At age 21, Jacob Nathaniel Raymer leaves his home in Catawba County and strikes out west, his mind set on seeing the world beyond the mountains of North Carolina.
At Swannanoa Gap, east of Asheville, he lingers to look homeward. He writes in his diary that, “from that lofty pinnacle, the dividing line between home and strangers, I did take a long farewell.” Because Raymer is well-read and a compulsive writer, he composes a wistful poem of 201 lines, preoccupied with death and loss, that he titles, “A Last View of Home.”
“Knowing that/ Life at best, is uncertain as the wind,” he writes, “And man, with death’s ghostly messengers/ On all sides is beset– . Nor leaves behind/ A memento of his existence . . . Fame dies with the individual.”
His sojourn lasts only a couple of years. By 1860 he is back home, living with his parents and teaching at the common schools. Soon after North Carolina secedes from the Union, on June 7, 1861, Raymer crosses the county line into Iredell to join Company C of the 4th North Carolina Infantry as a private soldier and musician.
His company is nicknamed the Saltillo Boys, since it includes some veterans of the Mexican War. Raymer begins a journal he will keep faithfully throughout four years of war, chronicling nearly every major battle in the East: the Peninsula Campaign, the Seven Days Battles, Sharpsburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864, the siege of Petersburg, and the last stand at Appomattox.
Raymer draws from these copious, detailed notes to write letters home — not to his parents, but to a public audience. By choice, he becomes one of the Confederacy’s corps of a hundred-odd war correspondents. Many of them, such as Raymer, are soldiers who send home letters to their local newspapers as circumstances allow. In the Confederacy, a letter may take a month or more to reach its destination, and the 50,000 miles of telegraph lines in the eastern states, like most other resources, are heavily concentrated in the North.
Some paid correspondents work as part of a ragged consortium called the Press Association of the Confederate States, a counterpart to the newly formed Associated Press in New York, but with fewer resources.
The northern newspapers, by contrast, field more than 500 paid correspondents, although they are not well paid. The New York Herald alone sends 63 correspondents into the field, and its sister papers, the Times and the Tribune, each send 20.
Mostly young, untrained, and inexperienced on a battlefield, they earn only $10 to $25 per week, including expenses, which can be exorbitant in the war zone. Some are paid extra by regimental commanders or generals to write glowing reports about their leadership, thus advancing their careers. Others leak news of upcoming battles to financial speculators, who use the insider knowledge to play the markets for a profit. The correspondents style themselves the Bohemian Brigade. The work is so physically and emotionally taxing that fewer than 10 of those 500 will last out the whole war.
For northern newspapers, the war is a bonanza. News of any major battle increases circulation fivefold. Correspondents are driven by their editors to file stories of heroism and slaughter, atrocity and intrigue, and always, always victory. The more lurid the story, the better.
Neither side is much concerned with objectivity.
Stories are printed rife with hyperbole and misinformation. Any minor skirmish is reported as an apocalyptic battle. A small advantage is turned, by journalistic alchemy, into a stunning victory. Pressured for timely news, correspondents who are nowhere near the scene of battle concoct detailed narratives of heroic charges and desperate last stands where none occurred. Since newspaper technology can make no use of photographs, sketch artists draw scenes of combat and destruction — sometimes witnessed firsthand, other times conjured up in the safety of camp.
Wilbur F. Storey of the Chicago Times instructs one correspondent, “Telegraph fully any news you can get and when there is no news send rumors.” Thus Atlanta is reported captured a full week before Gen. William T. Sherman’s army arrives there.
Although conscientious reporters work on both sides, the reporting tends toward the partisan and inflammatory. The numbers of enemy casualties are always inflated, while those of the correspondent’s side go undercounted. And correspondents are not treated as neutral noncombatants. At least two are incarcerated in Salisbury Prison and lead a daring overland escape.
This war becomes the most thoroughly reported war in history.
