A flotilla of Union gunboats and transports steamed along the Mississippi River on a hazy March morning in 1862. As the vessels approached the Confederate stronghold of Columbus, Ky., the federals were unsure as to what they might find. Recent reports suggested the garrison had been evacuated, though some believed it was a ruse.
Aboard one of the transports, the Illinois, its occupants scanned the Kentucky bluffs for signs of enemy activity. Imagination filled in where mist shrouded the view. One man thought he saw artillery; another, entrenchments filled with soldiers. Then, a flag was spotted. A timely breeze revealed the Stars and Stripes. Hats were instantly tossed into the air, and three cheers for the Union followed. The cry echoed from other vessels, and the mocking strains of “Dixie” broke out.
Columbus was in federal hands.
The Illinois landed, and its passengers joined the ranks of the curious poking around abandoned barracks and the deserted town. One man, Junius Henri Browne, reported a disturbing discovery. “We found a number of stuffed figures of President Lincoln, General McClellan, Horace Greeley, and others, represented in the most grotesque form, and always associated in some way with the gallows and with negroes.”
These figurines were effigies—crude expressions of hate found on both sides of the Mason and Dixon Line. The Greeley effigy had particular meaning to Browne. An 1861 graduate of Saint Xavier College in Cincinnati and a former reporter for the Cincinnati Gazette, he had recently signed on as a war correspondent for Greeley’s New York Tribune. Openly hostile to the Confederacy and anti-slavery, the Tribune and anyone connected to it were roundly despised by supporters of the Southern nation.
Events on the near horizon would prove the Greeley effigy a portent of evil.
Browne, 28, was keenly aware of his unique position. “The War Correspondent is a hybrid, neither a soldier nor a citizen; with the Army, but not of it; is present at battles, and often participating in them, yet without any rank or recognized existence, has mystified not a few, and rendered his position as anomalous as undesirable,” he observed. “War Correspondence is a most thankless office. The Correspondent may do, and dare, and suffer; but who yields him credit? If he die in the service by disease or casualty, it is thought and declared by many that he had no business there. The officers frequently dislike him, because they have not received what they conceive to be their meed of praise; and the people do not appreciate him.”
Brown continued, “Since the first gun discharged at Fort Sumter awoke the American world to arms, War Correspondence on this side of the Atlantic has been as much an avocation as practising law or selling dry goods. Every newspaper, of prominence in the metropolitan cities, has had its Correspondents in the field and with the Navy.”
His first assignment began in the Missouri capital of Jefferson City in the autumn of 1861. Browne met up with seven or eight “scribblers and sketchers,” as he once referred to reporters and artists. The group fancied themselves “The Bohemian Brigade,” a name with its origins in a ratty beer cellar in Manhattan just a few years earlier. The bar, according to historian and journalist Andie Tucher, “became the haunt of a circle of young writers and other artists who were consciously trying to emulate the jauntily threadbare and proudly unconventional lives of the Parisian artists portrayed by Henri Murger in his recent novel Scènes de la vie de Bohème, which gave the image of the ‘Bohemian’ to the world and would later inspire Puccini’s opera La Bohème.”
In Jefferson City, the veteran Bohemian brigadiers welcomed Browne with open arms. Their number included fellow Tribune correspondent Albert D. Richardson, with whom Browne would share numerous adventures. They and the other correspondents found camaraderie in their precarious position between civilian and military life. Browne recalled, “We adopted the true Bohemian code of doing the best we could for our comfort, and of laughing away the multifarious annoyances that were inseparable from camp-life, even in its best and most endurable forms.”
The Code buoyed Browne in camp. “One looks for his blankets, and they have been stolen; for his books, and they are gone; for his spurs, and they have been borrowed; for his pipe, and it is broken; for his boots, and one is missing; for his gauntlets, and they are in the fire. So it goes, day after day.”
The Code comforted him on campaign. In Missouri during the fall of 1861, he toured the battlefield of Wilson’s Creek, fought just a few months earlier. Browne vividly described the grounds covered with fragments of clothing, cups and canteens, and skeletal remains of men and animals. “Out of the short grass and among the brown and yellow and crimson leaves looked more than one grinning skull—a grim satire on the glory of War, and the pomp of the hollow world.”
The Code provided him a source of strength in combat zones. On Feb. 6, 1862, Browne and Richardson went ashore with Union troops and witnessed the bombardment of Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. At some point during the action, the explosion of a box of ammunition sent cartridge paper into one of Browne’s eyes, nearly blinding him. Despite the injury, he followed the progress of the army over frozen, snowy grounds and without proper clothing and food in an effort to get reliable reports to Tribune readers.
