- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 26, 2002

Hard haters are interesting people, it must be confessed, all the way from bad King John to Joseph Goebbels. Though John Moncure Daniel does not share their villainy (it's thought he never actually aimed to kill in his nine duels), this wickedly wrongheaded and principled editor of the South's most partisan newspaper, the Richmond Examiner, shares their dark allure.

Daniel, equipped with a brilliant mind and a lacerating wit, was a leading propagandist for the Southern secessionist cause, a leading voice for the continuation of the war even when all seemed lost, and an outspoken believer in white supremacy.

The fact that Peter Bridges, a student of the Civil War and a Virginian, has produced a sympathetic, readable and also frustrating biography of this enigmatic man is cause for rejoicing. It shows considerable courage in these pallid days even to air views that are racially or socially contrary. There are critics who feel that the mere study of a man like Daniel is a kind of justification and a "revision" of history. Mr. Bridges never takes Daniel's side in this book, but he does present what must have been a widespread view of the war that is almost never expressed today.

What is frustrating in Mr. Bridges' careful and detailed biography is the lack of the man's voice itself. The book contains few letters reprinted in full and few examples of Daniel's inflammatory editorial style. The excerpts that are used only whet the taste for the whole column. Daniel's "pen of fire" remains unseen, for the most part, leaving the reader longing for pages of the original material or the look and feel of the little newspaper from Richmond, which was so popular that Confederate soldiers pooled their pennies to buy a single copy to be shared until it became tattered.

Mr. Bridges' scholarly approach to the turbulent Daniel is cautious. He could well have risked some judgments for himself about Daniel's internal compass and the source of the editor's unbending resentments.

John Daniel died in March 1865, a few days before Richmond was burned by its own city fathers and military guardians as Northern forces arrived. He was just 39 years old, at the height of his influence, wealth and fame, but sick in body (it's thought he had tuberculosis) and exhausted in mind.

That mind contained in a slight frame behind a face of striking beauty and a manner of mystery and reserve is the principal study of Mr. Bridges, a long-serving U.S. Foreign Service officer and former ambassador to Somalia.

The author grapples with the remarkable inconsistencies of his subject. Daniel, so upright in every matter of personal honor that he literally exiled himself to a career as a diplomat in order to pay off a debt, simply shut out the voice of conscience, the insights of science (or Christianity, for that matter) and the influence of others when dealing with black people.

He also was merciless and nearly irrational in his deep-seated hatreds of Northerners and even of the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Daniel saw Abraham Lincoln not as a dangerous enemy, but as a backwoods buffoon unworthy to be called a leader.

What are we to make of such a man, who was so mistaken in his hopes and beliefs and so out of touch with vast movements of his time? Mr. Bridges believes that if Daniel had survived the war and the inevitable duels that were a feature of his life, he might have become governor of Virginia or perhaps a senator.

What was the secret of his popularity? That is never made clear, though it's obvious that the Examiner's faithful belief in ultimate Southern triumph was grasped by both civilians and soldiers risking their lives in the same cause.

It's also abundantly clear that Daniel was a born newspaperman who knew instinctively where the public nerve lay and understood what people wanted to hear and the Examiner presented it in sharp, outspoken prose.

It is less clear that Daniel's convictions could have been changed by events, but he was open to a certain kind of logic. He fought against the use of blacks in the Confederate forces, for example, reasoning that if a black could be a soldier, he could not also be a slave.

Though the Civil War period of Daniel's life is the reason for the title, "Pen of Fire," Daniel was also a diplomat for the U.S. State Department before secession, serving with distinction as the American envoy to the kingdom of Sardinia at Turin. He took the job to pay off a particularly galling judgment in favor of a New York engravings dealer who had won a lawsuit against Daniel over a scathing article in the Examiner about his engravings.

Such was Daniel's sense of honor that he dropped his newspaper career and secured the diplomatic appointment. He was only 27 in 1851 and already a controversial figure. His plunge into the tortuous world of pre-unification Italian politics consumes much of the biography as it did of its subject's young life. He resigned in 1861 because of his loyalty to the secessionist South and returned, his finances much improved, to newspapering in Richmond.

Remarkably, Daniel proved an able and useful envoy whose information was prized by Washington, but his habits of outspokenness were already well-formed. He refused to wear court dress, he wrote letters uncomplimentary to his host nation, and he never feared making an enemy by "becoming a careful coward and a respectable hypocrite," as he once put it in a letter.

He achieved much in Europe, but he was never diplomatic in his judgment of others. He felt Europeans were more venal and corrupt and less worthy than Americans.

Yet when he returned to Richmond and began making the Examiner the leading paper in the city, he did not rejoice in his own native society, soon finding enemies aplenty to lampoon and impale on his editorial page. One of his chief targets was Davis, for whom Daniel's dislike grew like a dark thundercloud as the war gloomily ground on.

Mr. Bridges reveals remarkable insights about the Confederacy. While the Federal government imposed a kind of censorship on some types of war news, no such restrictions were in place in the South. When Davis asked Richmond newspapers not to publish stories about a bread riot in April 1863, all editors except Daniel complied. Yet no action was taken against him.

Daniel's unvarnished critical reviews of battles and the character of politicians and generals doubtless were sought eagerly and used by Northern spies seeking intelligence of Richmond's means and motives.

It is said that the ultimate courage is the willingness to fight a losing battle to the end but are we willing to give that accolade, say, to the SS divisions that defended Berlin in April 1945 or to the Japanese kamikaze leaders? Nevertheless, we cannot, on the evidence, say that Daniel, with his lofty intelligence and allegiance only to his own values, was a fanatic. He fought his battles to the end.

He was a party to one last duel, with Confederate Treasurer Edward C. Elmore, whom he accused of using official funds at a gambling house and losing vast sums. Because Daniel had been severely wounded in the right arm during a stint of Confederate military service, he had to aim with his left. Elmore's ball hit Daniel in the leg, causing a wound that left him in constant pain.

Months later, as he lay dying of tuberculosis in his Richmond home, Daniel published his last editorial, predicting that if Richmond fell, the government would lose authority and the army would disintegrate. This time he was right. Honorable, wrongheaded, racist as he was, he was a man swept away by the winds of his time.


Duncan Spencer is a Washington writer.

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