Journalist fought for the South with mighty pen

Peter Wellington Alexander of Georgia is subject of new book

September 15, 2001|By Edward Colimore | Edward Colimore,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

KEARNY, N.J. - The initials P.W.A.

The same three kept turning up at the end of newspaper articles published 140 years ago and piqued the interest of New Jersey historian William Styple as he was researching a book last summer.

Styple was looking through papers from the Civil War for letters written by common soldiers but was drawn instead to a mystery reporter who had written so eloquently of battles and leaders.

He studied the papers for clues to P.W.A.'s identity and soon became acquainted with a fascinating man who may be viewed by history as the Ernie Pyle of the South: Peter Wellington Alexander.

"As Ernie Pyle was to G.I. Joe in World War II, P.W.A. was to Johnny Reb," said Styple, author of Writing and Fighting the Confederate War: The Letters of Peter Wellington Alexander, Confederate War Correspondent, which was released this summer. "He was probably the most influential civilian in the South."

Yet many Civil War historians across the country knew little or nothing of the Georgia reporter, who publicized the dire condition of Southern troops during the war and helped them receive the clothes, food and other supplies they needed to survive.

Edwin Bearss, historian emeritus of the National Park Service, said Styple "scores a high-five for the Civil War community. The Civil War as reported by Peter Wellington Alexander provides a welcome perspective of the conflict seen by a journalist."

While beloved by the troops, Alexander was not always as well liked by generals and politicians who were criticized in some of his 800 dispatches for the Savannah Republican, Atlanta Southern Confederacy, Mobile Advertiser & Register, Richmond Dispatch and The Times of London.

`Different kind of hero'

"He was a different kind of hero - for he never led a cavalry charge, commanded a battery, or even shouldered a musket," Styple said during an interview. "His weapon was not the sword but the pen."

Styple, 42, owner of Belle Grove Publishing Co. in Kearny, where he is the Hudson County town's historian, said his search for Alexander had led him in to a Columbia University library in New York. There he found more than 7,000 letters and documents in an obscure Alexander collection. He was still working on the project on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists struck the World Trade Center.

"I thought of all those people dying there, and it made me wonder how Alexander could watch it for four years - how he could see Pickett's charges, Antietam, the trench warfare at Petersburg."

`Very visual'

Alexander covered many major battles, Styple said, adding that his reports were "very visual, descriptive, some of the best of the war."

The reporter witnessed the deadliest day of the war on Sept. 17, 1862, at Sharpsburg, Md., where more than 26,000 Union and Confederate casualties were recorded.

"The fiercest and most hotly contested battle of the war was fought here yesterday," he wrote in a Sept. 18 dispatch. "Whether we consider the numbers engaged, the fierceness of the fight, it must be regarded as one of the most extraordinary battles of modern times."

Describing the fighting at a stone bridge, he wrote, "An officer who examined the ground says the enemy's dead lay so thick at one place, over an area of three acres, that he could walk over every yard of it on the bodies of the slain!"

After the battle, the Southern army faced a tough winter in a much weakened state. Alexander saw the suffering and wrote a dispatch on Sept. 26, 1862, that touched the hearts of Southerners.

"The men must have clothing and shoes this winter. They must have something to cover themselves while sleeping, and to protect themselves from the driving sleet and from storms when on duty."

The dispatch prompted a groundswell of support for the army, resulting in the needed supplies. It also helped cement Alexander's image as a friend of the army.

After the war, the reporter married, had children, and served as personal secretary to Georgia's governor. He planned to write a history of the Confederacy and began collecting his old dispatches, but he died in 1886 without completing the work.

"Perhaps it was his intention to write a history, but he also was urged by many to collect his old correspondence and publish it in a book," Styple said. "Taken as a whole, it really is a unique time-capsule history of America's great conflict."

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