Elihu Benjamin Washburne

Elihu Benjamin Washburne, (1816 – 1887)

Born in Livermore, Androscoggin County, Maine, September 23, 1816; attended the common schools, and stayed on the farm and helped pay his father’s debts from a failed store. Washburne became a printer’s apprentice before becoming assistant editor of the Kennebec Journal in Augusta – then began the study of law (Kent’s Hill Seminary and Harvard Law School) after borrowing money from his brother.

Washburne went west to the emerging mining community of Galena, Illinois, and opened his law practice. He was anti-slavery and took opposition to the Mexican War. He would work hard in politics and organized the Whig party north of Springfield, Illinois. Washburne was elected to the US Congress in 1852 as a Whig, then as a Republican continuously serving until 1869.

Washburne backed Abraham Lincoln in his 1860 presidential bid and campaign. He then became Lincoln’s informant in the capital city before the President elect’s journey east. It was Washburne, Pinkerton, and Seward who secretly met Lincoln at the train station upon his controversial arrival in Washington. An assassination attempt had been feared, and few reached out to assist.

Elihu Benjamin Washburne\'s Son

Washburne was one of the first to offer his condolences to President Lincoln after his son Willie died. Washburne had just recently lost a child, and knew the pain that the President was experiencing. During the war Washburne’s support of President Lincoln put him at odds with house members. He thrice administered the oath to Speaker of the House to Schuyler Colfax, and once to James G. Blaine.

President Lincoln mentions to Washburne that a second term would be a great honor. He also inquired of Washburne’s friend General Grant and his political ambitions. It was Washburne in February of 1864 who introduced the bill creating the rank of Lieutenant General for Grant – and Lincoln appointed him to the post. Washburne was the sole civilian present at the surrender of Lee’s army to Grant.

Elihu Benjamin Washburne and Son During the funeral of President Lincoln, Washburne was a pall bearer in Washington, rode the funeral train as a member of the Illinois delegation. Washburne would continue to promote the career of Grant – who chose him for his first Secretary of State. Washburne kept the position for 12 days and opted to seek appointment as the minister to France, which he received. Upon the declaration of the Franco-Prussian War, Washburne protected Germans and all foreigners during the siege and during the days of the Commune. He was the only foreign minister who continued at his post during this difficult time.

Grant offers Washburne a cabinet position in his second administration (Treasury), but Washburne stays in France until 1877 at which time he returned to Chicago and engaged in literary pursuits. Washburne died on the 23rd of October, 1887, and is buried in the Greenwood Cemetery, Galena, Illinois.

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