- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 28, 2002

On a hot August day in 1861, the Illinois congressional delegation huddled in the Capitol in Washington. With war under way in earnest, the 37th Congress was meeting in emergency session, and one of its responsibilities was to nominate 34 generals of volunteers.
Illinois had been allocated six slots two more than any other state, but then, President Lincoln happened to be from Illinois. After some discussion, Rep. Elihu Washburne urged that one of the commissions be awarded to a constituent, Ulysses S. Grant. Few of those present had heard of Grant, but Washburne was the senior congressman present, and Grant got his commission.
If Grant was unknown at the time, his mentor was not. Washburne, a native of Maine, had attended Harvard Law School. He had moved west in about 1840 and established a law practice in Galena, Ill. There his legal practice, together with some successful land speculation, made him sufficiently wealthy that he began to dabble in politics.
He affiliated with the Whig Party, where he came to know a rising local politician named Abraham Lincoln. By 1844, Washburne had a national reputation and was chosen to nominate Henry Clay for president at the Whig convention that year.
Washburne failed in a bid for Congress in 1848 but was successful four years later, and in March 1853, he began the first of 16 years in the House of Representatives. A newspaper correspondent described him as a "broad-shouldered, good-bellied man, eastern in his appearance but western in his thinking." In Congress, he gained a reputation for integrity and frugality, if not conviviality.
Why Washburne chose to be Grant's patron in 1861 is not entirely clear. Whereas Grant was apolitical and enjoyed a drink, Washburne was an ardent abolitionist who neither smoked nor drank. Also, whereas Washburne had been an active supporter of Lincoln for president, Grant had vaguely favored Stephen A. Douglas. Although both men came from Galena, they appear to have had little contact before the war. One author speculates, "Washburne, dedicated to the war effort, wanted to do what he could for his hometown, and at that point Grant was the only Galenian qualified for higher rank."
Soon, Grant commanded a military district in western Illinois. Writing to a colleague in Washington, Washburne called his fellow townsman one of the best officers in the army, adding, "He is doing wonders in bringing order out of chaos" in his district. Then, in February 1862, Grant vindicated his mentor's confidence with the capture of two Confederate strongholds, Forts Henry and Donelson. When Grant subsequently quarreled with his commanding officer, Gen. Henry W. Halleck, Washburne interceded with Lincoln on Grant's behalf.
Grant nearly lost it all in April 1862 when, at Shiloh, his army was surprised by the Confederates under Gen. Albert S. Johnston and barely escaped defeat. Although Grant was denounced roundly in the Northern press, Washburne stood by his protege, as did Lincoln, who remarked, "I can't spare this man he fights."
After Grant captured Vicksburg and again became a hero in the North, Washburne sponsored legislation to revive the rank of lieutenant general, with Grant the intended beneficiary.
A year later, Washburne was visiting Grant's army in Virginia when the general asked him to take a letter to Halleck in Washington. In it, Grant included his famous vow, "I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer." The episode symbolized the changing relationship between Washburne and Grant. The general was now a celebrity; his one-time patron was a messenger.
Washburne's close ties to both Lincoln and Grant made him one of the most influential congressmen in Washington. Then came the assassination of Lincoln on April 15, 1865. Washburne soon broke with President Andrew Johnson over Reconstruction.
A strong advocate of rights for the freedmen, Washburne became an early supporter of Grant for president. In November 1868, Grant was elected president, and Washburne was re-elected to the House. Grant voted at his polling place in Galena, then walked to Washburne's home to smoke cigars and await the returns.
With Grant's election, political observers expected Washburne to be offered a key post in the new administration, and indeed, Grant named Washburne to be secretary of state.
Then came a bizarre sequence of events. A week after his appointment, Washburne resigned on grounds of ill health but immediately accepted appointment as minister the equivalent of ambassadorto France. Speculation centered on the fact that Washburne's wife was of French descent, and it was rumored that either Grant or Washburne believed an interim appointment as secretary of state would enhance the stature of any American envoy.
Washburne ended by serving as minister to France for eight-1/2 years, a record at that time for any American envoy. He served during a tumultuous time. Washburne was in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, endearing himself to the French by refusing to leave Paris and gaining the respect of the Prussians by attempting to protect German property in the city.
In the wake of military defeat, Paris was taken over by the Commune, a revolutionary government, and civil war broke out between the Commune and the provisional government in Versailles. Washburne was the only foreign envoy who remained in Paris, and the American legation compound became a sanctuary for foreigners. At one time, 4,000 refugees were being fed in the American compound. After the defeat of the Commune, German Chancellor Bismarck offered Washburne the highest decoration Germany could give a foreigner, but Washburne declined the honor.
When Washburne returned to the United States in the autumn of 1877, he learned that his name was being mentioned for the presidency. He appears to have done nothing to stop the movement, despite the fact that Grant back from a world tour was eager for a third term in the White House. When Washburne allowed his name to go before the Republican convention of 1880, he received just 44 votes, and the nomination went to James A. Garfield of Ohio.
Grant considered Washburne's failure to withdraw in his favor to be a personal affront, and the "silent soldier" was not one to forgive a slight. Grant and Washburne, whose careers had been so intertwined, never met again.
John M. Taylor, a resident of McLean, is the author of a number of books dealing with the Civil War period, including biographies of William H. Seward and James A. Garfield.


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