By: Charles Geraci
In August 1861, as the Civil War raged, Oliver Wendell Holmes declared, “Everything else we can do without. … Only bread and the newspaper we must have.” A new book from St. Martin’s Press, “The Most Fearful Ordeal,” reveals why.
The book presents a wide range of often gripping firsthand accounts of the Civil War and related events of the era, all coming from The New York Times, although other sources, including government departments, The Associated Press, and other newspapers are also quoted.
In the introduction, historian James M. McPherson notes the profound significance of the newspaper to the Americans coping with the Civil War: “In times of crisis or war, Americans today tune into television or radio, or increasingly to the Internet. None of these media, of course, existed during the Civil War. Americans then got their news from newspapers. Most people experienced the battles and other crucial war events vicariously through their daily papers.”
The book begins with John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Like many other accounts that appeared in the pages of the Times, it was extremely detailed.
A story that appeared in the paper on Dec. 3, 1859, the day after Brown’s execution included the following: “On being summoned, Brown appeared perfectly calm and collected. He took formal leave of each of his fellow-prisoners and gave each one a quarter of a dollar as a token of remembrance. … He stood upon the drop nine minutes and a half when it fell. He suffered but little. After three minutes, there were no convulsions, or indications of life. At the end of twenty minutes his body was examined, and he was reported dead.”
The night of the contentious election of 1860, won by Abraham Lincoln, saw throngs of New Yorkers surrounding the offices of the Times, Tribune, and Herald as evinced in a Nov. 7, 1860 New York Times article. When returns came in, “There were cheers and groans and huzzas and hisses. And until the night had grown old and morning was born, the clamorous crowd demanded more news and later intelligence. They demanded to know the fate of the Union before daybreak, and many of them learnt it before they went home. But it is questionable whether the majority of them would find out during the coming Presidential term whether the country were saved or lost, if it were not for the information supplied by their party newspaper.”
The book also chronicles the major Civil War battles and conflicts. On April 15, 1861, with the surrender of Fort Sumter to the Confederacy, the following appeared in the Times: “Had the surrender not taken place Fort Sumter would have been stormed to-night. The men are crazy for a fight. The bells have been chiming all day, gun firing, ladies waving handkerchiefs, people cheering, and citizens making themselves generally demonstrative. It is regarded as the greatest day in the history of South Carolina.”
On Sept. 21, 1862, the Times gave its readers a chilling account of the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest battle of the war:
“After our forces occupied the whole field, the rebel loss was found to be far greater, particularly in killed than was at first supposed. Fully 2,500 were found lying on the field, while a larger number had been buried the day before by their friends.
“Their loss in killed and wounded will not come far from 18,000 to 20,000.”
Though the Times covered Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the paper did not seem to grasp the gravity of the speech at the time. In a Nov. 20, 1863, article, immediately following a reprinting of Lincoln’s speech, the paper simply commented, “Three cheers were then given for the President and the Governors of the States. After the delivery of the addresses, the dirge and the benediction closed the exercises, and the immense assemblage separated at about 4 o’clock …”
Perhaps the most remarkable coverage contained in the book details Lincoln’s assassination. A special dispatch to the Times on April 14, 1865, read:
“A stroke from Heaven laying the whole of the city in instant ruins could not have startled us as did the word that broke from Ford’s Theatre a half hour ago that the President had been shot. It flew everywhere in five minutes, and set five thousand people in swift and excited motion on the instant.
“It is impossible to get at the full facts of the case, but it appears that a young man entered the President’s box from the theatre, during the last act of the play of Our American Cousin, with pistol in hand. He shot the President in the head and instantly jumped from the box upon the stage, and immediately disappeared through the side scenes and rear of the theatre, brandishing a dirk knife and dropping a kid glove on the stage.
“The audience heard the shot, but supposing it fired in the regular course of the play, did not heed it till Mrs. Lincoln’s screams drew their attention. The whole affair occupied scarcely half a minute, and then the assassin was gone. As yet he has not been found.
“The President’s wound is reported mortal.”