The Most Fearful Ordeal: Original Coverage of the Civil War by Writers and Reporters of The New York Times

The Most Fearful Ordeal: Original Coverage of the Civil War by Writers and Reporters of The New York Times

by James M. McPherson

It was a war that shaped America more than any other in our history since the Revolutionary War, and its effects were perhaps even more far reaching. More lives were lost and more domestic property destroyed than in any other conflict in which this country has been involved. More, in fact, than in all other past struggles combined.

Much has been written about


It was a war that shaped America more than any other in our history since the Revolutionary War, and its effects were perhaps even more far reaching. More lives were lost and more domestic property destroyed than in any other conflict in which this country has been involved. More, in fact, than in all other past struggles combined.

Much has been written about the Civil War since its conclusion nearly a century and a half ago; those five bloody years have proven a seemingly inexhaustible source and inspiration for films, novels, documentaries, and works of history. We are drawn to the period, and return to it ceaselessly, for we have come to acknowledge the war as the crucible in which the nation's identity was forged by fire, defining what the country was and what it would become. Harpers Ferry, Fort Sumter, Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, Appomattox, Ford's Theatre—far more than names or places, they are epic moments in a drama of courage, sacrifice, and profound change.

But what was it like to have been there? To have watched John Brown hang and Pickett charge and Lee surrender and Abraham Lincoln assassinated? The Most Fearful Ordeal contains The New York Times's original coverage of these and other crucial events of the Civil War, offering today's reader history as it was first being transmitted, via the newly invented telegraph, by reporters and other eyewitnesses on the scene. Here are the accounts that people at the time would have read as these events were unfolding. Indeed, the coverage provided by The Times and other newspapers was their only connection to what was happening. Every word was pored over, every article read again and again. "The American flag has given place to the Palmetto of South Carolina"—-so begins, with ominous solemnity, the coverage of the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., declared that August, when his son and namesake, the future Supreme Court justice, prepared to depart for Virginia, "We must have something to eat and the papers to read."

Here are the legendary figures and events as they first appeared in print, giving readers history's first draft: urgent, alive, reporting the passions and tensions of the moment, raw and unpolished. Often the words and events that have endured the longest in our national memory (such as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address) received only brief note, and occasionally there are 0mistakes in initial assumptions (believing that Bull Run was a major Union victory rather than a catastrophic defeat).

With introduction and notes by Pulitzer Prize—winning Civil War historian James McPherson that puts each major event and dispatch into historical context, The Most Fearful Ordeal is enhanced by period photographs and maps that explain the strategies behind the major battles. Most of all, it brings to life the fearful days, and makes the Civil War a vivid presence in this new century.

Editorial Reviews

Foreign Affairs
War reporting has been much in the news, and this collection of New York Times reports from the Civil War shows the timeless nature of many of today's controversies over war coverage. The Times consistently mishandled important developments in the Civil War, with Union defeats (such as Bull Run) minimized and dubious battles hyped into triumphs. The news environment of the Civil War was surprisingly similar to the current one. Telegrams and instant bulletins of late-breaking stories gave New Yorkers up-to-the-minute accounts of distant battles; a leading Confederate newspaper, The Richmond Enquirer (the Al Jazeera of the Civil War?), was widely available and widely read in the North. Many of its bulletins were reprinted in the Times and are usefully quoted here. As is almost always the case, vision improved with hindsight. The last item included in McPherson's selection, the 1889 obituary for Jefferson Davis, is one of the best short statements ever written about why the Confederate president and his cause failed and deserved to fail.
Library Journal
Of the big three Northern newspapers at the outset of the Civil War (the New York Times, the New York Tribune, and the New York Herald), only the Times reflected President Lincoln's brand of moderate Republicanism and early measured conciliation toward a rebellious South. Despite the paper's general balance, numerous reports of military engagements and ancillary newsworthy occurrences contained gross errors, exaggerations, false information, bias, and jingoistic declarations telegraphed from the front by meddlesome "special correspondents" who continually ran afoul of Union generals; their all-too-informative columns were frequently discovered in rebel camps. Collected here are those and other dispatches, which readers will recognize as the first imperfect drafts of history, reports that molded public opinion and undergirded the morale of Northern readers. The major battles are covered, as are key events, including Lincoln's assassination and the obituaries of the conflict's four major protagonists: Lee, Grant, Davis, and Sherman. Pulitizer Prize-winning historian James McPherson's brief introduction and headnotes add a modicum of historical context. Brief biographical sketches of the Times's major reporters would have added immeasurably to this compilation. After all, this study might have revealed as much about the correspondents who covered the war as the war itself. Recommended for all Civil War collections.-John Carver Edwards, Univ. of Georgia Libs. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
7.70(w) x 9.46(h) x 1.27(d)

