The New-York Times goes to war: Jonathan Marwil describes the eye-opening experience of three young Americans who went to report from the battlefields of the Italian War of Independence.
The paper had never covered a war. The only one it might have, the Crimean War (1834-36), had been far away. Italy was closer, and the war being fought there mattered to many in America, from recently-arrived immigrants to long-established New England families.
Having never seen a battle, much less written about one, Raymond would have to learn how. So would his companions, William Edward Johnston, a burly thirty-eight-year-old doctor by training who had been living in Paris for several years and writing for the New York Times under the nora de plume 'Malakoff', and James Forsyth of Troy, New York, an old college friend who had become a successful lawyer specializing in rail roads and banks. Like Raymond, neither man had seen a war, but in the words of 'Malakoff' all three felt drawn to Italy by 'that inexplicable perversity of human nature which pushes on toward scenes of carnage'. Ultimately they would see things they never imagined and would never be able to forget. Their education 'in the field' forms an instructive chapter in the history of journalism and in writing about war generally.
The war these men had come to see pitted the Second Empire of France, allied with the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, against Austria, long the dominant power in northern Italy. Hostilities had begun on April 29th, when Austrian troops began crossing the Ticino River, the boundary between Austrian Loinbardy and Piedmont. Raymond strongly supported Italian independence and soon after the war broke out he had begun making preparations to go to Italy himself. He thought the war would last several months at least and that it offered an opportunity he and his newspaper could not let pass.
By 1859 armies no longer waged war without the press in attendance. The public was offered a steady supply of telegraphic notices, on site reports, and illustrations. The era of cheap, widely circulated newspapers was still in the future, but in the mid-nineteenth century a succession of wars in Europe and the Americas expanded the circulation of papers large and small while inspiring the creation of others. One reporter, William Howard Russell of The Times in London, had become famous--and increased the circulation and influence of the paper--as a result of his graphic dispatches from the Crimea. Some of Russell's articles had so severely criticized conditions in the British army that they contributed to the fall of the Aberdeen government in 1855. The first in a long line of journalists to have become famous through war, Russell set an example that his peers were eager to follow. Certainly Raymond was.
On May 28th he and Forsyth left for Europe aboard the steamship Arago. Waiting in Paris for Raymond were his wife and children, recently settled there after living in Switzerland for the past two years. When the Arago made a brief stop at Southampton on June 9th Raymond dispatched home 'my first letter.' His next, from Paris on June 16th, announced that the 'New York Times will speedily be very efficiently represented at the war'.
Speed matters in journalism, and in days of arriving in Paris, he and his companions were off to Italy. On June 19th, the three men arrived in Turin. Early the next morning they went by rail and carriage to Magenta. They wanted to 'explore' the battlefield, to make better sense of what had happened. The outcome was clear: the French had won a decisive victory. An 'accurate and connected narrative of the transaction,' however, had yet to be written.
When they reached the field they found 'many' other sightseers as well as a number of relic-sellers. Raymond and Johnston were not, however, ordinary tourists. Nor were they the first reporters to visit Magenta. But they did suppose they were the first American reporters to survey the battlefield, and that what they wrote about 'one of the most sanguinary battles of the age', would be eagerly received by the audience back in America.
Together with Forsyth they spent several hours walking over the ground. Johnston had little to say about the field itself and nothing at all about the experience of being there; he attempted to work out 'the alternations of the struggle', and the number of casualties. Raymond tried as well to piece together an account of the battle, and conversed with six French officers, 'scarcely any two' of whom agreed even on the movements of the regiments involved. He was happier and more successful, however, composing a 'personal narrative' of the journey to and around Magenta. By summoning the reader to his side--'there may be something of interest in accompanying me from point to point'--Raymond sought to command his attention. The result was a chatty letter highlighted by sad notices of the dead, glimpses of life being restored and several nods to the fickleness of Mars. Adjacent to a house riddled with cannon balls was a flower garden untouched by the 'breath of war'. His strategy as a reporter was clear: to dissolve authorial distance and thereby enable readers to see in their minds what was not before their eyes.
