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Writers on the Run: Three Journalists Escape the South

By Gavin Mortimer
5/3/2017 • Civil War Times Magazine

Three Northern newspaper correspondents trekked nearly 300 miles in the depths of winter after escaping from a Rebel prison.

THE FORMER PRISONERS and their guides woke early on a frigid Friday morning, January 13, 1865. The ragged band, on the run from Confederate bush-  whackers, included two of the most sought-after fugitives in the South: Albert Richardson and Junius Browne, correspondents for the New York Tribune, the most hated of Northern newspapers. Ever since absconding from Salisbury Penitentiary in North Carolina 27 days earlier with a third newspaperman, William Davis of the Cincinnati Gazette, they had been making painfully slow progress west toward Tennessee, relying on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter, and trusting their wits to keep one step ahead of pursuers. Initially estimated at 200 miles, their trek had stretched to 295 miles because of all the detours they had made. By mid-January both Browne and Richardson were nearing the end of their tether.

Yet a week earlier, their outlook had been relatively sanguine. On January 6, Browne wrote in his notebook: “This experience will be pleasant some day to look back on, and talk about; but it is difficult to undergo, requiring all the patience and philosophy I can master. Any thing for freedom!”

Freedom was now agonizingly near for Browne. He knew they were close to the Tennessee state line, but he also realized packs of Rebel bushwhackers were roaming the border in search of Northern runaways and Confederate deserters. As he and Richardson began trudging through the snow that morning, both prayed their luck would hold.

Albert Deane Richardson and Junius Henri Browne had much in common. Born in 1833, both had wanted to be writers from childhood. Browne fulfilled his ambition shortly after graduating from St. Xavier College in Cincinnati, when he was hired by the New York Tribune. Richardson, who came from Massachusetts farming stock, began contributing articles to newspapers while still in his teens, also appearing on stage and attending anti-slavery meetings. Befriended by Horace Greeley, proprietor of the New York Tribune, in April 1861 Richardson was appointed the paper’s chief war correspondent.

Richardson tasted action for the first time that July when he joined Brig. Gen. Jacob Cox’s command in pursuing Brig. Gen. Henry Wise and his Confederate forces down the Kanawha Valley in western Virginia. In October 1861, Richardson arrived in Jefferson City, Mo., to follow John C. Frémont’s Union army, and over the coming weeks other correspondents joined him, among them Junius Browne, Thomas Knox of the New York Herald, Franc Wilkie of The New York Times, Richard Colburn of the New York World and Joseph McCullough of the Cincinnati Commercial. Quartered in a tavern there, they styled themselves the “Bohemian Brigade,” in keeping with their accommodations. Richardson recalled, “The Bohemians took their ease in their inn, and held high carnival to the astonishment of all. Each seemed to regard as his personal property the half-dozen rooms which all occupied. The one who dressed earliest in the morning would appropriate the first hat, coat, and boots he found, remarking that the owner was probably dead.”

They subsisted on cornbread, ham, biscuits and coffee, spending their leisure hours smoking pipes, playing whist and discussing “poetry, metaphysics, art, the opera, women, the world, the war and its future.” But the Bohemians soon left the comforts of the tavern to witness the war firsthand. Browne and Richardson witnessed the Union conquest of Island No. 10, and were on hand when Memphis fell in June 1862. And they also watched the Battle of Antietam unfold. The day after that the pair walked among the dead, an experience Browne recalled with grim eloquence. “War may be beautiful on the historian’s page, and through the idealization of time and distance, but to the spectator or the actor it is divested of its charms, and becomes a reign of horrors and a civilized monstrosity,” he wrote. “And yet it has its fascinations, as drunkenness, licentiousness, murder, journalism, and the stage have theirs.”

Browne and Richardson separated early in 1863, the latter reporting on the atmosphere in the Northwestern states, while Browne—bored with the Siege of Vicksburg—“joined a foraging expedition up the river…and wandered through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas, looking out for cotton, cattle, and guerrillas.” Then on May 3 they were reunited at Milliken’s Bend on the Mississippi, 25 miles above Vicksburg, with orders from the Tribune’s Horace Greeley to join Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters at Grand Gulf without delay. The longer route, and the safer one, was overland along the Louisiana shore, but that would take three days. The alternative was to join a resupply flotilla that evening and run the gantlet of Rebel batteries at Vicksburg. If all went well they would cover the 55 miles to Grand Gulf in eight hours. They decided on the latter route. As Richardson noted, “The insatiate hunger of the people for news, and the strong competition between different journals, made one day of battle worth a year of camp or siege to the war correspondent.”

