Book review: Author recounts Civil War adventure featuring ‘Knights of the Quill’

Reader's CornerSeptember 29, 2013 

  • ‘JUNIUS AND ALBERT’S ADVENTURES IN THE CONFEDERACY: A CIVIL WAR ODYSSEY’ by Peter Carlson; Public Affairs Books ($26.99)

History books are full of stories about the dangers and deprivations endured by soldiers who fought in the Civil War. But there was another category of warrior who traversed difficult terrain and dodged cannonball fire in the line of duty. Journalists, too, found themselves in risky situations while trying to reach the front lines of battle.

Two of these daring, self-proclaimed “Knights of the Quill” are the subject of a lively new book by Peter Carlson, titled “Junius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy: A Civil War Odyssey.”

Junius Browne and Albert Richardson were reporters for the New York Tribune, the most famous abolitionist newspaper of the day. The weekly edition was accessible around the country and was vastly popular in the West. Their paper’s owner and editor, Horace Greeley, was idealistic and divisive, and a hero to these two young journalists who pursued their stories with zest at a time before the concept of journalistic ethics and objectivity had been invented.

The book’s opening scene has Junius and Albert trying to sneak down the Mississippi River on a hay barge to reach Vicksburg, Miss., where Gen. Grant’s men are poised to attack a Confederate army. The two manage to escape physical harm but are caught and arrested. Thus begins their wild adventure.

Despite agreements of the day not to treat journalists as enemy combatants, Junius and Albert are not released. Instead they are moved from prison to prison, spending more than 18 months in captivity. Sometimes they are treated better than fellow prisoners, but at all times they are surrounded by cruelty and uncertainty about their survival.

They eventually escape and begin a 340-mile journey, mostly on foot, through dangerous Confederate strongholds and the snowy Blue Ridge Mountains. They rely on the help of secret organizations and slave families, who feed them and give them a safe place to sleep.

Carlson describes touching scenes, including one in which a slave gives Junius his hat for the journey ahead. In Junius’ words: “The hat was humble — an ancient, shapeless, sweat-soaked woolen sock — but the gesture was grand. Here was a man who owned almost nothing, he did not even own himself, but he was willing to give his hat to a stranger he’d probably never see again.”

Carlson is a former longtime reporter and columnist for the Washington Post who now writes a regular column for American History magazine. His latest book is a story full of suspense, historical significance and intrigue. As the title suggests, it is an adventure in every sense of the word.

Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. Previous shows are online and available for podcast at boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner.

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