Russell viewed his job as listening to stories and retelling what he heard and saw, as making “bare statements” of fact. Privately, Russell admitted, “I would rather the North shd. be the victor than the South,” but publicly he tried to report what he observed without taking sides. (The Special Correspondent)
Today, we deride this form of journalism as mere stenography, but during the 1860s, the practice of maintaining “journalistic anonymity” and sharing the stories as they were heard was a relatively new practice. Of course, after his acclaimed reports on the Crimean War, Russell had no anonymity, and both North and South were eager to court his attention. Eventually, however, he angered both sides, who viewed him as a supporter of their opponent. The nickname, “Bull Run Russell” was a sarcastic and angry jibe by northerners at his brutal reporting on the Northern retreat after Bull Run. It would not take long for Southerners to join the North in its dismissive and often abusive attitude towards William Howard Russell.
Letter VII, MONTGOMERY, May 16, 1861: FACTS AND OPINIONS IN REGARD TO NORTH AND SOUTH. In this report, Russell provides far-ranging observations on his time in Charleston, from the state of newspaper reporting he has observed (prone to hysteria and filled with conspiracy theories and sensationalism); to the time and effort required to travel to a heavily-fortified Georgetown, SC (which he sees as an unlikely target; in his words, “one seeks in vain for any reason to induce an enemy to make his appearance in this direction”). He describes at length the belief of South Carolinians that France and England are dependent upon the South for cotton, and as such, must also accept the necessity of slave labor.
I am now, however, dealing with South Carolina, which has been the fons et origo of the Secession doctrines, and their development into the full life of the Confederate States. The whole foundation on which South Carolina rests is cotton and a certain amount of rice, or rather she bases her whole fabric on the necessity which exists in Europe for those products of her soil, believing and asserting, as she does, that England and France cannot and will not do without them. Cotton, without a market, is so much flocculent matter encumbering the ground. Rice, without demand for it, is unsalable grain in store and on the field. Cotton at ten cents a pound is boundless prosperity, empire, and superiority, and rice or grain need no longer be regarded. In the matter of slave labor, South Carolina argues pretty much in this way: England and France require our products. In order to meet their wants, we must cultivate our soil. There is only one way of doing so. The white man cannot live on our land at certain seasons of the year; he cannot work in the manner required by the crops. [Ed. Yellow fever and malaria were prevalent in South Carolina during these years, especially in the Low Country. Many planting families were seasonal residents who left their plantations during the summer and early fall.] We must, therefore, employ a race suited to the labor, and that is a race which will only work when it is obliged to do so. That race was imported from Africa, under the sanction of the law, by our ancestors, when we were a British colony, and it has been fostered by us, so that its increase here has been as that of the most nourishing people in the world. In other places where its labor was not productive, or imperatively essential, that race has been made free, sometimes with disastrous consequences to itself and to industry. But we will not make it free. We cannot do so. We hold that Slavery is essential to our existence as producers of what Europe requires; nay, more, we maintain it is in the abstract right in principle; and some of us go so far as to maintain that the only proper form of society, according to the law of God and the exigencies of man, is that which has Slavery as its basis. As to the slave, he is happier far in his state of servitude, more civilized and religious than he is or could be if free or in his native Africa.
Letter VIII, Montgomery, Capital of the Confederate States of America, May 8, 1861: FACTS AND OPINIONS AT THE CONFEDERATE CAPITAL. Russell turns his attention from South Carolina to the activities in Montgomery. The realities of the coming war, which had not been viewed as a certainty when seceding, is now evident.
