Finding The Very Punny Civil War Dispatches of Irving W. Carson

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Which stories become a part of history can be a luck-of-the-draw affair. Newspaper archives are full of stories of heroes whose tales captivated the nation once, but if no one rewrote those stories into a book later on, they were generally forgotten as generations passed. The Civil War papers are particularly replete with tales of soldiers who were national icons when they died, the namesakes of streets and towns throughout the country, but whom even the biggest Civil War buff would struggle to name today. The deaths came fast and furious in those days, and thousands of stories simply got lost in the avalanche. I have to imagine that by Autumn of 1862, the Battle of Shiloh, back in April, must have seemed like a million years ago.

But there was one name from Shiloh still being bandied about in Chicago at the time: Captain Irving W. Carson, a Chicagoan who’d become the chief scout for General Grant. In addition to his duties in the field, he was moonlighting as a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. His exploits as a scout during his short career made him famous even during his lifetime, and his death made him the first American journalist to be killed in the war – or any war, as far as I can tell. And, though his friends tried to keep his story alive and lamented that he was being forgotten even in the 1870s, this blog posts is, I believe, the first time a photo of him has ever been published.

Carson was born in 1838 – most sources say in Connecticut, though a couple of sketches of his life written by friends said he was born in Scotland (based on his writings, my hunch is that he had an affinity for Scottish culture and told people he was born there because he thought it sounded more interesting than saying he was from Hartford). After coming to Chicago in 1853, he worked for a time on the railroad, first as a mechanic and then as a conductor, before becoming a law clerk. He’d just been admitted to the bar when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in April, 1861.

The Carte de Vista of Carson – about the size and feel of a baseball card – donated by a friend of his to the Chicago Historical Society decades after his death. As far as I know, it’s never been published.

The carte de viste of Carson, which resembles an early baseball card. It is the only known image of him. Donated by one of his friends to the Chicago Historical Society.

He joined the army at once, enlisting first in Barker’s Chicago Dragoons, where he served alongside William Medill, brother of Tribune publisher Jospeh Medill, for a three month hitch. Upon returning to Chicago in late July, at which point the Dragoons broke up, he appears to have taken a job with the Tribune covering military activity in Cairo, IL, a hotbed of secession activity near the Missouri and Kentucky borders. There, he was quickly taken into General Grant’s staff and put to work as a scout.  

From then on, he did double duty, taking orders from Grant but largely doing his own thing; journalist Franc Wilkie recalled that Carson “wrote or fought according to the requirements of the situation.” In September, 1861,  barely a month into his career, a Missouri Democrat writer referred to him as a famous scout whose adventures could fill a book, and in November, the New York Herald wrote “Carson, the tall scout, is along (with us), and commands his usual company, of which he is exclusively general, staff, colonel, and rank and file.”

Other soldiers in units that interacted with him, like the 7th Illinois, Chicago’s Board of Trade Battery A, and the 6th Ohio, may not have even realized that he was a journalist; one soldier, T.R. Dawley, wrote that “He appeared and disappeared like a flash…. We have known him to come into the room, hastily sieze his saddle, suprs, and pistol, mount his horse, dash off in a direction no one ever thought of taking, and only a few hours after would be strolling about the St. Charles (Hotel, where he was stationed) like some awkward rustic just in from the Egyptian swamps.”

The map Carson drew after talking his way into enemy fortifications disguised as a farmer.

Carson made frequent trips behind enemy lines, often in disguise, either to get a look at enemy positions or to carry messages. In perhaps his most famous adventure, he disguised himself as a Kentucky farmer early one morning, rowed across the Ohio River to Kentucky, and stole a wagon, two mules and some corn, which he then quite deliberately let rebel General Polk confiscate. Polk, believing that the awkward man he’d encountered was just a local farmer, generously let him keep one of the mules, and even let him check out the rebel fortifications. Carson was able to draw up a full map of the the water battery near Columbus, KY, marking off all the guns, including their calibre and range, before rowing a skiff back across the river to Cairo with a the map (and a bonus mule).

