Eugenie - Empress of the French - George Upton

The War of 1870

The spirit of revolution may be quenched at times in the populace of Paris, but it is never entirely extinguished. Napoleon the Third had held their turbulence in check for nearly twenty years, but now all signs seemed to indicate that an outbreak was imminent. The Emperor's best friends advised him to identify himself with the liberal party, which in case of any change of sovereignty would prove a valuable safeguard to his young and inexperienced son. Others were of the opinion that a war with Prussia was necessary to preserve the Empire and revive popular loyalty to the name of Napoleon. That such a war would at one blow shatter the proud imperial edifice, no one dreamed, least of all the Empress, who was at the head of this party.

Napoleon chose the former course. At the general election of 1870, the change from an autocratic to a constitutional government was approved by about eight million votes. For the other alternative he had a decided distaste. His watchword, "empire is peace," was no empty phrase on his lips, in spite of the wars into which he had been forced by policy. When at the victorious battle of Solferino he saw whole ranks of Austrians mowed down by his artillery, he ordered the firing to cease, in spite of the protests of his officers; and long afterwards he could never think or speak of this bloody engagement without a shudder. One of his most cherished plans was to bring about a general disarmament of all the great powers, and a presentiment that his ruin was near at hand made him the more averse to any conflict with Prussia. The pressure in favor of it grew steadily greater, however, and, weary of the burden of government, ill in body and mind, he finally yielded. War was declared on the most trivial pretext, July 14, 1870.

Heretofore the French people had shown no special interest in the subject, and the news came as a surprise; yet once the die was cast, the prospect of war excited the wildest enthusiasm. The Emperor and Empress were greeted with acclamation: the horses were taken from their coach and drawn by the youth of France; the imperial pair rode in triumph through the streets of Paris. The whole nation was aroused. Volunteers flocked to the banner of France. Shouts of, "To Berlin! To Berlin!" and the strains of the Marseillaise, filled the air. The ferment that had long been brewing having now found an outlet, the riotous element hastened to the frontier. Every day fresh bodies of troops departed. Paris was in high spirits, and news from the seat of war was awaited with confident assurance. From day to day it was expected that the Emperor would join the army; but it was not till the twenty-eighth of July that he finally took his departure, leaving his wife as Regent during his absence, and accompanied by the Prince Imperial, who was to have his first experience of warfare.

When Napoleon questioned Leboeuf, the Minister of War, concerning the preparations for war, he was assured that all was complete. The army was ready; everything in order, to the smallest detail. Yet how far from truth, alas, were these empty phrases! Reforms that had been begun under the preceding ministry were far from being carried out. Army organization was woefully defective. Even so important a post as Metz was insufficiently protected. Contractors defrauded the Government. All was confusion and lack of proper equipment. Under these conditions it is not strange that the overthrow of the Germans did not speedily follow. After some delay—far too long to suit the eager Parisians—came the first despatch, a message of victory. The indecisive action at Saarbrucken was construed into a glorious beginning of the war. The Emperor's telegram to his wife was printed all over Europe and stamped the Prince Imperial with an impression of ridicule that only his life-blood, afterwards shed at Itelezi, was able entirely to obliterate.

"Louis has received his baptism of fire. He showed admirable calmness and did not once lose his composure. One of General Frossard's divisions has taken the heights overlooking Saarbrucken on the left. Prussia will offer little resistance. We were at the front, with musket and cannon balls falling all about us. Louis has kept a bullet that struck close beside him. One of the soldiers wept to see him so brave. Our total loss amounts to one officer and ten men.


This news was received with satisfaction but neither surprise nor enthusiasm. It was no more than was expected, and even in France there was much laughter over Lulu's "baptism of fire." But soon came a change. The German victories of Weissenburg, Worth, and Forbach followed in rapid succession. At the French headquarters an attempt was made to suppress the news of these defeats and no word from the seat of war was received in Paris. The ministers who went to St. Cloud to consult with the Empress found her in tears, and full of anxiety at the long silence. At length, however, rumors of the disasters reached the capital, and the people were beside themselves with rage and despair.

