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Elihu Benjamin Washburne



ELIHU BENJAMIN WASHBURNE, United States Minister to France, was born at Livermore, Oxford county (now Androscoggin county), Maine, on the 23d of September, 1816. Two of his brothers, Cadwallader C., and Israel, Jr., have also sat in Congress, the former from Wisconsin, the latter from Maine. Elihu served an apprenticeship in the office of the Kennebec Journal; afterwards studied law at Cambridge Law School (Harvard University), and removed to Galena, Illinois. He was first elected to the Thirty-third Congress, from the First Congressional District of Illinois, as a Whig, in 1853 ; and he was re-elected to every succeeding one up to the Forty-first (1869-71), acting with the Republican party from its organization, and voting always and persistently on the side of freedom. In the 38th Congress he became the " Father of the House," by virtue of having served a longer continuous period than any other member. From the Thirty-fifth to the Thirty-ninth Congress, he was chairman of the Committee on Commerce, and in the latter session was a member of the Joint Committee on the Library, Chairman of the Special Committee on Immigration, and, at the death of Hon. Thaddeus Stevens, he became Chairman of the Committee on Appropriations. He was also Chairman of the Special Committees on the Death of President Lincoln, and the Memphis Riots; and was on the Committees on Rules; Reconstruction; Air Line Railroad to New York, etc.; always active, attentive, and practical in council and debate. When the war of the rebellion commenced, Mr. Washburne was the leading man of his Congressional District, "carrying it in his breeches pocket," as the saying is; occupying an elegant mansion, and powerful in political and social influence. At the first war meeting held in Galena, for the mustering of volunteers, he offered a resolution, and, in fact, engineered the meeting. J. A. Rawlins (afterwards Brigadier-General On General Grant's staff, and later Secretary of War), also made a speech. Ex-captain Ulysses S. Grant was present, unnoticed and taking no active part in the proceedings, with evidently no suspicion of the strange fate which was to lift him from the obscurity of his father's leather store to the Presidential chair. At a second meeting, the company was organized and officered, but Grant was not thought of.

A few days after, Mr. Collins (Grant's partner, and a Democrat) met Mr. Washburne and rallied him on the selection made for captain of Galena's first volunteer company, " when they could get such a man as Grant." "What is Grant's history? was Mr. Washburne's natural inquiry. "Why, he is old man Grant's son, was educated at West Point, served in the army for eleven years, and came out with the very best reputation." So the Congressman looked up the quiet leather dealer, Grant, who lived in a modest cottage on the top of a bluff, which he could only reach, whenever he went to dinner, by a staircase some two hundred feet high. The two "struck hands," and Mr. Washburne insisted on Grant's accompanying him to Springfield, the Capital of the State.

Grant had already applied to Ohio, his native State, for a chance to serve, and to the Adjutant-General, at Washington from whom came no response. So they went to Springfield Pope was the hero of the hour; confusion reigned. Grant got employment in Governor Yates' office, and the Governor, after a while, discovered his abilities, and gave him the command of a regiment. For his next promotion, the future President was indebted to the active interest of his friend, Washburne.

It so happened that President Lincoln had sent to each of the Illinois Senators and Representatives, a circular, asking them to nominate four Brigadiers. Mr. Washburne pressed Grant's claims, on the ground that his section of the State had raised a very large number of men for the war, and were entitled to such an appointment; his arguments prevailed, and, to his own great surprise, Grant was made a Brigadier-General. 

In October, 1861, Mr. Washburne saw Grant at Cairo, Illinois, and seemed to have become impressed with the idea that Grant was "the coming man" of the war. When General Pope's friends urged that general's claims for a Major-General's stars, Mr. Washburne secured from the President a promise that none of the brigadiers then in commission should be promoted until they had distinguished themselves in the field. When Grant's reputation was assailed by reports of intemperance, etc., Mr. Washburne took no rest until he had sifted the evidence, and disproved the charge. The battle of Fort Donelson rendered General Grant, in a large degree, independent of Mr. Washburne's friendly offices; but the intimacy and friendship of the two men were in no wise weakened, and it was Mr. Washburne who had the pleasure of framing the bill by which the rank and title of Lieutenant-General, only previously conferred on General Washington, was created and bestowed upon General Grant.

In 1864-5, he ran for the United States Senatorship against Governor Yates, and came very near being successful. Mr. Washburne is bluff, hearty, vigorous in manner, yet not discourteous. As a speaker he is vehement, brief, plain, practical in the tone of his remarks, and in his deductions; his style possessing no flowery adornment, but rather a " sledgehammer" force. He is conspicuous for his persistent opposition to every form of political corruption, fighting against every grant, subsidy and private bill, and endeavoring to defeat every attempt at plunder of the public treasury.

On the accession of President Grant, he appointed Mr. Washburne his Secretary of State, in March, 1869, but he resigned about a week later in accordance with a previous arrangement, on the plea of ill-health, and accepted the position of Minister to France. He remained in Paris during the celebrated siege of that city, in 1870-1, rendering much assistance to the American residents, and conducting himself in so humane, honorable and judicious a manner during the trying emergencies and complications of that struggle, that he reflected honor upon the Republic which he represented, and received not only the most cordial acknowledgments from the Republic, at whose birth throes he was thus fortuitously present, but from the German Government also, many of whose citizens, shut up in the beleaguered city, he had protected from the hostility of the infuriated National Guard, and as the only representative of a first class neutral power, had been their sole resource.

Mr. Washburne has developed in this position a higher order of diplomatic ability than he was generally credited with possessing. His whole course has been eminently judicious, and creditable alike to himself and the Government he represents. The appointment, though made almost entirely on the basis of personal friendship, and in some sense as a requital for benefits conferred, has proved one of the best which President Grant has made.

Source: Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872  


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