When they departed at 10 p.m. on one of two barges pulled by a steam tug, the correspondents took comfort in the thought that four-fifths of Union vessels that had thus far run the gantlet of fire had come through unscathed. But on this night the moon was full, and they knew it would take luck for them to reach Grand Gulf unharmed.

For the first three hours all went well, and Browne, Richardson and Colburn sat smoking cigars and drinking wine. But at 1 a.m. a rocket exploded overhead, the Rebel signal that the vessels had been spotted. Ten minutes later they heard gunfire.

As they approached Vicksburg, the Mississippi narrowed so the three boats were less than 300 yards from the barrels of the Rebels’ 10-inch guns. “The fire seemed to leap out of the strong earthworks for at least a mile, and the bright and quiet stars appeared to tremble before the bellowing of the scores of batteries,” Browne later wrote. “Clouds of smoke rose along the river like a dense fog, and the water and the atmosphere shook with reverberations.”

In three-quarters of an hour the convoy chugged downriver for five miles, with shells exploding all around them but none hitting the tug or two barges. The correspondents cowered behind bales of hay until at last they heard the terrifying barrage start to subside. “We began to felicitate each other upon our good fortune when the scene suddenly changed,” said Richardson. Then “A terrific report, like the explosion of some vast magazine, left us breathless, and seemed to shake the earth to its very center.”

The tug had all but disappeared, destroyed by a direct hit—but not before lumps of burning coal had exploded from its furnace, landing on hay bales in the barges. Richardson, Browne and Colburn leaped into the water to escape the inferno. Rebels rescued them, along with 13 other survivors from the original crew of 35. As they were marched back to Vicksburg, Colburn advised Richardson and Browne not to divulge the name of their employer. “Tell them you are correspondents of some less obnoxious journal,” he whispered. The South despised the Tribune because in 1861 it had coined the slogan “Forward to Richmond.” Richardson and Browne discussed what to do and, as the former noted, “decided to stand by our colors and tell the plain truth.”

Initially a Major Watts, the Rebel agent of exchange, assured the three reporters that they would be escorted to Richmond and put on the first truceboat north. But when they arrived in the Rebel capital on May 16, all the prisoners were taken to the boat except Richardson and Browne. Browne demanded that Commissioner Robert Ould explain why they were not also being exchanged—to which Ould replied “that we were the very men he wanted and intended to keep [and] that he would hold us until a certain fabulous number of innocent Confederates in Northern bastilles were set free.”

Browne and Richardson were thrown into Libby Prison. For the first few days their biggest complaint was that they had to cook and clean for themselves, an insult in Browne’s opinion: “That seemed an outrage upon propriety,” he wrote, adding it was “Designed to degrade gentlemen by association, education, and profession, to the rank of cooks and scullions, and filled me with a violently insurgent spirit.” But he soon had more to worry him. Disease was rife in Libby, aided by filth and the lack of fresh air. Not long after that Browne “was prostrate on the floor with a raging fever.” It took eight weeks for him to recover his health. Richardson meanwhile formed a debating club with several Union officers. Classes in Greek, Latin, French and German, and lessons in algebra and geometry were also on offer.

On September 2, 1863, Richardson and Browne were transferred to the nearby Castle Thunder prison, where they stayed until February 1864. They then moved to Salisbury Penitentiary, a North Carolina prison. Both men described their new digs as “endurable.”

Gradually over that spring and summer their vitality returned—perhaps in part because they could purchase eggs and vegetables. By the end of 1864, Browne, Richardson and William Davis, who had been captured earlier that year, were feeling strong enough to contemplate escape.

By then the three correspondents had been appointed superintendents of the nine hospitals within the prison grounds, and in addition Davis and Browne were entrusted with delivering medical supplies to the Confederate hospital outside the penitentiary. Their plan was simple: On Sunday evening, December 18, Davis and Browne would take supplies to the Rebel hospital as usual. But Browne would “forget” his pass and sweet-talk his way past the guards. Richardson would follow a few minutes later, holding a medicine bag in one hand and Browne’s pass in the other. Outside the prison walls they would rendezvous at a small unused outhouse near the fence that skirted the entire garrison. Close by was a gate through which they would escape once darkness fell.