Early on the morning of Sunday, the seventh of August, the Empress came to Paris and immediately sent for the ministers and the presidents of the Legislative Assembly and the Senate. The next day Paris was declared in a state of siege and a proclamation issued by the Empress, urging the citizens to maintain order and rally to the support of France that her losses might be retrieved. She already imagined herself at the head of affairs, taking active measures for the defence of the capital, cheering on the troops, and firing them with courage, a role that particularly appealed to her fancy; but the appeal made little impression. The people, only too familiar with her fondness for theatrical effect and admiration, clamored for action. Declamation was little to the purpose. They wanted victories, not comedies!

Public irritation vented itself first of all against the ministry, which was forced to resign. Emile 011ivier was succeeded by the aged General Montauban, Count of Palikao, who had distinguished himself in the war against China; while Trochu was appointed Governor of Paris. Further to satisfy popular sentiment, Napoleon was forced to resign his position as Generalissimo in favor of Marshal Bazaine, who accordingly assumed the chief command of the army.

Under normal conditions the Emperor's place would now have been in Paris; but the new ministry, as well as the Empress herself, protested against his return. Disheartened by the long delays, sore with disappointed hopes, and furious at the supposed mistakes of the generals, the people of Paris were ripe for revolution, and only a spark was needed to set them aflame. The imperial pair were overwhelmed with scorn and abuse. Already their throne was tottering, and with the victorious advance of the Germans, conviction of its speedy downfall grew daily stronger.

Never before had the Empress found herself in so critical a situation. The new ministry lacked the confidence of the public and could be of no help to her. She had no tried general to depend upon, and every trace of the troops' devotion to the house of Napoleon had long since vanished. She stood alone and defenceless against an enraged populace only awaiting a pretext to hurl itself upon her. With this daily-increasing excitement, the brawls and dissensions caused by the army's defeats on the frontier, and universal anxiety for the fate of the country, Eugenie began to understand how grievously she had erred in urging on this "little war," as she had referred to it in the beginning of the campaign. Fears as to the fate of her own husband and child made her realize for the first time the suffering of thousands of other wives and mothers. She felt the necessity of uniting with them in some active work, and was tireless in her efforts to atone in some measure for the wrong she had thoughtlessly committed.

In the days of prosperity her worst qualities had been uppermost; she had not shown the better side of her nature. It remained for misfortune to reveal her real strength and nobility of character. In spite of the feeling against her, she went about everywhere, personally superintending the care of the wounded. The brilliant salons of the Tuileries were turned into hospital wards. A new spirit seemed to animate her and to lend her fresh strength in this time of danger. At night she rarely slept, and even when taking a brief rest during the day, her attendants had orders to awaken her the moment any message or despatch arrived. No matter how worn out or exhausted she might be, she would force herself to rise and hasten back to the bedside of the wounded where there was so much suffering to relieve, though she had no time to think of her own misery. Yet often in her own chamber, haunted by the agonized cries of the dying, she would pace up and down wringing her hands as if in bodily pain, tortured by anguish of soul. In these hours she prayed long and fervently for her dear ones and for her people, the women who suffered like herself, the brave men who were fighting for their country. A feverish activity possessed her. She tried to persuade Austria to assist France. She wrote to the Queen of England imploring her to intervene for the sake of peace. She pardoned over two thousand criminals. She superintended the preparations for the defence of Paris and held innumerable consultations with Trochu, in whom she placed the blindest and most implicit confidence. At the same time, however, she took the precaution of having all her important private and family papers conveyed on board the French squadron, as well as some of the principal works of art from the Louvre. She also had a list of the crown jewels made, to secure her against suspicion in case of extremity. Her own personal ornaments were sent to her mother in Spain. The strain and over-exertion of these weeks seriously affected her health and wrought a startling change in her appearance. Tortured with suspense, she waited from day to day for news from the seat of war; yet all that came brought so little comfort that her advisers thought best to conceal it from the people as far as possible.

At length came the final blow. On the afternoon of the third of September, as the Minister of Foreign Affairs was on his way to the Tuileries, he was met by the Superintendent of Telegraphs.

"I have just received a most important telegram for the Empress from the Emperor," he said. "I usually attend myself to the messages that pass between Their Majesties, but this one I have not the courage to deliver." It was the well-known despatch:

"The army is defeated and has surrendered. I myself am a prisoner.


