By Lauren Letizia ’24
In the days, weeks, and months following the Battle of Gettysburg, journalists and newspaper editors feverishly attempted to recapture the full details, implications, and meaning of the massive fight that had transformed one small, formerly obscure, south-central Pennsylvania town into a household name. While some reporters struggled to ascertain the exact facts of the battle amidst the chaotic aftermath, others wrote with clear political agendas intended to sway the hearts and minds of their readership and, in turn, bolster their respective side’s support for the war effort. Still others searched for meaning in the aftermath through the prisms of religion, world history, and other lenses. In this mini-series, students will explore the myriad ways that 19th-century newspapers, throughout the North and South, “re-fought” the Battle of Gettysburg, its factual components, and its larger significance in print in the immediate aftermath of the fighting.
Although originating from the same victorious North—and originally, the same exact newspaper—two accounts of the Battle of Gettysburg from the New York Times and the Delaware Gazette demonstrate remarkably different narrative tones, in addition to dramatic differences in factual reporting. Variances in publication date, unfolding access to battle facts, the evolving political agendas of each article, and the different types of correspondents who contributed to each article likely are responsible for these differences.
Printed on July 6, 1863, the New York Times “The Great Battles” portrays the Union victory in overwhelmingly glowing terms, with fiercely proud (though false) claims that the Union army had taken the lives of several key Confederate generals and soundly beaten the enemy at every turn, though at great loss to the Army of the Potomac as well. Because correspondence networks and telegraph lines were still in their infancy, more prominent news outlets such as the Times had greater access to recent, if sometimes inaccurate, information than local papers and were all too eager to print it if it boosted their political agenda. As such, the July 6th Times article zealously declared “the death[s] of [James] Longstreet and [A.P.] Hill” while also proclaiming that every rebel “charge was repulsed with great slaughter.” The New York Times most likely printed this incorrect announcement for two reasons. First, they wanted to be the first paper to report this potentially war-altering information to the country. Such a laurel would give the paper fame and clout. Second, the deaths of Generals Longstreet and Hill would have not only crippled the Confederate high command and southern morale but also would significantly bolster the sagging spirits of the Northern home front far more than merely trumpeting a general victory over a faceless enemy.
The July 6 Times article tries to assert its claims of truthful reporting of the facts by utilizing the actual dispatches of Union General Meade to Secretary of War Henry Halleck and a message from President Lincoln to the nation’s citizens. Because Lincoln urged Americans to revere the battle-worn troops and the Union victory, the succeeding reports would have wanted to echo this message throughout their chronology. At a time when Northern support for the war effort had been waning, emphasis on the glorified heroics of the Federals during a three-day slaughter was of paramount political importance.
The Times’s actual battle accounts are written by “special correspondents” present during the fight. One such reporter, Samuel Wilkinson (known at the time for his unusually authentic and trustworthy journalism), wrote on July 3, “At the headquarters at which I write, sixteen of the horses of General Meade were killed by a shell. The house was completely riddled…… While I write the ground about me is covered thick with rebel dead, mingled with our own.” This eyewitness report has a more somber tone than the initial headlines and subheadings of the front-page articles. Fitting within the overarching tone of the article, Wilkinson does applaud the heroics of the Union soldiers. However, he also includes stories of woundings and deaths, along with descriptions of the corpses. His more sobering perspective could be attributed to his position as a news reporter versus a member of the high command delivering an official military report or correspondence: Unlike Meade or Lincoln, politics did not demand that he hide the graphic nature of the battle’s human destruction, thus allowing him to report in a more holistic “view from the trenches” style.
Wilkinson’s section of this article likely also differs even from those of other fellow field correspondents due to his witnessing his own son’s graphic wounding and death during the battle. Wilkinson was not only a first-hand witness to the great battle but a personal victim of its tragic perils. Certainly, when comparing Wilkinson’s account with that of any non-eyewitness journalist’s reporting, Wilkinson’s writing stands out for its unique ability to accurately capture the full physical and emotional scope of the soldier’s experience under fire than could that of any journalist writing from the safely of their offices in New York. Nevertheless, Wilkinson’s section of the article is but one within an overall glorious retelling of the resoundingly victorious Union army.
In comparison, the Delaware Gazette’s July 17, 1863 article, “The Gettysburg Battle” adopts a much more somber tone, depicting the battle, and particularly Pickett’s Charge, as anything but an inevitable Union victory, but rather a desperate and closely contested action in which both sides lost dearly. The two articles do share some similarities: The latter article does indeed make sure to glorify as enshrined “in the imperishable annals of the brilliant in history” for both the enormous destruction it inflicted on the enemy and the bravery of Union troops under extreme fire, and of course, the former article indeed includes first-hand, sobering accounts of battlefield woundings and deaths. However, the latter article in the Delaware Gazette delves much more deeply into the moments of uncertainty that the northern troops faced, the ebb and flow of battle, and the battle’s unparalleled destruction than does the earlier, more celebratory piece.
The Delaware Gazette begins its report by stating that the Battle of Gettysburg was “the most hotly contested and destructive engagement of the great rebellion.” Later in the account, the reporter recognizes the significant struggles of the Union Army. He does not hide that the soldiers had to fight mightily to defeat the Confederates. He describes the Federals’ reaction to Pickett’s Charge: “Our men looking with astonishment while fighting with great vigor; their line was dangerously weak; the defenses were not formidable. A few men gave way; our advance, in some instances slightly faltered.” Although the writer is still promoting the heroism of the Union men, he does not deny their setbacks during the Confederate attack and the very real moments of peril, panic, and doubt that many Union defenders felt when a wave of Confederates temporarily broke through their line at the Angle.
What is interesting is that, although re-published in the Delaware Gazette, this latter account was originally pulled from none other than the New York Times. This was a common practice in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as small newspapers often took their facts and reporting cues from national news outlets. Given that both articles stemmed originally from the Times, it makes a comparative analysis of the tone and content all that more interesting. These two Northern newspaper sources demonstrate the complexities and difficulties of reporting news in the 19th century, specifically on noteworthy news of the ongoing war. Often, biases or agendas, incomplete information, and unpredictable acquisition of new facts muddied the waters for reporters seeking to inform the public, and invariably, the unique perspective of each and every contributor to each article shaped the tone and content of individual pieces in significant ways. These two competing narratives of the facts and human impact of the Battle of Gettysburg provide just one example of the murky contours of journalism during the Civil War.
“The Gettysburg Battle,” Delaware Gazette, Delaware, OH, July 17, 1863.
“The Great Battles,” New York Times, New York, NY, July 6, 1863