Caricature of the war correspondent William Howard Russell (1821-1907), from the magazine Punch, October 8, 1881. Artwork by Edward Linley Sambourne (1844-1910)
Reading the last four letters reprinted by Project Gutenberg (The Civil War in America, by William Howard Russell) was a soul-draining, but necessary, reminder that this is indeed who we are. What these letters show me is that without directly confronting our history, we will repeat our mistakes. Without recognizing the role of myth in the way our history is taught, we will not learn or grow. The good news is that as long as photos of young girls in tears after being tear-gassed shock us; as long as news of the death of yet another African-American man at the hands of police anger us; as long as we are willing to stand up and speak out, we have a chance. Who we are is not who we have to be.
(Today’s quotes provided without commentary; the parallels are so obvious that commentary seems superfluous.)
William Howard Russell, “Bull Run Russell”, London Times between 1860 and 1865. First he was feted; then he was shunned.
I’m continuing with William Howard Russell’s dispatches to the London Times, written as he visited the United States at the beginning of the Civil War. Before I return to his reports, I want to share Russell’s philosophy about how his reports were written:
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.
William Howard Russell during the Crimean War, 1855
I had never heard of William Howard Russell before reading Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South
by Christopher Dickey (h/t basket and janesaunt for the book recommendation). Russell is NOT the secret agent of the book title; he was a foreign correspondent for The Times of London, who first gained fame as a Crimean War correspondent. His blunt and realistic portrayals of the cost of war were shocking and mobilizing for the British public, and Florence Nightingale is alleged to have been motivated to get involved with and change battlefield treatment practices in part because of Russell’s dispatches. In 1861, he travelled to the United States and the Confederate States, and his observations were published in the Confederacy-supporting Times. What follows are excerpts from his dispatches; the collection from which I am drawing is available here: The Civil War in America