This first dispatch from the seat of war did not offer much of a challenge to Russell's eminence. In fact it was never printed, perhaps never even sent to New York. Reading it over the next day Raymond recognized its 'hasty,' 'rambling' character. He may have also sensed that his description of a battle he had not witnessed offered readers little drama or emotion, certainly not the kind that had made Russell's writings so compelling to contemporaries. If he was to write in a manner that would excite his readers, Raymond needed a battle he could see.
Forsyth also wrote a letter for a newspaper describing the afternoon at Magenta, one of two such letters he wrote while in Italy, both of which were published in the Albany Evening Journal. This letter reveals that Forsyth was troubled--far more than Raymond and Johnston seem to have been--by what his imagination, working on his knowledge, told him:
It is now fifteen days since this field was reeking with the warm blood of men, and the air heavy with the shock of warring hosts and the groans of the dying.
So troubled that he instinctively turned to the language of the law to compose his thoughts.
It may be doubted whether retributive justice towards Francis Joseph has any punishment adequate to the great crime of causing such a slaughter as this. It may also be doubted whether all the blessings which Italian independence can bring this people are not dear at such a cost. All the nationalities of Southern Europe are represented here; and if their liberties shall strike deeper and rise higher from this fertilization of the 'field of Magenta,' it is not for an American to say that this expenditure of human life is not well made.
Forsyth's readers might not have been comfortable with such a cost-benefit approach. Their forefathers had spilled much blood in winning their independence, why should not others? Indeed, was not independence worth any price? As 'an American' Forsyth might nod his head to the question. As a visitor to a battlefield bloodier than any of the Revolutionary War, one so bloody that it would give its name to a newly developed red dye, he clearly had his doubts.
Leaving Magenta the three men boarded another train for the twelve-mile trip to Milan, and from there went on by carriage to Brescia. On the morning of June 24th they left Brescia 'in pursuit' of Napoleon's forces, unaware that at 5am the two armies, each numbering around 150,000 men, had slammed blindly into each other.
What followed along a fifteen-mile line, stretching from San Martino near Lake Garda down through Solferino and extending to Guidizzolo, was the 'greatest battle the modern world has seen'. If by 'modern' Raymond meant his own lifetime he did not exaggerate. No battle since Leipzig (1813) had involved armies the size of those that met at Solferino, while few battles lasting a single day had ever matched it in intensity and duration. Under a broiling sun the fighting churned on for almost sixteen hours, interrupted only by a violent thunderstorm that broke late in the afternoon and lasted the better part of an hour. By early evening the Austrians had begun to retreat, the allies were claiming victory, and the butcher's bill, exceeding 40,000, equalled that of Waterloo.
On reaching French headquarters at Montechiaro, Raymond and his friends learned that a 'great battle' was being fought in the plain before Castiglione, some five miles away. Quickly the trio clambered to the top of some old fortifications and peering through the 'glasses' they had with them saw smoke rising from the distant engagement. They then pushed on to Castiglione, and by noon had taken up a position on a hill that Napoleon III had occupied earlier that morning.
Viewing the battle, however, was difficult. The hill was too far off for the men to observe 'with any accuracy the successive stages of the action'. They could see masses of troops moving 'toward the front', but once there they were 'speedily enveloped' in smoke, a common obstacle for observers--and directors--of nineteenth-century battles. Nevertheless, Raymond stayed on the hill all day, descending only briefly during the thunderstorm. He thought of going 'closer,' but worried about finding 'any eminence upon the plain' that would provide him with 'so sweeping and complete a view'. As a result he scarcely saw the fighting itself, and his description of its progress was sketchy, 'a very general outline'.
Far more specific and vivid were his descriptions of the wounded in the aftermath. Raymond watched the latter go by in 'sad procession' as he stood for over an hour in a crowd of onlookers, riveted by the pathos and dignity of the 'most dreadful sight' he had ever seen.
