A new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, entitled “Americans in Paris During the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian War,” highlights the contributions and impact of Americans to the city during this era of turmoil. The exhibition features more than 150 objects, many of which have never been on display in the United States, including herbarium specimens, photographs, and paintings from the period.

The Franco-Prussian War was a period of intense fighting between France and the German state on one side and Napoleon III on the other. The war saw the defeat of the French as a result of the loss of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. The war was caused by the Prussian plan to unite all German states under their ruler, and also to dismantle France by taking over its territory.

The Franco-Prussian War was one of the most significant events in the history of the United States. One of the most important aspects of this conflict was the chaotic impact that the war had on Americans living in Paris.

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, Americans imprisoned in Paris experienced anarchy and compassion, insurrection, and a return to republican values.

The 1870–71 war between France and Germany was the first of the archrivals’ dreadful modern wars, but it is also the least remembered. Even less attention has been paid to the Americans who were dispatched across the Atlantic to fight, watch, mediate, administer a field hospital, and, before the war was through, suffer two grueling sieges and bombardments in Paris. Although not every American in Paris stuck it out, Elihu B. Washburne, the American Legation’s minister, saw it as his duty to keep an eye out for those of his countrymen and women imprisoned in “that circle of iron and fire.”

The underlying territorial and political goals of the fighting states caused the Franco-Prussian War, as it was known. On July 15, 1870, Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck needed a war to unite the German confederation of states into a nation; Napoléon III, leader of France’s shaky Second Empire, provided him with one by mobilizing his country’s army as a show of force intended to deter any further consolidation of German power. It had the exact opposite result. In response, the North German Confederation deployed its armies, and Bismarck persuaded the independent southern German nations to form a mutually beneficial military alliance. The French declared war on Germany on July 19 and marched into German territory on August 2. Despite Napoléon III’s hopes for a rapid victory, the stage was prepared for a calamity that would rock the foundations of France.

The new fight in Europe caused U.S. military officers to attach themselves to the battling armies as observers, just as French and German military officers had done during the American Civil War to examine the latest tactics and technology breakthroughs in action.

On the Prussian side, total war enthusiast Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan counseled Bismarck to subject the French to “such much pain that they must want for peace and force their government to demand it.” People should be left with nothing but their eyes to cry over the war.” Ambrose Burnside, a general turned merchant, arrived in Paris on October 2 to find the capital encircled by Prussian soldiers and under siege. Burnside served as a messenger for Bismarck, relaying messages between the French and German leadership.

On September 2, the majority of the French imperial army surrendered at Sedan, and the empire fell with it. Napoléon III and his aides would be kidnapped and held captive in a beautiful Prussian castle for the duration of the war. A conservative Government of National Defense assumed authority in Paris two days later, vowing not to surrender, organizing the city’s defense, and holding elections for a representative assembly. The republicans had returned—but would they be able to end the war?

In 1869, Elihu Washburne, a 53-year-old lawyer and former Illinois Republican legislator, was appointed minister to France. He and his family lived at 75 Avenue de l’Impératrice, just off the Champs-Elysées in Paris (present-day avenue Foch). He went a mile and a half to the Legation offices every day. When the war broke out, Washburne was in charge of about 5,500 Americans in the city, but as the siege tightened, all but a few hundred escaped. He was also responsible with hiding the non-Prussian German residents in Paris, who totaled around 30,000. The French agreed that such Germans, except from men of military age, might leave the city under U.S. travel documents. Those wishing to exit flooded the Legation.

“They have come to me to help them, pinched with hunger, terrified by threats of violence, with no means of fleeing the country,” Washburne wrote in his memoirs. “Ladies with little children in their arms, as well as women who are far along in their pregnancy, have come to our Legation as their last chance, bathed in tears and overwhelmed with anguish.”

By mid-September, Washburne believed he had evacuated nearly all of the refugees out of Paris, thanks to German assistance. Over the next few months, he’d find out just how many remained.

