Matthew Price, writer and book critic
Hell Before Breakfast
By Matthew Price. The Boston Globe, April 26, 2014

William Tecumseh Sherman did not care for reporters. Newspaper headlines irked him. When told a correspondent had died in battle, the famed Union general rejoiced: “That’s good news! We’ll have dispatches now from hell before breakfast.” His blustery remark provides the title for Robert H. Patton’s lively look at the emergence of America’s first war correspondents and their dispatches from the front lines.

More an entertaining trifle than a serious work of history, “Hell Before Breakfast’’ bounces along as it takes us from the battlefields of Bull Run and Antietam to Europe’s bloodiest pre-World War I conflicts. American journalists brought news of the Franco-Prussian War, the rise and bloody fall of the Paris Commune, and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. They trekked across deserts and sailed into frozen Arctic waters in pursuit of stories. Save Henry Morton Stanley, who, on the New York Herald’s dime, found David Livingstone in Africa, they are largely forgotten today. But their intriguing tales, enough for three books, are worthy of resurrection.

Patton’s account showcases innovation, bravado, and showmanship. His focus is primarily on two giants of New York newspapering, the Tribune and the big, brash moneymaking machine, the Herald. (“[F]amous for the human muck it so profitably chronicled,” the Herald’s notorious reputation preceded itself: When asked whether he knew of the paper by Stanley, Livingstone shot back, “Who has not heard of that despicable newspaper!”).The Herald was reckless in pursuit of a story: During the Civil War, it eagerly published news of a Union victory at Antietam; in reality, it was an inconclusive, costly battle.

It was the Tribune’s man, George Smalley, who got it right. The paper was an innovator, dispatching him to London, where he set up journalism’s first international news bureau in the late 1860s. He exploited the new technology of the telegraph. An early proponent of flooding the zone, he first would cable hard facts to get them into print; then follow up with analysis and supplementary reporting sent by mail or boat. (As Patton notes, the telegraph was an expensive way to transmit news — newspapers ran up enormous bills.) With Smalley directing stringers in the field and sending news to New York via telegraph, the Tribune scored a coup with its coverage of the Battle of Sedan, the turning point in a war that proved ruinous for France.

Colorful characters dominate Patton’s pages; though he outlines larger media and social trends, the author’s 10 chapters are heavy on anecdote and reconstructed conversations. The publishers of the Herald, James Gordon Bennett and his son, James Jr., make Rupert Murdoch look like the model of propriety. James Jr. liked to scandalize high society — he once rode a horse through the exclusive Newport Reading Room and “cut a carefree swath through New York’s demimonde of prostitutes, actresses and showgirls.”

The Tribune may have initially led the charge for quality foreign news, but the Herald featured its own star correspondent, the memorably named Januarius Aloysius MacGahan, a fearless globetrotter who was “a sucker for colorful characters.”

MacGahan made his name chronicling the Paris Commune, a socialist uprising that was crushed by the French government. His dispatches were humane — and terrifyingly graphic. “They made him to kneel and blew out his brains,” he wrote of the execution of a 16-year-old boy. MacGahan was appalled by the government’s savagery, which he described with pungent concision: “Smith burns my house and for revenge I kill Jones, Brown, Green and their families.” He came to the conflict a skeptic; by its end, he proclaimed “I was also a Communard.”

MacGahan’s relations with Bennett Jr. were often strained — the scion did not care for anyone whose star outshined his own. But MacGahan delivered the goods. He ended up quitting the Herald in 1876, signing on with London’s liberal Daily News.

MacGahan’s chronicle of Turkish depredations against Bulgarian Christians caused an uproar in Britain, sparking an outpouring of humanitarian support and inflaming English politics. Of British support for the Ottomans, MacGahan thundered, “If we are to go on bolstering this tottering despotism … let us see the hideous thing we are carrying.” The ensuing Russo-Turkish war killed hundreds of thousands. The book’s closing sections grow repetitious with instances of barbarism on both sides; still, Patton’s spirited chronicle evokes a lost age of journalism.


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