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The Fall of the Bastille

July 14, 1789

 

The Bastille, a grim fortress which served as a state prison, was located at the east end of the city of Paris (Gershoy 17). The Bastille was despised as a symbol of despotism, and also because of the many stories that circulated about its use for torture and other cruelties. An angry mob got wind of news that there were arms at the Bastille, and the Hotel des Invalides and decided to storm the fortress. The fall of the Bastille was an important event which not only illustrated how brutal the French Revolution was, but also came to represent the triumph of the people over despotism and oppression.

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The Marquis de Launay, the governor of the Bastille, was ready to defend the fortress. The walls were ten feet thick, and the towers were over ninety feet high. The garrison consisted of 82 Invalids, 2 cannoneers and 32 Swiss soldiers. In the Bastille were fifteen cannons, loads of case shot pointed directly at the drawbridge, six hundred musketoons, twelve rampart muskets with over fifteen thousand cartridges and twenty thousand pounds of powder. While the fortress had the reputation of being a very harsh prison, there were only 7 prisoners in the building and 4 of these were being held for forgery.

A rumor had circulated that the fortress's cannon had been aimed at the street of St. Antoine in what appeared to be a threat to the people of Paris. Alarmed at this prospect, people gathered around the Bastille to demand that the cannon be redirected. A deputy from the district of St. Louis de la Culture named Thuriot de la Rosiere met with de Launay, who assured him that the cannon were aimed as they always had been. Dissatisfied with this report, some members of the crowd began to take more direct and violent action.

Two men armed with axes attacked the guardhouse and tried to lower the first drawbridge by breaking the chains. The soldiers in the fortress threatened to open fire if they did not stop. The men refused and managed to lower the first drawbridge. They then set to work on the second drawbridge when the soldiers opened fire. For four hours the crowd tried to lower the second bridge and storm the fortress and for four hours their assaults were turned back with musket fire.

The tide of the battle shifted when some French Guards appeared with cannons. Realizing that their defenses could now be breeched, the defenders urged de Launay to surrender. But instead of surrendering, de Launay threatened to blow up the fortress. But before he could realize his plan, the soldiers raised the white flag and surrendered on condition that no harm would come to them. These assurances being given, the drawbridge was lowered. But the French Guards could not control the crowd and several soldiers were killed. De Launay had his throat cut on the steps of the Hotel de Ville and his head was carried around the streets of Paris.

Two days after the Bastille was taken the National Assembly ordered that it be razed. The people rejoiced that "grass grew where the Bastille stood."

Sources:

Gershoy, Leo, The French Revolution, (Harry Holt Co., 1932). pp. 17-21.

Higgins, W. ed., The French Revolution Told by Contemporaries. . (Harvard University, 1939) pp. 95-100.

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Edited by: Anthony J. Gapastione
Researched by: Tariq Farooqui
Written by: Thomas J. Schneiderwind

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