Gettysburg’s Headlines, Day Two (Don’t Worry, Be Happy)
On July 3, the New York Times announced its possession of “VERY IMPORTANT NEWS: Further Particulars of the Battle Near Gettysburg on Wednesday.” The item that follows isn’t what the reader of a contemporary paper would expect: rather than redact their correspondent’s reports into an article, the Times devotes its front page to his of telegraphed (presumably) dispatches from the Times’ correspondent in Baltimore, supplemented by dispatches from Washington, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia. They read like the diary of an outsider’s impression of the news of the day, in reverse chronology.* But the jist of the information is contained in the first sentence of the final (11pm) dispatch: “I shall soon send you an account from the battlefield near Gettysburgh of yesterday’s battle, which is very favorable.”
Rather than offering a summary of his confusion, surprise, and excitement throughout the day, the Washington correspondent’s final dispatch accepts how little it knows: “At the present hour, 9 p.m., no reliable advices have been received form the Pennsylvania battle-field. It is generally felt that it is the crisis of the war. Intense anxiety prevails. The earliest information of yesterday’s battle received here was L.L. CROUNSE’S dispatch to the TIMES.” As if to confirm their Washington correspondent’s doubt in the veracity of news reports from the state of Pennsylvania, the first Philadelphia dispatch printed announces the presence of Jefferson Davis in Pennsylvania, only miles from the battlefield.
Of war news elsewhere, a similar level of ignorance holds: something is happening in Vicksburg; Joe Johnston has been nipping at Grant’s heels; this, too, seems to be building toward a climax (even though Gettysburg has forced its coverage to page 4). Naval battles, apparently, lent themselves to greater specificity, perhaps because of the smaller scale: “The Prima Donna received twenty-two shots, and was disabled. The Kentucky towed her down. […] The rebels had six-pound guns. The gunboats drove them off. The fleet came through safe.”
In Virginia, the Daily Dispatch not only had news of the battle’s second day, but appears to know nothing of engagements between Lee’s invasion force and Meade’s army at all. While the Union papers had been rife with rumors and reports of skirmishes, raids, and sightings, the movements of Lee’s army are only the fourth item under “The Great Month of the War” and the most recent news is a week old. This isn’t surprising, of course; Confederate papers had significantly less access to telegraph lines than did their Union counterparts. But they, too, err on the side of optimism: marching through Maryland, we read, Lee’s soldiers “were greeted by the people as deliverers” and in Vicksburg, “there was also plenty of water” in addition to two months’ provisions.
A few miles to the north, the Washington, D.C. Daily National Republican used reports published in the Baltimore American to piece together details of the first day’s fighting in greater detail, peppered with optimistic pro-Union braying. For example: “Early in the afternoon both Longstreet and Hill combined their forces for a grand effort to turn our right flank, when Gen. Howard’s Eleventh Corps, which broke and ran at Chancellorsville, dashed in to regain their lost laurels, and most nobly did they repulse these two veteran corps of the rebel army.” Still, like the New York Times, most of what they know, and therefore focus on, is the death of General Reynolds and the numbers of captured Confederate soldiers that have been cabled in (or are rumored to have been cabled in) to Headquarters.
But this is the only report I’ve found to offer, prominently, any description of the terrain of what was still an anonymous Pennsylvania town: “Gettysburg is just twenty-five miles east of Chambersburg, over a line of rolling country most of the way, which will doubtless be the scene of the great battles of the rebel invasion.”
*I’d offer an image of the front page, but I’m accessing it through a password-protected library database; any links I give won’t get you anywhere. I also don’t want to pretend that my research for this series has been exhaustive; I’ve gone with newspapers that are most easily accessible—which means those not paywalled or which my university’s library has online access to.