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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
Smalley told the lieutenant to forget it, that the bearer of the message probably would face arrest and worse. When Wilson backed down, asking Smalley simply to ask Hooker back to the field, Smalley reluctantly accepted. He found Hooker abed, his usual ruddy complexion white with pain. The correspondent chatted for a moment about the day’s indecisive combat, at which Hooker exploded with “language of extreme plainness” against McClellan’s “excessive caution and systematic inertness.” Smalley then put the question to Hooker point-blank: Could the general mount his horse or return to command his corps some other way, in a carriage perhaps? “It is impossible,” Hooker answered. “I cannot move. I am perfectly helpless.” Why, the general wondered, was Smalley asking him such a question anyway? Who had put him up to this? Smalley explained that some of the general’s friends simply were curious about his ability to resume command in case of an emergency. “You see what a wreck I am,” Hooker said in agony. “It is impossible.” Smalley left.
Smalley’s departure from Hooker’s bedside ended the novel relationship that had developed between general and reporter, but the admiration of each man for the other lingered. In his Tribune account of the battle, Smalley praised Hooker’s “bravery and soldierly ability,” while Hooker later said of Smalley, “In all the experience which I have had of war, I never saw the most experienced and veteran soldier exhibit more tranquil fortitude and unshaken valor than was exhibited by that young man.” In fact, Smalley was tapped for staff service when Hooker was elevated to the command of the Army of the Potomac.
As nightfall brought an end to the slaughter of September 17, Smalley and his three Tribune colleagues met to compare notes in a farmhouse jammed with wounded. Smalley, whose misgivings about McClellan told him the battle would not be renewed the following day, agreed to somehow dispatch an account of the day’s action to New York immediately. After pilfering some Army grub and trading his mount for a fresher one, Smalley was in the saddle by 9:00 P.M. , headed for Frederick, Maryland, the only town in the vicinity that might have accessible telegraph service. Having dozed in the saddle for most of the thirty-mile journey, Smalley trotted into Frederick in the wee morning hours of September 18. The telegraph office was closed, and Smalley huddled up near the doorway for a much-needed nap.
The telegraph operator who appeared at seven could not promise Smalley his account would go through to New York, because the telegraph wires had been commandeered by the War Department for military use, but he said he’d do his best. Smalley seated himself and began writing: “The greatest battle of the war was fought to-day, lasting from daylight till dark, and closing without decisive result.” He handed his scribbled manuscript to the operator sheet by sheet until a full newspaper column had been tapped out. As the telegrapher had predicted, the story was relayed directly to the War Department in Washington, where it became the first news Secretary Edwin M. Stanton had of Antietam, with the exception of McClellan’s brief dispatch announcing victory. Stanton passed the story on to President Lincoln, who had it read to the cabinet. That night the Tribune ’s Washington correspondent wrote that “all that is really known about the battle here is derived from that dispatch.” Finally it was released to New York and appeared in the Tribune ’s Friday, September 19, edition.
Smalley hoped to draft a longer account on the battle but hesitated wiring any more news from Frederick. He decided to jump an eastbound train and telegraph the story from Baltimore, and he got there just ten minutes before the New York express would leave for Washington. Smalley faced a crucial decision: Should he wire the story from Baltimore or deliver it to the Tribune in person? He hopped aboard the New York express.
Smalley found his coach lit by one dim, flickering oil lamp at the end of the car. Sitting, he could barely see at all, but by standing next to the lamp, he found enough light to write. With the stub of a pencil he began scribbling, kicking off his account with a powerful lead: “Fierce and desperate battle between 200,000 men has raged since daylight, yet night closes on an uncertain field. It is the greatest fight since Waterloo—all over the field contested with an obstinacy equal even to Waterloo.”
Since he had spent the morning of the battle on the Union left, his account of the savage fighting in the cornfield made particularly provocative copy: “Forward, was the word, and on went the line with a cheer and a rush. Back across the corn-field, leaving dead and wounded behind them, over the fence, and across the road, and then back again into the dark woods which closed around them, went the retreating Rebels.
“Meade and his Pennsylvanians followed hard and fast… . But out of those gloomy woods came suddenly and heavily terrible volleys—volleys which smote, and bent, and broke in a moment that eager front…. In ten minutes the fortune of the day seemed to have changed—it was the Rebels now who were advancing, pouring out of the woods in endless lines, sweeping through the corn field from which their comrades had just fled… .