Academic journal article Journalism History

"The Most Solemn and Impressive Duty"

Academic journal article Journalism History

"The Most Solemn and Impressive Duty"

Article excerpt

New York Tribune Reporter Albert Deane Richardson's Post-Captivity Campaign to Relieve Suffering Prisoners during the Civil War

New York Tribune correspondent Albert Deane Richardson followed his December 1864 escape from a Confederate prison in Salisbury, North Carolina, with a campaign to relieve the suffering Civil War POWs he left behind. Through testimony to Congress, articles in newspapers and magazines, and lectures on the lyceum circuit, Richardson marshaled public outrage to pressure the U.S. government to resume prisoner exchanges or use the threat of retaliation to force the Confederates to treat their prisoners humanely. Richardson's letters reveal he carefully coordinated his testimony and publication of evidence about abuses at Salisbury. Analysis of his public communication reveals he tapped the power of a storytelling genre whose history stretched from the Civil War back to the nations origins: the captivity narrative.

Henry Mann was shoeless and on the edge of starvation when he arrived at the Confederate military prison in Salisbury, North Carolina. It was six weeks after his capture at the Civil War Battle ofTrevilian Station in June 1864. Had it not been for the compassion of Albert Deane Richardson, a New York Tribune war correspondent and political prisoner who had bounced from one Southern prison to another since May 1863, Mann was certain he would have died. Richardson took pity on the young infantryman, who had enlisted in the Union Army at the age of sixteen, "noticed my youth and my emaciated condition, and took me to his quarters."1 Mann repaid Richardson for nursing him back to health by helping him slip out the prison gates, commencing a daring escape on December 18, 1864. Tribune correspondent Junius Henri Browne and Cincinnati Gazette reporter William E. Davis joined the breakout, evading Confederate pursuers with the help of Union sympathizers and slaves. The sight of Old Glory brought tears to Richardson's eyes when he arrived at Strawberry Plains, behind the Union lines near Knoxville, Tennessee, after eighteen days on the run. It was January 13, 1865. He announced his arrival in a telegram to the Tribune that read, "Out of the jaws of death; out of the gates of hell."2 After nearly twenty months in Confederate prisons, he was free.

Mann followed Richardson to freedom three months later when the Union and Confederacy agreed to a massive exchange of prisoners. Reflecting on the debt he owed Richardson, Mann wrote in 1897, "It may interest Salisbury survivors to know that the representations made by Mr. Richardson in January of that year to the authorities at Washington, after his successful escape, regarding the awful suffering of our men at Salisbury, had much to do with bringing about exchanges."1 Richardson's concern for Union prisoners in the South resulted from his experience inside Salisbury, where he had cared for the sick and dying and took on the duty of redistributing the clothing of the dead to the living. A Salisbury survivor, Robert Drummond, wrote that he had watched as Richardson distributed the clothing "to a crowd of ragged skeletons. He was a man of a highly sensitive and sympathetic nature and upon these occasions he had the saddest face that I ever saw."4

Prisoners frequently tried to escape, but Richardson bided his time until the right opportunity arrived. He suffered less than others at Salisbury because his work assignments came with the privilege of better quarters and rations, so he could afford to wait. But the urgency of escape grew when he learned a stricter commandant would take charge/ Sensing his chances would get no better, he reasoned his only options were to flee or die. But first, he took advantage of the access to records afforded by his work assignment as the prison hospitals' bookkeeper. Knowing that escape would bring the prisoners' suffering to light in the North, Richardson sped his record-gathering by putting several prisoners to work copying the names of the dead from his hospital books. …

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