Sheridan and the Franco-Prussian War

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.

Phil Sheridan. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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.”

An emissary of Napoleon III delivers the surrender letter to King Friedrich at Sedan. Behind Friedrich stand Bismarck, von Moltke, and other aides. Sheridan witnessed this scene from the group in the rear, but is not depicted in the painting.

8 Responses to Sheridan and the Franco-Prussian War

  1. France… which produced Napoleon, whose military tactics were studied at West Point.
    France… which could have altered the course of the American Civil War in 1861 or 1862.
    France… only 49 years after the death of Napoleon, subjugated by a second-tier military power.
    Everything cycles… and timing is everything.

  2. He missed by 10 years being hosted in Istanbul by James Longstreet (US Minister to the Ottoman Empire 12/1880-4/1881

  3. I find it fascinating that the feckless Napoleon III surrendered to Bismarck who surrendered power to the equally feckless Wilhelm. The millstone of history grinds slow, but it grinds fine.

  4. Isn’t the typical observation about the operation of the Prussian General Staff system?
    I guess Sheridan didn’t have any thing to say about that?

    1. He spent most of his time with the King and Bismarck, interspersed with visits to field army commanders. Moltke and his staff system seems to have been out of his sight.

      Interestingly, Delafield and his companions also missed the staff system in 1856. It appears to have come to international notice only in the wake of the Prussian victory in 1871. Even then, the U.S. Army did not adopt a similar system until after the War with Spain.

      1. Good point – and that includes McClellan missing it as well. As we know, Upton did not miss it before his untimely death.

  5. “I came back to my native land with even a greater lover for her,” he concluded, “and with increased admiration for her institutions.”

    Geezz, we sure can use some more of THAT these days.

  6. Minor correction — the Prussian king at the time was Wilhelm (Friedrich is his son). After this war Wilhelm will be crowned Kaiser Wilhelm I… he is the grandfather of the more well-known Kaiser Wilhelm II who leads Germany into WWI.

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