A Civil War Adventure Story
Book Review: Junius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy, by Peter Carlson
Well, I’ve used up the material from all of our 2015 travels, and the garden is still frozen. This seems like a good time for a book review. And no, it’s not about gardening.
This is a very good book with a very dumb name. The title, which seems to reference a teen movie franchise, really trivializes the story.
That said, anyone interested in American history (and especially the Civil War), should find this account both entertaining and fascinating.
It concerns Junius Browne and Albert Richardson, two journalists for the New York Herald Tribune. While trying to reach US Grant’s army in April, 1863, they were captured by Confederate soldiers. They spent 18 months in prison, then escaped and made their way to the Union Army with the help of sympathetic Southerners.
At first Browne and Richardson were treated well, even allowed to stay in hotels and go out to dinner in restaurants, though as they were moved from town to town the local newspapers tended to run editorials calling on the populace to lynch them.
Eventually they arrive at Libby Prison in Richmond, then transferred to Salisbury Prison in North Carolina. Even in prison the two received better treatment than rank and file soldiers. Things got worse for all, however, as the prisons became progressively more overcrowded – to the point where prisoners slept in holes in the ground, without any shelter.
The rapidly growing number of prisoners-of-war combined with food shortages and plain old sadism to create truly horrendous conditions in the Southern prison camps.
Junius Browne volunteered in the prison hospital, where he was known as “Dr. Browne” despite his complete lack of training. Because the prison kept no record of deaths and buried prisoners in mass graves, Browne kept his own list of fatalities among the inmates. He wanted to at least give families of the deceased certain knowledge of what had happened to their loved ones. By the time he escaped, this list had 1,200 names.
Browne and Richardson escaped in December 1864 with the help of one of the prison administrators who happened to be a Union spy. They spent the next month traveling mostly by foot to reach the Union lines near Knoxville in Eastern Tennessee.
This would not have been possible without the help of strangers. In central North Carolina these good Samaritans were slaves. The slaves never betrayed Browne and Richardson and could usually be relied on to feed and hide them, despite the grave risks this involved.
In the mountains of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, slaves were few and far between. However, there were plenty of white Union sympathizers, some of whom were organized into a secret society called the Heroes of America.
In this region there was a Civil War within the Civil War. The woods were full of local men, both deserters from the Confederate Army and those who went into hiding to avoid the draft. Hiding in this way was known as “lying out”, and those lying out were known as “outliers”.
The mountains were full of violence between bands of pro-union outliers, the pro-secession Home Guard, and occasional expeditions of regular Confederate troops.
The outliers and their families were the ones who got Browne and Richardson across the rugged, snow-covered mountains. In fact, Browne and Richardson were not entirely unique. Numerous bands of escaped northern prisoners were guided home through these mountains, and local boys who volunteered for the Union Army would sneak back home for family visits before heading back to continue their military service.
This book reads like a novel, and gives a far more intimate portrait of the two reporters than I indicate here. And there are plenty of other characters of note: other journalists (including one who wrote an entirely fabricated account of the battle of Pea Ridge), the publisher Horace Greeley, farmers and insurgents, spies and cutthroats, as well the unfortunate residents of Libby and Salisbury prisons.
Carlson’s book makes a good companion to others, like The Free State of Jones by Victoria Bynum, that indicate the Civil War story is more complicated than is sometimes acknowledged, and that support for secession among white Southerners was less than universal.