Americans in Paris During the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian War French troops aiming to breach the Prussian siege in the direction of Versailles stop at the gate of the metropolitan hamlet of Buzenval. / Getty Images

Dr. Thomas W. Evans, a dentist who had worked in Paris since 1847, founded the American International Sanitary Committee and requested funds from Americans in Paris and elsewhere to establish a field hospital, or ambulance, as it was known at the time. Dr. John Swinburne, an American who happened to be in Europe at the time, was one of Evans’ recruits. During the Civil War, Swinburne served as a Union Army medic and invented an ingenious system of heated and ventilated tents that dramatically improved the hygienic conditions for the wounded.

Evans quickly purchased ten US Army tents and contributed his personal collection of Civil War medical equipment, which included six ambulance wagons, surgical instruments, and other medical items he’d brought over for an exhibit at the 1867 Universal Exposition. His coffee truck had last seen action at the Confederate surrender in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, in April 1865.

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Putnam, Mary, the 28-year-old daughter of American publisher George Putnam, was studying medicine in Paris as the first woman admitted to the prestigious Sorbonne School of Medicine. In letters home she described having applied to work at the ambulance only to be told they had many more volunteers than they could need. She wrote to her father, “The most intriguing American oddity here at the moment is their success with ambulances.” “It’s fantastic. They hardly ever lose a case, but practically everyone in French hospitals dies.” In the days before antiseptics and antibiotics, the ambulance was happy to announce a 19 percent fatality rate, compared to a 45 percent loss rate in a French field clinic.

Americans in Paris During the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian War

Mary Putnam

As word of the collapsed empire spread and a crowd of armed demonstrators stormed across the Place de la Concorde on September 4, Evans returned home to find guests in need of his assistance. The radicals were resolved to exploit the current crisis, reciting references to the “First Revolution.” The Tuileries Palace, the imperial seat and still home to Empress Eugénie on that eventful afternoon, was in their sights. The empress and a friend were snuck out of the palace and into a horse-drawn cab by the Austrian and Italian diplomats.

Eugénie de Montijo, the granddaughter of a Scottish-American wine trader, found one Bonaparte supporter’s door shut and another slammed in her face. She then proceeded to Evans’ residence.

Evans, a native of Philadelphia, was the first to introduce modern dentistry to Europe, earning the respect and trust of several royal houses, notably Napoléon III’s. Eugénie had been a patient of the dentist before becoming empress, and he had been chosen as an unofficial go-between on several occasions due to his legendary discretion. The ladies slept the night at Evans’ house, and the next morning he gave them a British visa that he had for another doctor and patient. The empress and her companion were then transported in a carriage by Evans and a friend. Guards stationed at the city gates waved them past, and they continued west along the Seine into Normandy, arriving at the seaside the next day in Deauville. The doctor and his charges were transported over the channel to Britain on an Englishman’s yacht, where Eugénie reunited with her son, Louis, and found safe harbor.

Evans did not return to wartime Paris for fear of being trapped there. Instead, he went on a medical inspection tour of eastern France and southwestern Germany, where the Prussians held approximately 400,000 French POWs, and spent the rest of the war seeking money for the captives’ clothing and food.

On September 18, the gates of Paris closed to all traffic, stranding more than 500,000 French soldiers, principally national guardsmen. The French attempted a few raids in an attempt to break the encirclement, but were continually defeated. To avoid being shot down by the Prussians, the only option to communicate with or move to or from the French capital was by gas balloon, which rapidly converted to nightly schedules. During the siege, the French accomplished over 70 such flights, with one balloon landing in Norway. On October 7, Minister of War Léon Gambetta was flown out of the city and set up camp in the Loire Valley to continue battling the Prussians.

Only about 250 Americans remained in the capital at the time, according to Washburne. When they were overheard speaking English, they were detained as German agents. The minister helped them get out of jail and screamed against the pervasive suspicion.

