Former Washington Post reporter Peter Carlson’s terrific book Junius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy: A Civil War Odyssey follows two colorful pals as they try to escape the South. That may sound like the plot of a certain classic American novel, but this isn’t fiction. Junius Browne and Albert Richardson were covering the Civil War for the New York Tribune when they hitched a ride aboard a tugboat ferrying supplies to Grant’s army at Vicksburg. Confederates bombarded the tug, and the two were captured and imprisoned. They escaped and walked more than 300 miles to safety. Here’s a conversation with Carlson.
Lincoln got involved directly in trying to free Junius and Albert. How did he feel about war correspondents?
Newspapers were more like journals of opinion, so I think Lincoln cared more about what the editors wrote in editorials than what reporters were doing.
You say “journalistic ethics had not yet been invented.”
Junius and Albert were abolitionists before the war. Junius didn’t think there was anything wrong with shooting a Confederate if he got the chance, and he wasn’t above making up a story. There was a lot of purple writing early on, but that changed—people began to look to newspapers for news as opposed to opinions during the Civil War. There were a hell of a lot of people whose relatives were in the war, and they really wanted to find out what was going on.
Were there war correspondents before?
They say the first were in the Crimean War during the 1850s. Before that, people would write letters to papers, and even during the Civil War most Southern papers didn’t have correspondents; they had officers writing letters back to their friends in the newspapers or their families, who would pass the letters on to the papers. So the profession of war correspondent did not exist in the US until this war.
You call journalism a “refuge for the skeptical, the curious, the opinionated, the semi-adventurous, the quasi-literary, and the vaguely talented.”
It’s kind of a joke, but that’s my experience. People who go into journalism are interested in writing, but they’re not sitting home writing novels. They’re interested in seeing the world, but they’re not joining the army or becoming explorers. They’re interested in politics, but they’re not running for office.
What do you hope readers take away?
I hope they enjoy the book as an adventure story. Beyond that, I hope they come away knowing that there were these pro-Union guys in the mountains and slaves who were helping Union prisoners escape. Everyone in the South was not a gung-ho Confederate—it’s more complicated.
This article appears in the June 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.