Soon the great battle would begin, and Browne and Richardson were determined not to miss it. They'd seen many battles but they'd missed others, including Shiloh, arriving too late to witness the fighting and reduced to writing moody descriptions of the forlorn battlefield -- the trees pockmarked with bullet holes, the ground strewn with hats, boots, broken guns, and, of course, rows of fresh graves, some of them ripped open by animals who dragged dead soldiers through the dirt and tore at their uniforms to get the fresh meat.
Albert Richardson and Junius Browne were reporters for the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley's newspaper. Both were 29 years old, and they'd been friends for a decade. Albert was stocky and strong, with a close-cropped beard and a serious face that masked a droll wit. Junius was scrawny and prematurely bald, a bookish intellectual with jug ears and a caustic sense of humor.
On May 3, 1863, they linked up at the Union army encampment in Milliken's Bend, a boggy backwater on the Mississippi, 25 miles north of Vicksburg. A couple weeks earlier, General Grant's army had marched to Grand Gulf, Mississippi, 50 miles south of Vicksburg, the Confederate stronghold that Grant was preparing to attack. As everyone on both sides knew, if Grant could capture Vicksburg the Union would control the Mississippi River, and cut the Confederacy in half.
Whatever might happen there, Vicksburg would be among the war's most important battles, so Richardson and Browne needed to get to Grand Gulf. The two possible routes were both exceedingly dangerous. They could walk 75 miles south through the swamps on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi, then cross the river to Grand Gulf, which would take three days, assuming they made it past the Rebel snipers hiding in the marshes, eager to shoot passing Yankees. The alternative was to hitch a ride on one of the boats that set out from Milliken's Bend at night, ferrying supplies to Grant's army. That route was quicker -- only about eight hours -- but the boats had to float past Vicksburg, where batteries of Confederate cannon were waiting to blow them to bits.
Both routes were frightening, so Richardson and Browne tried to evaluate the odds. They'd heard that 15 Union boats had attempted to steam past the Rebel guns and that 10 or 12 of them had reached Grand Gulf unscathed, so they figured their chances were reasonably good. And there was another factor: Riding down the river past Rebel cannons would make a far more exciting story than plodding through the Louisiana mud. After two years of war reporting, they'd slogged through enough mud to last a lifetime. They located a tugboat captain who was planning to drag two barges of hay down the river that night and he invited them to come along. Another reporter -- Richard Colburn of the New York World -- agreed to accompany them.
As they waited for nightfall, the three reporters encountered Sylvanus Cadwallader of the Chicago Times and urged him to join their expedition. Cadwallader was skeptical. Floating past cannons on a barge packed with highly combustible hay bales seemed like an invitation to incineration. Cadwallader decided to take his chances with the mud. He borrowed an army mule and headed south through Louisiana. He spent the night listening as the cannons of Vicksburg boomed, and wondering if his friends would make it past them.
From "Junius and Albert's Adventures in the Confederacy: A Civil War Odyssey," by Peter Carlson. Copyright © 2013 by Peter Carlson. Published by PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.