Peter Carlson has carved himself a literary niche that is right up my alley: popular treatments of odd and/or forgotten slices of history, full of solid reporting and, unlike some other writers of similar genre, a sharp sense of humor. His last book, K Blows Top, retold the story of Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev's surreal visit to the United States in 1959. It's one of the most entertaining, spot-on re-creations ever published of America during the Cold War.
His new book digs up a nearly forgotten episode of the American Civil War and turns it into a rousing, incisive portrait of people caught in the middle of a complex turmoil. It's a cliché to say that a nonfiction book "reads like a novel," but Junius and Albert's Adventures in the Confederacy comes as close to that goal as any of them.
In 1863, while reporting on the Civil War for abolitionist Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, Junius Browne and Albert Richardson hitched a ride aboard one of several rafts stacked with hay which were being towed by a tugboat down the Mississippi River to Ulysses Grant's troops south of Vicksburg, Miss. Browne and Richardson, who fancied themselves adventurers as well as journalists, and called themselves The Bohemians, soon got the adventure they wanted, but not the kind they'd hoped for. The tug and the rafts were bombarded by Confederate guns at Vicksburg, everything sank, and the pair were captured and taken prisoner by the Rebel army.
At first, Browne and Richardson were hauled by train through the South and, except in Atlanta where mobs wanted to hang the reporters who worked for the hated Greeley, things went pretty smoothly. Their captors told them they'd soon be sent back to the Union army. Instead, they found themselves being shunted from one lousy prison (literally, as the inmates' main activity is stripping down and hunting for body lice) to another. All told, the intrepid pair spent 19 months in captivity, much of that time spent in two Richmond prisons, followed by the now-notorious Confederate prison in Salisbury, N.C. As the war dragged on and the Confederacy started crumbling, conditions worsened for the Rebels' prisoners, too. At first, Junius and Albert thought the Salisbury prison was a breath of fresh air — not as crowded, and featuring a 60-acre field where inmates could wander as they wished, away from the lice-atorium/prison. Soon, though, 9,000 Union prisoners were shipped to Salisbury, most of whom lived without cover in holes in the ground they dug in the field. In the winter that soon followed, most of those men died and were replaced by other Union prisoners who, in turn, also died and were buried in huge mass graves on prison grounds.
At that point, worried that they might die of starvation or worse, Junius and Albert began planning an escape. Helped by members of a group of thousands of pro-Unionists in N.C., Virginia and Tennessee who called themselves Heroes of America, our pair escaped in December 1964. Their trip through western N.C. and over the Appalachians to Knoxville, Tenn., to join up with Union troops is as deeply reported and fascinating a slice of this state's history as you'll read all year. Helped, fed and directed by slaves and sympathetic whites, Browne and Richardson negotiated the brutal, snowbound terrain that was western N.C. near the end of the Civil War. Half of the area supported the Union, and the guerilla warfare between the two factions was relentless and beyond brutal. It took ingenuity, guts and luck to avoid Confederate sympathizers, but they managed. After traveling about 200 miles over the mountains, without proper clothing or food, the two reporters wound up in Knoxville, free men again.
Both men wrote extensively about their experiences, and Carlson shows his real strength as a writer by shaping the reporters' narrative with other historical texts to make a gripping story that shines a light on ... you name it: the effects of war, human resilience, unexpected angels of mercy, and finding humor in the darkness (I particularly liked the stories about war journalists who would make up battle scenes because they were too drunk to go themselves). This book isn't getting lots of national publicity, but it's tailor-made for readers in this area who love well-written history. As for me, I'm planning a trip to Salisbury to check out the mammoth graveyard where thousands of Union soldiers are buried.
Junius and Albert's Adventures in the Confederacy
by Peter Carlson
(Public Affairs, 288 pages, $26.99)