Monday, May 5, 2014

Washington City's Newspapers Report on the Opening of the Overland Campaign

The 150th anniversary of the Overland Campaign has officially begun. On this day in 1864 the Union and Confederate armies fought each other in the dense woods and thick underbrush of the Wilderness. I recently looked at some articles in the Washington papers from the corresponding time period, curious as to news residents of the nation's capital were receiving about the battle. What I found was an unusually long time lag, as well as inaccuracy, confusion, and contradiction. Perhaps this is not entirely surprising. The Union Army started removing telegraph lines once the spring campaign got underway, and even the Lincoln Administration was straining to learn news of the Army of the Potomac.

As the first day of the battle raged less than 100 miles to the south, readers of the Washington Daily National Republican were greeted with a headline that the Union Army was "[a]cross the Rapidan." (DNR, May 5, 1864.) Already Gen. Robert E. Lee "has been compelled to fall back from the strong position where he has held us at bay all winter," and "[e]very hour may now bring us news of a battle. . . ." (May 5, 1864.) Likewise, the Washington Evening Star informed readers:
The belief is expressed by parties from the front that Lee has suddenly evacuated his position; and there is a report coming through Rebel sources that he is marching rapidly to meet a Federal force believed in Richmond to be moving up the peninsula under General [William F.] Smith. 
Good military judges about us however, believe that Lee means to confront [Ulysses S.] Grant directly. . . .
We may be certain from Grant's past history that his movements will be rapid and telling. (ES, May 5. 1864.)
"Major-General [James] Wadsworth Fighting in the Wilderness," Harper's Weekly, June 4. 1864, after a sketch by A.R. Waud (courtesy of This illustration depicts fighting on May 6. Wadsworth was mortally wounded during the battle.
The next day, the hard fighting continued in the Wilderness, but the citizens of Washington were left guessing as to events at the front. According to one report in the Evening Star, "Lee's intention is to retreat to Richmond or to make a stand near Hanover C.H." (ES, May 6, 1864.) The Daily National Republican had little additional information, but offered some commentary:
We shall be very much disappointed if the first official dispatch from Gen. Grant is not dated from the victorious plains of Spotsylvania or before the defences of Richmond. 
The killed in the battle already fought, or to be fought, in Virginia we cannot serve, but the wounded we all can help, and it behooves the citizens to prepare themselves to render all the aid in their power.  
The number must be great in such a terrible conflict as will take place whenever the armies of Grant and Lee meet. (DNR, May 6, 1864.)

Washington Daily National Republican
, May 7, 1864

Finally, the May 7 papers carried news of the recent battle in the Wilderness based on a dispatch from a New York Tribune correspondent who had made his way behind the lines. The Daily National Republican, which also cited government sources, loudly proclaimed, "Grant Victorious. . . THE REBELS DEFEATED." (DNR, May 7, 1864.) The Evening Star was more cautious and spoke of "RUMOR RUN WILD":
A contemporary publishes this afternoon as information received by Government, statements that a great victory was achieved by General Grant. . . . 
We should be very glad to be able to confirm this news, but have to say that after diligent inquiry we are satisfied that Government has received no such information, or any information of more decisive results than that furnished by the Tribune dispatch elsewhere.
The fact that [Gen. George] Meade was able to stand the brunt of the Confederate onset with a portion of his command is considered a hopeful indication, and we hope soon to be able to announce a decisive victory, but we shall not trifle with our readers by manufacturing bogus victories for an hour's sensation. (ES, May 7, 1864.)
The next day, the Evening Star had reason for optimism:
The Chief Quartermaster has made a requisition for grain for the animals. This imports an advance by General Grant. . . . 
There seems to be no doubt that, although nothing decisive has yet occurred, the enemy has been foiled in his confident expectation of driving General Grant back before his operations could be fully developed, and that Lee has been compelled to give way. (ES, May 8, 1864.)
Finally, on May 9, three days after the battle had ended, the Evening Star declared Grant "VICTORIOUS" and informed readers that "Lee retreats 12 miles, leaving his dead and wounded in our hands." (ES, May 9, 1864.) By this time, however, news of another battle was starting to trickle in:
Parties in Alexandria County, yesterday, heard firing as from heavy siege guns, in the direction of Spotsylvania Court House, from 11 to 1 o'clock a.m. The distance is over 60 miles, but the day was quiet and the wind from the southwest, making it not improbable that the firing was from a battle going on yesterday between Grant and Lee. (ES, May 9, 1864.)
The Daily National Republican again rushed to declare another win:
There is reason to believe, from dispatches already received since our first extra to-day, that Lee was forced to fight at Spotsylvania on Sunday [May 8], and was again repulsed and compelled to retreat. (DNR, May 9, 1864.)
Of course, the engagement at Spotsylvania would drag on for days and prove just as inconclusive as the fight in the Wilderness had been. Grant, however, pushed onward in pursuit of Lee. Throughout the remainder of May and into June, Washingtonians continued to read about mounting casualties while praying for that ever elusive final victory over the Army of Northern Virginia. The papers would have no shortage of war news for the days and months to come.


Noah Andre Trudeau, Bloody Roads South: The Wilderness to Cold Harbor, May-June 1864 (1989); Washington Daily National Republican, May 5, 6, 7 & 9, 1864; Washington Evening Star, May 5, 6, 7, 8 & 9, 1864.

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