At daybreak on the morning of September 18, 1862, a dusty and bedraggled horseman rode up to the telegraph office in Frederick, Maryland. His name was George W. Smalley, and he was the chief war correspondent for the New York Tribune. He had been awake for more than 24 hours–he would not sleep for another 12–and he had just ridden all night from the battlefield near Sharpsburg, where the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had spent the previous day splashing the cornfields and woodlands around Antietam Creek with scarlet rivers of blood.
Smalley, a comparative neophyte as a reporter, had seen more of the battle than any other correspondent. Having attached himself, unknown and uninvited, to Brig. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s headquarters staff the day before, the 29-year-old Harvard Law School graduate had witnessed the near-suicidal fighting around the cornfield and North Woods on the Union right. Then, after Hooker’s wounding, he had ridden over to the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac’s commanding general, George B. McClellan, and followed Brig. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s dilatory crossing of the bridge that would henceforth bear his name at the other end of the battlefield.
With the end of the battle, Smalley met with the other members of his reporting team (he almost came to blows with one correspondent who had not followed his example of recklessly exposing himself to fire) before setting off to find a telegraph office to send back his account of the battle to the home office in New York.
The telegraph operator in Frederick agreed to transmit a short account, and Smalley sat down in the office to write his story. He handed his copy to the telegrapher a page at a time, unaware that the operator was sending his story, not to New York, but directly to the War Department in Washington, where near-frantic members of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet were waiting breathlessly for any news from the front. McClellan, in his typically dramatic fashion, had sent back a message the day before, informing Chief of Staff Henry Halleck, “We are in the midst of the most terrible battle of the war–perhaps of history.” Then the lines had fallen silent. (McClellan for once had outrun the telegraph service, and written messages were following a roundabout path from Hagerstown, Md., to Harrisburg, Pa., Baltimore and Washington.)
Suddenly, the line at the War Department began to chatter, and sometime before noon a tense President Lincoln began to read Smalley’s exclusive report from the battlefield. “Fierce and desperate battle between two hundred thousand men has raged since daylight, yet night closes on an uncertain field,” it began. “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. But what can be foretold of the future of a fight in which from five in the morning till seven at night the best troops of the continent have fought without decisive result?”
After several paragraphs of background–Lincoln must have chafed at being told what he already knew, instead of what he desperately wanted to learn–Smalley resumed his eyewitness account of the battle. “The battle began with the dawn,” he wrote. “Morning found both armies just as they had slept, almost close enough to look into each other’s eyes. The left of [Brig. Gen. George] Meade’s reserves and the right of [Brig. Gen. James] 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 [Brig. Gen. Irvin] 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.
“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, and hurled them swiftly back for half the distance they had won. Closing up their shattered lines, they came slowly away….They had met at the woods the first volleys of musketry from fresh troops–had met them and returned them till their line had yielded and gone down before the weight of fire, and till their ammunition was exhausted.
“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 cornfield from which their comrades had just fled. Hooker sent to his nearest brigade to meet them, but it could not do the work. He called for another. There was nothing close enough, unless he took it from his right. His right might be in danger if it was weakened, but his center was already threatened with annihilation. Not hesitating one moment, he sent to [Brig. Gen. Abner] Doubleday: ‘Give me your best brigade instantly.’
“The best brigade came down the hill to the right on the run, went through the timber in front through a storm of shot and bursting shell and crashing limbs, over the open field beyond and straight into the cornfield, passing as they went the fragments of three brigades shattered by the rebel fire and streaming to the rear. They passed by Hooker, whose eyes lighted as he saw these veteran troops, led by a soldier whom he knew he could trust. ‘I think they will hold it,’ he said.
“General [Stephen] Hartsuff took his troops very steadily, but, now that they were under fire, not hurriedly, up the hill from which the cornfield begins to descend, and formed them on the crest. Not a man who was not in full view–not one who bent before the storm. Firing at first in volleys, they fired then at will with wonderful rapidity and effect. The whole line crowned the hill and stood out darkly against the sky, but lighted and shrouded ever in flame and smoke. They were the Twelfth and Thirteenth Massachusetts and another regiment which I cannot remember–old troops all of them.
