Civil War Profiles
New York World reporter George Alfred “Gath” Townsend survived exposure to live combat on the Virginia Peninsula, and traveled unescorted 20 miles to the rear to send to his home office copies of Richmond newspapers he had acquired. While passing through the rural habitats of unfriendly civilians, visions of a slain Rebel cavalryman killed during the previous day’s clash haunted the youthful reporter.
The inexperienced newsman rode his horse to exhaustion before dismounting and leading him over “pools, ruts, and boughs across the way, with … stretches of slippery corduroy” concealed by the “thick blackness.” Suddenly, out of the gloom came a voice, “Who comes there? Halt, or I fire!”
George Alfred had reached Union lines, but the guards were not taking chances with him. Upon checking his pass from Gen. Smith’s division, they relaxed and offered him water and “a lump of fat pork and a piece of corn bread.”
The sergeant of the guard chastised Gath for the “darn nonsense” of riding alone through enemy territory but permitted him to continue on his way. An hour later, George Alfred arrived at White House Plantation, where Union ships anchored offshore with crews sleeping on the deck of the “mail steamer.”
As recorded in his memoirs “Campaigns of a Non-Combatant,” the reporter pilfered a blanket and fell asleep on the cold, hard deck of the steamer. He planned to forward these valuable newspapers to his home office via this boat in the morning.
At dawn, Gath wrote a letter to give to his agent, along with the copies of “the Richmond papers of the preceding day” to be sent to New York. He described the agent as a “shrewd, sanguine, middle-aged man” who was part of the newspaper establishment “body and soul.”
Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, commander of Union forces on the Virginia Peninsula, however, learned about the newspapers Gath had brought with him, and an officer called Townsend’s name from the beach. McClellan wanted recent issues for his own purposes, because newspapers often contained information about the enemy’s strength, disposition and intentions.
When George Alfred explained that he had given the papers to his agent, the agent tried pass off to the officer days-old copies of the Richmond Examiner and Richmond Enquirer, instead of the copies of the previous day.
Not pleased by this evident ruse, the officer arrested and escorted Townsend to McClellan’s headquarters. When Executive Officer Gen. Randolph Marcy questioned why he accompanied a military scouting expedition, which was against regulations, Gath pleaded that he went “by invitation.”
Marcy informed Townsend McClellan “wished him to be retained,” and had him escorted to the provost marshal. George Alfred was spared a stay in the guardhouse with “drunkards, deserters, and prisoners of war,” when the benevolent provost, Maj. Willard, assigned him to the adjoining office tent.
Gath chatted with the major for some time, and learned Willard had been a “common soldier” during the Mexican War, and “had fought his way, step by step, to repeated commissions.” The perceptive reporter noted, as the garrulous Willard reminisced, “His face softened, his eyes grew milder. … he was young again.”
Townsend and Maj. Willard talked until midnight, when two soldiers appeared and announced, “Sergeant of Guard, Number Five.” The major told Gath he would find a candle in his tent, along with blankets.
Despite this friendly treatment and conversation, the major warned Townsend he should not attempt to leave the tent, “because the guard would instantly shoot me down.” Gath referred to the guards as a “doppel-ganger” of each other, and both “were appendages of their muskets.”
The guards were all business and avoided conversation. They took a position at each end of the tent, and “paced up and down” until about 3 a.m., when they went away, replaced to two new “doppel-gangers.”
The youthful World reporter had learned by experience that relations between the army and the press were not on the best of terms. Officials soon imposed restrictions on reporting procedures, in an attempt to deny information to the enemy that could undermine the success of military operations.
To be continued….
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple 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 are available at Bethany Beach Books and on Amazon.com. Contact him at email@example.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point