News of Wilderness Battle Trickles Back to Washington

May 7, 1864

Very early in the morning, journalist Henry Wing brought to news to the White House and the Lincoln Cabinet of the recent battle at the Wilderness in northern Virginia.

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles writes in his diary: “Some fragmentary intelligence comes to us of a conflict of the two great armies. A two days’ fight is said to have taken place. The President came into my room about 1 P.M., and told me he had slept none last night. He lay down for a short time on the sofa in my room and detailed all the news he had gathered.”

Mr. [Henry] Wing, a correspondent of the New York Tribune, called upon me this evening. He brings the first news we have had, but this is not full and conclusive.

About 2 A.M., journalist Henry Wing was brought to the White House where he was interviewed by President Lincoln. He had made it through an obstacle course of geography, Confederate troops and Union bureaucracy. Finally the previous night, he arrived at a Union outpost with telegraph service at Union Mills.   Blocked in an attempt to file his story by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Wing had been given permission by President Lincoln: “I repeated my offer—to communicate whatever information I had, for the use of the wire to transmit one hundred words. He accepted my terms without hesitation, only suggesting that my statement to my paper be so full as to disclose to the public the general situation.” The President was very anxious to receive news of the recent battle and sent a Union train to transport Wing back to Washington. James M. Perry wrote in A Bohemian Brigade: The Civil War Correspondents: “Henry Wing may be the only truly endearing reporter to cover the war for either side. He was a gentle, innocent (though persistent young man, serving after the war as a Methodist preacher in Iowa and Connecticut. And surely he was the only reporter who was ever kissed by Abraham Lincoln.”

Wing made his report to Lincoln and several members of the Cabinet.   He held back one piece of information to convey privately from General Ulysses S. Grant. ‘He told me to tell you, Mr. President, that there would be no turning back.” That was when President Lincoln bent over to kiss the much shorter reporter. As Wing later wrote in his memoir of the event: “Mr. Lincoln put his great, strong arms about me and, carried away in the exuberance of his gladness, imprinted a kiss upon my forehead. We sat down again; and then I disclosed to him, as I could not do except in the light of that pledge of the great commander, all the disheartening details of that dreadful day in the wilderness. But I could assure him that the Army of the Potomac, in all its history, was never in such hopeful spirit as when they discovered, at the close of a day of disappointment, that they were not to ‘turn back.’”

“Henry Wing…widely respected by soldiers and officers because he had been a soldier himself, walking with a limp (and two missing fingers) to prove it. One of four Tribune correspondents in the field, he had witnessed the first day’s terrible fighting in the Wilderness, a huge tract of second-growth timber with nothing more than paths leading through it. Grant had hoped to take his army through the woods and engage Lee in clear country on the other side. Lee would have none of that; he attacked Grant on the morning of May 5, in woods so dense that artillery was useless….

Wing published his own book in 1913, fourteen years before Ida Tarbel published hers. At the close of the first day’s fighting, he wrote,

we [the four Tribune correspondents] came together at army headquarters to compare notes and to lay plans for the future. The battle was to be renewed the next morning…It was quickly decided that one of us should start for the North with the several reports of the stirring events of the last few days. As I was the youngest, I knew the task naturally belonged to me, and my offer to undertake it was instantly accepted by the others.

Later in the day, Wing returns to the White House for a further briefing with the President. When Lincoln asks what he can do for him, Wing asks for help recovering his horse that he had left in the Virginia wilderness.   President Lincoln sends a special train so that Wing can recover “Jesse.”

Published in: on May 7, 2014 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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