Rob Hardy on books


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Two Reporters Trying to Get Out of the Confederacy



Rob Hardy


With social media, journalism is currently going through changes whose eventual outcome cannot be predicted. The way journalists work, especially war correspondents, has changed a great deal already with the War on Terror; it is a far cry from the way the job was done a hundred and fifty years ago. That's one of the lessons in Junius and Albert's Adventures in the Confederacy: A Civil War Odyssey (PublicAffairs) by Peter Carlson. The jaunty title masks the grimness of the great part of this story, of two reporter buddies out to see war for themselves and report on it, only to be caught within the dismal Southern war prison system. It isn't all grim; they were almost always jolly companions throughout, and they got back home in good shape after twenty months behind the lines. Carlson has found a great story, and has done an especially good job of drawing out the characters of the two reporters, with attention, too, to a supporting cast of allies and enemies. His book provides a fresh look at particular aspects of how the Civil War was fought, and what role newspapers played. 




The two intrepid reporters, Junius Browne and Albert Richardson, had both become reporters because they wanted some adventure. Richardson was a plain-spoken boy from a farm in Massachusetts held by his ancestors for generations. He loved reading more than plowing, and at age seventeen he headed west, eventually finding work as a reporter in Cincinnati. He met his wife in a bookstore there. Browne had been well schooled courtesy of the resources of his father, a banker, and he grew up in Cincinnati. He loved the classics from Greece, or even ancient India, and he stuffed his dispatches with quotations and allusions. He married eventually, but at the time covered by this book, he loved women but considered marriage an imprisonment. The two were cub reporters working for rival newspapers in Cincinnati when they met, but they became close friends. Eventually, both wound up reporting for the New York Tribune, the paper of the famous Horace Greeley ("Go west, young man!"). 




It was on assignment for the Tribune that Browne and Richardson were members of the "Bohemian Brigade," as the group called itself. Browne called them the "knights of the quill," and explained that they risked their lives in being war correspondents "purely from a love of adventure - to have the experience - which is a very natural desire of the poetico-philosophical temperament." They were determined to get as much fun as possible from the grim wartime environment, and they drank and smoked and played pranks while waiting for the action to befall them. Action did happen, though. Browne was at the battle at Fort Donelson, and it was chaos. Carlson writes, "Early in his story, he wrote a line that sums up the 'fog of war' so well that it could be included in nearly every battle dispatch in every war ever fought: 'No one here seems to have any knowledge of anything, the leading officers having little more information than the privates.'" The Bohemian Brigade enjoyed the life on the lines. They did not pretend to be objective observers taking in diverse points of view. Readers of the Tribune would have expected reporters to fall right in line with Greeley's staunch abolitionism, for instance. The reporters concentrated on getting out a good story rather than a factual story. When they were 200 miles away from the Battle of Pea Ridge, Browne and a colleague did not let that detail allow them to be scooped by a competitor; they just wrote a long and vivid eyewitness account anyway. It was a stunt, but it worked, and it was the way reporters did their jobs then. 




Browne and Richardson were eyewitnesses to battle in May 1863 when they were on a Union barge that was trying to sneak past the Confederate cannons at Vicksburg. A shell from a cannon ended that adventure; they were fished out, along with other survivors, and put in jail. At the time, the Confederate and Union forces had an agreement to release or swap captured journalists, who were, after all, not combatants. This was part of a larger gentlemanly agreement by which captured soldiers were freed to go back home as long as they agreed not to take part in the fighting again; at least in the beginning of the war such sensible agreements were encouraged, but they soon broke down. Richardson and Browne got letters of parole from the proper Confederate official, and trusted that it would only be a matter of time before they were transported back home. 




Instead, the reporters began a dismal spell of transportation from one grim prison to another. They were curiosities to the Southerners, who would sometimes come to see them, assuring the reporters that every Southerner was ready to die to the last man, "die in the last ditch" for the Confederate cause. They heard this line so often that they made it a running gag. "Where is this ditch?" they wanted to know. "How deep is it? They're going to need a very big ditch to hold all these Rebels who keep promising to die in it." From time to time they were treated with some degree of respect, and got cordial visits from fellow reporters of Confederate papers, but they had a great strike against them: they represented the detested abolitionist Tribune. While other prisoners, and other reporters, were sent home on schedule, those in charge of prisoner exchanges had a particular grudge against Richardson and Browne. Their successive prisons did not include the infamous Andersonville, but North Carolina's Salisbury Prison was close to it in harshness, and the descriptions, including brutality, slow starvation, and lice, are not easy reading. The reporters kept up their spirits by volunteering for medical duty, and by simply walking around and getting the stories from their fellow prisoners. Some of those stories, of course, were of miraculous protection from bullets. Something had deflected an otherwise lethal bullet, a half dollar or a plug of tobacco or even a book of risqué song lyrics. But Browne wrote, "I am sorry to say that I heard of no instance in which a life was saved by a Bible and I'm bound to believe the fact is owing to the great scarcity of the sacred volume in the army rather than to any want of preserving power in the Holy Book itself." 




Eventually, the reporters invented an escape plan, one that could only succeed if they broke out of prison and then crossed 200 miles over mountainous Confederate territory in the middle of the winter. They were sheltered by slaves and by mountain men who themselves were eluding Confederate impressment. They got to the Union lines, and Richardson was able to send the Tribune a telegram he knew would be widely reproduced and quoted: "Knoxville, Tennessee, January 13, 1865. Out of the jaws of Death; out of the mouth of Hell. - Albert D. Richardson." Their return was big news and cause for celebration, and both of them wrote accounts of their Confederate sojourn that became bestsellers, from which, of course, Carlson has drawn. They had shown good humor, resourcefulness, and bravery, but for all that, Browne wanted to make sure his readers knew that the "romance of war" was but a cruel myth: "What is war, after all, but scientific assassination, throat-cutting by rule?" Nonetheless, this exciting book gives the reporters' view of the Civil War, showing that the great conflict still has important aspects to be explored. 




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