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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. 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.
Smalley discovered that he enjoyed trotting along with the blue columns through the early fall haze. The Army of the Potomac pressed through the South Mountain passes on September 14 in an attempt to destroy the Rebel army piecemeal. As Smalley watched the blue waves progressing up the mountain terrain against weak but stubborn Confederate resistance, he was pleased to meet another Tribune staffer, Albert D. Richardson. The two correspondents had never met before but, on chatting a bit, were astonished to discover they both had been born in Franklin, Massachusetts, in 1833.
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.”
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… .
“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.