Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Bohemian Brigade Comes Through: A Story Of Why Lincoln Kissed A Reporter

Modern journalism can trace its roots to the Civil War, which because of the telegraph and steam locomotive was the first instant-news war where correspondents competed hard to be first with a big story. Reporters could file stories immediately, or as immediately as they could find a telegraph office or hop a train back to their newsroom.

These correspondents called themselves the "Bohemian Brigade" because they thought of themselves as bohemians surrounded by professional soldiers. Indeed, many were fancy-free young men, and in a precursor to the dread mainstream media of today, had graduated from colleges where their heads had been filled with liberal ideas. Some were much older and more experienced like William Russell (photo, upper left) a famous reporter for The Times of London.

Henry Wing, of whom there apparently is no image extant, was a typical member of the Bohemian Brigade until fate intervened and because of his extraordinary deeds he ended up being the only Civil War reporter on record to have been kissed by Abraham Lincoln.

Here is his amazing story:

Wing had been a Union soldier until he was wounded in the leg and lost two fingers the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. Out of the army, the Connecticut native returned home and went to work for the Bulletin in Norwich. He proved to be so good that he was taken on by the big time New York Tribune's Washington bureau as a messenger working with reporters following the Army of the Potomac in the spring of 1864.

Despite an order from War Secretary Edwin Stanton forbidding reporters access to the upper echelons of General Ulysses S. Grant's army as it pursued General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in what became known as the Wilderness Campaign, Wing was able to sneak into Grant's encampment, a coup that won him a field promotion to correspondent.

Wing and his fellow Tribune correspondents were anxious to get out the news that Grant, who was newly appointed as commanding general of Federal armies, was hard on Lee's heels, but the area was swarming with Confederate cavalry and sympathizers and such a mission was considered suicidal.

Wing nevertheless volunteered to ride to the nearest telegraph office, but had the savvy to first ingratiate himself to Grant.

"Is there any message you would like me to deliver to the nation?" Wing asked the general and future president.

"You may tell the people that things are going swimmingly down here," Grant replied, and gave him a special message to deliver to the president.

Wing departed on his horse, Jess, early on the morning of Friday, May 6, 1864, making his way to the house of a Virginian sympathetic to the Union where he was given shabby clothing and concocted the story that he was a courier heading for Washington to give Southern sympathizers word that Lee had won a victory in the Wilderness.

He soon ran into irregulars led by the infamous "Gray Ghost," Confederate cavalry commander John Singletary Mosby (photo, below left), who bought his story and provided an escort to a crossing on the Rappahanock River. Danger lurked on the other side, however, in the form of elements of Grant's army, and he was fired on but escaped on the swift Jess.

Wing soon arrived at a Union encampment where he shed his cover story and convinced soldiers to fire on him as he made a fake escape should any Confederates be tracking his movements. They were, and later in the afternoon he was captured at Manassas Junction, but managed to escape at dusk.

An exhausted Wing arrived at a federal encampment at Union Mills about 25 miles from Washington. He was desperate to get his story to the Tribune for its Saturday edition, but was told that the telegraph could only be used for military purposes. So he sent a wire to Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana telling him that he had a message from Grant.

Meanwhile, Stanton (photo, below right) and Lincoln were desperate for any news about Grant, who seemed to have disappeared with his army.

The war secretary demanded that Wing give him Grant's message. Ever loyal to the Tribune, Wing replied that he would do so only if he could send a dispatch to the paper first. Furious, Stanton had him arrested as a spy.

Wing fumed that "I would not have told him one little word to save my life," but another telegram soon arrived from Lincoln, who was in the habit of regularly visiting the War Department's telegraph desk to follow the progress of the war. The president agreed to let Wing send the Tribune a short message and then sent a special train to Union Mills to pick him up. It sped back to Washington and Lincoln received the filthy and very exhausted correspondent at the White House at 2 a.m. on Saturday the 7th.

Only then did Wing divulge Grant's message: "Whatever happens, there will be no turning back."

Lincoln, who towered over the diminutive Wing, was so elated that he kissed him on the forehead and asked him if there was anything he needed?

"Mr. President, I worry about Jess," he replied.

"Tell me about Jess," Lincoln asked.

"Well, I said I'd come back to get him, and I never lie to horses, Mr. President."

Lincoln dispatched another train to pick up Jess. The horse was found in the clearing where Wing had said he left him and brought back to Washington.
This article was based in part on a C-SPAN interview with historian
James Perry, author of A Bohemian Brigade: The Civil War
Correspondents -- Mostly Rough, Sometimes Ready

1 comment:

India Pharmacy said...

I love to read about history, no matter if it is ancient or if it is not that back far.