Posted on by fobbnc
Article by: Fred Claridge
Recently, Bentonville Battlefield received a fascinating artifact donation – two original newspapers from 1865 which reported on the battle here. The gift was received from Mr. Chris Lillie of Carrboro. Battlefield staff had met Chris at a conference on Civil War medicine held in Frederick, Maryland last year. It’s often said that it’s all about connections. That certainly seems to be true in this case. We at the Battlefield are very appreciative of him entrusting these important pieces of history to us.
Included were an edition of The New York Herald dated March 24, 1865 and an edition of Harper’s Weekly – A Journal of Civilization – dated April 15, 1865. Both were published shortly after the Battle of Bentonville and both reported on the battle extensively.
In the Herald, the battle made the front page under the headline: Sherman. A Battle in North Carolina. Several sub-headlines follow. The first sentence of the “dispatch” is interesting in that it starts out:
“We have had rumors all the evening to the effect that a battle had been fought in North Carolina; …” It goes on: “It is not improbable that a battle between Johnston and Sherman occurred near Bentonville on Monday last.” [Editor’s note: General Joseph E. Johnston was in charge of the Confederate forces; General William T. Sherman was in charge of the Union forces.]
It’s important to remember that in 1865, there was no such thing as instantaneous news or a 24-hour news cycle. News didn’t travel in minutes or even seconds as it does today. That’s why there are phrases like ‘We have had rumors …” and “It is not improbable …” in the story. The Herald was reporting as best they could, but they did not have absolute confirmation. That kind of phrasing was common, due to the challenges of gaining accurate information quickly.
In a “Rebel Account” referred to later in the story, General Robert E. Lee paints an optimistic picture of the first day of the battle based on a report from General Johnston when he says: “… he attacked the enemy near Bentonville, routed him and captured three guns. This morning he (Johnston) is intrenched (sic). Our loss is small. The troops behaved admirably well…”
The Herald appears to be skeptical of any reporting from Confederate sources however:
“In the affair of Sunday, which the Richmond papers, starving for good news, and ready to go wild over the smallest crumb, denominate a ‘brilliant victory’ for the rebels, doubtless nothing more than Sherman’s advance or a very small portion of his army was engaged”
It should be noted that editorializing like this was common in newspaper stories – on both sides – in the 1800s. There was often little to no attempt to maintain a distinction or firewall between facts and opinions.
The Harpers Weekly edition was published several weeks after the Herald (which had been published just a few days after the battle), so by that time, there is more concrete reporting on the battle and what occurred. The other noteworthy thing about the Harper’s coverage is the use of detailed ink drawings to illustrate what happened. Drawings were often used to illustrate stories. Photographs would become more predominant in later years in newspapers and magazines. The wartime artists had to work fast to sketch a rough outline of what they were seeing. The drawings would then be filled in with more detail when the artist had time later – and they were no longer in a dangerous combat situation. There are several pages of illustrations throughout the Harper’s Weekly newspaper, including several of the Battle of Bentonville.
The Weekly quotes from a newspaper called The Richmond Sentinel, dated March 30th. The Sentinel is considered “Davis’s organ.” (Jefferson Davis was the President of the Confederacy.) Even in that southern newspaper, the editor is starting to admit that the war is not going well for the Confederacy. It’s the spring of 1865 after all. In speaking of the forces arrayed against them (notably Grant and Sherman), the paper had this to say:
“It is to be the life and death struggle, the crisis and solution of the war. Grant is about to make an effort full of peril to us, but full of peril also to himself. He will give us a death wound or we will give him his.”
The Sentinel was indeed prescient; the war would end not long after the Battle of Bentonville.
For those of a more literary bent, it wasn’t unusual to see poetry in a newspaper in the 1800s. Poetry in general was much more visible than it is today. Good poets were well known. Henry Wordsworth Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman are good examples of poets who wrote about the war.
There is a poem in the Weekly entitled “The Song of the Bugle.” The poet is not named. But the last stanza describes the poet’s weariness after many years of war:
But a louder blast shall be heard one day
Than any which sounds from my hollow throat
High over the hills and far away
Through the realms of space the song shall float;
But before the angel shall sound that call
War and famine and hate shall cease
And the earth with her fruits and smiling flowers
Shall bloom through a thousand years of peace.
Artifacts like these two newspapers make the history that took place here at Bentonville come alive. We’re able to see how people at the time responded to the events here. That adds to our understanding of the battle and its aftermath – an understanding that we try to interpret for the visitors here and to maintain in perpetuity for generations to come.
[Editor’s Note: The artifacts mentioned in the article are not currently on display at the visitor center as we go through the proper channels to care for them and store them until we are able to include them on exhibit in the near future.]