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“Bull Run” Russell
The first modern war correspondent won a nickname, much Northern ill will, and a lasting reputation out of his account of a famous battle
June 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 4
Shortly after dawn on a pleasant midsummer morning just a century ago, a two-horse gig drew up in front of private lodgings on Pennsylvania Avenue, in Washington. Inside the house a stout, middle-aged gentleman finished his cup of tea, put more tea in a container, picked up a paper of sandwiches and a bottle of light Bordeaux, and then thoughtfully stopped to fill his brandy Mask. A moment later, clad in a khaki “Himalayan” suit, a brown felt hat, and an old pair of boots, the man appeared on the street to inspect the vehicle. The date was July 21, 1861; and The Times of London, in the person of William Howard Russell, was out to cover what turned out to be the First Battle of Bull Run.
Russell was easily the most celebrated newspaper correspondent of his day. Irish-born, he had joined The Times in 1842 as a press gallery reporter in the House of Commons. Subsequently, he had covered the potato famine and the O’Connell sedition trial in Ireland, the Schleswig-Holstein rebellion on the Continent, and the Sepoy Mutiny in India. He had won a world-wide reputation by his reports from the front during the Crimean War in 1851–55. His revelations of military incompetence at the highest level had toppled a British government; his descriptions of inadequate hospital facilities in the field had been indirectly responsible for Florence Nightingale’s famous mission of mercy; and his stirring account of the Battle of Balaclava may well have inspired a stay-at-home, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, to compose “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
Yet, in February, 1861, Russell had been reluctant to go to America to cover the impending hostilities for The Times . “I felt I had few qualifications for the post,” he later admitted. “I was almost entirely ignorant of the nature of the crisis or the issue at stake, though I had read Uncle Tom’s Cabin . …” Urged by his friend William Makepeace Thackeray, he nonetheless accepted.
At the outset, Russell found it difficult to suppress a certain sympathy for the Union cause. “Nothing could grieve my heart … more than to admit the fact that the great experiment of self-government had readied its end in dissolution, smoke and ashes,” he stated in an address at a New York St. Patrick’s Day dinner. “I cannot and will not believe that the people of the United States are about to whistle down, a prey to fortune, the greatest legacy a nation ever received…” These sentiments brought a stiff reprimand from his superiors in London, for in its editorial policy The Times was espousing the Southern cause. Warned by the home office, Russell quickly trimmed his sails and thereafter maintained a detached and lofty objectivity.
He reached Washington on March ay and the following day was presented to Lincoln, who remarked: “The London Times is one of the greatest powers in the world—in fact, I don’t know anything which has much more power—except the Mississippi. I am glad to know you as its minister.” The next day Russell dined at the White House, and two days after that he received a bouquet of flowers from Mary Todd Lincoln. He was received by Winfield Scott, the dropsical septuagenarian who headed the Union Army, interviewed Senator Stephen A. Douglas, and played whist with Secretary of State William H. Seward. Despite this congenial atmosphere, Russell did not linger in Washington but determined, rather, to journey south so as to familiarize himself with both sides of the great political controversy.
He was in Charleston two days after the formal surrender of Fort Sumter on April 14. In Montgomery, he interviewed the new Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, and members of his Cabinet. He observed much and noted well everything he saw. For William Howard Russell this was an all-important period of self-education. Apart from the usual mild British disdain for American institutions and mores, his reports to The Times were reasoned, objective, and amazingly perceptive. A swing through the Cotton South and a journey up the Mississippi brought him back to Union territory at Cairo, Illinois, by late June. Hearing that a major offensive was to be launched against the secessionists in Virginia, Russell hastened back to Washington.
On the evening of July 16, the British journalist reached Washington, where he met Brigadier General Irvin McDowell at the railway station. McDowell, a studious forty-three-year-old staff officer who had never led men in the field, had been promoted from major in May and put in command of Union forces concentrating on Washington. Lincoln had called 75,000 state militia into service for ninety days. It was McDowell’s thankless task to mold them into an army. As he worked, pressure built up in the North for a decisive advance into Virginia. Horace Greeley’s influential New York Tribune led the press in a shrill cry of “Forward to Richmond!” By the end of July, the term of service of most of the Union’s three-month soldiers would expire, and immediate action was imperative if this force was to be utilized.