The first “war correspondent,” William H. Russell of The Times of London, described himself and his profession as “the miserable parent of a luckless tribe.” Others saw it differently: the war correspondent became the stuff of dreams and an urgent romantic calling. . . .
Now, Robert H. Patton, acclaimed historian, author of The Pattons (“Exceptional”—The Washington Post; “Truly remarkable”—John S. Eisenhower) and Patriot Pirates (“Soul-stirring—as good as reading a Patrick O’Brian novel, except that every word is true”—Michael Korda), rediscovers and celebrates, in Hell Before Breakfast, America’s first war correspondents, forgotten today but legends in their time. Here are the men who, between 1850 and 1914, and particularly during America’s Civil War and the Spanish-American War, led the most romantic and thrilling of lives on the edgiest frontiers of time and space, where empires fell and dynasties flourished; they were correspondents who saw the world, broke the story, were making the news during the years when newspapers made available the most foreign of landscapes and their circulation wars were revolutionizing contemporary life, shaping global events, and creating history.
Patton writes of the decades of lightning progress and high adventure, when America was emerging as a great power and the monarchies of Europe battled for dominance through a series of brief, bloody imperial wars; when the newly discovered electric telegraph enabled these extraordinary first-person dispatches to be splashed across the daily newspapers then proliferating on both sides of the Atlantic.
Through the eyes (and minds) of American adventurers, soldiers, and artists-turned-correspondents—Mark Twain and the painter John Millet among them—we see what they saw and what they brought to life: the Civil War, the Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian War, the Russo-Turkish War. Patton writes about New York Herald reporter Henry Stanley, who led a caravan from the Tanzanian coast into the uncharted “cannibal country” and, after a 236-day trek, discovered the long lost and presumed dead Dr. David Livingstone . . . about Archibald Forbes of the London Daily News bringing to life in his dispatches the frantic assembly of barricades along Paris streets as royalists and Communists fought with bayonets following the Prussian invasion.
Here are the fearless young correspondents, among them Henry Villard of Bavaria, a journalist who covered the Civil War and ended up a financial titan, head of the Northern Pacific Railway and an early investor in the company that would ultimately become General Electric; and George Smalley, chief war correspondent of the New York Tribune, who watched for twenty-four hours as the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia fought in the cornfields and woodlands around Antietam Creek.
These correspondents were at center stage and, through their on-the-spot reporting, became legends in their time. Their intrepid spirit and sense of adventure inspired generations of storytellers, explorers, artists, writers, statesmen and politicians, and even moviemakers—from Rudyard Kipling and Winston Churchill to Theodore Roosevelt, D. W. Griffith, and Cecil B. DeMille—men whose adolescence was shaped during this spectacular age of war correspondence.
On the same night that Henry Villard was squirming through dinner with the Bennetts, the most famous newspaper correspondent in the world was bucking a nervous tide of African Americans hurrying down Meeting Street near his hotel in Charleston, South Carolina. The eight-thirty curfew bell had tolled. The slaves had half an hour to wrap up their duties and return to quarters. Any found on the streets after nine without a special pass would be arrested and punished.
The Confederate stars and bars flew over Fort Sumter at the mouth of Charleston harbor. Since leaving Baltimore four days earlier to begin a tour of the South for the London Times, William Howard Russell had found the region’s war fever overwhelming: “I felt like a man in full possession of his senses coming in late to a wine party.” Sumter’s surrender had Rebel soldiers strutting around with cocky menace that Russell found laughable. He’d visited the fort earlier that day. The damage from the vaunted cannonade was “trifling,” he sniffed.
He had the experience to back up his opinion. Two years after the Crimean War ended, he’d been plucked from comfortable London life and sent to India, arriving in January 1858. The native Bengal army had turned on its British colonial masters after long-festering discord was tipped into violence by new government-issue bullet cartridges greased with pork and cow fat, substances taboo to the Bengal army’s 90,000 Muslims and Hindus. Rumors (false, but it didn’t matter) of the army’s impending forced conversion to Christianity had sparked a mass mutiny whose death toll quickly ran into the tens of thousands.
