August 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 5
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
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.
Mr. Seward is about fifty; his hair, quite disorderly, is blond with a little grey. His eyes, sunk at the bottom of deep bones and covered with thick eyebrows, are small but quick. His Roman nose shows a very pronounced curve. His whole appearance reveals finesse and wit. He is very gay, very quick, friendly with the first handshake, and altogether an excellent companion. These outward characteristics at first make one suspicious, as it is easy to believe that his frankness must conceal shrewdness and malice. Not at all! Mr. Seward is very frank, a real gentleman, a little jeering perhaps.
Since our first meeting we have often seen Mr. Seward. He accompanied us everywhere in Washington, and soon became a very good friend of the Prince. Their views on many aspects of the American question —slavery among others—were alike. In his own views, Mr. Seward has unshakable firmness, though he expresses them in his very own jovial and unconcerned way. Amidst the events of the day—sufficient as they are to daunt the staunchest souls—he does not have the slightest doubt as to the final triump’i of the North and of his Party. Never does he show any sign of weakening.
His optimism knows no limit. If told that England is going to burn down New York, he answers “Well, if they burn New York, what of it?” Furthermore, though he pursues his goal with obstinate perseverance, Mr. Seward is rather broadminded as to the choice of the roads which might lead him there. There can be little doubt that if need be, he would exhibit a political suppleness and flexibility beyond limit. I believe that in case of pressing danger he would be able to recover and to save the day through some sudden and unexpected move.
A few minutes after Mr. Seward’s entrance, Mr. Lincoln appeared. He is so much above the average height that he might rightly be called a giant, if this word—expression of power and strength in the Biblical and mythological sense—were not shamefully relegated today to the vocabulary of the circus and for the displays of live phenomena. His face is not well characterized—he is close to the Celtic type of the “Auvergne” province—long head and pointed nose. His hair and pointed beard are very black. If his features express benevolence and frankness, his whole attitude and manners are those of a modest and even shy man. Perhaps the embarrassment of his physical appearance —sometimes quite disturbing for his interlocutor—only comes from the natural difficulty of all such tall men to conceal their height and to maintain their large body in equilibrium.
Mr. Lincoln was born in Illinois; therefore, he belongs—both by birth and by his very democratic ideals and his austere ways—to the ethnic group called the Westmen . Son of a pioneer and pioneer himself, Lincoln worked as a young man in fields and shops. Little by little he made his way to less painful jobs, was employed in a commercial house, and I believe, was a school teacher. A rank in the local militia brought him to the spotlight and led him to the House of Representatives in 1846. There he was an honest and very dedicated man, but without brilliance.
Our meeting was not so gay. The President shook our hands, after shaking the Prince’s. I feared, for a moment, that the interview would end with this silent demonstration. Mr. Lincoln gained a few more minutes by asking the Prince to sit down and by sitting himself, the whole affair being done amidst a great movement of chairs. But, once these new positions were acquired, the two parties sat opposite each other silently, without troubling to go any further. The Prince, impatient because he had to wait, took a cruel pleasure in remaining silent. Finally, the President took the risk of speaking of Prince Lucien, his father . Mr. Lincoln was on the wrong track and he was warned [Prince Napoleon was Jerome Napoleon’s son, not Lucien]. This incident made him lose his confidence still further. A few words were then exchanged, on the rain, the weather and our crossing. The Prince still maintained his polite but cold front—as he customarily does when he does not care to help his visitors.
Finally Mr. Lincoln once more resorted to the handshaking; as we were seven on our side, and they were two on the other, the ceremony lasted long enough so that we soon reached the time limit usually assigned to these kinds of meetings. Everyone retired, glad to have completed the official presentation, for these customs are generally boring, and their annoyance is only compensated by the hope for the more intimate and interesting relationships of which they are the necessary prelude.
Upon leaving the White House, Mr. Seward took the Prince to the Capitol, seat of the Congress—that is the two Houses and the Ministerial Offices. The Senate and the House were in session. These two assemblies did not exhibit the strangeness we expected from reading the traditional travelogues. On the whole, the House is quite similar to our own Chambre des Députés , and the Senate recalls our Conseil d’Etat . The behavior of the members of Congress is not unlike that of our own representatives. As for the discussion, it does not differ much from what goes on in our Assemblies.
Mr. Seward did not take the Prince into the tribunes, but right on the floor of both Houses. Without any mannerisms he would call successively the most important members of Congress and introduce them to the Prince. They exchanged a few words with their guest without even bothering to lower their voices. Mr. Seward called men of both parties indiscriminately, even those with whom he must be in open and violent warfare. Such an attitude on the part of a Minister would not escape notice in France in normal times. In America, at this moment, one can hardly think of any other man but Mr. Seward, a truly elevated mind, who would take upon himself to do so. One must not forget the explosion of passions, hatreds, fears which accompany necessarily this great tearing of the American Republic.
The Congress—except for the guillotine—finds itself in a position not unlike that of the Convention in France in the 1790’s, when its members returned furtively to their provinces in order to arouse them and begin the Civil War. Every day, some Congressmen from the Southern States break violently with the Union and disappear. Soon after they show up in the Richmond Congress or at the head of the rebels. Breckenridge, the orator and statesman of the Southern Party, is still in Washington, as his State, Kentucky, has not yet declared its attachment. [John Breckenridge, later a Confederate general, finally Confederate secretary of war.] One realizes easily what silent angers his presence—and that of some of his friends—must arouse in the hearts of the opposite partyl The tension must be particularly acute now, the day after the Union has been shamefully defeated, and here, as from the Capitol one can almost see the enemy outposts. [This took place about two weeks after the defeat of the Union troops at Bull Run.] Yet, Mr. Seward, with his customary frankness treats all that as if it were nothing but petty parliamentary intrigues! Friends and foes alike answer his calls, and he introduces them to the Prince as if he were the master of them all.
The man with whom the Prince entertains the most friendly relations is Mr. Charles Sumner, Senator from Massachusetts and an avowed partisan of abolition. Mr. Sumner is one of the most eloquent men in the United States. A well educated mind, he is particularly well at ease with French literature, which he studied in France. He was de Tocqueville’s friend, and still today maintains personal relationships with a great many of our writers and thinkers. His manners are as distinguished as his mind. He inspires a deep hatred of the Southerners. Yet, he is an avowed partisan of the French alliance and a warm friend of our Legation.
That same evening, the Prince dined with the President. We met, gathered in the White House, with the ministers and the leading members of Congress. But, for us at least, the main attraction of our presidential dinner was the presence of a new element, contrasting in all respects, with the governmental element, and overshadowing it today in importance- I mean the military. This group was represented by General Winfield Scott and General George B. McClellan.
General Scott is a man of huge stature. Seventy-five years old, he is afflicted with gout and walks painfully, so he entered the room leaning on the arm of the young general on whose shoulders rest the hopes of the Union, General McClellan. Furthermore, it is easy to realize that General Scott belongs to another generation, as much by his manners as by his age. He is a real gentleman, a type of old British General, well educated and well bred, and perfectly acquainted with the military history of Europe—that of the First Empire principally, in which he had too often the weakness to look for points of comparison with his own career—.
