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Thwarted in his mission to report the war…the end of his story in America.—William Howard Russell’s Diary.

April 15, 2012

My Diary North and South - William Howard Russell

As soon as General McClellan commenced his movement, he sent a message to me by one of the French princes, that he would have great pleasure in allowing me to accompany his head-quarters in the field. I find the following, under the head of March 22nd:—

“Received a letter from General Marcy, chief of the staff, asking me to call at his office. He told me General McClellan directed him to say he had no objection whatever to my accompanying the army,’ but,’ continued General Marcy, ‘you know we are a sensitive people, and that our press is exceedingly jealous. General McClellan has many enemies who seek to pull him down, and scruple at no means of doing so. He and I would be glad to do anything in our power to help you, if you come with us, but we must not expose ourselves needlessly to attack. The army is to move to the York and James Rivers at once.’”

All my arrangements were made that day with General Van Vliet, the quartermaster-general of headquarters. I was quite satisfied, from Mr. Stanton’s promise and General Marcy’s conversation, that I should have no further difficulty. Our party was made up, consisting of Colonel Neville; Lieutenant-Colonel Fletcher, Scotch Fusilier Guards; Mr. Lamy, and myself; and our passage was to be provided in the quartermaster-general’s boat. On the 26th of March, I went to Baltimore in company with Colonel Rowan, of the Royal Artillery, who had come down for a few days to visit Washington, intending to go on by the steamer to Fortress Monroe, as he was desirous of seeing his friends on board the Rinaldo, and I wished to describe the great flotilla assembled there and to see Captain Hewett once more.

On arriving at Baltimore, we learned it would be necessary to get a special pass from General Dix, and on going to the General’s head-quarters his aide-de-camp informed us that he had received special instructions recently from the War Department to grant no passes to Fortress Monroe, unless to officers and soldiers going on duty, or to persons in the service of the United States. The aide-de-camp advised me to telegraph to Mr. Stanton for permission, which I did, but no answer was received, and Colonel Rowan and I returned to Washington, thinking there would be a better chance of securing the necessary order there.

Next day we went to the Department of War, and were shown into Mr. Stanton’s room—his secretary informing us that he was engaged in the next room with the President and other Ministers in a council of war, but that he would no doubt receive a letter from me and send me out a reply. I accordingly addressed a note to Mr. Stanton, requesting he would be good enough to give an order to Colonel Rowan, of the British army, and myself, to go by the mail boat from Baltimore to Monroe. In a short time Mr. Stanton sent out a note in the following words :—” Mr. Stanton informs Mr. Russell no passes to Fortress Monroe can be given at present, unless to officers in the United States service.” We tried the Navy Department, but no vessels were going down, they said; and one of the officers suggested that we should ask for passes to go down and visit H.M. S. Rinaldo exclusively, which could not well be refused, he thought, to British subjects, and promised to take charge of the letter for Mr. Stanton and to telegraph the permission down to Baltimore. There we returned by the afternoon train and waited, but neither reply nor pass came for us.

Next day we were disappointed also, and an officer of the Rinaldo, who had come up on duty from the ship, was refused permission to take us down on his return. I regretted these obstructions principally on Colonel Rowan’s account, because he would have no opportunity of seeing the flotilla. He returned next day to New York, whilst I completed my preparations for the expedition and went back to Washington, where I received my pass, signed by General McClellan’s chief of the staff, authorising me to accompany the head quarters of the army under his command. So far as I know, Mr. Stanton sent no reply to my last letter, and calling with General Van Vliet at his house on his reception night, the door was opened by his brother-in-law, who said, “The Secretary was attending a sick child and could not see any person that evening,” so I never met Mr. Stanton again.

Stories had long been current concerning his exceeding animosity to General McClellan, founded perhaps on his expressed want of confidence in the General’s abilities, as much as on the dislike he felt towards a man who persisted in disregarding his opinions on matters connected with military operations. His infirmities of health and tendency to cerebral excitement had been increased by the pressure of business, by the novelty of power, and by the angry passions to which individual antipathies and personal rancour give rise. No one who ever saw Mr. Stanton would expect from him courtesy of manner or delicacy of feeling; but his affectation of bluntness and straightforwardness of purpose might have led one to suppose he was honest and direct in purpose, as the qualities I have mentioned are not always put forward by hypocrites to cloak finesse and sinister action.

The rest of the story may be told in a few words. It was perfectly well known in Washington that I was going with the army, and I presume Mr. Stanton, if he had any curiosity about such a trifling matter, must have heard it also. I am told he was informed of it at the last moment, and then flew out into a coarse passion against General McClellan because he had dared to invite or to take anyone without his permission. What did a Republican General want with foreign princes on his staff, or with foreign newspaper correspondents to puff him up abroad?