In another event related by Dawley, after the Battle of Donelson one of the captured rebel soldiers was carrying a letter from his sister asking him to send her a “yankee boy” to keep as a pet. When he got the chance, Carson went to the address, told the young woman that her brother had captured him, and he was there to be her pet – and demanded to be fed. He then informed her of the truth – it was her brother who had been captured, not him – and escaped before the neighbors could catch him. 


Carson seems to have been a bit bloodthirsty. In one letter to a friend in Chicago, he wrote “I have got a natural hatred for traitors and never intend to let any chance clip when I can dispose of them in a decent way.” Dawley wrote that he’d shout out curses at traitors in his sleep, and even sleepwalk brandishing his sabre. One Tribune dispatch (likely written by him) wrote of him chasing a rebel “desperado” for a mile before shooting him; a couple of months later, a New York Times reporter who’d traveled with Carson in the Bohemian Brigade (as writers called themselves) expanded on the story, stating that Carson had chased the desperado down, shot him, then ran a sword through him and left him for dead – only to find out the man was alive and well a month later. Carson told that reporter that if he had another chance, he’d cut the man’s head off and carry it fifteen or twenty rods from his body.


However, he clearly loved the dangerous life he’d carved out for himself. An unidentified friend wrote to the Chicago Journal that “the perilous business of scouting became a passion with him, and his adventures and hair-breadth escapes would fill a volume.” But for all of his recklessness, the New York Times called him “one of the most daring and serviceable men in the service,” and Grant clearly trusted him.

In the buildup to what became the battle of Shiloh, though, Carson told one friend to hang on to his “trinkets” in case he was killed, and wrote to a woman in Chicago that he may not survive the battle. At the same time, though, in an anecdote published less than two weeks later in the Chicago Journal, he was speaking the day before the battle about how much he loved his dangerous work, and marveled that “he had been fired at so often and grazed by so many bullets that he believed he had a charmed life,” and was heard to remark “The ball has not been cast, and never will be, that can kill me.”


Stories of soldiers saying things like this just before they die are common, and that was the case with Carson. Given his affinity for dangerous missions, it would be logical to guess that he died on some reckless, Poe Dameron-like crusade, but war doesn’t always play along with the rules of drama.


On the first day of the Battle of Shiloh, Grant was having trouble holding his position, and sent Carson to find out whether General Buell’s troops could arrive soon enough to save the day. Just as he delivered the important news that help was coming, and that Grant should keep fighting, a random cannonball took his head off, killing him instantly and splattering the general with his blood. Even in death, he inspired legends: there were conflicting stories told about the exact extent of his injuries – most reports said his head was taken clean off, a later account side it was only one side of the top of it, leaving his chin. One account in the Appleton Crescent, written only days later, said “The case of of the celebrated scout, Carson, was horrifying. His face and the entire lower portion of his head were entirely gone, his brains dabbling into the little pool of blood which had gathered in the cavity below.”  One suspects that he’d enjoy the fact that people swapped gruesome stories about him; one soldier remembered that his death was talked of for weeks by Shiloh veterans.

A gruesome drawing of Carson’s death in an 1865 Grant bio.

Gruesome sketch from an 1865 bio of Grant

For a time I was skeptical that he was really a journalist, as none of the Tribune accounts of his death and funeral mentioned it. Most of the information we have about him being a reporter came from Franc Wilkie’s 1888 book Pen and Powder, which briefly named him as a Tribune correspondent. But, at length, I found a few other reports from other journalists stationed around him in 1861 and 1862 that referred to him as being among the group of “Bohemians,” and, as later accounts from his friends state that Grant took him into his staff well after he came to Cairo, it’s a good explanation for what he was doing there in the first place.

