How an Immigrant Journalist Got News of the Disaster at Fredericksburg Past a Military Blockade

Henry Villard sped news of defeat North to President Lincoln.

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The Battle of Fredericksburg was a costly defeat for the Union Army under Major General Ambrose Burnside.

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On the night of December 13, 1862 the German-born journalist Henry Villard was convinced that the fighting at Fredericksburg was over and that the Union Army under Ambrose Burnside had suffered a grievous defeat. Learning that Burnside had blocked access to the telegraph lines, concealing the outcome of the battle from the Northern public, Villard decided to ride from the Virginia city to Washington to relay the news to the New York Tribune. Villard rested for a few hours and then set out at 3 AM that cold December night. He recalled the first hours of his trip north:

The Battle of Fredericksburg was one of the worst Union defeats of the Civil War. Total Union casualties were over 12,000 men killed, wounded or missing. The Confederates lost only a third of that nmber.

“I set out on horseback. Never before or since have I had such a terrible ride. It was pitch dark — indeed, I could not make out anything beyond my horse’s head. There was no distinct road…but all [paths were] reduced to a miry state. Hence I travelled most of the way through a sea of mire from one to two feet deep.” Memoir p. 385 1

Villard’s horse stumbled four times along the way, once throwing him into a pool of water “from which I emerged covered with liquid earth,” he wrote. After a six hour ride he arrived at a Union base at Acquia Creek where he hoped to catch a steam boat to Washington. He was told by an officer that not only could he not get passage on a boat, but that General Burnside had sent word that no reporters were to be allowed to head north to Washington by any means. Villard says that “[m]y ambition as a correspondent was too strong, however, to make me submit meekly to the situation. On the contrary, with body and spirit refreshed by a solid breakfast, nothing was further from my thoughts, and I resolved to try my best to defy Burnside…” Seeing two African American men fishing, he paid them each a dollar to let him fish with them. He hoped that a steamer would pass by the little boat that could take him North. When one did, he offered his companions $20 dollars each to take him to it. Villard successfully talked his way onto the ship and made it to Washington that night. 2

Villard road by horse at night from Fredericksburg to Aquia Creek where he rowed out into the channel to catch a steamer to Washington.

Villard hurried to the Washington office of the Tribune, but was told that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had ordered that news from Fredericksburg not be allowed to be transmitted by telegraph. So the journalist sent the report by night train to New York. Villard writes that in his report he had stated “as strongly as possible that the Army of the Potomac had suffered another great, general defeat; that an inexcusable, murderous blunder had been made in attempting to overcome the enemy by direct attack; and that the Union cause was threatened by the greatest disaster yet suffered, in consequence of the perilous situation in which the defeat left the army.” Now his editor at the Tribune censored parts of the report. So far, news from the battle had been positive. Villard’s evasion of military censorship was directly at odds with the rosy “official story” of the battle.3

The White House North Face at the time of the Civil War.

Once the report was safely on the train to New York, Villard went to rest at Willard’s Hotel. There he ran into Senator Henry Wilson, a Republican leader and, according to Villard, “the most persistent news-hunter in Washington.” When Villard told him of the disastrous battle, Wilson took the information the White House. At ten at night, Villard was summoned to the presidential mansion. Villard had first met Lincoln in 1858 and he travelled with the president-elect when he left Springfield for the last time on his way to Washington in 1861.4

Henry Villard was taken to the old reception room on the second floor of the White House where Abraham Lincoln greeted him saying “I am much obliged to you for coming, for we are very anxious and have heard very little.” Villard gave him a quick overview of the defeat. Villard writes that Lincoln “followed up my account with one question after another for over half an hour. He inquired regarding the defences of the rebels on our right front, their command of the town and river, the physical and moral condition of our troops before and after the fight, the chances of success of another attack from either of our wings, the extent of our losses, and the feeling among the general officers. He was very careful not to ask anything so as to imply criticism of anybody, although I ventured to mingle a good deal of censure with my statements of facts.” Villard wrote that Lincoln’s “face showed…that he felt growing anxiety.”5

Gerneral Ambrose Burnside tried to delay the spread of news of his smashing defeat at Fredericksburg. Lawrence Gobright, Associated Press correspondent, wrote of the military censorship after Fredericksburg: “The rule was, we must not let the enemy know what was taking place, as if the enemy did not already know he had fought a battle.”

