Several years ago I read The Greater Journey by David McCullough, an author well known and whose books are well reviewed. It was a very enjoyable and enlightening book, and I especially was interested in the American writers, painters, physicians and thinkers who spent time in Paris.
Then I got to the third part of the book. I was totally ignorant of the Siege of Paris when the Prussian Army led by Bismarck surrounded the city for 131 days, nor had I known of the collapse of Napoleon III, the rise of the Third French Republic, and the government takeover by radicals called The Commune. And I had never heard of the American ambassador to France, Elihu Washburne.
After finishing The Greater Journey I wanted to know more about Washburne and found and ordered Hill's book. Hill is a researcher who has worked with McCullough, as well as Nathaniel Philbrick (Mayflower, The Last Stand, The Heart of the Sea), and Ken Burns (Baseball, The Civil War). The book uses excerpts from the diary and letters written by Washburne during the ordeal.
Washburne was born in Maine to a hard working subsistence farmer. He knew he wanted more in life and decided to study law. He went West where opportunity offered quick wealth. He and his two brothers all served in Congress at the same time. Washburne was an abolitionist who was in close contact with President Lincoln during the Civil War.
After years of Washington politics he was offered the posh spot in Paris by his old friend, the newly elected president Ulysses S. Grant. Washburne thought it would be a wonderful way to serve out his last years before retirement. He and his family, hobnobbing with the Emperor and Empress in Paris of the Second Empire, the most lush and glorious civilization in the world!
Things did not work out that way. Instead France went to war with Germany. Washburne's wife and children left Paris, except for his son Gratiot who stayed to volunteer with the American Ambulance. Often ill, lonely, and bombarded with people seeking aid, Washburne put in long days.
Washburne was one of the few foreigners who did not leave the city. He not only protected American interests, he worked to save the Germans in Paris, many arrested as hostile aliens; others lost their jobs and income. He provided food for the starving, sometimes from his own pantry. The price of a half bushel of potatoes rose to $155 in today's dollars. The poor were reduced to eating horsemeat, dog and even rats. Washburn sent firewood to the families who were freezing in one of the coldest winters remembered.
"Oh, this horrid war...I have had enough of all this terrible business and I begin to hate Paris...It is not living [,] It is simply a wretched, fearful, almost unendurable existence." Dec. 8, 1870 letter to Adele Washburn
After the Germans won the war they entered Paris for two days of occupation, then left town. Washburne's family returned, hoping for that lovely sojourn they had dreamt of....and everything changed again.
After the death of Napoleon III, The Third French Republic allowed a few radicals to cease control of the country. The leader, Raoul Rigault, was a psychopath who wanted to resurrect the French Revolution just for the fun of it. A new Reign of Terror descended upon Paris.
"Anarchy, assassination, and massacre hold high carnival..." March 25, 1871 letter to Secretary Of State Fish in Washington, D.C.
The damage done by the Commune, the people they killed, the destruction of monuments and buildings, the arrest and murder of Catholic priests, was more horrifying than the war. Arbitrary arrests and the takeover of personal property was rampant. Anyone who dared express sympathy toward the victims was turned upon by the crowds. And killed.
Washburne was called upon by the Vatican to help save the life of Archbishop Darboy, the beloved elderly priest who stayed in Paris to help the people during the Siege. But before the fall of the commune, all the imprisoned were put to death. Including Darboy and 70 other priests.
Washburne is a forgotten hero of a forgotten war. His commitment to his job, his country, and to helping people was remarkable. When most fled the country or thought only of themselves, he risked his life and health to do his duty. He was a real American hero.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xk2f1b9207M is a nice interview from CSPAN with Michael Hill