Letter from Charles Jeanne to his sister
From Mont St Michel, 10 December 1833.
Good & amiable sister,
I can finally send you this account that you had asked of me; & the satisfaction that I feel for satisfying the desire you expressed would be still greater, if I didn’t fear that this labor, the fruit of several sleepless nights which were very pleasant since they were devoted to you, might not give you the same pleasure because you have had to wait too long for it.
Still, I beg of you to believe me when I say I would have hurried to send it to you much sooner if the account I had given some time ago for Doctor P—— hadn’t been taken away from me; because I don’t believe I could have lost it.
Eighteen months have already passed since the two glorious and awful days of which you have demanded that I trace out some of the tragic episodes; and many worries, many sorrows have since erased from my memory, not the recollection of the magnificent actions and superhuman courage of my companions in arms, but a great many details whose local color might, under a pen more practiced than mine, have given life & movement to the sketch of this great & sublime tableau. This sketch you will, no doubt, find pale and faded, but nevertheless, I’ve tried to reproduce as much as possible all the agony I experienced while seeing the hopes with which we briefly deluded ourselves completely annihilated; my despair & that of the brave men around me when we had to renounce, perhaps for a long time yet, the hope of delivering our beautiful homeland from the degrading yoke that weighs heavily on her, & still crushes her today. Finally, I’ve retraced, as much as my memory has allowed, a portion of the acts of cruelty that cannibals dressed up in the national uniform inflicted on those of my unfortunate companions who, after taking refuge in the house at number 30 and, believing in the faithfulness of the victors, surrendered as prisoners after they had exhausted every possible means of defense.
My good sister, may this account, which several times drew tears of rage from me, ripping apart my soul at the memory of my unfortunate companions, appear to you as a token of the profound & unalterable attachement which you inspire in me. You alone could have compelled me to retrace a tableau which I try to keep out of my thoughts as much as I can.
Ever since I reached the age of reason, my one passion, the dream of every moment, was the liberty of my homeland, political equality for all citizens, the abolition of privileges and monopolies—in a word, the fulfilment of all the hopes of happiness and well-being which the immortal efforts of our fathers gave birth to when they smashed the degrading yoke of despotism under which their ancestors’ heads had been bowed for so many centuries; and so, when on the 26th of July 1830 a Bourbon dared to violate the Charter, my heart responded with a cry of joy to the cry of sorrow and indignation which all of France gave forth… I saw the birth of the dawn of liberty!!…
The 27th saw the masses roused to resistance; the 27th saw them fight despotism with weapons in hand… On the 28th, suffering from four serious wounds, I didn’t think I had done enough work for my homeland, & even though I was wounded twice more on the 29th, I didn’t stop fighting until, exhausted from loss of blood, I lost consciousness and was transported to the field hospital at the Bourse. Oh! How happy I was, already seeing my country free and proud, becoming the envy and the model of the other peoples of Europe… Oh! How proud I was to be a Frenchman and how sweet my suffering seemed… Enchanting dream, you were followed by the most awful awakening! I heard a clamor, cries that seemed to be inspired by happiness and joy; we had fought for freedom, & we had a king!… We had spilled the purest of our blood to repel a whole generation of Bourbons & in return we were given a Bourbon!!! I was in the most extreme despair and the promises at the Hôtel de Ville barely calmed it. And so this feeling, together with that of revenge, were awoken more violently than ever when I had gained the sad certainty that the only truth was disappointment.
The infamous Casimir Périer died; the next day, the columns of the Moniteur announced pompously to all of France, who didn’t believe a word of it, that over this monster’s coffin she had wept tears of gratitude, admiration, and regret.
This death was soon followed by that of the sincere & courageous friend of the people and the army, the brave and immortal Lamarque. The patriots met and agreed that they would attend his funeral procession, as much to honor the memory of the illustrious citizen as to prove to the whole world that, even if some State functionaries and all the rabble the police could muster up had followed Périer’s coffin, only the coffin of this faithful and conscientous deputy could unite a population that was a friend of the country & of freedom. Out of a funeral ceremony, patriots wanted to make an energetic protest emerge. They only wanted a political demonstration, a lesson to those in power, & not in any way a revolution: for them, the time had not yet come; the monarchy was not yet worn-out enough! But the vile police had taken their measures and sworn that blood would flow in the streets; they needed a special effort… They had a red flag raised… they displayed a bloody flag, an emblem that the republicans of 1830 reject, & that they will always repudiate! The citizens had grapeshot fired upon them with no legal warning; death stalked through our ranks and when disorder had been sown there, they threw the dragoons upon us in the hopes of exterminating with a single stroke all the patriots attending that pious ceremony… a horrible ambush!… They didn’t even grant us a pause to pick up our wounded, bury our dead!… on the coffin of our general, they assassinated the citizens who had come to pay a final homage to his virtues and bid him an eternal farewell!..