At the end of his interview by the president, Villard says that he told Lincoln that “I hope my sincere loyalty may be accepted as my excuse for taking the liberty of telling you what is not only my conviction but that of every general officer I saw during and after the fighting, that success is impossible, and that the worst disaster yet suffered by our forces will befall the Army of the Potomac if the attack is renewed, and unless the army is withdrawn at once to the north side. Pardon me, Mr. President, but I cannot help telling you further that you cannot render the country a greater service than by ordering General Burnside to withdraw from the south bank forthwith, if he has not already done so.” Villard believed that he was conveying the view of most of the Army of the Potomac that further attacks would only lead to even more horrible loss of life.” Lincoln received this analysis with a “melancholy smile,” according to the young reporter.6

Resource:

Here is the account of the Battle of Fredericksburg from Henry Villard, special correspondent of the New York Tribune.

A correspondent of the New York Tribune, under date of ‘” Fredericksburg, December 14th 11 P. M,”’ thus writes:

It is no pleasant task to cool ardent hopes– disappoint high expectations — predict the unfulfilling of fond wishes. Yet stern realities can never be recognized too soon in order to enable us to prepare for their possible consequences; and hence I trust I will not be blamed for the revelation of the discouraging facts pertaining to the condition in which the Army of the Potomac is on this morning, after yesterday’s sanguinary, all but fruitless, struggle

Undertakings of any kind are measured by the power employed to carry them out and the result realized by it. This rule applied to yesterday’s bloody work of our arms, one cannot help coming to the conclusion that they came short of success. The main object of their efforts was the dislodgement of the rebels from their entrenched position on the heights, the possession of which gave them control of all the roads leading southward from the Rappahannock. But although every means of which the character of the task admitted was used neither the whole nor any portion of the line occupied by the enemy at the opening of the battle is to day in our hands.

The causes of our failure are so plain that they cannot be mistaken by even the most unprofessional of observers. We had for the attack superiority of numbers and armament. The former war not only more than balanced by the strength of the enemy’s position, but also as available to its full extent of momentum, owing to the unfavorable ground from which we moved to the attack.–An individual, however strong in muscle, cannot successfully contend with an adversary if confined with an adversary if confined to space so narrow as to prevent the free use of his arms.

Our right, although sufficiently powerful in point of numbers for the work assigned to it, was precluded from a full and simultaneous display of us strength by being crammed into the streets of Fredericksburg. I doubt whether the history of wars affords another instance of an army attempting to combat from within a town with another enjoying the full freedom of motion given by abundance of space.

The six divisions of the Right Grand Division were crowded into these streets so thickly that during Saturday night there troops had hardly sleeping room. The corps of the Centre Grand Division, acting as their reserve, was separated from them soon after the battle by the Rappahannock — another remarkable– emittance bearing destructively upon the operations of the day.

As to our preponderance in artillery, the impracticability of making it tell upon the fortunes of the day deprived as almost wholly of the benefit of it on the right. During the entire struggle on that portion of the lines all but two of the batteries attached to the Right Crand Division and Butler-field’s corps stood unemployed on the lower streets of the town. Our batteries on the heights on the right bank of the river could also render no protection to our infantry, as their fire would have done as much damage to our own troops as to the enemy after the former had moved to the attack.

Our left did not suffer like the right from the drawback of want of space, as it manœuvred on a high place and bottom. Yet, both wings labored under the disadvantage of righting from low against the enemy on high ground.

The obstructions of the sense of the action on our right, in the form of walls, fences and houses, unavoidably confined the movement of our troops, as they successively advanced to the front, to the streets, which were so constantly and completely blocked up during the afternoon that it was impossible for the ammunition trains to reach the divisions of French and Hancock, after they were relieved by others, and supply them with cartridges. They were there by virtually placed hors de combat greatly weakening the force of our attack.

