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Voices from the past

Uncovering history through letters and diaries

Created date

June 25th, 2013
Elihu Washburne: The Diary and Letters of America’s Minister to France During the Siege and Commune of Paris

Michael Hill spends a typical workday at a desk poring over papers, typing at his computer, meeting with clients. Though his routine sounds like your run-of-the-mill office job, it’s far from it.

Instead of spreadsheets and memos, Hill’s business is the letters and diaries of history’s most illustrious characters. His office is any one of the world’s libraries and archives, and his clients collectively make up a who’s who list of high-powered authors and documentary filmmakers.

For more than 20 years, Hill has served as a researcher for nonfiction heavyweights like David McCullough, Ken Burns, and Jon Meacham. All of them rely on his uncanny ability to track down the raw historical materials at the heart of classic works such as McCullough’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams, as well as Burns’ epic documentary series The Civil War.

“Telling a story is like painting a picture,” Hill says. “You start with a blank canvas and the first decision you have to make is what colors you want to use. My job as a researcher is to go out and find those colors and, hopefully, uncover something that no one’s ever seen.”

While he’s done this plenty of times for other writers, his most recent endeavors are the subject of his own debut book Elihu Washburne: The Diary and Letters of America’s Minister to France During the Siege and Commune of Paris (Simon & Schuster, 2012).

It was while researching chapters for McCullough’s latest book, The Greater Journey, that Hill first encountered Elihu Washburne, who served as Minister to France under President Ulysses S. Grant.

The job brought Washburne to Paris in time to witness the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, the collapse of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, and the brutal siege of Paris at the hands of the Prussian Army. An avid diarist and letter writer, he kept a vivid record of this turning point in European history on a near daily basis and published an edited version as a memoir in 1886.

“When I started searching for Washburne’s papers, I found some of his letter books at the Library of Congress,” Hill recalls. “Looking through them, I noticed pages that looked like diary entries but without datelines.

“They turned out to be letterpress copies (early carbon copies) of Washburne’s original, unedited diary. The problem was there was no record of the original anywhere.”

Literary treasure

So, Hill set out to find it. He began his search at the Washburn-Norlands homestead and archive in Washburne’s hometown of Livermore, Maine, where archivists allowed Hill and McCullough to dig through a stack of unlabeled boxes in the basement.

“The archivist told me that she didn’t have the foggiest idea what we would find in those boxes. David and I just started opening them up, and, all of a sudden, there was the unedited diary in two bound volumes.”

It was a discovery that most researchers dream of making—a largely unpublished, firsthand account of an emperor’s downfall and a nation in crisis. In fact, Washburne was among the few ambassadors who refused to abandon their posts during the siege in spite of Prussian cannon bombardments and a crippling food shortage that brought the city of Paris to its knees.

With this incredible material in hand, the veteran researcher assumed the mantles of writer and editor.

“Initially, I didn’t think I could pull it off,” he confesses. “Research is fueled by curiosity and the thrill of the hunt, whereas, the writing side of the process involves the selection and presentation of the material. That’s hard work.”

Readers would never know it judging by the final product.

Woven together with patches of Hill’s commentary, Washburne’s papers offer a seamless, cinematic narrative of Paris in 1870-1871. To his friends, family, even to the president and secretary of state, he always wrote with an unbridled honesty rarely seen in the letters of political figures.

“When I’m working for David or Ken Burns or anyone else, the topics may be different, but the goal remains the same,” Hill explains. “We’re telling stories of the past through the voices of those who lived them, and sources like Washburne’s papers are what we need to make that happen.”

Months after his book’s release, Hill still marvels at the discovery.

“Unearthing Washburne’s papers after all these years was like resurrecting Washburne himself,” he says. “His family members were probably the last people to read his account before we came along.”

You have to wonder who else is out there waiting to speak.