Paris Commune

A touching and fascinating anecdote on the Venus de Milo‘s near destruction during the 1871 Paris Commune disaster comes in David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. I’m including a bit of the wider context for this drama because it was one of the most touching sections in this great book:


Like most of Paris, Washburne went to bed and slept through that night, May 21-22, unaware of what was happening, and like most of Paris he was stunned when he awakened to the news. The Tricolor flew atop the Arc de Triomphe, he was told by an excited servant at first light. The Versailles army had entered Paris.

He and Gratiot both dressed at once and raced out to see with their own eyes. It was true. Others already on the avenue were happily congratulating one another on delivery of Paris at last.

The regulars had marched in at Porte de Saint-Cloud in force at three o’clock the previous afternoon, and against little opposition advanced steadily along the Right Bank of the Seine on the avenue that connected Versailles and Paris, heading for the Commune stronghold at the heart of the city, at the Place de la Concorde.

Nothing had foretold the attack. The Commune command was taken completely by surprise. As night came on and the Versailles troops moved forward in the dark, National Guard units manning the barricades at Porte Maillot and on the avenue de la Grande-Armée, beyond the Arc de Triomphe, hastily abandoned their positions, and so another corps of regular troops poured into that quarter of the city. An enormous barricade by the Arc nearly thirty feet high that had taken great labor to build “served no earthly purpose,” as Washburne observed.

He and Gratiot followed the regular troops down toward the Place de la Concorde, fully expecting to see the National Guard defense there quickly overrun. But it did not happen. Orders had gone out from the Central Committee at the Hôtel de Ville to throw together more barricades, barricades “in all haste,” barricades in every direction. As reported later in Galignani’s Messenger, “Everyone passing was forced to bring forward a paving stone or an earth bag, and any refusal would have been dangerous. Women and children worked just as actively as the National Guards themselves.”

At about nine o’clock the Communard batteries on Montmartre opened fire on the city and the shells came in “thick and fast.”

Tired of waiting and doing nothing, Washburne mounted a horse and rode off to see more, entirely without concern for his own safety, it would seem. “5:45 P.M. Have just taken a long ride,” he wrote. “The havoc has been dreadful—houses are all torn to pieces, cannon dismantled, dead rebels, etc., etc. One can hardly believe such destruction.”

“To arms!” read an urgent appeal posted by the National Guard. “To the barricades! The enemy is within our walls! Let there be no hesitation! Forward the Republic, the Commune and Liberty.”

By late in the day more than 80,000 Versailles troops had arrived and the western third of the city was in their hands. Still, at the Place de la Concorde and elsewhere, the fighting raged on, gunfire and the screams of the wounded filling the night.

So began “Le Semaine Sanglante,” the Bloody Week.

On May 23 a city of 2 million people became a deafening full-scale battlefield. For twelve hours there was no letup in the roar of cannon. Montmartre, the symbolic stronghold of the Commune, fell to the regular army, the Communards leaving behind the dreadful spectacle of twelve regular soldiers who, because they refused to join the Commune, had had their hands cut off. Vicious street fighting took heavy tolls on both sides, but of the Communards especially. Some 4,000 Communards were taken prisoner. Any suspected of being deserters from the regular army were shot at once.

The Communard positions at the Place Vendôme, the Place de la Concorde, the Tuileries Palace, and Hôtel de Ville continued to hold.

Everyone in Paris tried to keep out of harm’s way, indoors. Washburne, for his part, decided to make still another effort to save the archbishop. He went by carriage to the Versailles army headquarters at Passy to urge Marshal MacMahon to take possession of the Mazas Prison as quickly as possible…

Two days earlier Police Chief Rigault and a coterie of extreme Communards had met in secrecy and ordered the execution of Archbishop Darboy and five other priests. The hostages were then moved from Mazas to La Roquette Prison in the Belleville quarter, which was still under Communard control.

At approximately six o’clock on the evening of May 24, as Paris was burning, the archbishop and the others were ordered out into the courtyard of the prison. They then descended a stairway, stopping at the ground floor, where they embraced one another and exchanged a few last words. When a cluster of National Guard soldiers at the door made insulting remarks, an officer demanded silence, saying, “That which comes to these persons today, who knows but what the same will come to us tomorrow?” Darkness had come on, and the six prisoners had to be led into the courtyard and up to the wall by the light of lanterns. The archbishop was placed at the head of the line. At a signal the firing squad shot all six at once.

Late that night the bodies were tumbled into a cart, hauled to nearby Père Lachaise Cemetery, and thrown into an open ditch.

At the Mazas Prison another fifty-three priests were murdered in cold blood.

Nothing of these atrocities was reported until late the next day. Nor was it yet generally known that on the afternoon of May 24, before the execution of the archbishop, Versailles soldiers had found Raoul Rigault hiding in a hotel on rue Gay-Lussac and, upon discovering who he was, took him into the street and shot him in the head. The body lay in the gutter for two days. …

Although estimates of the total carnage inflicted by the regular troops vary, there seems little doubt that they slaughtered 20,000 to 25,000 people. No one would ever know for sure what the total numbered, but nothing ever in the history of Paris—not the Terror of the French Revolution or the cholera epidemic of 1832—had exacted such an appalling toll. At one point the Seine literally ran red with blood.

The value of the architectural landmarks and other treasures destroyed was inestimable.

Olin Warner, like Washburne an eyewitness to events, was later to write a lengthy defense of the Communards, in which he compared their initial idealism to that of the American rebels of 1776. At the time, however, in a letter to his “Dear Ones at Home” he said he had seen more than enough. “I hope it will never be my lot to see a drop of blood shed again. I never want to hear another cannon roar as long as I live. … I am disgusted with everything pertaining to war.”

On June 1, three days after the fighting had ended, Elihu Washburne went to La Roquette Prison to see the cell in which the archbishop had been held, and to pay homage at the spot in the prison yard where the archbishop and the five priests had been executed. The marks of the bullets on the wall could be plainly seen.

The body of the archbishop, having been rescued from the ditch at Père Lachaise before decomposition had taken place, lay in state at the palace of the archbishop at 127 rue de Grenelle. For several days thousands came to pay their respects, Washburne among them. On June 7, still greater numbers lined the streets to see the funeral procession pass on the way to Notre-Dame, where services were held with all appropriate majesty. To Washburne is was one of “the most emotional and imposing services he had ever attended.”


Charred beams, dead animals, shattered doors and window frames, the remains of broken lampposts, wagons, mountains of wreckage, and all the barricades were hauled away. With people working day and night, life steadily resumed. Omnibuses began running, restaurants opened. It was not that the horrors of what had happened were put out of mind, any more than the horrendous damage done vanished entirely from sight. The blackened ruins of the Palace of the Tuileries were to be left standing for more than ten years as a mute reminder. …

The Hôtel de Ville would be rebuilt, the Column of the Place Vendôme put together again and restored to its old pedestal.

The Venus de Milo was recovered from a secret hiding place and returned to the Louvre. The incomparable Greek statue, dating from before the birth of Christ, had been buried during the siege in, of all places, the cellar of the Prefecture of Police. Packed into a giant oak crate filled with padding, it was taken in the dead of night to the end of one of the many secret passages in the Prefecture, where, as only a few knew, a wall was built to conceal it. Stacks of documents of obvious importance were piled against the wall, then a second wall built to make it appear the hiding place was for the documents. When the Prefecture caught fire the night so much of Paris went up in flames, the anxiety of those in the know about the Venus was extreme. It seems a broken water pipe “miraculously” saved the statue. Once the smoking ruins were removed, the oak crate was found intact and brought back to the Louvre…