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The Dentist And The Empress
The mob was at the palace gates; her husband was already a prisoner; the servants were stealing imperial treasures before her eyes; Empress Eugénie turned to the one man in France she could trust—Dr. Thomas W. Evans of Lancaster, Pa.
June/july 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 4
By the 1860’s Dr. Evans occupied a prominent position in the large American colony which found Paris a delightful place in which to live without paying taxes. Domestic service and luxuries were cheap and the American minister was obliged by his office to present hundreds of American citizens each year at the Tuileries even if their money came from oil or sewing machines. “These republicans,” wrote a sly French observer, “are very fond of worldly pomp, and have not the prejudices against monarchies that we have. Does this astonish you? Consider a moment … monarchs belonging to others do not alarm them. They … wish to see everything and … to say that they have been presented …” so they rushed to order a correct dress from Worth, Alexandrine, or Roget, bringing to Paris, the chronicler of American social foibles concluded, low corsages, the Bible, and “shoulders far more beautiful than those of the British Channel.”
Dr. Evans, who never gave up his American citizenship, was strongly attached to the Union cause during the Civil War, but Confederate sentiment was dominant among the Americans in Paris and they pushed tirelessly at the Imperial Court for recognition of the Richmond government as a sovereign nation. The ladies of the South collected drugs, clothing, comforts for the Confederate soldiers, organized bazaars and concerts. A vivacious soubrette from New Orleans, Miss Sophie Bricard, sang “La Bannière Bleue” with impassioned feeling, and on the birthday of President Jefferson Davis the sons and daughters of the South honored his fete day with Miss Slidell, pretty daughter of the dignified Confederate Commissioner to France, at the piano.
Most French government functionaries, as well as the business community, favored recognition because of the economics of cotton and tobacco; so did the press, either because it was controlled or could be bought. Old society found the Southern point of view congenial because the aristocratic traditions of plantation life were more compatible with their own than the hustle and bustle of the North’s smokestack industrialism. For these varied reasons, most Frenchmen were convinced, possibly because they wished to be, that the Union could never be put together again. Napoleon III and his government had their reasons too—a French military adventure in Mexico.
At this point Dr. Evans enters mainstream American history. Enjoying easy means of approach to Napoleon that neither the Consul General, John Bigelow, nor William L. Dayton, the American minister, could equal, Evans provided a useful voice for presenting the cause of the North to the Emperor. Dr. Evans insisted that the United States would win the war and collected every scrap of evidence he could find to reinforce the point—the latest war news, digests of public opinion, social and economic data pointing up the superior economic strength of the North. Bigelow was the accredited propagandist, but he worked with and through Evans who knew everyone and was well versed in the subtleties of French politics. In the summer of 1864 Napoleon authorized Dr. Evans to go to the United States, to observe, inquire, and report his findings about the probable outcome of the war. The doctor was received by Secretary Seward and by President Lincoln, who told his visitor, ”… we shall succeed, I think .” Secretary Seward gave Dr. Evans a special pass so that he could go to see General Grant at the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac in front of Petersburg and Richmond. He appraised the strategic situation and noted for future reference the commissariat, the transport service, and the care of the sick and wounded.
The tide of opinion in France had begun to turn in favor of the North with the Union successes at Gettysburg and Vicksburg and with the growing perception in Europe that recognition of the Confederacy was acquiescence in human slavery. In a last, desperate throw the Confederate government sent one of the most celebrated spies in American history to England and France, Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a beauty, wit, temptress, devoted to the Confederate cause, who had long enjoyed close social relations with the French legation in Washington. Mrs. Greenhow had a private audience with the French Emperor in his little study on the ground floor of the Tuileries on a January day in 1864. There Napoleon received this determined Southern American woman among his busts, portraits, maps, documents, books, models signaling the advent of the industrial age. Ashes dribbling from his incessant cigarettes, Napoleon was courteous but careful. Mrs. Greenhow was also presented to the Empress Eugénie and attended a ball typical of the gaslit brilliance of the Second Empire, garnished with all the gay and gorgeous trappings of the Eugénie era. But it was too late. France had chilled.