Recommendation: Very informative book about an American hero that’s been absent from most history texts. I do wish there was a little more writing from Hill, but the history buffs out there will still appreciate this one.
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I bet that you’ve never heard of Elihu Washburne. No worries, I hadn’t either before I read this dandy book and, honestly, I can’t say I was even very excited to do that. I figured that this was just another guy who was vaguely important in his time but didn’t actually do much until someone found his diary hidden under a floorboard and decided to make a book out of it. Once again, my intuition was way off.
As it turns out, Elihu Washburne was kind of a jazzy super stud. Came from an ordinary farm home, became a lawyer than a well-respected politician with a heart of gold (they sure don’t make them like they used to). When his good friend Ulysses Grant was elected to president, he was appointed to be the American minister to France. What could be better than living in Paris on the government’s dime? A lot, as it turns out. Washburne had the misfortune of living in Paris during the Franco-Prussian war, a time when the city was completely besieged. All the other ministers ditched outta that place, except for Washburne who stuck out the terrible circumstances to help the Americans and Prussians living within the city. If that wasn’t enough, Washburne did the same thing weeks later when a murderous rebellion essentially recreated the Reign of Terror. Courageous, honest, and loving, Washburne is an American politician that deserves to be remembered.
This book is made up mostly of diary entries and letters that Washburne wrote during the war and subsequent upheaval. It’s nice to get such direct information from Washburne who, along with his other talents, is really quite an eloquent writer. But, I think this book would be improved by letting Michael Hill do a little more interpreting and summarizing. Hill is a good author and, even though Washburne can write, there is an inevitable disconnect between texts written in the 1800’s and those written today. For example, Washburne wrote in his diary nearly every single day during the war and each entry is pretty much included in the book. A lot of them have good information as the situation was constantly changing, but I could have done with fewer updates on the price of dog meat (things were pretty desperate) and more context into the overall global situation and reaction to the debacle in Paris.
But, you know, it was still a good read. Though my preference would have been for more context, I can’t say it’s absurd for Hill to let Washburne be the star. After all, the book does carry his name. And, really, the most important thing is bringing Washburne up from the depths of historical obscurity. It’s always a difficult dilemma, deciding which historical figures deserve to be remembered. Everyone has different opinions and most people can only remember the presidents (or a couple of presidents, or maybe just the current president), so there’s only so much that can be done. Hill does a service to Washburne’s memory and we all get the privilege of polishing our history brains. So, if you have any historical inclination at all, I’d suggest giving this book a go.