Elihu Washburne: The Diary and Letters of America’s Minister to France During the Siege and Commune of Paris
By Michael Hill
Hardcover in dustjacket, 288 pages, illustrated, index
Published by Simon & Schuster November 2012
Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.0 x 8.4 inches
Elihu Washburne (1816 – 1887) was an American politician and diplomat. He was an attorney by trade, and represented northwestern Illinois in the U.S. Congress from 1853 – 1869. He was a close friend and confidant to President Abraham Lincoln and served as a pall bearer at his funeral. He was also an early supporter of General and later President Ulysses S. Grant. Under Grant, Washburne served very briefly as Secretary of State and was appointed as Minister to France from 1869 – 1877. The focus of this book is on Washburne’s experiences in this position during the Franco-Prussian War.
The Franco-Prussian War was relatively brief, starting on 16 July 1870 and ending on 28 January 1871. Prussian forces gained the upper hand early in the conflict, sweeping aside the French forces and capturing Emperor Napoleon III in the field. The French quickly formed a new Government of National Defense, but Paris was soon surrounded and besieged. Even though Washburne had been granted the authority to evacuate his mission from Paris he felt it was his duty to remain. He was the only ambassador from a major power who stayed.
Washburne was left in a unique position. He was able to operate freely within Paris, and maintained contact with the French and the Prussians as well as his American superiors. Both the French and the Prussians allowed his diplomatic communications to pass through their lines. As the sole remaining major diplomat, he became the proxy representative of the foreign nationals who remained and was able to evacuate many, while arranging for food and care for the rest. He was much praised for his efforts on behalf of these people, particularly for his help to the Prussian civilians stranded in Paris.
After the French surrender at the end of January, control of the French capital was seized by a group of radical Socialists who formed what was to become known as “the Paris Commune”. Supported by National Guard conscripts, they quickly went about arresting their opponents and destroying monuments. The Socialists remained in control of Paris for two months until French Army regulars marched into the city and regained control. As a last act the Communards executed their prisoners, including Archbishop Darboy and a number of Catholic priests, and attempted to burn the city to the ground.
Elihu Washburne kept a diary of his experiences during the siege and the Commune. The book is constructed mainly using his own words from his diary and his letters. It is a remarkable account as sieges are relatively rare in modern times. Even though it was brief as sieges go, it does vividly convey the effects of food and firewood shortages on a large civilian population. In many ways the Commune was worse, and the confusion which dominated those months is vividly conveyed. This book is a deviation from my usual area of historical focus, but a worthwhile read nonetheless. Recommended.