Category Archives: Civil War

George Smalley and the Battle of Antietam

During the hours after the battle of Antietam in September 1862, New York Tribune correspondent George Smalley went through hell.

Having attached himself to the headquarters staff of Gen. Joseph Hooker, Smalley had seen more of the battle than any other newspaper correspondent at the scene.

Desperate to get word back to his newspaper, he rode through the night to the telegraph station at Frederick, Maryland. The telegraph operater agreed to send a short account, and Smalley sat down and wrote one.

“Fierce and desperate battle between two hundred thousand 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. If not wholly a victory tonight, I believe it is the prelude to a victory tomorrow. . . .”

Smalley handed the telegraph operator each page as he wrote it. Without Smalley’s permission or knowledge, the operater sent the account to the War Department in Washington rather than to the Tribune in New York. There President Abraham Lincoln read the first account of the battle that he knew Union forces had to win.

Smalley’s job, however, was far from done.

• • •

George Smalley was a well-educated man, especially for his time. He had attended Yale University and was a graduate of Harvard Law School. He had begun his law practice when war broke out between the North and the South. To see the action firsthand, he joined the staff of the New York Tribune.

Smalley was one of several Tribune reporters attached to the Union Army. When the battle of Antietam was about to begin, Smalley stayed with Gen. Joseph Hooker for a good part of the day, even performing some duties for the army in the midst of the fighting.

As he went from place to place across the battlefield, Smalley — possibly more than any other man that day — had a sense of what was happening, of the fierceness of the fighting that few human beings had ever witnessed.

At the end of the day, Smalley met with other members of the Tribune’s reporting team and pooled their information. Then he began a hard ride to the telegraph office in Frederick.

In addition to the first paragraph, Smalley was able to transmit several others, including the following:

“The battle began with the dawn. Morning found both armies just as they had slept, almost close enough to look into each other’s eyes. The left of Meade’s reserves and the right of Rickett’s line became engaged at nearly the same moment, one with artillery, the other with infantry. A battery was almost immediately pushed forward beyond the central woods, over a ploughed field near the top of the slope where the cornfield began. On this open field, in the corn beyond, and in the woods which stretched forward into the broad fields like a promontory into the ocean, were the hardest and deadliest struggles of the day.
“For half an hour after the battle had grown to its full strength, the line of fire swayed neither way. Hooker’s men were fully up to their work. They saw their General everywhere in front, never away from the line, and all the troops believed in their commander, and fought with a will. Two thirds of them were the same men who under McDowell had broken at Manassas.
“The half-hour passed, the rebels began to give way a little–only a little, but at the first indication of a receding fire, Forward, was the word, and on went the line with a cheer and a rush. Back across the cornfield, 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–followed till they came within easy range of the woods, among which they saw their beaten enemy disappearing– followed still, with another cheer, and flung themselves against the cover.

At some point in Frederick, Smalley realized that his dispatches were being sent to Washington rather than New York. He went to the railroad station to catch a train to Baltimore, writing for two hours while waiting for the train.

He fell asleep on the train — his first sleep in 36 hours — and nearly missed the connection to New York. Once on the train heading north, he resumed writing.

The War Department, which had first received Smalley’s reports, sent them on to the Tribune in New York. By the time Smalley arrived and walked into the newspaper office on Nausau Street, typesetters and proofreaders were waiting. Word had also gotten to the newspaper office about Smalley himself, and his colleagues broke into applause when they saw him.

An hour later, the Tribune hit the streets with the first account of that important battle. It included paragraphs such as

“The fight in the ravine was in full progress, the batteries in the center were firing with new vigor, Franklin was blazing away on the right, and every hilltop, 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, unequalled scene shone with the splendor of an afternoon September sun. Four miles of battle, its glory all visible, its horrors all hidden, the fate of the Republic hanging on the hour–could anyone be insensible of its grandeur?”



The battle of Antietam (sometimes called the battle of Sharpsburg) was one of the most important conflicts of the Civil War — and one of the bloodiest.

The Confederate Army under Robert E. Lee had invaded the North early in September 1862 in an effort to pressure the Union and Abraham Lincoln into giving up and allowing the South to secede. If Lee were to capture Harrisonburg, Penn., for instance, he would be in control of important railroad lines in the north.

Lincoln sent the Army of the Potomac under Gen. George McClellan to cut Lee off, and the two armies met at Antietam Creek on Sept. 17. McClellan wired the War Department in Washington, “We are in the midst of the most terrible battle of the war.” Then the lines went dead, and Washington had no word for many hours.

By the time Smalley’s account reached Lincoln, the president was desperate for news. Eventually it became clear that Lee’s army had been stopped and that it was in retreat.

But the cost was horrendous. Lee lost nearly a third of his army, 12,000 casualties. The Union Army sustained about 14,000 casualties. It was, to that point the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.
Also see Louis M Starr, Reporting the Civil War (New York: Collier) 1962; and Emmet Crozier, Yankee Reporters 1861-65 (New York: Oxford) 1956.

Battlefield coverage: Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!