So, while I’m satisfied that he did work as a newspaper man, there remains the question of which articles in the Tribune are his – individual bylines were rare in those days. Only one writer seems to have tried to figure it out – Myron Smith, who cited several Carson articles in his book Timberclads in the War. However, I think Smith just assumed all of the dispatches that came from the right location and weren’t signed B (Albert Bodman) or GPU (George P Upton) were Carson’s. One dispatch is signed with a C, but most of the dispatches are unsigned.  

It would be wonderful, though, to bring his work back to light, and there are two that seem most obviously to be his own – the one signed “C,” and one written aboard the USS Conestoga, published on a day (Feb 25, 1862) when the Tribune also published dispatches that were credited to Bodman and Upton.  And from the articles that I was able to identify as his (more or less), I’m pleased to say that he was really an excellent writer.  From the Conestoga dispatch, in particular, we can see that Carson really, really liked puns. This is a good clue to identify his others; many of the unsigned dispatches go to great pains to work in a pun.

Most of the dispatches are fairly mundane, just lists of what was going on in the area, what the soldiers were talking about, which brigades had arrived, what the weather was like, and other such mundanities, though sometimes he’d work in something fun – often there are references to Carson’s exploits in dispatches he probably wrote himself. One early report ends with the line “Dry time in Cairo – no whisky, no excitement.” 

Here, then, are some excerpts from Tribune dispatches that are at least strongly likely to be the work of Irving W. Carson. Eventually I’ll expand and move most of these over to a dedicated page on Cemetery Mixtape

From the Nov 11, 1861 account of the Battle of Belmont, signed “C:”

“Many shots fell near us, some short, and others beyond, and not a few fearfully near us. Shells were seen to burst at great heights; others, after drinking the water. Their large shot, eighteen inches long and terminating in cones, were projected from rifled cannon. These made horrible music as they passed near us…They fought desperately, but in an incredibly short time, the work was done. The enemy had surrendered, or abandoned their artillery, and were in full flight…Their flag pole was cut down, their colors taken possession of, and their encampment enveloped in flames.”

“Our columbiads were too much for them. Several times at the flash of one of them, I observed a dozen men and horses turn somersaults together…Never did fellows fight, or try to fight, more bravely. They seemed to actually court death at the very muzzles of our heavy guns, and vast numbers of them sought it not in vain.”

Feb 20, 1862, unsigned account marked “From our own Reporter.” Just after the union took Fort Donelson.

“There was one scene that will remain in my memory forever – that of Sunday morning when the Stars and Stripes were flung to the breeze above the ramparts of the fort. I was in a position where I could see the occupation of the surrendered fortress and the works beyond. Stand with me for fifteen minutes on the deck of the New Uncle Sam, the headquarters of General Grant. It is just nine o’clock. The day is mild and a gentle breeze is blowing from the south. The sun is shining through a cloudless sky. Far away, beyond the sound of the iron lipped cannon, one ship and shore, church bells are calling worshippers to the house of God; but here, fifty thousand men are standing in breathless expectation of an event which, in its results, is to have an abiding influence upon nations and peoples, for all coming time. They stand at one of the turning points of time…. It is a glorious moment – a Sabbath morning which will live in history. You may be sure that although I believe in keeping Sunday, I kept it on this occasion with a hurrah.”

“I was one of the first to jump on shore, and was not long in mingling with the crowd of rebels. I cannot give you a daguerrotype of the scene. Running up the bank, I came upon a squad of soldiers by a smoldering fire. They were dressed in grey pants, of negro cloth, with a strip of black cotton braid down the legs. It was not a prepossessing outfit. They showed that they had had a hard time. Some had white cotton blankets, with the smallest possible mixture of wool – white once, but painted a Spanish brown by frequent contact with the mud. There were old bed quilts, which their grandmothers had patched years ago – new bed quilts, which in mistaken patriotism had been given to the sinking cause…. I could but pity them.”