More musketry salvos were heard, a cry of rage & of grief, a terrible & prolonged cry of vengeance answered them from every side. Sabres were drawn… There was no longer any way out; we raised barricades, the gunfire started again, and I saw an artillery-man and a mounted guard fall near me, both of them my friends… The elderly, women, children, were exposed to the same danger as us… Indignation was at its peak!…. We shouted at them with one unanimous voice: “Traitors! Bandits! We’ll see each other again tonight.” And all of the patriotic actors in this sad drama, withdrawing into the protection of the national guards who were armed only with their sabres, abandoned the mortal remains of the victor of Caprée to the profanations of Philippe-Egalité’s cutthroats!
I went back down the boulevards and helped the national guards disarm the military posts at the Jardin Beaumarchais and the Gaillotte, then they called the citizens to arms and enlisted those to whom they gave the guns taken from the soldiers to supply themselves with powder & with bullets. They swore that they would rejoin them as soon as they themselves had gone home to get their guns and cartridge-belts…
Wasn’t I to believe that Philippe’s last day had come? I ran to get my weapons & warn my decurions that they had to gather their men that instant & come meet me at the Hôtel Jabacq, Rue St Martin. In the houses at that place I knew a good number of patriots who were just waiting for the moment to act; the time to do so had come; we had to seize the moment by the hair.
I had set that place as a meeting-spot because, for a long time, I had seen it as an important position that could be fortified in very little time, and that was capable of stopping the enemy for a long time with a few brave defenders. This position was indeed precious; the Jabacq courtyard & the courtyard of number 30 allowed for a retreat or for sorties in the Rue St Méry; we could communicate with the Innocents marketplace by the Rue Aubry-le-Boucher, with the Rue Saint-Denis by the Rue de Venis and the Cour Batave, with the Rue aux Ours by the Rue Quincampoix, with the Marais by the Rue Maubuée; finally, and not the least in importance, we would be a stone’s throw from the Hôtel de Ville, which in times of revolution is the center of all the insurgents’ operations.
I had barely been there for a quarter hour when already ninety-one of brave men of my centuria had joined me: in a moment, as though by magic, three strong barricades were raised, the first at the corner of the Rue St Méry left it on the outside & cut across the Rue St Martin at a right angle, the second also stood at a right angle to the first and blocked off the Rue Aubry-le-Boucher; lastly the third one, raised at the corner of the Rue Maubuée, left that street inside our fortifications.
A house under construction in the Rue Aubry-le-Boucher, close to the Rue St Martin, helped with the execution of these means of defense; the frame beams, the rubble for mortar, combined with the paving stones which we were unceasingly prying up, accumulated with prodigious speed: a considerable amount of plaster, carried on our backs in the workmen’s baskets that we found inside the building, helped to fill in the cracks and consolidated our constructions. An enormous flour cart which we had overturned & filled with paving stones formed, after a fashion, half the St Méry barricade: in the end, two hours later, our first two barricades were almost six feet thick by five feet high and were crenellated all along their length. Only the one in the Rue Maubuée was still weak, but it was nonetheless in a good state for defense.
One of our brave men found while digging around in the plaster, & about two feet down, a regulation musket loaded, primed, & armed with its bayonet.
We had barely finished these barricades when I made haste to distribute my men at separate & distinct posts: a good number of brave men had come to join us, we were then about a hundred twenty combatants; but included in this number were two dozen youths between 14 and 16, they wanted to fight, but was I, before the demands of necessity had given me no other choice, supposed to put them, so young, at risk of death which was about to hover over us?… The thought of the destruction that threatened such interesting young heads made me shudder; and I swore to myself to place them where they would run as little danger as possible. Soon the occasion arose and I put into motion the plan I had come up with.
From all around people were bringing us packets of powder & a few bullets; we had stripped the lead from the gutters: But out of all that we had to make bullets & cartridges: I took all my youths, except for three or four who told me they had come there to fight, & whose resolution I couldn’t shake by any sort of reasoning, and placing them in the house at number 30, which was serving as our general headquarters, I tasked 4 of them with melting lead down for bullets while the others made cartridges. A physician, Doctor M…. de R…….., & a surgeon, Citizen N… d’Al……, formed a field hospital within our barricades for those of us who would be wounded. Another field hospital was established not far from us, number 12 or 14 Rue St Martin, by the inhabitants of these houses to receive & care for the wounded among the attackers. After fulfilling this first duty, I kept forty men armed with regulation muskets inside the barricade, plus the 4 or 5 youths who didn’t want to abandon that post, & I distributed the rest of my brothers in arms, almost all of them armed with hunting guns or rifles, in various houses, where they could destroy a great number of our enemies with a plunging crossfire, while the combatants behind the barricade would stop them with a well-supplied rolling fire. Some paving stones which I had had placed in the windows up to waist height would keep our snipers sheltered from any bullets fired from the street, which would be stopped by the paving stones or be lost in the ceiling. Thus only two men sustained head wounds, but the wounds were very dangerous… carried away by their courage, they had emerged too far in order to aim better.