The present position of General Scott, his part in the conduct of the war, require a word of explanation for the French minds, accustomed as they are to the simplicity of the French military system.
The staff of the regular and permanent army of the United States comprises only one higher officer. General Scott occupies this post with the rank of Lieutenant General. The title gives him the over-all command of the Army, both in peace and war. It is a kind of non-political ministry, especially concerned with military personnel and the movement of troops. The Minister of War, on the other hand, is more especially in charge of the administration. This organization, copied on the English system, is one of the many traditions which outlived the War of Independence and which still attach—through a thousand invisible bonds—American mores to those of the former motherland. The functions of Lieutenant General, attached to the rank, are for life and cannot be revoked.
So, General Scott directs the War almost as in France the Minister of War directs the Armies in the field. It is easy to guess that the command of an impotent old man—whose pride revels in the memories of the past rather than the necessities of the presentis not accepted wholeheartedly by younger generals, full of ardor and self-confidence. Thus, the high command with which General Scott is invested is regarded in the Army as a useless and often harmful link maintained by the President and the Senate only to counteract the threatening influence of the Generals of the volunteer Army, who are the idols of the multitude.
Already the public bitterly reproach the Party of the civilian leaders—and their instrument, General Scott—for the disaster at Bull Run. There can be no doubt that General Scott ordered McDowell to attack only under pressure from the President, the Cabinet and the Senators. It is even said that the old soldier, upon signing the fateful order, admitted he was committing a cowardly act—the first in his life—by agreeing to wage a battle with an Army such as the one he had under his command.
The second of our military companions was General McClellan.
After fifteen years in the cavalry of the regular army—as a lieutenant and a captain—General McClellan resigned his commission to re-enter civilian life. For four years he placed his talents of administrator and engineer at the disposal of the Grand Central of Illinois. [McClellan had been, successively, chief engineer and vice president of the Illinois Central railroad, and president of the Ohio and Mississippi railroad.] The Civil War awakened in him an ardor and a military aptitude which had been dormant only because of lack of employment. The President appointed him General in the volunteer army. Then he was sent to West Virginia, a half-faithful and halfseceded province invaded by the Confederates. He successfully returned it to the Federal authority; ot the two Generals who opposed him, one was captured with all his column, the other killed and his army disbanded.
This double victory, coinciding with the first defeats of the Union armies gave McClellan an immense popularity. Immediately after Bull Run, the President, complying with the popular wish, gave him the command of the Army of the Potomac, with the rank of Major General. These events took place about fifteen days ago. In this new position, his relations with General Scott are about the same as those of an Army General with the Minister of War.
General McClellan is about forty, very short, black mustache and hair, an intelligent physiognomy, open and quite pleasant; on the whole, a remarkably simple and modest appearance. Each of the European armies presents a well-defined type of officer; within a group, all the individual varieties of appearance, manners, language and even physical traits go more or less unnoticed. An English officer does not look like an Austrian, neither does a French resemble a Russian. Well, McClellan recalls, in a striking manner, the type represented by our artillery officers. This is because he graduated from West Point—an institution half way between our Military School and Ecole Polytechnique—where he received, to the highest degree, the marks of this special character which make of former West Pointers a class apart, unlike any other, either Yankees, or Virginians, or Westmen.
The West Pointer speaks foreign languages, chiefly French. He is educated—in literature, science and military art—in the cult of the great European models. He is alien to the narrow nationalism, to the exclusivism which, in general, limits all the ideas, studies and admiration of the Americans to their own country alone. The study of pure Sciences and Mathematics gives him a liking for theoretical speculations, for systematical and abstract conceptions—a taste perhaps too far developed with us, but which, to be sure, is not enough so in America. The military profession which he chooses after leaving school, instead of stifling his liberal instincts, gives him ideas of order, hierarchy, respect for social and moral superiorities, which are rather rare in the rest of the Nation.
To this date this class of men—so different from the mass of the Yankees—does not seem to have a part in the direction of the State in keeping with its merits, its knowledge, and the scrupulous probity of most of its members. The military Presidents, Jackson, Pierce, Taylor, were militia Generals, not West Pointers or regular Army men. The Civil War, the governmental anarchy and the humiliating position of the United States vis-à-vis the rest of the world were needed to bring about the appearance in the foreground of a pleiad of new men, formed at West Point, some from the regular Army, others former soldiers, but all shaped on a somewhat uniform mold.
First they appeared on the militarv scene; but everyone feels that it will not be long before they enter the political arena. Already the South has chosen a West Pointer for President—for West Point, divided too like the rest of the Nation, now gives leaders to both parties—and entrusted their armies to Generals Beauregard and Johnston. McDowell and McClellan likewise are the heroes of the Union. Their names are in all mouths, replacing those of the political leaders whose mistakes led the United States to the edge of the abyss.
In order better to understand the value of this new military element slowly making its way into the Party struggle in the United States, one must observe closely the personalities struggling for the direction of the affairs of the State. Since Washington and Jefferson, in fact ever since de Tocqueville wrote his well-known book on America, American mores have been deeply altered. Amidst an unheard-of prosperity and an unparalleled industrial and commercial activity, the intellectual and moral standards of the nation have sensibly lowered, principally in political circles. Men who enjoyed some authority on account of their knowledge, their moral character or their fortune, slowly withdrew from public life, disgusted with electoral struggles, repulsed by venality and frightened by a violent, passionate press.
I was seated at the table between General McClellan and Lord Lyons, British Ambassador, the son of the valorous admiral in charge of the British fleet at Sevastopol. Since the American general showed pleasure in answering, I pressed him with questions, first on what was done at the Army, and then on his own plans. I even took the liberty of telling him how surprised we were, as Frenchmen, to see the complete lack of a hierarchical constitution for the command of higher officers, in other words the complete lack of a permanent military organization beyond the regimental organization.
“Thus,” I said to him, “it is impossible for us to believe that regiments form organized brigades with titular generals; that brigades constitute divisions, and divisions armies with invariable generals of brigades, divisions, armies and staffs. It seems to us—until proved differently—that when it is a question of any military operation—such as the occupation of a border, the attack or defense of a position, and even a battlethe General in Chief, sometimes even Congress, appoints a General who assumes the temporary command of the regiments assembled for said operations. As a result, American Generals pass and pass again in front of our eyes, without us being able to follow them closely in their campaign, as we can do with ours, whose military destiny is invariably linked to that of the troops under their titular command.”
The General did not let me complete the development of my thoughts, and interrupted to tell me that he was perfectly aware of this defect in the military organization, and that in assuming the over-all command his first task was to remedy it. He added that the President and the Senate were dealing at this very moment with a promotion of 100 Generals of brigades; that more than Go of those had already their commissions, and that out of these 60 men, he had chosen about 15 of them for his Army, and that half of these were former regular army officers. He added also that his command included 60 regiments (one battalion to a regiment); that the 15 Generals of Brigades were each to be given a brigade (composed of four regiments), and that he would then wait a while with this temporary organization before completing it with the formation of divisions—he intended to choose Generals of Divisions from his Generals of Brigades after testing and judging them. “With this last phase of our military constitution,” he concluded, “we will have, at least for the higher organization, an army copied on the most perfect in the world, the French Army.”