“The Tennesseans were more cheerful than the Mississippians. I conversed with them. One said he was glad it was over. He didn’t care what became of him, only he was glad he had not got to fight any more. A Mississippian wanted to know if Old Abe was an abolitionist.”

“Continuing my ramble, I came upon a rebel Kentucky regiment, which was burying its dead. There were six corpses lying in a pile, thrown together as you wold toss sticks of wood. How strange it is that man becomes indifferent to the death scenes of the battle field. The regiment paid no heed to the dead. The men who were digging the shallow graves were smoking pipes and laughing, to all appearances unconcerned as if digging post holes.”

“I counted ten dead bodies of those of our own troops which fell before the fire in front of the pit. Behind the pits were those Confederates, lying some face downwards, as if kissing their mother earth, to whose kindly embrace they had returned after life’s fitful fever* –  others with their faces towards heaven, as if looking up to the Great Father of us all. Some were lying upon their sides as if in slumber. There was one with a quiet smile upon his face – a middle aged man… There was the same unconcern among the living. Men were eating their dinners with as much unconcern as they would in their own homes, with nothing around to remind them of the solemn and untried realities beyond this life of ours. I felt the same influence, and stepped upon the pools of blood, and trod the crimson gore almost as unconcerned. Who can explain the anomaly which makes us kind, considerate and tender, moved at the sight of suffering, in times of peace, while in war we are devils.”

   * – this is a line from Macbeth, the exact passage Lincoln himself was reportedly moved by when reading outloud from the play only days before his assassination. 

Feb 25, 1862 – we can be fairly certain this is Carson, because the other two correspondents, Upton and Bodman, signed initials to dispatches published the same day. It finds him in a jovial, particularly pun-happy mood, with some indications that perhaps other writers teased him a bit about his long, literary column excerpted above, published the day this one was written. It also includes another reference to a play that takes place in Scotland, though he’s at pains to explain the quote here – perhaps the others ribbed him for not marking the Macbeth line with quotation marks!  Marked “from our own correspondent” and dated Feb 20th

“I am now lying at Clarksville. Honest confession for a newspaper correspondent. I will change it. The Conestoga is now lying here and I am writing on her gun deck by the lantern burning dimly.

First a morceau from Pillow, Gideon J Pillow, late (confederate) Generalissimo at Donelson, who took precious good pains not to be too late to get away. He is a little particular about the location of his ditches, an old trick of his, and he was careful to interpose the ditch called the Cumberland between himself and Gen Grant. Gideon, on assuming command at Fort Donelson, gave under his hand and seal the following, which I copy from the original document. The handwriting is bad. The lantern a little nearer, dear sergeant:

(Here he transcribe’s Pillow’s General Order No. 1, dated Feb 9, making himself commander of the fort and proclaiming the battle cry to be “Liberty or death.”)

Now this is well done of Gideon, who from this seems to be a very good Pillow for a military head. But the proof came later, and the valiant general in choosing between ‘liberty or death’ took excellent care that it should be the former, and of the largest pattern. 

We left Ft. Donelson on the morning of Wed the 19th, following some hours after the US gunboat Cairo. Our trip was marked with little to interest. The Conestoga is of the racer breed of boats and walked the water like a thing of life, an entirely original term I beg you to note. When Gen Foot has despatch in his eye he takes the Conestoga. I have observed it is customary to praise the boat you ride on, but this is not merited, not a puff, the Conestoga not being now in the carrying trade (though by the way I take that back, she did the other day help to carry Fort Henry).

Just above Donelson we passed the still smoking ruins of the Cumberland Iron Works which do not now cumber the land with appliances to aid the rebels… The blackness of ashes marks where they stood, as the wizard remarked to Mr. Lochiel*. Will the printer stand by, and hold hard with quotation marks? And so on to Clarksville, thirty miles from Fort Donelson.

