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Battle Lines and Deadlines

By: Malcolm Forbes
July 23, 2014

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A review of Hell Before Breakfast: America's First War Correspondents Making History and Headlines, from the Battlefields of the Civil War to the Far Reaches of the Ottoman Empire, by Robert H. Patton

Robert H. Patton’s Hell Before Breakfast begins with William Howard Russell of the London Times who, in capturing the wholesale slaughter of British soldiers during the Crimean War, became the first journalist to be designated a “war correspondent” by his editors. The title didn’t sit well with Russell. “The miserable parent of a luckless tribe,” he described himself later in his career. Yet “war correspondent” conjured up excitement and exoticism in the late 19th century, an era in which America was exerting herself as a power to be reckoned with while Europe was riven by a series of short but significant imperial wars. A similar allure prevailed in the 20th century, but the rise of totalitarianism and industrial-scale annihilation brought with it ideologically-based commentary and condemnation. In short, reporters did more than just report. The Spanish Civil War made George Orwell a better journalist and reaffirmed his belief in socialism, both of which can be seen in his writing.

Although Patton’s subjects are largely forgotten today, during the golden age of war correspondence between 1860 and 1900, from the Civil War to the Spanish-American War, each man was a legend who risked life and limb traveling to far-flung hot-spots and reporting on political turmoil, military battles, and brutal suppressions, enabling the distant, news-hungry home front to read all about it. Rather than a comprehensive handling of each conflict, Patton, a novelist and historian, “favors the personal over the epic.”

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After witnessing the failed charge of the Light Brigade in Crimea—his story inspired Tennyson’s most famous poem—William Howard Russell began to write fiercer, more critical dispatches that called attention to the neglect of wounded soldiers and appealed for an increase in medical aid. But while he sought to affect change, he never lost sight of what his readership wanted and continued with his honest, visceral descriptions of carnage. “Terrible things can be interesting,” Patton concludes—or, better, newsworthy.

On the eve of the Civil War’s first battle at Bull Run, Russell was the most famous newspaper correspondent in the world. However, he burned his bridges by insulting both the Union and Confederate armies. He was vilified in the papers, received death threats and had his White House press privileges revoked. James Gordon Bennett, founder and editor-in-chief of the New York Herald, fumed: “He hates our country; let him leave it.”

Patton’s master-stroke is to splice tales of intrepid war reporting with the fortunes and tribulations of the Herald. The paper went for all-out exlcusive coverage of the Civil War, with Bennett pouring half a million dollars into the venture and assigning hundreds of reporters to cover it (“our heavy battalions,” he called them, which trounced those of his archrival, the Tribune). Not that he escaped criticism. “Battles and sieges were simply occurrences for its columns,” said one competitor. “Good men, brave men, bad men, died to give it obituaries.” Swinging violently between vilifying President Lincoln and endorsing him, Bennett settled on the latter and was so devastated after his assassination that he reduced his involvement with the Herald and, to the despair of many, eventually handed over power to his son and heir. “The prince,” Patton writes, “was now the emperor.”

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Once at the helm, Bennett Jr. was as prickly, headstrong, and visionary as his father, but also mercurial, profligate, and given to vendettas and whimsical brainwaves. He tasked Henry M. Stanley with tracking down the lost missionary David Livingstone in Africa, partly to make news and partly to rile the “stuffy Brits” of Fleet Street. Later, he sent famed correspondent J.A. MacGahan on an equally fanciful and grueling assignment, this time a perilous voyage to find the fabled Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Less costly but just as crazy was his decision to run a faked sensationalist story about animals breaking free from Central Park Zoo, running amok through the city and mauling its citizens. The editors pre-empted a backlash by justifying their hoax (“to test the city’s preparedness to meet a catastrophe”) but instead the paper sold out, readers were amused, and the Herald continued to reign as the most widely read newspaper in the world.

Just as his father poured money into covering the Civil War, the son found a conflict worth funding as well. When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, Bennett Jr. dispatched two dozen cub reporters to the battlefront—much to the amusement of the Tribune’s George Smalley. To cover a war, he wrote,

one way is to send into the field everybody you can lay hands on and to take your chance of what may turn up. The other is to choose the best two men available and send one to the headquarters of each army. I preferred the latter.

