“To See This War”: The Comte de Paris Journal
The princes of the House of Orleans playing dominoes with other members of McClellan’s staff, May 3, 1862. Philippe, Comte de Paris, is in the middle, flanked on his right by his brother, the Duc du Chartres, and his uncle, the Prince de Joinville.
In May 1979 I attended a reception honoring General James M. Gavin, who commanded the 82nd Airborne Division in 1944-1945 and went on to become the U.S. Army’s Chief of Research and Development in the 1950s. I was then a 19-year-old college sophomore. Gavin was 72 and had just published On to Berlin, a memoir of his service during World War II.
By some fluke, General Gavin and I got to talking and I happened to mention my interest in the Civil War. That was a favorite subject of his as well, and with some enthusiasm he told me that in the early 1960s, while John F. Kennedy’s ambassador to France, he had met and befriended Henri, Comte de Paris, the grandson of Philippe, Comte de Paris, who served on General George B. McClellan’s personal staff from September 1861 until July 1862.
Gavin was informed that while in the United States, Philippe kept a detailed journal. Intrigued, Gavin borrowed the journal and had a typescript made of it, thinking that his publisher, Harper & Row, might be interested in having it translated and published as a book. Harper & Row, however, regarded it as “a pig in a poke” — since in its untranslated form its historical value and sales potential could not be assessed. Gavin then set aside the project.
He still had the typescript in 1979 and, a few days after we spoke, I wrote him to ask if I could have a copy and see about pursuing the project myself. Gavin checked with his literary agent, who saw no problem with the idea, and soon a 556-page typed, single-spaced manuscript landed on my front porch. It was entitled simply, “Voyage En Amerique [Travels in America], 1861-1862.”
Although I had struggled through four years of French, initially I had no intention of translating the manuscript myself. I simply got in touch with Henri, Comte de Paris, and secured legal permission to translate and publish the manuscript. But I soon discovered how pricey — and not necessarily competent — professional translators were, and eventually the Comte de Paris did what several French instructors could not: forced me to buckle down to the serious study of French. While in London (1984-1985) and again while pursuing my PhD (1989-1992), I chipped away at the journal, converting it into English. As I neared completion of my dissertation and landed my present job, however, I had to put aside the project. By that time, I had read the whole thing and translated about half of it, including most of the really good parts.
What follows is an essay about the journal I wrote in 1988. I’m going to publish it in installments over the next few weeks.
[Incidentally, the original manuscript reposes at the Fondation Saint-Louis in Amboise, France. In the early 1980s I donated a copy of the typescript General Gavin gave me to the U.S. Army Military History Institute, and over the years have helped several historians, most notably Stephen W. Sears, by sending them translations of sections important to their research.]
The revolutions that wracked Europe during the first half of the nineteenth century cut any number of persons forever adrift from the lives that would otherwise have been their fate. Prominent among these was Louis Philippe Albert d’Orleans, Comte de Paris, a young man who would have become the King of France had not his grandfather, Louis-Philippe, been forced from the throne in 1848.
The monarch went with his family into exile in England, where the British government permitted them to install themselves at Claremont, a palatial estate on the outskirts of London that had served as the girlhood home of Queen Victoria. There young Philippe — just ten years old when he departed France — spent the bulk of his own childhood and received an excellent education. Although by this time Napoleon III had become Emperor of the French and the prospects of a resurrected Orleanist monarchy seemed bleak, Philippe was never permitted to forget that he was the legitimate heir to the throne of France. In all respects, he was carefully coached in the comportment and duties of a king.
No band of mere reactionaries, the House of Orleans recognized and embraced the emergent tides of liberalism, at least up to a point. Philippe considered himself a liberal, although both he and his coterie viewed a constitutional monarchy as the ideal structure for a liberal state.
In order to keep his name prominent in the minds of those who might be amenable to a constitutional monarchy for France at some future date, in 1860 the Comte de Paris began a series of extended travels, first to the Levant, where he witnessed the massacre of Christians by Moslem extremists; and thence to the United States, so that he might see at first hand the incipient civil war that formed, among many other things, a strong query as to whether a liberal government could ultimately survive.
During the course of both journeys, Philippe kept a lengthy journal, partly because he was temperamentally attracted to writing, and partly as a vehicle to display to his supporters his powers of insight, analysis, and reflection. In September 1861 the journal kept in the Levant was privately published in London under the title Damas et le Leban; for some reason, however, the Civil War journal, which was surely intended to be edited and published as well, never saw the light of day. It remained among the count’s extensive papers until his death.
Philippe came to the United States aboard the packet steamer, accompanied by his uncle Francois Ferdinand, the Prince de Joinville; his younger brother Robert, Duc du Chartres; and Pierre, the son of the Prince de Joinville, whom the Prince wished to see admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy. The French noblemen arrived in New York harbor on 16 September 1861. After looking around the city and making a brief excursion to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, they traveled by train to Washington, D.C.
Almost immediately they became honored guests of Major General George B. McClellan, Jr., the 34-year old commander of the Army of the Potomac, and after a five-day tour of the army’s encampments, McClellan invited the French princes to join his personal staff as aides-de-camp. In this capacity they would hold commissions as Captains in the Regular Army. After a brief discussion among themselves Philippe and Robert accepted the invitation. The Prince de Joinville declined a commission but agreed to accompany McClellan as “amateur and friend.”
Such arrangements were hardly unique during the Civil War, particularly on the Union side, particularly in the Army of the Potomac, and particularly during the early months of the conflict. Any number of Europeans ornamented the staffs of various Civil War units. Most of these were soldiers of fortune; a few came in an official capacity as observers for their governments and as such were not participants.
But the French princes viewed themselves in neither of these roles. The Comte de Paris saw their mission as political in nature. They sought above all else to understand the nature of the crisis of democracy in the United States and to represent, in the best possible light, the House of Orleans as champions of liberal reform in France. Their participation on the staff of General McClellan merely afforded them the best opportunity to accomplish this dual mission. The French princes were conscious that theirs was a rather delicate position. They remained acutely sensitive to fluctuations in the relationship between the United States and France, on the one hand, and the United States and Great Britain, on the other. Although opposed to the regime of Napoleon III, they did not wish to appear disloyal to the country of their birth, nor did they wish to antagonize Britain, the country that had given them refuge.
All these delicate considerations find ample expression in the journal of Philippe, Comte de Paris, but so do any number of other matters: pungent observations concerning the Union military forces; records of conversations with such civilian luminaries as Secretary of State William Seward and Sentator Charles Sumner; frothy gossip about any number of Union officers; and numerous reflections about American life and mores, couched in a fashion that is obviously styled after the famous political travelogue of Alexis de Tocqueville.
The complete journal amounts to 556 typescript pages. It covers the period from September 1861, when the French princes arrived in New York, until July 1862, when growing diplomatic strain between the United States and France forced them to re-embark for London. In between are recorded Philippe’s impressions of life in the Army of the Potomac during its long encampment around Washington and its grand but ill-fated expedition against Richmond — the famous Peninsula Campaign. Because the journal has not yet been completely translated or published, the purpose of this essay is to offer some of the fruits of the journal, place it within a larger historical context, and briefly assess its historical value.
To accomplish this, I have translated a number of passages in order to let the journal speak for itself, sometimes at substantial length. The selected excerpts were chosen according to two main criteria: first, their intrinsic historical interest; and secondly as a representative sample of the style and concerns that of the journal as a whole. They are framed within a narrative that provides the necessary background and context, and periodically I have offered brief comments concerning the worth of a particular excerpt. A final section offers a critical evaluation of the journal’s historical value overall.