Newsman Villard: Eyewitness to History

By John E. Carey

Henry Villard ranks high among the many memorable newsmen of the Civil War. Insightful, energetic and an able researcher, but most of all an affable friend and companion, Villard made a living and earned his own page in American history by placing himself in the company of the most famous leaders of his time.

Henry Villard was born Ferdinand Heinrich Gustav Hilgard on April 10, 1835, in Speyer, Germany. In 1852, he paid for passage to the United States. Like many immigrants, he landed in New York with almost no money and absolutely no English-language skills. In the first years after his arrival, Villard held many jobs, several menial and some even demeaning.

He was a cooper’s apprentice, a bartender, a traveling salesman of religious books, a helper in a brickyard, a lumberman and a farm laborer. He sold encyclopedias and real estate. He learned most of his English while working as a clerk in a law office. He didn’t just learn English. He mastered the language.

When Villard decided to become a writer, he dedicated himself to becoming a leader of the profession. He wrote for several German-language papers, including the Volksblatt of Racine, Wis., and Neue Zeit and Staats Zeitung in New York.

He covered the Pikes Peak gold rush for the Cincinnati Daily Commercial and wrote a guidebook for prospectors.

Friend of Lincoln Villard met Abraham Lincoln during the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. He volunteered to become one of the first traveling campaign reporters, accompanying the future president and recording a memorable evening the two spent together, lost in conversation, in a storm-ravaged train depot.

Not only had they developed a mutual respect for each other, but Villard, on another occasion, also offered a buffalo robe as a gift to a shivering Lincoln.

Villard had obtained the hide during a trip to Pikes Peak. With that robe, along with his charm, humor and skill as a newsman and writer, Villard made the future president a friend and confidant for life.

Villard covered the Republican convention of 1860, where he witnessed Lincoln’s nomination. After the convention, he interviewed the future president and further developed their relationship. Villard remained in Illinois to continue writing dispatches on the man who would soon lead the nation.

He wrote of “the solemnity of [Lincoln's] mission” and that the Republican was “resolved to fulfill it fearlessly and conscientiously.”

Villard even traveled as a guest aboard the train that carried Lincoln from his home in Springfield, Ill., to Washington for the inauguration. The only correspondent on the train during the leg to Cincinnati, Villard asked for and received from the president-elect a handwritten and signed copy of a speech.

Scene of action

Even before the start of hostilities, Villard distinguished himself as perhaps America’s first syndicated writer. He signed contracts with the Cincinnati Commercial, the Chicago Tribune and the New York Herald to provide them with news. When the Civil War began, Villard knew exactly what to do. He wanted to be at the scene of action: the front.

First he traveled to Washington to assess the readiness of the Union forces. He covered the Union Army’s raid into Alexandria and felt grief when Col.

Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth of the Fire Zouaves, another friend, was slain while tearing down a Confederate flag May 24, 1861.

Villard made the rounds in Washington, making friends and sources of Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase, Gen. Winfield Scott, Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, Gen. Irvin McDowell and many others. Upon learning that Gen. William T. Sherman made his way to the Washington office of the Associated Press each night at 9 to read the daily war news telegraphed from the front, Villard decided he had better go along to gather news.

He subsequently joined Sherman every night. Sherman told Villard he loved to read the newspapers, “but he frequently objected to what the writers ‘scribbled.’ “

“He liked nothing better than to express his mind upon the news as it came,” Villard wrote.

Sherman became but one of Villard’s many well-connected sources during the war. Despite Sherman’s renowned hatred for most newsmen, Villard developed a warm friendship and camaraderie with the general.

The same Sherman who was castigated by many newspapermen as “insane,” the same Sherman who threatened to execute newsmen who revealed the movements of his forces later in the war spent hours discussing the war and its personalities with Villard. Sherman even became a frequent visitor to the Villard household after the war.

At the Battle at Bull Run Villard made a name for himself by carefully crafting reports from the front lines into readable, in fact memorable, essays on the personalities and events of the war. Far from the sterile prose of some others, Villard’s work was infused with emotion. Additionally, he completely understood the importance of timely, factual and exciting reporting.

He frequently traveled 100 miles or more under arduous conditions to get his story to a telegraph line or train depot for transmission to editors at home.

Villard accompanied the Union Army into the field for its first major engagement, the Battle of Bull Run. The night before the battle, Villard wrote: “Not a sound is heard except the measured tread of the sentinels. … For we are on the eve of a great battle — perhaps the battle that is to make the bloodiest picture in the Book of Time.”

During the battle, Villard came under fire for the first time. He sought out McDowell, the army commander, but a staff officer told the reporter: “You won’t find him. All is chaos in front. Our troops are breaking and running!” Villard then witnessed the disorder firsthand as he rushed back to Washington after the battle to file his report. He was appalled at the Confederate victory and the melee the soldiers in blue made as they ran from the field.

