Civil War history typically focuses on the strategy and tactics of clashing armies on the battlefield. Less attention is paid to the grotesque and consequential scenes unfolding to the rear of the main action.
As a reporter for the New York Herald, George Alfred Townsend often directed his attention to individual soldiers, and the conditions under which they lived and fought. At the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, Va., in June 1862, much to his astonishment, the Georgetown, Del.-born correspondent observed an unsettling mixture of bravery and cowardice.
Having contracted a fever during his sojourn with the Union army of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, the youthful scribe roused himself to mount his horse and move toward the scene of action, once the slow-moving Union commander finally decided to engage the enemy.
Along the route, however, Townsend had difficulty making progress, because “hundreds of wounded were limping from the field to the safe side [of the Chickahominy Creek] and ammunition wagons were passing the other way, driven by reckless drivers who should have been blown up momentarily.”
While attempting to cross the creek, Townsend said, “an immense throng of panic-stricken people came surging down the slippery bridge” in the opposite direction. While a few of these Union soldiers were carrying muskets, he “saw several wantonly throw their pieces into the flood.”
Townsend recalled, “Fear, anguish, cowardice, despair, disgust were the predominant expressions on their upturned faces.” More than one of these reluctant combatants attempted to unhorse the isolated reporter, but he struck one “under the chin” and spurred his horse through the “thick column that parted left and right.”
The reporter made his way through wounded soldiers “met every step of the way.” And, “A horseman rode past me bending over his pommel, with blood streaming from his mouth and hanging in bouts from his saturated beard.”
A soldier making his way to the rear, using a sword as a cane, showed Townsend his wound, and, recognizing his opportunity for personal recognition, admonished the reporter to spell his name right, “It’s Smith with an E — Smithe.”
Farther along, Townsend came to a farmhouse that had been occupied as a field hospital. The wounded lay in the yard and lane, awaiting their turn to be “hacked and maimed” on the operating table. He watched as a surgeon did his bloody work and noted that curious people “were peeping through the window at the operation.”
At age 21, Delawarean George Alfred Townsend was engaged in a profession that brought him to the front lines of a devastating conflict. He would continue telling the story of individuals engaged in a seemingly endless struggle that destroyed tens of thousands, both physically and mentally.
Townsend’s skill at relating the horrors and heroics of huge armies engaged in close combat that generated casualties in untold numbers was recognized by editors and the reading public. But the youthful commentator would eventually pay a price for his energetic pursuit of behind-the-scenes and battlefield stories.
Alfred’s case of “Chickahominy fever” — which mimicked typhoid fever, an infectious disease — eventually sidelined him from the ongoing war, and he decided to set sail for England, to recuperate.
As Jerry Shields relates in his biography of Townsend, “Gath’s Literary Work & Folk,” Townsend arrived in Liverpool in October 1862 and spent the next nine months recuperating while writing for The Cornhill magazine articles about his wartime experiences.
However, the young essayist soon realized that English sympathies were largely with the Confederacy in America, and his money-making ambitions did not bear much fruit. Within nine months, Townsend was back in the U.S., anxious to renew his writing career in some capacity.
Townsend’s experiences on the battlefield, as well as his time abroad, prepared him for a lifelong profession conveying his observations of humanity’s fortes and frailties. But, first, he decided to make his living by returning to the scene of warfare in Virginia.
Townsend joined Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s army as it pressed on toward Richmond. He had been away from the battlefield for two years and returned in time to participate in the war’s conclusion.
He ended his wartime service by reporting on the conditions in the Southern capital of Richmond after its capture, and wrote a series of articles describing the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and its aftermath.
Eventually, however, George Alfred Townsend would become a nationally-known figure, signing his syndicated writings with his pen name “Gath.” He had cut his teeth as a cub reporter on the Virginia battlefields and realized his ambitions to be a writer of some consequence.
Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War,” of which signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point