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A Princely Service

July 2024
10min read

Among those who came to the aid of the Union when the Civil War broke out was François Ferdinand Philippe Louis Marie, Prince de Joinville, the third son of the exiled King of France, Louis Philippe. The Prince was doubly gifted, as both soldier and artist. A MERICAN H ERITAGE herewith present the story of his visit, recounted by a distinguished French novelist and essayist, along with a porfolio of the Prince’s water colors. Both recently appeared in a limited edition of A Civil War Album of Paintings by the Prince de Joinville ; together they give a fresh, behind-the-line glimpse of an ill-prepared nation fighting for its life.

On October 15, 1862, in Paris, an article was published in the Revue des Deux Mondes on “The Campaign of the Army of the Potomac.” The article was signed “A. Trognon,” and it summarized, the Revue: stated, the notes “of an officer who took part in the recent battles in Virginia.” Actually Trognon was a pseudonym, and the Prince de Joinville, the third son of King Louis Philippe, was the real author. Emperor Napoleon III ruled in France at that time, and a member of the dethroned royal [Orleanist] family was not authorized to sign an article, especially on such a subject. However, after the fall of the Empire in 1870, when the Revue published an Index of all the texts included between 1831 and 1871, the Prince de Joinville found his name there. …

Why did Joinville, his son, the Duc de Penthièvre, and his nephews, the Comte de Paris and the Duc de Chartres, put themselves at the disposal of the North during the War of Secession? There were two reasons. First of all they were liberals sincerely opposed to slavery. But they also suffered from the inactivity to which their exile had condemned them. Soldiers at heart, they wanted to fight. They were not permitted to fight for France. At least, while fighting for Lincoln, they would learn the use of new techniques in modern warfare. The Prince de Joinville had been an excellent admiral; so we can imagine how interested he was in the naval blockade, the new ironclad ships, and the landing operations. He could even give sound advice.

He arrived in 1861 after the defeat of the first Battle of Bull Run. The Confederate Army camped within sight of Washington. The cannon roared. In the midst of this excitement the Army of the Potomac was born. … For a long time Washington had hoped that “everything wotdd work out.” The North felt the stronger because of its potential and its population, and thought it was useless “to go to trouble in advance.” After Bull Run all illusions were dissipated. …

The Prince observed the Northerners’ lack of military organization. … [He believed] the North relied too much on volunteers. Joinville, a professional soldier, thought that 6,000 regular troops would be more effective than three times as many volunteers.

“In America, however he wrote, “they do not know (hat, and what is more, they do not want to know it. That would be repudiating their deeply rooted belief that every American, when he wants something, finds himself equal to the task without previous training, and that consequently there is no volunteer who, on donning the uniform, does not assume simultaneously the qualities of a soldier. Jn addition the officers of West Point are considered aristocrats simply because they recognize the necessity of a hierarchy. And everything that is aristocratic is bad.” To give much power to a professional army, the Northerners thought, would be to jeopardize their liberties. One cannot make a coup d’état , they said, with volunteers.

That, added Joinville, is understood, but neither is it easy to make an army of volunteers victorious. The regiments are raised by men who insist on commanding them, “and there is Mr. So-and-so, a doctor or a lawyer, who, without having ever touched a sword, becomes a colonel straight away … Then there is the problem of finding soldiers; it is difficult, for there is a great deal of competition.” One comes to an agreement with a few friends, imbued with the martial spirit, who promise to bring a certain number of recruits if this one will be commissioned captain, that one, lieutenant. The Catholic priests are approached “to get some Irishmen.” The soldiers have no illusions about these improvised officers. “They don’t know any more about it than we do,” they said, hence a lack of discipline and respect.

Just as the French princes arrived, Lincoln was trying to correct these serious deficiencies in his army; but he refused, like his adversary, Jefferson Davis, to resort to conscription. Far from blaming him, Joinville praised him: “If it was his duty to repress a revolt, the President did not want, except in the case of absolute necessity, to interfere in the rights that, until then, had made the American people the happiest, and at the same time, the freest people on earth.” ∗ Here one sees the liberalism of the Princes of Orlßans. Two of them, the Comte de Paris and the Duc de Chartres, had been attached to the staff of McClellan, the commander in chief. Joinville, on the other hand, remained a civilian observer and counselor.

∗In the spring of 1862, the Confederate congress passed a conscription act. The Federal government passed a similar act the following year.—Ed..

He got along well with McClellan. “Little Mac” reminded him of Bonaparte because of his youth, his love of letters, his small stature, and his hand in his frock coat. He was admired and even worshipped by his soldiers. The general plan to follow seemed simple to Joinville. There could be no question of conquering and occupying the immense territory of the South. But through a blockade the navy could succeed in isolating this region effectively. It captured New Orleans and blockaded the Mississippi on April 25, 1862. “That was the most important thing,” said Admiral de Joinville; “in this way we put the key in our pocket.” As for the Army of the Potomac, its objective was to drive the Confederates from Richmond. …

In Washington the more timid said: “But the enemy is still across the river from the city in Manassas and Centreville. If the army withdraws, Washington will be in danger.” On the evening of March 9, 1862, a friend tapped the Prince de Joinville on the shoulder: “Don’t you know? The enemy has evacuated Manassas and the army is leaving tomorrow.” Joinville sketched brilliantly, both in drawing and in writing. Here is his version of the departure: “The next day, in fact, the whole city of Washington was in a commotion. A mass of artillery, cavalry, and wagons filled the sujets, moving toward the bridges over the Potomac. On the sidewalks one could see officers tenderly bidding adieu to their ladies in tears. The civilian population dispassionately watched them leave. There was a marked absence of enthusiasm. Perhaps it was the fault of the rain that fell in torrents.”

In the midst of the batteries … he met General McClellan on horseback, worried, riding off alone, without aides. “Anyone who could have seen into the general’s soul that day would have detected the bitterness that was later to accumulate there so cruelly.” There was no lack of cause for bitterness. For a long time McClellan had been preparing to make a crossing to the Virginia Peninsula. Opening the campaign had been imposed on him unseasonably. His superiors reproached him for not having attacked the badly defended positions at Manassas and for letting himself be intimidated by wooden cannons, and even by a stovepipe that looked like a cannon. Joinville defended him: “McClellan knew better than anyone what to expect from the forces that occupied Manassas and Centreville, but he also knew that until April the Virginia roads would be in such a state that it would only be possible to move transport and cannons by building wooden roads, an arduous task. …” [Since assuming command of the Northern troops on July 27, 1861, McClellan had been hard at work in Washington creating a new national army to replace the ninety-day militia regiments which had made up the bulk of the Northern forces in the first months of the war. Joinville obviously approved of his professionalism. McClellan did not want to move against Richmond until he felt that his army was ready, but his caution brought charges of cowardice and even disloyalty from the radical Republicans. On March 11, 1862, Lincoln relieved McClellan of supreme command of the Northern forces. Hc was left in command of the Army of the Potomac and ordered to begin operations against Richmond at once.]

Whatever the case, McClellan was severely attacked. When forced to explain his plans, he submitted them; and the next day they were known to the enemy, doubtlessly informed, Joinville said, “by those thousands of female agents who spy for him even in the most intimate nooks.” Should they march overland to Richmond or continue with the landing plan for which the ships were not yet assembled? Joinville considered pursuit overland impossible. Taking into consideration the requirements of the American soldier and the cnormousness of his rations, as well as the need to bring everything into an area where nothing was to be found, the army could subsist only by relying on the railroads or navigable waterways. Since the enemy had rendered the railways impracticable, it was necessary to resort to transportation by water. … [McClellan rejected the plan to move against Richmond overland via Manassas, and decided to go down to Fort Monroe on Hampton Roads by steamboat and then advance tip the Virginia Peninsula, using the rivers for supply and communication. His army began embarking from Alexandria, Virginia, on March 17.]

Joinville’s naval talents now come to the forefront: “In the West the Union armies marched from success to success thanks to the support of the navy; in the East the contrary was true. One single sea battle in Confederate waters was perhaps going to paralyxe the Federal army. … How true it is that experience has not yet taught even the most powerful seafaring nations the great advantage to be gained in land warfare from a well-organixed navy!” [Union gunboats had played a major role in the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee in February; a month later they were decisive in the fall of the Confederate strongpoints of New Madrid, Missouri, and Island Number Ten, Tennessee, in the Mississippi. But the appearance of the Confederate ironclad Merrimac at Hampton Roads on March 8 threw the North into a panic.]

When the march toward the enemy lines finally began, Joinville was impressed by the corduroy roads constructed in muddy or flooded areas. “There the American pioneer was in his element; the roads were built as if by magic. The cannons and wagons arrived slowly, but they reached areas that seemed to be entirely inaccessible. At night the soldiers did not have an inch of dry soil to bivouac.” Here we have one of Joinville’s sketches: “I remember having seen a lieutenant general whose only quarters consisted of five or six poles covered with pine branches. One end lay in the water; the other leaned against a fallen tree. He slept there with a waterproof coat spread over his head.”

