150 years ago this month, the Franco-Prussian War broke out. By early September the Prussian/German forces had smashed two French armies, captured Emperor Napoleon III, and were marching to Paris to lay siege to the city. When the war ended in 1871 Germany was a unified nation, while the settlement carried the seeds of future conflicts in World War I.
On July 25, 1870, President Grant assented to Major General Philip Sheridan’s request to be an observer during the war. Sheridan and one of his aides, James W. Forsyth (an old companion dating back to the Virginia Campaigns of 1864-65) sailed to Europe and caught up to the Prussian forces in August. He traveled as a guest of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and King Friedrich of Prussia. In this capacity he witnessed some of the largest battles of the war, and was present for Napoleon’s surrender. During the early operations around Paris he encountered Minister (Ambassador) to France Elihu Washburne, Brigadier General William Hazen, and Major General Ambrose Burnside, the latter travelling between the lines during the siege.
Sheridan’s travels also took him to Vienna, Constantinople, Italy, and back to France in time for the war’s formal end, after which he returned to the United States via the United Kingdom.
Sheridan devoted 20% of the second volume of his memoirs to his experiences on this trip. He vividly describes being on campaign and the personalities and scenes he encountered. Twice his U.S. uniform was mistaken for French, and he was nearly killed by German infantry. Sheridan’s discussion of his travels in Eastern Europe offer a stunning portrait of countries and dynasties what would be extinct within 50 years.
What did Sheridan think of what he had witnessed? “I found a great deal to interest and instruct me,” he commented, “yet nowadays war is pretty much the same everywhere, and this one offered no marked exception to my previous experiences.” The Prussian and German mobilization, execution on campaign, and overall discipline impressed him greatly, while Sheridan noted the “stupendous errors” of French strategy.
Significantly, Sheridan also gained a new perspective on the United States. “I came back to my native land with even a greater love for her,” he concluded, “and with increased admiration for her institutions.”