But the Code could not adequately prepare him for a singular event along the Mississippi River at Vicksburg. On May 3, 1863, Browne, Richardson and New York World reporter Richard T. Colburn left Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters at Milliken’s Bend, La., to run the batteries of the Confederate fortress city. They joined a group of about 32 soldiers and sailors for the hazardous journey aboard a convoy composed of the steam tug George Sturgess and two barges loaded with provisions and hay. The trio of journalists made themselves as comfortable as possible on a barge.
If Browne thought about the Greeley effigy, he did not mention it. He did, however, note the full moon that shone brightly on the little convoy as it rounded the narrow river bend and came into range of the rebel guns during the wee hours of May 4th. Spotted by enemy pickets, a crescendo of popping muskets and thunder of heavy artillery broke the rhythmic puffing of the Sturgess.
“We tried to count the shots, but they were so rapid as to defy our power of enumeration,” recalled Browne. “All along the shore we saw the flashes of the 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 scores of batteries. Clouds of smoke rose along the river like a dense fog, and the water and the atmosphere shook with reverberations.”
About three-quarters of an hour into the leaden hailstorm, a missile tore into the boiler of the Sturgess, and shot through the tug’s metal heart. The puffing ebbed and the engines died as scalding steam and a hot blanket of cinder and ash wrecked havoc on the crew and soldiers. Cinders landed in the hay and sparked fires on the barges.
Browne and his fellow Bohemians fought back the flames and aided injured men. At one point, noted Richardson, “Upon the very highest bale, where the flames threw out his pale face and dark clothing in very sharp relief, stood ‘Junius,’ in a careless attitude, looking upon the situation with the utmost serenity. My first thought was that the one thing he required to complete the picture was an opera-glass. To my earnest injunction to leave that exposed position, he replied that, so far as safety was concerned, there was now little choice of places.”
Forced to abandon ship, they tossed hay bales into the Mississippi, and followed them into the chilly waters.
By this time, the artillery barrage had subsided and the screams of men dissipated. As they floated down the river, the sound of oars slapping the water alerted them to a new danger. A rebel rowboat descended on the scene and scooped up survivors of the wrecked convoy. The Bohemians were among those captured and carried to shore. Browne, who had stripped down to pants and shirt, walked barefoot with other prisoners through the moonlit streets of Vicksburg to an uncertain future.
News of the loss spread rapidly through Union lines. Browne, Richardson and Colburn were reported missing and presumed dead. Word of the fate of the convoy and the reporters reached Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman. The caustic commander, who detested journalists with a passion, was once heard to say, “That’s good! We’ll have dispatches now from hell before breakfast.”
Colburn was soon freed, but a journey through hell was just beginning for Browne and Richardson. Confederate authorities treated them as prisoners of war, and they faced the same privations of any soldier or sailor in enemy hands. The connection to the Tribune was not lost on Browne. “Mr. Richardson and myself knew our prospects would be unusually brilliant for sudden removal from the terrestrial ball, if the execution of prisoners once became the fashion; and we discussed with a grim kind of humor the sensations we would possibly experience when we were led out to be shot or hanged. I expressed a decided partiality for shooting, as more military, genteel, and dramatic; and denounced hanging as an undignified and ungentlemanly mode of exit even out of Rebeldom.”
Browne eventually secured shoes and socks from ladies in Vicksburg, a dead soldier’s cap from one of his jailers and a military overcoat from a comrade. “So attired, I traveled to Richmond in the uniform of a private soldier—the first time I had ever donned a uniform—and on such an occasion I must say I was very proud to wear the attire that our brave boys had made so hateful to Rebel eyes, and so honorable in the eyes of the Nation and the World,” he stated.
Coming to terms with reality proved as difficult for Browne as any captive. “My blood leaped and my soul sickened when I stared into the unborn days, and saw no one through which the light of liberty streamed,” he observed. “I began, by slow degrees, to accustom myself to my unnatural situation. I reflected on all the philosophic theories I had entertained, on all the stoical principles I had tried to cultivate, and determined to steel myself to the necessities of the occasion.”
