George Alfred Townsend has visited the pages of this column on a number of occasions. The son of a Methodist minister and native of Georgetown, Del., who signed his newspaper columns later in life as “Gath,” cut his teeth as a war correspondent during the Civil War at the fledgling age of 21.
Young Townsend had a curious turn of mind and was full of life. He found the people, including soldiers, officers, officials, and citizens in general, engaged in this deadly confrontation to be of the utmost interest — and often the feelings were mutual.
As Townsend related in his loquacious “Campaigns of a Non-Combatant,” he learned the newspaper business as an “editor” or jack of all trades, for the Philadelphia “Chameleon” (his facetious reference to the Philadelphia Inquirer). When hostilities between the states began in 1861, the New York World hired daring young men to cover the war, and Townsend latched onto a job as a correspondent.
Townsend instinctively migrated toward human-interest scenes that caught his attention. Despite being “light-hearted and yet so anxious,” he had a comeuppance on his first day on the job when a War Department official had him sign a parole not to publish anything detrimental to the federal government.
Armed with a military pass and a poor excuse for a horse that walked with an “eccentric stumble,” Townsend arrived at the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps camp near Herndon, Va. They had passed through Georgetown and crossed the Potomac River at Chain Bridge.
Townsend waxed poetic: “There was a grand view from the point of Little Falls above, where a line of foamy cataracts ridged the river, and the rocks towered gloomily on either hand; and the city below, with its buildings of pure marble, and the yellow earthworks that crested Arlington Heights.”
Reality set in when an officer demanded his pass and that of a companion, while two guards “crossed their bayonets before us.” Allowed to continue on, Townsend noted the “black guns of Fort Ethan Allen pointed down the bridge,” prepared to repulse any Rebel attempt to foray into the capital city.
When this twosome reached Langley, consisting at the time of “a few plank-houses, clustering around a tavern and a church,” it had expanded with a multitude of log huts once the winter quarters for 15,000 soldiers. The church served as a hospital, with “sick men” occupying planks built over the seats.
Townsend examined the huts “built of logs, plastered with mud, and the roofs of some were thatched with straw.” Each cabin had beds that were “shelves or berths,” while fireplaces were made of stones and clay…”
These were all deserted except one sheltering a family of fugitive slaves escaped from a plantation in Albemarle County. After a roundabout trek of some 200 miles, they had reached the protection of Union lines.
Townsend learned these “wretched beings” included husband “Jeems,” his wife, “Kitty,” an 8-month-old boy, 12-year-old “Rosy,” and an older boy named “Jefferson.” He described them as “quite destitute now, but looked to the future with no foreboding, and huddled together in the straw, made a picture of domestic felicity that impressed me greatly with the docility, contentment, and unfailing good humor of the dusky tribe.”
Moving past the roar of Great Falls on the Potomac, Townsend arrived close to his destination with a sense of insecurity that “now tingled, now chilled my blood.” Surviving a challenge from a sword-wielding guard, he learned the unit he sought was no more than two miles farther on — the brigade of Brig. Gen. Edward Ord manning the defenses of Washington.
Arriving in camp, Townsend found Ord’s brigade camped in a grove of oak trees, and the men “talking, singing, and shouting around open air fires.” The colonel of a regiment, and former newspaper colleague of Townsend, greeted him and arranged for the cook to prepare a “supper of coffee and fried pork.”
Assigned to his “quarters,” a covered wagon with four other occupants, our game correspondent felt the cold that came through cracks in the bottom of the wagon “like knives” in his allotted 3-foot-by-4-foot space. Townsend “half resolved to go home in the morning … and shun … the horrible romance of camps.”
To be continued…
Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863,” and “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign: How the Critical Role of Intelligence Impacted the Outcome of Lee’s Invasion of the North, June-July 1863” both available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and at Cardsmart in Milford, and on Amazon.com. Contact him at email@example.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point