Civil War Profiles
Delawarean George Alfred Townsend, who used “Gath” as a penname later in life, dove into his assignment as a war correspondent for the New York World newspaper in the Virginia countryside south of Washington, D.C. In his memoir, “Campaigns of a Non-Combatant,” Gath remembered that, on the first day on the job, he was “light-hearted and yet so anxious.”
The neophyte newsman awoke after spending the night in a chilly, crowded covered wagon, having caught “several colds at once” that left him feeling “cut off at the knees.” In this condition, he observed volunteer soldiers responding to reveille in various modes of undress, and forming ranks for rollcall amid “short, dry coughs that ran up and down the line.”
With his letter of introduction from War Department officials in Washington in hand, Townsend made his way toward the tent of Maj. Gen. George A. McCall, commander of a division of Pennsylvania Reserves. Fog and dampness pervaded the area, while signal corps officers practiced sending messages by flags to distant recipients.
The military bivouac spread over a broad expanse in a rural area, with civilians living nearby who were disgruntled as soldiers “requisitioned” farm fences to keep their campfires burning. The young adventurer at first went to the wrong tent and received a verbal rebuke for obstructing a soldier’s view while he was attempting to read flag signals through a telescope.
Townsend found the general’s tent and observed “a broad-shouldered gentleman in shirt sleeves and slippers” warming his hands at a fire. After some delay, McCall received this interloper, while instructing him “all letters sent from the Reserve Corps, must, without any reservations, be submitted to him in person” — to which, with reluctance, Townsend promised to comply.
Gath claims his ruse of writing lengthy and gossipy missives to his paper diminished McCall’s desire for prior review.
Townsend’s abode in camp was with a 65-year-old army quartermaster who, despite his advanced age, answered the call when war erupted in his homeland. Greeting this sprightly newshawk as he would a favored grandson, he ordered a sergeant to replace Gath’s lame nag he was riding with a fine blue roan. Along with the quartermaster, two of his military aides and a black youth employed to care for the horses, Townsend slept under “a great tarpaulin canopy, originally used for covering commissary stores from the rain.”
The quartermaster took the reporter down to the abandoned Hunter’s Mill, “a storm-beaten structure that looked like a great barn.” The old man, a former miller himself, had designs to restore the structure and put it back into operation to mill flour for the army, with nearby Difficult Creek providing the power.
The war, however, snapped this duo back to reality when they saw from the mill window men running toward Brig. Gen. George G. Meade’s headquarters, where troops were observing activity through telescopes. A soldier in gray was leveling a musket in their direction.
A Rebel scout had ventured close to the vicinity to gather information about the enemy encampment. However, the daring Rebel paid the ultimate price when a bullet fired by Union troops penetrated his brain.
Townsend was struck by the indifference Union soldiers manifested in discussing this grisly death. Two of the men dug a grave near the mill “wherein he was tossed like a dog or a vulture.”
That evening, Gath had an opportunity to inspect the camp of the “Bucktails,” a regiment of backwoodsmen renowned for their marksmanship. Along with the standard blue uniform, they wore a buck’s tail fastened to their caps.
Townsend described the Bucktails as renowned for their lack of discipline, and “a partiality for fisticuffs.” Their reputation preceded them as “adept at thieving and unlicensed foraging” (i.e. scavenging for food on private property).
The second night on the job for the budding correspondent found him in the midst of some “sociable officers,” who, after dinner, passed a long-necked bottle around until it was emptied. This led to “many quaint stories related and curious individualities revealed.”
Young Townsend, however, was tuckered out, and fell asleep “while the hilarity was at its height.” It would be some time before Gath developed the motivation and endurance to maintain pace with these seasoned members of the military.
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,” available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, at Cardsmart in Milford, and on Amazon.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point