No One Ever Reaches There: To Some Desperate Escapees 150 Years Ago, Knoxville Was Oz

In the dark of winter, two newspapermen escape from prison into the woods. Traveling mainly at night, they head for the closest refuge, 300 miles away, far over two ranges of dark, thickly forested, and partly snowy mountains, a rugged region partly occupied by enemy soldiers. They avoid strangers. They can't trust anyone, probably including rough-edged guerrillas who claim to be on the same side.

"It is 200 miles to Knoxville, and no one ever reaches there," one guerrilla warns them. "All who try it are murdered on the way."

To Junius Browne and Albert Richardson, getting to Knoxville was worth the risk of mere death. They'd seen worse things, and up close. They had spent the previous 19 months in Confederate prison camps.

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Just when you think you've heard all the interesting Civil War stories concerning Knoxville, here comes another. I didn't run across it while poring over the Official Records on a rainy Sunday afternoon, or hear it from an old codger who heard it from his grandpappy. I heard it last month on National Public Radio's show, "On the Media." It's a story told in a brand-new book called Junius and Albert's Adventures in the Confederacy: A Civil War Odyssey, by Peter Carlson.

Junius Browne and Albert Richardson were young war correspondents for the New York Tribune, traveling—we'd say embedded—with the Union Army in Tennessee. Richardson was a burly fellow from Massachusetts, terse and pragmatic. The scrawnier Browne was from Cincinnati, a dreamy young philosopher who favored colorful prose. They liked to think of themselves as part of a "Bohemian Brigade," journalists covering the war from the front.

Few reporters on either side made any pretense of objectivity, and in their prose Browne and Richardson were always frankly enthusiastic about every Union victory. At Fort Donelson in '62, Browne even tried his hand as a sniper.

Later, in May, 1863, Browne and Richardson were trying to get to Union troops riding on a hay barge down the Mississippi, past the Confederate batteries at Vicksburg. After shells hit their vessel, the two journalists abandoned ship, floating on hay bales.

Confederate sentries spotted that peculiarity, and rowed out to intercept them. The reporters weren't armed, and didn't put up much of a fight, assuming they'd be released as non-combatants. But Horace Greeley's New York Tribune may have been the most hated newspaper in the South. They were imprisoned as if they were captured soldiers.

They first got dumped at notorious Libby Prison in Richmond. Conditions were severe in the overcrowded camp, where food and medicine was scarce. At Libby they first met East Tennessee Unionists, some of them civilians accused of helping Lincoln's cause.

After four months at Libby, then five months at the nearby tobacco warehouse known as Castle Thunder, they were put on a train south, to the prison at Salisbury, N.C., which was, by contrast, luxurious, with an actual yard, at least until it got crowded, too. At that point Browne characteristically compared it to Dante's Inferno—the main difference being, Browne wrote, that at Salisbury, death offered a way out. More than 1,000 died there. They witnessed an attempted prison break turn into a bloody failure.

The journalists volunteered to work as "amateur doctors" for the many sick and wounded, and developed some familiarity with the guards. In December, 1864, they just walked out. They traveled at night,

After a couple of weeks of furtive hiking through central North Carolina, they encountered the guerrillas—"bushwhackers"—semi-friendly murderers who advised them not to stop for the winter, not to try to get all the way to Knoxville.

Chapter 19 is called "No One Ever Reaches There." The feral bushwhackers' warning that everyone who tries to get to Knoxville is murdered was only a slight exaggeration. Of 70 prisoners who had escaped from Salisbury, bound for Knoxville, only five had made it alive.

The reporters encountered Confederate deserters, who became allies under the circumstances, guided by various strangers including friendly slaves, a secret organization called the Heroes of America, an 11-year-old boy—and later, in Upper East Tennessee, a mysterious teenage girl named Melvina. It's a story that might seem too much of a stretch for fiction, though much of it will remind you of the novel Cold Mountain, along some of the same geography.

The book offers little description of their desperate objective. In early 1865, Knoxville was a city of 6,000 in a county of about 25,000. City's a relative term, but considering those 6,000 lived downtown, more or less, it could seem cityish at times. A little more than a year after breaking the Confederate siege, it was mainly a city under occupation, still surrounded by earthworks, and crowded with black and white soldiers, both, all in blue uniforms. It had a Unionist weekly, telegraph offices, barber shops, bakeries, saloons, and train service.

But in this story, Knoxville's more an aspiration than a setting; their arrival in Strawberry Plains, which they regarded as a safely Unionist suburb of Knoxville, was more dramatic. Richardson wired the Tribune a message, a paraphrase from Tennyson's familiar "Charge of the Light Brigade": "Out of the jaws of Death; out of the mouth of Hell."

It may seem remarkable that even as the war still raged in Virginia, they had to tarry in Knoxville only a day before boarding the next train to New York, albeit by a roundabout route via Cincinnati, where they were greeted as heroes.

After the war, both became well-known for their accounts of the adventure. But until this new revival of his wartime narrative, Richardson may have been best known for a high-profile romantic scandal, and for being shot to death, in 1869, by a jealous ex-husband, 60 hours after Richardson had married his murderer's wife.

Author Peter Carlson will come all the way to Knoxville, himself, to make a signing visit at Union Ave Books on June 9. The street bore that name even before the Civil War. Junius and Albert likely welcomed the sight of it.