Developing his point further, General McClellan let me understand that for the present war as well as for the future of the Union, it was necessary to abandon the old erroneous idea of a national force resting on militias or volunteer groups, armed and disarmed according to the needs of politics, and that the formation of a great permanent army would necessarily come out of the present crisis. All his efforts tend to pave the way for the transformation of the irregular elements they give him—soldiers with three-year contracts, elected officers, temporary generals—into definite and regular elements, so that when the country feels the need to end the dangerous, temporary present organization, they will only have to move these elements already militarized from the vague frame of the present organization into the fixed frame of a permanent army.
Lord Lyons, noticing the animation of our conversation, leaned toward me and said: “You are aware that you are talking with the next President of the United States?” Smiling, I repeated this comment to the General who, in turn, answered with a fine, modest and silent smile. The conversation, then, took a more intimate turn. He gave me many interesting details on his former friends, some now his enemies, others his own lieutenants: Beauregard, Lee, Jefferson Davis, Johnston, McDowell. He talked about himself, his military service, the Mexican war. He related his trip to the Crimea, where his government had sent him and two of his friends to study the organization of the French, Russian, and English armies in the field. Though he remembers having more difficulty in penetrating the French army than the other two, he nevertheless professes more admiration for the former.
The day following Mr. Lincoln’s dinner, Mr. Seward took the Prince for a long visit to the Federal Army Camps on the right bank of the Potomac. I believe about 40,000 soldiers were gathered there. This army group directly protects the Capital; it is the largest single body of troops at the disposal of the Union, the rest of the federal armies being scattered over a large territory, on the Upper Potomac, in West Virginia and on the Mississippi around Saint Louis—.
Cavalry is very scarce. As for campaign artillery we saw practically none, which proves that this branch of the service has not yet recovered from the heavy losses suffered at Bull Run. What of the Infantry? It is poorly distributed from a military point of view, but very practically with respect to the welfare of the soldiers and the facility of the service. The dress is very poor, as much by the soldiers’ own fault—they seem to ignore the needs of military cleanliness and the care of weapons—as by the powerlessness of the administration. So far little has been achieved concerning the uniform, the headdress and the shoes of the troops. The military instruction of the soldiers seemed rather deficient and nothing seems to be done to remedy it. On the whole, the camps look gloomy, both because of the sad condition of the clothes and their general dark color, and also because of the attitude of the men themselves, who are lacking in spirit, animation and joy.
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.
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.
Our projected visit to the Southern armies had to be reconsidered. For two days we tried in vain to make our views known to Mr. Seward and General Scott without however mentioning it openly. The Prince finally came to the conclusion that we had been too vague and too reserved in expressing our desires, and that the inertia he met was due to the fact that they were not understood. It was decided that Baron Mercier would ask for authorization to cross the Union lines for the Prince. The American Minister received our request with great favor, which proved to us that in America one must not, in business, be too scrupulous or too sensitive. On the evening of August 7, our request was officially handed down at Mr. Seward’s house. He answered it immediately by offering his full co-operation. The news travelled rapidly throughout the room and all persons present (generals, senators, representatives) came to compliment the Prince on his plan which, they thought, was quite in the American taste: “You saw one side,” they said, “you must now see the other, and we hope, for the honor of America, that they will welcome you as well as we did.”
The next morning, at 5 o’clock, a small cavalry squadron, with a bugle and a truce flag, waited at the door of the French legation. They were to take us under the protection of the truce flag to the closest outpost of the Confederate Army, and introduce the Minister of France and the Prince to the enemy. We left in two open carriages. Our party included the same persons who had gone to Mount Vernon a few days earlier, except for Commandant Bonfils, who was detained in Washington because of violent sunburn.
Five leagues from Alexandria, around noon, our escort suddenly stopped. The commanding officer, preceded by the truce flag and the bugle, rode ahead. We had encountered the first outposts of the Southern Army.
Things went in the best possible and most courteous way. A Confederate officer came to speak with the Union officer who told him of his mission. The exchange of the new Southern guests carried out, the two officers shook hands and exchanged names. The Prince made them drink, and drank with them, a bottle of French wine, toasting the prosperity of the American people—a vague formula, but the only one a foreigner can use, under the circumstances, to wish to this noble nation the continuation of her glorious destiny.
After a two hours’ ride under the protection of Southern cavalrymen we reached Fairfax, which was occupied by considerable forces. A higher officer who commanded the camp, Colonel Stuart, received the Prince without surprise or embarrassment and in a cordial and noteworthy manner. He invited us for lunch which we accepted with great pleasure for two reasons: first we were hungry, and second, we realized that the invitation was a polite way to detain us in Fairfax while the Colonel asked for orders from his Commanding General. Indeed, hardly had we started to eat when the Colonel received a wire from Manassas, in answer to the one he had just sent. General Beauregard ordered Colonel Stuart to receive the Prince wholeheartedly and to furnish him with the means to reach Manassas where the chiefs of the Confederate Army would be happy to receive him. Our carriages were drawn by Northern horses; we abandoned them to the Southern cavalry and they jave us four military mounts to continue our travels.
From our first encounter we were able to gain an idea of the outside appearance of the Confederate soldier. We noted that the question of uniform, not very well solved in the North, was not solved at all in the South. It did not seem that an attempt to regularize dress had gone beyond the distribution of a grey coat (made in Virginia, we were told) to a few groups. These “uniforms,” and the others, were in sad condition. Yet despite these rags the soldiers maintain a rather martial appearance; also, perfect order is exhibited in the camps as well as in the smallest outposts.
What struck us, however, was the cavalry, very numerous, admirably mounted, and composed of splendid men. It is clear, at first glance, that all these men are from English stock, not German. Also, they are proprietors’ and farmers’ sons, they own their horses, and they are accustomed to outdoor life—if not to the handling of weapons. On the whole, nothing is as picturesque as the Southern cavalry. They wear the most impossible outfits: mostly rags, hats without bottoms, boots without soles. Yet, they could make Don Bazan jealous for their martial bearing and countenance. Furthermore, their beautiful male Virginian faces, their magnificent mounts, and the boldness of their riding technique make it impossible not to admire these ragged riders, just as one cannot prevent from admiring the fantastic pictures of men-of-war created by Salvator Rosa.
A little distance from Manassas the Prince was welcomed by the Staffs of Generals Beauregard and Johnston. If we were not amidst Republicans I would say that these Staffs are composed of the cream of the Southern gentry. Several of them have huge fortunes. Disinterested as we were in this Civil War, alien to the hatreds, passions and special interests which ignited it, we could not but be touched by the sight of some of these men with white mustaches, aristocratic and martial appearances, and distinguished manners who, leaving home, family and ease behind, chose to serve in the hardest of wars as aides-de-camp to a formerly unknown young General.
