Civil War reporters sometimes got it right

The best reporter covering the Civil War was Charles Carleton Coffin of the Boston Morning Journal.

"If Lee advances with nearly all his force into Pennsylvania," he predicted in a story that appeared in his paper June 26, 1863, "there must be a collision of the two armies not many miles west of Gettysburg."

Coffin was amazing. He seemed to know instinctively where to be through all four years of the war. And so, predictably, he showed up at Gettysburg to cover war's biggest, bloodiest battle.

Gettysburg: The defense of Pennsylvania

Michael Kraus, curator of Soldiers and Sailors Museum and Hall and a Civil War re-enactor, explains why defending Gettysburg was so important to Pennsylvania and the North. (Video by Julia Rendleman; 7/1/2013)

He wasn't alone. As many as 50 reporters covered the battle from the Union side -- a dozen from James Gordon Bennett's vulgar New York Herald, nine from eccentric Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, three from Henry Raymond's New York Times. Probably as many as a dozen covered the rebels in the first war to be written about almost in real time, thanks to the telegraph.

Most Union reporters -- they called themselves a Bohemian brigade -- were rowdy. Of them I have written: "They competed hard to be the first with the news, and got it wrong more often than they should have. They were frequently arrogant and pompous. They lied; they cheated; they spied on one another and on the generals they covered. They made up battles they had never seen. They speculated in cotton. They drank too much."

Sometimes, though, they were inspired.

Coffin, unlike many of the Bohemians, was deeply religious, and he neither smoked, drank, nor cussed. His fellow war correspondents didn't always know what to make of him.

Coffin arrived at the battlefield about 8 a.m. July 2, having missed, like almost all the others, the opening day of the three-day fight. He joined Gen. Oliver O. Howard on Cemetery Hill and had a breathtaking view of the battlefield. They had lunch, he said, while the first bullets "whizzed" over their heads.

The second-best reporter covering the war was Whitelaw Reid, representing the Cincinnati Gazette (his family ran the late, lamented New York Herald Tribune for years). He watched Pickett's charge from Culp's Hill, and concluded, "It was fruitless sacrifice. They gathered up their broken fragments, formed their lines, and slowly marched away. It was not a rout, it was a bitter crushing defeat. For once the Army of the Potomac had won a clean, honest, acknowledged victory."

Coffin was swept away by what he had seen in words not so different from Lincoln's famous address.

"The invasion of the North was over, the power of the Southern Confederacy broken. There at that sunset hour I could discern the future ... a country redeemed, saved, baptized, consecrated anew to the coming ages.

"All honor to the heroic living, all glory to the gallant dead. They have not died in vain; they have not fought for naught. No man liveth to himself alone. Not for themselves, but for their children, for those who may never have heard of them have they yielded life -- for the future -- for all that is good, holy, true -- for humanity, righteousness, peace -- for paradise on earth -- for Christ and for God -- they have given themselves a willing sacrifice. Blessed be their memory forever."

Late Saturday night, July 4, Sam Wilkeson of the Times wrote the war's most poignant story. It ran on Page One.

"Who can write the story of a battle whose eyes are immovably fastened upon a central figure of transcendingly absorbing interest -- the dead body of an oldest born, crushed by a shell in a position where a battery should never have been sent?

"... My pen is heavy. Oh, you dead, who at Gettysburgh have baptized with your blood the second birth of freedom in America, how you are to be envied! I rise from a grave whose wet clay I have passionately kissed, and I look up and see Christ spanning this battlefield with his feet and reaching lovingly to Heaven. His right hand opens the gate of Paradise -- with his left hand he beckons to those mutilated, bloody, swollen forms to ascend."

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James M. Perry, for many years a Wall Street Journal correspondent, is the author of "A Bohemian Brigade: the Civil War Correspondents, Mostly Rough, Sometimes Ready." First Published July 2, 2013 4:00 AM


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