Most victims died in massacres and summary executions. One of the worst incidents occurred as a force of British redcoats closed on the Bengal-held town of Cawnpore. Panicked rebels hacked to death two hundred captive women and children and threw their bodies down a well. Russell, indulging his fascination for places “where great crimes have been perpetrated,” toured the building where the killing occurred, its floor caked with drying blood. Workers who exhumed the bodies could barely express their trauma. “A sickening anguish,” one said. “There is no object in saying more.”
British troops answered the Cawnpore atrocity with firing squads and mass hangings; they strapped Bengal mutineers across cannon barrels and blew their midsections into the sky. “A glorious sight,” said a British officer of a pile of two thousand dead natives. Russell denounced the actions as excessive and racist: “I believe we permit things to be done in India which we would not permit to be done in Europe.” This scolding irked a British public steeped in hellish accounts of the Bengal army’s barbarity, most of them unsubstantiated. One example described Anglo-Saxon babies “put alive into boxes and set fire to. Others were spitted on bayonets and twisted round in the air, and to make the tortures more exquisite all this was done in the presence of the mothers, who were compelled to look on in a state of nudity.”
Posed against such lurid images, Russell’s call for moderation made no dent in a government crackdown whose pitilessness was exemplified by the policy of making captured mutineers, as a curse on their souls prior to hanging, lick the bloody floor mats taken from the building where those British civilians had been killed. He railed against heretical tortures of “sewing Muslims in pigskins, smearing them with pork fat before execution, burning their bodies, and forcing Hindus to defile themselves.” Times readers were unsympathetic, however, and greeted Russell with derision when he returned from India after order was restored.
His assignment to cover North-South unrest in America offered a happy escape. Welcomed at the White House, he appreciated the president if not the first lady: “The impression of homeliness produced by Mrs. Lincoln is not diminished by closer acquaintance.” In New York he interviewed the prosecession owner of the Herald, James Gordon Bennett. “His game,” Russell wrote, “is to abuse every respectable man in the country in order to take his revenge on them for his social exclusion.” He found Bennett’s counterpart at the Tribune, Horace Greeley, only a slight improvement. The fifty-year-old reformer oozed with the self-righteousness of the New England Puritan, who, having “hunted down all his Indians, burned all his witches, invented abolitionism as the sole resource left to him for the gratification of his favorite passion.”
Greeley predicted that Russell would be repelled by the South’s “slave pens” once he saw them, and indeed the sight of an African sold at auction appalled him. Russell called slavery “a cancer” but acknowledged other reactions within him that revealed a reporter’s detachment and a candidly human inappropriateness. Slavery’s “whippings and brandings, scars and cuts,” didn’t stop him from wondering “whether it might not be nice to own a man as one might possess a horse—to hold him subject to my will and pleasure, to hold his fate in my hands.”
Russell detested the presumption of Southern planters that Britain’s dependence on imported cotton would force it to back the Confederacy. His editors disagreed. Their support of the Confederacy for reasons of trade over morality left Russell doubly isolated. Southerners resented his disparagement of their cause, while Northerners felt the same about The Times. His celebrity favor evaporated as a result, and in July, with opposing armies gathering near Manassas, Virginia, thirty miles west of Washington, commanders rebuffed him. He’d encountered the same attitude from the British military in 1854. Now in America on the eve of the Civil War’s first major battle, he must again, he wrote, “take the field without tent or servant, canteen or food—a waif to fortune.”
Problems in finding a mount brought him late to the fighting near Bull Run creek on July 21. He missed the Union assault that buckled the Confederate line and sent journalists dashing to the nearest telegraph station with excited reports that soon were splashed across the country: “Brilliant Union Victory!” But the Rebels didn’t break. General Thomas J. Jackson rallied them and thereby gained his nickname, “Stonewall.” Russell’s tardiness put him in perfect position to detect that the tide had turned. While reporters at the front grappled with gunfire, dust clouds, and hysterical rumors of advance and retreat, he saw a stream of blue-clad soldiers stagger out of the chaos lamenting, “We’re whipped.” Offended by their hangdog collapse and forlorn parade of hospital wagons packed with unwounded men, he urged them to summon their pride and resume the attack, “but I might as well have talked to the stones.”