It is undeniable that there is much more passion and ardor among Southern officers than there is in the North. In the Confederate camp they maintain that this ardor and devotion to the common cause are shared by the privates as well. They say that Southern soldiers serve through patriotism and honor, while in the North the soldier is attracted only by the pay, since his incentive is misery, acknowledged as the best recruiter in the large northern cities. I suspect the Southerners of generalizing what is probably true to some extent. It seems to me, that the value of the individual is really greater in the Confederate camp: yet, the Union Army compensates for this with a more advanced military organization and better training. Thus, these factors counterbalance each other, and make it difficult to predict which side will eventually be favored by the fortune of war.
At seven in the evening we arrived at the headquarters of General Johnston, who was expecting the Prince. A moment later General Beauregard joined us.
Beauregard is forty years old, short and rather thin. Though his features are tired and his hair white, he seems extremely strong. Face, physiognomy, language and accent, everything about him denotes his French origin. He is very brave. Everything in him points to a remarkable military aptitude, if not to superior intelligence. He is quick and cutting. Though well brought up, he often hurts others, less by the things he says than by the way he says them. He does not attempt to restrain his ardent personality, and he is well aware of his reputation, to which a brilliant military success has added a legitimate amount of self-confidence. He is extremely passionate in the defense of the cause he is serving. At least, he does not try to temper his passion with a cold and calm appearance, like most of his friends in both armies.
General Johnston, also a West Pointer, is a little older than Beauregard. He was a Colonel in the regular Army at the time of the Secession. Brilliant in the Mexican War, he enjoys in the United States a great reputation for ability and probity. Whether his inability to converse in French forced him to assume a passive role with the Prince, or whether the striking personality of his brilliant colleague overshadowed his own, all I can say is that he seemed extremely reserved and excessively modest. A kind of general sadness seemed to paralyze him and hide the brilliant qualities everyone recognizes in him.
During dinner, which began at 8 o’clock, and the conversation which followed, General Beauregard and the higher Officers assembled around him were always a step ahead of our questions about military, political and economic matters in the South. There is a strikingly common feature in their views of the situation as a whole: they dismiss as secondary problemssettled, judged or postponed—questions concerning slavery, tariffs, territories, Lincoln’s election, even the constitutionality of the Secession. They raise the debate to a plane where, they feel, there can be neither discussion nor controversy: they are waging an implacable war because the North invaded, by force, their territory, their native land. They have a deadly hatred for the North; they will defend their homes, their honor and their liberty against the invaders. From the General down to the last private, everyone in the South speaks the same language. It is the password of the Party, and perhaps, I should add, its conviction.
At midnight, after a very tiring day, everyone retired. General Johnston offered his bed and room to the Prince. I slept in the same room on a sofa. Baron Mercier slept in another room of the house. De Geoffroy slept in Beauregard’s quarters, Ragon and Sand in the carriages.
The next morning at dawn I got up to leave the room to the Prince, who was sleeping soundly. From a little gallery surrounding the house I recognized the area we reached the preceding day in the dark of night. General Johnston’s headquarters is a very small house, half cottage and pioneer’s log cabin. This seems to be the uniform type of architecture for the rare and isolated constructions inhabited by the scant population of Northern Virginia. Near the house was a field enclosed in a fence and planted with corn, the only produce of the region. The whole domain was inside a large open area made of abandoned clearings.
As I opened the door of the gallery, the end of the night was announced by a sudden ice-cold, penetrating humidity. A white fog, a few feet above the ground, gave the clearing the aspect of a huge marshland cut through with a few meadows. Above the fog the tops of the huge trees brightened with the first reflections of dawn. A vague murmur began to rise from the closest bivouac, whose tents were half drowned in the fog. Near the house, the colored slaves began their morning duties. Magnificent Virginian mounts, tied and shivering from the morning dampness, neighed for their morning hay. A herd of cattle, the Army’s no doubt, was slowly moving toward the silvery ponds, amidst a green vegetation mixed with water plants.
How many times and under how many different climates and skies I have admired this forever picturesque spectacle of a camp awakening! At the foot of the Atlas, on the Propontis, in Crimea, atop the Apennines, near the Geyser Crater, in deserted and cold Ireland! It is striking how this combined awakening of soldiers and Nature does not vary, no matter the country and the soldiers. It always follows the same pattern: the traditional whitish tents, the fog, the half-naked actors busying themselves with the necessities of a primitive and nomadic life. Though we were in the middle of an American forest, we were reminded of a French camp—.
In this connection I must tell you that the life of American Generals, in the North as well as in the South, is extremely simple, too simple perhaps when compared to the salaries attached to their high positions. Their surroundings are most unlike the hospitable luxuries which our Generals like to have around them, despite their meager salaries. A few metal dishes compose all their military houseware, and I suspect that usually (except for extraordinary circumstances such as the Prince’s visit) their menu is not much different from that of the soldiers. This frugality and roughness in taste are part of American manners. Furthermore, from a military point of view, much can be said to defend them.
What I found unforgivable was the lack of any prestige accorded General Officers in the exercise of the command. The functions of aide-de-camp are limited essentially to military duty and preclude any personal service to the General. It seemed strange to us to see a Commander in Chief deprived of any intermediary between himself and the world of subordinates, soldiers or domestics, attached to his quarters.
American Generals live in their tents in a kind of isolation, contrasting singularly with the lively animation which surrounds our higher Officers. Furthermore, nothing except imperceptible insignia and slight differences in dress differentiates them from other officers. A General walks amidst his troop without escort, except on special occasions. To rise above such simplicity requires a high degree of moral ascendancy and personal prestige found in few men. Democratic habits, and the lack of military traditions in the United States, color the relationships between officers and their superiors in a manner that continually shocked us. There is hardly a shade of difference in the salute between lower and higher ranks. The lower officer unhesitatingly offers a vigorous handshake to his superior, and we often saw a lieutenant or a captain present his General to his colonel!
A seven we left for the battlefield. The Prince rode with General Beauregard in a small carriage; I followed in another carriage with General Johnston. Baron Mercier and de Geoffroy rode horses at our sides with many Generals and a brilliant escort of more than a hundred officers. As for Ragon and Sand, they refused to leave their carriages and left to wait for us on the road to Alexandria.
After a fast ride across the fields we arrived on the bare plateau rising above the Bull Run, at the very center of the action, amidst corpses, dead horses and freshly-dug graves. After the Prince mounted his horse, General Beauregard told him, with both eloquence and lucidity, all the phases of this military drama. Three days earlier, in his tent, McDowell had related to us the same events, viewed this time from a diametrically opposed point of view. We were quite fortunate, indeed, to hear the story of the battle, three days apart, from the mouth of the General who lost it and from the mouth of the General who won. We were equally fortunate to be able to visit the battlefield even before the bloody traces of struggle had been removed.
The Bull Run is a creek which empties in the bay formed by the mouth of the Potomac. Its course is parallel to the upper section of the Potomac, on the banks of which the Federal troops established their positions. Thus, the lines of defense of the two armies, separated by an average distance of twelve leagues, turn their backs to the sea, one on the left, the other on the right.
The Confederates chose Bull Run for their line of defense because its banks are more rugged than those of the other creeks scattered throughout the countryside, and also because of the many woods covering the river. Furthermore, the line of Bull Run protects Manassas, a center of capital importance since it is the junction of two railroad lines, one going south to Richmond, the other west through the Alleghenies. As you know, Richmond is the present residence of the President, the Government and the Congress of the Confederacy. The main road linking the two Armies crosses Fairfax—seven leagues from Alexandria—Centerville, and reaches Bull Run a few leagues beyond this village. A stone bridge over the river extends the road to Warrenton.