What was it like to be a reporter covering a major battle during the Civil War? A number of good books about reporters in the Civil War are available. Also recommended is the chapter on news coverage of the battle of Fredericksburg in George Rable’s award winning Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! (In fact, you should read the whole book.)

A winning army might not pursue a retreating one, leaving the outcome in doubt. Picking a winner and loser was important, however, because how the public perceived the war was going had important implications for political support for the war.

Crowdsourcing the Civil War

In the video below, George Rable, University of Alabama history professor, discusses the sources of information that newspaper editors during the Civil War used for their reports about battles and the war in general.

One important source was letters from soldiers — a form of what we could call today crowdsourcing. This means using the accounts of participants at an event to construct an account of that event.

Crowdsourcing the Civil War from Jim Stovall on Vimeo.

Writing Lincoln’s first inaugural address

Doris Kerns Goodwin, in her book Team of Rivals, tells an interesting story about the writing of the first inaugural address by Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln’s second inaugural gets a great deal of attention from historians, but the circumstances of his 1861 speech made it one of the most important addresses ever given to that point in American history.

Lincoln’s election had provoked widespread feelings through the South that session was the only option left for the slave-holding states. The voices advocating a separate nation thundered loudly and in states like Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina had overtaken any expression of moderation.

The president-elect had not spoken to the nation since his nomination because campaigning for the presidency after one received the nomination of a party was thought to be undignified. Consequently, Lincoln’s words carried great import for the immediate future of the country. Different factions projected different attitudes onto the upcoming speech. Anti-slavery supporters expected Lincoln to stand up to the Southern firebrands. Moderates on all sides urged conciliation. Hard-line Southerners expected little from Lincoln that could change their minds, and many of them did not want to change their minds.

Still, the president had to try to hold the country together with this speech

He showed drafts of it to several people including William Seward, his chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination and now his nominee for Secretary of State. Seward suggested changes throughout, but he was most disturbed at Lincoln’s ending. Seward had counseled moderation, and Lincoln’s draft, he thought, was far too harsh to give moderation any hope.

Instead, he suggested this ending:

I close. We are not we must not be aliens or enemies but fellow countrymen and brethren. Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly, they must not, I am sure they will not be broken. The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.

Lincoln took those words and ideas and made them his own:

I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthsone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Lincoln’s sharp thinking and succinct writing took Seward’s good words and turned them into what Doris Kerns Goodwin calls “powerful poetry.”

The words did not, unfortunately, prevent disunion and four years of bloody battles. But when that was done, they gave voice to the enduring sentiment of American unity.

William Tecumseh Sherman: Marching through the American mind

The Union Army, under the command of William Tecumseh Sherman, decamped from a devastated and burning Atlanta on November 16, 1864 and marched across the expanse of Georgia until it reached Savannah. The purpose, according to its commander, was to bring the horrors of war into the farms, fields, parlors and living rooms of the South in a way that would teach Southerners the futility of continuing the fight for their independence.

The march through Georgia took almost exactly a month. A week before Christmas, Sherman wired President Abraham Lincoln from Savannah, offering him the city as a “Christmas present.”

Sherman succeeded far beyond anything that he had in mind at the beginning of his journey.

As Ed Caudill and Paul Ashdown (two of my good friends and colleagues at the University of Tennessee) write in their Sherman’s March in Myth and Memory:

The myth of the March and the man gained momentum for the rest of his life. Old soldiers told tales and reminisced, while Sherman lectured and wrote his memoirs. By the time of his death in 1891, the March was a term that meant one march, embodied in one man in American history. Ironically, the “Old South” and “the March” had become intimately linked as thesis and antithesis — agrarian and industrial, tradition and modernism, spiritual and material. . . .

The memory endured in the South and became a nationsl one, encapsulated in a few seconds from a film now three-quarters of a century old, Gone With the Wind: “And the wind swept through Georgia: Sherman!” in giant letters as the screen goes up in flames.

Caudill and Ashdown’s book is the third of three than examine the myths that grew out of prominent Civil War figures. The two earlier books looked at John Singleton Mosby, the Gray Ghost, and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Mosby’s accomplishments during the war were relatively minor, but Mosby was literate and wise in the ways in which an image could be formed, and he also had the good fortune to live well into the 20th century. Forrest, more impressive in his military accomplishments than Mosby, was not so fortunate in any respect and is now a historical oddity that fires controversy even at the mention of his name.

Sherman is a towering figure of the war, a man who is mentioned along with Grant, Lincoln and Lee. He lived longer than Forrest and wrote his memoirs, but he never appeared to have much concern for his image — at least, not as much as Mosby showed. Sherman seemed content to leave his image in the hands of others, especially journalists whom he professed to hate.

I talked with Paul Ashdown about the role journalists played in creating the myths of these men, and asked him if anything about the three-book study surprised him. (Click on the arrow below to being the audio: 3:34):

What happened on the march through Georgia is just one of the mysteries of myth that surround William Tecumseh Sherman. The book by Caudill and Ashdown reveals him to be a fascinating and complex character far beyond the hero or villain that emerged from the road across Georgia.