Some walked along, their faces completely covered with blood from sabre cuts upon their heads. Many had their arms shattered, hundreds had their hands tied up, and some carried most ghastly wounds upon their faces. Some had tied up their wounds, and others had stripped away the clothing which chafed and made them worse. I saw one man walking along with a firm step and a resolute air, naked to his waist, and having a bullet wound upon his side, an ugly gash along his cheek, and a deep bayonet-thrust, received from behind, in his shoulder.
Raymond has tried to make his readers see what he saw, and up to a point has been successful. Few would have been unmoved by what they read. Yet the horror of the scene has been muted: blood is mentioned only once in that passage, 'ghastly' is left unexplained. Longstanding conventions frowned on the graphic detail that today is often provided in representations of war. Raymond was no more willing than Russell to show precisely what battle can do to the body. And because he was not, and because other reporters were not, the romanticization of war would continue a while longer.
Johnston (together with Forsyth) A sketch of the battlefield of Solferino, published in America in 1859. saw more of the battle once he left Raymond and sought out other positions. As a result he constructed a more coherent account of how 'Francis Joseph has commanded and lost today his first battle'. During the storm Johnston took refuge in Castiglione and 'assisted' in treating the wounded. Later that evening, after the battle, he went around to the hospital and churches where the wounded were being attended to. The majority, he observed, had wounds to the arms and legs; 'those of the chest and abdomen generally remain on the field'--left, we may assume, to die. The 'most horrible' wounds he saw that day, though, were those to the face.
Two Zouaves ... had the whole under jaw carried away, and yet these brave fellows walked behind the carts of their comrades more dangerously wounded than themselves. Some had their eyes closed from blows with the butts of the muskets, others had their cheeks or mouth hanging in lambeaux from sword cuts, others the cheeks swollen to enormous dimensions from balls that had pierced their faces through and through.
Johnston's medical training had obliged him to help in the afternoon. In the evening it demanded that he be precise in describing what he had seen. Some readers surely winced at his clinical language, yet Johnston did not mean to shock, let alone disgust. He simply wrote out of a knowledge and professional empathy that the other reporters did not have, and that had made him a participant at Solferino.
During the night of June 24th, Castiglione, 'a compact town' of 2,000 inhabitants ballooned into a small city as some 10-15,000 wounded soldiers walked or were carried there. Joining them were thousands of others, too tired to find their units, who bedded down wherever they could find space. The sight of this mass of suffering and dying unnerved the normally cool Forsyth, as he would record three days later in his second letter to the Albany Evening Journal. Deep into the night of the 24th, however, he and Johnston had been assisting Raymond as the latter hurriedly composed a lengthy dispatch to the New York Times. Raymond wanted his report, not that of The Times in London, to be the first sustained account of the titanic battle, to reach America. 'If I can only beat 'the Thunderer' into New York with this news, the [New York] Times is made.' So, a decade later, Forsyth remembered Raymond exclaiming 'several times' that night.
Early the next morning Johnston was sent to Brescia with the story. In the packet as well was his own account, also dated 'Castiglione. Friday June 24,' which he had somehow found time to write. When he reached Brescia, Johnston managed to have the packet carrying his and Raymond's letters put in with the army dispatches that were leaving by train that day for Paris. Three days later the packet was delivered to Mrs Raymond, with instructions to place the packet on the 'first and fastest steamer leaving either France or England for New York, at any expense of energy and money.' Realizing what was at stake, Mrs Raymond immediately took a coach to Le Havre, where she placed the precious papers aboard the first ship leaving for New York. By chance it was the Arago.
Meanwhile Raymond, hoping to learn more about the battle, revisited Solferino along with Forsyth. They had hardly arrived, however, before their 'cowardly' driver, aghast at the 'evidences of the slaughter', insisted on going back to Castiglione. There the two men sat down outside a cafe and soon fell asleep, overcome by the heat and lack of rest the night before. They were awakened by the sounds of the 'whole mobile population' of Castiglione running past, panic-stricken by a rumour that the Austrians were coming and that they were 'killing the wounded'. Terrified themselves, Raymond and Forsyth joined the flight. When an hour or so later it became clear there were no Austrians about except for wounded and captured, fear turned into embarrassment.
