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.”