Yankee journalists in Confederate prisons

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 28, 2013

“Junius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy: A Civil War Odyssey,” by Peter Carlson. Public Affairs Books, New York. 270 pages. $26.99.

The structure disappeared long ago, but the Salisbury Confederate Prison that once stood off East Bank Street is a permanent part of our city’s history. Reading Peter Carlson’s latest book, readers can see the prison anew as a passage not only in Salisbury’s life but also in the lives of two unique men.
Carlson tells the true story of two N.Y. journalists caught behind enemy lines — “Junius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy: A Civil War Odyssey.” The book covers much more than the men’s time in Salisbury. But by placing the Salisbury prison in the context of their lives and the war, Carlson brings the era to life in a captivating way. Amid the dreariness and tragedy of the war, he finds wit, compassion and resourcefulness. The result is a story that is hard to put down.
Albert Richardson and Junius Browne were nearly opposites, one a sturdy family man who grew up on a farm in Massachusetts, the other a scrawny intellectual from Cincinnati. But both worked for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, and in May 1863 they were riding a barge with Union troops headed for Vicksburg when Confederates opened fire and blew the ship up.
Richardson, Browne and a handful of others were clinging to bales of hay when Confederates plucked them from the Mississippi.
At that point in the war, North and South were still holding prisoner exchanges, paroling captives upon their promise not to take up arms again. As noncombatants, Richardson and Browne expected to be set free immediately. But caught amid the assault on Vicksburg in a war that was quickly turning the North’s way, they received different treatment.
A map helps readers trace the captives’ travels as they’re shuffled to Richmond, first to be held in Libby Prison and then Castle Thunder — both stifling, miserable places. Prisoners crowded into open rooms with no furniture, stripping off their clothes each day to pick off lice. Commandants ranged from being merely cruel to earning the nickname, “The Anti-Christ.”
Months after receiving parole papers, Browne and Richardson were still locked up — targets of Southern wrath against the abolitionist New York Tribune.
Robert Ould, the Confederate agent of prison exchange, said in a letter to his Union counterpart that Richardson and Browne and the Tribune “have had more share even than your soldiery in bringing rapine, pillage and desolation to our homes… You ask why I will not release them. ‘Tis because they are the worst and most obnoxious of non-combatants.”
In February 1864 Richardson and Browne were shipped to Salisbury Prison, which held about 600 men at the time and had something the other prisons lacked — four acres of grassy lawn. Later in the war, as thousands more prisoners crowded into the stockade, the lawn would be pocked with holes men dug to stay warm in and covered with makeshift tents. But for a time, Richardson and Browne enjoyed this alternative to the “fetid urban warehouses” of Richmond.
“For the last several days, we have played baseball several hours daily,” Richardson wrote to a relative, “the only time I have done so, with one exception, since the days of boyhood. I enjoy it just as well as I did then, and after nine months confinement, it does me vastly more good.”
As noncombatants, the two reporters stayed in better quarters than the old textile mill that housed most prisoners. But they bore witness to the flood of some 9,000 prisoners through the stockade gates and the starvation and disease that followed.
This is material amply covered in Lewis Brown’s definitive history, “The Salisbury Prison: A Case Study of Confederate Military Prisons 1861-1865.” Brown quotes Richardson’s and Browne’s later articles extensively, and he reports their escape.
But Carlson breathes life into these men and drama into their story — worry for distant family, compassion for fellow prisoners, frustration with captivity, horror at the bodies piling up.
“At night, after a long day of work, they returned to their room to eat a meager meal that seemed sinfully extravagant when compared with the other prisoners’ fare,” Carlson writes. “Gaunt and despondent, Richardson told Browne that he was certain the horrors they witnessed every day must somehow be a part of God’s great plan.”
After they escape — walking out as though to get medical supplies — another round of adventure begins. Richardson and Browne have to make their way from Salisbury across the wintry North Carolina mountains to reach safe territory in Tennessee. The journey involves another cast of characters, from Union sympathizer Luke Blackmer in Salisbury to the legendary “Old Red Fox” Dan Ellis, a master at helping people cross the mountains and escape Confederate territory.
This fascinating book reads like a novel, but Carlson sticks to his sources; no quotes are made up, no characters imagined. A former reporter for The Washington Post, he knows how to stick to the facts while weaving a compelling story. That is exactly what he has done with “Junius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy.”