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The fearless war correspondents who invented modern battlefield journalism between the Civil War and World War I.
Beginning with the American Civil War, the term “war correspondent” became the stuff of legend. In Hell Before Breakfast, Robert H. Patton writes of the fearless young journalists who learned their trade in the 1860s and went on to cover years of bloody imperial conflict in Europe and Central Asia.
Patton introduces us to a colorful cast of characters—Henry Villard of The New York Herald and George Smalley of The New York Tribune, among others—who captured large events as they happened, and whose intrepid spirit would influence such iconic daredevils as Rudyard Kipling, Winston Churchill, and Theodore Roosevelt in the decades that followed.
Hell Before Breakfast is a thrilling chronicle of a spectacular age of war correspondence.
FROM HELL BEFORE BREAKFAST
Russell’s tardiness put him in perfect position to detect that the tide had turned. While reporters at the front grappled with gunfire, dust clouds, and hysterical rumors of advance and retreat, he saw a stream of blue-clad soldiers stagger out of the chaos lamenting, “We’re whipped.” Offended by their hangdog collapse and forlorn parade of hospital wagons packed with unwounded men, he urged them to summon their pride and resume the attack, “but I might as well have talked to the stones.”
By the time his London dispatch was reprinted in America a month later, the fact of Bull Run as a Northern disaster had been absorbed. Russell’s analysis pulled off the singular trick of equally insulting each army—the Union for yielding to panic, the Confederate for calling it a great victory. He made matters worse by chiding America’s traditional condescension toward the British monarchy. “The stones of their brand new republic are tumbling about their ears,” he clucked. “It will be amusing to observe the change in tone.”
American papers excoriated “the snob correspondent from the London Times.” His candor about missing Bull Run’s combat brought him ridicule. He was likened to an old woman flouncing about red-faced, fat, and miles from the fighting. And it was claimed he’d been drunk, having admitted riding out that day well supplied with brandy from whose flask, to Russell’s chagrin, a parched trooper had taken “a startling pull which left but little between the bottom and utter vacuity.”
He took the jibes with humor at first, telling friends that he was “the best abused man in America.” But when some Yankee reporters started hinting at his cowardice, he lashed out at their self-proclaimed coolness under fire and their florid descriptions of rivers of blood and gore. “I failed to discover any traces of close encounter or very severe fighting,” he sniffed. After all, he’d been to Crimea where many thousands had died; the death toll at Bull Run was barely eight hundred.
He received death threats. Then word came down from the White House that his press privileges were revoked. “My unpopularity is certainly spreading upwards and downwards,” he observed, “and all because I could not turn the battle of Bull Run into a Federal victory.” He sailed for home the next spring. In its send-off, The New York Times acknowledged that his dispatches had included some brilliant passages. Bennett of the Herald was unmoved: “He hates our country; let him leave it.”
Russell was glad to go. A storm rocked his ship on its first night at sea but didn’t alter its heading, “thank Heaven, towards Europe.” He took with him a lasting view that American journalism was “degraded and odious.” He also brought along a new nickname, “Bull Run Russell,” that would dog him all his life.
The Times forgave his shabby exit and awarded him an annual pension of three hundred pounds. He was far from finished as a correspondent. Ahead lay the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, a trio of bloodbaths that would be as alluring to American newsmen as the Civil War had been to Russell.
“Densely researched, swift-moving account full of fighting detail.”
“The portraits are sharply drawn, and some of the scoops, like the ‘Bulgarian Horrors’ of 1876, still send a chill up the spine.”
—Geoffrey Wawro, History Book Club Review Board Member and author of A Mad Catastrophe
“An epic account of how America’s forgotten war correspondents risked their lives in some of the world’s most dangerous places to report their stories. In this splendidly written book Robert H. Patton has once again proven that he is a gifted writer with a keen eye for chronicling their tales in a way that is both entertaining and insightful.”
—Carlo D'Este, author of Patton: A Genius for War
“Patton focuses on the war correspondent persona and the band of bold adventurers who earned their keep on the frontlines in this detailed salute….Patton’s tribute to these battlefield scribes revives an understanding of why these men mattered.”