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Among the tens of thousands of books written about the American Civil War, there are dense histories of campaigns, profiles of leaders, compilations of battlefield photos or soldiers' letters home. Then, once in a while, you run across just a really good yarn.
That's what Peter Carlson has written in his nonfiction account of two New York Tribune reporters' unique experience of the war. They witnessed fighting or its aftermath at Shiloh, Antietam and other slaughters. They met Abraham Lincoln more than once. But mostly this is a story about their capture and 19-month imprisonment by Confederates, how they survived and, amazingly, how they plugged into a complex network that risked all to help prisoners escape to seemingly unreachable Union lines.
At the heart of this buddy story are two distinctive characters, close friends who sometimes infuriate and often help each other - even nursing each other through life-threatening illness - while seeking out news by very different methods and writing it in sharply contrasting styles. Carlson's story portrays their relationship and the wild ride of their wartime experience with emotional depth and often with humor.
Describing the "self-conscious romantic" Junius Browne's fateful decision to change careers from banking, Carlson writes that he chose "a trade that has traditionally served as a refuge for the skeptical, the curious, the opinionated, the semi-adventurous, the quasi-literary and the vaguely talented - journalism."
Browne comes off as a bit of a dilettante, classically educated and always ready with a bon mot but not necessarily ready to meet deadlines. Although he produces some dispatches that rightly make his reputation in New York, we also see him missing one major battle altogether and concocting a detailed but largely fictional account.
As a journalist, Albert Richardson is Browne's opposite: tireless in his reporting, gifted and comfortable as an interviewer, and elegantly spare in his writing.
In the end, each produces a best-selling book about their shared ordeal, and Carlson mines these rich veins and many others (his source notes run a dozen pages, though this is not an academic history) to chronicle the two men's lives and the trials they get through.
For a time, they make the best of their prison experience, bribing guards for privileges and food, but as the war grinds the Confederacy down, conditions worsen drastically and they volunteer to help the exhausted prison medical staff keep sick, starving prisoners alive.
Richardson indelibly describes the daily removal of corpses for burial: "The last scene of all was the dead cart with its rigid forms piled upon each other like logs ..."
All the while, the reporters plot escape.
"Tunnels were my thought by day and my dream by night," Browne writes.
As they prepare an escape plan that will finally succeed, Richardson uses free moments during work in the hospital to copy names of prisoners who died there, compiling a list of 1,200 names that he will smuggle out, publish and eventually share in personal correspondence with their families.
Carlson's story drags in a few places where the day-to-day recitation of the heroes' progress should have been pruned a bit by an editor. Another editing quibble: the title. "Adventures" suggests a frivolousness that does not fit this book.
Otherwise, the author, a former Washington Post reporter and columnist, has produced a work that entertains as well as educates - for example, about the activities of Southern pro-Union sympathizers - and lets readers see the endlessly chronicled Civil War through a truly fresh lens.