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The Civil War’s Greatest Scoop
In September 1862 the New York Tribune ran a masterly account of the Battle of Antietam. Here were no vague claims of “Great and Glorious Victory” or “Great Slaughter of the Rebels.” Instead, the paper offered six columns of accurate, forceful prose—and got it to the readers less than thirty-six hours after the fight.
July/August 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 5
New York throbbed with the usual breakfast-hour bustle on September 19, 1862, apparently undisturbed by the recent Confederate invasion of Northern soil. But when a bunch of newsboys burst from Park Row’s Tribune building, barking “Extra!,” the response revealed the tension on the streets. Weary of newspaper rumors about a great battle in Maryland, New Yorkers crowded about the newsboys, hoping for some real information. They got it.
New York throbbed with the usual breakfast-hour bustle on September 19, 1862, apparently undisturbed by the recent Confederate invasion of Northern soil. But when a bunch of newsboys burst from Park Row’s Tribune building, barking “Extra!,” the response revealed the tension on the streets. Weary of newspaper rumors about a great battle in Maryland, New Yorkers crowded about the newsboys, hoping for some real information. They got it. Here were no vague claims of “Great and Glorious Victory” or “Great Slaughter of the Rebels.” Instead, the Tribune offered six columns of accurate, forceful prose about the Battle of Antietam, fought two days before.
The same paper that only the previous morning had been forced to admit glumly to its readers that “our latest intelligence from the seat of war … is little else than mere rumor” now boasted the first complete account of Antietam to appear in print. Far more than a scoop, however, the story was a masterpiece of battle reporting by any standards. It took the reader on a tour of the terrain; graphically depicted the assaults of Maj. Gens. Joseph Hooker, Edwin Sumner, and Ambrose Burnside; and impartially assessed the struggle’s tactics and results. All this in seven thousand words, and in the hands of the public less than thirty-six hours after the fight.
The author’s identity remained as mysterious as the story’s miraculous appearance in print that Friday morning. No initials or nickname—the by-lines of Civil War journalism—ever accompanied the story when it was eventually reprinted in twelve hundred newspapers across the North. Even when the Tribune published a laudatory editorial about its “Special Correspondent,” praising “how much ability, how much courage, and how much knowledge are necessary to such a history” and revealing that “the writer … had a portion of his coat torn from his shoulders by a fragment of shell, and the horse he rode carried off from the field two Rebel bullets in his body,” it omitted the reporter’s name. We now know he was George Washburn Smalley, whose adventures as a correspondent during the Maryland campaign were as remarkable as the story he filed.
George Smalley, a Boston barrister turned war correspondent, possessed social credentials impressive enough to even the most discerning Brahmin. A direct descendant of the Pilgrims, son of a Congregational minister, and an antislavery partisan, Smalley, Yale ’53, was trained at Harvard Law School. With his Boston accent and friends who included Ralph Waldo Emerson and the abolitionist Wendell Phillips (whose daughter he married), Smalley may have seemed more Beacon Hill than battlefield, but he was no effete aristocrat. Just shy of his thirtieth birthday in 1862 and powerfully built, he was well equipped to handle the knocks of war-correspondent campaigning.
Sheer happenstance allowed Smalley to desert jurisprudence for a new business girding itself to report a war. When he failed to obtain a loan to cover rising debts in mid-1861, his influential future father-in-law wrote a letter to Sydney Howard Gay, a Tribune editor, recommending Smalley for a correspondent’s job. The letter kicked off the career of perhaps the greatest newspaperman of the Victorian era.
Because of his interest in the slavery question, Smalley first was packed off to federally captured Port Royal, South Carolina, where he covered the black “contrabands” flocking to the Union lines. After idling away a dull winter, Smalley was reassigned to cover Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont’s futile Shenandoah Valley campaign. At the Battle of Cross Keys, Smalley displayed his journalistic precocity by soundly scooping rival New York correspondents with his account of the fight. In June 1862 Smalley shifted his beat when Frémont’s command merged with the newly formed Army of Virginia, which suffered a bitter defeat in late August under Maj. Gen. John Pope at Second Bull Run.
The War Department had issued an order banning correspondents from the Army, and Pope’s successor, the reinstated Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, loathed them. But Smalley’s old acquaintance Maj. Gen. “Uncle” John Sedgwick offered him a position as volunteer aide-de-camp and advised him to don military trappings to avoid snooping questions from the brass. Smalley hurriedly scrounged up a blue captain’s blouse and joined the Army of the Potomac in early September as it shadowed the triumphant Army of Northern Virginia’s northward incursion onto Union soil. It all happened a bit too quickly for Smalley. Expecting to camp out for just one night, he packed himself only a raincoat and a toothbrush. He was gone six weeks.