On July 15, the Southern Army had its extreme left outpost on this bridge. From this point the Southern positions extended about three leagues alongside the right bank of the river. There were also two advanced groups, one in Fairfax, the other in Centerville. Abatis had been erected along the Bull Run wherever the enemy might have crossed easily. [Abatis was a wooden entanglement which served then as barbed wire obstructions serve today.]
On July 16, in the morning, the Federal troops left Alexandria and Arlington in several columns. The next day they established contact with the Confederates near Fairfax. The latter, threatened on several fronts, withdrew to Centerville. Continuing their retreat beyond the Bull Run, they abandoned the whole left bank of the river. On July 18, McDowell marched on Centerville, dispatching on his left a strong reconnoitering party whose mission was to feel out the center of the enemy forces at a place on Bull Run known as Blackburn’s Ford. The 8,000 men entrusted with this operation met considerable resistance and withdrew after heavy losses. No new developments took place the following day. The Union Army, gathered in Centerville, waited for a favorable time and place to attack the enemy lines. On the evening of July 20, McDowell thought he had found it at the extreme left of the Confederate lines.
The next morning the Federal Army began a wide manoeuvre toward the Confederate left. Twelve thousand men, scattered in front of and to the left of Centerville, moved noisily along the Bull Run—in front of the enemy lines—to conceal the march of an 18,ooo-man column commanded by McDowell himself. Leaving Centerville at dawn, this column filed off through thick woods before reaching the river. They crossed it about two kilometers above the bridge, and at io o’clock began to deploy on the bare plateau overseeing the right bank. At this point, the manoeuvres of the two Generals were: for McDowell, to establish a regular line of battle with the long column then painfully coming out of the defile; for Beauregard, to call successively on his different groups, from right to left, and to send them against the enemy intent upon overtaking the Confederate position from the rear. It seems that Beauregard not only succeeded in opposing a parallel front to the enemy, but also turned the enemy’s right flank by filing off some of his units through the woods.
It is difficult to say whether it was Beauregard’s successful manoeuvres or a senseless panic which accounted for the complete rout of the Northern Army. At any rate, about 3 o’clock, McDowell’s 18,000 men, after advancing beyond the Centerville-Warrenton road and driving back the enemy left wing, began to engage its center and reserves, when suddenly the Northern regiments yielded along the whole battle line. In less than thirty minutes the runaway soldiers, in terrible disorder, had crossed back over Bull Run, abandoning their wounded, their cannons and ammunitions on the battlefield. The panic spread as well to the left flank, then engaged in action in Centerville and along the river.
The retreat, a senseless rout unjustified by any enemy pursuit, became general. Most of the soldiers travelled the twelve leagues separating the battlefield from Washington without stopping and on the morning of the twenty-second entered the city, spreading terror and consternation.
Such were, on the whole, the details of this singular affair. It cost the North 468 dead (450 soldiers and 18 officers) and about 1,500 wounded. The South paid only about half this price.
McDowell is too good a patriot to reveal his real views as to the causes of the disaster. It seems difficult to believe that he did riot attempt to explain it by the cowardice of some of his troops. As for Beauregard, he attributes his victory as much to the energy of his men as to the rapidity with which he acted and to his idea of throwing men behind the enemy lines.
At 11 A.M. the visit to the battlefield came to an end. We walked as far as the stone bridge where our carriages were waiting. The Generals took leave of the Prince who received a warm ovation as we crossed back over the Bull Run. A squadron accompanied us to the last Southern outpost and at 8 P.M. the same day we were back at the French legation in Washington.
After these few days in the East, Prince Napoleon and his party headed for the Great Lakes region, always a pole of attraction for French visitors because of its close historical ties with France. In Cleveland, which they reached by train, they embarked on the North Star , an American steamer bound for Bayfield, the westernmost point on Lake Superior. Letters III, IV, and V deal with the two weeks spent aboard the North Star .
From Bayfield they went to Chicago, which they left by train on September 4 for St. Louis. They spent the next two weeks in and around St. Louis, visiting the western theater of operations. Their experiences in St. Louis are recounted in Letter VI, which follows. Late in September they sailed from Boston for their return trip to France.
Saint Louis, September 5, 1861
From Chicago about ten railroad lines leave in all directions—at least three lead more or less directly to Saint Louis. As you can see, here they practice the system of free competition without any restriction or any limit. All these railroads cross the state of Illinois, a huge plain as smooth as a pool table and as large as England.
In a straight line, the distance between Chicago and Saint Louis is 100 leagues. Illinois has two million inhabitants. The three railroad lines cross no important city, but only a few agricultural centers of a very primitive character. It is true that Chicago and Saint Louis are the two important stops for travellers and goods between North and South through the Mississippi. Corn (for the Negroes) and wheat (for the whites in the slave states) arrive by railroad at Saint Louis and Cairo and then go downstream to New Orleans. Hence these two products are distributed by sea all along the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. At any rate, these three railroad lines are roughly parallel.
The country we are crossing for 130 leagues and twelve hours would be completely monotonous, if uniformity—on such a large scale and in these huge proportions—were not full of grandeur. It is a smooth steppe, completely flat, such as undoubtedly exists in no other part of the world. It is the horizon on the sea, the line which we are forever pursuing without ever reaching it, as it always seems to withdraw in front of you. On both sides for a certain distance—sometimes small enough for us to encompass it—the soil shows traces of men’s works; beyond, we only see the tall grass, the wild grass, the pasture of the few buffaloes still left on the left bank of the river. These buffaloes are the rearguard of the innumerable herd which men always push further west, and which, for the last twenty years, has not been seen near the Great Lakes. In the poetic dreams of the American, as well as in his dreams of speculation and wealth, the prairie has taken over the forest. The prairie is now the stage of the novelists’ plots. There he has his pioneer build his log cabin—formerly hidden in the thick of the forest.
Only two or three of the centers we passed deserve the name of cities: Talono, Mattoon, Pana. Very small houses, mostly of wood, scattered over a large area, spreading at ease on a land which costs nothing, a few cheap-looking hotels, railroad repair garages, some cheap stores. The inhabitants, mostly of Irish and German stock, are farmers, almost unbelievably rough in appearance. Such are the villages and hamlets of Illinois. They are still very young and have not yet gone through the “age of wood.” Yet, be reassured, the “age of stone,” the age of cyclopean constructions, is not far in the future.
These people till the land wherever the railroad drew them, where they stopped for the first time after their departure from Ireland or W’fcrttemberg. Most of them are very poor; at most they own twenty to thirty hectares [2.471 acres per hectare]. Those who had but their arms to start with, cultivate corn. In two months corn is planted and can be eaten. True, it is a poor food, but it allows them to save money to buy wheat and ploughs. Then, they turn to wheat, and with it comes wealth. Not because it is expensive! It sells now for sixty cents for twenty kilos [2.2 pounds per kilo] on the spot—less than coal. But the ground is so fertile, and railroad communications so convenient and fast that the country quickly sees the wheat come back as dollars.