Because of the telegraph and the railroad, in most northern cities, news of battles is available within 24 hours of the event. Even in the South, news finds its way to the most isolated backwoods settlement within a few weeks. Yet much of the news is unreliable, exaggerated, misrepresented, or simply wrong. Meantime the U.S. War Department does its best to censor any stories that might cast it in an unflattering light — such as the rout at First Manassas.
The great apparatus of reporting thus produces a brilliant, confused, and epic masterpiece of fiction.
Especially in the South, a war correspondent sees his job as a champion of the cause. Southern reporters cast their stories in tones of optimism even in the face of cascading disaster. Deserters are rarely mentioned, they are “absentees” or “stragglers.” Yankees are “infidels,” “foreigners,” and “drunkards.” No Confederate force ever retreats. Instead, it executes a “retrograde movement.” Rarely mentioned are war profiteering, incompetent or drunken generals, the hideous nightmare of army hospitals, or the hell-on-earth of prisoner-of-war camps.
When the war opens, Southern newspapers are at least a generation behind their counterparts in the industrial cities of the North, in resources and professional practice. They operate with small staffs, enjoy mostly a limited local circulation, and can’t afford to put correspondents in the field. Their pages mix news, opinion, speeches, political arguments, propaganda, prayers, verse, civic announcements, and commercial advertisements willy-nilly.
And it is not long before newsprint and ink become as scarce as any other manufactured commodity. Newspapers, such as the Pictorial Democrat in Alexander, resort to printing issues on the blank side of wallpaper.
One of the most prominent newspapers in the Confederacy is the Richmond Dispatch, located near the scenes of so many major battles. Farther south, The Fayetteville Observer, led by editor E.J. Hale, enjoys the largest circulation in the state and is such a force for promoting the cause that General Sherman — who famously loathes even the northern press — vows to burn it down when he arrives in North Carolina.
By contrast the Standard, edited by William Woods Holden in Raleigh, becomes the voice of the Peace Party and a vexation to the Confederate government in Richmond.
The Wilmington Daily Journal runs breathless headlines of the glorious victory at Richmond and erroneous reports of U.S. Gen. George B. McClellan’s death. The issue for August 8, 1862, like many others, includes reward notices for deserters and runaway slaves:
“ABSCONDED AND SUPPOSED TO BE IN HIDING in town, MARIA, a bright mulatto girl, about 25 years old, 5 feet 5 inches high, stout and good looking, neat in appearance and well dressed. Twenty-five dollars reward will be paid for her apprehension, and Twenty-five for the detection of any person harboring her.
ELIZA M. WALKER”
Jacob Nathaniel Raymer enters this journalistic fray as both a typical, biased amateur and a principled exception. In an early dispatch to The Carolina Watchman in Salisbury, he reveals his credo as a reporter: “All I promise is an account of what came under my immediate observation, and such incidents as I can prove to be actual facts.”
Raymer sends home to the Watchman and to the Iredell Express regular, detailed dispatches of astonishing length, given that he must write them in such rough circumstances — under a tent he shares with best friend and bandmate James Columbus Steele, after a day’s hard marching, or in the lull after a battle, by the light of a candle stuck in the socket of a bayonet. His letters are reprinted in other papers across the state, such as The Fayetteville Observer and the Statesville American.
He begins nearly all his dispatches the same way, “From the 4th North Carolina” or “From the Saltillo Boys.” At first, Raymer signs off as “Scribbler,” but he soon settles on “Nat.”
Names of the fallen
Raymer takes on one of the most important and difficult duties of the war, and he performs it faithfully and with diligence: reporting the casualties in his unit. In this arena, he must be absolutely accurate, for a mistake in his dispatch means heartbreak and anguish back home.
Soldiers on neither side carry uniform identification. Before major battles, many pin papers to their shirt backs listing their names, units, and hometowns, so they can be identified if they fall.
But in truth, bodies are often mangled by cannon fire, burned, or blown to bits. Men go lost in the wilderness of battle, drown in rivers and creeks and are washed away. Dazed or overwhelmed, they are captured. In the aftermath of battle, it is commonplace for hundreds of unidentified bodies to be lumped into mass graves. Especially among Confederate troops, as the war wears on and units find themselves mixed together in retreat, often the only way to know if a certain man has been killed or wounded is for someone who knows him personally to miss him and go looking.