Read an Excerpt


Original Coverage of the Civil War by Writers and Reporters of The New York Times
By James M. McPherson

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2004 The New York Times Company
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-312-33123-1

Chapter One



The Federal Arsenal at Harper's Ferry in Possession of the Insurgents. * * *


* * *

United States Troops on their March to the Scene.

* * *

Dispatches from our Special Correspondent.

Washington, Monday, Oct. 17. The report that negroes have taken possession of Harper's Ferry, and now hold the Government Armory, has created great excitement here. It is said that troops from Fort McHenry, Baltimore, will be dispatched forthwith to the scene of disorder.

Dispatches to the President and Secretary of War confirm the report from Harper's Ferry. The President has telegraphed to Postmasters at Frederick and Baltimore for particulars. The train was fired into on the Bridge, and one man was killed. The insurgents have possession of the Bridge. A special train at Baltimore has been ordered to carry on troops, Frederick Volunteers have offered services.

Washington, Monday, Oct. 17.

The latest account says the insurgents are Government employes, headed by one Anderson, lately arrived there. It is believed to be an Abolition movement to protect runaways. A large number of negroes stampeded last evening from several localities. It is supposed that they are making for Harper's Ferry.

Relay House Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Monday, Oct. 17.

Gov. Floyd announced in the Cabinet meeting this morning that two months ago he received an anonymous letter stating that an Abolitionist movement was on foot, which would exhibit itself first at Harper's Ferry, about the middle of October, but he treated it with levity, and had not thought of it since. This seems to give the key to the insurrection.

A train has just arrived here with three companies, but without ammunition.

The eighty-five marines in company are fully equipped and supplied, and may divide. The marines were ready at Washington depot in one hour and twenty minutes from the first notice of the order.

Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Plane Number 4-9 P.M.

Our train of seventeen cars, with two hundred and ten Baltimore troops, eighty from Marines, and one hundred and twenty from Frederick, is just going on. Besides the above, there are one hundred and eighty Artillerymen from Fort Monroe. These constitute the whole force. Major Reynolds has command, until Major Lee, who is behind on a special train, with ammunition, comes up.

The insurgents have pillaged the pay-office. Gov. Wise has ordered out the Jefferson Regiment, and a horseman has been dispatched by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, with the Governor's orders This messenger will endeavor to pass through the country, and deliver his message by three o'clock today. It is yet doubtful whether the troops will make an attack tonight or wait for daylight.

Monocacy Bridge, Monday, Oct. 17.

A train has just returned from Harper's Ferry having been refused permission to pass. The insurgents are increasing. The baggage-master of the train was permitted to pass into town, when he was marched into the Armory, where he found about six hundred runaway negroes. Mr. Washington, of Jefferson, also came down with his wife and servant. The latter was taken prisoner, and Mr. Washington and his wife were tied in their carriage. The place appeared to be deserted by the inhabitants. A few only remained. The baggage-master was permitted to return.

The same party reports about two hundred white men engaged in the insurrection. Everything had been plundered, and all appeared determined to fight. Mr. Diffey, master of trains, has telegraphed from Martinsburg, via Wheeling, that a body of armed men have taken possession of the Armory at Harper's Ferry and have planted guns in one bridge. The telegraph wires are cut and there is no communication East. A body of armed men are getting ready to leave here at once to clear the bridge, that our trains can pass.

There is great excitement all through the neighborhood. It is now evident that the insurgents have fortified themselves and will make a desperate resistance. The Directors and families of the Pennsylvania Central Railroad are on an excursion, and have also been stopped at Harper's Ferry.