But the Confederates are preparing for the conflict, and when they have organized their forces, they will make, I am satisfied, a very resolute advance all along the line. They are at present strong enough, they suppose, in their domestic resources, and in the difficulties presented to a hostile force by the nature of the country, to bid defiance to invasion, or, at all events, to inflict a very severe chastisement on the invaders, and their excited manner of speech so acts upon the minds that they begin to think they can defy, not merely the United States, but the world. Thus it is that they declare they never can be conquered, that they will die to a man, woman, and child first, and that if fifty thousand, or any number of thousands of Black Republicans get one hundred miles into Virginia, not one man of them shall ever get out alive. Behind all this talk, however, there is immense energy, great resolution, and fixed principles of action. Their strategy consists in keeping quiet till they have their troops well in hand, in such numbers and discipline as shall give them fair grounds for expecting success in any campaign with the United States troops. They are preparing with vigor to render the descent of the Mississippi impossible, by erecting batteries on the commanding levees or embankments which hem in its waters for upward of eight hundred miles of bank, and they are occupying, as far as they can, all the strategical points of attack or defence within their borders. When everything is ready, it is not improbable that Mr. Jefferson Davis will take command of the army, for he is reported to have a high ambition to acquire reputation as a general, and in virtue of his office he is Generalissimo of the Armies of the Confederate States. It will be remarked that this plan rests on the assumption that the United States cannot or will not wage an offensive war, or obtain any success in their attempts to recover the forts and other property of the Federal Government. They firmly believe the war will not last a year, and that 1862 will behold a victorious, compact, slave-holding Confederate power of fifteen States under a strong government, prepared to hold its own against the world, or that portion of it which may attack it. I now but repeat the sentiments and expectations of those around me. They believe in the irresistible power of cotton, in the natural alliance between manufacturing England and France and the cotton producing Slave States, in the force of their simple tariff, and in the interest which arise out of a system of free-trade, which, however, by a rigorous legislation they will interdict to their neighbors in the Free States, and only open for the benefit of their foreign customers. Commercially, and politically, and militarily, they have made up their minds, and never was there such confidence exhibited by any people in the future as they have, or pretended to have, in their destiny.
On his way to attend a legislative session of the Congress of the Confederate States, he happens upon a slave auction. His description is filled with casual racism and white supremacist ideology, but he includes an observation (bolded by me) that, for the time, is almost progressive.
On leaving the hotel, which is like a small Willard’s, so far as the crowd in the hall is concerned, my attention was attracted to a group of people to whom a man was holding forth in energetic sentences. The day was hot, but I pushed near to the spot, for I like to hear a stump speech, or to pick up a stray morsel of divinity in the via sacra of strange cities, and it appeared as though the speaker was delivering an oration or a sermon. The crowd was small. Three or four idle men in rough, homespun, makeshift uniforms, leaned against the iron rails inclosing a small pond of foul, green-looking water, surrounded by brick-work, which decorates the space in front of the Exchange Hotel. The speaker stood on an empty deal packing case. A man in a cart was listening with a lack-lustre eye to the address. Some three or four others, in a sort of vehicle, which might either be a hearse or a piano-van, had also drawn up for the benefit of the address. Five or six other men, in long black coats and high hats, some whittling sticks, and chewing tobacco, and discharging streams of discolored saliva, completed the group. “Nine h’hun’nerd and fifty dollars! Only nine h-hun’nerd and fifty dollars offered for him,” exclaimed the man, in the tone of injured dignity, remonstrance, and surprise, which can be insinuated by all true auctioneers into the dryest numerical statements. “Will no one make any advance on nine hundred and fifty dollars?” A man near me opened his mouth, spat, and said, “Twenty-five.” “Only nine hundred and seventy-five dollars offered for him. Why, at’s radaklous—only nine hundred and seventy-five dollars! Will no one,” &c. Beside the orator auctioneer stood a stout young man of five-and-twenty years of age, with a bundle in his hand. He was a muscular fellow, broad-shouldered, narrow-flanked, but rather small in stature; he had on a broad, greasy, old wide-awake, a blue jacket, a coarse cotton shirt, loose and rather ragged