NEWS AT THE FRONT LINES

They didn't know what to expect in July 1861 when the two armies marched out to meet along a meandering Virginia stream called Bull Run.

The newspaper reporters had never covered a live battle. Many rented or purchased horses and wore sidearms and boots, much like Army officers. Others walked alongside the soldiers or rode in wagons.

Uriah Hunt Painter was just another face in the Bohemian Brigade, the name given the free-spirited nonconformist journalists of the time.

But the 24-year-old Inquirer correspondent was about to make history. He provided the first accurate full-length account of what really happened at the Battle of Bull Run.

Painter avoided the military censors in Washington, instead taking a train that whisked him to Philadelphia, where he delivered his report in person.

The Inquirer made a reputation for itself during the Civil War as one of the top newspapers in the country. Reporters transmitted stories long distances over telegraph wires and traveled hundreds of miles on steam-driven trains and horseback. And their papers used huge, steam-powered presses to quickly print eyewitness reports.

The Inquirer's accurate coverage of the Battle of Bull Run caused consternation in Philadelphia, where crowds were expecting a different outcome. The paper also covered the crucial Battle of Gettysburg, where coverage of the first day's fight was hawked among the troops even as the three-day clash continued. The newspaper's accuracy won over the crusty Union secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, who used it to guide some of his decisions.

The Inquirer "was of incalculable importance during the Civil War," said Anthony Waskie, Philadelphia historian and assistant professor of language and history at Temple University. "It was the paper of record for the Lincoln administration and had a monumental role in shaping opinion about the war effort. It was pro-Lincoln and pro-Union - but not a mouthpiece for [Lincoln's] Republican Party."

The Inquirer helped bond the readers on the Philadelphia homefront to the soldiers in the field, said Randall Miller, professor of history at St. Joseph's University.

"It helped connect the country and build a sense of common purpose and peoplehood," he said. "The paper was powerful and had a broad readership because it was not in the pocket of a party, faction, or chieftain."

At the same time, The Inquirer "seemed to give richer, fuller description of the battles," said Daniel N. Rolph, historian, college lecturer, and head of reference services at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where he has long studied newspapers of the period.

"I enjoy the [Philadelphia] Public Ledger and Bulletin, but The Inquirer would give a more complete account - and seemed more balanced at the time, when the Ledger leaned toward the South."

The Civil War turned America into a nation of newspaper readers. Long before radio, television, computers, and cable technologies, newspapers were "the media."

The development of the kerosene lamp in 1830 extended the time for reading. The Inquirer and other newspapers competed for readers by giving people more than editorial opinions. They told them what their fathers and sons were doing in the war and gave them the news faster than ever.

The Inquirer's circulation jumped from 7,000 in the 1850s to 70,000 in 1863.

The increase was accompanied by a move in 1863 from a building on Third Street and Carter's Alley, south of Chestnut Street, to a larger building at 304 Chestnut. The pressroom there had a new, steam-driven Bullock printing press, the first of its kind. It printed on both sides of the paper with one feeding.

From the beginning of the war to its end, The Inquirer was a favorite of the troops. "As this item was written, at 11 o'clock, P.M., the Washington Regiment, numbering six hundred men, under Col. Angeroth, were passing the office [of The Inquirer on Chestnut Street], and greeted The Inquirer's flag with repeated cheers," said a story in the April 19, 1861, edition. "They were accompanied by a band of martial music."

Waskie said, "I have read hundreds of letters and diaries, and I know the soldiers always looked forward to the delivery of The Inquirer. It was delivered quickly by train, usually on the same day or day after the printing."

Single copies of the paper - sometimes up to 30,000 - were frequently distributed among the soldiers.

"There's a famous sketch showing the men flocking around The Inquirer news seller in the camps in Northern Virginia," Waskie said. "It was the most popular paper for Pennsylvania troops, but others liked it, too, because it favored and supported the Lincoln administration. They received praise instead of the criticism in other papers, like the Ledger."

Southern soldiers "loved to get Northern newspapers to see what the North was saying about them," said Rolph, author of My Brother's Keeper: Union and Confederate Acts of Mercy During the Civil War.

"They felt sometimes that their own newspapers were slanting what was occurring. There were plenty of accounts in diaries and letters describing how lots of soldiers swapped newspapers along the picket lines."

