Parisian Riots on 14 July

As demonstrations spread across Paris on the morning of 14 July, Pierre–Victor Besenval, commander of the royal soldiers stationed in the capital, contemplated ordering his men to suppress the protests. However, as reports poured in from across the city, he realized that the situation was moving beyond his control. As he describes below, his primary concern was to refrain from taking any action that could lead to widespread and unnecessary violence.


On the eve of the fourteenth of July, Besenval, who is responsible for public order, is embarrassed.

. . . The insurrection of the 12th assumed an alarming aspect. Fearing that the different cavalry posts detailed to maintain order in the faubourgs might be insufficient or that under provocation they might infringe the express orders they had received, I sent them word to proceed to Place Louis XV (Place de la Concorde). A strong detachment of Swiss Guards with four pieces of Artillery was already in the Champs-Elysées. . . .

On their way to Place Louis XV the troops were the target of insulting cries, stone-throwing and pistol-shots. Several men were severely wounded, but not a single menacing gesture was made by the soldiers, so great was their respect for the order that not a drop of their fellow-citizens' blood was to be shed.

The disorder increased hourly and with it my misgivings. What decision was I to take? If I engaged my troops in Paris, I should start a civil war. Blood, precious from whatever veins it flowed, would be shed without achieving any result likely to restore calm. The crowds were tampering with my men, almost under my eyes, seeking to seduce them with the usual promises. I received alarming reports concerning their loyalty. Versailles ignored my cruel situation and persisted in regarding a rising of three hundred thousand men as an unlawful assembly and the revolution as a riot.

With all these considerations in mind, I thought the wisest course was to withdraw the troops and to leave Paris to itself. . . .

On the evening of the 13th I was at the Invalides. M. de Sombreuil, the Governor brought me deputations from two districts, who came to ask me to leave them the fifty-two thousand muskets stored in the hospital. They expressed the liveliest alarm saying that they were surrounded by brigands who threatened their homes with fire and pillage. . . .

Although the spokesmen of these deputations had prepared their arguments cleverly, it was easy for me to see that they had been put up to it and that they wanted the arms rather for the purpose of attacking us than defending themselves. . . .

On the 14th at 5 a.m. a man came into my room. This man (whose name I learnt later) with his fiery eyes, his swift incisive speech, his bold demeanor and rather handsome face, made a striking impression on me. He said, "M. le Baron, I must warn you to avoid a useless resistance. Today the barriers of Paris will be burnt. I am sure of this and neither you or I can do anything to prevent it. Do not try to do so. You will sacrifice your men without extinguishing a single torch."

Source: Georges Pernoud and Sabine Flaissier, eds., The French Revolution, trans. Richard Graves (New York: Capricorn Books, 1961), 29–31.