“There for half an hour they held the ridge, unyielding in purpose, exhaustless in courage. There were gaps in the line, but it nowhere bent. Their General was severely wounded early in the fight, but they fought on. Their supports did not come–they determined to win without them. They began to go down the hill and into the corn; they did not stop to think that their ammunition was nearly gone; they were there to win that field, and they won it. The rebel line for the second time fled through the corn and into the woods.”
Following Hooker’s wounding, Smalley watched as more and more Union troops poured into the woods to hold the cornfield. “At one o’clock,” he reported, “affairs on the right had a gloomy look. Hookers’ troops were greatly exhausted, and their General away from the field. [Maj. Gen. Joseph] Mansfield’s were no better. [Maj. Gen. Edwin] Sumner’s command had lost heavily, but two of his divisions were still comparatively fresh. Artillery was yet playing vigorously in front, though the ammunition of many of the batteries was entirely exhausted, and they had been compelled to retire….All that had been gained in front had been lost! The enemy’s batteries, which if advanced and served vigorously might have made sad work with the closely massed troops, were fortunately either partially disabled or short of ammunition.
“At this crisis Franklin came up with fresh troops and formed on the left. [Maj. Gen. Henry] Slocum, commanding one division of the corps, was sent forward along the slopes lying under the first ranges of the rebel hills, while [Maj. Gen. William] Smith with the other division was ordered to retake the cornfields and woods which all day had been so hotly contested. It was done in the handsomest style. His Maine and Vermont regiments and the rest went forward on the run, and cheering as they went, swept like an avalanche through the cornfields, fell upon the woods, cleared them in ten minutes, and held them. They were not again retaken.
“The field and its ghastly harvest which the Reaper had gathered in those fatal hours remained finally with us. Four times it had been lost and won. The dead are strewn so thickly that as you ride over it you cannot guide your horses’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.”
Having overstayed his welcome at the Frederick telegraph office, Smalley hurried to the railroad station to catch a special train to Baltimore. For the next two hours, he continued working on his story, sitting on a log by the side of the tracks. He hopped the first military train he could find and headed for Baltimore. For the first time in 36 hours he slept, nearly missing the connecting train to New York. Jumping onto the express, he stood beneath an oil lamp at the end of the railroad car, scribbling away feverishly. He finished his article midway between Philadelphia and New York.
The War Department, after reading the first of Smalley’s dispatches, obligingly forwarded them to the Tribune office, where managing editor Sydney Gay had kept a full crew of typesetters and proofreaders waiting all night at the Nassau Street headquarters of the newspaper office. When Smalley entered the building at 5 a.m., dazed and dusty from his two-day ordeal, the hardbitten newsmen broke into a spontaneous round of applause. An hour later, a special edition of the newspaper was on the streets, headlining Smalley’s remarkable scoop.
The full story included a firsthand account of Burnside’s tardy crossing of Burnside’s Bridge. “Attacking first with one regiment, then with two, and delaying both for artillery, Burnside was not over the bridge before two o’clock–perhaps not till three,” Smalley wrote. “He advanced slowly up the slopes in his front, his batteries in rear covering, to some extent, the movement of the infantry. A desperate fight was going on in a deep ravine on his right; the rebel batteries were in full play and apparently very annoying and destructive, while heavy columns of rebel troops were plainly visible, advancing, as if careless of concealment, along the road and over the hills in the direction of Burnside’s forces….Getting his troops well in hand, and sending a portion of his artillery to the front, he advanced with rapidity and the most determined vigor straight up the hill in front, on top of which the rebels had maintained their most dangerous battery….
“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?”
With courage, imagination and vigor, Smalley had witnessed the greatest battle of the war to that date and had managed to scoop the entire world with his quickly written, unromanticized account. He concluded, logically enough, by predicting that McClellan would resume the battle the next day. The fact that McClellan failed to do so led directly to his sacking by Lincoln a few weeks later.
As for Smalley, he went on to become the Tribune’s London correspondent, where his blueblooded, patrician ways earned him the nickname, “the Tory Squire.” But despite a rich and varied career, he never equalled his performance at Antietam. Nor did anyone else. It was the “beat” of the war.