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.
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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 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.