The following are the first dispatches received from the scene of disturbance, that were communicated to the Government:

"The express train east has been detained at Harper's Ferry in consequence of the railroad bridge and Armory being in the possession of an armed organized band of Abolitionists. They are 100, and perhaps more, in number. I took my baggage master and proceeded through the bridge, when I was stopped by three men having arms, who ordered me to halt or be shot down. I retired from the bridge and made my escape. I have been frequently shot at, and so have many others. All the watchmen of the bridge and Armory are under arrest. Moreover, every bridge around is guarded. Haywood, the colored man, has been shot through the left side, greatly endangering his life. Inform the United States officials at once. There are some eight or ten men in the neighborhood of the Ferry in the greatest anxiety to know the issue of this dreadful affair. The captain of the band told me to notify you that no other trains should pass the bridge. Had you not better notify the Secretary of War of the circumstance?"

Our train is ordered to let Major Lee overtake us. The Frederick companies went at 3 o'clock, P.M., but have not since been heard from. We take on at this place two additional pieces of artillery, and an additional supply of ammunition from Frederick.

Harper's Ferry, Monday, Oct. 17.

Train arrived and halted below town, where runners communicated the state of affairs. Jefferson County Regiment had entered town, from Virginia side, and Frederick troops crossed the bridge; there had been a deal of firing. Some nine persons killed.

Mr. Beckham, Agent of the Railroad Company, was shot through, and his murderer fell almost at the same instant, pinned by a rifle ball from a friend of Mr. Beckham.

The troops have landed, and are in the town. The insurgents are willing to surrender, but on terms of safe conduct out of difficulty, otherwise they threaten to sacrifice the lives of Lewis Washington and Col. Dangerfield, who they now hold as prisoners. Capt. Aaron Stephens, of Norwich, Conn., is now dying of wounds, and makes the following statement:

"The plan has been concocting for a year or more. The parties rendezvoused at a farm a few miles from here, rented for the purpose by Capt. Brown, of Kansas notoriety, under the name of Smith. Among the insurgents are Kagg, of Ohio; Todd, of Maine; Wm. Seaman and Mr. Brown, of Ohio."

* * *

From the Associated Press.

Baltimore, Monday, Oct. 17.

A dispatch just received here from Frederick, and dated this morning, states that an insurrection has broken out at Harper's Ferry, where an armed band of Abolitionists have full possession of the Government Arsenal. The express train going east was twice fired into, and one of the railroad hands and a negro was killed, while they were endeavoring to get the train through the town. The insurrectionists stopped and arrested two men, who had come to town with a load of wheat, and seizing their wagon, loaded it with rifles, and sent them into Maryland. The insurrectionists number about two hundred and fifty whites, and are aided by a gang of negroes. At last accounts fighting was going on.

The above is given just as it was received here. It seems very improbable, and should be received with great caution, until confirmed by further advices.

Baltimore, Monday, Oct. 17.

A later dispatch received at the Railroad Office, says the affair has been greatly exaggerated. The reports had their foundation in a difficulty at the Armory, with which negroes had nothing to do.

Baltimore, Monday, Oct. 17-P.M.

It is apprehended that the affair at Harper's Ferry is more serious than our citizens seem willing to believe. The wires from Harper's Ferry are cut, and consequently we have no telegraphic communication beyond Monocacy Station. The Southern train, which was due here at an early hour this morning, has not yet arrived. It is rumored there is a stampede of negroes from this State. There are many other wild rumors, but nothing authentic yet.

The Secretary of War has telegraphed to Fort Monroe for three companies of artillery, who are expected to be in Baltimore tomorrow morning. A company of marines will leave the Washington Navy-yard at 3:20 o'clock today for Harper's Ferry

Baltimore, Monday, Oct. 17-12 P.M.

Another account received by train says the bridge across the Potomac was filled with insurgents, all armed. Every light in the town was extinguished, and the hotels, closed in all the streets, were in possession of the mob, and every road and lane leading thereto barricaded and guarded. Men were seen in every quarter, with muskets and bayonets, who arrested the citizens, and pressed them into the service, including many negroes. This done, the United States arsenal and government pay-house, in which was said to be a large amount of money, and all the other public works were seized by the mob. Some were of the opinion that the object was entirely plunder, and to rob the government of the funds deposited on Saturday at the pay-house. During the night the mob made a demand on the Wager Hotel for provisions, and a body of armed men enforced the claim. The citizens were in a terrible state of alarm, the insurgents having threatened to burn the town.

