A French Biologist Observes the Civil War

Charles Girard, towards the end of his life (1891). “Girard Charles Frédéric (1822-1895),” Wikimedia Commons.
Charles Girard, toward the end of his life (1891).
“Girard Charles Frédéric (1822-1895),” Wikimedia Commons.

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

[This piece is the third in a series on international observation of the American Civil War. Follow these links to read Part 1 and Part 2.]

When considering international observation of the Civil War, common sense suggests that the vast majority of observers would be individuals with distinct military interests in mind. Given the distance between the United States and Europe, as well as the time that observation of the war demanded, Europeans did not simply pack their bags for a day trip to the battlefield to observe the Americans fighting each other for nothing but curiosity and laughs. Military interests and observations were not fully the draw of those who did go, however—on occasion politics were involved.

Charles Frédéric Girard, a French scientist (who, incidentally, bears a striking resemblance to the modern actor Christopher Lee), was one of the men who observed the war for political purposes. Unlike many European observers, however, Girard was already very familiar with the United States by the outbreak of the Civil War. Born in France in 1822 and educated in natural science in Switzerland, Girard moved to the United States in 1847, following in the footsteps of his employer Louis Agassiz, a Swiss scientist who would become the chair of geology and zoology at Harvard University. It was in the United States that Girard came into his own as a scientist, eventually leaving the employment of Agassiz for a series of positions at the still new Smithsonian Institution, becoming the institution’s first ichthyologist and herpetologist (one who studies fish and amphibians/reptiles, respectively). By the time he returned to France in 1859, Girard had also acquired a doctorate in medicine from Georgetown University and citizenship in the United States.

Girard would not be gone from America for long, however, as his ties to the states would sweep him up into the chaos of the Civil War even as he rebuilt his life in France. Having made a number of friends in the South and sympathizing along political lines with the Confederacy’s cause, Girard employed himself with Confederate agents in Paris to become a propagandist, medical supplier, and weapons dealer for the rebel states—interesting exploits in their own right. By 1863, however, Girard decided that his commercial and propagandist interests would be best suited by returning to the United States to observe the wartime conditions and write an account for direct consumption by the French Emperor Napoleon III, whom Girard hoped he could convince to intervene in the war on the side of the Confederacy.

While a fascinating character, Girard’s military observations in his published account are somewhat dry and lacking in insight; he frequently restates well-known facts and opinions on the conduct and events of the war that Napoleon III very likely had already heard from other sources. Still, this is understandable given his lack of a military background and is generally excusable, for his observations on civilian and political life are much more interesting.

Girard began his sojourn in the Confederacy with a visit to Jefferson Davis in Richmond, where he familiarized himself with many high-ranking members of the Confederate government. His description of Davis is one that, at least in my mind, summons an image more associated with his political opposite, President Lincoln, at the very least providing an interesting tribute to the man often overshadowed by his subordinate, General Lee: “His speech is slow but persuasive, often eloquent, always lively, with that enthusiasm which commands respect from those who do not share his opinions. The confidence which he inspires in his people is without limit, regardless of one’s social level. This confidence, among the rural population, springs from admiration. All eyes are turned towards him. . . . His health was good but his face showed the marks of work so heavy that daylight hours were no adequate to complete it.”

Observing the various departments of the Confederate government, Girard frequently remarked upon their inability to function properly: The State Department which “can exert only very limited influence on the destiny of the country” due to the Confederacy’s lack of international recognition; the Ministries of the Interior and Commerce which, as he considered, had “no justification for existence” due to the interior-swallowing state of war and ongoing blockade; and the Navy, which “has not been able to establish large naval construction yards for fear that they would fall into the hands of the enemy.” Notably, each of these non-functions would be corrected with just the sorts of aid that France could easily provide for the Confederacy—diplomatic, economic, and naval.

Notably, the only two departments which Girard reports on to any degree of efficiency (those involving the conduct of war aside) are the Treasury and the Post Office. On the Treasury, Girard notes that, proportionally, the Southern states accounted for a lesser proportion of the previous federal debt than have would been expected of them—despite making up a third of the nation’s population, they only accounted for a fourth of its debt, at least as recorded by Girard. Along with this implication of economic prosperity and thrift, Girard notes that the South’s massive production of raw goods makes them a natural trade partner for nations producing more finished goods and in need of raw materials—a nation such as France, perhaps, who could find a market for their “fancy goods from Paris.” On the Post Office, Girard simply records their budget efficiency and surplus of expenses, another point of apparent evidence towards the portrait of good financial management he attempts to paint.

This sort of messaging is what makes Girard an excellent propagandist; weaknesses in the Confederacy could be written off as easily solvable with the resources held by France, who would benefit from what the Confederacy did have to offer. On social and moral grounds, Girard makes this case by painting the Southern states as the true holders of the revolutionary ideals in which the United States was born nearly a century ago and which the French would have immense familiarity with due to their own revolutionary history.

As Girard accuses, the North was a land ruled by despots who censored, arrested, and intimidated its political enemies, while the South was one in which ordinary men and citizens democratically made and debated decisions and affairs. The North was despotic for disallowing the free secession of a state from its voluntary union, where the true rebels are those still loyal to the Union in the Confederacy—a sentiment strikingly similar to those held by the French revolutionaries of the 1790s. Furthermore, Girard describes the Southern culture as Latin (and thus, by association, French) and the North as Anglo-Saxon, detailing perceived cultural similarities between the South and France. His purpose in attempting to make this comparison is clear: the South, similar to France, is thus good and worth helping, while the North, similar to France’s archenemy Britain, is bad and should be opposed.

Toward the end of his account, Girard quotes Jefferson Davis as having privately told him that “We should prefer to be governed by the [African] King of Dahomey himself, rather than submit to Yankee enslavement. If we had to choose between a king or emperor and returning to the former Federal Union, we should adopt the first alternative, even if it meant becoming a province in the Mexican empire under French protection.” This is where Girard’s narrative account takes an unexpected turn, for it is only pages later in which Girard declares “It now seems that the time has come when Napoleon III is called to revitalize the New World, as Napoleon I revitalized the old one.” While Girard has used his southern observations as justification and evidence towards the need of a French alliance for the Confederacy, one cannot help but wonder if perhaps he also took Davis’s alleged statement a bit too literally. How did Napoleon I revitalize the Old World, after all, if not by conquest and war?

Girard’s observations are a wonderful piece of political propaganda, perfectly fitting his intent in writing them. As we know, however, Girard’s efforts would be for naught, as Napoleon III would not intervene for the Confederacy, which would ultimately lose the war. All in all, perhaps Napoleon III’s non-engagement was the best outcome for all involved, given his success record of intervening in other North American states (here’s looking at you, Mexico).

Girard, Charles. A Visit to the Confederate States of America in 1863: Memoir Addressed to His Majesty Napoleon III. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The Confederate Publishing Company, Inc., 1962.

Smithsonian Institution. “Spencer Baird and Ichthyology at the Smithsonian: Ichthyologists: Charles Frederic Girard (1822-1895).” National Museum of Natural History.

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