The New-York Times Goes to War: Jonathan Marwil Describes the Eye-Opening Experience of Three Young Americans Who Went to Report from the Battlefields of the Italian War of Independence
Marwil, Jonathan, History Today
IN THE LATE AFTERNOON of June 20th, 1859, three Americans were seen walking around the village of Magenta in northern Italy, surveying the remains of a grisly battle fought there sixteen days before involving the armies of France, Piedmont, and Austria. Burial mounds, some holding hundreds of bodies, dotted the landscape still strewn with remnants of the fighting itself. Scattered about were letters that had been thrown out of the pockets of the dead by those who stripped them for hasty burial. One of the three was Henry Jarvis Raymond, the thirty-nine-year-old editor and co-founder in 1831 of the New York Times.
The paper had never covered a war. The only one it might have, the Crimean War (1834-36), had been far away. Italy was closer, and the war being fought there mattered to many in America, from recently-arrived immigrants to long-established New England families.
Having never seen a battle, much less written about one, Raymond would have to learn how. So would his companions, William Edward Johnston, a burly thirty-eight-year-old doctor by training who had been living in Paris for several years and writing for the New York Times under the nora de plume 'Malakoff', and James Forsyth of Troy, New York, an old college friend who had become a successful lawyer specializing in rail roads and banks. Like Raymond, neither man had seen a war, but in the words of 'Malakoff' all three felt drawn to Italy by 'that inexplicable perversity of human nature which pushes on toward scenes of carnage'. Ultimately they would see things they never imagined and would never be able to forget. Their education 'in the field' forms an instructive chapter in the history of journalism and in writing about war generally.
The war these men had come to see pitted the Second Empire of France, allied with the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, against Austria, long the dominant power in northern Italy. Hostilities had begun on April 29th, when Austrian troops began crossing the Ticino River, the boundary between Austrian Loinbardy and Piedmont. Raymond strongly supported Italian independence and soon after the war broke out he had begun making preparations to go to Italy himself. He thought the war would last several months at least and that it offered an opportunity he and his newspaper could not let pass.
By 1859 armies no longer waged war without the press in attendance. The public was offered a steady supply of telegraphic notices, on site reports, and illustrations. The era of cheap, widely circulated newspapers was still in the future, but in the mid-nineteenth century a succession of wars in Europe and the Americas expanded the circulation of papers large and small while inspiring the creation of others. One reporter, William Howard Russell of The Times in London, had become famous--and increased the circulation and influence of the paper--as a result of his graphic dispatches from the Crimea. Some of Russell's articles had so severely criticized conditions in the British army that they contributed to the fall of the Aberdeen government in 1855. The first in a long line of journalists to have become famous through war, Russell set an example that his peers were eager to follow. Certainly Raymond was.
On May 28th he and Forsyth left for Europe aboard the steamship Arago. Waiting in Paris for Raymond were his wife and children, recently settled there after living in Switzerland for the past two years. When the Arago made a brief stop at Southampton on June 9th Raymond dispatched home 'my first letter.' His next, from Paris on June 16th, announced that the 'New York Times will speedily be very efficiently represented at the war'.
Speed matters in journalism, and in days of arriving in Paris, he and his companions were off to Italy. On June 19th, the three men arrived in Turin. Early the next morning they went by rail and carriage to Magenta. They wanted to 'explore' the battlefield, to make better sense of what had happened. …