The plan worked to perfection. Browne was recognized by the guard and waved on regardless of the fact he had forgotten his pass, and Richardson’s swagger carried him through the prison gate, with the guard barely bothering to look at his pass. From the outhouse the men slipped through the gate and holed up in a barn a mile from the prison, where Browne reveled in his newfound sense of freedom. “Long shall I remember the fresh, free air that greeted me like a benison when I stepped out of the prison limits on that murky, rainy evening,” he wrote. “The old worn-out feeling, the inertia, the sense of suppression, seemed to fall from me as a cast-off garment; and I believed I could walk to the ends of the Earth.”

For the next 24 hours, however, the men went nowhere. Knowing that their absence would be discovered on Monday morning, the fugitives gambled on the Rebels’ thinking they would have covered several miles in their 12 hours or so of freedom. The ruse worked; the barn was never searched.

Later that day they crossed several fields and plunged into a thick forest. Shortly before dawn they halted and tried to sleep, but cold and hunger prodded them awake all day. At dusk on the 20th they moved on, stumbling across a plantation a few hours later where the slaves helped them—the first of many times they were treated kindly by slaves. “When they learned that there were hungry Yankees in the neighborhood, they immediately prepared and brought out to us an enormous supper of fresh pork and corn-bread,” said Richardson, who with Davis and Browne had eaten nothing since their escape.

For the next three days the escapees moved from plantation to plantation, aided by slaves who gave them food and guidance. Richardson later wrote: “The very rare degree to which the negroes have manifested [trustworthiness] is an augury of brightest hope and promise for their future. It is a faint indication of what they may one day become, with Justice, Time, and Opportunity.”

The danger lay in the white folk they encountered, like an old farmer they asked for directions on December 23. A few minutes later, as Richardson recalled, “a twig snapped behind us. Instantly turning around we saw the old man following stealthily, listening to our conversation.” The farmer scampered, and so did the fugitives—headed in the opposite direction than he had pointed out. They ran for five miles, which left Browne so tired the others had to carry him for the rest of the day. For the next three days they moved only at night. “We called those nocturnal journeys the marches of death,” wrote Browne. “We spoke not a syllable; we suppressed our breath, and moved as lightly as if our life depended—and perhaps it did—upon our perfect quietude.”

Once they reached Wilkes County, N.C., where Union sympathies were reportedly strong, they received help from white villagers. They were also joined by other fugitives, a mix of Rebel deserters and Union escapees. By December 28, their number had swelled to 15. All the while, as they negotiated forests and crossed rivers and ravines, there was the constant danger of being surprised by Maj. Gen. John Breckinridge’s Rebel horsemen. The reporters were eating breakfast at a woman’s home when a Rebel patrol arrived. Sending the reporters to a back room, she gave the Rebels the coffee she had meant to serve the men then hiding under her bed.

On New Year’s Day, the group engaged a guide to lead them across the Blue Ridge Mountains. “How I long for the snowy sheets and soft pillows—shall I say the softer snowy arms?—I have known in the beloved and blessed North!” wrote Browne as they neared journey’s end.

Over the next few days they made good progress despite deepening snow. On Sunday, January 8, they met Dan Ellis, a celebrated mountain pilot with a Rebel bounty on his head, who guided them across the Big Butte of Rich Mountain in torrential rain. It was a punishing ordeal, wrote Richard – son, and “as I toiled, staggering, up each successive hill, it seemed that this terrible climbing and this torturing day would never end.”

On January 13, their trek concluded. After a freezing seven-mile march, they saw the fires of Union pickets on Strawberry Plains and heard a voice call out: “Who comes there?” Richardson called: “Friends without the counter-sign, escaped prisoners from Salisbury.” The response was, “All right, boys, glad to see you.” The reporters embraced, hardly able to believe that their 27-day ordeal was over. Browne reflected, “I walked within the lines that divided Freedom, Enlightenment, Loyalty from Slavery, Bigotry, Treachery. I was once more an American citizen, emancipated, regenerated, and disenthralled.”

Browne and Richardson later published wartime memoirs, and Browne also wrote several more books before his death in 1902. Richardson was killed in the Tribune office in 1869 by the husband of actress Abby McFarland.

 

Gavin Mortimer, who writes from Paris, has contributed to many periodicals. Double Death, his book on wartime espionage, was published in 2010.

Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.

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