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Percy B. St. John:

The French Revolution in 1848

Percy B. St. John was an eyewitness to the events herein described, and the following were taken from his notes compiled at the time.

Tuesday, February 22.

The journals of the opposition appeared with the notice, in large letters, at the head of their papers, that the banquet was given up, and an appeal to the population of Paris to keep order, formed a very prominent part of the announcement. The Left were evidently alarmed, while ministers were confident and their journals sang a triumphant song of victory. From an early hour detachments of municipal guard, troops of the line and cavalry, were seen moving toward the boulevards and the Chamber of Deputies; it became known that heavy squadrons of cavalry had entered Paris during the night, while others were concealed within the Hippodrome, or were bivouacked round the fortifications. The spies of the government reported during the night that there was a total absence of conspiracy....

The weather was disagreeable, even wet. A somber and threatening sky hung over the town, but from six in the morning the boulevards presented an animated appearance. Crowds of workingmen, of shopkeepers, began to move toward the Church of the Madeleine, in front of which the procession was to have met and formed. Many were not aware that the banquet was given up, and went to witness the departure of the cortege, while those who knew that the opposition had abandoned their intention of holding the meeting, went with a vague desire to see what would happen. Hundreds went with a settled determination to bring things to an issue; for early on Tuesday morning I saw swords, and daggers, and pistols concealed under the blouses of the workingmen.......

Between nine and ten I walked to the Place de la Madeleine. It was covered with knots of men and women of all classes, talking, whispering, looking about with a vague air of uncertainty and alarm....

The neighborhood of the Chamber of Deputies were then occupied militarily. A strong force was placed upon the Pont de la Concorde, and on attempting to pass, I and others were driven back by the military. No one was allowed to cross save deputies, who carried their medals, or persons bearing tickets. The other approaches to the legislature were equally well guarded. Between the Quai d'Orsay and the lnvalides, two regiments of the line and six pieces of artillery were stationed.

Meanwhile, everywhere the crowd increased; all Paris seemed moving to the boulevards, to the Madeleine, to the Champs Elysees, and to the Place de la Concorde. As yet there was no menacing aspect in the masses, many artisans, with their wives on their arms, hung about looking on and listening. Not a policeman in uniform was seen, but many a mouchard face could be distinguished in the crowd.

About ten o'clock, a considerable body of workmen, and young men belonging to the different schools of Paris collected on the Place du Pantheon, and set out for the Madeleine by the Rues St. Jacques, des Gres, the Pont Neuf, the Rue St. Honore, etc., crying as they went, Vive la Reforme, and singing the Marseillaise and the chant of the Girondins....

This procession, which had gradually swelled as it went, came out upon the boulevards by the Rue Duphot, and as they passed, it was impossible not to admire the courage of this body of young men, who, wholly unarmed, thus braved the strict orders of a government, backed by an immense army and whole parks of artillery. They were liable at every moment to be charged or fired on....

Having reached the Madeleine, the procession halted before the house in which the central committee of the electors of the opposition were in the habit of assembling, and asked for Barrot, who, however, was not there. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, up to the time this procession passed before its door, had the gate open, with soldiers standing before utterly unarmed....

An officer of dragoons advanced alone to a large group of spectators, who were collected in the basin of one of the fountains, and begged them to retire, which many of them at once did. A few persisted; but suddenly the water beginning to play, they jumped out amid loud laughter. In fact, with few exceptions, the crowd, amidst whom were many well-dressed ladies and gentlemen, were excessively good humored. The majority seemed persuaded that the vast display of unarmed Parisians who had turned out would induce the ministry to give way. The municipal guard, however, like the gendarrnes and Swiss of the July Revolution, seemed doomed to mar all. This body, detested by the Parisians as police, kept up continued charges upon the crowd as it gradually dispersed....

About twelve, passing by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I noticed, in the back court, a heavy detachment of dragoons, in addition to which, soon after, the front door was closed and guarded by numerous sentries. A powerful mob, with sticks and iron bars, strove to burst open the gate and inflict summary vengeance on Guizot. The windows were broken with stones. Loud cries of Vive la Reforme! were followed by a bas Guizot! A single municipal guard strove to get out at the front gate, as if to go for a reinforcement. He was pelted with stones and driven back within shelter of the hotel [i.e., the Ministry].

About this time a most imposing military force marched down upon the hotel, which assumed the air of a fortress. A line of soldiers, with their arms loaded and bayonets fixed, occupied the pavement. The long garden wall was guarded by a cordon of troops, and municipal guards on horseback stood before the door. These latter took up their position with so much carelessness, as to knock down and severely wound one of the crowd. Shortly after, one of these police having rushed out to seize a rioter, was unhorsed and severely handled, after which he was taken to the same doctor's shop where was the wounded man of the people. From that moment all disturbance finished on this point for the day, and Guizot was able to go to the Chamber of Deputies. The passengers were in this neighborhood compelled to turn out on to the carriage way, the whole pavement being occupied by soldiers....

