By Donna Dalton
The idea for my historical romance THE REBEL WIFE evolved from our current-day journalists chronicling the Iraq War. I wondered about the “embeds” of the past and decided to research the newsmen of the American Civil War.
I credit Brayton Harris’ BLUE & GRAY IN BLACK & WHITE with much of what I will talk about today. The information he provided regarding the newspapers in the Civil War was invaluable.
Many of the correspondents who covered the War at the beginning were already considered experienced newsmen. As months turned into years, those veteran journalist were joined by novices and by war’s end some five hundred had served as “special correspondents”. Only a handful of the original newsmen were still in the field in 1865. Along the way, some died, victims of a combat in which they were unlucky spectators . Nearly fifty were held as prisoners of war. A few were promoted to editor and pulled back to the home office. Some were fired for incompetence; others banished from the Army for breaching the rules. Most were just plain worn out.
The job of being a war correspondent was not an easy one. Not only did they have to follow the action, they had to find time to write their stories and then find a way to get them to the home office. Underlying all that, the newsmen were not welcome within either army, North or South. Brayton documented the following comment by a reporter for the Richmond Dispatch.
The duties of newspaper correspondent are much more difficult than many are inclined to believe. He is obliged to know everything, hear everything, and do everything at the same time---in fact, he is expected to be ubiquitous. If anything escapes his eye, up jumps somebody and accuses [him] of a willful omission of the facts to the prejudice of another; if he is led into error by the statements of others, he is accused of falsification; whether he blame severely, makes what he believes a plain statement of events, or praises but feebly, it is all the same. Somebody is dissatisfied. What wonder the band of young fellows who began with this war and wrote such pleasant, interesting, and gossipy letters for the Southern papers, has dwindled down to one or two? Who can blame them for leaving a labor that met with little true reward---the appreciation of the country?
I’m not sure I could have endured such persecution either. According to Brayton, the salaries of the newsmen varied widely from $6.00 a day plus travel expenses to $100 per week. Some were paid piecemeal, article by article. A few used their positions to gain financial advantage through profiteering, both legally and illegally.
Censorship was another difficulty the correspondent faced. Freedom of the Press gave newspapers the right to print whatever they wanted, but it did not guarantee the right of a reporter to gather that material. Most generals, in order to keep correspondents from divulging strategic details to the enemy army, would simply keep the newsmen away from the camps. Secretary Stanton even went as far as to block the publication of Harper’s Weekly for a short period after it had published a drawing of McCllellan’s Yorktown headquarters that had resulted in a confederate shelling of the Yankee camp two days later. These expulsions did not stop all reporters. Some signed on as volunteers in the battle hospitals. Others donned uniforms and posed as soldiers, doing their best to stay out of the thick of the fighting. One reporter even borrowed the kit of a sick member of General Halleck’s bodyguard and joined the unit. My, my, what moxie these newsman had. I couldn’t help but admire them.
So, from all my research on the correspondents in the Civil War, I was able to mold the character of Jackson Porter, a physically and emotionally scarred Yankee journalist on his way to the federal prison in Maryland to gather information for a news article. I immediately hit upon the perfect foil for such a hero – a dyslexic, Southern Rebel willing to use any means to free her brother from imprisonment. Jack is all about words, a seeker of truth, while Louisa sees everything in a distorted light. The story of these two people coming together can’t help but be filled with emotion and conflict. For anyone interested in reading more about THE REBEL WIFE, go to my website www.donnadalton.net.