By this time he had been transported to Libby Prison in Richmond. Here, and later at Castle Thunder in the Confederate capital, he would dip often into his reservoir of inner strength as he faced a daily struggle to survive meager rations, unsanitary conditions and uneven treatment by his captors. “Reading was a great consolation. It aided me to strangle the pangful hours; to prevent constant introspection; to turn back the surging tide that threatened at times to deprive me of reason. All the day, when I was not compelled to be in the kitchen, I stretched myself on my blankets near the window, and strove to forget myself in the pages before me. I could do that but partially; yet it was a great relief; and I was very thankful I had early formed the habit of seeking society in books.”
Browne found temporary solace in dreams. “Every night I was free. The body could be imprisoned, but the Rebels could not fetter the spirit. That returned to the dear old North, and dwelt during the sweet hours of slumber amid the scenes it once had loved. So much did I dream of freedom, that, at last, I lost all faith in my visions of the night; knowing they were delusions even while I was under their influence. When I fancied myself in converse with my intimates; sitting at a luxurious board; surrounded by objects of beauty; joyous amid the joyful, it was most painful to awake and behold the familiar beams above my head, and the rafters of the roof, and the hateful walls of the Libby.”
Meanwhile, as the months ticked away and 1863 turned to 1864, efforts to negotiate the release of the journalists by the Tribune and other friends failed. All things considered, Browne and Richardson numbered just two of the many non-combatants on both sides held without due cause, mere pawns in a tit-for-tat political battle waged between Richmond and Washington.
In October 1864, Browne and Richardson were sent to North Carolina and held in the prisoner of war camp at Salisbury. Two months later, on Dec. 18, they escaped. They trekked through enemy territory over the snow-covered Appalachian Mountains and into Tennessee and Union-occupied Knoxville. Along the way, slaves and pockets of Unionists steered them clear of dangerous home guardsmen and Confederate regulars.
On Jan. 14, 1865, after 27 days and upwards of 340 miles, the journey to freedom after 20 months in captivity was realized. Browne remembered, “Just before the dawn, the fires of the Union pickets crimsoned the somber sky in our front, and a few minutes of hurried striding brought us within the voice of the challenging sentinel. ‘Who comes there?’—‘Friends without the countersign—escaped prisoners from Salisbury,’ was the answer. ‘All right, boys; glad to see you,’ again awoke the silence; and I walked within the lines that divided Freedom, Enlightenment, Loyalty, from Slavery, Bigotry, Treachery was once more an American citizen, emancipated, regenerated, and disenthralled.”
Richardson recorded, “Here—after a final march of seven miles, in which our heavy feet and aching limbs grew wonderfully light and agile—in silence, with bowed heads, with full hearts and with wet eyes, we saluted the Old Flag.”
News of the escape quickly spread across the country. “The rebels have taken no prisoners whom they have held with the same amount of persistent and obstinate determination, whose incarceration gave them such a demoniac satisfaction, and caused so fiendish a glee, as the correspondents of the New York Tribune,” stated Browne’s former employer, the Cincinnati Gazette. “We know of no reason why this feeling should have arisen, or why, after it had arisen, it should continue to manifest itself throughout their long imprisonment, unless it may be accounted for by the general law that persons hate whom they fear and fear whom they hate.”
The Confederates had successfully silenced Browne’s pen for almost two years during his imprisonment. But once freed, he made up for lost time with a vengeance. On Jan. 30, 1865, two weeks after he stepped foot on Union ground, he damned the activities at Salisbury as nothing short of murder during a hearing held in Washington by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. A few months later, as the war drew to a close, he put the finishing touches on Four Years in Secessia, a 450-page memoir of his experiences.
In the conclusion, Browne reflected on the outcome. “America for the first time is truly free. For the first time her people can sing her national songs without a blush; and the poorest of her sons can declare: ‘I am an American!’ With, not uncovered head, but with main erect, and a glow of purest satisfaction before the proudest potentates of the admiring world.”
The Bohemian brigadier went on to a successful literary career and lived until 1902. He was 69.
References: Junius H. Browne, Four Years in Secessia; Andie Tucher, “Reporting for Duty: The Bohemian Brigade, the Civil War, and the Social Construction of the Reporter,” Book History, Vol. 9 (2006); Franc B. Wilkie, Pen and Powder; Report of Lt. James Marquess, 27th Missouri Infantry, Official Records; Albert D. Richardson, The Secret Service, The Field, The Dungeon, and The Escape; Mary M. Cronin, “The North Is to Us Like the Grave,” Journalism History, Vol. 32 (Summer 2013); Buffalo Commercial Advertiser (New York), Jan. 16, 1865; Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War at the Second Session Thirty-Eighth Congress.
Ronald S. Coddington is Editor and Publisher of MI.