The following has just been received from Monocacy, this side of Harper's Ferry: "The mall agent on the Western-bound train has returned to Monocacy, and reports that the train was unable to get through. The town is in possession of the negroes, who arrest every one they can catch, and imprison. The train due here at 3 P.M., could not get through, and the agent came down on an empty engine."

Baltimore, Monday, Oct. 17-2 1/2 P.M.

The Western train on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad has just arrived here. Its officers confirm the statements first received touching the disturbance at Harper's Ferry. Their statement is to the effect that the bridge-keeper at Harper's Ferry, perceiving that his lights had been extinguished, went to ascertain the cause, when he was pursued and fired upon by a gang of blacks and whites. Subsequently the train came along, when a colored man, who acted as assistant to the baggage-master, was shot, receiving a mortal wound, and the conductor, Mr. Phelps, was threatened with violence if he attempted to proceed with the train. Feeling uncertain as to the condition of affairs, the conductor waited until after daylight before he ventured to proceed, having delayed the train six hours. Mr. Phelps says the insurrectionists number two hundred blacks and whites, and that they have full possession of the United States armory. The party is commanded or led by a man named Anderson, who had lately arrived at Harper's Ferry. Mr. Phelps also confirms the statement in a previous dispatch, that the insurrectionists had seized a wagon, and loading it with muskets had dispatched it into Maryland. The military of Frederick had been ordered out.

Dispatches have been received from President Buchanan, ordering out the United States troops at this point, and a special train is now getting ready to convey them to the scene of disturbance. He has also accepted the volunteered services of Capt. Senick's Company of Frederick, and has likewise ordered the Government troops from Old Point Comfort to proceed immediately to Harper's Ferry. This intelligence is authentic.

Baltimore, Monday, Oct. 17-3 1/2 P.M.

The mail train going West got as far as Sandy when Mr. Hood, the baggage master, and another party, started on foot to the bridge. They went through the bridge, and were taken and imprisoned, but subsequently went before the captain of the insurrectionists, who refused to let anything pass. All of the eastward bound trains laying west of Harper's Ferry have been taken; persons from this side the river, tying them together, and taking off the slaves. The mail train bound West has returned to Monocacy. There are from five hundred to seven hundred whites and blacks concerned in the insurrection.

The United States marines at Washington are under order for Harper's Ferry. There is great excitement in Baltimore, and the military are moving. Several companies are in readiness to take the train, which will leave soon.

Baltimore, Monday, Oct. 17-4 P.M.

An account from Frederick says a letter has been received there from a merchant at Harper's Ferry, sent by a boy who had to cross the mountain and swim the river, which says that all the principal citizens are imprisoned, and many have been killed; also, that the railroad agent had been shot twice, and that the watchman at the depot had been shot dead.

Baltimore, Monday, Oct. 17-5 P.M.

A train filled with military, including the Law Greys, City Guards, Shields' Guards, and other companies, left here at 4 o'clock for Harper's Ferry. Representatives of the press accompanied the military.

Baltimore, Monday, Oct. 17-7 P.M.

A dispatch from Martinsburgh, west of Harper's Ferry, received via Wheeling and Pittsburgh, confirms the report of the insurrectionists having possession of the arsenal at Harper's Ferry, and says they have planted cannon at the bridge. All the trains have been stopped. A body of armed men was getting ready to proceed thither to clear the road. There was great excitement at Martinsburgh, Va.

Richmond, Monday, Oct. 17.

It is reported and believed that the Governor of Virginia has ordered volunteer troops to Harper's Ferry.

Washington, Monday, Oct. 17-4 P.M.


Excerpted from THE MOST FEARFUL ORDEAL by James M. McPherson Copyright © 2004 by The New York Times Company . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

James M. McPherson is a professor of history at Princeton University. He is the author of Battle Cry of Freedom, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfction, as well as other works on the Civil War, including Ordeal by Fire, Marching Toward Freedom, and most recently, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam.

Brief Biography

Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:
October 11, 1936
Place of Birth:
Valley City, North Dakota
B.A., Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN) 1958; Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University, 1963

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >