A citizen recalls the taking of the Bastille (1789)

J. Humbert was one of the first Parisian citizens to enter the Bastille during the seige of July 14th. Here he recalls his experiences:

“I went to the district of St-Andre-des-Arts on Monday morning, July 13th, with the rest of the citizens, and patrolled the streets with them all that day and night, armed with swords, the district having no firearms or only a few.

Overcome with weariness and lack of food and sleep, I left the district at six in the morning. I learned during the course of the morning that arms for the various districts were being distributed at the Invalides. I promptly went back to inform the Garde Bourgeoisie of St-Andre-des-Arts.

We reached the Invalides at about two o’clock. I followed the crowd to get to the cellar where the arms were kept. On the staircase leading to the cellar, seeing a man armed with two muskets, I took one from him. Armed with my gun I then set off for my own district. I learned on the way that they were handing out powder at the Hotel de Ville. I hurried thither and was given about a quarter of a pound [of powder] but no shot, saying that they had none.

As I left the Hotel de Ville I heard someone say that the Bastille was being besieged. My regret at having no shot prompted an idea which I immediately carried out, namely to buy some small nails, which I got from the grocers… There I prepared and greased my gun and immediately set off for the Bastille, loading my gun as I went. It was about half-past three.

The first bridge had been lowered and the chains cut, but the portcullis barred the way; people were trying to bring in some cannon which had previously been dismantled. I crossed over by the small bridge and from the further side helped to bring in the two guns… The cannon were then levelled: the bronze gun at the large drawbridge and a small iron one, inlaid with silver, at the small bridge.

It was decided to start the attack with musket fire. We each fired half a dozen shots. Then a paper was thrust through an oval gap a few inches across; we ceased fire; one of us went to fetch a plank which was laid on the parapet to enable us to go and collect the paper. One man started out along it, but just as he was about to take the paper, he was killed by a shot and fell into the moat. Another man, carrying a flag, immediately dropped his flag and went to fetch the paper, which was then read out loudly and clearly, so that everyone could hear.

This message, which offered capitulation, proving unsatisfactory, we decided to fire the gun; everyone stood aside to let the cannon-ball pass. Just as we were about to fire, the small drawbridge was lowered; it was promptly filled by a crowd of people, of whom I was the tenth. We found the gate behind the drawbridge closed; after a couple of minutes an invalide [veteran] came to open it and asked what we wanted. ‘Give up the Bastille’, I replied, as did everyone else: then he let us in.

My first concern was to call for the bridge to be lowered; this was done. Then I entered the main courtyard (I was about eighth or tenth). I happened to glance at a staircase on my left, and I saw three citizens who had gone up five or six steps and were hurrying down again. I immediately rushed over to the staircase to help the citizens, whom I assumed to have been driven back. I rapidly climbed up to the keep, without noticing that nobody was following me.

I reached the top of the stairs without meeting anyone. In the keep I found a Swiss soldier squatting down with his back to me; I aimed my rifle at him, shouting: ‘Lay down your arms!’. He turned round in surprise and laid down his weapons, saying: ‘Comrade, don’t kill me, I’m for the Third Estate and I will defend you to the last drop of my blood; you know I’m obliged to do my job; but I haven’t fired’.”