* – (note: a reference to a short Scottish poem/play, The Wizard’s Warning, by Thomas Campbell)

At 3pm the Conestoga rounded a bend in the river called Linwood Landing, and before us loomed Fort Severe. It was severely situated for us… for the muzzles of its few cannon looked almost down our chimneys from a height two hundred feet above our heads. We counted two guns and a white flag, and that settled it. There was nothing to fear from Fort Severe.

Clarksville is now in the Union and her scared residents may come home again. They are fond of the white flag. It will be better that they float the red, white and blue. Our land forces are in possession and the way is open to Nashville. We shall hear from there soon that the Stars and Stripes are floating there, and there are many in Nashville who will welcome the day. God speed it. 

From March 3, 1862, unsigned letter dated 2/28 and marked “From our Own correspondent”

“I have it from good authority that numerous bottles with Northern newspapers enclosed have been thrown into the river for the edification of Reverend General Polk and his rebellious flock, who go bottle fishing with much regularity every morning. If the contents are half as effective as those other bottles, much in vogue Columbus-ward, the rebels will soon be in a tight place.”

From March 13, “From our own correspondent”

“All last night it rained heavy guns, accompanied by a violent gale of wind. The morning dawned dimly through thick murky clouds of vapor, as if there had been a terrible battle of the elements and the smoke of the conflict yet hanging over the turbid, swift-flowing rivers and the bottomless marshes and lowlands. By noon, however, the sun had shot its arrows through the mists and dispelled them, and, as I write, the sky is cerulean, the atmosphere crystelline, and the soft, balmy air proclaims that spring comes slowly up this way.”

Carson’s grave at Rosehill

 These are just a few excerpts from the many dispatches in the Tribune that might be Carson’s work – again, it’s hard to be sure. And is hard to believe that some of these could be the work of a rookie writer in his early 20s, but Franc Wilkie later remarked that, if he’d only lived, Carson would have gone on to become a major general, or the editor of a great metropolitan newspaper.

When later memoirs and reports, particularly about Shiloh, left Carson out, or barely mentioned him, his friends objected. Two wrote to the Tribune in the 1870s that Carson should be considered one of the heroes of Shiloh. Others were annoyed that people (mostly political rivals) were claiming that Grant wasn’t really under fire or in any personal danger at Shiloh, and pointed out Carson’s death, only a few feet away from the general, as evidence to the contrary.  In 1881, lamenting that history was already forgetting Captain Carson, Ebenezer Hannaford wrote “ Byron’s famous satire on military glory defined it as being killed in battle and having one’s name misspelled in the official gazette. But what shall we say of this case, where a brave man met the most tragic of deaths, and his name – nay, even his fate – was not so much as hinted? “


But in the months after his death, before it became just one of so many other lost stories, Carson briefly remained famous – his name WAS in the papers, and spelled correctly. His funeral and burial were covered by all of the major Chicago papers, and he was spoken of as one of Chicago’s two great heroes, along with Ellsworth (who is now equally unjustly obscure, though in the days after his death he was among the most famous in the country).

But that’s simply life in war – great lives are snuffed out in an instant, and the stories get lost just like so much mud and mire. 

Though it seems to have been common in 1861-2 to say that stories of Carson’s adventures would fill a whole book,  not enough of the stories were ever written down. This article is, I believe, the first time a photograph of him has been published. It was taken from a carte de viste that was donated by one of his friends to the Chicago Historical Society in the early 20th century. The image is tiny, but the only one known.  Perhaps more letters and diary excerpts dealing with his exploits will one day come to life; I’ve certainly found quite a few tidbits about him published by reporters during his lifetime. Being one of the “Band of Bohemians,” he of course had access to lots of ears to tell his stories to!


Carson appears to have lived in what is now the loop for the whole of his time in Chicago, including one apartment that was right where the Harold Washington library is now. He is buried at Rosehill Cemetery, where I’ve started featuring his grave on tours. He was only twenty-three years old. 

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