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Negotiations during the Battle of Sedan (September 1, 1870)

The Battle of Sedan (September 1-2, 1870) and the victory of German forces over the French effectively decided the outcome of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. French casualties on September 1 included approximately 3,000 dead, 14,000 wounded, and 21,000 captured. German losses were estimated at approximately 2,300 killed, 6,000 wounded, and 700 captured or missing in action. This 1894 painting depicts the discussion of capitulation terms in a villa in Donchéry (a small town commanding a bridge over the River Meuse below Sedan) between 6 and 9 p.m. on September 1, 1870. It shows the Prussian victor, Helmuth von Moltke (standing, right, beside Bismarck) and the French General Emmanuel Félix de Wimpffen (1811-84), sitting at the left. Accounts vary as to who is seated to Moltke’s right: General Karl Constantin Albrecht Leonhardt von Blumenthal or Prussian Quartermaster-General von Podbielski? Among the officers standing behind Moltke is Count von Nostitz, who is taking notes. In the shadows behind de Wimpffen are French General Henri Pierre Castelnau and other Frenchmen, including a cuirassier, Captain d’Orcet, who allegedly had “observant eyes and a retentive memory.”

According to historical accounts, when de Wimpffen attempted to surrender only the fortress of Sedan, the French artillery, and those soldiers already taken prisoner, Moltke insisted on his original terms: “The entire army, with arms and baggage.” De Wimpffen replied that these terms were “very hard” and that “We merit better treatment.” But Moltke “coldly persisted in his demand,” remembered Bismarck. The attentive d’Orcet put it more strongly: “Von Moltke was pitiless.” French Emperor Napoleon III (1808-1873) surrendered himself and the rest of his troops (about 83,000 men) the next morning.

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Negotiations during the Battle of Sedan (September 1, 1870)

© Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz