- Junius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy: A Civil War Odyssey by Peter Carlson
It is fitting that a former Washington Post journalist would write a book about the grand adventures of the Civil War’s most famous journalists, Junius Henri Browne and Albert Deane Richardson. Peter Carlson shares with his subjects a flair for narrating a dramatic tale, albeit in a literary style more suited to his twenty-first-century audience’s taste, and a wry, dry wit that survived the experience of living in, or in Carlson’s case writing about, Civil War prisons. Basing his narrative mainly on the separate book-length accounts that Browne and Richardson published in 1865, Carlson tells the intrinsically exciting story of two self-styled Bohemians who escaped from Salisbury Prison on December 18, 1864, and successfully reached Union lines at Strawberry Plains, Tennessee, in mid-January 1865. They were guided and helped along the way by slaves, children, bushwhackers, entire branches of Unionist families in the Appalachian Mountains, a beautiful sixteen-year-old girl, and the famous pilot Dan Ellis. All of this makes for page-turning reading, and Carlson proves himself to be a capable historian in piecing together the identities of individuals that Browne and Richardson encountered and in tracking down letters and other primary sources that fill in the story his heroes told.
Browne and Richardson’s Civil War odyssey began when they were writers for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. Richardson conducted a secret tour of several southern states during the secession crisis and sent anonymous reports to the newspaper with scathing criticisms of slavery and of [End Page 611] southern bombast, ignorance, and closed-mindedness; in the first two years of the war both men were part of the pioneering cadre of war correspondents who termed themselves the “Bohemian Brigade.” Carlson is at his best in his depiction of the lifestyle of Civil War journalists and of their attitudes toward their craft. In particular he brings to life Browne’s purposely eccentric and self-consciously cynical personality. Confederates captured the two Bohemians on May 4, 1863, on the Mississippi River and shipped them to Richmond. Although they had paroles from their Vicksburg captors, the Confederate agent of exchange, Robert Ould, refused to release them. Indeed, at one point he claimed they were hostages for every single southern noncombatant that the Union held. Imprisoned first in Libby, then in Castle Thunder, Browne and Richardson were transferred to Salisbury in February 1864, where they witnessed that prison’s transformation from relatively comfortable quarters to a squalid death trap when nearly ten thousand prisoners arrived in the early fall. Living in comparative privilege indoors, Richardson and Browne helped their fellow inmates as much as they could before their escape in December.
Carlson comments in an appendix that “this isn’t an academic book so I see no need for footnotes,” but this reviewer is tasked with the job of writing a review for an academic journal (257). Keeping in mind that the intention behind this book is simply to tell a good story with factual accuracy, I have a few observations about the historical context that informs Browne and Richardson’s story. Carlson consulted a minimal number of scholarly works, judging by his appendix, and these were concentrated on Civil War journalism and guerrilla violence in the Appalachians. Broader reading would have enriched Carlson’s depiction of Browne and Richardson’s world. The journalists experienced the momentous burgeoning and subsequent collapse of the entire Confederate prison system that resulted in thousands of escapes from North and South Carolina prisons in the winter of 1864–65. Carlson attributes conditions at Salisbury to the simple fact that the Confederates were “running out of food” and is seemingly unaware of the mass movement of escaped prisoners from South Carolina prisons toward Knoxville that occurred at the same time his story takes place (144). African Americans appear in this tale as heroic and generous friends to Yankees, but...