Elihu Washburn was the ambassador to France under Ulysses S. Grant. He was also the person who was the primary American witness to the Siege of 1870 in Paris. Paris had been under a total of 15 sieges since 53 B.C. But the Franco-Prussian War was one of the worst and actually can be compared to America’s Civil War in terms of number of fatalities. By the end of the year-long daily attack on Paris by the Germans, there were 100,000 dead and many maimed beyond repair. The damage to the city was extensive. The Palais de Tuileries was in shambles. Entire neighborhoods were leveled from both ground troops and from cannon fire.
The Germans installed 16 barricades around the perimeter of the city. Parisians were not allowed to leave, and neither were Americans. Exit visas were not given. The Germans were barricading the French within the city and the French were holding their ground, so that the German’s could not push forward into their boundary. Washburne kept a daily diary of the events, and at the end of the year long siege, a group of dissenters, the Communard, tried to take control of France. The National Guard and other French troops in Versailles were preparing for battle with the Communard, regarded as the insurgents and radical revolutionaries.
The Communard was lead by Rauol Rigault, the Chief of Police, and Washburne was not at all impressed with their message or their activities. Many of the common people sided with them against the established Napoleonic status quo, and the Emperor and his wife from Spain, Empress Eugenie, were exiled with the help of a dentist named Thomas Evans. Empress Eugenie was taken across the English Channel by Sir John Burgoyne, an English seaman.
On April 4, 1870, the Commune impeached the government of Versailles. What had been a year of brutal siege and war was turning into a fight for power over the capital city. General Gustave-Paul Cluseret, the Secretary of War under the Commune had been a colonel in the Union Army in the American Civil War and had been appointed by Charles Sumner. He had commanded troops in the Shenandoah Valley and seemed to be a hopeful link for Washburne to release the Archbishop, George Durlay, who was held in the Mazas Prison. Although Washburne was able to visit the archbishop in the prison and bring comforting gifts, he was not able to achieve his aim, and eventually there was an execution of not only the highly respected cleric, but also scores of others held in the prison. But the bloodiest of conflicts was not to be seen until months later when the Commune cut off the hands of national soldiers under Versailles. The Minister of War for the National side was Adolphe Thiers.
Napolean III had married the Spanish Empress Eugenie, and when Dr. Evans helped her leave Paris, Victor Hugo returned to throngs of enthusiastic crowds after 15 years in exile. Dr. Thomas Evans had been a part of Parisian elite society for 30 years, and was well known for his construction of gold teeth, and had attended Napoleon as a dentist and was a close friend. The dentist also set up an emergency hospital in Paris, and was honored for his practice when dentists where considered second class to doctors in general practice.
At the end of the book, McCullough gives an epilogue of the stories of many of the American inventors and artists by describing their last days and how they died. For example, John Singer Sargent, who had never married or had children, died in his bed while reading “Le Dictionairre de Philosophie.”
Rauol Rigault was left in the street to die after the French soldiers captured him from his room and killed him on the street and leaving his body to lie for days in the gutter. The bloodiest fighting had gone on, and rows of Commune bodies would be lying open in wooden caskets after the on-going clashes and battles. Accounts of the final days of the Siege of 1870 say that the Seine was red with blood.
The grandeur of the theaters and the court life was in dire disarray. Napoleon’s initial revolution took place in 1789, but there was a second revolution after that in the 1830’s, with Washburne as the American ambassador, another grueling civil unrest was scourging the city.
McCullough’s talent for bringing 1870 Paris alive during a time of great upheaval is unsurpassed. He achieves this by adding humorous vignettes to his story amidst a time of great terror and fear. One recount of the Siege is a light-hearted portrayal of an American dignitary named, Charles Moulton, who saved the day with his apparent butchering of the French language when the threatening Commune advanced on his household to loot and vandalize what they could by force. His awkward French reference for the word “cow”, le vache caused a hilarious uproar among the Commune soldiers because of his improper conjugation of the word making it a masculine rather than a feminine noun with the article “le” instead of “la.” At the end of the harrowing experience, the insurgents only took the “les chevaux” (horses), but not the cow simply because Moulton had made them laugh with his inability to speak French properly. Other French dignitaries did not fair as well, as the leader of the National Guard, who had been exiled to Versailles, Adolphe Thiers’ home was completely sacked and he lost one of the city’s finest private libraries to the Commune soldiers.
They also had plans to demolish the Louvre and Notre-Dame. During the Siege, the statue of the Venus de Milos was almost captured from its Louvre home, but was secretly hidden in a police station in a heavily padded oak box without any destruction done to it. This was a sign to the French that their city would again become a great cultural city, since the Greek statue represented a treasured antiquity from before the time of Christ.
The Communard was relatively short lived in Paris, but it was the turning point for monarchy in France. There was not to be another king or emperor in France again after that point, and the tenets of democracy that were outlined by Alexis Tocqueville became reality. Between the first French Revolution and the Siege of 1970, King Louis XVI was overthrown with his infamous “let them eat cake” wife Marie Antoinette.
Had Washburne not been the ambassador selected for the position, the account of the Siege most likely would not have been accounted for in such detail. Washburne was a native of Maine, and lived in Galena, Illinois in his early career. He was a product of the early wilderness days where hardship was not uncommon. His first job outside of the farming activities on his father’s farm was to be a printer’s apprentice. He liked and excelled at printing, but when the paper’s company folded, he was hired by his uncle to work in a law firm where he learned Latin. He came from a large family of eleven, mostly boys, and his brothers were successful in the banking, railroads, and the milling business, as in General Mills Corporation. Four of his mother’s sons were Congressmen, including himself from four different states, Maine, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. A staunch abolitionist, he supported Abraham Lincoln whom he knew intimately.
He married a woman named Adele, and they had 4 children, all of whom accompanied them to their Paris assignment. He was a devoted father to his daughters, raising them with French tutors and lived a meagerly comfortable life in Paris on his $7,000 stipend. Although a lot of money at that time, running a household and office in a fashionable section of Paris was not inexpensive for the diplomat and he was assisted with accommodations by King Louis-Philippe before the king was ousted.
His early years were fraught with childhood hardship. When Grant appointed him Ambassador to France, the Secretary of the Navy, who was not a fan of Washburne described him as “a man with a narrow mind.” He had had no prior foreign diplomatic experience, and from his upbringing of long, cold, bitter winters and hard living, he was not a polished statesman. His mother’s father served in the Revolutionary War. He and three of his brothers served in Congress from four different states: Maine, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. His brothers made their fortune in banking, railroads, and milling. His first job out from the farming activities was as a printing apprentice. He left home at 14 years old. When the printing company went under, although he liked and was an accomplished printer, he was taken under the wing of his uncle’s law office. His uncle taught him Latin. At age 22, he was admitted into Harvard law school, and from his migration to Galena, Illinois, as a lawyer, he was able to send money home derived from his legal fees.
Washburne had been a lawyer, and then a Congressman and selected was to work on the Committee for Commerce before being selected by Grant to represent the United States in France.
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