Junius and AlbertJunius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy
by Peter Carlson

Junius Browne and Albert Richardson were reporters for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune at the start of the Civil War.  Richardson had come to the deep south as an undercover reporter after adventures in Bloody Kansas. When Greeley put him in charge of organizing a team of war correspondents for the Tribune in the western theater of the war, Richardson recruited his friend Browne, a member of journalism’s literary “Bohemian Brigade”.  Operating out of St. Louis, Richardson and Browne and their team sought out the action and filed dispatches on whatever stories they could dig up in the Mississippi basin. (Once, when they failed to be present at a major battle, they simply made up their dispatches out of whole cloth, so as not to leave the Tribune high and dry without coverage!)

In May 1863, Richardson and Browne were en route to Vicksburg, Mississippi, hoping to arrive in time to cover the battle that would hopefully end the siege. They had hitched a ride on a hay barge along with a few dozen Union soldiers. When Confederate guns launched an exploding shell into the load of combustible hay, then landed another which blew up the steam boiler on the tugboat, the reporters and soldiers found themselves swimming for their lives.  Before dawn, all the survivors, including Browne and Richardson, were prisoners of war.

At first, the reporters weren’t particularly worried about themselves. They were civilian non-combatants, certain to be exchanged quickly. As their group of captives, increased along the way by additions, slowly journeyed from Vicksburg to Richmond, the reporters used this as an opportunity to observe and make notes. They conversed with Union prisoners and Confederate guards, southern journalists, businessmen, and civilians, their ears and eyes open to whatever they might pick up.

When they reached Richmond, they presented the parole documents which had been issued to them at the time of their capture, and were informed that they would be sent north the next time the exchange boat arrived under flag of truce. In the meantime, they would be housed in Libby Prison. But a week later, the exchange boat left with a boatload of paroled prisoners that did not include Richardson and Browne. Nor did the next boatload. Gradually they realized that they were going to be held indefinitely, as Confederate punishment of their abolitionist editor Greeley and his despised Tribune.

This was the beginning of a story that lasted from May 1863 to January 1865. During that time, Richardson and Browne were held at Libby Prison and Castle Thunder in Richmond, then at Salisbury prison camp in North Carolina. In mid-December 1864, they managed to escape and make their way through the mountains to Union lines in Tennessee, aided by a network of bold slaves and Appalachian mountaineers. This book tells the story of their adventures in prison and on the run.

I’ve read Civil War prisoners’ accounts before, but they were soldiers’ stories. As newspapermen, Richardson and Browne brought a slightly different perspective to the experience. They were accustomed as professional observers to maintain a certain objective distance from their subjects. Yet they also knew that using their personal position as a direct eyewitness can lend an immediacy to an account which helps to draw the reader into the story. Good reporters look for that balance between the detatchment of an observer and the personal experience of a witness. They are alert to the telling descriptive details and to the larger picture at the same time.

In Richmond, Browne and Richardson were able to preserve some detachment from the prison experience because their position as special civilian prisoners set them slightly apart.  As residents of the “citizens’ room”, they might count on packages from home containing books, food, and money to pay guards for “extras”. Yet despite this relatively blessed position, the reporters were able to cultivate a lively sense of fellow-feeling with their less-fortunate brothers. They noticed and commiserated with the unfortunates below the kitchen, condemned to beg for scraps, and with the black slaves and servants who were routinely beaten by the prison staff. When smallpox and other disease raged through the prison, it affected all prisoners alike, erasing any false sense of privilege. The heat, lice, boredom, separation from family, frustrated all alike.

At Salisbury prison camp in North Carolina, where they were moved in February 1864, they witnessed the desperate deterioration of living conditions, as the failing Confederacy grew less capable of caring for its prisoners. The exchange of prisoners had come to a complete halt by this time, as the Confederacy refused to exchange black Union soldiers, instead condemning them to slavery, and the Union refused to continue negotiating exchanges unless black soldiers were included. With exchanges stalled, the prison camps began to swell, becoming overcrowded and filthy beyond belief.

At Salisbury, the reporters were among the small number of prisoners housed within the building, watching the situation in the squalid yard outside their window grow more brutal daily. But a privileged position counted for much less here than it had in Richmond. Money from home couldn’t buy extra food which was no longer available to buy. Epidemics swept the prison yard and building alike. While at Salisbury, Richardson received news of the death of his wife and youngest child at home. When some Union soldiers were offered a release from the prison if they joined the Confederate army, many of them were desperate enough to consider it. Richardson and Browne never blamed those who took the offer, reasoning that hunger and disease were powerful persuaders, and understanding that most of these men planned to desert anyway at the first opportunity.

Both reporters realized that they couldn’t simply hunker down in their place of relative immunity from the worst of the prison’s horrors. They needed to do something, to feel they were helping. Richardson became the clerk of the prison hospital. Keeping the records of those who died, their names, regiments, and hometowns, he also kept a secret duplicate list which he hid from the guards. If he escaped, he would be able to take the list with him, giving the men’s families news of their fates. Browne became a travelling dispenser for the hospital, visiting patients in the open yard, distributing water and meager medicines, nursing the sick, earning the nickname “doctor”.

In November 1864, the reporters made the acquaintance of Lt. John Welborn, a member of the Confederate prison staff, and Luke Blackmer, a local lawyer, both men with secret Union sympathies. They had connections with a network of such sympathizers who were willing to help Union prisoners to escape. With their assistance, the reporters were able to walk out of the prison under cover of their hospital jobs and make their way to the first in a series of safe houses. They were on their way at last.

The rest of the book is a grippingly good escape saga. Oddly, it reminded me strongly of the Underground Railroad stories I had read so many of last year, with this twist: Runaway slaves depended on a string of white helpers to shelter, feed, and hide them as they made their way to safety. Now, white Union men depended on a string of black helpers, many of them slaves, to shelter, feed, and hide them on the way to safety. Richardson and Browne were aware of their reversed position, and impressed by the courageous risks taken on their behalf by the people who had so much to lose if caught. “God bless the Negroes!“, Browne wrote. “They were ever our firm, brave unflinching friends … They never hesitated to do us a service at the risk even of life, and under the most trying circumstances revealed a devotion and self-sacrifice that were heroic, … and never abandoned or turned aside from a man who sought food or shelter on his way to Freedom.

Up into the mountains, in winter, they passed into the hands of the Appalachian mountain men. These were rough men who had been fighting a guerrilla battle against the Confederate government. Passage through these mountain villages was risky, because a knock at the wrong door could easily be a matter of life or death. Who was Confederate and who pro-Union? There was no way to tell at a glance. Armed with the names and directions to Lt. Welborn’s relatives, the fugitives found a safe house for Christmas, and an introduction to the connections they needed to move them on their way. In the end, they were given into the hands of the Old Red Fox himself, mountaineer Dan Ellis, a legendary bushwhacker and a specialist at guiding people safely to Union lines.

The final run to safety is page-turning excitement, with close shaves, nail-biting moments, and a brief vision of a beautiful teenage mountain girl who clears their way at the finale. Our reporters live long enough to see the end of the war and write their own memoirs of their adventures. Typical of the men, Richardson’s memoir is just-the-facts reportage, while Browne’s is a literary tour-de-force of purple prose worthy of the Bohemian brigade.  Both memoirs were extensively quoted in Carlson’s book, and have given me a hankering to go hunting for the originals. (Wonder if they’re my next LibriVox project? Hmmmmm….)

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