The Minister went at once to Eugenie with this terrible news, the reality of which exceeded all that her darkest fears had painted, and her feelings at this moment may be better imagined than described. Yet even then she did not consider her own fate. Her only thought was for France; and she firmly refused to employ the troops in her own defence against the people, for that would have added the terrors of civil strife to those of war. Late that evening the bad news reached the city, but instead of uniting to make a brave stand against the enemy, the populace rose in arms, and it was plain that the Empire's days were numbered. The streets were filled with surging throngs, shouting "Down with the Emperor! Down with the Empress! Long live the Republic!" On all sides was heard the expression, "An Emperor dies, but does not surrender."

About one o'clock that night the Legislature held a special session. Not a member was absent, and the galleries were crowded. Amid a deathly silence the president arose. He said:

"A calamity has brought us together here at this unwonted hour. I have called the session to discuss our present situation."

Not a sound broke the stillness. All eyes were fixed on the Ministers' bench. Count Palikao rose. The aged hero was no orator, but his voice was firm as he announced the disaster of Sedan. He added, slowly:

"With such news it is impossible for the ministry to enter into any discussion before to-morrow. I was called from my bed only a short time since, to come here."

The president of the Exchequer then put the question as to whether the meeting should be adjourned. "Aye-aye," shouted several voices. Suddenly a bushy head arose, and a loud, discordant voice made three motions:—"Deposition of the Emperor; Appointment of a provisional Government; Retention of Trochu as Governor of Paris." It was Jules Favre.

Only members of the Extreme Left subscribed to these motions, which were received with surprising indifference. One member of the Right protested against the Emperor's deposition, but an ominous silence greeted his words. For the rest of the night a similar silence reigned throughout the city. It was the hush before the storm.

That Eugenie was far from suspecting an uprising is shown by the fact that she made absolutely no preparations for flight. The next morning she arose early, heard mass in her private chapel, and made her rounds of the hospitals as usual. At nine o'clock she received General Trochu, who, although only a few hours since placed at the head of the new Government, still solemnly protested his loyalty to her. Later in the forenoon a deputation waited on the Regent to inform her of the appointment of a commission to assume control of the Government in her place, in other words, to request her resignation. She listened quietly to their explanation and dismissed them with the following words:

"What you mean to offer me, gentlemen, is the pledge of a peaceful future, on condition that I renounce the present and abandon in time of danger the post entrusted to me. That I cannot do. To such terms I certainly will not subscribe. Go back to the Assembly and say to General Palikao and his colleagues that I rely upon them implicitly; that I grant them full power to take any steps proper for the interest of the country, and approve the same in advance."

Meanwhile the public tumult increased in violence. The red flag was hoisted everywhere. A boy of nine years even climbed up and fastened one to the top of the bronze railing that surrounded the Tuileries. Thousands filled the Place de la Concorde, roaring the Marseillaise at the top of their voices. The Assembly had again met, but so many forced their way into the chamber, and the uproar was so great, that it was impossible to transact any business.

"Not here shall the Republic be proclaimed," shouted Gambetta, "but at the Hotel de Ville!"

This suggestion met with great applause, and the deputies adjourned to that edifice, where a Government of National Defence was formed. The news that the Empire no longer existed quickly spread and was hailed with wildest enthusiasm. Not a voice was raised in behalf of the fallen dynasty. Vast throngs invaded the Hotel de Ville and valuable portraits of the Emperor and Empress were hacked with knives, trampled under foot, and tossed out of the windows. The imperial emblems were torn to pieces, and the eagle, which could not be easily removed, was covered with paper.

"At the windows of the huge barracks filled with troops supposed to be loyal unto death to the Emperor," says an eye-witness, "I saw soldiers laughing, waving their handkerchiefs, and shouting 'Long live the Republic!' Strangers hugged and kissed one another for joy. In the neighborhood of the Pont Neuf, people mounted on high ladders were busy pulling down busts of the Emperor, which were carried in mock state and flung into the Seine, shouts of laughter and applause greeting the splash with which the mutilated images of their former sovereign struck the water."