Neither side has any procedure for notifying a dead or wounded soldier’s next of kin.
So Raymer includes the litany of the fallen, by company, in each dispatch. After Gettysburg, he writes: “Com A — Killed — Privates M B Mayhew and R.M. Brawley wounded, Eli Day, thigh severe; J Massey, left leg amputated; M.T. Clark, both legs fractured below the knee; J A Cohen, side slight; M. Snow, shoulder slight; F M Morrison, head slight.” He goes on through companies B through K.
He confesses, “The best writer in the universe could not give the faintest idea of the horrible conflict.”
As a bandsman, he helps clear the battlefield of wounded, then assists in the operating theater — a grisly scene of amputation and screaming agony. After Chancellorsville, he writes with characteristic truthfulness: “Never since the war began have I seen so many men severely wounded or so many amputations necessary. The work of butchery began about noon on the same day and continued with little intermission until ten o’clock the following day. Arms and legs were scattered and tossed about with utmost indifference, wounds probed and dressed, balls extracted, and the sufferers made as comfortable as the nature of the case would possibly admit.”
In the same long dispatch, he rails against soldiers caught in the act of stripping the Union dead and recounts a tender scene in which he comforts a dying enemy soldier. Elsewhere he addresses all the taboo subjects: deserters, the plight of prisoners, the grief of soldiers who have lost their pals, the horrific wails of the wounded at the Wilderness as they burn to death in a forest fire ignited by artillery.
Raymer is both observant and reflective. He quickly understands that the war is not about glory, that Yankees are not cowardly infidels, and that the wanton sacrifice of so many young men is a tragedy that will haunt the nation for generations to come.
He writes not only of the battlefield, but of anything else that catches his fancy. “For my part, I desire to see the strange, the wonderful and the beautiful.” He takes his readers on a tour of a “lunatic asylum” and the state capitol.
Only after the slaughter at Gettysburg does he express any doubts that the Confederacy will prevail. “Fighting does not seem to do a particle of good, for no sooner is one bloody struggle over than preparations are made for another.” Fresh Federal “armies spring up like Jonah’s gourd vine, in one night … while we might as well expect reinforcements from the moon. … ”
Yet, amid the horror of battle, he is able to compose passages of stunning vividness, nuance, and beauty.
Near Strasburg, Virginia, drawn up in line of battle on a cold November night to await an onslaught by Federal troops, he writes, “The sun went down and as the night grew dark and cheerless. The vast amphitheater of mountains around us were dark and dismal, except a few spots occasionally illuminated by a few straggling rays from the half moon, which now seemed more distant and colder than ever.”
In April 1864, awaiting the coming campaign season, he confides to his readers, “The enthusiasm of our soldiers, and also of those at home, is at such an extravagant pitch, that if should meet with misfortune, the tumble from hope almost realized, to absolute despair, would be so great that I fear we would hardly ever recover from its effects.”
Jacob Nathaniel Raymer’s wartime dispatches accumulate into the length of a book titled Confederate Correspondent, a comprehensive chronicle of four years of brutal war and remarkable compassion in the company of his fellow North Carolinians. After Appomattox, he walks home and becomes, once again, a private citizen and schoolteacher.
In the end, he proves his younger self wrong: his fame — embodied in his words — outlives him.
The author is grateful to Charles Broadwell, Publisher of the Fayetteville Observer, for help in locating sources of wartime reporting. Published sources include Confederate Correspondent: the Civil War Reports of Jacob Nathaniel Raymer, Fourth North Carolina, edited by E.B. Munson (McFarland & Co., 2009); The First Casualty — From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker by Phillip Knightly (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975); The Carolina Watchman 1861-1865 and The Fayetteville Observer 1861-1865, available on microfilm at William Madison Randall Library, UNC Wilmington.