National Press Club

Raasch's Civil War book illuminates heroism, rise of war correspondent

October 23, 2016 | By Larry Lipman | llipman@aarp.org

Chuck Raasch (l) discussed his new book about the Civil War, which explores heroism and the rise of the war correspondent, at an Oct. 20 National Press Club Book Rap. The event was moderated by Club President Thomas Burr (r).

Chuck Raasch (l) discussed his new book about the Civil War, which explores heroism and the rise of the war correspondent, at an Oct. 20 National Press Club Book Rap. The event was moderated by Club President Thomas Burr (r).

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

The first day of the Battle of Gettysburg was still raging when New York Times correspondent Sam Wilkeson arrived to learn that his oldest son, Lt. Bayard Wilkeson, had been seriously wounded. Suddenly, Wilkeson’s mission was changed: to find his son while covering the horror and confusion of what would become the Civil War’s pivotal battle.

This is the centerpiece story of "Imperfect Union: A father’s search for his son in the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg" by St. Louis Post-Dispatch Washington correspondent Chuck Raasch.

Although the battle and the war ended more than 150 years ago, Raasch, a member of the National Press Club, told more than 50 people at an Oct. 20 Club Book Rap that researching the book taught him its “aftermath is enduring. It’s never over.”

What Bayard Wilkeson did on a hill later known as Barlow’s Knoll, and what happened to him that day, have morphed into one of the myths of the Battle of Gettysburg.

As recounted in legend, Wilkeson bravely led his outnumbered troops to hold back the Confederate forces from a key position. During the fighting, he suffered a cannonball wound that killed his horse and tore off much of his leg, but he continued directing his men until he was carried off the field to a nearby poor-house.

There, he used a pocketknife to amputate his mangled leg but died “the good death” of honor and valor many agonized hours later. Wilkeson’s battlefield heroics were credited with probably saving the battle, and by extension, the Republic.

Responding to a question from Club President Thomas Burr, who moderated the Book Rap, Raasch said he was motivated to look into the myth surrounding Wilkeson’s heroics by news reports that called into question the death of former NFL player Pat Tillman, who joined the Army Rangers and was killed in Afghanistan. Originally, Tillman’s death was attributed to enemy forces, but it was later disclosed that he’d been killed accidentally by friendly fire.

What he found, Raasch said, punctured some of the myth surrounding Wilkeson -- read the book to learn the specifics -- while the real story “is more self-sacrificing, more heroic and more enduring… than any myth. It is a real story about what happens to people in war.”

While the book focuses on Wilkeson, it also delves into what Raasch described as “the rise of the war correspondent.” Unlike news coverage of previous wars that took weeks -- if not months -- to arrive, the advent of the telegraph, called “The Lightning” by journalists, changed reporting in the mid-19th Century much as the internet has changed it today.

Raasch recounted the exploits of Sam Wilkeson and several of his contemporaries in covering America’s bloodiest conflict, including a newsman who commandeered a telegraph line by having the telegrapher send a passage from the New Testament between the journalist’s dispatches.

After finding his son’s body, Sam Wilkeson wrote a dispatch that was widely distributed by the Associated Press and later published as a pamphlet. Raasch noted that inveterate newspaper reader Abraham Lincoln undoubtedly read the article and echoed several of its themes of sacrifice in his Gettysburg Address a few months later.

Raasch said he gained a new appreciation for the word “hero” through his research, noting that many of the heroes in his book are the women who selflessly toiled to help provide comfort to the wounded, many of them mortally wounded, from both armies.

Reading a passage from his book, Raasch recounted how Boston Journal correspondent Charlie Coffin (who also reported from Gettysburg) described the job of a war correspondent after the 1862 Battle of Antietam: “When the soldiers are seeking rest, the work of the army correspondent begins. All through the day eye and ears have been open. The note-book is scrawled with characters intelligible to him if read at once, but wholly meaningless a few hours later. He must grope his way along the lines in the darkness, visit the hospitals, hear the narratives of all, eliminate errors, get at the probable truth, keeping ever in mind that each general thinks his brigade, each colonel thinks his regiment, every captain his company, did most of the fighting.”

But the passage Raasch read that may have delighted the room full of journalists the most was from a letter New York Tribune correspondent Charlie Page wrote to legendary editor Horace Greeley, justifying his expense account: “Early news is expensive news, Mr. Greeley,” Page lectured. “If I have watermelons and whisky ready when officers come along from a fight, I get the news without asking questions.”