Civil War journalists suffered imprisonment
By Steve Weinberg, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
When two New York City newspaper journalists entered Confederate territory during the zenith of Civil War bloodshed, found themselves captured by Southern troops and imprisoned, their situation seemed mighty foreboding. They could not have imagined that their troubles were just beginning.
During a year and a half of hellish conditions and repeated instances of near-death, Junius Browne and Albert Richardson suffered one of the worst nightmares of all in Atlanta.
Perhaps that is getting ahead of the saga, however.
The ordeal of New York Tribune journalists Richardson and Browne has been related previously in books by themselves and others. But those books appeared a long time ago and tended to lack reliable details.
Contemporary author Peter Carlson has resurrected and expanded the adventure through his impressive research.
Carlson arrived at the lives of Richardson and Browne in an unexpected way. An editor at an American history magazine that had published some of Carlson’s feature articles made a caustic comment about the quality of journalism during the Civil War.
Carlson decided to look into it. During his quest he came across a mention of Browne and Richardson’s adventures. The author of two previous books grounded in American history, Carlson realized Browne and Richardson deserved a contemporary audience because of their professional skill and personal courage.
It turns out that some high-quality journalism did exist during the Civil War; Richardson and Browne provided a significant portion of it before their capture. Carlson offers brief samples of that reporting. But he decided to devote the bulk of the fast-paced narrative to the capture, imprisonment and escape of the journalists.
Browne and Richardson were captured near Vicksburg, Miss., on May 4, 1863. Marched to Jackson, Miss., the journalists found themselves locked in the local jail. They felt certain they soon would be released from custody because of a custom observed by both Union and Confederate commanders that journalists would not be treated as war captives. The Confederates moved the two journalists from city to city, and at times they were allowed to dine in restaurants and sleep in hotels, more or less on an honor system.
But Browne and Richardson would not be released. They continued to be treated as war captives day after day, and the treatment grew increasingly more harsh.
During a stop in Atlanta, the editor of the Southern Confederacy newspaper suggested that Browne and Richardson be executed rather than merely imprisoned. Perhaps a lynch mob would do the dirty work, the editor wrote.
No execution occurred in Atlanta. Soon the Confederates moved Browne and Richardson to more permanent imprisonments in Richmond, Va., and Salisbury, N.C.
The portions of the book about the long-term prison stays are harrowing. The Confederate prisons housing the journalists — thrown in with Union combatants and Confederate deserters — were unsanitary and in every other way inhumane, despite the supposed humanitarian protocols for treatment of prisoners.
Realizing that their initial optimism about release was misguided, Browne and Richardson began plotting their escape. They made their break on Dec. 18, 1864, from the Salisbury prison. Successfully crossing Confederate territory was not simple or quick, and the men were not well equipped for winter weather in unknown regions. But they succeeded.
The escape complete, Browne managed to recover from his traumas well enough to remain alive and active until 1902. Richardson, however, died in 1869, under circumstances so dramatic that to reveal them would prove a “spoiler,” unusual though that is for a nonfiction book. Chicago Tribune.