The soldiers wanted to feel connected to the homefront and the cataclysmic events unfolding around them. "They were desperate for reading material and newspapers were the reading material of choice after the Bible," Miller said. "People were gobbling up The Inquirer."

Competition among newspapers was fierce.

The Inquirer's chief rival, the Philadelphia Press, was said to have complained that Inquirer correspondents seemed to know more about the war than did most of the generals.

John Forney, editor of the Press, hoped to catch up to The Inquirer's surging circulation and pushed his reporters to give him "not sensation inventions, but real news . . . We must be behind no longer."

President Abraham Lincoln once said he didn't have to visit the battlefield because he read the reports of George Alfred Townsend, at 20 one of the war's youngest correspondents, who worked for The Inquirer and other publications, Waskie said.

Lincoln was not the only leader who appreciated The Inquirer and other newspapers. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee "once boasted that he had the best intelligence of anyone because he read the Northern papers," Miller said. "Some of the reporting was bad. There was a rush to get stories out. Mistakes were made in a hurried and harried atmosphere.

"People were learning by doing. They never had war correspondents who had to do so much under duress," Miller said. "And The Inquirer did pretty well. It helped shape public opinion."

The Inquirer's "on-the-spot war reporting was fair and balanced, and generally well-respected by the troops," Waskie said. And on the home front, "it provided fair reporting to the black community, while the Ledger rarely mentioned it.

"There were stories on the Colored Ladies Aid Society, which gathered goods and bandages for the troops. And there were stories on [abolitionist and civil-rights leaders] Frederick Douglass and Octavius Cato. Douglass was in Philadelphia at the time of the Battle of Gettysburg and it was reported in The Inquirer."

Several Inquirer reporters stood out during the war but not always for roles they sought.

Henry Bentley, a skilled, sometimes comical, war correspondent known for loquaciousness, was captured by the Confederates when they surprised the Union camp at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in 1862. He escaped the next day during a federal counterattack, briefly telegraphed the paper, then traveled to Philadelphia to turn in his story in person.

Another Inquirer reporter, Edward Crapsey, wrote a story in 1864 that embarrassed Union Gen. George Gordon Meade, a Philadelphian and hero of the Battle of Gettysburg. Crapsey reported that Meade had been timid and that Ulysses S. Grant was making the decisions.

Meade was angered by the story, saying it was based not in fact but on "camp rumors," and he ordered Crapsey expelled from the camp. The newsman was placed backward on a mule and paraded through the camp to the tune of "The Rogue's March." A placard reading "Libeler of the Press" was placed around his neck.

The Inquirer and other newspapers retaliated by ignoring whatever accomplishments Meade could claim over the next six months and attributing them to Grant.

"Meade later remarked that [Crapsey's expulsion] was one of the greatest regrets he ever had," Waskie said. Though a beloved hero in Philadelphia, "it contributed to his loss of stature."

The war dragged on for four years, but the public's interest in it - and The Inquirer's efforts to cover it - did not wane.

The paper claimed a coup in May 1864 when it provided the first full coverage of the fighting around Spotsylvania Court House, Va.

"The town [Philadelphia] is more excited today than any day since Bull Run, and the victory of The Inquirer being first to publish the news is as great as the news is splendid & grand," Inquirer editor William W. Harding wrote in a telegram to Painter, the reporter, in Washington.

"It was a clean, clear, & complete beat of the other papers . . . Spare no efforts of time and money to keep The Inquirer ahead."

The paper wasn't always right, though. In its May 14, 1864, edition, it carried an unconfirmed - and incorrect - report that Lee had been wounded.

Every day had its challenges as The Inquirer went on to cover the war's final battles, the fall of Richmond, Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, Va., the assassination of Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in Washington, and the killing of assassin John Wilkes Booth.

A new chapter in journalism was being written as Inquirer reporters helped give the country its first instant-news war.

"In the hothouse of war, when everything that happens changes history, the press was still going and tremendous amounts of information were being passed back and forth," Miller said. "Even disagreement became a part of the great democratic experiment that needed to be saved."

In the end, the flow of information during the war helped bring the nation back together. "When we went into the war, it was 'these' United States," Miller said. "After the war, it was 'the' United States."

 


Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.