Written in Blood

GO AHEAD AND CANCEL the asbestos-gloves order you placed with Amazon in preparation for reading Robert H. Patton’s luridly titled (and grandiosely subtitled) Hell Before Breakfast. You won’t need them. The book’s sulfur-and-perdition name oversells by a factor of about ten the levels of excitement, adventure, and journalistic history its pages actually deliver. If the truth-in-advertising provisions of federal law applied to books, its publisher would now be retitling it more accurately, perhaps 1860–1890: An Unhurried Account of Several Newspapers, a Dozen Reporters, and Five or Six Major Wars.

But to paraphrase Donald H. Rumsfeld, you review the book you’ve been assigned to review, not the book you wish the author had written—and certainly not its title. Still, I can’t hide my disappointment after having read a study that, owing to its subject (war) and its protagonists (journalists), should be like a rapidly bubbling kettle on Satan’s hearth. Alas, Hell Before Breakfast only simmers.

Although newspapers had covered war before, the first bona fide war correspondent was William Howard Russell, the Times of London’s famous chronicler of the Crimean War (1853–56). Russell’s renowned account of the Charge of the Light Brigade would later be famously reframed into verse for posterity by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Russell devalorized war by documenting its filth, pestilence, disease, and suffering in a word stew thick with maggots, sewage, and shattered bones. His pieces, read in England and the United States, upset Victorian readers and outraged the generals, who expected less realism and more cheerleading from reporters. His work also stirred England’s conscience, Patton writes; the popular rally for improvements in soldiers’ conditions that came in the wake of his reporting from the Crimean front made Russell into an international celebrity and journalistic role model.

The results of the Russell method, cinema veritéat its most intense, did not reach its audience immediately. A three-week lag between battle and London publication was the rule when the dispatches came from places like Crimea. Part of Hell Before Breakfast’s main theme is how technology and competition changed war reporting. The first technological boost came at the end of the 1850s, as the expansion of telegraph networks helped collapse the delay to something more instantaneous. American Civil War reporters reaped some of the earliest rewards of combat telegraphy, which placed a new premium on the speed of news delivery.

These timely stories attracted huge audiences and increased competition for scoops—which in turn fomented circulation wars. War, it turns out, is not just the health of the state; it is the health of newspapers. According to Patton, more than five hundred reporters filed stories from the Civil War, with James Gordon Bennett’s sassy and lucrative New York Herald leading the coverage. Bennett spent half a million dollars—upwards of $10 million in today’s money—on the effort. Along the way, he also inadvertently launched another, less welcome tradition: the prior-restraint attention of self-interested American war makers. In 1862, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton promulgated new censorship rules, ostensibly to protect the Union’s sensitive national security; Stanton’s orders put all telegraph lines under government control.

Aside from errant bullets and the occasional misplaced cannon shot, the Civil War correspondent’s greatest enemy was Union general William Tecumseh Sherman, whose hatred for journalists was unmatched. Sherman openly cheered one communiqué announcing that reporters had been killed, saying, “That’s good news! We’ll have dispatches now from hell before breakfast.” Another time, not reported in Patton’s book, Sherman ordered the court-martial of Herald reporter Thomas W. Knox for disobeying his command not to follow the army down the Mississippi. “Come with a sword or musket in your hand, prepared to share with us our fate, and I will welcome you as a brother and associate,” wrote Sherman. But come as a reporter, “and my answer is Never!”

Instead of digging in, Patton blitzkriegs through the reportorial riches furnished by the Civil War; he abandons that epoch-making disturbance by page 47! At that point, he switches to an 1865 sideshow that has very little to do with journalism and absolutely nothing to do with war. Bennett, enriched by the Herald’s Civil War circulation gains, enters a sailboat in a transatlantic race. The rendition of the episode here is detailed and readable, but a meaningless footnote to the subject at hand.