Judging from the stealthy, secret way in which Mr. Stanton struck at General McClellan the instant he had turned his back upon Washington, and crippled him in the field by suddenly withdrawing his best division without a word of notice, I am inclined to fear he gratified whatever small passion dictated his course on this occasion also, by waiting till he knew I was fairly on board the steamer with my friends and baggage, just ready to move off, before he sent down a despatch to Van Vliet and summoned him at once to the War Office. When Van Vliet returned in a couple of hours, he made the communication to me that Mr. Stanton had given him written orders to prevent my passage, though even here he acted with all the cunning and indirection of the village attorney, not with the straightforwardness of Oliver Cromwell, whom it is laughable to name in the same breath with his imitator. He did not write, “Mr. Russell is not to go,” or “The Times correspondent is forbidden a passage,” but he composed two orders, with all the official formula of the War Office, drawn up by the Quartermaster General of the army, by the direction and order of the Secretary of War. No. 1 ordered “that no person should be permitted to embark on board any vessel in the United States service without an order from the War Department.” No. 2 ordered “that Colonel Neville, Colonel Fletcher, and Captain Lamy, of the British army, having been invited by General McClellan to accompany the expedition, were authorized to embark on board the vessel.”

General Van Vliet assured me that he and General McDowell had urged every argument they could think of in my favour, particularly the fact that I was the specially invited guest of General McClellan, and that I was actually provided with a pass by his order from the chief of his staff.

With these orders before me, I had no alternative.

General McClellan was far away. Mr. Stanton had waited again until he was gone. General Marcy was away. I laid the statement of what had occurred before the President, who at first gave me hopes, from the wording of his letter, that he would overrule Mr. Stanton’s order, but who next day informed me he could not take it upon himself to do so.

It was plain I had now but one course left. My mission in the United States was to describe military events and operations, or, in defect of them, to deal with such subjects as might be interesting to people at home. In the discharge of my duty, I had visited the South, remaining there until the approach of actual operations and the establishment of the blockade, which cut off all communication from the Southern States except by routes which would deprive my correspondence of any value, compelled me to return to the North, where I could keep up regular communication with Europe. Soon after my return, as unfortunately for myself as the United States, the Federal troops were repulsed in an attempt to march upon Richmond, and terminated a disorderly retreat by a disgraceful panic. The whole incidents of what I saw were fairly stated by an impartial witness, who, if anything, was inclined to favour a nation endeavouring to suppress a rebellion, and who was by no means impressed, as the results of his recent tour, with the admiration and respect for the people of the Confederate States which their enormous sacrifices, extraordinary gallantry, and almost unparelleled devotion, have long since extorted from him in common with all the world. The letter in which that account was given came back to America after the first bitterness and humiliation of defeat had passed away, and disappointment and alarm had been succeeded by such a formidable outburst of popular resolve, that the North forgot everything in the instant anticipations of a glorious and triumphant revenge.

Every feeling of the American was hurt—above all, his vanity and his pride, by the manner in which the account of the reverse had been received in Europe; and men whom I scorned too deeply to reply to, dexterously took occasion to direct on my head the full storm of popular indignation. Not, indeed, that I had escaped before. Ere a line from my pen reached America at all—ere my first letter had crossed the Atlantic to England—the jealousy and hatred felt for all things British—for press or principle, or representative of either—had found expression in Northern journals; but that I was prepared for. I knew well no foreigner had ever penned a line—least of all, no Englishman— concerning the United States of North America, their people, manners, and institutions, who had not been treated to the abuse which is supposed by their journalists to mean criticism, no matter what the justness or moderation of the views expressed, the sincerity of purpose, and the truthfulness of the writer. In the South, the press threatened me with tar and feathers, because I did not see the beauties of their domestic institution, and wrote of it in my letters to England exactly as I spoke of it to every one who conversed with me on the subject when I was amongst them; and now the Northern papers recommended expulsion, ducking, riding rails, and other cognate modes of insuring a moral conviction of error; endeavoured to intimidate me by threats of duels or personal castigations; gratified their malignity by ludicrous stories of imaginary affronts or annoyances to which I never was exposed; and sought to prevent the authorities extending any protection towards me, and to intimidate officers from showing me any civilities.

In pursuance of my firm resolution I allowed the slanders and misrepresentations which poured from their facile sources for months to pass by unheeded, and trusted to the calmer sense of the people, and to the discrimination of those who thought over the sentiments expressed in my letters, to do me justice.

I need not enlarge on the dangers to which I was exposed. Those who are acquainted with America, and know the life of the great cities, will best appreciate the position of a man who went forth daily in the camps and streets holding his life in his hand. This expression of egotism is all I shall ask indulgence for. Nothing could have induced me to abandon my post or to recoil before my assailants; but at last a power I could not resist struck me down. When to the press and populace of the United States, the President and the Government of Washington added their power, resistance would be unwise and impracticable. In no camp could I have been received—in no place useful. I went to America to witness and describe the operations of the great army before Washington in the field, and when I was forbidden by the proper authorities to do so, my mission terminated at once. On the evening of April 4th, as soon as I was in receipt of the President’s last communication, I telegraphed to New York to engage a passage by the steamer which left on the following Wednesday. Next day was devoted to packing up and to taking leave of my friends—English and American—whose kindnesses I shall remember in my heart of hearts, and the following Monday I left Washington, of which, after all, I shall retain many pleasant memories and keep souvenirs green for ever. I arrived in New York late on Tuesday evening, and next day I saw the shores receding into a dim grey fog, and ere the night fell was tossing about once more on the stormy Atlantic, with the head of our good ship pointing, thank Heaven, towards Europe.

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