The siege of Yorktown, from April 5 to May 4, 1862, brought back historic memories common to French and Americans. There Washington and Rochambeau had secured the surrender that confirmed American independence. “At every step we found signs of the first siege. Here, in this old tumble-down cottage, Lafayette had his headquarters.” During his youth Joinville knew Frenchmen who had taken part in the siege of Yorktown, and had even known Lafayette. He regretted that France was not officially present at this new siege, but he was aware that she could scarcely intervene in a civil war. Besides, fighting with the Federal troops there was a battalion of French volunteers who called themselves the “Lafayette Guards.” …

A decisive victory at Yorktown perhaps would have re-established the Union. But the clever generals of the South, led at Yorktown by General Joe Johnston, succeeded in withdrawing in time. The Duc de Chartres, who pursued them on horseback, brought back some fifteen prisoners. But the roads were soon crowded. The absence of a staff of officers made it difficult to pass on commands and to collect intelligence. Finally the Federal army entered Williamsburg, and we have another sketch: “All the shops were closed. The inhabitants were standing, for the most part, in the doors or at the windows, anxiously and somberly looking on. Only the Negroes were smiling, and a number of them assumed ridiculous airs of conquerors.”

In the fallen city the Federal army was well behaved. McClellan gave safe-conducts to all the Confederate surgeons who wanted to care for their wounded. Although the extremely hostile residents refused to sell their goods, even for cash, nothing was pillaged. Joinville admired the fact that when the Southern ladies, followed by their Negroes, carried food to their wounded, ostensibly lifting their pleated skirts in order not to soil them as they met a Federal soldier, the latter would merely smile at the “childishness of these spoiled little girls. Others, in their stead,” the Prince added, “would have perhaps been less indulgent.”

In the valley through which the army marched on its way to Richmond, the welcome was warmer. Joinville never tired of admiring the flowers; magnolias, Virginia jasmine, azaleas, and the hummingbirds that flitted through the trees. At times, on crossing a plantation, they passed in front of “a handsome home, with large windows in the roof” which reminded him of the châteaux of France. Ladies in long muslin dresses appeared on the verandahs, surrounded by a suite of curly-headed little Negresses. If an officer introduced himself to the ladies, she offered him a glass of cool water and a conversation was begun. The ladies naturally expressed their ardent desires that their husbands’ and brothers’ side would win, but they hoped above all for peace. …

Joinville thought that the joining of McClellan’s and General Irvin McDowell’s two armies would have sufficed to decide the victory and take Richmond, but the Confederate General Stonewall Jackson made a bold thrust that held McDowell back and kept McClellan from striking a decisive blow to end the war. … [Because of the fear of Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, that Washington might be captured while McClellan was conducting his campaign against Richmond, McClellan was forced to leave some 40,000 of his 130,000 troops behind under the command of McDowell. McClellan was promised the use of these troops in his final push against Richmond, but the brilliant strategy of Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley convinced Stanton that a Confederate invasion of the North was imminent, and he sent McDowell’s troops, not to Richmond, but to the Shenandoah. Substantial numbers of these troops did reach McClellan in time for the climactic Seven Days’ Battles.]

Joinville saw bloody battles, wounded crawling beneath the June sun looking for a little shade under a cluster of rosebushes, newspaper vendors crying “ New York Herald ” on the battlefield during combat and finding buyers. He saw Federal officers invited by the Confederates to a ball in Richmond on the condition that they would let themselves be blindfolded, both going and coming. … He admired the skillfulness of the American soldier: an excellent navvy, hardy woodcutter, good carpenter, and even something of a civil engineer. In the first regiment to arrive, one immediately found men able to repair a mill, a saw, or a steam engine. “I remember a onehundred-acre wood of century-old oaks and hardwoods felled by a single battalion in one day.”

His account ends when the Army of the Potomac is ready to pitch camp to rest at Harrison’s Bar on the evening of July 1. [This was the evening of the day on which the Battle of Malvern Hill had been fought. Union General Fitz-John Porter had held the hill and thus allowed McClellan’s mangled army to march the eight miles to Harrison’s Landing on the James River to rest. And rest it needed. It had just been soundly thrashed by the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee in the famous Seven Days’ Battles.] The campaign against Richmond ended without a victory. …

In spite of the defeat he witnessed, Joinville did not think the Federal cause lost. Compared with those of the South, the resources of the North were greater, “and who knows what a free people is capable of, at a time of peril, when it is fighting for right and humanity?” Such was Trognon-Joinville’s conclusion, and history was to prove him right.

Prince de Joinville

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