May 24, 2013

It’s often said that journalists write the first rough draft of history. But rarely do reporters draft history in quite so rough a fashion as Junius Browne and Albert Richardson did in the Civil War.

The two Northern correspondents narrowly escaped death in an artillery bombardment, only to be captured by Confederates. For 593 excruciating days, they skirmished with lice in Southern prisons as the real war raged on without them. Then, after a jailbreak and a harrowing trek through enemy territory, the reporters filed the story of a lifetime: their own.

Peter Carlson narrates this tale of journalistic derring-do in “Junius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy.” This title, which echoes the 1989 slacker film “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” undersells the gravity of the reporters’ experience. But it’s also appropriate, because Carlson’s book unspools like a buddy flick: Two larkish fellows embark on a trip that goes desperately wrong and often veers into farce.

At the start of the Civil War, Browne and Richardson belonged to the self-styled “Bohemian Brigade,” a journalistic troupe of insouciant thrill-seekers who gallivanted along the front. Like other reporters of that era, they made no pretense to objectivity and freely expressed the staunch abolitionism of their employer, the New York Tribune. Nor did they let the facts get in the way of a good story. At one point, to avoid being scooped by a competitor, Browne and a colleague composed “long, vivid, eyewitness accounts of a battle that occurred 200 miles beyond their eyesight,” Carlson writes. Their fabrications ran at length in the Tribune, a stunt that made the writers legendary among the Bohemian Brigade.


‘Junius and Albert's Adventures in the Confederacy: A Civil War Odyssey’ by Peter Carlson (PublicAffairs)

But these cavalier “knights of the quill,” as Browne called them, also risked their lives to cover combat. In May 1863, Browne and Richardson tried to sneak past rebel cannon at Vicksburg aboard a Union barge filled with hay. An incoming shell burned and killed half the soldiers on board. The survivors were fished out of the Mississippi and jailed.

It was customary at the time to quickly release or swap captured journalists. But Browne and Richardson wrote for the paper most hated in the South; the Confederate in charge of prisoner exchanges called them “the worst and most obnoxious of all non-combatants.” Also, soon after their capture, the warring parties suspended prisoner exchanges. So the men were shuttled among jails, including Richmond’s notorious Castle Thunder, before ending up at North Carolina’s Salisbury Prison, a mini-Andersonville where men perished in droves from exposure, disease and shootings by guards.

Carlson’s story has so many twists, right up to the last page, that I won’t spoil it by telling more. But the exquisite plot is only one of the joys of reading this book. As a veteran journalist (including 22 years at The Washington Post), Carlson captures the competitive yet collegial world of reporters in the field and their tortured relationship with distant editors. He also has an ear for quotes and an eye for detail, and shares with the Bohemian Brigade a keen sense of the ridiculous.

Though the Northern reporters were hated Yanks, they were also curiosities. So Southerners flocked to visit the inmates — and to declare their willingness to “die in the last ditch” for the Cause. This line was repeated so often, Carlson writes, that it became a running gag for the reporters: “Where is this ditch? 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.” He also quotes the absurd reports in Southern papers, including this one on Gettysburg: “The Confederates were repulsed but cannot, at present, with justice or candor, be said to have suffered defeat.”

Carlson excels as well at drawing characters, particularly the odd couple at the heart of his book. Browne, the well-schooled son of a banker, was a bookish scribe who filled his florid dispatches with Classical allusions. Richardson, a rugged farm boy, was plainspoken and ingratiated himself with all he met. Yet the two became inseparable and sustained each other through hardships and despair that neither could endure alone. “The North for us is like the grave,” Richardson wrote, after letters stopped reaching inmates, “no voice ever comes back to us from it.”

If there’s a flaw in this fine book, it’s that Carlson tells his story almost too well. He’s shorn away anything that might interrupt the flow of his taut, lively narrative. This makes for a rollicking read, but at times I wanted more context and reflection — on the telegraph, for instance, a technology that transformed the news business in the mid-19th century as dramatically as the Internet has changed the media in our own time.

Also, while Carlson details his deep research in the book’s endnotes, his text doesn’t address whether Browne and Richardson were reliable sources in the telling of their own story. Given the flagrant bias and outright fictions that Carlson documents in the dispatches of the Bohemian Brigade, I doubted some of the witty repartee and incredible adventures that Browne and Richardson recalled, much of it in books they wrote after returning home.

But even if the two men embellished, their ordeal has resonance far beyond its drama and drollery. The reporters were forced into close, extended contact with captured Northerners and Southerners of every stripe — deserters, slaves, brutish guards, mountain guerrillas — and they experienced the behind-the-lines horror of the conflict. As a result, they witnessed, and later exposed, a theater of the war that was barely known to their colleagues at the front or to the Northern public.

This remains an aspect of the Civil War that is little known to most Americans. The journalists’ experiences of both battle and captivity also speak to the enduring challenge of war reporting. Upon seeing combat for the first time, Browne wrote, “No one here seems to have any knowledge of anything, the leading officers having little more information than the privates.”

As Carlson acutely notes, Browne’s one-line observation “sums up the ‘fog of war’ so well that it could be included in nearly every battle dispatch in every war ever fought.”

bookworld@washpost.com

Tony Horwitz is the author of “Confederates in the Attic” and “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War.”

Peter Carlson will do a reading at Politics & Prose on Saturday, June 1, at 6 p.m.

JUNIUS AND ALBERT’S ADVENTURES IN THE CONFEDERACY

A Civil War Odyssey

By Peter Carlson

PublicAffairs. 268 pp. $26.99