Each of the books in this series is a shrewd exploration of the way in which memory and myth work in the American culture. They are highly recommended.

See the previous Writing Wright reviews:


A larger version of the pen and ink drawing of Sherman (above) can be found at First Inning Artworks.

Saint or sinner: Nathan Bedford Forrest considered

For nearly a century and a half, America has been vexed with the question of Nathan Bedford Forrest: Was he a saint or a sinner?

Forrest was a general in the Confederate Army, a leader in a band of rangers that harassed and often defeated the Union Army in western Tennessee, northern Alabama and southern Kentucky. He drove William Tecumseh Sherman to distraction and scared the bejesus out of Chicago when rumors were rife that he was heading north, just has Lee had done in Pennsylvania.

Well, he was certainly sinner. Before the Civil War, as a businessman in Memphis and West Tennessee, he bought and sold slaves, and the site where he did that is well known in Memphis. During the war, he was a fierce and innovative fighter. Some have credited him with originating “guerrilla warfare,” which was then an anathema to the acceptable rules of war. Forrest was the Confederate commander during the infamous siege of Ft. Pillow, where a number of black Union soldiers were massacred. How much Forrest had to do with this horror is loudly debated among partisans.

Then there was the Ku Klux Klan. Did Forrest originate it? Was he even a member? Did he eventually regret it and disavow it? The evidence is conflicting, and again, the mists of history obscure a clear view of the truth.

But for some Forrest is a saint. He embodies the fighting spirit that spurred the South to repudiate an oppressive government. He was patriotic, loyal and courageous. His reputation grew after the war as did the South’s redefinition of its struggles into the romance of the Lost Cause, and his defenders became legion.

Paul Ashdown and Ed Caudill (two colleagues at the University of Tennessee and both good friends) have entered this fray with a book-length study of the image of Forrest titled The Myth of Nathan Bedford Forrest. This is the second of three books they have produced that study the myths surrounding John Singleton Mosby, Forrest, and William Tecumseh Sherman. (I have previously reviewed their book on Mosby and will take a look at the Sherman book at a later date.)

I talked with Ashdown about the series and asked particularly about the two Confederates in their study. Ashdown began by explaining why he and Caudill began the series with Mosby and then moved to Forrest (Click on the arrow to hear the audio: 4:00):

Forrest died in 1877, 12 years after the war ended. He showed little interest in tending to his reputation both during the war and afterwards. Yet, as Ashdown and Caudill write:

. . . . To this day, a mention of Nathan Bedford Forrest will often provoke a response that notes little more than his miliary genius and role in founding the Klan. The more knowledgeable individuals may even site a few details, such as Brice’s Cross Roads and Fot Pillow. But it remains a simple frame of racism, war and untotored genius that guides even recent recognition of and response to his name.

The book — the whole series, in fact — is must reading for those who not only want to know about the Civil War but also want to understand its effect on the American mind.

* * *

A larger version of the pen and ink drawing above can be found at First Inning Artworks.

The Writing Wright

Kill the Quarterback

Civil War images: Authors explore the Mosby Myth

  • What we think about John Singleton Mosby is a mixture of what he did on the battlefields of the Civil War and the myth-making that occurred during and after the war. In this post, author Ed Caudill talks about his book on this expert image-maker.

What is real, and what just exists in our mind’s eye, about our past?

Those were the questions two journalism historians had when they took on John Singleton Mosby, the famous Gray Ghost of the Confederate Army. What they produced is an insightful and interesting book titled The Mosby Myth: A Confederate Hero in Life and Legend.

Paul Ashdown and Ed Caudill (two colleagues and good friends) were fascintated by the fact that Mosby, a minor character in the gigantic events that occurred in America between 1861 and 1865, should have such a large place in the consciousness of America. Mosby is said to be the most famous non-general to emerge from the smoke of the war.

Even before the war ended, Mosby and his “raiders” had gained an outsized reputation due not just to their courageous exploits but also because of Mosby’s careful attention to his own image. Ulysses Grant once ordered that they be executed immediately if they were caught.

I spoke with Caudill about how he and Ashdown came to write this book and asked how they chose Mosby as their first subject. Click on the arrow below to begin the audio (6:30):

The book, which was published in 2002, became the first in a series of three that explore the myths and images that surround Civil War characters:

  • The Mosby Myth: A Confederate Hero in Life and Legend (2002) Amazon


  • The Myth of Nathan Bedord Forrest (2005) Amazon 
  • Sherman’s March in Myth and Memory (2008) Amazon


The authors explain how the myth of Mosby began in the days of battle and how it grew as the memory of the war faded and the images of the war emerged. Part of the Mosby magic was simply that he outlived most of his Civil War contempories, dying in 1916, and thus had many more opportunities to shape was generations thought about him.

The authors bring us into the present day with a look at the 1950s television series, The Gray Ghost, and the treatment of Mosby in modern novels and movies.

We will be exploring each of these book in subsequent post.


See a full size image of the pen and ink drawing of Mosby (above) at First Inning Artworks.