the town, when the alarm was given, said to the governor, "Let them come; you'll see how I'll receive them." Anxious for his own safety, the governor permitted the supposed officer of militia to take charge of the defence, and the armed citizens put themselves under his command. He instructed the citizens to reserve their fire until he should give them orders, and in that way enabled Cavalier to approach unharmed. Suddenly the officer, directing the aim of his men against the citizens, ordered them to throw down their arms upon pain of instant death, and they, seeing themselves caught in a trap, obeyed. Cavalier marched in without opposition, secured all that he could carry away of arms, ammunition, and provisions, and retired to the woods.
Throughout the summer and autumn the boy carried on his part of the war, nearly always getting the better of his enemies by his shrewdness and valor, and when that was impossible, eluding them with equal shrewdness. During that first campaign he destroyed many fortified places, won many fights against superior numbers of regular troops, and killed far more soldiers for the enemy than he had under his own command. Failing to conquer him by force or strategy, his foes fell back upon the confident hope of starving him during the winter, for he must pass the winter in the forests, with no bases of supply to draw upon for either food or ammunition. But in indulging this hope his enemies forgot that the crown and glory of his achievements in the field had been his marvellous fertility of resource. The very qualities which had made him formidable in fight were his safeguard for the winter. He knew quite as well as they did that he must live all winter in the woods surrounded by foes, and, knowing the difficulty of doing so, he gave his whole mind to the question of how to do it.
He began during the harvest to make his preparations. He explored all the caves in the mountains, and selected the most available ones for use as magazines, taking care to have them in all parts of the mountains, so that if cut off from one he could draw upon another. In these caves he stored great quantities of grain and other provisions, and during the winter, whenever he needed meal, some of his men, who were millers, would carry grain to some lonely country mill and grind it. To prevent this, the king's officers ordered that all the country mills should be disabled and rendered unfit for use; but before the order could be executed, Cavalier directed some of his men, who were skilled machinists, to disable two or three of the mills by carrying away the essential parts of their machinery and storing them in his caves. Then, when he wanted meal, his machinists had only to replace the machinery in some disabled mill, and remove it again after his millers had done the necessary grinding. His bakers made use of farmers' ovens to bake bread in, and when the king's soldiers, hearing of this, destroyed the ovens, Cavalier sent his masons--for he had all sorts of craftsmen in his ranks--to rebuild them.
Having two powder-makers with him, he collected saltpetre, burned willow twigs for charcoal, and made all the powder he needed in his caves. Before doing so he had been obliged to resort to many devices in order to get powder, sometimes disguising himself as a merchant and going into a town and buying small quantities at a time, so that suspicion might not be awakened, until he secured enough to fill his portmanteau.
For bullets he melted down the leaden weights of windows, and when that source of supply failed he melted pewter vessels and used pewter bullets--a fact which gave rise to the belief that he used poisoned balls. Finally, in a dyer's establishment, he had the good luck to find two great leaden kettles, weighing more than seven hundred quintals, which, he says, "I caused immediately to be carried into the magazines with as much diligence and care as if they had been silver."
Chiefly by Cavalier's tireless energy and wonderful military skill, the war was kept up against fearful odds for years, and finally the young soldier succeeded in making a treaty of peace in which perfect liberty of conscience and worship--which was all he had been fighting for--was guaranteed to the Protestants of the Cevennes. His friends rejected this treaty, however, and Cavalier soon afterwards went to Holland, where he was given command of a regiment in the English service. His career in arms was a brilliant one, so brilliant that the British made him a general and governor of the island of Jersey; but he nowhere showed greater genius or manifested higher soldierly qualities than during the time when he was the Boy Commander of the Camisards.