James M. Perry may have spent most of his adult life as a journalist covering blood-sport politics in Washington, but these days, the ex-Marine pines for a front-row view of the battle of Gettysburg. “Can you imagine the drama?” he asks. “Can you imagine watching Pickett’s charge? As bloody as it was, what a sight it must have been.”
Perry, who retired from the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau in 1997, recently published A Bohemian Brigade: The Civil War Correspondents, Mostly Rough, Sometimes Ready. Though he readily concedes the failings of contemporary journalists, he adds that they still stand head and shoulders above the Civil War press corps. “Most of these guys were pretty bad,” Perry says. “An awful lot of them would make up stories. Many were drunk all the time. They would file stories before they knew how the battle would turn out.”
Ironically, many of these reporters also sprinkled their copy with classical allusions—indicative of the solid educations they’d received at Williams, Amherst, Trinity, and other liberal-arts colleges. The editors and publishers to whom they reported formed an equally mixed bag. One of the most famous—Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune—was, in Perry’s words, “a nut.” (“He was interested in ideas—the more crackpot, the better.”)
One big problem was that no one in this first-ever cohort of professional war correspondents was really prepared for such a sprawling, technologically modern war. Active fronts proliferated across the country, and a lot of the fighting—with exceptions such as Gettysburg—occurred at distances too spread-out for a single journalist to easily comprehend.
Perry explains that leading papers that threw lots of reporters at the action actually got back less impressive coverage than papers with small budgets. Perry notes that Charles Carleton Coffin of the Boston Morning Journal and Whitelaw Reid of the Cincinnati Gazette had the means to file copy only occasionally—so they wrote longer, more carefully crafted (and often emotionally moving) articles.
Perry makes clear that Civil War journalists certainly had a knack for making news on their own. At the height of the war, for instance, three reporters escaped from a bleak Confederate prison—a trek that lasted for 27 days and 340 miles, mostly on foot.
Perry also unearths the story of Charles Page, one of the era’s few African- American reporters. At the end of the war, Page filed a Philadelphia Press dispatch from the Confederates’ freshly seized legislative chamber in Richmond. As Page sat down in the vacant speaker’s chair to write his article, a Confederate officer charged up the aisle threatening to kill the “black cuss.” Calmly, Page decked the man, who then slunk back out of the hall.—Louis Jacobson