William Howard RussellEdited by Eugene H. Berwanger
When the early secessionist threats were made by American southerners, William Howard Russell, a British journalist of international repute, was sent to the United States as a correspondent for the London Times. Besides dispatching letters to the Times, he kept a detailed personal diary in which he described the people he encountered, the social and cultural milieu, and the political confrontations. This new edition of Russell’s journal consists of selections from the complete Diary, which was originally published in 1863.
Arriving in New York in March 1861, Russell traveled extensively through North and South, visiting both rural and urban areas, talking with both blacks and whites. Since Russell’s reports were known to sway public opinion, Union and Confederate officials, including Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, were anxious to cooperate with him. Pleading immunity, Russell refused openly to favor either side, but did feel free to issue highly critical evaluations of people, events, and customs. The American public became increasingly wary of his reportage as nationalistic feeling deepened on both sides. After he published several unpopular commentaries, the American press generally lambasted Russell for snobbery and for enjoying undeserved privilege. By 1862, he was denied access to essential news sources at the front which thus concluded his mission as a war correspondent.
Few people traveled as widely throughout the United States in 1861 as did Russell and no other journalist interviewed as many Union and Confederate leaders in so short a time. His balanced appraisal of social and political life at the advent of the Civil War provides a fascinating description of Americans as no American could have seen them.
Unlike earlier editions of the Diary which focused on Russell’s reports of encounters with political and military leaders, Berwanger’s includes lengthy selections concerning everyday life behind the scenes of battle. Particularly valuable are portions of the Diary in which Russell describes the lives of blacks in slavery during this period.