Future presidents

Traveling to the Western theater, Villard covered Gens. Ulysses S. Grant, Sherman and Don Carlos Buell and their battles there. Arriving just after the capture of Fort Donelson, Tenn., Villard wrote, “Mournful was the sight of long rows of fresh graves containing the killed on both sides.”

After the fall of Nashville, Lincoln appointed Sen. Andrew Johnson of Tennessee as the military governor of that occupied state. Villard met with and studied Johnson, concluding that he “had too violent a temper and was too much addicted to the common Southern habit of free indulgence in strong drink.” Johnson would later inhabit the White House — one of three men to rise to that position who knew Henry Villard.

While covering Gen. William S. Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland, Villard became acquainted with James A. Garfield, the army chief of staff, who “looked like a distinguished personage.”

‘Bloody evidence’

After Shiloh, Villard wrote of his approach to the field.

“The battle was speedily raging with great violence. From one end of the line to the other, the combat lasted for hours, with hardly a lull in the deafening discharge of small arms and guns. “There was bloody evidence in every direction that the slaughter had been great,” the reporter wrote when he saw the carnage at Shiloh. “Neither the one side nor the other had removed its dead, and there they were, blue and gray, in their starkness, lying here singly and there literally in rows and heaps. I passed more than a thousand of them. It was morbid … and many lay as though they had consciously stretched themselves out to sleep. But here were also many exceptions, with features repulsively distorted by pain and hatred.”

A fatal feud Villard’s close association with the Army made him a witness to the horrors of battle. However, he also saw everyday life and experienced the agony of waiting, the boredom of camp life and other aspects of the Army on the march. His writings brought home to readers the realities of the war. Villard witnessed one of the more unusual events of the war: two Union generals engaged in a feud that ended in murder. While eating breakfast on Sept. 30, 1862, at the Galt House, the best hotel in Louisville, Ky., Villard witnessed the argument and its aftermath firsthand.

It seems Gen. William “Bull” Nelson had summarily dismissed a subordinate, Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis (no relation to the Confederate president). Yet Davis was returned to active duty by higher authority. On that morning, Davis encountered Nelson, demanding an apology. Nelson, a giant of a man, could be heard calling Davis an “insolent puppy” before slapping him. Davis withdrew, only to return with a pistol. Seconds later, Nelson lay wounded.

To Villard, Nelson looked like “a dying lion.” Nelson did die 10 minutes later, and the great reporter had another story.

With audacity and guile back in the east, Villard met and accompanied Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside as he led the Army of the Potomac south toward Fredericksburg. Villard never had a high regard for Burnside. He had interviewed Burnside before the First Battle of Bull Run and then encountered the fleeing, terrified general after that battle.

The Union debacle at Fredericksburg saddened and sickened Villard. He directly blamed Burnside’s inadequate leadership for the tremendous Union casualties. After the battle, as was Villard’s habit, he started toward Washington to deliver his views on the battle to the newspapers he served. However, Burnside had instructed men in the rear, including his police force under Provost Marshal General Marsena Patrick, to prevent stragglers, reporters and all other men from getting to Washington before an official Army report of the action could be made. Out of sight of Union sentries, Villard bribed fishermen and riverboat captains to get him and his story to Washington. Because of his audacity and guile, Villard became the first newsman in the nation’s capital with an eyewitness account of the battle.

Sen. Henry Wilson of Massachusetts recognized Villard in the dining room of Willard’s Hotel and heard about the battle. He returned later to tell Villard that President Lincoln would appreciate a visit and report from his old friend. Villard felt it a duty to inform the president of what he saw and thought. He became one of the first civilians to deliver to Lincoln a report on the mess at Fredericksburg. Villard remembered the president concluding their meeting by saying, “I hope it is not as bad as all that, Henry.”

Life of accomplishment

During the Civil War, Villard contributed to numerous papers, including the New York Herald, the New York Tribune and the Chicago Tribune. He suffered from malaria and other severe ailments from about 1863. He had his first stroke at 37. Despite all this, he served valiantly as a reporter in the field, often sharing the conditions and rations of the soldiers. After the war, Villard became a famous business tycoon and entrepreneur.

He made and lost at least two fortunes while underwriting railroads, steamship companies and other ventures.

He knew Thomas Edison and invested in Edison’s electricity projects. He wooed investors as well as immigrants from Europe. He also became a philanthropist and supporter of human rights initiatives. Villard Hall at the University of Oregon still stands, and Villard’s human rights work led to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

A memorial to war correspondents stands at the top of South Mountain, not far from the field at Antietam. Henry Villard’s name is there among the names of the luminaries of Civil War journalism.

The American immigrant, business tycoon, railroad man, entrepreneur and philanthropist surely would be proud of this lasting tribute.

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