William Howard Russell

William Howard Russell was already a famous war correspondent when he arrived in the United States in March 1861, intent on covering the imminent American civil war.  Russell traveled widely over the next year, leaving in April 1862, and then published in London in 1863 a book he entitled “My Diary North and South.”    The key parts are available in a paperback, edited by Eugene Berwanger, from LSU Press.  It is a delightful and useful book, filled with great sketches of some key characters in the Civil War:  Lincoln, Seward, Jefferson Davis, Judah Benjamin.

But I am not sure that Russell’s book is a diary, at least not in the customary sense.  True, it is organized into daily entries, but the entries are so long, and so polished, that I believe they were mainly written in London, in early 1863, from notes and memories of his American tour.  The March 26, 1861, entry quoted below, for example, describing Russell’s first meeting with Seward, just has too much detail to be the result of one evening’s meeting.

The “diary-memoir” issue is complicated by a second diary, Russell’s “private diary,” generally much shorter and in some cases cryptic.  This private diary may be the only diary which Russell created while he was in the United States; or perhaps he also took other notes, now lost, and used all of these to create the more polished published diary.  The private diary is also available now, edited by Martin Crawford, under the title “William Howard Russell’s Civil War: Private Diary and Letters, 1861-1865,” University of Georgia Press.

This distinction between diary and memoir matters when it comes to the question of whether Russell’s quotes in “My Diary North and South” can be taken word for word.  In his “diary entry” for December 16, 1861, at the height of the Trent crisis between the US and Britain, Russell quotes Seward as saying that war between the two nations would “wrap the whole world in flames!  No power so remote that she will not feel the fire of our battle and be burned by our conflagration.”  Most authors quote this word for word, and indeed Amanda Foreman paraphrased it for her title, World on Flames.  I believe, however, that Russell dramatized Seward’s words a bit, since others present at this December 16 event do not quote him in this way, and there is nothing like this in the “private diary.”

Here, then, is an excerpt from “My Diary North and South,” under the date of March 26, 1861, describing Russell’s first meeting with Seward, at a dinner hosted by Seward’s friend Henry Sanford:

Mr. Seward is a slight, middle-sized man of feeble build, with the stoop contracted from sedentary habits and application to the desk, and has a peculiar attitude when seated, which immediately attracts attention.  A well-formed and large head is placed on a long, slender neck, and projects over the chest in an argumentative kind of way, as if the keen eyes were looking for an adversary; the mouth is remarkably flexible, large but well formed, the nose prominent and aquiline, the eyes secret, but penetrating, and lively with humour of some kind twinkling about them; the brow bold and broad, but not remarkably elevated; the white hair silvery and fine–a subtle quick man, rejoicing in power, given to perorate and to oracular utterances, fond of badinage, bursting with the importance of state mysteries, and with the dignity of directing foreign policy of the greatest country–as all Americans think–in the world.  After dinner he told some stories of the pressure on the President for place, which very much amused the guests who knew the men,and talked freely and pleasantly of many things–stating, however, few facts positively.  In reference to an assertion in a New York paper that orders had been given to evacuate Sumter, ‘That,’ he said, ‘is a plain lie–no such orders have been given.  We will give up nothing we have–abandon nothing that has been entrusted to us.  If people would only read these statements by the light of the President’s inaugural, they would not be deceived.’  He wanted no extra session of Congress.  “History tells us that kings who call extra parliaments lose their heads,” and he informed the company he had impressed the President with his historical parallels.

All through this conversation his tone was that of a man very sanguine and with supreme contempt for those who thought there was anything serious in secession.  “Why,” said he, “I myself, my brothers, and sisters, have all been secessionists–we seceded from home when we were young, but we all went back to it sooner or later.  These States will all come back in the same say.”  I doubt if he was ever in the South; but he affirmed that the state of living and society there was something like that in the State of New York sixty or seventy years ago.  In the North all was life, enterprise, industry, mechanical skill.  In the South there was dependence on black labour, and an idle extravagance which was mistaken for elegant luxury–tumble-down old hackney coaches, such as had not been seen north of the Potomac for half a century, harness never cleaned, bad cookery, imperfect education.  No parallel could be drawn between them and the Northern States at all.

End quote.

Two final notes.  First, I am grateful to Russell McClintock for reminding me of the private diary and urging me to update this post.  History is an iterative collegial process.  Second, I do not believe that Lincoln or Seward were thinking, in late March 1861, about the possibility of an extra session of Congress; that issue only came up in April, after the attack on Fort Sumter.  For that reason in the book I have “moved” the quote about kings losing their heads to April, to the cabinet discussion of when to call Congress, where it fits much more naturally.