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Editor’s note: Commentary is a section that provides university classified and unclassified staff and faculty members an opportunity to express their opinions in The Miami University Report. Contributions should be directed to Bill Houk (physics).
What I learned from Whitelaw Reid’s coverage of Gettysburg
The most outstanding journalist Miami ever produced was Whitelaw Reid, class of 1856. He is best known for his leadership at the New York Herald-Tribune, his stints as ambassador and as the vice presidential running mate in 1892 of Benjamin Harrison.
But, as a journalist, a Miami graduate and a journalism professor, I find his service as a young reporter in the 1860s to be especially inspiring — and so do my students. And I consider his reporting from Gettysburg on three fateful days in early July 1863 to have no equal among the pack of reporters assigned to cover what turned out to be the bloodiest battle and the great turning point in the Civil War.
I write here the most important things I learned from his accounts of that remarkable fight — with the hope it may offer you some new strategies the next time you feel embattled.
1) Know yourself well, your enemies also. (Reid’s account of the Meade-Lee relationship.)
2) We enter new ventures — whether marriage, a career change, or a literal battle — with an inevitable innocence that is inevitably challenged. (Reid’s reports on new recruits whose first battle was Gettysburg.)
3) Always try to see the bigger picture. Some of the correspondents covering this battle were so busy reporting on the separate components, they had trouble seeing the whole story (quite understandable), but even while he was on the scene literally dodging "the whizzing minnies," Reid demonstrated remarkable understanding of the battle’s greater impact.
4) Even the bravest, smartest, wisest, most courageous can die in a heartbeat. (Reid reports on the death of Union Gen. John Reynolds who was taken down the first day of the battle by a Confederate sharpshooter.)
5) When in a battle for your life, it pays to appear greater than you really are. Sometimes this is strategy. Sometimes it is luck. Sometimes it happens because you feel you have nothing left to lose. ( After losing one-third of his men and running out of ammunition, Joshua Chamberlain drew his sword and ordered a saber assault. This was a move that shocked the Confederates into surrender, even though they outnumbered Chamberlain’s men significantly.)
6) You can know yourself very, very well before you enter battle. This is essential for strength and clarity. You will — without question — have the opportunity to learn even more.
8) It is one thing to stand on hallowed ground. (In the scriptures of all major religions, sacred ground is identified as having certain characteristics: the place of a death, the place of birth, the place of great transformation, the place of great struggle, etc. As an individual, you can let it wash through you. Let it strengthen you. Let is be absorbed into the marrow of your soul.) But it is something else entirely to carry the responsibility of relaying/describing/reporting these events for others. The best you can do is to describe what is unfolding before you. To find the strength to stand back and be a professional observer while trying to focus on the larger picture.
9) Nothing in life is more important than how you define yourself, and how you define yourself can impact the world. Robert E. Lee was first a Virginian and secondly, a citizen of the United States. Prior to the outbreak of the war, he served with absolute distinction in the U.S. military. But in 1861 he pledged his loyalty to his home state, which pledged its loyalty to the Confederacy. Historians write extensively about how the war would have been different if Lee has served the Union. Reid’s reports from Gettysburg reflect this point clearly.
10) Sometimes we cannot distinguish between courage and suicide. (Reid’s coverage of Pickett’s charge.)
11) The better you are at stating directly — and without malice — the truth of the matter as you understand it to the best of your ability, the greater your service to the world. And the greater your personal growth from the experience.
12) When you are wounded and bleeding, lie still and let others help you.
13) Nothing, nothing on Earth is as powerful as a single-minded individual who brings a strong intellect, certainty of judgment, determination and unwavering courage to bear on an obstacle he considers to be a genuine evil.
14) When you are overwhelmed by your circumstances, remember this: It is one thing to seek help, another thing to sit out for awhile and collect yourself. And something else all together to give up and run away. (Reid’s reporting on Gettysburg deserters was especially blunt.)
15) In our worst moments, we can go to the personal and professional model of Whitelaw Reid and claim it as our own. In our best moments, we can hold up the model of Reid and see that there are even greater adventures ahead.
16) Miami graduates can literally change the world.
Date Published: 11/07/2002