Fiery journalist of Richmond; John Moncure Daniel fought with both pen, weapons

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Date: Apr. 27, 2002
Publisher: News World Communications, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,619 words
Content Level: (Level 4)

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In late summer 1864, people in Richmond were straining to maintain their normal lives although the Union forces under Gen. Ulysses S. Grant were besieging nearby Petersburg.

The fighting was farther from the city than it had been two years earlier, when Gen. George B. McClellan's army had come within several miles of Richmond and residents sometimes could hear cannon fire during the Seven Days' Battles. For now, the military sounds were different, but they were persistent: drums at dawn reveille, bugles playing taps at day's end and often the tramp of men marching during the day.

For most Richmonders, goods and food were ever scarcer. Ladies gave "starvation parties," where no food was served, nor any drink save water, but gallantry and talk flowed undiminished.

The blockade runners were still bringing in some goods, as well as guns, from Europe. For those who could pay, Hebener & Co. offered English grey shirting flannel and Yerby's advertised good sherry and Martel brandy, Scotch herring, Colman's mustard and even fresh sardines. Richmond's faro parlors beckoned to those who liked to gamble and had the funds to do so.

In July, a Confederate government detective told the police reporter of Richmond's best-read paper, the Examiner, that among those frequenting faro parlors was a top official of the Treasury Department. He was playing with official funds, had lost immense sums and had paid a bribe of $10,000 to keep the news from leaking. The Examiner, whose proprietor had no liking for the administration of President Jefferson Davis, published the story Aug. 1.

Two days later, the treasurer of the Confederacy, Edward C. Elmore, wrote to the paper's proprietor and editor, John Moncure Daniel, that the article was causing gossip that he was the high official involved. Elmore said his accounts were being audited and he was confident the audit would show that not a dollar had been lost, either by carelessness or by the criminal conduct of any subordinate.

Daniel had a fine sense of propriety - and he was no stranger to scandal. He had been born in Stafford County, Va., in 1825. By his mid-20s, he had made the Examiner the leading Democratic paper in the state. In 1853, the new Democratic president, Franklin Pierce, had made him U.S. envoy to the Kingdom of Sardinia, ruled by the Savoys, who were soon to become monarchs of a reunited Italy.

From Turin, the Savoyard capital, an initially homesick Daniel wrote home to a trusted friend that Piedmontese women were frankly uglier than Virginian women, local officials had "titles as long as a flagstaff and heads as empty as their hearts," and the whole country stank of garlic. The letter leaked to the press, and there were demands that Daniel be replaced. Pierce and his Cabinet discussed the matter and decided he could stay.

Daniel stayed on in Italy through the administrations of both Pierce and his Democratic successor, James Buchanan. By 1860, he was arguably America's ablest diplomat in Europe, reporting accurately and cogently to Washington on Italy's fast-moving reunification, when Giuseppe Garibaldi and his little corps of about 1,000 men won Italy's south for the Savoy kingdom. Daniel saw himself becoming American envoy not just to part of Italy, but to all of it.

Then Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln won the White House and South Carolina seceded from the Union. Daniel had not wanted to see secession, but, he said, the die was cast. He came home, resumed control of the Examiner and became the main force in changing Virginia's pro-Union position to a decision to join the new Confederacy.

Next he pushed hard - and successfully - for the Confederacy to move its capital from Montgomery to Richmond and for the new president, Jefferson Davis, to come quickly to Richmond, where his presence, Daniel said, would be worth 50,000 men.

Soon, though, Daniel was attacking Davis head-on for his "puerile partiality" in appointing inept cronies to top army posts, for relying on volunteers when conscription was needed, for following a timid strategy when Confederate forces should have been invading southern Ohio, for poor financial management by Davis' secretary of the Treasury (who was Elmore's boss) and eventually for corruption.

Davis was distressed to read in the Examiner that while Southern plantation owners were called on to burn their cotton when it might fall into Union hands, he did not do so - the inference being that he could have ordered burning but had decided against it.

