What actually happens is not always in the history books.
I grew up in California in the 50’s, graduating from high school in 1961, only 16 years after World War II ended. So how was it possible that in all my classes there was not one mention of the internment of Americans of Japanese descent?
Some of these forgotten or overlooked episodes eventually do get remembered. Some never do because of politics, prejudice, embarrassment, and in the case of Bulgarian independence, lack of interest. Americans, provincials we are in the main, simply do not care much about Bulgaria…or even know where it is (see above, Bulgaria in green).
The recent declaration of independence by Kosovo got me thinking about the Balkans and how the roads of conquest and domination have passed through southeastern Europe for centuries.
And then I discovered Januarius Aloysius MacGahan, a farm boy born in Pigeon Roost Ridge, Ohio, in 1844, who became the one of the most famous reporters of the 19th Century. His exploits are charted in Famous War Correspondents By Frederic Lauriston Bullard, published in 1914 by Little, Brown and Company, a scan of which I read online.
Starting first as a Civil War reporter for the St. Louis Democrat, MacGahan, at the suggestion of Gen. Philip Sheridan, journeyed to Europe in 1868, planning to learn Latin, French, and German, and eventually return home to study law. He arrived just before the Franco-Prussian War, interestingly referred to by Bullard as the “great war” (his book was written just before The Great War, the War to End All Wars, began…not surprisingly in the Balkans).
In Brussels, MacGahan met a representative of The New York Herald and talked his way into a job as a special correspondent. His subsequent descriptions of France’s disastrous defeat in Switzerland in 1870 and interviews with leading statesmen of France (Léon Gambetta, Louis Blanc, and Victor Hugo) attracted wide attention in America and Europe. Bullard writes: “The behavior of the young American throughout those days of peril, his courage, tact and industry, made him famous…. He sent out graphic and accurate letters which were copied by the papers of many countries.”
The most famous “embedded” British reporter of the time, Archibald Forbes, said of MacGahan, “Of all the men who have gained reputation as war correspondents, I regard MacGahan as the most brilliant.”
When France surrendered in 1871, MacGahan reported on the resulting anarchic chaos in Paris, narrowly escaping death, and was arrested as a Communist. With France executing scores of Communists, only U.S. diplomatic intervention got MacGahan released. Then, after reporting throughout Europe, in 1873 MacGahan gained international notoriety by dogging and reporting on the Russian army, without Russian permission, for hundreds of miles across the Kizil Kum desert as it attacked Muslim forces in what is now Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
(Isn’t this sounding more and more like a Hollywood movie script?)
“Then, in 1876, writing now for the Daily News of London, MacGahan received a fateful assignment to cover the Turks’ pacification of Bulgarian rebels. What MacGahan found in Bulgaria, and his skill in reporting it, would do more than merely inform a curious public. It would change the course of Eastern European history.” (from Januarius A. MacGahan: Daring to Tell the Truth by Joseph E. Gannon, a short, but very well-written account on MacGahan’s life)
MacGahan’s reporting of the Turkish massacre of Bulgarian civilians in Batak (“Between the church and school there were heaps [of bodies]. The stench was fearful. … There were 3,000 bodies in the church yard and church.”) caused Britain, which had been supporting Turkey in order to balance Russian advances in the region, to abandon the Ottoman Empire, leading to the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78) and eventually to the establishment of Bulgaria as an independent country. A reporter now on a mission larger than mere reportage, MacGahan died of typhus in Constantinople in 1877. He is buried in New Lexington, Ohio, under a tombstone that reads: Liberator of Bulgaria.
To this day, MacGahan is remembered in Bulgaria; there is a street named after him in Sofia, the capital. But even though his exploits were well known during his life and for many years afterwards (Theodore Roosevelt wrote of him in Through the Brazilian Wilderness, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1914), he is now almost entirely forgotten except in Perry County, Ohio.
The Perry County Historical Society has a readable account of his life, as does Wikipedia. There is one biography, first published in 1988 and recently reissued, by Dale Walker: Januarius MacGahan: The Life and Campaigns of an American War Correspondent.
These days, we get Wolf Blitzer.