trowsers, and broken shoes. The expression of his face was heavy and sad, but it was by no means disagreeable, in spite of his thick lips, broad nostrils, and high cheek-bones. On his head was wool instead of hair. I am neither sentimentalist, nor Black Republican, nor negro-worshiper, but I confess the sight caused a strange thrill through my heart. I tried in vain to make myself familiar with the fact that I could, for the sum of nine hundred and seventy-five dollars, become as absolutely the owner of that mass of blood, bones, sinew, flesh, and brains, as of the horse which stood by my side. There was no sophistry which could persuade me the man was not a man—he was, indeed, by no means my brother, but assuredly he was a fellow creature. I have seen slave markets in the East, but somehow or other the Orientalism of the scene cast a coloring over the nature of the sales there which deprived them of the disagreeable harshness and matter-of-fact character of the transaction before me. For Turk, or Smyrniote, or Egyptian, to buy and sell slaves, seemed rather suited to the eternal fitness of things than otherwise. The turbaned, shawled, loose-trowsered, pipe-smoking merchants, speaking an unknown tongue, looked as if they were engaged in a legitimate business. One knew that their slaves would not be condemned to any very hard labor, and that they would be in some sort the inmates of the family and members of it. Here it grated on my ear to listen to the familiar tones of the English tongue as the medium by which the transfer was effected, and it was painful to see decent-looking men in European garb engaged in the work before me. Perchance these impressions may wear off, for I meet many English people who are the most strenuous advocates of the slave system, although it is true that their perceptions may be quickened to recognize its beauties by their participation in the profits. The negro was sold to one of the bystanders, and walked off with his bundle, God knows where. “Niggers is cheap,” was the only remark of the bystanders.
Letter X, MOBILE, Alabama, May 11. FROM MONTGOMERY TO MOBILE. Russell now takes a steamboat on the Alabama River from Montgomery to Mobile. Although most of his report is on the sights and sounds of the trip, but he shares the observations gained from conversations with fellow travelers, as well as insights gained in Mobile as he visits some Mobile forts.
The party comprised many of the leading merchants and politicians of this city, which is the third in importance as a port of exportation in the United States of America. There was not a man among them who did not express, with more or less determination, the resolve never to submit to the rule of the accursed North. Let there be no mistake whatever as to the unanimity which exists at present in the South to fight for what it calls its independence, and to carry on a war to the knife with the Government of the United States. I have frequently had occasion to remark the curious operation of the doctrine of State Rights on the minds of the people: but an examination of the institutions of the country as they actually exist leads to the inference that, where the tyranny of the majority is at once irresponsible and cruel, it is impossible for any man, where the doctrine prevails, to resist it with safety or success. It is the inevitable result of the action of this majority, as it operates in America, first to demoralize and finally to absorb the minority; and even those who have maintained what are called “Union doctrines,” and who are opposed to secession or revolution, have bowed their heads before the majesty of the mass, and have hastened to signify their acquiescence in the decisions which they have hitherto opposed. The minority, cowardly in consequence of the arbitrary and vindictive character of the overwhelming power against which it has struggled, and disheartened by defeat, of which the penalties are tremendous in such conflicts as these, hastens to lick the feet of the conqueror, and rushes with frantic cheers after the chariot in the triumph which celebrates its own humiliation. If there be a minority at all on this great question of Secession in the Southern States, it hides in holes and corners, inaccessible to the light of day, and sits there in darkness and sorrow, silent and fearful, if not dumb and hopeless. There were officers who had served with distinction under the flag of the United States, now anxious to declare that it was not their flag, and that they had no affection for it, although they were ready to admit they would have continued to serve under it if the States had not gone out. A man’s State, in fact, under the operation of these majority doctrines to which I have adverted, holds hostages for his fidelity to the majority, not only in such land or fortune as he may possess within her bounds, but in his family, his relatives, and kin, and if the State revolts, the officer who remains faithful to the flag of the United States is considered by the authorities of the revolting State a traitor, and, what is worse, he is treated in the persons of those he leave behind him as the worst kind of political renegade.
