Dec. 25, 1870: “Never has a sadder Christmas dawned on any city,” Livermore native Elihu Washburne writes in Paris while serving as the U.S. minister to France. “The sufferings … exceed by far anything we have seen.”

On the 99th day of the Prussian army’s siege of the city during the Franco-Prussian War, Washburne, one of the few Americans and few foreign diplomats remaining in the French capital, manages to put on a holiday feast, consisting of two hens and a supply of canned goods, for his son and some American friends trapped in the city.

He has arranged the safe evacuation of thousands of his countrymen, provided food and shelter for a large group of German refugee women, helped set up a field hospital to treat wounded French soldiers and kept his superiors in Washington – as well as his relatives, including brother Israel, a former Maine governor – updated on conditions in Paris, where the starving, freezing population is reduced to cutting down trees in public parks for firewood and eating horses, dogs, cats and rats to stay alive.

After the French surrender on Jan. 27 and the Prussian troops’ two-day occupation of the city, the French turn on each other, with the republic’s national government in Versailles combatting the forces of the upstart Paris Commune. At the end of months of purges, gun battles and fires that destroy priceless architectural treasures, during which Washburne tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to dissuade Commune officials from executing Paris’ archbishop, the regular army is estimated to have killed 20,000 to 25,000 people, a worse death toll than even that of the 1790s Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution.

“What no one could yet appreciate, other than perhaps Washburne himself,” writes historian David McCullough in his 2011 book “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” “was the additional, immeasurable value of the diary he had kept day after day through the entire ordeal, recording so much that he had witnessed and taken part in, writing at great length at the end of an exhausting, horrible day, aware constantly of the self-imposed duty he felt to keep such an account.”

Joseph Owen is an author, retired newspaper editor and board member of the Kennebec Historical Society. Owen’s book, “This Day in Maine,” can be ordered at To get a signed copy use promo code signedbyjoe at checkout. Joe can be contacted at:


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