The Times at Gettysburg, July 1863: A Reporter’s Civil War Heartbreak
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Newspaper correspondents, particularly those assigned to conflict zones where both territory and politics will be violently contested, are expected to wear a mask of professionalism and to maintain an intellectual distance, despite being dangerously close to the action.
Sometimes, though, a battlefield tragedy is so great, or so close to the heart, that it cracks the mask, revealing the very human face of the correspondent behind it.
Such was the case 155 years ago this week, when Samuel Wilkeson, the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, covered the pivotal Civil War Battle of Gettysburg.
He wrote a story of grief for The Times, published on the paper’s July 6, 1863, front page, that no reporter, no parent, should ever have to write, despite the journalistic obligation to bear witness to current events as they become history.
The front-page dispatch by Samuel Wilkeson about his son’s death on the battlefield at Gettysburg written on July 4, and published on July 6, of 1863.CreditThe New York Times
“Who can write the history 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, and abandoned to death in a building where surgeons dared not to stay?” the article began.
After the fighting at Gettysburg concluded on July 3, Mr. Wilkeson had gone searching for his son, Lt. Bayard Wilkeson, a 19-year-old Union officer in charge of an artillery unit of six cannons. Mr. Wilkeson likely interviewed other soldiers, asking for word of where his son had last been seen — and followed the trail of battle to the young man’s corpse.
He learned that Lt. Wilkeson had died from injuries he received two days before, on July 1.
Despite his wounded soul, the elder Wilkeson maintained his sharp reporter’s eye in his dispatch, which was dated July 4. Those observations — that the artillery battery should never have been deployed to that spot and that his wounded son was taken to a building from which military surgeons had fled — were crisply recorded in just the first hours after the three-day battle ended.
The commander overseeing Lt. Wilkeson’s unit in the XI Corps, Brig. Gen. Francis C. Barlow, had surveyed the landscape and decided to abandon the position he had been assigned by his superiors. Instead, on the first day of the battle, he ordered troops, including Lt. Wilkeson and his unit, to move to higher ground, which would normally be a sound tactical maneuver.
In this case — given the Union forces available, this particular piece of higher ground and the Confederate units arrayed against them — it was a fatal choice. The position was exposed, and Union fire was returned by an overmatching number of Confederate artillery pieces. The Union unit was wiped out at a spot now known as Barlow’s Knoll, and Confederate troops took the rise.
His leg blown apart by a cannonball or shrapnel, Lt. Wilkeson was taken nearby to a community poor house serving as an ad hoc Union medical center, but the surgeons retreated from the site under the Confederate advance. There the young lieutenant died.
Carol Reardon, a noted Civil War historian, said in a telephone interview that of the approximately four-dozen reporters covering Gettysburg on both sides of the lines, Samuel Wilkeson was regarded as one of the best. “He was very well respected among the press corps,” she said.
Ms. Reardon assessed Mr. Wilkeson’s journalism and the work of other reporters in her book “Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory,” which focused on the battle’s final assault, named for Maj. Gen. George Pickett, one of the Confederate commanders who led the charge that ended in decisive defeat for the Southern forces at Gettysburg.
“Samuel Wilkeson, the skilled correspondent for The New York Times, penned the most widely clipped Northern account of the July 3 charge,” she wrote, “and even today it continues to inform histories, novels, poems and other renderings of the event.”
Ms. Reardon, who is the George Winfree professor emerita of American history at Penn State University, stressed that not all the war correspondents at Gettysburg were as careful as Mr. Wilkeson in their news gathering or as scrupulous in their retelling.
She cites reporting about Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds, the first senior Union officer to be killed in action at Gettysburg. Some newspaper accounts said he was shot behind the right ear on horseback and fell to the ground without a word. Others ascribe to him a near-Shakespearean speech, delivered with his final breath, proclaiming the glory of the Union. Still others said he rode a quarter-mile to a field hospital, where he opened his coat to display his wound (odd if he had been shot in the head) and asked a surgeon, “Does this look bad?” before dying.
The battle at Gettysburg — the last invasion of United States territory by a foreign ground force — ended in resounding loss for Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate army. Although the conflict would grind on for two more years, with catastrophic loss of life, the Union seized fortune’s higher ground in the Civil War overall by driving Lee’s army into retreat at Gettysburg.
For newspaper correspondents, the Civil War also marked the beginning of a modern era for journalism, when technology allowed rapid reporting on momentous events.
For example, news of America’s first conflicts — the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War — traveled slowly, mostly by foot, horseback or ship.
In contrast, coverage from Gettysburg was accelerated by the growing network of telegraph lines, which allowed some dispatches filed from the battlefield in the morning to be published and on the street that very day or the next, especially in the more industrialized, urban North.
While not providing quite the immediate impact of TV networks broadcasting the bombing of Baghdad — the opening salvo of the Iraq war — in real time, the faster pace of reporting-to-publishing-to-circulation via telegraph during the Civil War altered how the public and leaders, on both sides, learned of and debated the war effort, anticipating today’s hyper-fast news cycle.
Great battles have been recorded by famous bylines since the time of Homer. But Gettysburg also was the rare and tragic instance of a parent discovering, and writing about, the loss of a child on a battleground where the journalist had stood, watched and taken notes.
“My pen is heavy,” Samuel Wilkeson wrote to conclude his Page 1 dispatch. “Oh, you dead, who at Gettysburg 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 fraternally and lovingly up to heaven. His right hand opens the gates of Paradise — with his left he beckons to these mutilated, bloody, swollen forms to ascend.”