Historical Tales: 6— French - Charles Morris

The Fall of the Bastille

"To the Bastille! to the Bastille!" was the cry. Paris surged with an ungovernable mob. Month by month, week by week, day by day, since the meeting of the States-General,—called into being chiefly to provide money for the king and kept in being to provide government for the people,—the revolutionary feeling had grown, alike among the delegates and among the citizens. Now the population of Paris was aroused, the unruly element of the city was in the streets, their wrath directed against the prison-fortress, the bulwark of feudalism, the stronghold of oppression, the infamous keeper of the dark secrets of the kings of France. The people had always feared, always hated it, and now against its sullen walls was directed the torrent of their wrath.

The surging throng besieged the Hôtel de Ville, demanding arms. Gaining no satisfaction there, they rushed to the Invalides, where they knew that arms were stored. The governor wished to parley. "He asks for time to make us lose ours!" cried a voice in the crowd. A rush was made, the iron gates gave way, the cellar-doors were forced open, and in a short time thirty thousand guns were distributed among the people.

Minute by minute the tumult increased. Messengers came with threatening tidings. "The troops are marching to attack the Faubourgs; Paris is about to be put to fire and sword; the cannon of the Bastille are about to open fire upon us," were the startling cries. The people grew wild with rage.

This scene was the first of those frightful outbreaks of mob violence of which Paris was in the coming years to see so many. It was the 14th of July, 1789. As yet no man dreamed of the horrors which the near future was to bring forth. The Third Estate was at war with the king, and fancied itself the power in France. But beneath it, unseen by it, almost undreamed of by it, was rousing from sleep the wild beast of popular fury and revenge. Centuries of oppression were about to be repaid by years of a wild carnival of slaughter.

The Bastille was the visible emblem of that oppression. It was an armed fortress threatening Paris. The cannon on its walls frowned defiance to the people. Momentarily the wrath of the multitude grew stronger. The electors of the Third Estate sent a message to Delaunay, governor of the Bastille, asking him to withdraw the cannons, the sight of which infuriated the people, and promising, if he would do this, to restrain the mob.

The advice was wise; the governor was not. The messengers were long absent; the electors grew uneasy; the tumult in the street increased. At length the deputation returned, bringing word that the governor pledged himself not to fire on the people, unless forced to do so in self-defence. This message the electors communicated to the crowd around the Hôtel de Ville, hoping that it would satisfy them. Their words were interrupted by a startling sound, the roar of a cannon,—even while they were reporting the governor's evasive message the cannon of the Bastille were roaring defiance to the people of Paris! An attack had been made by the people on the fortress and this was the governor's response.

That shot was fatal to Delaunay. The citizens heard it with rage. "Treason!" was the cry. "To the Bastille! to the Bastille!" again rose the shout. Surging onward in an irresistible mass, the furious crowd poured through the streets, and soon surrounded the towering walls of the detested prison-fortress. A few bold men had already cut the chains of the first drawbridge, and let it fall. Across it rushed the multitude to attack the second bridge.

The fortress was feebly garrisoned, having but thirty Swiss soldiers and eighty invalids for its defence. But its walls were massive; it was well provided; it had resisted many attacks in the past; this disorderly and badly-armed mass seemed likely to beat in vain against those century-old bulwarks and towers. Yet there come times in which indignation grows strong, even with bare hands, oppression waxes weak behind its walls of might, and this was one of those times.

A chance shot was fired from the crowd; the soldiers answered with a volley; several men were wounded; other shots came from the people; the governor gave orders to fire the cannon; the struggle had begun.

It proved a short one. Companies of the National Guard were brought up to restrain the mob,—the soldiers broke from their ranks and joined it. Two of their sub-officers, Elie and Hullin by name, put themselves at the head of the furious crowd and led the people to the assault on the fortress. The fire of the garrison swept through their dense ranks; many of them fell; one hundred and fifty were killed or wounded; but now several pieces of cannon were dragged up by hand and their threatening muzzles turned against the gates.

The assault was progressing; Delaunay waited for succor which did not arrive; the small garrison could not withstand that mighty mob; in the excitement of the moment the governor attempted to blow up the powder magazine, and would have done so had not one of his attendants held his arms by force.

And now deputations arrived from the electors, two of them in succession, demanding that the fortress should be given up to the citizen guard. Delaunay proposed to capitulate, saying that he would yield if he and his men were allowed to march out with arms and honor. The proposition was received with shouts of sarcastic laughter.

"Life and safety are all we can promise you," answered Elie. "This I engage on the word of an officer."

Delaunay at this ordered the second drawbridge to be lowered and the gates to be opened. In poured the mass, precipitating themselves in fury upon that hated fortress, rushing madly through all its halls and passages, breaking its cell-doors with hammer blows, releasing captives some of whom had been held there in hopeless misery for half a lifetime, unearthing secrets which added to their revengeful rage.

Elie and Hullin had promised the governor his life. They miscalculated their power over their savage followers. Before they had gone far they were fighting hand to hand with the multitude for the safety of their prisoner. At the Place de Grève, Hullin seized the governor in his strong arms and covered his bare head with a hat, with the hope of concealing his features from the people. In a moment more he was hurled down and trodden under foot, and on struggling to his feet saw the head of Delaunay carried on a pike. The major and lieutenant were similarly massacred. Flesselles, the mayor of Paris, shared their fate. The other prisoners were saved by the soldiers, who surrounded and protected them from the fury of the mob.

The fall of the Bastille was celebrated by two processions that moved through the streets; one blood-stained and horrible, carrying the heads of the victims on pikes; the other triumphant and pathetic, bearing on their shoulders the prisoners released from its cells. Of these, two had been incarcerated so long that they were imbecile, and no one could tell whence they came. On the pathway of this procession flowers and ribbons were scattered. The spectators looked on with silent horror at the other.

Meanwhile, the king was at Versailles, in ignorance of what was taking place at Paris. The courts were full of soldiers, drinking and singing; wine had been distributed among them; there were courtiers and court intrigues still; the lowering cloud of ruin had yet scarcely cast a shadow on the palace. Louis XVI. went to bed and to sleep, in blissful ignorance of what had taken place. The Duke of Lioncourt entered and had him awakened, and informed him of the momentous event.

"But that is a revolt!" exclaimed the king, with startled face, sitting up on his couch.

"No, sire," replied the duke; "it is a revolution!"

That was the true word. It was a revolution. With the taking of the Bastille the Revolution of France was fairly inaugurated. As for that detested fortress, its demolition began on the next day, amid the thunder of cannon and the singing of the Te Deum. It had dominated Paris, and served as a state-prison for four hundred years. Its site was henceforward to be kept as a monument to liberty.