That was perhaps an unfair slur, but then in February 1864, the Examiner reported that the president's brother-in-law William F. Howell had improperly been awarded a Confederate navy contract to produce a half-million gallons of whiskey. Davis' private secretary protested that the whiskey was "to be used by the Medical Purveyor and for rations," but that was a lot of liquor for a navy of fewer than 5,000 officers and men - and whiskey was bringing $100 a gallon in the market.

After the story of faro gambling and the retort by Elmore, Daniel replied that nothing in his paper's report about a Treasury gambler had pointed to Elmore. He would be happy either to wait on the audit of Elmore's accounts and then publish the outcome, or, if Elmore preferred, he would report that the treasurer was insisting that there had been no misuse of official funds and no bribing of detectives.

That would not do, Elmore replied. The article had been scurrilous, and Daniel must confess regret that his paper had published it. Daniel wrote back that what he had offered to do was fair. He would never make such a statement of regret.

On Aug. 13, 1864, Elmore challenged the editor to a duel. Daniel accepted the challenge. He also wrote Elmore that though the Examiner had not mentioned Elmore by name, four "gentlemen of unimpeached veracity" had seen Elmore gambling with large sums of money and losing. He knew "from the highest sources" that Elmore's chief, Treasury Secretary Christopher Memminger, had learned of Elmore's gambling and had demanded that he resign. He also knew, Daniel told Elmore, that $75,000 worth of Treasury bonds were missing.

Daniel did not identify his "highest sources," but his close friend W.W. Crump was the assistant secretary of the Treasury.

Daniel was known in Virginia as a man with both a fiery pen and a fiery personality. He had fought duels, perhaps as many as eight of them, since his 20s. Still, Elmore may have guessed that Daniel would not accept his challenge because Daniel's right arm was shattered. The editor twice had left his paper to serve as a Confederate officer. In the Battle of Gaines Mill during the Seven Days' Battles at the end of June 1862, his arm had been hit by a Minie ball.

Daniel and Elmore met with pistols on a farm field outside Richmond at dawn on Aug. 16, 1864. Daniel fired with his left hand and missed. Elmore fired and hit Daniel in the right leg, and for the second time in two years, the editor had to take to his bed with a serious wound.

After the duel, the Examiner published the full exchange of letters between Elmore and Daniel. Nevertheless, we probably will never know the full truth about the reported Treasury gambler. The result of the Treasury audit was not made public, and it has not been found in Confederate records.

A month after the duel, Elmore was indicted for playing faro. He pleaded guilty, paid a fine of $500, resigned his post and went off into obscurity.

Elmore's bullet had broken no bone in Daniel's leg, but it had scraped both the tibia and fibula, causing him intense pain.

He had other troubles besides his two wounds. He was suffering from tuberculosis and probably had been for some years. He also had frequent indigestion, for which he dosed himself heavily with the infamous blue mass, a popular remedy that was a compound of chalk and mercury.

Eventually the editor struggled back to work. At the end of November 1864, his paper was attacking a proposal that had originated with military officers for the South to help meet its manpower shortage by enlisting blacks. The Examiner said this would undermine the whole Southern position; if a black man was fit to be a soldier, he was not fit to be a slave. Later, though, black troops were authorized by the Confederate Congress, and a few were enlisted.

It was too late for both the Confederacy and Daniel. The last editorial he told his staff to produce - he was too weak to write more than a few lines of it - protested the suggestion by Davis that if the Confederacy lost Richmond, the loss need not be crippling. To the contrary, Daniel said, it would be. He was right.

Daniel died in Richmond at the end of March 1865 at age 39. Several days later, as the Union Army neared the city, Confederate officers set fire to the city's warehouses to keep them from enemy hands. The fire spread downtown; the premises of the Examiner burned down.

When the Union Army entered Richmond on April 5, the fiery editor was gone, and so was his paper.

* Peter Bridges spent 29 years as a Foreign Service officer. His last posting was as ambassador to Somalia, a period described in his book "Safirka: An American Envoy." His second book, "Pen of Fire: John Moncure Daniel," is being published by Kent State University Press this fall.


John Moncure Daniel served as a diplomat, a soldier and editor of the Examiner in Richmond. [Courtesy Valentine Museum, Richmond]

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A85169408