And a short anecdote, which rings oddly familiar even today:
“Are there any mosquitoes here?” inquired I of the waiter, on the day of my arrival. “Well, there’s a few, I guess; but I wish there were ten times as many.” “In the name of goodness why do you say so?” asked I, with some surprise and indignation. “Because we’d get rid of the —— Black Republicans out of Fort Pickens all the sooner,” replied he. There is a strange unilateral tendency in the minds of men in judging of the operation of causes and results in such a contest as that which now prevails between the North and the South. The waiter reasoned and spoke like many of his betters. The mosquitoes, for whose aid he was so anxious, were regarded by him as true Southerners, who would only torture his enemies. The idea of these persecuting little fiends being so unpatriotic as to vex the Confederates in their sandy camp never entered into his mind for a moment. In the same way a gentleman of intelligence, who was speaking to me of the terrible sufferings which would be inflicted on the troops at Tortugas and at Pickens by fever, dysentery, and summer heats, looked quite surprised when I asked him “whether these agencies would not prove equally terrible to the troops of the Confederates?”
Letter XI, MOBILE, May 18, 1861. FORT PICKENS AND PENSACOLA—A VISIT TO BOTH CAMPS. Russell intends to visit New Orleans, but stories of heat and hardship on the overland route from Mobile lead him to choose a sea route instead. He makes a short excursion to Pensacola (a CSA-held area) and Fort Pickens (under U.S. control) before heading back west to New Orleans. To get to Pensacola, he first has to meet with a Union naval captain to get permission to visit the enemy under a flag of truce. His notes about Captain Adams:
Captain Adams is in a still more painful predicament. During his eventful voyage, which commenced a six days’ experience in the terrible Bermuda cyclone of November, 1858, he had been a stranger to the bitter sectional animosities engendered by the last election; and had recently joined the blockade of this port, where he finds a son enlisted in the ranks of the C. S. A., and learns that two others from part of the Virginia divisions of Mr. Jefferson Davis’s forces. Born in Pennsylvania, he married in Louisiana, where he has a plantation and the remainder of his family, and he smiles grimly as one of our companions brings him the playful message from his daughter, who has been elected vivandière of a New Orleans regiment, “that she trusts he may be starved while blockading the South, and that she intends to push on to Washington and get a lock of Old Abe’s hair”—a Sioux lady would have said his scalp.
The veteran sailor’s sad story demands deep sympathy. I, however, cannot help enjoying at least the variety of hearing a little of the altera pars. It is now nearly six weeks since I entered “Dixie’s Land,” during which period I must confess I have had a sufficiency of the music and drums, the cavaliering and the roystering of the Southern gallants. As an impartial observer. I may say I find less bitterness and denunciation, but quite as dogged a resolution upon the Roundhead side.
Conversely, when meeting with General Bragg at Pensacola, he writes this:
General Bragg received me at the top of the steps which lead to the verandah, and, after a few earnest and complimentary words, conducted me to his office, where he spoke of the contest in which he was to play so important a part in terms of unaffected earnestness. Why else had he left his estates? After the Mexican war he had retired from the United States Artillery; but when his State was menaced he was obliged to defend her. He was satisfied the North meant nothing but subjugation. All he wanted was peace. Slavery was an institution for which he was not responsible; but his property was guaranteed to him by law, and it consisted of slaves. Why did the enemy take off slaves from Tortugas to work for them at Pickens? Because whites could not do their work. It was quite impossible to deny his earnestness, sincerity, and zeal as he spoke, and one could only wonder at the difference made by the “stand point” from which the question is reviewed.
Once again, I’ve written a lengthy post without completing all of Russell’s dispatches. Since his last few letters are almost as long as all of the previous ones together, I’m going to do a Part Three next week. I continue to find the parallels between his historical observations and the reality of today important, frightening, and a clear warning as to what we face. I hope you’ll stick with me as I continue this dive into primary sources.
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