Right now, the exploitation of this unbelievable wealth is only in its infancy. Man power is very expensive. A laborer is paid eleven dollars daily. They do not even speak of regular fertilizing. It is true that they do not need it now, since the vegetable land is as much as 3, 5 and even 10 meters thick. Yet water is lacking in this area. They use the system of artesian wells, like the Sahara desert. Finally, cattle raising- the indispensable corollary of agriculture—is only beginning. Natural hay is excellent; it changes in nature as soon as the buffaloes disappear, and takes on the qualities required for our own domestic species as soon as their teeth and feet have trodden it.
From time to time, the Prince asked for the train to be stopped, and for a while we walked alongside the tracks. The engine followed slowly just like the carriages following the walkers at Boulogne. We then breathed fully the air loaded with the aroma of wild grass, while our eyes were lost in the light fog slowly disappearing in the distance with the sun.
We let ourselves be impregnated with this poetry of immobility, of the silence and the immensity characteristic of the prairie, a poetry full of melancholic grandeur and which American novelists—following in the tracks of Cooper—understand fully and describe admirably. Sometimes a half-wild Irishman comes out of his cabin; he is told that Prince Napoleon is visiting the country; he approaches him and shakes his hand. His smile suggests all that the mention of this name awakens in him of the hatreds and wars of another age against a detested race.
We reach the bank of the Mississippi at night. Saint Louis is in front of us, on the other bank. We enter the station amidst a large number of curious people, not knowing exactly what there is to do here. A gentleman opens for the Prince the door of a princely carriage. S. A. I. gets in it to escape the crowd and we follow him without even asking where we are being taken. The carriage climbs aboard a ferry; a whistle and we leave. We are soon in the middle of the river, as wide as a bay.
The waters of the river, still illuminated by the last rays of sunset, look like a huge tablecloth spread between us and the opposite bank. The bank in front of us is flat and low. There is no relief but the houses of Saint Louis. The city, caught between the two dark colors of the water and the sky, resembles a narrow, jagged, black ribbon over a pearly-grey background. The light looks like a spray of dust of rubies. I remember seeing a spectacle exactly similar on the Po river, in front of Cremona, the day after Solferino. I was crossing the river in order to obtain some news about the great battle which we knew had been fought, but the outcome of which was not known on the right bank.
The carriage took us rapidly to the Planter’s Hotel. A few moments later an aide-de-camp of General Frémont’s arrived. [General John C. Frémont, then Federal commander in the West.] There seemed to have been some confusion. The General had prepared a reception for the Prince, but at a different hour. The Prince had lodging awaiting him at the General’s headquarters, and another at the Barnum’s; I do not know how the owner of the Planter’s managed to outdo the others; at any rate, here we are, and here we will stay.
I left with the aide-de-camp to bring to General Frémont the thanks of the Prince. We crossed the whole city. It is poorly constructed, the roads are badly managed, and the whole city seems dull. In the deserted and poorly lit streets, we saw no stores and no bars open. I do not know if it is because of the time (nine o’clock) or because of the state of siege.
After an endless journey throughout the poorest sections, the carriage stops in front of a luxurious and well-lighted house, surrounded by a garden. At the front gate and on the staircase leading to a wide open door, soldiers are on the watch, or smoking, or playing, their rifles between their legs. There lives General Frémont. The house, which belongs to one of his friends, is one of the most beautiful in Saint Louis. Here he has installed his headquarters with a military luxury and a display of military authority unknown in the United States and suggesting at once both a Commander in Chief and a pro-consul.
Greeted at the door by an aide-de-camp, according to our own customs and military protocol, I am soon presented to the General, seated at his desk. General Frémont is a man about 50 years old, average height, very thin and nervous. Obviously he is made of iron and accustomed to physical fatigue. His face, surrounded by graying hair and beard, is thin, dark, and tired, yet full of vivacity and intelligence. The fiery glance of two extremely deep black eyes lighten his face. His whole appearance impresses and gives matter to reflection, although I could not say that it awakens sympathetic ideas.
I left with a very good impression of him. His ardent, ambitious personality obviously is inclined to dictatorship. The military and dictatorial prestige which he seems to like, his headquarters guarded like a fortress amidst a silent and dead city, everything suggests that we are no longer with Virginians or Yankees —in the ancient cradle of the American mores—but on some vague boundary where the Irish and German make the transition between the Latin and English.
General Frémont is French, but revolutionary French, just as Beauregard was conservative French. This dual background particularly suits him to personify a whole series of ideas belonging to the Old World, brought over by the more recent emigration, and stifled until now by the moral, liberal, austere, but egotistic and exclusive influence of the British genius. If General Frémont is ever President of the Republic, his election will be the symptom of a deep change in the mind of the American nation.
Everyone knows the history of General Frémont. He is one of the Americans best known in Europe. His travels to the Rockies and to California are legends on the other side of the Atlantic. For us he personifies the American genius on his way to conquer, through unknown dangers, the faraway lands of the West and the fabulous treasures scattered over the banks of the Sacramento and the Pacific coast. In the times of the Greek myths, he would have been a Jason bringing back the Golden Fleece, or a Hercules, conqueror of the Dragons of the Garden of the Hesperides.
In California Frémont had an adventure which undoubtedly exercised a great influence on his political destiny. He was a lieutenant in the Federal Army, and his mission, both military and scientific (though perhaps not very clear), seemed to give him a certain administrative power over the new possessions of the Union then almost deserted. He found himself in opposition with the chief of a troop of Federal soldiers dispatched there to bring and assure the respect of the flag of the Republic.
Washington decided that Frémont was wrong. His opponent, a West Pointer who had better reasons to represent the military and administrative hierarchy, won the approval of the Department of War. Frémont resigned. It is easy to believe that this failure, a thorn in the pride of our intrepid engineer, was not alien to the choice of political line followed by Frémont ever since. He hated the Democratic Party, then in power, and the South, the main support of this party. He was one of the first to raise the flag of abolitionism, complete, simple, without compromise and immediate.
Perhaps Frémont’s hatreds are not all directed at the Democratic Party, which today is replaced in power by the Republicans. We found in him traces of a general dislike for all governmental parties, and also for all West Pointers, for whom he seems to have a particular antipathy—which apparently is reciprocated. He represents and would like to inaugurate a new policy; he would like to take the Union one more step away from the austere, but narrow, principles which attended its birth.
Such is the man recently appointed General of Division (like McClellan) by the President and the Senate. He was sent to Saint Louis to command the Army, or as they say, the Department of the West. He found the situation very difficult, and the political passions were still increased by all the hatred and love which his powerful personality has inspired in both his friends and his enemies.
Missouri, half the size of France, and the oldest of the States founded by the Union on the right bank of the Mississippi, is part of the South. It is so not because of its geographical position (as septentrional as Illinois), nor because of slavery (since this institution plays a rather unimportant role in the domestic and agricultural life of the inhabitants), but because of the affinities of race, mores and interests, which tie it closely to the populations of the lower Mississippi.
