Academic journal article Journalism History

"Dear Swinton": New York Times Correspondents' Confidential Letters from the Front Lines, 1864-65

Academic journal article Journalism History

"Dear Swinton": New York Times Correspondents' Confidential Letters from the Front Lines, 1864-65

Article excerpt

This article examines thirty letters written from May 1864 to March 1865 by New York Times correspondents John R. Hamilton and Henry Jacob Winser to their editor, John Swinton. Accompanying their newspaper reports and not meant for publication, they let Swinton know what was transpiring in the Civil War and what military maneuvers might be occurring in the upcoming days and weeks. They also afforded the reporters a chance to air concerns about pay, supplies, overwork, and competition. Although the history of Civil War correspondents has been well researched, these letters are significant because they reveal two reporters' views of the war and their concerns during the warfare. The personal nature of the correspondence offers a chance to gain a greater understanding of the motives and actions of the reporters rather than inferring them from their accounts.

On Tuesday, October 25, 1864, John R. Hamilton, a Civil War correspondent for the New York Times stationed at City Point, Virginia, the headquarters for the Union Army during the siege of Petersburg, sent a private letter to his editor, John Swinton, to appraise him of the latest news:

I learned that a grand move is to be made on Friday next against the enemy by the whole 5th and 9th Corps. . . . I presume we are to take the Southside Railroad if not go against Petersburg itself.1 Friday seems to be fixed as the day, but other significant facts lead me to think it will be earlier. The men were last night all mustered in the rear of our defenses with 3 day's radon in Haversack and 3 in knapsack, and awaiting further order, which will probably come tonight. Before another Sabbath dawns some tremendous blow will have been struck; I think.2

The Army of the Potomac indeed attempted to seize the South Side Railroad (which served as General Robert E. Lee's last supply line) two days later, but Hamilton's overenthusiastic assessment of a push against Petersburg was incorrect, which, in hindsight, was not surprising.3 His reliance on personal observation and unnamed military members were common information sources at the time but not always accurate. Then, too, Ulysses S. Grant's siege of Petersburg had been underway for more than four months by the time he sent his letter, and the general had repeatedly extended siege trenches, cutting Confederate troops supply lines until only the South Side railway remained. Union hopes were high that the city's Confederate troops would soon surrender.4 Despite Grant's actions, and repeated pushes to the south and west to attempt to get past the rebel army's right flank, the Army of Northern Virginia repelled the Union forays. The railroad would not be seized by Union troops until the following April 1, and then Petersburg fell the next day when Lee ordered his troops to evacuate the city.5

Hamilton's October 25 letter to his editor was one of thirty private messages written between May 1864 to March 1865 by him and colleague Henry Jacob Winser to Swinton that still exist.6 The letters, which accompanied their newspaper reports, were not meant for publication. Instead, they served primarily as intelligence for Swinton: to let him know what was transpiring in the field, as well as what military maneuvers might be occurring in the upcoming days and weeks. They also afforded the reporters a chance to air their personal concerns involving pay, supplies, overwork, and competition.

The correspondence is part of the Swinton papers in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina's Wilson Library. Twenty four of the letters were written by Hamilton, the Times' correspondent at City Point, Virginia, while the remaining seven letters were produced by Winser from Fortress Monroe in Virginia and aboard a steamer in the Savannah River.7 This article examines thirty of the letters. The only one not included was a brief note of January 20,1863, from Winser to Colonel JJ. Elwell, chief quartermaster of the department at Port Royal, South Carolina, introducing Swinton, who was on a visit to Union military facilities. …

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