Monday, May 27, 2013

Junius and Albert's Adventurres in the Confederacy by Peter Carlson - Book Review

Junius & Albert's Adventures in the Confederacy: A Civil War Odyssey by Peter Carlson (Public Affairs, 2013, 288 pages, $26.99) tells of a harrowing journey through the Confederacy by two newspaper reporters both working for Horace Greeley's abolitionist newspaper, the New York
Tribune. Written from the unusual on-the-ground perspective of two newspaper reporters rather than the elevated one represented by great Civil War chronicles like The Battle Cry of Freedom, Grant's Autobiography, or Shelby Foote's great three volume history of the Civil War, Junius & Albert depicts both the adventure and the suffering of life for a Yankee newsman held captive in the Confederacy during its long decline and eventual fall. As employees of Greeley, the two intrepid newsmen were incarcerated in horrific prisons, but often received somewhat better treatment than the average soldier might. The book captures the early insouciance as well as the dawning horror of being prisoners behind enemy lines through the eyes of two very good writers who could tell the story better, perhaps, than a soldier writing home to his wife.

Junius Henri Browne, born in Cincinnati, attended the local Jesuit school and college where he developed the rhetorical skills and requisite skepticism to become a reporter. He studied philosophy for fun. Albert Dean Richardson came from Franklin, MA, growing up on the hereditary family farm, which he gratefully left when he was seventeen, heading west. A voracious reader, he became a reporter in Pittsburgh before moving to Cincinnati. The two met in 1853 as 19 year old reporters for rival Cincinnati newspapers and became fast friends. Richardson covered the emerging conflict in “bleeding” Kansas, and was later hired by the Tribune to cover the west.

On Lincoln's election to the Presidency, Richardson became an undercover reporter for the Tribune in the South, covering Memphis, New Orleans, Jackson (MS), and reported on a slave auction and the secession convention. When Ft. Sumter fell, he was the last Tribune reporter to return to New York, whereupon he was assigned as Tribune chief reporter in the West. When he moved to Cairo, IL, he immediately hired Browne. The two men covered Grant's campaign on the Mississippi, the fall of Ft. Henry and Ft. Donnelson, and then tried to join Grant south of Vicksburg for the coming campaign. Perched on a hay barge trying to run the Vicksburg heights, the two men were bombarded off their barge and captured by the Confederate army, beginning their long sojourn.

Unlike many Civil War accounts, both military and political, this book views the war through the eyes of two war correspondents who were both adventuresome and fine writers. It adopts a tone of adventure while not stinting the drama, danger, and death on the battlefield, nor boredom between engagements. Richardson's ability to gain access to high ranking people through his charm often meant that they were in a privileged position to watch and report on officers in key moments. Richardson was at Antietam and wrote later about McClellan's reluctance to chase Lee across the Potomac, which may have hastened Lincoln's firing of the general and issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. After Sherman ejected a journalist who was writing about the army, Richardson appealed directly to the President for freedom of the press. He wrote a portrait about their meeting which successfully painted a picture of Lincoln's subtle political skill as well as being a man of great humility and humor.

After Browne and Richardson were paroled from prison in Vicksburg, they were sent to Libby Prison in Richmond to await exchange for Confederate prisoners and return to Union territory. They were treated relatively well, however, the Confederate agent of prisoner exchange, Robert Ould, consistently refused to exchange the Yankee journalists who worked for archenemy abolitionist Horace Greeley at the New York Tribune. From this point on, Richardson and Browne's incarceration become increasingly difficult as, after the fall of Vicksburg and the Battle of Gettysburg, conditions in the Confederacy continued to disintegrate. The two journalists were transferred to the prison at Salisbury, NC,  where, after Andersonville in Georgia, the prison with the worst conditions in the South for Union prisoners existed.

At Salisbury, Richardson worked in the prison hospital, while Browne cared for the sick and dying soldiers outdoors where they lived under light tents or dug holes to burrow into for some relief from the bitter cold. While, as usual, their circumstances were somewhat more comfortable than the average prisoner of war, life at Salisbury was never easy. As conditions worsened the need to escape to freedom became ever stronger. They soon discovered an underground organization of Union sympathizers called The Heroes of America. Salisbury lies on the western edge of North Carolina's Piedmont region, not too far from the foothills of the Smokey Mountains. The mountain region of western North Carolina and Virginia as well as East Tennessee and eastern Kentucky had never been slave territory and was deeply divided about the Confederacy. Throughout this region, small militias of slave catchers, bushwackers, pro-Union soldiers, and others criss-crossed the mountains, fighting and pillaging. The story of their journey across the mountains to Knoxville shows both their courage and determination.

Peter Carlson

Presented with both a both a sense of adventure, devotion to a cause, and high good humor, this riveting tale is well worth reading. Peter Carlson is the author of K Blows Top, which has been optioned for a feature film. For 22 years, he was a reporter and columnist for the Washington Post and is now a columnist at American History magazine. He has also written for Smithsonian, Life, People, Newsweek, The Nation, and The Huffington Post. He lives in Rockville, MD.

 Junius & Albert's Adventures in the Confederacy: A Civil War Odyssey by Peter Carlson (Public Affairs, 2013, 288 pages, $26.99) provides readers with an exciting view of life in the South during the Civil War through the eyes of two journalists who traveled and were later imprisoned there. I received the book in electronic galley format from the publisher via Net Galley. I read it on my Kindle.