The future Church hero and French baron, Athanase Charles Marie Charette de la Contrie, was born on September 3, 1832. He was a great nephew of the famous and heroic General Charette of the Catholic and Royal Army that rose in the Vendee to oppose the French Revolution and who was executed at Nantes on March 29, 1795; the same city where the young Charette was born. As such, he came from very conservative, royalist, traditional and Catholic roots, from a family that did not shirk in the face of danger or even martyrdom in the cause of Christendom. Yet, he also had illustrious roots on the maternal side of his family. His mother, Louise, Countess de Vierzon, was the daughter of the Duc de Berry and Amy Brown, which was yet again a very conservative, legitimist-royalist family.
It was, because of these very roots, that Charette became the man he did, but also because of these roots he was born ‘on the run’ in a rebellious, resistance movement that stood opposed to the standing government in his native France just as his great uncle had in the French Revolution. As such, his birth was kept secret and shortly thereafter he was spirited out of the city and his birth documents were later falsified to protect him. As he grew up, in keeping with his family tradition, Charette desired a military career. However, as the son of adherents of King Charles X, he was totally unwilling to serve in the French army of the so-called “Citizen King” Louis Philippe. As a result he went Italian and in 1846 began studying at the military academy of the Kingdom of Piedmont Sardinia in Turin. Unfortunately, this was one of, if not the, most liberal Italian states and in the liberal revolutionary year of 1848 he left Turin for the Austrian allied Duchy of Modena.
Charette was well placed to prosper in Modena as the Duke was the brother in law of the Comte de Chambord, the legitimate King of France, and he saw to it that in 1852 Charette was given a commission as a second lieutenant in the Austrian Imperial army, specifically one of the regiments stationed in Modena. Here was the fulfillment of the army career Charette had long worked for, yet, it was to be a very short assignment due to the outbreak of war between Austria and France in northern Italy. Opposed as Charette might have been to the French government, he could not bring himself to take up arms against his own people and his own country and so was forced to resign his commission in 1859 and look for an opportunity to serve in a worthy cause against a wicked enemy. Unfortunately there were plenty of enemies to be found for a young, conservative, traditional Catholic royalist like Charette; especially in Italy.
For some time the Italian states had been harassed by radical, liberal revolutionaries and nationalists who sought to create a united Italian nation state by overthrowing the local Italian princes, destroying their countries and, for good measure, tearing down the Catholic Church as the source of all evil in their warped, ultra-liberal viewpoint. One of the places where this conflict was most intense was in the very conservative Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Charrette had two brothers who opted to defend the Sicilian King Francis II and his lovely and heroic wife Queen Maria Sophia. This was a noble endeavor, but Charette himself opted instead to join in the defense of the Papal States and Blessed Pope Pius IX in May of 1860. As the Papal States had come under attack from the liberal Italian nationalists Pius IX was forced to organize a military defense. He appointed Monsignor Xavier de Merode Minister of War and General Christophe de Lamoriciere as commander of the papal armed forces. The army was an international one with volunteers from Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Spain, Portugal, France, Ireland and Canada. Charette was commissioned captain in the first company of French and Belgian troops known a year later as the Pontifical Zouaves.
Charette was certainly in good company as a great many of his comrades in the papal army were legitimist French royalists to the extent that one of their Italian enemies remarked that the officers of the papal army could easily have been a list of guests at the court of King Louis XIV. It was a truly heroic army with men like Charrette and his comrades, with very little pay, few supplies and hopelessly outnumbered fighting for the Church and the sovereignty of the Pope against a vastly superior enemy. He was following in the same grand tradition of his great uncle, the martyr of the Vendee counterrevolution. He served in the forces of Colonel Georges Marquis de Pimodan at the battle of Castelfidaro in September of 1860 where the papal army was outnumbered 6 to 1. Charette was wounded and Pimodan was killed. The Papal States were taken and much of the papal army disbanded as only the City of Rome remained under the control of Pius IX and that was due solely to the presence of French forces sent by Emperor Napoleon III rather than his own meager defense force.