Patton covers Smalley’s rise from rookie reporter cataloging the catastrophic human loss during the Civil War’s Battle of Antietam to his hard-earned position as London bureau chief at the Tribune. Each of Patton’s unsung heroes undergoes their own baptism of fire, whether Smalley at Antietam or Russell at Balaclava. Some saw so much gore they turned their back on their profession and became pacifists. The war correspondents that particularly fascinate here are those danger-seekers that kept coming back for more. MacGahan is enticed on Bennett’s 8,000-mile voyage because of his love for “A world of pure and savage freedom.” The Tribune’s Bull Run field correspondent, John Russell Young, longed to visit more war zones to experience the thrill of “a hairbreadth escape.”

In 1871 Young covered the suppression and massacre by government forces of the members of a commune set up in Paris in the wake of France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Together with MacGahan writing for the Standard and Archibald Forbes for London’s Daily News, his account gave American readers a full and graphic picture of the infamous Semaine sanglante, or Bloody Week. All the correspondents had to chase or dodge gun-fire and then attempt to smuggle their copy out of Paris in mail sacks via the British and American embassies. Forbes and MacGahan were nearly executed by firing squads. The government’s clampdown was so horrific that Young’s sympathy for the Commune “swelled to pained solidarity.” Similarly, Patton notes how Forbes’s “biases boil.”

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Patton ratchets up the momentum by hitting us with one hostility and journalistic mission after another, ably describing each assignment and guiding his reader through to its bloody end. It is the personal reflections, opinions, and emotions of the correspondents, however, that captivate. On occasion, their journalism is transformed into activism. MacGahan was so appalled by what he saw at Batak in Bulgaria that he vowed to bring down the Turkish authorities by recording their crimes (during one night he wrote “twenty-eight paragraphs in a single seething rush”—an account which Patton declares “A nightmarish read even today”). Francis D. Millet, a correspondent and illustrator for the Herald, viewed the town of Plevna as “one vast charnel-house,” to which Patton adds: “His dispatches carry the same trembling outrage MacGahan had felt over Batak and William Howard Russell over the medical crisis in Crimea.” In contrast, Bennett Jr.’s vitriol is almost comic, as is Forbes’s jaundiced assessment of the French as a “stunted, thin-faced, evil-eyed, scraggy-necked, knob-jointed, white-livered horde of miscreants.”

Hell Before Breakfast catalogues other journalistic firsts. When Young decided to establish a Tribune office for Smalley in London, “Journalism’s first international news bureau was about to be created.” In sending journalists on dangerous Herald-sponsored expeditions, Bennett Jr. “developed journalism by a new method, creating news instead of waiting to record it.” (The Herald was also the first New York paper to run a daily weather forecast.) There are illuminating sections on how advances in the electric telegraph and the transatlantic cable revolutionized how news traveled and was received, plus how journalism became less and less restrained in covering the blood and guts. Russell’s trailblazing Crimean dispatches “set a standard of style and pacing,” but it was future correspondents that upped the ante by filling their articles with warts-and-all detail to shake readers at home and entice governments to sit up, pay attention, and take action. In Paris, while chronicling the acceleration of death from tens to hundreds of thousands, Forbes and MacGahan insisted on paying heed to the tiniest details so as to make “each killing a separate saga.” MacGahan expanded on this attention to detail while in Bulgaria, writing that “It is only in the recital of details accompanying the butchery that the mind can grasp and understand the fearful atrocity of the business.” Patton attests to this “recital of details” when he writes that MacGahan’s dispatches were nothing that newspaper readers had ever seen before: “They were as Technicolor in a sepia age, vivid, raw, and sickening.”

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If there is fault to be found, it is in Patton’s tendency to drown readers in a glut of background information, and drift from his opening focus on “the personal over the epic.” Anecdotes concerning more famous men of letters such as Mark Twain, Henry James, Walt Whitman, and a peevish Charles Dickens (“Your newspapers are properties. Ours are institutions”) prove to be diverting in both senses of the word—entertaining but off-topic.

Fortunately these minor gripes are far outweighed by the book’s many strengths. Patton has clearly trawled through reams of old articles and cherry-picked the highlights to color and substantiate his account. Instead of tying his book to the World War I centenary and furnishing us with correspondence from 1914 to 1918, he has stepped further back and shone a fresh light on the Civil War and a long overdue one on a range of lesser known conflicts, ably aided by the stirring and insightful dispatches of these incredibly talented, fearless young men.