Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Storming of the Bastille in Paris occurred on July 14, 1789. While the medieval fortress and prison known as the Bastille contained only seven prisoners, its fall effectively marked the beginning of the French Revolution. The July 14 anniversary of this event is commemorated in France each year by the Fête de la Fédération, known in English as Bastille Day.

On July 11, 1789, with troops at Versailles, Sèvres, the Champ de Mars, and Saint-Denis, Louis XVI, acting under the influence of the conservative nobles of his privy council, banished his finance minister, Jacques Necker, who had been sympathetic to the Third Estate, and completely reconstructed the ministry. The marshal Victor-François, duc de Broglie, la Galissonnière, the duc de la Vauguyon, the Baron Louis de Breteuil, and the intendant Foulon, took over the posts of Puységur, Armand Marc, comte de Montmorin, La Luzerne, Saint-Priest, and Necker.
News of Necker's dismissal reached Paris in the afternoon of Sunday, July 12. The Parisians generally presumed that the dismissal marked the start of a coup by conservative elements. Liberal Parisians were further enraged by the fear that a concentration of Royal troops brought to Versailles from frontier garrisons would attempt to shut down the National Constituent Assembly (which was meeting in Versailles). Crowds gathered throughout Paris, including more than ten thousand at the Palais Royal. Camille Desmoulins, a known freemason from the lodge of the Nine Sisters, according to Mignet, successfully rallied the crowd by "mounting a table, pistol in hand, exclaiming: 'Citizens, there is no time to lose; the dismissal of Necker is the knell of a Saint Bartholomew for patriots! This very night all the Swiss and German battalions will leave the Champ de Mars to massacre us all; one resource is left; to take arms!'" (Mignet, History…, Chapter I).
The Swiss and German regiments referred to were amongst the foreign mercenary troops who made up a significant portion of the pre-revolutionary Royal Army. They were seen as being less likely to be affected by popular unrest than the ordinary French soldiers. About half of the 25,000 regular troops concentrated around Paris and Versailles by early July were drawn from these foreign regiments.

Necker's dismissal
A growing crowd, brandishing busts of Necker and of the Duke of Orleans, passed through the streets to the Place Vendôme, where they put a detachment of the Royal-Allemand Cavalerie (a heavy cavalry regiment recruited from German speaking Alsace) to flight by a shower of stones. At the Place Louis XV, the Royal-Allemand, led by the Prince de Lambesc, shot the bearer of one of the busts; a soldier was also killed. Lambesc and his troopers rode into the crowd and a single civilian, reportedly an elderly man, was killed.
The regiment of Gardes Françaises (French Guards) formed the permanent garrison of Paris and with many local ties was favourably disposed towards the popular cause. This regiment had remained confined to its barracks during the initial stages of the mid-July disturbances. With Paris becoming a general riot, Lambesc, not trusting the regiment to obey this order, posted sixty dragoons to station themselves before its dépôt in the Chaussée d'Antin. Once again, a measure intended to restrain only served to provoke. The French Guards regiment routed the cavalry, killing two, wounding three, and putting the rest to flight. The officers of the French Guards made ineffectual attempts to rally their men. The rebellious citizenry had now acquired a trained military contingent; as word of this spread, the commanders of the Royal forces encamped on the Champ de Mars became doubtful of the dependabilty of even the foreign regiments. The future "Citizen King" Louis Phillipe witnessed these events as a young officer and gave it as his opinion that the soldiers would have obeyed orders if put to the test. He also commented that the officers of the French Guards had neglected their responsibilities in the period before the rising, leaving the regiment too much to the control of its NCOs. However the uncertain leadership of the Baron de Besenval led to a virtual abdication of Royal authority in central Paris.
The demonstrators gathered in and around the Hôtel de Ville and sounded the tocsin. Distrust between the leading citizens gathered within the building and the masses outside was exacerbated by the failure or inability of the former to provide the latter with arms. Between political insurrection and opportunistic looting, Paris slid into chaos. In Versailles, the Assembly went into continuous session so that it could not, once again, be deprived of its meeting space.