Lamoriciere was succeeded by the Swiss General Hermann von Kanzler who presided over the mostly symbolic resistance against the combined Italian nationalist forces which attacked Rome in 1870 after the French forces were withdrawn to fight in the war against Prussia and her allies. The papal army was disbanded but Charette and many of his men were still eager to fight. Since the French Empire had aided the Pope and since it was the Prussian invasion of France which ruined the whole situation it was easy for Charette to see the justice in fighting for Catholic France against Protestant Prussia. He soon began negotiations to take his former Papal Zouaves together into the French Imperial military. This was finally agreed to, due mostly to the desperate situation in France as Emperor Napoleon III had always been fearful of the French legitimist officers in the papal army and feared importing an armed force of Catholic royalists who considered him nothing more than a glorified peasant usurper.
This continued and intensified the great adventure Charette first embarked on when he joined the papal army. He styled his zouaves as the "Volunteers of the West" and took them to France where he gallantly led them into battle against the Germans. Charette and his men represented, in the French army or any other, a truly unique and remarkable military unit. During the war against the Papal States the great English cleric Cardinal Manning referred to the papal troops as modern day Crusaders fighting for the Kingdom of God on earth. In the case of Charette and his Papal Zouaves, this was certainly true. Here was a group of men, all devout Catholics and supporters of the “papal monarchy” as it had long been known, also French legitimist royalists, fighting against those they considered enemies of God and man and basing their allegiance largely, not totally, on religious principle rather than on money or blind nationalist loyalty. And they were committed!
Charette was wounded at the battle of Loigny and was taken prisoner on December 2, 1870 as part of the Army of the Loire by the Prussians after having previously beaten the Bavarians there. However, with typical dash, Charette managed to escape and was thereafter promoted to general by the French provisional government on January 14, 1870 (Emperor Napoleon III having abdicated following his defeat at Sedan). In the chaotic period following the fall of the Second French Empire there were numerous ideas about what sort of government would succeed it; everything from a traditional royal restoration to a secular, socialist republican model. Charette was even elected to the National Assembly by the Department of Bouches-du-Rhone but he never took his seat; republican politics being quite against his taste. He, as well as his men, was still as committed as ever to legitimate monarchism.
The first President of the Third French Republic, Louis-Adolphe Thiers, even broached the subject of Charette and his zouaves permanently integrating into the French army. However, Charette rejected this suggestion, both because he had no desire to fight for a secular, republican France and also because he and his men still saw themselves as papal soldiers and wished to remain ready to rush to the defense of the Pontiff whenever he called on them. As a result his men were mustered out of the French army on August 15, 1871 and for the first time in a long time Charette returned to civilian life. Blessed Pope Pius IX was, by this time, a prisoner in the Vatican and there was no possibility of him or any future pope having a separate and militarily viable fighting force. Nonetheless, Charette remained at the disposal of the Church and continued to practice his devout Catholicism for the rest of his life as well as supporting the cause of a restoration of the legitimate Bourbon monarchy in France, which also never happened.
Charette died on October 9, 1911 having been a valiant soldier for God but one who never knew victory on the battlefield. Both in Italy and in France the crowns for which he fought, that of the Pope and the Emperor, both lost their respective wars. Yet, Charette was in a unique position due to his family ties with the Vendee counterrevolution so that success or failure on the battlefield and the political arena was not finally the point. Those the world might consider failures are quite often venerated as martyrs by the people of God, God having said that He would use the weak to confound the mighty. Charette left a perfect example of a zealous and devout soldier who looked for what was just and righteous in the world and then fought for it against all odds no matter what the circumstances. Whether he won or lost did matter to him, like any he did want to win, but the right was more sacred than the victory for Charette and it is for that reason that he should be honored as a hero by the French and all Catholics in the world.