- 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
Such is the impact of a great souvenir on the imagination. The sight of this poor, silent, deserted house amidst this wood which daily encircles it more completely until it will choke it—of this artless work, this common landscape—overcame us with an indescribable emotion, quite deeper than anything else we had felt so far despite the many magnificent spectacles scattered throughout the country by Nature and the American genius.
We asked a colored girl sitting in front of one of the cabins if the house was opened to visitors. She nodded, so we entered the building. The rooms we entered first were dilapidated and empty, to be expected after long abandonment. Yet, the noise of a door and the ruffling of a white curtain at a window warned us that the house was inhabited by a woman, and that our bold entrance might have been somewhat indiscreet. We were rather embarrassed by this apparent solitude which we knew was alive quite close to us. De Geoffroy, a diplomat, was dispatched to obtain more information from the colored woman. He found a little Negro boy more willing to talk. We gave him the Prince’s calling card. A few minutes later a young woman entered the room. In the best possible French she welcomed the Prince and extended to him the Nation’s hospitality in Washington’s house. Then she explained to us how the domain, long in the hands of Washington’s heirs, had recently been put up for sale, and how a group of well-meaning American ladies had bought it with the help of a public subscription. These ladies administered the Estate in the name of the Nation. Mrs. Tracy (such was her name) represented the Society in question and was in charge of Mount Vernon.
Mrs. Tracy showed the Prince all the rooms of the house, Washington’s bedroom, his wife’s, the rooms occupied by the Duke of Orleans and Lafayette. A key to the Bastille, Lafayette’s gift to Washington, recalled the epoch of ardent and demonstrative faith when newly born freedom was not yet blushing from the naïve enthusiasm of childhood. Perhaps the enemies of freedom will laugh at this enthusiasm, but freedom herself, now mature, must respect a talisman of her beginnings.
The other side of the house is decorated with a portico supported by four dorian columns. On this side the landscape is full of melancholy, savage grandeur. The land, dropping rapidly a few steps from the house, unveils a magnificent prospect over the Potomac. The azure river, as large as a bay, is surrounded on all sides by the eternal forest. As far as the eye can see, no houses, no culture, nothing to soften the severity of the solitude. One feels that it is this same spectacle that Raleigh’s courageous friends admired almost three centuries ago.
Halfway between the house and the river stands Washington’s tomb. A small square brick building, very simple and with a gate on one side, shelters two white marble coffins, Washington and Lady Washington. The sight of this double tomb, of the solitude around it, and of the five-centuries-old trees which shade it, give an unforgettable impression of grandeur.
Mrs. Tracy, by making us forget the hours, not only displayed her charm, but again acted as a clever administrator. She had to measure her stories by the time required to prepare lunch. The preparations, I believe, were quite long and difficult—. Anyway, we did not wait in vainl Lunch was excellent. Two beautiful colored girls served while Mrs. Tracy presided in an exquisite manner. As for us, we responded with a formidable appetite. At dessert, the small colored colony was introduced to the Prince. They are the children of Washington’s slaves, freed at his death through a special clause in his will. These good people are very proud of their origin. The silent old Negro woman has known and served the father of the land; a six-year old Negro boy questioned by the Prince answered that he was General Washington’s servant.
At three in the afternoon we had to leave Mount Vernon and bid farewell to our hosts, both alive and dead. During this visit many memories had given new life to the past and dressed the ghosts of our imagination. As we left, Mrs. Tracy, with attentive delicacy, placed in the Prince’s carriage a small box filled with soil of Mount Vernon, and a rare plant growing near the tomb. It was a present for Princess Clothilde.
Such, Colonel, was our journey to Mount Vernon! As you see we did not encounter a single Confederate soldier. Yet, I believe, and I think you will agree, we did not waste our time.