The Tour Of Prince Napoleon


On July 27, 1861, Prince Napoleon of France, cousin of Emperor Napoleon III, arrived in New York for a two-month tour of the United States, which was then just beginning the great struggle of the Civil War. In his train was an aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Colonel Camille Ferri Pisani, who wrote a series of letters describing the trip and sent them to Colonel de Franconiere, another of the Prince’s aides, who had remained in Paris.

These letters were published in Paris in 1862 under the general title Lettres sur les Etats-Unis d’Amérique . They tell how the Prince visited President Lincoln at the White House, toured the camps and battlefields in Virginia (the first battle of Bull Run had been fought only a few days earlier), talked with such men as the Federal Generals George B. McCIeIlan and Irvin McDowell and the Confederate Generals P. G. T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston, and recount a western tour which culminated in a visit to St. Louis, where the flamboyant General John C. Frémont was trying to assert Federal authority over the state of Missouri, rent by two angry, opposing factions.

Never before published in English, these letters have been translated by Professor Georges J. Joyaux, of the Department of Foreign Languages, Michigan State University.

In Prince Napoleon’s party were his recent bride, Princess Clothilde, the daughter of Victor Emmanuel of Italy; the Duchess of Abrantes, lady-in-waiting to the Princess; Ensign Bonfils and Doctor Yvan, personal friends of the Prince; Maurice Sand, son of the French novelist George Sand; and two aidesde-camp, Lieutenant Colonel Ragon, a hero of the recent Crimean War, and Lieutenant Colonel Ferri Pisani. In a foreword to the French edition of the letters, the latter remarks that “the report of a travel Accomplished in such conditions cannot pretend to be of great depth; at the most, I am offering a series of rough sketches.” The primary interest of the book, he felt, would be found “in the military and political circumstances amidst which we accomplished the tour and met the main characters of the drama.”

When the tour began Ferri Pisani shared the general European feeling that “American society could not go through the Civil War without losing its institutions, its mores, and the very principles which attended its birth and made its glory.” Nevertheless, when the book was published in 1862 he had changed his mind. Now, he felt, American institutions had proved that they were unshakable, and he confessed that “it was quite a surprise to see a government, traditionally so weak and so disarmed, display suddenly the power of a dictatorship without, however, changing in nature or passing into other hands.”

As an unusual and significant document which offers a European view of America during a time of great stress, a portion of Professor Joyaux’s translation of the Ferri Pisani letters is presented herewith as the AMERICAN HERITAGE Book Selection for August.

Washington, August 10, 1861

The day after his arrival in Washington, the Prince went to the White House to visit the President, Abraham Lincoln. The White House, the official residence of the first magistrate of the Union, is a rather nice palace, located in the most secluded section of Washington and surrounded by a beautiful garden. The Prince, arriving with Baron Mercier [French ambassador in the United States], found no one—neither butler nor doorman—at the main entrance to show him in, or at least to open the door. I do not remember which employee, who happened to be passing by, took care of this duty.

Heaven forbid that I complain of the simplicity of habits and mores of anyone, even of the chief of a great Nation! I cannot, however, prevent myself from noticing that it is illogical to live in a great palace and not to have a doorman. The princely appearance of the White House implies a staff, modest perhaps, but still a staff of servants, butlers and doormen destined to inhabit this splendid dwelling. Republican austerity is quite compatible with the upkeeping of an ordinary, but still decent and suitable household. If the Republic does not give her President enough to live on and to maintain a staff of servants, let her lodge him in a more modest dwelling where a single steward would be sufficientl A palace where the owners or the tenants fulfill the duties of a doorman is quite ridiculous anywhere indeed, even in America. It is a double ostentation: an ostentation of wealth and an ostentation of austerity. I like neither.

The drawing room we entered was magnificent; the furniture, though extremely rich, was in rather poor taste. We had been waiting for fifteen minutes, and I expected a sudden departure on account of the growing impatience of the Prince, when we saw a small man with a straw hat and a grey overcoat enter the room. He did not wear a tie, or rather his tie was so narrow that it does not deserve to be mentioned. With a lively step, he approached Baron Mercier, who shook his hand and then introduced Mr. Seward, Minister of State of the Republic of the United States.