David McCullough’s book The Greater Journey lists some of the most well-known artistic, scientific, and literary figures of the Civil War era among those who “made pilgrimages to Paris,” including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. While living in Paris in the 1830s, Samuel Morse found inspiration for his world-changing invention, the telegraph, and was later honored there as a “benefactor of mankind.”
An expatriot just as well-known at the time, but less expected, is Charles Sumner. The abolitionist senator from Massachusetts found Paris a refuge, especially after the infamous, savage beating he suffered in the Senate chamber from Preston Brooks, an outraged Southerner.
Records indicated no concussion or fracture resulted from the attack but, as McCullough notes, Sumner’s suffering “was entirely real, but the indications are it derived far more from the psychological trauma of the attack than from a neurological cause.” Sumner’s well-being improved markedly when he left Washington and deteriorated each time he returned. Though Parisian doctors subjected him to some brutal, though well-intended quackery, the city and the company he kept there proved healing. A friend said, “I never found him more cheerful or more hopeful. It is a continual feast to see him.”
The outbreak of the American Civil War interrupted the Parisian idyll. Worried Americans dashed back over the ocean and Northern and Southern expats became enemies. After the War, not even the City of Light could erase from memory the frightful suffering Americans had endured in battle and on the home front. But the artists soon trickled back, and the Parisian joie de vivre beckoned pleasure-loving Gilded Age visitors.