William Howard Russell

These vignettes of famed British reporter William Howard Russell in Savannah are excerpted from Ch. 5 of the The Best Station of Them All.

William Howard Russell was famous for his coverage of the great events and places of the world, and within two months of South Carolina’s secession he was in New York City. From there he headed south, sampling American life and attitudes as he worked down to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. Politics and the military filled his newspaper articles, while his observations on people and society made immensely popular books and magazine articles.

Both Northerners and Southerners were honored by Mr. Russell’s attention. But by the time he entered the South he had picked up two spies as traveling companions. Theodore Davis was an artist and correspondent for Harper’s Weekly.While traveling with Russell he called himself "Deodore F. Moses" and claimed to work for The Illustrated London News. Sam Ward, who posed as Russell’s secretary, was the brother of abolitionist activist Julia Ward Howe. While Davis was primarily an illustrator free-lancing as a spy, Ward’s assignment came from Secretary of State William H. Seward.1

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Salute on deck

Lovett, Naval Customs, Traditions, and Usage

Russell and company were invited to tour Fort Pulaski . Commodore Josiah Tattnall and Brigadier General Alexander R. Lawton turned out in full uniform with their aides and Mayor Charles C. Jones, Jr. and several Savannah notables, and waited upon his eminence at the Exchange Wharf. The party boarded the Commodore’s little flag boat Savannah. The midshipmen lifted their blue caps to the Commodore and General Lawton—the proper naval salute—while the lieutenants merely suggested the tip of the cap with a thumb and forefinger to the bill.

Guests and hosts aboard, the flag boat backed away from the wharf and turned out onto the broad Savannah River. The first day of May was glorious: Sunshine and blue skies, a breeze blowing fresh. Russell had seen and sailed rivers all over the world. This one was as wide as the Thames below Gravesend, he noted, with the bluff capped by the city on one side, and on the other the land stretches away as far as the sea in one level green, smooth as a billiard cloth. Davis, writing in the next month’s Harper’s Weekly, identified the Commodore’s flag boat Savannah as the charming Florida steamer Tatnall (sic)….; The Commodore’s aides were almost beardless youths from Annapolis, or Midshipmen of a year’s cruise…2 At her fore the Savannah flew the square blue pennant that signified the Commodore was aboard; and Fort Jackson, its garrison lining the parapet, dipped its flag in salute as the vessel steamed past.3 Ted Davis was impressed by the deference Savannah paid Commodore Tattnall, whom he described as a fine white-headed, blue-eyed, ruddy-cheeked old man…;

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For their guests on the cruise, the Savannah’s stewards served refreshments, and the Commodore kept Russell & Co. entertained with merry chat, Davis reported, until they approached Cockspur Island, where Fort Pulaski threw out the Confederate flag to the air of the Georgian 1st of May. The tide was out and the Savannah couldn’t reach the wharf, so the party clambered into boats, and Tattnall’s blue jackets rowed them to the landing.4

Tattnall and Ft Pulaski

Tattnall and Ft Pulaski

Outside the fort were several wooden huts—officers quarters and a hospital, with flower gardens in front. The party crossed a deep ditch (a dry moat) via a drawbridge and As the commodore entered the redan, the guns of the fort broke out into a long salute, and the band at the gate struck up almost as noisy a welcome.5

Fort Pulaski looked strong. Its brick walls were thick, and its young Georgia volunteers ready to fight. The lads were mounting cannon—vintage 42-pounders and long 32s, and a few bigger, newer Columbiads, on new yellow pine carriages; and they expected to get more guns from the stock captured at Gosport Navy Yard.

Several big Columbiads were mounted on the parapet, and they each had a name—Beauregard, Sumter, Lawton, Wigfall, and (of course) Tattnall—painted on the chase. From near the gun named Tattnall, the party looked out across the river’s broad mouth to the ocean beyond.

How will you stand up against the Yankees’ powerful frigates, Russell asked Gen. Lawton. The Commodore will take care of the Yankees at sea, the General replied, and we shall manage them on land.

Where are my ships, Tattnall protested. I have no fleet! Long before the South has a fleet to cope with the North, my bones will be whitening in the grave.6

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Before they left the parapet, Ted Davis sketched Russell, Tattnall, and Sam Ward at the Columbiad named for the Commodore, Russell sighting along its barrel.

Russell and Columbiad

Theodore Davis, Harper’s Weekly, June, 1861

The party stayed all afternoon and returned to Savannah in the cool of the evening, Ted Davis reported, enjoying en route the joys of a Southern sunset; and as the boat came to her anchorage—within a couple of cables’ length of the yacht Camilla (America) of which Captain Decri [sic] is now the fortunate owner—we could not but regret that so pleasurably a spent day had come to a close.7

Russell, Sam Ward and Ted Davis spent a few more days taking in the sights and the attitudes of Savannah and its people. On April 29 President Jefferson Davis sent a message to an emergency session of the new Confederate Congress, addressing Mr. Lincoln’s refusal to negotiate property questions with the Confederacy, and the resultant crisis that had erupted in the cannonade on Fort Sumter. Speaking through Congress, Davis told Lincoln and the world that all we want is to be let alone. The address brought a profound change in the attitude of Savannahians toward the North. [T]hey are not so belligerent today as they were a week ago, Russell noted. Davis’s message was praised for its moderation, he said,

and for several other qualities which were by no means in such favor while the Sumter fever was at its height. Men look grave and talk about the interference of England and France, which ‘cannot allow this thing to go on.’ But the change which has come over them is unmistakable, and the mood was unmistakably serious.8

A few days after seeing Fort Pulaski, Russell and company departed to continue their Southern tour. He admitted to leaving Savannah’s squares and leafy streets, its churches, and institutes, with a feeling of regret…but the march of events called me to Montgomery.


1. William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South (Boston: T.O.H.P. Burnham, 1863), pp. 46, 62, 78; Charles Boswell, The America: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Yacht (New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1967), pp. 125-126.

2. Russell, My Diary, p. 154; William H. Russell, Pictures of Southern Life, Social, Political, and Military (New York: James G. Gregory, 1861), p. 9. Theodore R. Davis, Our Southern Pictures Harper’s Weekly, June 1, 1861, p. 341.

3. In 1858 the U.S. Navy replaced the broad pendant that signaled the presence of a commodore (squadron commander) with a square blue flag. Along with it came a new title—flag officer. Charles Colcock Jones, Jr., Life and Services of Commodore Josiah Tattnall (Savannah: Morning News Steam Press, 1878), p. 80. Russell, Pictures of Southern Life, p. 9.

4. Navy blue was the tradition of sailors all over the western world. There would be grumbling when the Confederate Navy specified gray instead of blue. But navies traditionally tolerated a variety in uniform, so to refer to Confederate sailors by the traditional term—blue jackets (as Commodore Tattnall commonly did)—is not incorrect.

5. Russell, Pictures of Southern Life, pp. 9-10.

6. Quoted in Alexander A. Lawrence, A Present for Mr. Lincoln: The Story of Savannah from Secession to Sherman (Macon, Ga.: The Ardivan Press, 1961), pp. 24-25. Russell, Pictures of Southern Life, pp. 10-22.

7. Davis, Our Southern Pictures pp. 341, 343.

8. William C. Davis, A Government of Our Own: The Making of the Confederacy (New York: The Free Press, 1994), p. 339-41. Russell, Pictures of Southern Life, p. 11.)