At this very time [about three], having returned to my residence to write a letter, I was witness to a scene, which described minutely, may give an idea of many similar events. My residence is situated in the Rue St. Honore.... Called to my window by a noise, I saw several persons standing at the horses' heads of an omnibus. The driver whipped, and tried to drive on. The people insisted. At length, several policemen in plain clothes interfered, and as the party of the people was small, disengaged the omnibus, ordered the passengers to get out, and sent the vehicle home amid the hootings of the mob. A few minutes later, a cart full of stones and gravel came up. A number of boys seized it, undid the harness, and it was placed instantly in the middle of the street, amid loud cheering. A brewer's dray and hackney cab were in brief space of time added, and the barricade was made. The passers-by continued to move along with the most perfect indifference....

Next door to me is an armorer's. Suddenly the people perceived the words Prelat, armourier, over the door. A rush is made at his shutters, stones are raised at his windows, and those of the house he occupied, many of which smash the panes in neighboring houses. Every window is, however, filled by anxious spectators. Suddenly the shutters of the shop give way, they are torn down and borne to the barricade, while the windows being smashed, the people rush into the warehouse. There are no arms! The night before they have been removed or concealed. Still, a few horns of gunpowder, and some swords and pistols are taken. Though the mob was through the whole of the vast hotel, a portion of which was occupied by the armorer, nothing but arms were taken away....

On Wednesday, however, it was impossible to conceal from the Iiing that the movement was general, that the people were flying to arms, that barricades were rising in every quarter, and worse than all, the colonels of the national guard reported, one after another, that their men demanded, nay, insisted on the dismissal of Guizot. The generals of the line were interrogated. Not one would answer for the troops if the national guard sided with the people. The saying of an artillery officer near the Hotel de Ville was reported "Fire on the people? No! Fire on the people who pay us? We shall do nothing of the kind. If we have to choose between massacring our brothers and abandoning the monarchy, there can be no hesitation." Louis Philippe saw the critical nature of the position, and hesitated no longer. Guizot and his colleagues were dismissed......

Toward seven o'clock, the general aspect of Paris was peaceable. On the Petit Bourse, near the Opera, the funds had risen forty centimes on the arrival of the news that the ministry had been dismissed. Aides-de-camp and general officers galloped here and there, proclaiming the intelligence. Everywhere the people delivered the prisoners made during the day, and then they went away rejoicing.

Nevertheless, the barricades were not abandoned. The strongest and most artistically made were guarded by some hundreds of young men, between the Rue du Temple and the Rue St. Martin, and about the Rue Transnonain. Though repeatedly told of the dismissal of Guizot, they replied that they must have guarantees, and with this they posted sentries at every issue, and prepared to bivouac for the night, many without food, many without fire. Among these were numbers of the better classes, who had placed blouses over their clothes and joined the people, to encourage and direct them.

Between eight and nine o'dock, darkness having completely set in, the streets began to present an unusual aspect---that of an illumination. With rare erceptions, at every window of the lofty houses on the quarter of the Tuileries, candles or lamps were placed, and by their light could be seen ladies and gentlemen looking down upon the dense and happy crowd who filled the streets to overflowing. Loud cheers greeted the presence of the spectators, while groans and threats of demolishing their windows were the punishment of the sulky few who refused to join in the genera1 manifestation. They gained nothing by it but to let their ill will be seen, for the populace compelled them to follow the general example. All, however, was gayety and good humor.

After witnessing the fine coup-d'oeil presented by the Rue St. Honore, the longest street in the world, I believe, I attempted to gain the boulevards by the Place Vendome. I found it, however, occupied by a dense mass of some ten thousand men, who were striving to force the denizens of the Hotel de Justice to light up. As no attention was paid to their demand, and Hebert [minister of Justice] was peculiarly hated, they began to break his windows, and even set fire to the planks which shelved off from the door, as well as to the sentry box. A heavy body of cuirassiers however, and several detachments of national guards came down, and using vigorous, but gentle measures, re-established order. To lessen the crowd, they drew a line across the Rue Castiglione, and allowed no one to pass. Standing in the crowd, I heard many republicans conversing. Their tone was that of bitter disappointment. They said that the people were deceived, that a Molé ministry was a farce, and that if the populace laid down their arms, it would be but to take them up again. Still, the majority rejoiced. To have carried this point was a geat thing, and no greater proof of the patriotism of the workingmen can be given. They gained nothing by the change but mental satisfaction, with which a vast majority seemed amply satisfied.

But a terrible and bloody tragedy was about to change the aspect of the whole scene....

Wednesday, February 23d.