Throughout the autumn of 1870, Washburne maintained a continuous correspondence with Bismarck, who thanked him for his continued assistance in ensuring the safety of German nationals in Paris. Bismarck decided to let a party of 48 Americans and 21 Russians depart under US travel documents about six weeks into the siege. They left the city on October 27 in a convoy of 26 carriages. Armed radicals planned a large protest against the Government of National Defense outside City Hall four days later, but guardsmen dispersed the crowd. The following week, authorities organized a plebiscite, in which Parisians voted 557,996 to 62,638 in favor of the administration.

Americans in Paris During the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian War On the rue de Rivoli, government troops fight Communards while firebombed buildings burn. / Getty Images

Food was becoming as scarce as information by mid-November. In his diplomatic luggage, Washburne was able to acquire newspapers from New York and London, but no one else had any news. In his journal, he wrote, “One of the features of the siege is the thousand stories and reports that are continuously flying around.” “Every hour of the day, the most stupid and ridiculous canards are propagated. These folks in France are capable of believing anything, including that the moon is made of green cheese.”

Because so many horses had been slaughtered for meat, transportation was scarce. Mules, dogs, cats, and rats were among the animals served. Washburne documented their rising prices as commodities in his journal. He and a dozen Americans, including Dr. Swinburne and Dr. William E. Johnston, a longstanding Paris practitioner who also worked at the ambulance, attended a service at the American Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity on Thanksgiving Day and then had a meager turkey supper at a restaurant.

Colonel Wickham Hoffman, the U.S. Legation’s first secretary, remarked that the government could no longer feed the animals in the municipal zoo, so it had them sold for slaughter. In a memoir, Hoffman wrote, “I indulged from time to time in small portions of elephant, yak, camel, reindeer, porcupine, etc., at an average rate of $4 a pound.” “Of all these reindeer, this one is the best; it has a delicious venison flavor. “Elephant is acceptable.”

Parisians began felling mature trees for fuel as the weather became colder. The city’s leafy avenues and the Bois de Boulogne quickly became bare and devoid of traffic. By mid-January 1871 Washburne was giving financial support to 2,385 Germans (through funding supplied by Bismarck), and the Paris press was accusing him of being a Prussian sympathizer. The new year also brought a Prussian bombardment of the city. One young American had his foot shattered when a shell passed through his chamber. Surgeons at the American Ambulance were compelled to amputate the man’s leg, and he later died. According to Washburne, he was the lone American slain in the war.

On January 19, National Guardsmen made one last attempt to breach the German siege. It was a failure that resulted in a large number of French casualties. Three days later, leftist partisans protested outside City Hall again, this time demanding an end to bread restrictions. When a member of the public shot a security officer, his colleagues returned fire, killing five people and injuring 18. The anxiety in the city was palpable. After a week, the Ministry of National Defense stated that peace talks would commence, and on January 28, France and Prussia signed an armistice. The conflict ended after 132 days of siege. Wasn’t it?

On January 29, the day the ceasefire went into force, Washburne wrote, “I hear tonight that the people broke into the vast central market today and seized whatever they could lay their hands on.” “The market men demanded exorbitant prices for everything that could be eaten and refused to make even the smallest concession to the impoverished, famished people.”

With the battle over, Britain and the US dispatched help, but France was in such a state of disorder that distribution was nearly impossible. At least two American ships bringing food and supplies arrived in Le Havre but were unable to unload their cargo. “The French are so enslaved by the state that they are incapable of taking initiative in anything,” Hoffman wrote.

While the city returned to normal in some ways, the Commune, a radical group of revolutionary socialists, continued to press their demands, finding an odd friend in the national guardsmen, who had been denied food, shelter, and rent relief while on duty. When guardsmen at Montmartre were instructed to fire on an armed barricade on March 18, they refused and reversed their muskets in sympathy. The guard had shifted allegiances to the Commune, and the Government of National Defense fled to Versailles over the next 24 hours.

“The insurgents were far more startled at their victory than the loyal people were when the government departed Paris,” Washburne recalled.

