Captured by Confederates, journalists endure harrowing imprisonment

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 journalists were Albert Richardson and Junius Browne of the New York Tribune. Their ordeal has been related previously in books by themselves and others. That is no surprise, given the tens of thousands of books seemingly exploring every battle, plus every other aspect, of the American genocidal experience. But those books mentioning Richardson and Browne 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, Carlson 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 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, rather than produce a tome about the overall quality of Civil War reporting.

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 an 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 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 as fugitives would not be simple or quick, and the men were not well equipped for winter weather in unknown regions.

Browne and Richardson trekked through North Carolina into Tennessee, crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains and the New River. They hoped to cross into territory controlled by Union troops.

The privations and deadly dangers chronicled by Carlson are harrowing. 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 I am invoking the “spoiler” rule for a nonfiction book, a rare invocation.

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