A plucky spirit and revolutionary sympathy emerge from these richly detailed dispatches by America’s intrepid minister to France during the Franco-Prussian War.
Independent historical researcher and producer Hill does a solid job editing these evocative, immensely readable extracts from the letters and diary of former Rep. Washburne (1816–1887). Stuck in Paris during the five-month siege by the Prussians from July 1870 to January 1871, though refusing to leave when the other diplomatic legations fled the capital, Washburne was determined to record for history the increasingly appalling conditions and subsequent reign of terror he witnessed firsthand. Originally a “green Yankee boy” who had plied his trade as a lawyer in Illinois before becoming a congressman known for his independence and honesty, Washburne was a “homespun” type, appointed as Minister to France thanks to his long friendship with and support of Ulysses S. Grant. With his family relocated for safety, Washburne lived alone in Paris, never in good health, yet able to maintain a dignity that the French, divided and under siege, frankly lacked. Delighted at the proclamation of a French Republic, Washburne was nonetheless horrified by the persecution of German nationals, who flocked to his legation for asylum; he visited the prisons and noted the toll of the cold and pestilence on the populace, as well as the fantastic rise in prices for foodstuffs. Bombardment was soon followed by armistice, and Washburne recorded the shameful capitulation to the Prussians and their eventual entrance into Paris to enormous martial display. With the government in the hands of the Commune, led by sadistic men such as Raoul Rigault, a reign of terror followed, duly observed by Washburne in all its sinister and arbitrary violence.
A wealth of historical and personal detail builds a suspenseful story.