Saint Louis is the warehouse of the huge water trade of the Mississippi and the center of the commercial, political, industrial and religious operations which concern the midcontinent, as far as California. Last May, when President Lincoln decreed the mobilization of the States’ militias to answer the attack on Fort Sumter and reduce the rebels by force, the Missouri legislature, through the voice of Governor Jackson, declared that the Federal order was unconstitutional, illegal and diabolical . Civil War soon followed.
Part of the Saint Louis militia had gathered in a camp near Saint Louis, not to defend the Union, but rather to drive Federal troops away from the territory of the State on the pretext of neutrality. Captain Lyon, in charge of the [Federal] arsenal, marched on the camp with a few regular companies, caught it by surprise and disarmed the militia. When they returned, they were stoned by the population. Shots were fired. About 30 persons were killed. From that time Saint Louis was treated as a besieged town.
The military partisans of the South left town and joined the insurgent bands gathering around the city. On the other hand, the Federal government decreed the formation of an army of the West, with headquarters in Saint Louis and organized along the same lines as the volunteer army of the Potomac. From street skirmishes, the situation worsened to guerrilla warfare in the country, soon followed by regular battles. The army of volunteers, commanded by Captain Lyon—appointed General—had moved to Springfield about 60 leagues west of Saint Louis, facing large groups of rebel bands. The Federal army attacked [at Wilson’s Creek], was defeated, suffered many casualties; they lost their cannons and provisions. Lyon was killed.
It was the counterpart of Bull Run, the war being concentrated then on two points symmetrically located on both sides of the Alleghenies: Washington, Capital of the East on one side, Saint Louis, capital of the West, on the other. Just as the government—on the brim of abyss—called on McClellan to defend the Potomac, Frémont was sent on the Mississippi.
However, the former’s mission, in the mind of the Congress, in the middle of the older States and amidst austere and essentially Anglo-American populations, never went beyond the circle of purely military matters. McClellan’s own character, that of a kind of puritan and liberal soldier, could not have accommodated itself to an extra-legal, violent and revolutionary position. As for Frémont, his origin, his adventurous past, and his hatreds, especially marked him as one of these precious agents who would shun no responsibility to save the public thing; he is one of those men who serve a government, not according to official instructions but rather with an understanding of its hidden intentions, men who understand in half-words what is expected of them.
Soon after his arrival, Frémont acted as a proconsul; by enforcing martial law he concentrated power in his hands. He raises troops, forms army corps, appoints or confirms officers, and worries little, I believe, about Washington. Requisitions in money make provision for army funds and Nature takes care of the soldiers’ needs. He has arrogated to himself the right to expel or arrest citizens, to supress newspapers—although he does not seem to exercise these powers to the limit—thus frightening the population. More than 40,000 people have left Saint Louis.
Such is the situation of one of the most important States of the American republic. Similar conditions are often found in Europe, but in the United States, this is so extraordinary and rare that no other traveller can claim to have witnessed such a spectacle.
Today, September 5, Prince Napoleon devoted part of the morning to General Frémont’s visit. Then he visited him at his camp and met his principal lieutenants. He also paid his respects to the mayor of Saint Louis, Mr. Ramsay, and a few of the most important inhabitants, Mr. Choteau, brother-in-law of Mr. de Montholon [French consul in New York], Mr. Osborne, our friend and guide, etc— . General Frémont came to the Planter’s in great style, escorted by a squad of cavalry in full dress and accompanied by a brilliant staff. He received the Prince in his house, with display, dignity, and a protocol generally unknown in America.
The General informed the Prince of his military projects. They are very bold. They reveal both the adventurous genius of the traveller and the strategy of the General. In these immense plains, cut through by huge half-desert and unexplored areas, a military expedition has somewhat the character of an exploration, just as explorations must also look much like war expeditions. General Frémont intends, by going downstream, to penetrate directly into the very heart of the Southern States and to enter New Orleans.
He maintains that the decisive blows of the war will not be struck on the Potomac where the two opponents insist upon massing their forces, but in the West, on the Mississippi, which everyone else considers a secondary theater of operations. He explains the importance of Cairo, 70 leagues below Saint Louis, at the junction of the Mississippi with the Ohio. There General Frémont concentrates all the means of transportation he can obtain from the navigation on the Upper Mississippi and tries to adapt it to a military expedition. He intends to embark his army at Cairo, and depending upon the circumstances, head straight for New Orleans, capturing Memphis on his way, or go upstream on the Tennessee and the Cumberland (tributaries of the Ohio) to enter the States of Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi.
I believe the General refrained from discussing with the Prince his political position in respect to Washington. It is a rather delicate question. As you know, Colonel, Mr. Lincoln and his friends—abolitionists at heart—have carefully hidden their flag in their pockets. They show scrupulous respect for all the articles of the Federal constitution concerning slavery, and for the various measures of Congress which regulate, limit or protect the peculiar institution. At this price they hope to keep within the Union those slave states which have not yet completely seceded, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri. By thus leaving the door open for a compromise, they hope some day to bring back to the fold the States now fighting for the South.
General Frémont was the unruly child of the Republican Party, or rather he had the nerve and audacity to compromise and embarrass those colleagues whom he does not like while ensuring his own political future. A few days before our arrival in Saint Louis, he issued a proclamation ordering, within the whole area under his command, the confiscation of property and immediate freedom of all slaves belonging to citizens who declared themselves against the Union. You notice the very important shade of meaning. What is serious, is not the confiscation of people’s properties, although for us administrative and military confiscation is a monstrosity; the capital point is the distinction established, in the General’s decree, between the property represented by a slave, and the property represented by a house or a plantation.
That the slave be confiscated is so much the betterl Thus he will be sold for the benefit of the Public Treasury, just as the house and the plantation will be auctioneered! But to free him is an innovation whose importance escapes no one. This is to recognize that the abolition of slavery is the principal aim of the war, and to create between North and South an abyss that even piles of corpses will not suffice to fill.
General Frémont’s proclamation burst over Washington like thunder. The sensation was immense, as is the case whenever an audacious mouth dares to shout the words which others dare only to whisper, or whenever a bright light suddenly lightens the halfdarkness of a situation obscured by lies. Every day, New York newspapers declare that General Frcmont is disavowed, and that he has been called to Washington to account for his conduct. So far, no such thing has been done! The Cabinet, in Washington, is quite embarrassed; they play dead and pretend not to have heard of his proclamation. But everyone knows how perplexed the Cabinet is. [Shortly after Colonel Ferri Pisani wrote these lines, President Lincoln annulled Frémont’s proclamation of emancipation. A few weeks later, Frémont was removed from command.]
We had been more or less told that the Army of the West was almost entirely composed of recently arrived emigrants, especially Germans. I must confess that I did not expect such a strong foreign character. It practically isolates the army from the rest of the population. This army was mainly recruited in the western States where the German element is predominant, and in the State of Missouri.
The predominance of the German element in the Army of the West is therefore the result of the nature of the sources which fed the recruitment of volunteers. Many causes forced the Germans to serve the flag. First, the high pay of soldiers, an almost irresistible attraction for wretched emigrants who left their country because of their misfortune, and who, if they found bread in their new motherland, were none the less forced to earn it daily with their sweat. Moreover, Germany is the traditional land of professional soldiers. Germans embrace the military profession willingly, and not so long ago, they served as mercenaries in many of the world’s armies. These tastes and traditions follow the men of Hesse, W’fcrttemberg and Prussia, wherever they go, and disappear only after several generations.
