- The Washington Times - Friday, November 11, 2005

The Times of London, nicknamed “The Thunderer” because of its forceful opinions, had by the 1860s become one of the world’s most influential newspapers, and it showed a marked bias in its reporting of the Civil War. Early in 1861, it dispatched its much respected war correspondent to report on the deepening crisis faced by the United States.

William Howard Russell was born March 28, 1820, in Tallaght, Ireland, and educated at Trinity College, Dublin. He had been called to the Bar at the Middle Temple in 1852. He may have been a barrister for a time, but it was with the Times that he achieved both worldwide fame and American detestation.

A stoutly built man, he reported on the Danish War (1850); major battles in the Crimea (1854-1856); the Indian Mutiny (1857-1858); and the war in Italy (1859).

His light-blue eyes viewed the worsening situation in America with a keen if prejudiced mind. Prior to the Battle of First Manassas, he had made a leisurely tour of the Southern states, commenting on the near-hysterical support for Southern independence that he had witnessed in Montgomery, Ala. Observing Jefferson Davis after the fall of Fort Sumter, he said he thought the Confederate president looked haggard but was “clearly a gentleman.”

Russell’s status as war correspondent for the Times may have opened all doors for him in Washington, but he seems not to have been impressed by Abraham Lincoln, whom he snobbishly described as “hardly a gentleman.” He had a discussion with Secretary of State William Seward in which he was told the rift with the Confederacy would soon be resolved. Presumably that was before Charleston’s guns were turned loose on Fort Sumter.

The reporter obtained a pass as Union Gen. Irvin McDowell prepared to take on a Southern army under Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. Russell visited several of the Union general’s camps, finding them filthy and noting the officers’ inability to drill their men efficiently. His acerbic opinions on what he saw as Union Army shortcomings were not well-received in Washington, for the Times had a worldwide readership.

Worse was to follow.

Russell was present when McDowell’s army fell back in defeat, fleeing in disorder back to the safety of Washington along with panic-stricken civilians who had hoped to see a great victory. His account of the shambles in which he was caught up was graphic and damning. Once in Washington himself, he told of the “beaten, foot-sore soldiers” he saw there.

His reports met with dismay and anger, and he undoubtedly had gone too far. The Lincoln administration had suffered a cataclysmic defeat and what would now be described as a public relations disaster, and Russell’s scathing revelations of a Union army’s incompetence proved to be the last straw.

He became known as “Bull Run” Russell, and as the purveyor of too much bad news, he soon found himself unwelcome in official circles. Widely regarded as an enemy of the Union, he was in physical danger in Washington and, indeed, received several death threats.

Clearly, his presence was deemed undesirable, and when in 1862 he applied for a pass to accompany the Army of the Potomac to the Virginia Peninsula, he was refused one. The writing was on the wall. Whatever successes or failures lay ahead, the Union wanted no more of William Howard Russell’s unsympathetic reporting. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman probably would have had him shot.

Unpopularity did not deter Russell from writing his two-volume “My Diary North and South,” which, surprisingly, was published in 1863 in New York. Nevertheless, the retreat from Bull Run, as portrayed by him, had proved his downfall in the North. He could have moved to Richmond, but that might have been a step too far for both him and his newspaper. In 1862, he went home.

He continued to be a much-traveled war correspondent for the Times, witnessing the Franco-German war (1870-1871) and the troubles in South Africa’s Transvaal and Zululand (1879-1880). Curiously enough, he eventually lost his sympathy for the South, becoming a Union supporter.

His book “The Great War With Russia” appeared in 1895, the year in which he was knighted, becoming Sir William Russell. It was he, incidentally, who coined an evocative expression, “The Thin Red Line,” to describe scarlet-coated British troops at Balaclava, in the Crimea, where his reports had created an earlier sensation and had made his reputation.

He was honored with several foreign decorations and died on Feb. 10, 1907.

Peter Cliffe, a retired corporate administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became interested in the Civil War while working with a multinational firm in this country.

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