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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
When the two journalists parted to cover the battle from different perspectives, Smalley risked blowing his cover by selecting a choice vantage point near General McClellan and his staff. At close range Smalley thought “an air of indecision hung about” the highly touted “young Napoleon.” He later wrote: “There was in his appearance something prepossessing if not commanding: something rather scholarly than warlike; amiable, well-bred, cold, and yet almost sympathetic. His troops were slowly forcing their way up the steep mountain side upon which we looked. It was, in fact, from a military point of view, a very critical moment, but this general commanding had a singular air of detachment; almost that of a disinterested spectator: or of a general watching manoeuvres…. there he stood, an interesting figure; as if star-gazing. Compact, square-chested, his face well-molded.”
A lieutenant on the Federal staff sent a reluctant Smalley to ask the wounded Hooker to take command away from McClellan.
After the Union troops had dislodged the gray defenders late on the fourteenth, the newspaperman accompanied the subsequent pursuit to Sharpsburg, Maryland, where, Smalley said, McClellan “in his usual accommodating spirit” wasted two precious days without launching an attack, allowing Robert E. Lee to collect his scattered forces.
On the afternoon of September 16, Smalley, accompanied by Richardson, trotted over to Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s headquarters on the Union right, where they were tipped off that “Fighting Joe’s” I Corps would deliver the initial Federal punch. Because neither reporter knew Hooker nor any of his staff, Smalley thought it odd that their presence was ignored completely by the entourage: “For aught they knew I might have been a Rebel spy.”
Smalley and Richardson tagged along with Hooker as the general followed a cavalry contingent he had ordered forward to probe the Rebel left. When artillery fire signaled that the Union cavalry had brushed the Confederate lines, Smalley and Richardson spurred ahead to watch the action. Dozens of blue troopers galloped back to the safety of the Federal lines, and shot and shell showered around Hooker and his staff. Smalley saw that “Hooker’s eyes gleamed with the fierce joy of battle” as the general drove forward with his infantry. He “played the game of war as the youngest member of a football team plays football. He had to the full that joy of battle which McClellan never had at all; and showed it.”
With nightfall approaching, Hooker decided to break off the action. “If they had let us start earlier, we might have finished tonight,” Smalley heard the general mutter. “Tomorrow we fight the battle that will decide the fate of the Republic.” Like the Union boys who slept on their guns that restless night, Smalley curled up under the stars with his horse’s bridle wrapped around one arm.
As Hooker’s corps bowled into the Confederate left at the crack of dawn, Smalley was off in pursuit of the general, whom he found in an exposed position. With his staff sent away on assignments, Hooker beckoned to Smalley and asked him to carry an order. “Tell the colonel of that regiment to take his men to the front and keep them there,” Hooker said, gesturing toward a Union regiment falling back from a Rebel onslaught.
Smalley obliged, but when he delivered the order, the regimental commander refused to accept it. “Very good,” Smalley snapped back. “I will report to General Hooker that you decline to obey.”
“For God’s sake, don’t do that!” the colonel cried. “The Rebels are too many for us, but I had rather face them than Hooker.”
Returning to Hooker, Smalley received instructions not to “let the next man talk so much” and was sent off again. “Order every regiment you can find to advance,” Hooker hollered at him. “It is time to end this business.” Smalley found Hooker in the thick of combat when he finished his assignments, and it came as no surprise to the newspaperman when Hooker went down with a wound.
Smalley was disappointed that his new acquaintance had to retire from the field. Antietam was characterized by desperate fighting but uncoordinated, piecemeal attacks by the Federals and a hesitancy on McClellan’s part to seize opportunities. As Smalley trotted near McClellan’s headquarters in the afternoon, he was hailed by Lt. James Harrison Wilson of the commander’s staff. Wilson, who knew Smalley had been with Hooker earlier in the day, asked him to see if the wounded general could take command of the Army of the Potomac. “Most of us think that this battle is only half fought and half won,” Wilson said. “There is still time to finish it. But McClellan will do no more.” Smalley demurred, reminding Wilson that what he suggested was no less than an act of mutiny. “I know that as well as you do,” Wilson replied, but it was “the only way to crush Lee and end the rebellion and save the country.”