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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
William Tecumseh Sherman, however, endorsed Russell’s report; the photographer Mathew Brady told him that his description of the retreat fell far short of the actual disgrace. And Irvin McDowell confided that “Bull Run was an unfortunate affair for both of us, for had I won it you would have had to describe the pursuit of the flying enemy and then you would have been the most popular writer in America and I should have been lauded as the greatest of generals.”
The press, on the other hand, was relentless in its condemnation of Russell. The Chicago Tribune flatly stated that he had not even seen the rout he described. The New York Herald accused him of being a Confederate agent who led the retreat. He became the subject of many spiteful cartoons that caricatured his tendency to plumpness and hinted that the entire story had been conjured up out of a bottle of London stout (see page 80).
But crudest of all was the epithet of “Bull Run” Russell which someone, he never knew who, pinned on him. This crude attempt to equate the unfortunate name of the battlefield with Russell’s imaginary flight from the scene of the action puzzled him as much as it hurt him. “The Americans,” he wrote, “seem to think that a disgrace to their arms becomes diminished by fixing the name of the scene as a sobriquet on me who described it.”
Russell’s position in Washington became increasingly untenable. He thought he detected a snub on the part of Lincoln early in September. The Times continued its strongly pro-Southern editorial policy. Russell’s frankness in reporting Bull Run cast doubt on his objectivity as a reporter. That fall the Trent affair, growing out of the seizure by a Federal officer of Southern emissaries to Europe aboard a British mail steamer, raised the threat of war between the North and Great Britain.
The following spring, at the invitation of Major General George B. McClellan, Russell applied for permission to accompany the Army of the Potomac down to Fortress Monroe at the outset of the Peninsular Campaign. At the last minute Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had him pulled off the steamer. It was the last straw. Two days later, on April 4, 1862, Russell engaged a berth on the very next ship leaving New York for England.
A year later, in 1863, Russell published his intimate reminiscences of what he had seen of the Civil War in a two-volume book called My Diary, North and South . It went virtually unnoticed in America, where once everything Russell wrote had been a national topic of conversation. This was a crucial year in the war—and people just then were talking about the Vicksburg campaign of Major General Ulysses S. Grant and the bitter three-day clash of arms at a Pennsylvania crossroads village named Gettysburg.