An American In Paris

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When word reached Paris on September 2 that the Emperor was a prisoner in Germany, the cry went up at once for a republic, and at the Hotel de Ville a provisional Government of National Defense was organized to defend the city against the encircling Prussian troops. The Empress fled the Tuileries in a common cab moments before the mob arrived. Her American dentist, a Dr. Evans, got her out of the city and on her way to England.

And now came Washburne’s supreme test, for while the highly glossed representatives of the other major powers found excuses (some legitimate) for fleeing the war-wracked capital, Washburne remained at his post.

By August, 1870, Elihu Benjamin Washburne found himself representing two governments—one a neutral, the other a belligerent—whose interests did not always coincide. For when France declared war on Prussia, Count Bismarck asked the American minister in Paris to protect German lives and property in the enemy capital. As the representative of the United States, Washburne’s responsibility was to maintain the good will of the French government and people; as the representative of the North German Confederation, his responsibility was to defend the interests of a warring government even when it might cause the displeasure of the nation to which he was accredited. His position was made even more delicate by the absence of any clear precedent to guide his conduct as the representative of a hostile power within enemy territory.

On August 28, General Trochu, the governor of Paris, ordered all Germans out of the French capital. There were then some 30,000 of them in the city, and each had to have a visa from the American minister in order to leave. The expulsion order caused panic. For weeks, Washburne wrote, he was “literally overwhelmed by these poor people.” The streets around the United States legation were completely blocked by refugees desperate to get safe-conduct passes. Six gendarmes were called out to hold back the crowd and to try to keep the front door clear. Inside the building people pushed and shoved to get up the two flights of stairs to Washburne’s office. One woman, when she finally stood before the American minister, was so excited she forgot her name. Before seven on some mornings there were already 500 people waiting; on some days 2,500 to 3,000 tried to see Washburne. To handle the crush he expanded his staff to eleven, including two volunteers, Nicholas Fish, the Secretary of State’s son, and George Eustis, a former Louisiana congressman and Confederate diplomat.

Washburne arranged for trains to take the Germans to the Belgian border. These left every night at half-past ten from the Gare du Nord, and the American minister, having already put in a twelve-hour day, often went to the depot to supervise the exodus. Working eighteen hours out of twenty-four, he reported, was not unusual. He had been given a substantial sum by Bismarck to distribute to the needy, but there was a proviso that the money had to be used to leave France. So when a pretty, unwed mother told Washburne that she couldn’t return to her parents in Bremen, he dug into his own pocket to send her to Brittany. No German, Washburne proudly asserted, ever complained of his treatment at the American legation, and the Kaiser later showered praise on the former Galena congressman. By the end of the war Washburne reported that he had given exit permits to 30,000 Germans, arranged rail transportation for 9,300, and given financial assistance to 2,900.

All this was accomplished in the midst of two million highly suspicious Frenchmen, who imagined “Prussian spies” under every bed. Yet despite his ambiguous position and the mass hysteria that surrounded him, Washburne managed to become a hero to the French people. On September 7 he announced that the United States acknowledged the fall of Napoleon III and would be the first government to officially recognize the new Republic. In front of the American legation the fleeing Germans were replaced by happy Frenchmen crying, “Vive l’Amérique!” For days regiments of the national guard paraded, bands played, French and American flags waved, proclamations of thanks were presented, and Washburne was kissed on both cheeks. On one day he was visited by twenty-one delegations, and each had to make a speech of praise for the U.S. minister. The fact that he also happened to be the representative of the Prussian government was conveniently forgotten.

When the Germans wished to protest a violation of a flag of truce, they had to do it through Washburne; when the French wished to arrange for a safe-conduct pass so that Marshal MacMahon’s wife could cross Prussian lines to visit her wounded husband at Sedan, they had to do it through Washburne. He was the official means of communication between the French and German governments.