A bohemian brigade : the Civil War correspondents, mostly rough, sometimes ready James M. Perry New York : Wiley, c 2000 Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. xiv, 305 p. : ill. ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 287-292) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG
Much of our understanding of the American Civil War is based upon newspaper dispatches written under horrific battlefield conditions, and journalists memoirs penned under more reflective moments after the war’s end. A Bohemian Brigade is the masterful account of the true nature of combat correspondence its probable accuracy and ultimate accountability during the Civil War years.
In this largely even-handed survey, James M. Perry examines a civil war, a free press, and the inevitable impact each had on the other. Focusing on the self-proclaimed “bohemian brigade” whom General William Sherman vilified as “the buzzards of the press” Perry assesses the performance of a ragtag band whose professional descendants remain controversial to this day.
The tales Perry tells are entertaining and often hard to believe. Competition led reporters to file stories prematurely as they raced to be the first to get their accounts on “the lightning” their name for the telegraph. The headline of the New York Herald on July 22, 1861, erroneously proclaimed the union army’s rout at the first battle of Bull Run a “BRILLIANT UNION VICTORY!”
Army commanders on both sides distrusted a free press they could not control. Thomas Knox’s critical accounts of Union campaigning at Vicksburg so provoked General Sherman that he ordered a court-martial to prosecute this civilian reporter as a spy!
Yet the press also made invaluable contributions to each sides cause. For instance, neither army had any procedure for publishing casualty lists. After a battle, reporters would collect the names of the dead and wounded. At times, their efforts became heroic.
Bradley Osbon, an experienced seaman, covered the Unions capture of New Orleans by signing aboard fleet officer David G. Farragut‘s flagship, the Hartford, as a clerk. Upon learning of Osbon’s maritime exploits in the Far East from Osbon himself, Farragut promoted the reporter to the rank of fleet signal officer – a self-promotion sea story if ever there was one!
In reporting Grant’s engagement against General Robert E. Lee at the battle of the Wilderness, reporter Henry Wing also delivered a personal message from Grant to Lincoln: “Whatever happens, there is to be no turning back.” Lincoln kissed the reporter on the forehead for relaying these stirring words of hope.
With a dry wit and keen eye for detail honed by his four decades of journalistic experiences, Perry provides a fresh understanding of how the reporting of a war can affect the trajectory of war itself. The book itself is a superb collection of anecdotes and of journalistic hyperbole if not historic accuracy – but then again exactly what would you expect of a journalist?