About a quarter past ten, while on my way, by another route, to the boulevards, I suddenly, with others, was startled by the aspect of a gentleman who, without his hat, ran madly into the middle of the street, and began to harangue the passersby. "To arms!" he cried, "we are betrayed. The soldiers have slaughtered a hundred unarmed citizens by the Hôtel des Capucines. Vengeance!" and having given the details of the affair, he hurried to carry the intelligence to other quarters. The effect was electric; each man shook his neighbor by the hand, and far and wide the word was given that the whole system must fall.

As this tragic event sealed the fate of the Orleans dynasty, I have been at some pains to collect a correct version of it, and I have every reason to believe those who were eyewitnesses will bear me out in my description. I went immediately as near to the spot as possible, I conversed to numerous parties who saw it, and myself saw many of the immediate consequences.

The boulevards were, like all the other streets, brilliantly illuminated, and everywhere immense numbers of promenaders walked up and down, men, women, and children, enjoying the scene, and rejoicing that the terrific struggle of the day had ceased. The footpaths were quite covered, while the carriage way, in part occupied by cavalry, was continually filled by processions of students, working men, and others, who sang songs of triumph at their victory. Round the Hôtel des Capucines, where Guizot resided, there was a heavy force of military, of troops of the line, dragoons, and municipal guard, who occupied the pavement and forced everyone on to the carriage way. A vast crowd, principally of accidental spectators, ladies, gentlemen, English, etc., in fact curious people in general, were stationed watching a few men and boys who tried to force the inmates to light up.

For some time all was tranquil, but presently a column of students and artisans, unarmed, but singing "Mourir pour la patrie," came down the boulevards; at the same instant a gun was heard, and the 14th Regiment of Line leveled their muskets and fired. The scene which followed was awful. Thousands of men, women, children, shrieking, bawling, raving, were seen flying in all directions, while sixty-two men, women, and lads, belonging to every class of society, lay weltering in their blood upon the pavement. Next minute an awful roar, the first breath of popular indignation was heard, and then flew the students, artisans, the shopkeepers, all, to carry the news to the most distant parts of the city, and to rouse the population to arms against a government whose satellites murdered the people in this atrocious manner.

A squadron of cuirassiers now charged, sword in hand, over dead and wounded, amid useless cries of "Mind the fallen," and drove the people before them. The sight was awful. Husbands were seen dragging their fainting wives from the scene of massacre; fathers snatching up their children, with pale faces and clenched teeth, hurried away to put their young ones in safety, and then to come out in arms against the monarchy. Women clung to railings, trees, or to the wall, or fell fainting on the stones. More than a hundred persons who saw the soldiers level, fell in time to save their lives, and then rose and hastened to quit the spot. Utter strangers shook hands and congratulated one another on their escape.

In a few minutes, a deputy of the opposition, Courtais, now commanding the national guard, was on the spot and making inquiries into the cause of this fearful affair. "Sir," said he, warmly addressing the colonel in command, "you have committed an action, unworthy of a French soldier." The Colonel, overwhelmed with sorrow and shame, replied, that the order to fire was a mistake. It appeared that a ball, from a gun which went off accidentally, had struck his horse's leg, and that thinking he was attacked, he had ordered a discharge. "Monsieur le Colonel," added the honorable deputy, "you are a soldier, I believe in your good faith; but remember that an awful responsibility rests on your head." Tremendous indeed, for he had sealed the fate of the tottering monarchy!

A word before we proceed. When the proclamation was made that the Guizot ministry had been dismissed, the military were gradually withdrawn, and wherever this occurred, tranquillity followed. No serious attacks were made upon any public building; in fact, the people contented themselves with breaking a few windows; everywhere the cry "Light the lamps," was not obeyed. Guizot, however, conscious of the intense hatred which was felt toward him, kept his house guarded like a fortress. The display of military force was tremendously imposing, both within and without the hoel. Had none been stationed outside, whatever he had in, the causes which kept crowds standing round, would have been removed, and the people would not have been irritated. It was the overcare of his own person shown by Guizot, which caused this frightful catastrophe. Like every other event of this great week, with all its momentous consequences, this is to be traced to the utter incapacity of Guizot, in politics....

Meanwhile, Courtais had hurried to the National office, while a body of men, now no longer hindered by the soldiers, proceeded to remove the heaps of dead and dying, whose groans must have been plainly heard by the ex-minister in his hotel. The wounded, and those bodies which were claimed, were borne to houses in the neighborhood, while some of the national guards in uniform were carried to their respective town halls, everywhere as the bloody banner of insurrections. Seventeen corpses, however, were retained and placed upon a cart. Ghastly was the spectacle of torch and gaslight, of that heap of dead, a few minutes before alive, merry, anxious, full of hopes, and perhaps, lofty aspirations for their country. Round about were men, no less pale and ghastly, bearing pikes and torches, while others drew the awful cartload along.


From: Percy B. St. John, The French Revolution of 1848: The Three Days of February, 1848, (New York, 1848), pp. 72-84, 104-110.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton.

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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