- Historic Sites
The Tour Of Prince Napoleon
A FRENCH VISIT TO CIVIL WAR AMERICA Selections from the letters of Lieutenant Colonel Camille Ferri Pisani, who accompanied Prince Napoleon on his state visit, touring the fronts, both North and South, visiting the West and meeting Lincoln and the men around him during the Union’s darkest days
August 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 5
We went straight to the headquarters of General McDowell, commander in chief of the forces on the right bank of the river. When the Prince entered his room, the General was working, with much care, on a detailed plan of the battle of Bull Run, to accompany the publication of his report.
General McDowell is forty-two. He is tall and strong. Though he does not have very fine features, his remarkable and congenial face reflects frankness and kindness. His manners and his attitude bring to mind our own commandants of chasseurs àpied. His conversation, his principles and his character are still superior to his outside appearance. He is the Tightest, truest, and simplest man one could meet. He received a terrible blow at Bull Run, and yet speaks of it without bitterness or complaint, with an accent of sincerity and elevation of mind truly to his honor. Deprived of the supreme command because of his defeat, he saw McClellan—his mate at West Point and several years younger—inherit his honor, his position, and his growing popularity. He has been relegated to a lower position, under direct orders from the man entrusted with the task of repairing the misfortune to which his name is attached. Yet no one would doubt that McDowell is the most loyal and devoted of McClellan’s lieutenants.
After the visit to the positions at Alexandria and Arlington and several intimate conversations with the principal Generals of the Union, there only remained for the Prince UT inspect the Confederate Camp, in order to have an exact idea of the American question from a military point of view. But on grounds of appropriateness he hesitated to formulate a request to that effect to the government in Washington. He felt it would be tactless to tell people who had received him so graciously and who had unveiled their military and political secrets: “Now that you do not have anything else to show me, give me the means to visit your enemies and to learn from them as much as I learned from you.” Baron Mercier shared the Prince’s scruples. He thought, however, that a visit to Mount Vernon would give them a way out of the difficulty.
On the one hand, by suggesting a visit to Mount Vernon, the Prince was sure to flatter the most legitimate and keen patriotic sentiment of his hosts; on the other, he had reason to believe that by moving away from Northern lines, we would soon contact the Southern Army with the help of some Confederate patrols.
On August 5, Baron Mercier informed Mr. Seward of the Prince’s intention to visit Mount Vernon the following day. The request was received with great favor, and the Minister of State sent to his guest a letter—signed Scott—ordering all outpost commandants to let the Prince and his party freely within, outside and through the Federal lines.
On the sixth, at dawn, we left Georgetown in two carriages. There were seven of us: The Prince, Baron Mercier, de Geoffroy, Bonfils, Ragon, Sand and myself. Beyond Alexandria we came across several Northern outposts. The last one was a large group, about fifty men, camped in a very military and picturesque manner behind a wooden abatis, barring the main road. In a country covered with forests, nothing can be easier than to obstruct a road and shelter a post. They fell a tree on the right, one on the left. The trunks are so large and the foliage so thick, that no more is needed to shelter troops from bullets and to create an obstacle hard even for the infantrymen to cross.
When we arrived, the whole post began work to let us through. As true Americans—accustomed to economize work and time—they decided at a glance that the carnages would be easier to move than the trunks and that it would be easier to lift us over the barricade than to move it. Carriages and contents were lifted like feathers and moved to the other side while the horses took the long way around. Two minutes later we were again on our way while the Commandant of the post, riding ahead of the carnages, showed the way.
We reached the top of a small hill. Below us spread green forest without clearings. The terrain with its wide undulations looked like the ripples of a huge wave. On one of the folds of the terrain the Federal officer showed us a white spot, Washington’s house. We headed in this direction through barely marked paths, through marshes amidst a deserted area, and through the typical American forest, empty or peopled with voiceless creatures. After much effort, many detours and much lost time, we came to the edge of an alleylike clearing, closed by a rotten wooden gate. Handwritten on a board was a sign: “Mount Vernon Alley.” After another half-hour walk through the part of the forest which must have been Mount Vernon Park—but which had been reconquered by Nature—we found ourselves in front of the buildings.
Washington’s mansion has neither the style of the English cottages nor that of the French castles of the second half of the last century. It is a small and tiny building, only one story high, looking rather uncomfortable and without any definite architecture. The side we saw first opens on a yard covered with ivy and moss. At the extremity of the yard, eight square little cabins stand on two parallel lines. They were for the use of the colored servants. A few wooden buildings, half wrecked—probably the barns, stables and storages—complete the living quarters.