VIENNA, Va, April 25, 2011 —The deaths of two eminent photo-journalists in Misrata, Libya has me thinking about war correspondents in general, and during the Civil War period in particular.
Tim Hetherington, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and photographer was fatally injured by mortar fire in the town of Misrata, along with Chris Hondros, a Pulitzer prize-nominated photographer. Two other journalists, Guy Martin and Chris Brown, were seriously injured, but are expected to recover.
Their colleagues, those that knew these two men personally, are unanimous in their praise for these outstanding professionals, and in great personal pain at their loss.
What are they like, these men and women who go abroad to the four corners of the world to bring back first-hand information which we read on the front pages daily? Who are those that can continually put their lives in harm’s way?
They are the “cream of the crop” in their profession. Those to whom “getting the story” is worth the risk, and we are the better for it.
Modern day correspondents are not the first to tread the battlefield.
During the Civil War an intrepid reporter named George Alfred Townsend went to war, only that war was here, on our soil. He covered battles at Cedar Mountain, Antietam, Second Manassas, and along the Peninsula Campaign.
Townsend’s career-making scoop, according to Timothy J. Reese, who is the caretaker of The Arch at South Mountain, and unofficial honorary historian, was Townsend’s “filing [of] a breathless, exclusive account of the Battle of Five Forks, last of the major Eastern engagements, courtesy of a personal interview with General Philip Sheridan.”
Writing in the vivid prose of the times, this article resulted in his assignment to cover the funeral of President Abraham Lincoln, as well as the trials and execution of the conspirators. (See “The Conspirator.”)
Townsend also wrote columns for the Chicago Tribune and the Cincinnati Enquirer, as well as for more than forty other newspapers.
In time, Townsend published five non-fiction books. Looking for a place to settle down, he stumbled upon what he called an unoccupied spot, in the South Mountain,” six miles north of the Potomac in Maryland.
By 1892, his retreat, “Gapland,” was a private place to retire and write. It included a full den, a library, and Townsend wrote that he liked it because “the battlefield is six or seven miles from me. I live upon the field of action of Crampton’s Gap, fought by the Sixth Corps in 1862…three days before Antietam.”
Townsend wanted to build a memorial for the Crampton’s Gap battle, tryed to raise funds from all he knew, but financial support proved difficult.
Remembering the correspondents that went into war, Towsend contacted fellow war journalists, and solicited subscriptions from them for a series of articles for fifty newspapers, as divergent as the New York Times, Milwaukee Free Democrat, Atlanta Constitution and the New Orleans Daily Courier. The money from this would be used to build his memorial.
Funds came in. Townsend’s memorial project received the support not only of journalists but also wealthy persons like J. Pierpont Morgan, George M. Pullman, Joseph Pulitzer and Thomas A. Edison joined in, as did railroads and prominent newspapers.
With funds in hand, Townsend was ready for his piece de resistance – his Arch. It would be the heart of his literary citadel on South Mountain. Construction began on April 14, 1896, the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, and he managed the construction schedule so that it was completed at the Antietam Battle anniversary, September 17.
The wall, gate and tower represent the medieval period, and are crowned with battlements and decorated with symbols that include a statue of Orpheus (beloved of the Muses). Overall, the Arch is 50 feet tall, 40 feet wide, lined in Hummelstown purple stone.
Three Roman arches, capped in light gray sandstone quarried on the Cedar Creek Battlefield, rise above base. The arches represent the three battlefield media: Description (written), Depiction (art) and Photography. Two terra cotta horse heads offset them.
Terra cotta representations for Electricity (the novel news through telegraphy) and Poetry reside on either side of the main arch Under them, plaques titled “Speed” and “Heed,” complete the basic aspects of battlefield news reporting.
Working from his memory and those of others, Townsend listed 157 reporters, photographers and artists on commemorative tablets. Mr. Reese compiled brief biographies of these men.
It is possible that fewer than a dozen Southerners among the names evidence Townsend’s Northern allegiance. Some from both sides are missing, but Townsend memorialized all on a large concrete plaque:
“To the Army correspondents and artists, 1861-1865, whose toils cheered the camps, thrilled the fireside, educated provinces of rustics into a bright nation of readers and gave incentive to narrate distant wars and explore dark lands. Erected by subscription 1896.”
The dedication of the monument was scheduled to coincide with the 37th anniversary of John Brown’s raid. On Oct. 16, 1896, with a large Stars and Stripes waving overhead, crowds assembled for the unveiling. Politicians spoke and offered complimentary remarks, military bands played, and Townsend, for whom all had waited, delivered an address.
Townsend’s fame later diminished, but he continued to write, and, in 1899, received a nomination for the post of Librarian of Congress. It would have been the perfect ending for his career, but he was passed over: Seems the eternal newsman lacked the necessary political connections.
After his wife died, diabetes made Townsend an invalid. Unable to maintain Gapland, he deeded the triangular lot surrounding the Arch to the U. S. Government, “in consideration for perpetual care and preservation.”
Today the National Park Service administers the Arch as an adjunct of Antietam National Battlefield.
The man who had worked so hard to assure war correspondents a place in history, died in his sleep on April 15, 1914, the 49th anniversary of Lincoln’s death. Today there is a monument to war correspondents, photographers, and film videographers who are killed in the line of duty at Arlington National Cemetery. This is a fitting, contemporary place to honor these dedicated men and women whose profession was first memorialized on South Mountain.
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