Our March story is again by George Cary Eggleston. Eggleston was a Confederate soldier in the American Civil War and wrote a memoir after the war. This short story comes from his book entitled “Strange Stories from History” (1886). The book was aimed at juvenile boys and has a “you’ll never believe what happened next” quality to it. Eggleston is an above average writer and he brings some flair to his stories. I have not read the book, but based on this and the February reading, I would have to say he does manage to get some interesting history lessons in while enhancing the entertainment value of the nonfictional elements. His stories read like an episode of Disney’s “History for Young People”.
“The Boy Commander of the Camisards” is “based on a true story” (if it were a movie, you would see that disclaimer). In background, Eggleston explains that during the reign of Louis XIV there was a geographically isolated region of France named Cevennes. Cevennes was heavily Protestant (Huguenots) and when Louis decided to force the conversion of the region to Catholicism, a revolt broke out due to the severe repression conducted by the King’s forces.
The star of the story is Jean Cavalier. Although just a teenager, he becomes one of the rebellion’s leaders. He convinces the rebels to use a strategy of dividing their forces and using them to harass the oppressors at widely separated targets. This prevents the superior royal forces from concentrating on destroying the rebels. Most of the story deals with some amazing vignettes from Cavalier’s career. He is a master of disguise – not just himself, but also his troops. I was reminded of Alfred the Great versus the Danes. Cavalier does not always avoid battle and does not always win, but he does always live to harass another day. The vignettes are entertaining even if you are not a fourteen year old boy, but Eggleston does have a tendency to lay it on thick. Jean is too good to be true. The only wart mentioned is that Cavalier routinely killed prisoners or gave no quarter. This is excused by way of the old “both sides did it” argument.
I love stories that seem fictional, but when you research them they turn out to be surprisingly accurate. I also love stories that open up a door to a fascinating historical character or event. I figured there was no such person as Jean Cavalier. It turns out that the basics about the rebellion and the “boy commander” were founded in reality. Eggleston has buffed up and boyed up the story and conveniently left out some negatives. As a sop to his audience, he has reduced the age of his hero. Cavalier was actually 21 when his military career began. The military genius label was not far off, however. The strategy and tactics are pretty realistic. Eggleston never uses the term “guerrilla warfare”, but Cavalier was a practitioner. If you don’t know how it was practiced in the 18th Century, this story will give you a tutorial. It previews the Peninsular Campaign in the Napoleonic Wars and the Philippine Insurrection after the Spanish-American War. Eggleston alludes to, but sugar-coats the extreme atrocities by both sides. The biggest flaw is that in order to put the cherry on top, he has Cavalier signing a treaty with Louis that guaranteed the people of Cevennes religious freedom. In fact, Cavalier did not insist on that guarantee and accepted a king’s commission. Now you know why his friends rejected the treaty and Cavalier had to continue his warring elsewhere. I do not think Eggleston ever seriously considered using the word “traitor” in his panegyric. Oh well, I don’t tell my students Francis Marion hunted Cherokee Indians and was mean to his slaves.
April's story: British Gunners as Cave Dwellers