The Death of a Friend, War’s Ultimate Lesson of Loss

Russo Turkish War - The Death of a Friend - MacGahan and Millet
The Battle of Shipka Pass in the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), documented by MacGahan and Millet

Editor's Note: Robert Patton is most recently the author of Hell Before Breakfast, recounting the first American war correspondents dispatched to far-flung corners of the world by the ultra-competitive newspaper moguls of New York. There, they relayed gruesome battles in Europe, helped globalize American politics, and inspired a new generation of daring journalists. Robert has joined us to discuss the crossed paths of two particular war reporters, J.A. MacGahan and Francis D. Millet, who bore not only the weight of war but the casualties it left behind. 

When author and journalist Sebastian Junger lost his colleague, Tim Hetherington, to mortar fire in Libya in 2011, it brought home a painful truth often overlooked by soldiers and reporters in combat. Getting killed is always a possibility -- the harder reality is that sooner or later a friend almost certainly will be. Until that happens, Junger has said, "You don’t know the first thing about war."

In 1877 no journalist knew more about war than J. A. MacGahan of The New York Herald. The thirty-two-year-old son of Ohio farmers had won international fame covering the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune uprising, and Russia’s brutal oppression of tribal nomads in Central Asia. Yet war’s ultimate lesson of loss came not to MacGahan but to his rookie colleague, Francis D. Millet, a Harvard-educated painter who swapped his pallet and brush for a newsman’s notepad to go see the war between Russia and Turkey in the spring of 1877. "Great fun!" Millet wrote his bohemian friends in Paris on the eve of his first battle. "I am quite warlike now. You wouldn’t know me."

Almost half a million soldiers and civilians would die in the next nine months. Millet and MacGahan were the only correspondents to cover the fighting from start to finish. It left bitter impressions of military ineptitude and human carnage whose details Millet found too disturbing to speak of even decades later. Yet for the rest of his life he credited the experience for showing him the grandeur of civilians and common soldiers enduring dreadful adversity. Memories of his colleague, however, would bring him only sadness.

They couldn't have been more different from one another. Millet’s "dangerous facility for doing many things extremely well" was often noted by his friends. Shelving aesthetic ambition for an impulsive jaunt into war correspondence proved as easy for him as winning acclaim for dashed-off artwork or shifting his sexual interest between women and men. This blithe fluidity engendered an ironic outlook that showed up in his battle dispatches as candid confessions of breakdown. "My fear was so overpowering," one of his combat accounts begins, "I am unable to chronicle the exact incidents." Composure under fire came with experience. And it came as violence and trauma shattered Millet’s illusions of war’s "gambling game" and aroused the same spirited moral purpose that had compelled MacGahan’s career for years.

Which isn't to say that MacGahan didn't enjoy his job. He was honest about its dual sense of disgust and thrill. But detachment wasn't in his nature, and his stories burned with partisan passion. So did his personal life. Though married to the beautiful daughter of downscale Russian nobility, he fell in love with most every woman he met, from an English viscountess aiding battlefield wounded to any number of brown-skinned exotics he encountered in his far-flung travels. His emotionalism found ultimate expression in his reports from Bulgaria in 1876 about the rape and massacre of thousands of villagers by Turkish guerrillas in the service of the Ottoman Empire. Russia’s subsequent attack was a direct result of the outrage sparked by MacGahan’s investigation. "I have done more to smash up the Turkish Empire than anybody else," he exalted.

J.A. MacGahan and Francis D. Millet

J.A. MacGahan and Francis D. Millet

He and Millet took opposite viewpoints as the war progressed. MacGahan rationalized the Russian army’s execution of enemy prisoners as "needful severities," while Millet, after witnessing the burial alive of Turkish wounded, raged against Russian inhumanity. Eventually condemning atrocities on both sides as equally barbaric and shameful, their joint dispatches are remarkable in their sympathy and honor for all soldiers regardless of flag or uniform: "They went into war ignorant of the diplomatic tricks of politicians. They have no poets to tell of their noble deeds and unparalleled endurance."

MacGahan died of typhus weeks after the war ended. "Those of us who knew him intimately will never resign ourselves to his loss," Millet said. The painter, world famous at the time of his death in 1912, was last seen alive sharing drinks with a longtime companion, an American colonel named Archibald Butt, in the stateroom of the sinking Titanic. It’s hard not to picture the scene without recalling a short story Millet wrote shortly after the Russo-Turkish War about a young man stricken with typhus. As the story’s narrator weeps at bedside, it’s the dying man who consoles him, "All right, old boy." Millet never said if the tale was modeled on MacGahan’s death, conceding only that its grim details were "absolutely true." Also true, as Millet knew too well, is that losing a friend leaves a permanent scar.