Elihu Washburne: The
Diary and Letters of America’s Minister to France During the Siege and
Commune of Paris
This is the remarkable and inspiring
story—told largely in his own words—of American diplomat Elihu Washburne,
who heroically aided his countrymen and other foreign nationals when
Paris was devastated by war and revolution in 1870–71.
Elihu Washburne rose from a hardscrabble existence in New England and
the Midwest to become a congressman and diplomat. A confidante of
Lincoln and Grant during the Civil War, Washburne was appointed Minister
to France by Grant in 1869, arriving in Europe shortly before the
outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. When Bismarck ordered the Prussian
army to lay siege to Paris, intent on forcing the French to surrender,
Minister Washburne—alone among major power diplomats—remained at his
post, determined to protect Americans and German nationals trapped in
Paris. After the French capitulation, new horrors struck Paris. The
government was toppled by a band of violent revolutionaries, known as
the Commune, who embarked on a reign of terror that filled the streets
with blood. Once again, Washburne stepped forward to help wherever he
could until the Commune collapsed and its bloody orgy ended.
During his ordeal Washburne endured cannon bombardments, brutally cold
weather, dwindling food supplies, bouts of ill health, and long
separations from his family. He witnessed the plight of starving women
and children, riots in the streets, senseless executions, and countless
acts of unspeakable violence and bloodshed.
the midst of it all, Washburne kept a remarkable personal diary that
chronicled the monumental events swirling about him. He knew he was at
the center of history and was determined to record what he saw. The
diary—and letters he wrote to family and officials in
Washington—provides a vivid personal account of life during some of
Paris’s darkest days. Filled with political and military insight,
Washburne’s writings also have an unmistakable charm, at times blending
homespun expressions with quotations from Shakespeare and the Bible.
Michael Hill provides essential background information and historical
context to the excerpts from Washburne’s diary and letters, which are
drawn from the original manuscript sources and collected into one volume
for the first time. Through his own words, we come to know and admire
Washburne as he struggles to stay alive, perform his duty, and not let
his country down. The story of Elihu Washburne is a great American
story—the tale of an American hero rising to greatness in the midst of
difficult and extraordinary times.