Armed conflict
The demonstrators invaded the Hôtel des Invalides to gather arms (29,000 to 32,000 muskets without powder or shot), and then attacked the Bastille. At this point, the prison was nearly empty of prisoners, housing only seven inmates: four forgers, two "lunatics" and one "deviant" aristocrat, the Comte de Solages (the Marquis de Sade had been transferred out ten days earlier). The cost of maintaining a medieval fortress and garrison for so limited a purpose had led to a decision being taken to close it, shortly before the disturbances began. It was, however, a symbol of Royal tyranny.
The attackers were mainly seeking to acquire the large quantities of arms and ammunition stored there - on the 14th there were over 13,600 kg (30,000 lb) of gunpowder stored at the Bastille. The regular garrison consisted of 82 invalides (veteran soldiers no longer suitable for service in the field). It had however been reinforced on the 7th by 32 grenadiers of the Swiss Salis-Samade Regiment from the troops on the Champ de Mars. The walls mounted eighteen eight-pound guns and twelve smaller pieces. The governor was Bernard-René de Launay, son of the previous governor and actually born within the Bastille.
The list of vainqueurs de la Bastille has around 600 names and the total of the crowd was probably less than a thousand. The crowd gathered outside around mid-morning, calling for the surrender of the prison, the removal of the guns and the release of the arms and gunpowder. Two representatives of the crowd outside were invited into the fortress and negotiations began, and another was admitted around noon with definite demands. The negotiations dragged on while the crowd grew and became impatient.
Around 13:30 (1:30 PM) the crowd surged into the undefended outer courtyard and the chains on the drawbridge to the inner courtyard were cut - crushing one unfortunate vainqueur. About this time gunfire began, though which side actually fired first will never be conclusively decided. The crowd seemed to have felt it had been drawn into a trap and the fighting became more violent and intense, while attempts by deputies to organize a cease-fire were ignored by the attackers.
The firing continued and at 15:00 (3:00 PM) the attackers were reinforced by mutinous gardes françaises and other deserters from among the regular troops, carrying weapons taken from the Invalides building earlier in the day and also two cannons. With the possibility of a mutual massacre suddenly apparent Governor de Launay ordered a cease fire at 17:00 (5:00 PM). A letter offering his terms was stuck through a gap in the inner gates and acrobatically retrieved by the besiegers. The demands were refused but de Launay capitulated because he realized that his troops could not hold out much longer and opened gates to the inner courtyard and the vainqueurs swept in to liberate the fortress at 17:30 (5:30 PM).
Ninety-eight attackers and just one defender had died in the actual fighting. De Launay was seized and dragged towards the Hôtel de Ville in a storm of abuse. Outside the Hôtel a discussion as to his fate began. The tormented de Launay who had been badly beaten shouted "Enough! Let me die!" and kicked a pastry cook named Desnot in the groin. De Launay was then stabbed repeatedly and fell to the street, his head was sawn off and fixed on a pike to be carried through the streets. The three officers of the permanent Bastille garrison were also killed by the crowd and police reports have survived detailing their wounds and clothing. Two of the invalides of the garrison were lynched but all but two of the Swiss regulars of the Salis-Samade Regiment were protected by the French Guards and eventually released to return to their regiment. Their officer, Lieutenant Louis de Flue, wrote a detailed report on the defence of the Bastille which was incorporated in the log book of the Salis-Samade and has survived. It is (perhaps unfairly) critical of the dead Marquis de Launay, whom de Flue accuses of weak and indecisive leadership. The blame for the fall of the Bastille would rather appear to lie with the inertia of the commanders of the substantial force of Royal Army troops encamped on the Champs de Mars, who made no effort to intervene when the nearby Hotel des Invalides or the Bastille itself came under attack.
Returning to the Hôtel de Ville, the mob accused the 'prévôt es marchands' (roughly, mayor) Jacques de Flesselles of treachery; "en route" to an ostensible trial at the Palais Royal, he was assassinated.

Storming of the Bastille The Bastille is stormed
The citizenry of Paris, expecting a counterattack, entrenched the streets, built barricades of paving stones, and armed themselves as well as they could, especially with improvised pikes. Meanwhile, at Versailles, the Assembly remained ignorant of most of the Paris events, but eminently aware that Marshal de Broglie stood on the brink of unleashing a pro-Royalist coup to force the Assembly to adopt the order of June 23 [1] and then to dissolve. The Viscount de Noailles apparently first brought reasonably accurate news of the Paris events to Versailles. M. Ganilh and Bancal-des-Issarts, dispatched to the Hôtel de Ville, confirmed his report.
By the morning of July 15 the outcome appeared clear to the king as well, and he and his military commanders backed down. The Royal troops concentrated around Paris were dispersed to their frontier garrisons. The marquis de La Fayette took up command of the National Guard at Paris; Jean-Sylvain Bailly — leader of the Third Estate and instigator of the Tennis Court Oath — became the city's mayor under a new governmental structure known as the commune. The king announced that he would recall Necker and return from Versailles to Paris; on July 27, in Paris, he accepted a tricolor cockade from Bailly and entered the Hôtel de Ville, as cries of "Long live the Nation" changed to "Long live the King".
Nonetheless, after this violence, nobles — little assured by the apparent and, as it was to prove, temporary reconciliation of king and people — started to flee the country as émigrés. Early émigrés included the comte d'Artois (the future Charles X of France) and his two sons, the prince de Condé, the prince de Conti, the Polignac family, and (slightly later) Charles Alexandre de Calonne, the former finance minister. They settled at Turin, where Calonne, as agent for the count d'Artois and the prince de Condé, began plotting civil war within the kingdom and agitating for a European coalition against France.
Necker returned from Basel to Paris in triumph (which proved short-lived). He discovered upon his arrival that the mob had cruelly murdered Foulon and Foulon's nephew, Berthier, and that the baron de Besenval (commander under Broglie) was held prisoner. Wishing to avoid further bloodshed, he overplayed his hand by demanding and obtaining a general amnesty, voted by the assembly of electors of Paris. In demanding amnesty rather than merely a just tribunal, Necker misjudged the weight of the political forces. He overestimated the power of the ad hoc assembly, which almost immediately revoked the amnesty to save their own role, and perhaps their own skins, instituting a trial court at Châtelet. Mignet counts this as the moment when the Revolution left Necker behind.
The successful insurrection at Paris spread throughout France. People organized themselves into municipalities for purposes of self-government, and into bodies of national guards for self-defense, in accord with principles of popular sovereignty and with complete disregard for claims of royal authority. In rural areas, many went beyond this: some burned title-deeds and no small number of châteaux.

A historical fiction account of the storming of the Bastille can be found in the novel A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens.

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