Finally, must I say it? Most Germans who come to America nowadays bring along a kind of hatred for the political regime of their fatherland, a democratic sentiment less pure from traces of envy than that of the older Americans. They have, sometimes, a background of latent socialism; in the United States this feeling would be considered as madness, but nevertheless it is working at the bottom of their souls. In Missouri, the man who represents best, in German eyes, aristocracy and fortune—the objects of his dislike—is the slave owner. This explains the instinct which leads these people, as a whole, to enlist under the flag of abolitionism, and now under the flag of the Union. The German element played an important role in the electoral success of Mr. Lincoln, and now is at the basis of the extreme popularity and the political future of General Frémont.
His arrival in Saint Louis gave a livelier impulse to the spirit which presided in the Army of the West at the beginning of the war. The predominance of the German element has now been turned into the systematic exclusion of all others. The numerous staff of General Frémont includes only one American. His chief of staff is Colonel Asboth, an Hungarian officer; he was Kossuth’s friend and came with him to America. The chief of the engineer corps is a Bavarian. Several aide-de-camps come from the Rhineland, Germans mixed with a little French. The two officers who have been dispatched to serve the Prince are a Germanspeaking Swiss, Colonel Joliat, and a former lieutenant, Colonel Osterhaus.
These two gentlemen are quite distinguished and very moderate. They seemed somewhat embarrassed by the exaggerations of their colleagues. Often they even embarrassed us. We often heard the Yankees systematically dismissed—this proud American Nation whose guests we are—in terms so insulting that I do not want to repeat them. Their insults were so much the worse as they came from men walking under the American flag and supposedly defending American Institutions.
If one were to judge the United States by the talk heard around Saint Louis headquarters, one would easily believe that the heirs of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Jackson have become a people of selfish and cowardly nouveaux riches , whose only social mission is to pay the brave children of the German fatherland to defend them, their institutions—of which they are unworthy—and the great principles of freedom.
Still, on the whole, I am convinced that there are excellent military qualities in all those German officers. Without them and without the energetic appeal to the German population, the whole of Missouri would have been lost for the Union after the defeat of Springfield. The leader of the German military party is General [Franz] Sigel, a former officer in the Baden army. When part of this army revolted in 1848, he sided with the insurrection, and was one of the most energetic leaders. After Prussia crushed the revolt, Sigel was forced to emigrate to America. Thirteen years later, his military talents found an employment which he had certainly not foreseen. When the army of the volunteers of the West was created, Sigel was elected General because of his experiences in 1848 and because of his influence over the German emigrantsmany of whom are more or less “volunteer” political exiles. Later his election was implemented by an appointment.
During the rout at Springfield, his brigade was the only one that was not carried away. His cold-blooded bravery perhaps saved the Union army from complete destruction and maintained, alone, the honor of the flag. [Here Colonel Ferri Pisani is in error. Sigel’s command failed to distinguish itself in this fight.] His power over the troops, ever since has been both overwhelming and understandable. He is about 45 years old, very small and thin. He has long blond hair glued to his head, a bilious complexion, and wears glasses- the type of physiognomy which one finds often in Germany. He is reserved, perhaps a little somber.
Such is the foreign and military coterie which surrounds General Fremont and defends—in such singular ways—the honor of Washington’s and Jackson’s flag. The citizens of Saint Louis, most of them secretly attached to the South, pretend to bow under the crushing weight of the most intolerable tyranny. We saw many of them approach the Prince and confide their complaints and terrors to him, in whispers and with frightened and distrustful eyes. They feel that the General is motivated less by his opinions or by political necessities than by the hidden hatreds accumulated in his heart against the aristocracy of Saint Louis. These hatreds date from his youth when, poor and obscure, he held the humiliating position of a protégé of the grand families. As for the German oppression, they predict a terrible reaction. If the State of Missouri regains its independency, nothing less than a Saint Bartholomew will be required to wash, in the blood of an insolent race, the humiliations in which the glorious American Nation is now drenched.
I think these threats are as exaggerated as the complaints we hear about the terreur reigning in Saint Louis. I do not intend to defend the dictatorial measures of General Fremont, yet it seems to me that the most serious accusations against him can be limited to a few suppressed newspapers, some exiled suspects, a few others—a very small number—who were arrested but not threatened with death. Finally, there is the threat which has not been carried out, of confiscating the possessions of all those serving the southern flag. This regime is undoubtedly quite hard here, but much harder for Americans than it would be for us. Clearly these good men are not accustomed to a state of siege; neither are they used to the heavy hand of authority in time of crisis.
The Prince did not stop for a moment during the whole day. At noon we boarded a steamer especially prepared by the city to take the Prince to the middle of the river. General Sigel, almost the entire staff of General Fremont, the mayor and more than one hundred officers awaited the Prince to accompany him. A military band also boarded the steamer. The ship left the pier amidst the fanfare and acclamation of the crowd which had not had the pleasure for a long time, on account of the siege, of shouting “hurrah” as Americans love to do.
We travelled upstream about 5 to 6 leagues, to the junction with the Missouri. It is impossible to imagine a more wonderful spectacle than the one unfolding in front of us—an emerald-like plain as far as the eye can see, cut here and there by black bunches of huge trees; a wide river filled to the brim, carrying in its muddy waters the wrecks extracted from the ancient forests of the North. Sometimes the trees, intertwined together, form large islands which float downstream to clog the shores. There they are soon covered by green and luxurious vegetation until they resemble huge baskets delicately floating on the river. Often huge pine trees are stopped by the slime, where one of their roots sticks while the trunk rises like a threatening spear above the water or at water level.
The junction of the two rivers is splendid. The rivers meet opposite the little town of Alton, on the left bank of the Mississippi. We embrace the huge Missouri valley stretching westward amidst a nature wilder still than the one we have just crossed. Beyond Saint Joseph, about 100 leagues from where we are, the Missouri ceases to belong to the civilized world. Between Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa, it disappears amidst huge plains bordering the Rockies on the West. There, in this endless steppe, the lost buffaloes and the remnants of the Indians of the North, driven away from their ancient homeland, have taken refuge. The latter follow the movements and the destiny of the former. When the ground, slowly taken over by civilization, disappears from beneath the feet of the last buffalo, the last Indian will likewise disappear.
Back in Saint Louis, General Sigel showed the Prince the camps and fortifications being built around the city. We did not expect to find, at the boundary of the Union and so far from the stimulating influence of Washington, an army so numerous and so well organized. This organization pays tribute to General Frémont, and it would be a tour de force even in the most military-minded countries of Europe.
In witnessing with what power and success the Americans—Unionist as well as Confederate—improvised, in a few months, volunteer armies of close to a million men, and how they are now in the process of giving them all the characteristics and qualities of the best regular armies, one cannot help but think about what goes on today on the other side of the Alps. What changes could occur in the politics of Europe, if Italy were capable of only half the military effort accomplished by Unionists and Confederates alike!