The panic had also reached Brescia, where the more phlegmatic Johnston, trusting that his passport and occupation would protect him (and probably also the fact that the town was walled and guarded), decided not to flee. In the end all three men termed the episode a 'farce,' and when they later rendezvoused at Montechiaro they laughed heartily over it. But the 'race,' as they came to call it, had enabled Raymond and Forsyth to feel the bowel-churning fear that had struck combatants at Solferino the day before. For a brief time, they too had been wrenched out of the role of spectator and become actors in the war.
Once back together the three men went out to Solferino. They saw a battlefield--unlike Magenta--on which many of the dead still lay where they had fallen, waiting to be flung into large pits by peasant gravediggers. One Austrian, his legs crushed 'into a shapeless mass of flesh' by a cannon ball, lay on his back, both arms raised 'as if in supplication'. Another had his face 'completely shot away'. After a while the stench from the dead, including the horses, became so noxious that the trio left.
Throughout the weekend and into the following week Raymond and his companions were increasingly haunted by the omnipresence of the wounded. The magnitude of the suffering was so great that Raymond despaired of describing it 'in writing'. Yet writing was his trade, and so he asked his readers to 'imagine' the area in front of the City Hall of New York filled with carts, each containing five or ten blood-soaked soldiers 'groaning and writhing in pain', and then to 'conceive Broadway, as far as the eye can see, filled with an unbroken procession of just such carts laden in the same sad style'.
Raymond was asking a lot. Few of his readers would have ever seen a cart of 'blood-soaked soldiers'. Imagining hundreds of them, even within a space that was familiar, did not solve the problem of enabling readers to see what they had never seen. There was no way to transmit the 'horrid' scenes, at least not as they 'met the eye of the spectator'. On Friday Raymond had scarcely been able to see the battle; by Monday he doubted he could convey what he saw of its victims. There seemed a kind of vital insufficiency to language, at least if one wanted to describe horrors on the scale of Solferino.
Johnston tried to solve the problem by narrowing his focus to individuals, sensing that the imagination could more readily embrace the personal. Forsyth opted for the eloquence of silence. 'I refrain from any attempt at a description of the appearance of the field after the battle.' The limitations of modern war journalism were already becoming apparent in its infancy.
But if words failed to capture the horrors of war they could certainly relate its progress. So the three men moved on, with Raymond and Forsyth following the French army for a time and then joining Johnston at Lake Como. There was little war news to report, however; after Solferino neither side was eager for another battle. On July 8th an armistice was arranged, and three days later Napoleon III and the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph met at Villafranca and signed a preliminary peace treaty that would be finalized at Zurich in November 1859.
Thus the war came to an end, little more than two months after it had begun and one day before New Yorkers would at last read the Solferino dispatches of Raymond and Johnston. These were published on July 19th, before any other accounts had reached America. The race with the 'Thunderer' was won; the New York Times printed an exclusive story and thereby achieved new stature among American newspapers. Praise quickly followed, and the stories, particularly Raymond's, were reprinted in numerous papers across the land, as well as in the Parisian journal, Le Constitutionnel (July 29th), which commended the 'impartialite of the American correspondents.
Unsurprisingly, some papers drew comparisons with Russell. The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin titled Raymond the 'American Russell,' predicting that 'if he goes on as well as he has begun, he will surpass the original'. The same writer, though, preferred Johnston's Solferino story for its 'clearness' and the 'vivid picture' it gave of the battle. 'All things considered,' it was 'as good as any of Russell's,' and 'better' than that of his employer. Russell's boss presumably thought so too: on September 7th The Times in London published a long excerpt from Johnston's Brescia dispatch, noting that its author had written 'several graphic accounts of scenes during the war'.