And just when you think Patton will return to the hell of war, he expands upon another footnoteable maritime subject—an 1869 rowing match between Harvard and Oxford in London. Yes, the Harvard-Oxford race was covered by fifteen American newspapers, and yes, both undersea cable and swift boats conveyed the results to papers in the United States, and yes, the speedy delivery of distant news has relevance to the book’s theme—but no, it’s generally not a good idea for a writer to dump his notebook every time he spots an interesting tale on the periphery of his topic. Another, for instance: What does the search for David Livingstone by Henry Stanley have to do with war correspondents? Or a New York Herald hoax about escaped animals from the Central Park Zoo? An Arctic expedition? If a writer refuses to chew hard on his topic, he can’t expect his readers to do much more.

Francis Millet, Music on the March, 1887, published in Harper’s Magazine.
Francis Millet, Music on the March, 1887, published in Harper’s Magazine.

When Patton does go to battle—and he does often, to the Franco-Prussian War, the siege of Paris, various conflicts in central Asia, the Russo-Turkish War, and other skirmishes and scuffles—he frequently returns with a knapsack filled with anecdotes and adventures worthy of his book’s title. Archibald Forbes, perhaps the most colorful character in the book, was a veteran of the Royal Dragoons who got a war correspondent’s job with London’s Morning Advertiser in 1870 on the strength of a fictional war story he’d written. Such was Forbes’s devotion to his craft that he had all of his teeth replaced with a dental plate to keep his toothaches from sidelining him. In Paris during the siege and uprising of 1871, he was taken prisoner, ordered to appear before a firing squad, rescued, taken prisoner again, and released, all the while filing stories to the outside world via the British and American embassies.

Working in Paris alongside Forbes was American journalist Januarius MacGahan—another war correspondent who was taken prisoner and also escaped execution. MacGahan, who eventually died of typhus contracted in the field, was possessed by a wanderlust that took him to Spain to cover the Carlist rebellion of 1873–76 and on a horseback odyssey across the steppes and deserts of central Asia to witness the Russo-Turkish War. He’s still regarded as something of a secular saint in Bulgaria for his work in the London Daily News documenting Turkish atrocities against the rebelling Bulgarians in 1876.

A third post in Patton’s big tent is Frank Millet, a dual-threat painter and correspondent. A Harvard graduate and bohemian (though Millet was married, evidence suggests that man-love was one of his enthusiasms), he embedded with the Russian army to cover the Russo-Turkish War in the company of MacGahan and Forbes. One day, Millet discovered gravediggers burying Turkish survivors in mass graves along with war fatalities. “I have seen this myself,” he wrote. “One says, ‘He is still alive!’ Others cry, ‘Devil take him! He will die tomorrow anyway. In with him.’ And the living goes with the dead, and is tumbled into the grave.” Unable to stop the gravediggers, Millet found a Russian general, who gave him a posse of forty to police the outrage. “With drawn revolver and whip in hand,” he commandeered the burial carts and sorted out the living from the dead.

These examples, I assure you, represent a few high points in an otherwise drifting and tepid story. Patton’s authority is indisputable—his comprehensive bibliography points the reader to the essential sources—but ultimately his book disappoints. His doggedly tangent-chasing approach to his subject means that he regularly pours foundations for stories that go unbuilt. No unifying thesis or argument exists to carry the weight of three decades, multiple wars, and the company of journalists Patton assembles. More energy goes into characterizing the actual wars the correspondents covered than into revisiting the words the journalists used to describe them, giving many pages of Hell Before Breakfast an “If this is 1873, this must be Khiva” feeling of sameness. For my tastes, Patton commits too much space to informing the reader about a class of people (newspaper owners, editors, diplomats, politicians, Frank Millet’s fellow passengers on the Titanic) whom the grunts in Michael Herr’s Dispatches called the REMFs, short for “rear-echelon motherfuckers.”

Blame Patton, blame his editors, or blame the sad soul who plucked the hard-boiled title out of the text. But blame somebody. If this book were a military campaign, you’d have to call it a rout. There’s just too much breakfast and not nearly enough hell.

Jack Shafer writes a column about the press and politics for Reuters.