The National Guard’s hardline Central Committee assumed power, promising to defend the people from “danger,” which they defined as everyone who did not support their cause. Almost immediately, executions began, and the movement devolved into violence, theft, and chaos before more responsible members could intervene. Hoffman observed, “They had utilized these poor people while it suited their purpose.” “They’ve now thrown them overboard.”

Radical clubs, inspired by and named after the Jacobins of the French Revolution of 1789, proposed hanging Washburne and exiling any remaining Americans, but nothing came of it. The Tricolore was replaced by a scarlet flag over City Hall, but Versailles kept its 170,000 loyal troops at bay.

Americans in Paris During the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian War Following the Commune’s demise, Paris regained its reputation as the “City of Light,” luring American expats back to a renovated capital adorned with Gustave Eiffel’s tower. / Photo: Getty Images

Throughout April, Washburne was busy keeping Americans out of jail and obtaining the release of Paris Archbishop Georges Darboy, who had been arrested together with scores of priests, nuns, and other clergy members by anti-religious revolutionaries. By the time the Commune announced that no French men between the ages of 19 and 40 could leave the city because they would be conscripted into the guard, an estimated 300,000 Parisians had fled. Washburne took a chance and asked Commune officials if people from Alsace and Lorraine, which had been granted to the German empire in a recent peace treaty, could leave Paris as German citizens and travel on US documents. Pascal Grousset, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, concurred. To manage the hundreds of candidates that lined up outside the Legation each morning, Washburne had to hire ten clerks. (In just a few weeks, he was able to smuggle 4,450 of them to safety.)

By mid-April, government troops had begun firing the insurgents from guns west of the city, with some rounds hitting the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysées.

Washburne and his family were forced to relocate to safer quarters near the city center due to the threat. Plundering and looting were common at the time, and it wasn’t long before a band of “organized brigands,” as Washburne described them, arrived, threatening to seize his home and belongings. Grousset responded by dispatching men to fend off the looters when the American diplomat requested assistance.

On May 21, government troops discovered an undefended entry into Paris, kicking off what has come to be known as “Bloody Week.” Thousands of insurgents were slain by soldiers in the street, while radicals killed hundreds of captives, including Archbishop Darboy. As the Commune fell apart, its members set fire to buildings all throughout the capital. The Palace of Tuileries, City Hall, the Finance Ministry, the Palace of Justice, and other buildings were reduced to burning rubble. Hoffman observed, “Beautiful France has been severely tested by revolutions.” “Let us pray she’s seen the last of it.”

With the Commune crushed, Parisians cleaned up the wreckage, sent the insurgents to face punishment, set up a new republican administration and returned to work. The short-lived Franco-Prussian War is one of the most intricate in modern history, with class wars within territory wars and sieges within sieges.

Even Nevertheless, the war and the havoc it caused did not dampen Americans’ enthusiasm for Paris. The French capital quickly regained its reputation as the “Heaven of Americans,” and by the mid-1920s, the American expat population had swelled to 30,000 full-time residents. Unfortunately, within two decades, another German army arrived in the City of Light, bringing with it very terrible days. MH

Ellen Hampton, a writer and author residing in Paris, is a regular contributor to Military History. For more information, she recommends Philip M. Katz’s From Appomattox to Montmartre: Americans and the Paris Commune; Michael Hill’s Elihu Washburne: The Diary and Letters of America’s Minister to France During the Siege and Commune of Paris; and Gerald Carson’s The Dentist and the Empress: The Adventures of Dr. Tom Evans in Gaslit Paris.

Military History magazine published this piece in their July 2023 issue. Subscribe here for more stories, and follow us on Facebook:

Americans in Paris During the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian War

In late December 1870, many Americans headed to Paris, expecting to see the Grand Palais and the Eiffel Tower. Instead, they found that the city was being flooded by French troops and German soldiers. The war was not over yet. The American presence in Paris was intended to be limited, but so many Americans were there already that the French government decided to close the American Legation.. Read more about franco-prussian war casualties and let us know what you think.

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