For Johnston the war did not end when the lighting stopped. He spent a day (July 10th) visiting the hospitals in Brescia, and then joined Raymond and Forsyth in returning to Paris. There Raymond wrote three more letters before he and Forsyth returned to New York. For Raymond the experience, for all its hardships and horrors, had been exhilarating. He had seen his first war, been present at the 'greatest battle the modern world had seen', and earned favourable comparison with the great Russell. The war also seems to have stirred in him a certain martial consciousness. Two years later, no longer the novice, he would visit encampments and battlefields during the first two years of the American Civil War, writing freely of 'masked batteries' and 'reconnaissance in force', and predicting the outcome of engagements.
His behaviour during the New York draft riots of July 1863 is also worth notice. Not only did he send six of his employees, armed with rifles, to help guard the nearby offices of Horace Greeley's Tribune but, thinking the rioters would also attack the New Fork Times building, he manned a mitrailleuse on the roof. The attack never came, possibly to the would-be warrior's regret.
The experience, especially what he called the 'death trains' of Solferino, triggered a very different metamorphosis in Johnston. While admiring the 'brilliant campaign' (and the soldiers and leaders who achieved it), Johnston remained stunned by its human costs. He never reported a war again, despite being offered 'very handsome terms' by Raymond in 1866 to cover the Austro-Prussian War. In 1870, though, he did volunteer for the American ambulance unit in Paris when war broke out with Prussia, and later received the Cross of the Legion of Honour for his services as physician-in-chief.
Forsyth in his later years went from being a lawyer to a college president (Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute) and a county judge. Each year, he and Raymond would get together to commemorate Solferino and the next day's panic run. Those two days were 'the grandest in all my experience' Forsyth wrote after his friend's death in June of 1869. And presumably they remained so until his own in August 1886, six months after Johnston's passing.
In the years to come the Times would have many eager and worthy successors to Raymond and Johnston, even as war became more murderous and the task of reporting more dangerous. Reporters volunteered because war offered them what scarcely any other assignment could: fame, influence, excitement, and possibly even fortune. As Johnston had acknowledged in his opening dispatch from Milan, 'it was difficult to remain in Paris when "all the world" had gone to war'.
RELATED ARTICLE: The war of 1859.
IN LATE APRIL 1859 war broke out in northern Italy between Austria, which already controlled Lombardv and Venetia, and the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. France came to the aid of the Piedmontese, and at the head of the French army was Napoleon III, eager to play the role of liberator as well as weaken the influence of Austria in Italy. The war lasted litttle more than ten weeks and is today largely forgotten outside of Italy. Even there it is dwarfed in public memory by the more heroic conflicts that bracket it: the defence of Rome in 1848-49 and Garibaldi's descent on Sicily at the head of 'the thousand' in 1860.
Yet the war of 1859 deserves attention. It prompted the taking of the first first photographs of the dead of war: featured one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the nineteeenth century, Solferino; and inspired the founding of the International Red Cross, thanks to the efforts of a Swiss businessman, Henri Dunant, who attended the wounded at Solferino. These occurrences suggest that the 1859 war ought to be viewed not merely as a dull second act in an otherwise heroic drama of unification, but an experience that opened the eyes of contemporaries to the growing horrors of industrial warfare.
FOR FURTHER READING
Francis Brown, Raymond of the Times, (W.W. Norton 1951); Denis Mack Smith, Victor Emanuel, Cavour, and the Risorgimento (Oxford U.P. 1971); Joseph J. Mathews, Reporting the Wars, (University of Minnesota Press, 1957); Arnold Blumberg, A Carefully Planned Accident: The Italian War of 1859, (Associated University Presses, 1990) Raymond Bourgerie, Magenta et Solferino: Napoleon et le reve italien, (Economica, 1993).
Jonathan Marwil is a lecturer in history at the University of Michigan.
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|Date:||Jun 1, 2005|
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