By the time his London dispatch was reprinted in America a month later, the fact of Bull Run as a Northern disaster had been absorbed. Russell’s analysis pulled off the singular trick of equally insulting each army—the Union for yielding to panic, the Confederate for calling it a great victory. He made matters worse by chiding America’s traditional condescension toward the British monarchy. “The stones of their brand new republic are tumbling about their ears,” he clucked. “It will be amusing to observe the change in tone.”
American papers excoriated “the snob correspondent from the London Times.” His candor about missing Bull Run’s combat brought him ridicule. He was likened to an old woman flouncing about red-faced, fat, and miles from the fighting. And it was claimed he’d been drunk, having admitted riding out that day well supplied with brandy from whose flask, to Russell’s chagrin, a parched trooper had taken “a startling pull which left but little between the bottom and utter vacuity.”
He took the jibes with humor at first, telling friends that he was “the best abused man in America.” But when some Yankee reporters started hinting at his cowardice, he lashed out at their self-proclaimed coolness under fire and their florid descriptions of rivers of blood and gore. “I failed to discover any traces of close encounter or very severe fighting,” he sniffed. After all, he’d been to Crimea where many thousands had died; the death toll at Bull Run was barely eight hundred.
He received death threats. Then word came down from the White House that his press privileges were revoked. “My unpopularity is certainly spreading upwards and downwards,” he observed, “and all because I could not turn the battle of Bull Run into a Federal victory.” He sailed for home the next spring. In its send-off, The New York Times acknowledged that his dispatches had included some brilliant passages. Bennett of the Herald was unmoved: “He hates our country; let him leave it.”
Russell was glad to go. A storm rocked his ship on its first night at sea but didn’t alter its heading, “thank Heaven, towards Europe.” He took with him a lasting view that American journalism was “degraded and odious.” He also brought along a new nickname, “Bull Run Russell,” that would dog him all his life.
The Times forgave his shabby exit and awarded him an annual pension of three hundred pounds. He was far from finished as a correspondent. Ahead lay the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, a trio of bloodbaths that would be as alluring to American newsmen as the Civil War had been to Russell. They would bring an aggressiveness suited to the tastes of their readers, leaving the languid, diligent Russell yet again dismayed as to what exactly was happening to the profession he’d pioneered.
Excerpted from Hell Before Breakfast by Robert H. Patton. Copyright © 2014 by Robert H. Patton. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
“Robert H. Patton paints a vivid picture of those nearly inconceivable times through the eyes of those who wrote about major historical events.”
-Becky Krystal, The Washington Post
“Highly entertaining; the long-lost, quintessentially 19th-century world of wars great and small and the brave and resourceful men who covered them.”
-John Steele Gordon, Wall Street Journal
“‘Hell Before Breakfast’ takes us from the battlefields of Bull Run and Antietam to Europe’s bloodiest pre-World War I conflicts... their intriguing tales, enough for three books, are worthy of resurrection. Patton’s account showcases innovation, bravado, and showmanship... Patton’s spirited chronicle evokes a lost age of journalism.”
-Matthew Price, Boston Globe
“Patton follows a dozen of the 19th century's best war correspondents, from the battlefields of the Civil War to the deserts of Central Asia. The portraits -- of American, French, German, Russian and Turkish men and officers -- are sharply drawn, and some of the scoops, like the ‘Bulgarian Horrors’ of 1876 still send a chill up the spine.”
-Geoffrey Wawro, author of A Mad Catastrophe and Director, University of North Texas Military History Center.
“Epic…splendidly written…Patton has once again proven that he is a gifted writer with a keen eye for chronicling their tales in a way that is both entertaining and insightful.”
-Carlo D’Este, author of Patton: A Genius For War and Warlord: A Life of Churchill at War, 1874-1945
“A fascinating cast of characters…Patton details major conflagrations and social and technological changes amid the gore of war and the prose of reporters of another era.”