Pages Menu

Categories Menu

Posted on Apr 11, 2013 in Books and Movies

Elihu Washburne – Book Review

By Steven M. Smith

Elihu Washburne: The Diary and Letters of America’s Minister to France During the Siege and Commune of Paris. Michael Hill. Simon & Schuster, 2012. 221 pages, 17 illustrations and photographs, 1 map. Hardback. $26.00.

President Grant appointed Elihu Washburne to represent the United States in France. At the time of the appointment, no one knew of the coming of war with Prussia. While Mr. Washburne is mentioned in every book I’ve read on the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, this is the first book giving his perspective, using his recently discovered personal diary and letters to his family.


Michael Hill ties together quotes from Washburne’s diary and letters with enough information to understand whom he’s writing to or about, as well as general information a modern reader will need to understand what Washburne is writing about.

Michael Hill’s approach mostly preserves the feeling from the letters and diary of a man actively living through desperate times, not knowing what may come tomorrow. Each quote has a header describing its origin and date. For example, when the Prussians are advancing on Paris and all the other diplomats are fleeing,

“No one could predict how long the siege would last. Some thought a month, others longer. Wasburne himself would later write that a man ‘would have been deemed insane who would have predicted that that the gates of the besieged city would not be opened until the last day of February … ‘ Anticipating the worst, Washburne and the remaining Americans had ‘laid in a stock of provisions’ to help survive any lengthy investment of the city …

Elihu Washburne, Paris – to Israel Washburn, Jr. –

October 2, 1870

I think it very likely that I shall remain here during the siege and Gratiot will stay with me. No one can tell how long it will last. I think a long time . . . The city may possibly hold out for eight weeks . . . I will not be likely to starve. I have stock for sixty days. I have, however, to leave my house as it is so near the ramparts and it is getting to be surrounded by defenses . . .

P.S. I may leave Paris if the two governments will let the Americans who are here (some 200 or 300) go with me. But if they will not, I shall remain and share their fate. It would be cowardice for me to leave and them stay . . .”

As the only senior foreign diplomat to stay in Paris during the siege, foreigners of all nations, including several hundred German laborers, stuck in Paris came to him for help.

“Elihu Washburne, Paris – to Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, Washington, D.C. –

November 14, 1870

Private and Confidential.

All is gloom now in Paris and I can see no solution of things. I have concluded to stay til the end, for never . . . have we had more use for a representative than now. There are many Americans still in Paris … I have much to do for the Germans and am in constant correspondence with Bismarck . . . My remaining here, while the representatives of all the other great powers fled, has given a good impression. People of all countries, even Japan and Persia, are coming to me every day for advice and assistance . . .”

Washburne describes life in Paris during the siege, such as the deteriorating food situation that led to butcher shops selling dogs, cats, rats, and even animals from the zoo. He observes the morale of the people and government officials; the lack of outside news brings a sense of isolation that even being in a large city cannot shake.

After the siege was lifted, Washburne took time off to be treated for some chronic illnesses that worsened during the siege. But he returned in time to witness the Paris Commune, the revolt of March 18–May 28, 1871, in the period of political instability caused by the abdication of Napoleon III and the painful acceptance of harsh surrender terms by the new Republic.

This time, no one was safe in Paris, including foreign diplomats. Washburne had several close encounters with mob violence but persevered in doing what he thought was right for those who turned to him for help.

“Diary – May 22, 1871

This day will always live in the history of France. For more than nine weeks I have lived here in a reign of terror and matters have gone on regularly [sic] from bad to worse. And it seems as if it will never end. The last days have been most anxious ones as the brigands of the Commune have become utterly desperate.

Washburne scribbled a painful note to his twelve year-old daughter, Susan, when members of the Paris Commune set fire to the Tuileries, the royal palace.

Elihu Washburne – to Susan Wasburne, Vieille Eglise – May 24, 1871, Wednesday afternoon, 3 ½ o’clock

This has been a horrible night. I was awakened at one o’clock to see the Tuileries on fire. At this moment the building seems entirely consumed and the fire appears to be spreading to the Louvre. …

On the Place de l’Opera, Washburne saw a group of some 500 men, women, and children indiscriminately arrested and forced to march to Versailles. Others were shot on sight … Young children suspected of carrying petroleum to burn buildings were executed on the spot.”

Because it sticks close to Washburne’s viewpoint, this book does not give a grand overview or any other viewpoint of the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent Paris Commune. It does provide a different perspective on that war, since most books on the war and its aftermath use primarily French and German sources.

The biggest drawback for me was the inadequacy of the single map. Washburne traveled over large parts of Paris, but the period map is so small that it is hard to see the names of roads. Ten major landmarks are clearly identified, but it would have been nice to have had more detailed sections next to a letter or diary entry about places he went that were not one of the ten landmarks.

This is a very readable book. Washburne did not fall victim to the overblown rhetoric of his day. His plain language gives an eloquent testimony to a man trying to do his best under difficult circumstances. Those interested in a personal account of the inner workings of American diplomacy will find this invaluable, as will those who wish to read a literate, first-hand account of a modern siege.

Steven M. Smith has been an Armchair General contributor since 2010. He has a life-long interest in history, especially the Napoleonic and Victorian periods. He was the owner of The Simulation Corner gaming retail outlet in Morgantown, West Virginia, until 1983. He is currently a member of the Historical Miniatures Gaming Society and works for Lockheed Martin in Baltimore, Maryland.