Whatever the results of the battle may be termed — check or repulse– it is certain that the failure to accomplish what we attempted is not the only evil fruit of yesterday. I have spent several hours this morning in visiting the field and the positions held by our troops, and I found the most unmistakable evidence everywhere that the expenditure of strength has been so great as to produce exhaustion to a degree that will render the resumption of the offensive on our part impossible, not only for to day, but for several days to come. The extent of our loss in killed and wounded is not ascertained as yet with anything like definiteness. I have seen enough, however, to satisfy me that will be even greater than it was supposed last night. If 6,000 will cover that of the Right Grand Division I shall be gratefully disappointed. The fact that many of our men have been taken prisoners has only become known this evening. But it is not in the casualties alone that the army has been weakened. The fatigue and exposure of the soldiers for the last three days has been very great, as they have been standing under arms in the mud and cold. Upon the whole, it is my deliberate opinion — and I know it is shared by many of the general officers I have seen — that the army is not fit for the immediate renewal of hostilities, and that it requires rest imperatively. It is likewise evident that the unsuccessful fighting of yesterday, and the hardships endured, have not only affected the bodies, but also the spirits of both officers and men, and time for mental recuperation seems also to be required.

No one would be gladder to reflect the bright sides of the situation and prospect of the Army of the Potomac than myself; yet a sense of truth compels me to state that it is not by any means encouraging. To renew an attack on the enemy’s position during the night, strengthened, as it has been ascertained this morning, by new batteries, with weakened numbers, would probably result in no better success than that of yesterday. To continue in the position now held cannot be thought of.

An attempt to retreat to this side of the river by the precarious means of passage, over a few frail bridges, would undoubtedly bring the victorious hosts of the enemy at once to the attack, and might result in the worst calamity of the war. How the army is to be extricated from these predicaments, I am unable to devise. I trust that those entrusted with its fortunes have the ability to do it.

Among the officers reported as killed at the battle of Fredericksburg are Gen. Bayard, of the cavalry; Gen. Jackson, of the Pennsylvania Reserves; Col. Zinn, 132d Pennsylvania; Lt-Col. Dickinson, 4th U. S. artillery; Lt. Col. Curtis, 4th Rhode Island; Lt. Col. Sayles, 7th Rhode Island; Major Horgan, 88th New York: Capt. Kelly, 14th Indiana, and Capt Meagher, 7th New York.

Amongst the wounded are the names of Gens. Vinton, Gibbon, Kimball, Caldwell, and Campbell none of them dangerously. Cols Sinclair, 5th Pa; N H Nugent, 69th N Y; Wiseman, 28th N J; Snyder, 7th Va; Miles, 61st N Y; Andrews, 1st Delaware; McGregor, 10th Mass; Hatch, 4th N J. Lt. Cols Geo Dane, 6th Pa; Goodman, 4th Ohio.

Majors Goebel, 7th New York; C. C Knight, L19th Pennsylvania; Jennings, 26th New York; O’Nell, 63d New York. Bardwell, of Pennsylvania; Cavanaugh, 69th New York; Philbrook, 16th Massachuset is.

Captains Cameroon, 9th New York; Carpenter, 91st New York; Hart, Assistant Adjutant General to Gen. Tyler; Andrew Mahoney. 19th Massachusetts; M. Dunn, 19th Massachusetts, Hendrickson, 9th New York, G. G. Weymonth and J. R. Smith, 136th Pennsylvania; Slater, 15th N York; Leddy, 69th New York; Houghton; 14th Indiana; Burke, 88th New York; Donnovan, 69th New York; Cartwright, 63d New York.

Our total loss in officers and men is variously stated at from five to ten thousand.

Other Articles in the Henry Villard Series:

Immigrant Journalist Henry Villard Meets Lincoln at the Lincoln/Douglas Debates

Henry Villard Travels With Lincoln on His Journey to Washington

Sources:

1. Memoirs of Henry Villard Volume 1 1835-1862 Published by Houghton, Mifflin (1904) p. 385; Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion by Harold Holzer published by Simon & Schuster (2014) Kindle Location 8704.
2. Memoirs of Henry Villard Volume 1 1835-1862 Published by Houghton, Mifflin (1904) pp. 386-388.
3. Memoirs of Henry Villard Volume 1 1835-1862 Published by Houghton, Mifflin (1904) pp. 388-389.
4. Memoirs of Henry Villard Volume 1 1835-1862 Published by Houghton, Mifflin (1904) pp. 389-390.
5. Memoirs of Henry Villard Volume 1 1835-1862 Published by Houghton, Mifflin (1904) pp. 389-390; Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! by George Rable published by University of North Carolina Press (2002) p. 311.
6. Memoirs of Henry Villard Volume 1 1835-1862 Published by Houghton, Mifflin (1904) pp.390-391; Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! by George Rable published by University of North Carolina Press (2002) p. 311.


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