The title of Peter Carlson’s Civil War epic suggests a madcap, perhaps slapstick story. Such elements indeed exist within the unusual narrative. Mostly, however, it is a book about war and suffering, with death around every bend.
If the same story appeared as fiction, readers might have difficulty suspending disbelief. Carlson’s research attests that the book is factual, which makes it gripping.
Carlson centers the book around two New York City newspaper journalists who venture into Confederate territory during the Civil War, are captured and, despite promises of repatriation to the Union army, end up in Virginia and North Carolina prisons for a year and a half.
Then, concerned they will die violently or by starvation, the journalists concoct an escape plan that will require crossing about 200 miles of Confederate territory in the middle of winter without adequate clothing or food.
The journalists are Albert Richardson and Junius Browne of the New York Tribune. Their sagas have been related previously in book form, by themselves and others. But those books appeared a long time ago. Carlson has resurrected and expanded their stories with prodigious research.
Carlson came to the lives of Richardson and Browne in a roundabout manner. An editor at an American history magazine that published previous Carlson features made a caustic comment about the quality of journalism during the Civil War. Carlson decided to figure out if the caustic comment from the editor could be documented. After he “stumbled across a mention of Browne and Richardson’s adventures,” Carlson felt compelled to learn more. The author of two previous books grounded in U.S. history, Carlson realized he would need to write a third; Browne and Richardson deserved a contemporary audience because of their professional skill and personal courage.
It turns out that some high-quality journalism did exist during the Civil War, and Richardson and Browne provided a significant portion of it before their capture in 1863. Carlson provides brief samples of that reporting. But he decided to devote the bulk of the fast-paced narrative to their capture, imprisonment and escape.
Those parts of the book are harrowing. The Confederate prisons housing the journalists — who were thrown in with Union combatants and Confederate deserters — were unsanitary and in every other way inhumane, despite the supposed humanitarian protocols for treatment of prisoners. As for the escape — well, the privations and deadly dangers will cause nightmares for readers who tend to under-distance when absorbed in a book.
Browne recovered from his traumas well enough to remain alive and active until 1902. Richardson, however, died in 1869, under circumstances so dramatic I am invoking the “spoiler” rule for a nonfiction book, a rare invocation.