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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 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… .
“Every hill-top, ridge and woods along the whole line was crested and veiled with white clouds of smoke. All day had been clear and bright since the early cloudy morning, and now this whole magnificent, unequaled scene shone with the splendor of an afternoon September sun. Four miles of battle, its glory all visible, its horrors all veiled, the fate of the Republic hanging on the hour—could any one be insensible of its grandeur… .”
Smalley did not, however, spare his readers the cost of that panoply: “The field and its ghastly harvest which the reaper had gathered in those fatal hours remained finally with us…. The dead are strewn so thickly that as you ride over it you cannot guide your horse’s steps too carefully. Pale and bloody faces are everywhere upturned. They are sad and terrible, but there is nothing which makes one’s heart beat so quickly as the imploring look of sorely wounded men who beckon wearily for help which you cannot stay to give.” By the time he got off the dawn ferry to New York that had met the train in Jersey City, Smalley had completed his remarkable seven-thousandword description of Antietam, complete with astute insight into the failure of McClellan’s battle plan: “It is impossible not to suppose that the attacks on right and left were meant in a measure to correspond, for otherwise the enemy had only to repel Hooker on the one hand, then transfer his troops, and hurl them against Burnside…. Still more unfortunate in its results was the total failure of these separate attacks on the right and left to sustain, or in any manner co-operate with each other.”
Smalley’s story came to be regarded as the best piece of reporting to emerge from the Civil War.
Smalley rushed the scrawled pages to the Tribune’s Nassau Street headquarters when he got off the ferry. Fortunately, Gay had been notified in advance that an important dispatch was expected, so when Smalley stumbled into the office, he found it crowded with waiting compositors and printers. At 6:00 A.M. the crew began typesetting the most illegible manuscript the oldest hand among them had ever seen. Two hours later the six-column story of Antietam hit the streets.
Smalley’s news story completely scooped the Tribune’s competition and came to be regarded as the best journalistic battle account to emerge from the Civil War. Its author shortly afterward came down with an illness that ended his career as a field correspondent. With the exception of an 1863 tour of Army camps in the East to assess various Union generals, Smalley spent the remaining war years behind a desk in New York as a Tribune editorial writer.
After the war Smalley became a pioneer in the reporting of international news and America’s premier foreign correspondent. Probably the first American journalist to wire news via the transatlantic cable, Smalley was in the vanguard of rapid changes in international news reporting for nearly half a century. He ran the London bureau for the Tribune from 1867 to 1895, then served as the Times of London representative in the United States until 1905. He came, he said, to know “everyone worth knowing on both sides of the Atlantic,” and on occasion he played a direct role in diplomacy. Once he was acclaimed as having helped improve Anglo-American relations more than any official United States representative. When he died in 1916, the elder statesman of international news reporting, Smalley was eulogized as having been the greatest of American correspondents.